The Washington Post and the New York Times have stories about the endangered National Reconnaissance Office spy satellite program, and the latter writes,
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. ...
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 American 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 needed 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."
I have no specific knowledge about this program, but if anyone thinks that the satellites' full capabilities are going to be made known to members of Congress they're quite mistaken. Generally only the members of the Select Intelligence Committees have access to that sort of national security information, and even then they're discouraged from looking into the details. Theoretically they have access, but they rarely know what questions to ask and are generally prevented from learning too much. The technical details of such systems are probably beyond the comprehension of any legislator.
To date, the cost of the program has been in the neighborhood of hundreds of millions of dollars a year, the officials said. But they said that the overall price tag had recently soared, from initial estimates of about $5 billion to the new $9.5 billion figure, and that annual outlays would increase sharply in coming years if the program is kept alive.
There are many reasons for contract cost increases, but with technical projects the most likely explanation is that changes have been made to the design and technology of the sytem. New features, new capabilities, and new costs, all of which are supposed to stay secret. Many features aren't put in the initial bids and requests-for-proposals, and the major contractors like Lockheed Martin Corporation and Boeing Satellite Systems keep it all very low profile. Of course, the cost increse could also be due to simple bloat and mismanagement.
Officials critical of the new stealth satellite program now in dispute said it would have only photo reconnaissance capability, though with high resolution.
Right. I find that very unlikely. If I had to speculate, I'd guess that the increased costs are associated with incorporating some sort of space-based nuclear material detector. Potential technologies include the HEFT project and muon detectors, but you can be sure there are other teams working towards the same goal with approaches that are not public knowledge.
Here's the original story from the WaPo on the third-generation Misty satellites. Here's StrategyPage on stealth satellites (December 16, 2004, no permalink). They note that the Misty satellites can also change orbits and are invaluable for spotting new military technology used by our enemies.