DNI Satellite Squabble

Intelligence agency sought to limit U.S. spy satellite sharing with Israel


The office of the Director of National Intelligence and Senate Democrats tried and failed on Tuesday to limit U.S. satellite imagery-sharing with Israel in a bill passed out of committee that would boost security cooperation with the Jewish state.

According to congressional aides, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved the U.S.-Israel Enhanced Security Cooperation Act of 2012 after a markup session. The action followed weeks of work by Senate staff on the House version introduced several months ago. The bill has broad bipartisan support and was passed by the House last month. It is expected to pass the Senate as well.

Hours before the bill was passed by the Senate committee, an ODNI official pressed Democratic committee staff to change the wording of one provision to exclude the phrase “including satellite intelligence” from one of several security improvements between the United States and Israel.

The phrase was part of a section of the bill on the “Sense of Congress” that stated, “Expand already close intelligence cooperation, including satellite intelligence, with the Government of Israel.”

An ODNI official opposed the language because of concerns that the phrase provided too much information about the intelligence cooperation and would prompt other nations to demand similar access to U.S. spy satellite imagery, which is gathered by the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency with super-high resolution orbiting cameras and other sensors.

The committee’s Democratic staff, seeking to comply with the ODNI request, tried to have the satellite-intelligence language struck from the bill, which had already been sharply changed from its original house version.

According to the aides, Republican committee staff on both the Foreign Relations and Intelligence committees objected to the change and demanded an explanation for why the non-controversial “sense” of Congress language should be omitted.

The result was that the final bill contains the satellite intelligence provision.

“We have no idea why the ODNI requested the change,” said one aide.

U.S. satellite imagery is often used as currency for intelligence liaisons with Middle East spy agencies, which tend to have better human sources than the U.S. but less sophisticated technical capabilities.

Israel is the largest foreign recipient of U.S. aid, having received some $115 billion in assistance, most of it military. The Obama administration is seeking $3.1 billion in foreign military financing for Israel in its fiscal 2013 budget request, including $100 million for joint U.S.-Israeli missile defenses.

The legislation was drafted to express the support of the American people for Israel during a time of rapid change in the Middle East and the growing threat of a nuclear-armed Iran, according to the bill’s language.

“A nuclear-weapons capable Iran would fundamentally threaten vital United States interests, encourage regional nuclear proliferation, further empower Iran, the world’s leading state sponsor of terror, and pose a serious and destabilizing threat to Israel and the region,” the bill states.

The earlier version calls for increasing military aid and exercises with Israel.

The Sense of Congress section states that U.S. policy is to enhance U.S. and Israeli capabilities to deal with “common emerging threats, increase security cooperation, and expand joint military exercises.”

It also calls for working to expand a role for Israel within the NATO alliance by adding an enhanced Israeli presence at NATO headquarters in Belgium and for exercises.

NATO also is developing joint missile defenses with the United States that seek to counter a growing threat from Iran’s medium- and long-range missiles, weapons that threaten Israel as well as the United States.

Other Sense of Congress language calls for strengthening efforts to halt arms smuggling into Gaza.

No later than six months after passage of the bill, the president would be required to speed up Israeli efforts to buy F-35 combat aircraft; and to expand U.S.-Israeli cooperation in homeland security, counterterrorism, maritime security, cyber security, and energy security.

It also calls for integrating Israel into U.S. defenses in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Other provisions call for increased development and production of joint missile defenses and provisions for lending or leasing air refueling tankers, missile defenses, and specialized munitions.

It also would seek to send surplus defense items from combat operations in Iraq, where hundreds of armored vehicles were deployed during U.S. military operations.

A report on the status of Israel’s military edge over regional powers would also be required under the legislation.

A Congressional Research Service report on U.S. aid to Israel published in March said, “Though aid to Israel has both supporters and detractors, overall U.S. public support for Israel remains strong.” The report also noted a February 2011 Gallup poll that showed American support for Israelis in their dispute with Palestinians at a near record high of 63 percent.

An ODNI spokesman said the effort to have the reference to satellite imagery removed “was simply a matter of clarifying the intelligence aspects of the bill and being sensitive to the level of specificity in the language.”

The spokesman added: “Nothing nefarious here, just more clear language.”