WASHINGTON - A highly classified intelligence program that the Senate Intelligence Committee has tried unsuccessfully to kill is a new $9.5 billion spy satellite system that could take photographs only in daylight hours and in clear weather, current and former government officials say.
The cost of the system, now the single biggest item in the intelligence budget, and doubts about its usefulness have spurred a secret congressional battle, which first came to light last week, over the future of a system whose existence has not yet been officially disclosed.
In public remarks, senators opposed to the program have described it only as an enormously expensive classified intelligence acquisition program without specifically describing it as a satellite system. Outside experts said Thursday that it was almost certainly a new spy satellite program that would duplicate existing reconnaissance capabilities.
The Washington Post first reported the total cost and precise nature of the program yesterday, saying that it was for a new generation of spy satellites being built by the National Reconnaissance Office that are designed to orbit undetected.
The officials would not say how many satellites were planned as part of the program, but they said the system included the satellites themselves, their launchers and the technology necessary to transmit the images they collected.
Some current and former government officials expressed concern that the disclosure of the existence of the highly classified program might be harmful to national security. They said congressional Republicans were questioning whether the public hints first dropped by four Senate Democrats opposed to the program, including Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV of West Virginia, might have represented a violation of congressional rules.
Rockefeller's office said last week that the senator had consulted with security officials before making a carefully worded statement on the Senate floor that described the classified program as unnecessary and too expensive but did not identify it further.
But other officials said the depth and intensity of opposition to the program, expressed behind closed doors for more than two years by Senate Republicans as well as Democrats, had finally tipped the balance between secrecy and candor.
Among the champions of the program, officials said, has been Porter J. Goss, the new director of central intelligence, who served until this summer as the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. But critics, including Democrats and Republicans on the Senate Intelligence Committee, have questioned whether any new satellite system could really evade detection by U.S. adversaries and whether its capabilities would improve on those already in existence or in development.
"These satellites would be irrelevant to current threats, and this money could be much better spent on the kind of human intelligence to penetrate closed regimes and terrorist networks," said a former government official with direct knowledge of the program. "There are already so many satellites in orbit that our adversaries already assume that just about anything done in plain sight is watched, so it's hard to believe a new satellite, even a stealthy one, could make much of a difference."
A Central Intelligence Agency spokesman declined to comment about the existence of any classified satellite program, as did the White House.