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Stop sign for NORAD

Citing unknowns, Congress puts contingencies on Cheyenne Mountain transition money


If Cheyenne Mountain is to be placed on "warm standby," as commanders at Peterson Air Force Base are urging, U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates must first provide a thorough report stating why.

That's the core idea of a provision in Congress' 2008 national defense authorization, which passed last week. President Bush is soon expected to sign the $696 billion bill, which includes contingencies on $5 million to help move North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) personnel and operations from the well-fortified, mystery-shrouded depths of Cheyenne Mountain to a Peterson building.

U.S. Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Colo., who had a hand in the legislation, says Congress needs a better picture of the move's implications on security and finances.

"The senator wants to continue to hold their feet to the fire," Salazar spokeswoman Stephanie Valencia says.

Several government and well-placed military sources are deeply worried about the transition that U.S. Northern Command began more than one year ago.

The sources say myriad technical and strategic details have lacked relevant analysis. They also fear vulnerabilities. For instance, they're still concerned that a jet could veer off course from Colorado Springs' airport and hit the future NORAD site at Peterson, wreaking havoc with its mission to inform top military commanders and ultimately the president of impending nuclear or terrorist attacks from the skies.

As the defense authorization was passed last week, U.S. Rep. Mark Udall, D-Colo., who is on the Armed Services Committee and critical of the NORAD relocation plan, said he would continue to monitor progress closely. Udall's office noted NorthCom's plan was initiated more than a year ago without Congress' approval.

Udall's trepidation was underscored by the findings of the Government Accountability Office in May. Inspectors located no documentation to support claims by NorthCom/NORAD's former commander, Navy Adm. Timothy Keating, that the transition would save millions of dollars annually.

The GAO probe also uncovered no paperwork showing how the mountain's operations would be affected. Moreover, security assessments were still ongoing even though the move was well underway.

The defense authorization would bring the GAO back into the picture, requiring Gates to cooperate in order to obtain the $5 million.

U.S. Sen. Wayne Allard, R-Colo., has intensely scrutinized the move for more than a year, at times clashing with NorthCom officials. Yet in recent months he has strongly backed the plan. This week, spokesman Steve Wymer reiterated that Allard "remains supportive."

Others are cautious, including U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn, a Colorado Springs Republican on the Armed Services Committee. Asked for comment on the bill's passage, Lamborn's office directed the Independent to a statement saying the congressman was "particularly pleased with the language that requires a report detailing the arguments surrounding the potential relocation of missions" from Cheyenne Mountain to Peterson.

"It is important that we are informed on the entire rationale associated with such a major action," Lamborn said.

A sensitive, perhaps classified, draft of the analysis that lawmakers still await was obtained by the Independent in October (""Sensitive' documents indicate Cheyenne Mountain's better for NORAD,"

The documents say the mountain has a "higher survivability than" the Peterson building and that the transition might "critically" compromise NORAD's vital mission.

Congressional offices have publicly declined to discuss the draft's findings. Several congressional aides have acknowledged that defense officials did not share the findings with lawmakers.

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