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Congress Was Informed About Spy Office, CIA Says : Intelligence: But officials admit they could have been more specific. Cost of $310-million complex was obscured in an operating budget.

August 11, 1994|JEFF LEEDS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Responding to congressional criticism, U.S. intelligence officials insisted Wednesday they had properly informed lawmakers about the cost of a $310-million headquarters for the secret National Reconnaissance Office, the government agency that supervises the nation's spy satellites.

But the intelligence officials also conceded they could have done better.

In a rare open hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee, officials of the satellite office and CIA Director R. James Woolsey produced notebooks full of previously classified documents showing that the agencies had given the Senate panel information about the four-building complex near Dulles International Airport in Northern Virginia. A May, 1992, briefing paper broke down the year-by-year cost of the facility and estimated the total price tag at $309 million.

National Reconnaissance Director Jeff Harris said his agency did not intentionally conceal from Congress the existence or the cost of the project--which was included as part of the office's base-line operating budget instead of as a separate item. Harris said his office would be more open in the future.

But he acknowledged that the agency had been "negligent" in the budget process when it failed to highlight the project as a special new expense. Construction of the project, which began in 1990, was declassified by President Clinton on Monday.

Intelligence agency documents, including excerpts from budget briefings by intelligence officials for committee staff members, laid out plans to consolidate National Reconnaissance operations, which are scattered in military bases across the country, in one permanent headquarters to be occupied starting in 1996.

Outraged lawmakers, who insisted that they had been kept in the dark about the 68-acre office complex, said a "failure to communicate" among the CIA, the satellite office and congressional staffs is symptomatic of a lingering Cold War-era mentality in the intelligence community that led spy agencies to resist full disclosure of their operations.

"We play the most stupid games in the intelligence community of any government in the world," said Sen. Howard M. Metzenbaum (D-Ohio).

Sen. Dennis DeConcini (D-Ariz.), chairman of the committee, said intelligence officials had barely mentioned the complex, even in closed, classified testimony, since the National Reconnaissance Office started planning it in 1989.

DeConcini and other critics said the agency should find additional ways to trim costs in the project.

Woolsey pledged to form a panel to look into ways the agency could improve the project's cost-effectiveness.

About 1,900 employees and 1,000 defense contract workers are expected to work at the 1-million-square-foot headquarters, which can house 3,500 people. When the complex opens, other Washington-area offices of the agency will be closed and hundreds of employees will be relocated from offices across the country, including Los Angeles, Deputy Director Jimmie Hill said.

The agency purchased the large tract of land for $23.9 million in 1990 and officials of the agency said they expanded blueprints for the office complex from two six-story buildings to four by late 1992.

Hundreds of contractors from Southern California companies and experts from two affiliated firms--Aerospace Corp., a federally funded research and development firm, and the Air Force Space and Missile System Center at Los Angeles Air Force Base--are expected to relocate to offices in Washington.

The National Reconnaissance budget is estimated to be about $7 billion. The agency's chief functions include bidding out multibillion-dollar contracts to build imaging and eavesdropping satellites and disseminating information to other intelligence agencies for analysis.

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