Intel Aide’s Ties Draw Scrutiny

Posted March 31, 2004 at 6:36pm

Last year, when the House passed legislation authorizing intelligence activities for the war on terrorism, the bill contained a seemingly innocuous provision providing $500,000 to establish a new foundation to promote the satellite imagery and mapping industry, a small but budding corner of the intelligence world.

Tucked in the classified portion of the intelligence authorization bill, few people knew that the provision existed. And even fewer knew that the author of that provision, a senior majority staff member on the House Intelligence Committee, along with a top Northrop Grumman executive and a former Raytheon lobbyist, was quietly laying plans to create the foundation, which set out to raise up to $60,000 a piece from defense contractors who work in the field known as geospatial intelligence. The foundation has raked in at least $800,000 — and possibly much more — from these firms.

The provision in the House bill didn’t survive the House-Senate conference and wasn’t part of the final bill signed by the president in December. But the foundation was born nonetheless.

On Jan. 22, according to papers filed with the Virginia State Corporation Commission, the intelligence staff member, John Stopher, became one of three members of the board of directors of the United States Geospatial Intelligence Foundation.

Stopher did not disclose his involvement with the foundation to the Intelligence Committee until after the articles of incorporation were filed, according to Patrick Murray, the committee staff director and chief legal counsel.

“[Stopher] was told that he needed to get himself off the board of directors and remove any association with the foundation,” Murray said. Stopher reported to Murray that he withdrew from the board during the foundation’s first board meeting, according to Murray.

Stopher’s involvement in creating and championing a foundation funded by the very same contractors who support the national security efforts he is supposed to watch over from his position on the oversight committee has alarmed individuals both inside and outside government who view the endeavor as an insurmountable conflict of interest that could potentially damage the credibility of the intelligence panel headed by Rep. Porter Goss (R-Fla).

And his role in inserting the $500,000 provision in the House-passed intelligence authorization bill, confirmed by four sources, may have violated the Code of Ethics for Government Service, which prohibits government officials from granting special favors to friends, family and organizations they are involved with.

Stopher was out of the office Wednesday and did not return a message seeking comment. Neither did Rep. Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich), who chairs the subcommittee where Stopher works.

One of the primary purposes of the foundation, according to planning documents obtained by Roll Call, is to “build and broaden support for” the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, the government outfit that until last year was known as the National Imagery and Mapping Agency.

It is an agency that Stopher has direct oversight responsibility for in his portfolio of committee work. One of the foundation’s other co-founders is K. Stuart Shea, a senior executive vice president at Northrop Grumman, the powerhouse defense firm that holds one of the NGA’s largest contracts.

Stopher, a six-year veteran of the committee, is a former academic who specializes in imagery science. By all accounts, he is a passionate advocate for a field that is rapidly maturing and taking on a larger share of the national-security burden.

But even in the selective world of private firms and government officials involved with geospatial intelligence, Stopher’s prominent role in encouraging defense contractors to pony up $60,000 in annual membership dues to show support for the NGA is being privately disparaged by some of those same contractors. But none of the firms contacted for this story would offer public criticism of Stopher, who controls, in large part, the budget for geospatial intelligence operations across the government.

Indeed, the full House intelligence panel held a closed-door hearing earlier this month on the NGA’s fiscal 2005 budget. A week later, Stopher attended a “social event” at Clyde’s restaurant in Tysons Corner, Va., hosted by the foundation. The head of the NGA, James Clapper, and other agency officials attended the event with scores of contractors. Stopher apparently was the only Hill staffer in attendance.

“This stinks,” said Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientist’s Project on Government Secrecy.

“This is one reason why Congressional oversight of intelligence has performed so poorly. Among the staff, there is heavy representation of the intelligence agencies and we now see of industry. The result is that oversight is skewed,” Aftergood charged.

“But this is positively shameless. It goes beyond that normal state of affairs and starts to appear like an ethics violation,” he added.

The foundation, set up as a tax-exempt organization that is not permitted to engage in lobbying or political activity, has attracted nearly two dozen corporate members, including the major contractors in the imagery and mapping industry: Northrop Grumman, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Analytical Graphics, Inc., Science Applications International Corporation, BAE SYSTEMS, Raytheon, General Dynamics, Environmental Systems Research Institute, Ball Aerospace, Booz Allen Hamilton, Digital Globe, and Oracle, which have all pledged $60,000 contributions.

Critics contend that the foundation’s quick success is due in large part to Stopher’s prominent involvement and a sense among contractors that they should support a project involving a powerful House staff member who holds considerable sway over the industry.

The bylaws and articles of incorporation for the foundation do not appear to provide financial compensation for service on the board.

But the foundation’s initial major project is to sponsor an industry conference scheduled to be held in New Orleans later this year, replicating an extremely successful and profitable conference on geospatial intelligence that was hosted by the Spatial Technologies Industry Association.

The foundation is the brainchild of Shea, Stopher, and Steven Jacques, a consultant who formerly lobbied for Raytheon and worked at the Pentagon.

On Oct. 24, House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) appointed Shea, a Northrop Grumman executive with 25 years experience, to a select 12-member National Commission for the Review of the Research and Development Programs of the United States Intelligence Community.

Shea, who serves as the foundation’s chairman, passionately defended its work and described how the organization came together after two years of planning in extensive telephone and e-mail interviews. Jacques, the third member of the board listed in the incorporation articles, did not return messages.

Shea said the idea was to bring together a rather fractionated industry to promote, through education, outreach and social networking, the growing role played by contractors and government officials in collecting and analyzing satellite images.

While there are existing trade associations and organizations in the field, Shea said “there wasn’t a unifying organization that focused on national security and, of course, on geospatial intelligence.” So he, Stopher, Jacques and others began discussing the formation of a foundation. Those talks accelerated last fall after the unexpected success of the industry conference in New Orleans.

“[Stopher] was a big supporter and was involved with some of the original thought process,” Shea said. “He was fantastic early on in helping to bring the community together. John is a believer in national security and a believer in this particular mission area.”

“Because he is a guy who has passion about what this community is about, he was really instrumental in working with me early on. I applaud him for what he did because when you are in an oversight capacity and you are overseeing a set of organizations and programs, in many ways that becomes confrontational. And what was interesting was that he could put his confrontational side away … and he focused on the benefits to the community and tried to bring this community together.”

Others contacted for this story agreed that Stopher believes strongly in the national security benefits that can be provided by imagery analysis, particularly in the war on terrorism and the development of satellites that can see with high resolution even the smallest details, such as individual people.

“From his view on the intelligence committee, he has seen the value that high resolution satellite imagery — when married with geospatial technologies — brings to the table,” said a spokesman for Space Imaging, a major satellite contractor. “Like our IKONOS satellite, he brings a perspective most others do not have. He is helping move this technology from the black world of intelligence to the white world of commerce and this is in line with the president’s new policy on commercial remote sensing.”

Shea contended that even though Stopher’s name is listed as one of the three founding members of the foundation’s board and he is listed as approving the bylaws on Feb. 8, the House staff member is not really on the board.

“John by definition was a board of directors member for a shell corporation from January 22nd to the February 8th meeting” when the bylaws were adopted. “And his first and only act was to say that ‘I am not a board member.’ So he is not a board member today and in fact does not participate in any of the activities that we have,” Shea said.

Stopher did vote to approve the bylaws as well as other routine matters, such as setting up the organization’s checking account, Shea acknowledged. But he didn’t formally resign from the board, he simply didn’t subsequently put his name forward to be a board member, Shea said.

Shea also argued that Virginia law required three people to be named in the articles of incorporation and that he asked Stopher to be one because he didn’t want to get into a dispute with other major contractors who would be interested in serving on the board.

But Virginia law has no such requirement and in fact requires a minimum of just one person, said Katha Treanor, an information resources specialist for the State Corporation Commission.

Asked how anyone looking at the publicly available documents would know that Stopher wasn’t on the board, Shea said that the foundation’s board minutes would reflect his status.

Shea strongly defended Stopher’s participation in setting up the foundation and said he saw nothing wrong with Stopher’s actions. He said that at no point did Stopher express concern about a possible conflict of interest.

“No, I don’t think there was any concern at all,” Shea responded. Pressed, he acknowledged that concerns were raised among “the legal folks” on the intelligence committee, who, he said, concluded that “it probably wasn’t something that he necessarily should do.”

Government watchdogs said they were shocked to learn that Stopher was allowed to go as far as he did in setting up the foundation. “It’s appalling,” said Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight. “This is about as blatant an example of a conflict of interest that you could have.”

But Shea said Stopher did nothing wrong. “John did a heroic job in trying to bring together an industry,” Shea said. “Quite frankly, if it wasn’t for John’s participation, this process of creating a foundation would have taken a longer time,” Shea said.

Asked about the $500,000 provision in the House-passed intelligence authorization bill, Shea initially denied knowing about it. But when pressed, he admitted that he had heard about it.

“Well, I knew there was some discussion about it … There was some provision that supposedly was supposed to help stand up a foundation,” he said.

But Shea said he didn’t know any details about it or the timeframe of when it was placed in the legislation.

“I was not involved in that, did not precipitate in that, nor would I be the benefactor of that,” Shea said.

The provision, which did not specifically name the USGIF, was to authorize funds for a foundation focused on education and outreach for the geospatial intelligence field. It did not survive the conference with the Senate.

But watchdogs were particularly critical of the effort to fund the foundation in the classified portion of the Intelligence bill.

“I would like to propose legislative funding for my organization if that is now the way of doing business,” Aftergood said.

“By virtue of his role in this foundation, he is an advocate. Whether or not he is getting personally enriched, he has an agenda. And his agenda is not likely to be identical to the national agenda, or at least one may not assume that.

“The central point is that there is a conflict of interest. It should have been detected and prevented by the committee,” Aftergood said.