The Senate Intelligence Committee has dealt the Obama administration a setback over plans to buy large, expensive satellites for intelligence and military operations, opting instead for a plan the panel believes would save money and be less risky.
Billions of taxpayer dollars are at stake along with major contracting work for defense and intelligence companies and commercial providers of satellite imagery.
The Senate panel approved a plan backed by Intelligence Committee Chairwoman Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., and ranking member Christopher (Kit) Bond, R-Mo., that would allow the government to buy more satellites that are less sophisticated and less costly.
The committee approved the plan last week as part of the fiscal 2010 intelligence authorization bill. It believes the smaller, cheaper satellites will be able to satisfy the needs of U.S. intelligence agencies and the Defense Department.
"For years, billions upon billions of taxpayer dollars have been wasted on programs that haven't worked," Bond said in a statement. "It's better for our national security and our national debt to invest in more capable and affordable overhead programs."
But the House Intelligence Committee's version of the authorization bill is more in line with what the administration proposed, setting up a conflict that will have to be resolved before a final bill is approved, a source said.
"There's a lot of Jell-O hanging on the wall right now and nothing's solidified," another source said.
Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair and Defense Secretary Robert Gates put forward an Imagery Way Ahead proposal in the spring, the latest government effort to replace the nation's aging spy satellites.
Congress killed funding for a previous effort known as the Future Imagery Architecture due to cost overruns and technical problems.
Under the latest plan, the National Reconnaissance Office would buy and launch electro-optical satellites while buying more data from U.S. commercial satellite companies.
Feinstein and Bond expressed their concerns about the new plan to Gates during a hearing last month by the Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, another panel they serve on together.
"We have extraordinarily serious concern involving the waste of many, many dollars over a period of years and are rather determined that that not happen again," Feinstein said. "We also have information that the so-called lesser-tiered satellites can be just as effective and have a stealth capability."
Asked for comment on Monday, Blair's office would only say: "We look forward to reviewing the bill and working with Congress on our important national security priorities."
Meanwhile, key lawmakers already have begun trying to bridge divisions in anticipation of conference negotiations over a final intelligence bill.
"There's a lot at stake here; there's a lot of money," said House Intelligence Technical and Tactical Intelligence Subcommittee Chairman C.A. (Dutch) Ruppersberger, D-Md. "In my opinion, if you control the skies, you control the world."
Ruppersberger, who confirmed House and Senate aides are talking, said he believes the government needs sophisticated satellite "workhorses" to meet special needs. But he said the government should use commercial satellites more often when appropriate.
"I would agree that we need a better strategy on overhead architecture that is more comprehensive and long term," said Rep. Jim Langevin, D-R.I., an Intelligence Committee member.
Langevin, the new chairman of the House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee, said the government can learn from private satellite firms how to build systems that avoid cost and technical woes. "Mission creep is a huge problem on the government side and we have to get more discipline not to do that," he said.