White House Imagery Plan Gains Traction in Congress

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Lawmakers with the U.S. House and Senate intelligence oversight committees are nearing an agreement that would lead to approval of the White House plan for a new generation of classified electro-optical imaging satellites, a key member of the House said Oct. 19.

Rep. C.A. “Dutch” Ruppersberger (D-Md.), chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence subcommittee on technical and tactical intelligence, also expressed confidence that the House and Senate will get an intelligence authorization bill passed this year.

One of the issues to be settled in the bill is the White House imaging plan, which entails procuring two highly capable imaging satellites from incumbent contractor Lockheed Martin Corp. and relying on commercial providers for less-technically challenging collection requirements. Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Christopher Bond (R-Mo.), chairwoman and vice chairman, respectively, of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, have opposed buying the Lockheed Martin satellites, advocating an alternative approach they have said will be cheaper and less risky.

Speaking with reporters here in San Antonio at the Geoint 2009 Symposium, Ruppersberger, who backs the White House plan, noted that the alternative touted especially by Bond has not been tested in space. Ruppersberger warned against abandoning one technology before a new one has been proven.

The Lockheed Martin-built satellites are to be evolutionary upgrades of spacecraft the company has been building for the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) for decades.

Ruppersberger said the NRO should continue developing the technology featured in Bond’s preferred approach while moving ahead with the Lockheed Martin system. Ruppersberger, who also serves on the House Appropriations Committee, said he is working with other congressional appropriators to secure funding to do both.

The Lockheed Martin-built system is not without risks, Ruppersberger said, adding that these risks will be addressed by his committee. He declined to be specific, but noted that Lockheed Martin will be getting the contract on a sole-source basis and cautioned against trying to incorporate immature technologies into systems when proven ones are available.

Intelligence authorization bills have proven elusive in recent years. Ruppersberger noted that former President George W. Bush refused to sign one recent bill because it contained provisions against the torture of war prisoners, but said he does not see any serious political issues that might sink the 2010 bill.

The full House has yet to approve its version of the 2010 intelligence authorization bill; the Senate passed its version in mid-September.