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A long-running battle over the future of the Lajes Field in the Azores

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A long-running battle over the future of the Lajes Field in the Azores
Two U.S. Marine Corps F/A-18 Hornets depart Lajes Field for a training mission in 2012 as an Air Force C-17 cargo plane waits on the runway. The Pentagon has been reducing the use of Lajes Field in recent years. U.S. Air Force

U.K. or the Azores? Location of U.S. Intelligence Center Stirs Debate

The Pentagon is poised to announce next week it is going forward with a new intelligence center in Britain, rebuffing a push by the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee to move the facility to the Azores, the Portuguese island chain, according to U.S. officials.

Rep. Devin Nunes (R., Calif.), the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, has been engaged in a long-running battle with the Pentagon over the future of the Lajes Field on the Azores island chain. In an interview, Mr. Nunes said he isn’t giving up—arguing the Portuguese base is a far cheaper alternative to a new intelligence center in Britain.

Mr. Nunes’s push has put the Pentagon in the awkward position of disagreeing with a powerful member of Congress. But, U.S. officials said, the military does not think the plan to move the intelligence center to the Azores makes sense logistically or financially.

To save money, the Pentagon has been trying to shrink the number of personnel stationed at Lajes for years. Once a busy mid-Atlantic hub, the Pentagon has reduced the U.S. Air Force presence at the Portuguese base to only a fraction of its former use.

Rolling back the U.S. presence at Lajes, Mr. Nunes argues, has put strategic asset of the U.S. at risk–opening the door for China to expand its use of the Azores. Mr. Nunes has also made the case that pulling all but a few dozen U.S. personnel from Lajes is a waste of the millions of dollars the Defense Department has spent over the years building up the base.

Mr. Nunes has advocated making fuller use of the base by moving the intelligence centers for the European and Africa Commands to Lajes.

The Pentagon wants to move that center—officially known as the Joint Intelligence Analysis Center—to the British Royal Air Force base at Croughton.

The European and Africa command intelligence centers are currently located at the Royal Air Force station Molesworth. But the U.S. is pulling other operations out of various smaller British bases, as part of a cost-saving consolidation initiative.

Mr. Nunes, a third-generation Californian whose family immigrated from the Azores to America, has been one of the fiercest defenders of the Portuguese-U.S. relationship in Congress.

Mr. Nunes and Defense officials have squared off over the cost estimates.

This week the Pentagon reiterated its view that moving the intelligence center to Croughton will save $74 million a year. Moving the center to Lajes would cost $1.14 billion in one-time costs and increase the operating costs by $43 million per year, according to a defense official.

Mr. Nunes takes issue with the Pentagon estimate. He says the Pentagon cost numbers are “completely fabricated.” He said the Pentagon cost estimate is inflated by ignoring existing housing at Lajes as well as wrongly claiming new fiber optic cables and other communications gear must be installed at the base. Because the cost of living in the Azores is so much less than Great Britain, moving the intelligence center to Lajes could in the end save taxpayers $1.5 billion, Mr. Nunes said.

“What we are trying to do now is put some sunlight on this, so it can be exposed in the public, so people can debate and look at this again,” Mr. Nunes said. “We want thorough questions to be asked.”

Defense officials said the move is not simply about costs. Creating the joint center in Britain will insure the center is co-located with a North Atlantic Treaty Organization intelligence center and make working with partner nations easier. “ Locating the JIAC on Lajes would negatively impact partner-nation participation,” said the defense official.

Mr. Nunes will have none of such arguments. The current intelligence center only allows U.S. personnel, he said. When they want to meet with intelligence analysts from other countries they do it by video teleconference.

“The Brits aren’t allowed in,” Mr. Nunes. “We are not going to buy that the reason we have to stay in the U.K. is the special relationship when they are just VTCing anyway.”

Both sides agree the dispute may need an independent voice—but they don’t agree on what independent voice is best.

Mr. Nunes said he wants a Pentagon Inspector General investigation.

But Defense officials are counting on a report from the Government Accountability Office, the independent agency that works for Congress, to arbitrate the dispute. GAO officials said that report is expected in July.

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