Politics & Policy

House Intel Chair Devin Nunes’s One-Man War on the Pentagon

Nunes (left) and Paul Ryan in committee, March 2014. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty)
The powerful Republican is battling the DoD to move a massive intelligence complex to an isolated island in the Azores, at a reported extra cost of $1.2 billion. Why?

Air-traffic controllers waved off the plane carrying Representative Devin Nunes (R., Calif.) and several congressmen from the House Intelligence Committee as it descended toward the single runway at Lajes Field, a sleepy U.S. Air Force base perched along a windswept Azores island 1,000 miles from the European mainland. High winds sweeping in from the sea prevented the plane from landing, and the delegation was hastily diverted to an airstrip on a neighboring island 80 miles away.

After months of wrangling with the Defense Department, Nunes and his fellow lawmakers had come to Lajes last May to urge American officials to reverse a planned downsizing of the base. The lawmakers wanted Pentagon officials to instead move a massive, strategically vital intelligence center planned for the United Kingdom to the isolated mid-Atlantic base. The officials objected, citing a cost increase of $1.2 billion and serious operational and logistical concerns, including the base’s single runway and the area’s inclement weather, which the congressmen had experienced just the day before.

An after-action report from a Defense Department engineer shows that the group from Washington wouldn’t take no for an answer. “A few of the members and staffers were very confrontational,” the report reads. “One quote that was repeated several times was, ‘This is going to happen [relocating the intelligence facility to Lajes]. You better jump on board the train or you are going to get run over by it.’”

The incident was another skirmish in the increasingly nasty war between Nunes and his allies in Congress and a group of top Pentagon officials over the fate of the obscure airbase. As chairman of the powerful Intelligence Committee, Nunes has brought the full weight of his influence to bear on the issue, inserting provisions in four separate defense bills that would stop work on the planned U.K. base and accusing the DoD of “lying” about the intelligence complex’s Lajes price tag. Recently, the House Oversight Committee opened an investigation into how the military calculated the estimated cost of basing the project in the Azores.

“These are just clueless Pentagon lackeys, bureaucrats that are spewing out garbage,” Nunes tells National Review.

Nunes’s opponents question the motivations behind his fight. The congressman has close ties to the Azores; as the descendant of Azorean immigrants, a major celebrity in Portugal, and a frequent contact of the Portuguese government, he’s led the opposition to the plan to downsize Lajes from day one. The fight began in 2012, when the Defense Department decided to reduce its footprint at the mid-Atlantic stopover, now averaging just two flights a day. “Those guys are just sitting around out there,” one DoD official says.

Worried about the local economic impact — the base is the largest employer of Portuguese on the island of Terceira, and hundreds would be laid off — Nunes helped pass a bill in 2013 halting the drawdown until the Pentagon completed a comprehensive European base assessment. He lobbied the DoD and Congress relentlessly to repurpose the facility, introducing a bill that would turn Lajes into a forward base for U.S. Africa Command (AFRICOM). Congress declined to pass that measure, and in early 2015 the DoD announced a further, final round of Lajes cuts.

After Speaker John Boehner tapped him as House Intelligence chairman in January, Nunes was in a better position to directly challenge the Pentagon. He set his sights on relocating the Joint Intelligence Analysis Center (JIAC), an “intelligence fusion center” that Congress approved for construction at U.K. airbase RAF Croughton. The facility would bring together intelligence analysts from U.S. European Command (EUCOM), AFRICOM, and NATO under one roof, fostering a level of collaboration military commanders say is crucial to confronting Russian aggression and Islamic fundamentalism in Africa. (They’d be working out of a base already brimming with intelligence hardware — Croughton is suspected to be the central hub for NSA data funneled back to the United States.)

Locating the intelligence complex in the Azores ‘would not make financial, strategic, or operational sense,’ General Philip Breedlove, head of EUCOM, says in a statement.

Nunes is frustrated that the Pentagon chose to build the new facility at RAF Croughton instead of repurposing Lajes. “There is not a better base in the entire DoD” for the intelligence facility, he says, explaining that the $148 million invested in upgrades at Lajes since 2001 makes the airfield an ideal location.

Defense officials are skeptical, citing Nunes’s past efforts to base several unrelated missions at the Azores location. “It’s almost as if he would like to have anything possible at Lajes,” says one, “and Croughton might be the latest target.”

The Pentagon is resisting Nunes’s onslaught, with everyone from four-star generals to construction engineers saying the project would not only cost taxpayers an extra $1.2 billion but would also harm national security. Locating the intelligence complex in the Azores “would not make financial, strategic, or operational sense,” General Philip Breedlove, head of EUCOM, says in a statement.

DoD engineers say much of the $1.2 billion price difference stems from a need to lay highly-secure communication cables from Lajes to the mainland U.S. — cables that already exist at Croughton. They say extensive housing and infrastructure expansion would also be needed to accommodate the thousands of analysts and their families who would move to the island.

Pentagon officials’ qualms with Nunes’s plan go beyond its price tag. Some worry that an additional delay in the facility’s construction would make it harder to monitor Russian activity in Europe, and most are loathe to relinquish a close intelligence-sharing relationship with the British. “There are routine meetings that occur on an almost daily basis” between American and British intelligence agents, one official explains.

The island’s remote location also poses a problem. “All the NATO countries are like, ‘I gotta fly out to the freaking Azores to participate in this thing?’” says one DoD official. ‘“That’s crazy, why would I want to do that?’” Others worry about attracting top-level civilian talent, arguing that the small, rural island will prove unappealing to the best and brightest.

The Pentagon isn’t alone in that concern. “I would strongly disagree with the notion that a world-class intelligence capability could be [maintained] on a minimally populated, remote island,” says Michael O’Hanlon, a defense scholar at the Washington, D.C.–based Brookings Institution. “You want to have analysts who are plugged into a major country, who have a quality of life that they’re going to find appealing. . . . The kind of people we’re going to need to do intelligence in the future of the United States aren’t Robinson Crusoes.”

‘These are just clueless Pentagon lackeys, bureaucrats that are spewing out garbage,’ Nunes tells National Review.

Nunes calls the Pentagon’s objections “bogus,” particularly when it comes to cost. “Look, somebody is lying here, and it’s probably not me,” he says. The congressman and his staff led a series of delegations to Lajes and Croughton earlier this year, gathering financial information that he says directly contradicts the Pentagon. In mid-July, his staff released their own cost estimate of moving the facility to Lajes, which shaved hundreds of millions of dollars off the Defense Department’s estimate and accused DoD officials of faulty analysis.

The House Oversight Committee, led by Utah congressman and Boehner ally Jason Chaffetz, opened an investigation on July 20 into whether the Defense Department “improperly conceived” the plan to put JIAC in the U.K. by failing to consider Lajes. Oversight spokeswoman MJ Henshaw says the investigation is a “joint effort with the Intelligence Committee,” though the letter launching the probe makes no mention of that fact. Chaffetz told Bloomberg that DoD whistleblowers had alleged that the Pentagon’s cost estimates were incomplete and manipulated.

The next day, California representative David Valadao sent a letter signed by 111 other congressmen to the House and Senate committee chairmen considering Nunes’s provision in the National Defense Authorization Act. “It is unacceptable that the DOD may have used improper information and incorrect calculations when making decisions regarding the consolidation of military bases in Europe,” the letter reads, adding that moving the intelligence base to Lajes ”could save the U.S. government hundreds of millions of dollars.”

Nunes can’t explain why or how multiple subsections of the Defense Department would lie about Lajes. But the House Intelligence chairman’s own relationship with the Azores and the Portuguese government is extensive — and a private source of consternation for some congressional and defense staffers. Nunes sometimes visits his distant cousins on other islands in the archipelago during his frequent vacations there. During a visit just before the July 4 weekend, he attended a ceremony thrown in his honor by his ancestral village. The deputy prime minister of Portugal, Paulo Portas, flew into the Azores specifically to attend the event, and the Azores’ vice president, Sergio Avila, also attended. Both Portuguese politicians gave speeches, and the fate of Lajes featured heavily in their remarks. Hailing Nunes as “one of the eight most influential statesmen” in the United States, Portas applauded his efforts to “engage seriously in finding solutions on the American side” for Lajes, “ensur[ing] better solutions for the population of Terceira and the economy of Terceira.”  Avila stressed that Nunes’s lobbying for the intelligence facility is “perfectly in line” with the Portuguese government’s position on the issue, and praised the congressman for “defending the interests of the Azores.” After the ceremony, Nunes told the Portuguese press he was “confident” he could override the Pentagon’s objections to the base.

O’Hanlon says Nunes’s apparent support for a foreign workforce makes his intelligence base a tough sell back home. “He’s going to have a harder time withstanding the broader debate if this looks like pure parochial politics that doesn’t even benefit his own constituents, just his friends abroad and his ancestry,” he says.

Congress seems sympathetic to keeping Lajes open in some capacity, but a sprawling intelligence facility faces a high bar for approval. In the past five years, authorization and appropriations committees in both the House and Senate conducted extensive oversight of the U.S. presence at Lajes, at times pushing the DoD to conduct further analysis to justify its conclusions. But Senate Armed Services Committee spokesman Dustin Walker says these years of oversight gave the committee no reason to believe the department’s analysis was faulty or inaccurate. Jim Inhofe, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, questioned the wisdom of moving the JIAC to Lajes during an April hearing with General Breedlove. And House Armed Services Committee chairman Mac Thornberry, whose approval is required for the move, has yet to weigh in on the issue.

“It’s hard to see how this survives the John McCains of the world — people who have made their careers out of trying to make the Pentagon more efficient, people who have been around for many years of base-closure debates,” O’Hanlon says.

Nunes isn’t planning on letting up anytime soon, however. He says he’ll go “toe to toe” with the Pentagon on any fact they present. “They can keep digging if they would like, but it won’t end well,” he says.

— Brendan Bordelon is a political reporter at National Review. 

EDITOR’s NOTE: This piece has been updated since its initial publication.

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