Scenic Lajes.

Photographer: JOSE ANTONIO RODRIGUES/AFP/Getty Images

Congress Probing Pentagon 'Manipulation' of U.K. Base Plan

Eli Lake is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the senior national security correspondent for the Daily Beast and covered national security and intelligence for the Washington Times, the New York Sun and UPI.
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Congress is investigating the U.S. military to evaluate charges that it manipulated studies to justify building an intelligence center in the United Kingdom.   

Over the weekend I obtained a letter to Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, sent by Chairman Jason Chaffetz of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, to request documents, communications and analyses used in making the decision to build the new intelligence center at the British airfield at Croughton, outside of London. Chaffetz wanted to know why the military did not more rigorously analyze housing the new center at Lajes, a base in the Portuguese Azores Islands.  

Chaffetz said on Sunday that he has been in touch with Pentagon whistleblowers who have said the cost estimates provided to Congress to justify construction of the new base in the United Kingdom were based on incomplete and distorted information, which may have made the Croughton option seem cheaper than it would be and made Lajes seem more expensive. "The manipulation of the information is highly suspicious," he told me. "We're going to probe this until we get to the truth."

Earlier this year, the Pentagon sent its European Infrastructure Consolidation plan to Congress, proposing to build the new base for about 1,000 intelligence analysts attached to European and Africa Command and to a related NATO intelligence center. The plan caught the attention of Representative Devin Nunes, the Republican chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, and other lawmakers who consider the Lajes airfield strategically important and thought the intelligence center would be a good fit there.

The controversy was first reported last month by the Wall Street Journal, but House Republicans have been fighting to save Lajes since 2013. Back then six members of Congress, led by Nunes, urged then-Secretary Leon Panetta not to reduce the capabilities of Lajes Air Base, arguing that the base in the Atlantic Ocean was a unique strategic asset to counter rising terrorist threats in North Africa.

Nunes has taken an interest in Lajes since 2003, his freshman year in the House. He served as Congress's liaison to Portugal on the eve of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and he began visiting the airfield the same year. 

He told me this weekend that the Defense Department initially had not considered Lajes as an alternative in the base studies for consolidating that intelligence work. "You have the nicest base that you have in all of the Department of Defense, with cheaper annual costs on the cost of living, the housing allowance, not to mention the size and scope of the base," he told me. "It was built to house 2,000 airmen. With Croughton you would have to build or rent this housing out."

More recently, the Pentagon has shared its own estimates with Congress and the media that say putting the intelligence base at Lajes would cost $1 billion more over time than the Croughton proposal would.

Nunes said that that estimate is "laughable," and that his proposal to put the intelligence center at Lajes would end up saving hundreds of millions of dollars, by avoiding new construction at Croughton and by avoiding the cost of winding down the airfield at Lajes.

The Pentagon nonetheless says Lajes Air Base is not a viable option. "The bottom line here is that this is a decision about operational needs and responsible use of taxpayer dollars," Pentagon spokesman Mark Wright told me. "Our previous personnel numbers at Lajes exceeded our operational requirements. With the increase in range of modern aircraft, the frequency and volume of flights requiring the capabilities provided by Lajes Field have changed. Lajes has supported only an average of two U.S. military aircraft arrivals each day in the last couple of years."

Other senior military officers have made this case directly to Congress in recent weeks. In May, the two generals in charge of European and Africa Command, David Rodriguez and Philip Breedlove, wrote a classified letter to Nunes and the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, Mac Thornberry, urging them to support the proposed plan to build the intelligence center at Croughton.

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To contact the author on this story:
Eli Lake at elake1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net