Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Kill Misty for Me

In discussions about budgets for the Pentagon and intelligence community (IC), there's lots of talk about "black world" programs. As their name implies, black world programs are functions and activities that are officially "off the books," to prevent their disclosure--and possible damage to national security.

But no budgetary item is immune from reduction or elimination (at least in theory), and black world programs are not exception. But how do politicians kill items aren't even listed in the "official" budget that you can buy from the nearest government printing office? Of course! You remove it from the black world by making it public, through a series of well-timed leaks to sympathetic reporters.

That unfortunate "game" of fiscal "gotcha" is now being played again in the halls of Congress. Over the past few weeks, several members of the Senate have expressed concern about an alleged secret spy satellite program, nicknamed "Misty." According to media accounts, the Senate Intelligence Committee recently approved $9.5 billion in funding for the program, which critics describe as "unnecessary." Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) has labeled the program, "ineffective, over-budget and too expensive." One wonders if Senator Wyden expresses the same outrage over wasteful social programs, but I digress.

Senator Wyden is an advocate of more "sunshine" in the intelligence process, but wait a minute. Why do we need a classified collection system in the first place? Conspiracy buffs at the Democratic Underground might opine that Misty is a sop for the Bush Administration's buddies at Lockheed-Martin, which reportedly developed the system, along with the once-secret National Reconnaissance Office.

But the rationale for a secret satellite program--assuming it exists--lies in deficiencies in our current collection system. As our adversaries become more adept at fooling traditional reconnaissance systems, it becomes necessary to use less conventional methods, say a platform that might not look or behave like a "typical" spy satellite.

The erosion of our technological edge is inevitable, to a degree. As more countries launch space programs and gain wider access to computer technology, it becomes easier to figure out how a spy satellite works, and develop counter-measures. But our fetish for leaking classified information has only accelerated the process. Front-page revelations, based on intelligence sources, often allow rogue states to compare the timing of reported events against their knowledge base on our collection systems. And the next time around, it becomes a little bit tougher to gather needed information.

I will give Wyden and his allies some credit. By discussing a purported black world program in the press, they've put the administration and the intelligence community in a difficult position. If they don't--or can't--respond, they're accused of stone-walling to hide an ineffective program. If they do respond, they might be forced to admit the program exists (and defend it publicly), further jeopardizing its effectiveness.

Meanwhile, our "friends" in Tehran, Beijing, Moscow, Havana, Damascus and Pyongyang keep watching--and learning.

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