Rep. Devin Nunes, the powerful chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, has accused the Defense Department of misleading members of Congress about the cost of building a new military intelligence center at a base on a set of idyllic islands in middle of the Atlantic Ocean.
But now, the Pentagon is turning the tables on the congressman, arguing that he’s the one not playing straight and questioning his motives for suggesting an alternative site. The dispute has turned what’s normally a humdrum affair—decisions on where to build military facilities—into an old-fashioned Washington knife fight.
Nunes is even accusing the Pentagon of straying into “criminal territory” and using borderline-racist tactics.
An internal Defense Department study, the results of which were obtained by The Daily Beast, concludes that Nunes dramatically underestimated the cost of building the new intelligence center on an existing U.S. base in the Archipelago of the Azores.
That’s an option Nunes has called on the Pentagon to consider, because he says it’ll be cheaper in the long run. But the Pentagon study found that moving the intelligence center to the Azores base, called Lajes Field, would actually cost $1.4 billion, as opposed to the $817 million it says Nunes claims.
Alternatively, the cost of building the facility at the Croughton air base in the U.K., the Pentagon’s recommended location, is only $356 million, the study found. It also concluded that Nunes had underestimated the recurring annual costs of the Azores option by $11 million.
The analysis was conducted by the department's office of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation, or CAPE.
What does Nunes say about the Pentagon’s assessment of his numbers? Officials are full of it, and lying again.
In an interview with The Daily Beast, Nunes said that the figures attributed to him and the House Intelligence Committee are not only out of date, but were based on “phony” estimates initially provided by the Defense Department about the cost of housing and communications equipment for the intelligence facility.
The committee has completed a new report, but Pentagon officials have refused to give it to the number crunchers at CAPE, Nunes claimed. What’s more, he said that officials had told him previously they wouldn’t leak to the press the details of the side-by-side analysis. Nunes promised that he would refer the matter to the Pentagon inspector general for investigation.
“This leak to you [The Daily Beast] is now going to go to the IG. This is where it begins to get into criminal territory,” Nunes said, arguing that officials had now lied to him twice—once about the cost of the base, then about not disclosing information to the press.
Inside the Pentagon, the tension over the basing dispute is palpable. A plan that was supposed to have been put to bed long ago has spawned two reports by the Government Accountability Office and now an investigation by the Defense Department of Defense inspector general—all at Nunes’s request. The investigation, which was first reported this week by Politico, will look at whether “DoD officials intentionally conveyed inaccurate or misleading information to Congress” in connection with basing decision.
But costs aren’t the only matter in dispute. Officials also questioned why Nunes insisted on moving the intelligence center, known as the Joint Intelligence Analysis Complex, to a remote base in the Atlantic. Privately, two officials noted that Nunes’s family emigrated from the Azores to California generations ago, and they suspected he was trying to curry a favor with locals and Portuguese officials.
“He is welcomed like a hero when he goes back there,” one official said, speaking on condition of anonymity so as not to incur Nunes’s retaliation.
Nunes rejected that insinuation and effectively called officials bigots for connecting his heritage to what he says are his oversight duties as the chairman of the intelligence committee.
“The fact you have defense officials using my ancestry in the press is offensive and it’s wrong. I’ve never heard the Defense Department come out and criticize Jewish members of Congress who support Israel,” Nunes said.
Nunes also said that he is not insisting that the center be built at Lajes, but that he objects to the fact that the military never considered it as an option.
But the department never looked at Lajes because it doesn’t have the sophisticated communications and other characteristics needed “to meet the mission requirements of an intelligence facility,” Navy Lt. Cmdr. Courtney Hillson, a Pentagon spokeswoman, told The Daily Beast.
The Pentagon chose the U.K. site as the best of 14 potential locations. And officials have repeatedly told Nunes it’s the best option. In March, Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work affirmed in writing to the House Armed Services Committee that “there is no military need to relocate mission activities to Lajes Field.”
For the Pentagon, the Lajes site presents a number of logistical challenges. There is only one commercial flight onto the island of Terceira, where the field is located, making it difficult for U.S. NATO allies to get there. Moreover, setting up the kind of technology needed to protect sensitive intelligence is particularly difficult at a place like Lajes, which is more remote than the U.K., officials argued.
Officials said that intelligence is a competitive field, and it would be easier to find professionals willing to work at the new center, near London, than to move to the islands.
Nunes is hearing none of it. He insists that his new, revised plan, which doesn’t rely on the Pentagon’s numbers, shows that taxpayers would save between $1 and $2 billion moving the base to the Azores. To which the Pentagon will almost certainly reply, “There he goes again.”
Things are about to get even uglier.