Illinois fights US spy agency decision to stay in St. Louis

ST. LOUIS – Illinois officials are aggressively fighting the preliminary decision to relocate a federal spy agency to a new site in St. Louis, rather than to a site across the Mississippi River in a suburban area of southern Illinois.

Both of Illinois’ U.S. senators and three House members from that part of the state have criticized the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s plan as politically motivated and a threat to national security.

One of them, Republican Rep. Mike Bost, wants Congress to withhold appropriations for the project. He spoke on the House floor Wednesday in favour of moving NGA’s western regional headquarters to a site near Scott Air Force Base in St. Clair County, Illinois, while reiterating calls for a federal investigation into the site selection process.

“I believe the NGA is making a terrible mistake that could have serious consequences.” Bost said, calling a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ environmental review that favoured the north St. Louis location “deeply flawed.”

The political struggle has pitted state and federal elected leaders from the two states against each other. At stake are more than 3,000 high-tech jobs with average salaries of more than $80,000, along with prospects of further economic development.

Though not connected to the tentative approval of the St. Louis site by agency director Robert Cardillo, the House Appropriations Committee has cut an initial allocation for land purchase and trimmed half of the $72 million set aside by the Senate for planning and design. Members of Missouri’s congressional delegation remain confident that budget negotiators will settle their differences.

“I would be bitterly disappointed that, after a thorough process, that the member of a congressional delegation that didn’t prevail is going to say we will just stop it altogether if we can’t win,” Sen. Claire McCaskill told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

The defence mapping agency, which has called St. Louis home for more than 70 years, announced in early April that it would prefer to move its headquarters from its current location near the Anheuser-Busch brewery south of downtown to a new site on the city’s blighted north side. The area is adjacent to a razed high-rise public housing complex, Pruitt-Igoe, which became shorthand for the failure of a mid-20th century social policy, and city leaders hope the move would spur outside investment in the neighbourhood, which is dominated by vacant buildings and overgrown vacant lots.

A branch of the Department of Defence with close ties to the U.S. Air Force and the CIA, the agency helped map lunar surfaces for moon landings nearly half a century ago and aided in the hunt for Osama bin Laden.

In choosing St. Louis, Cardillo cited the city’s “technological, academic and professional environment,” as well as the appeal of an urban base to its workforce.

Illinois boosters say that criteria overlooks a recent history of U.S. intelligence agencies choosing headquarters near military bases, from the National Security Agency’s perch near the Fort Meade Army installation in Maryland to the NGA’s own eastern headquarters at the Army’s Fort Belvoir, Virginia, also outside Washington.

Those criticisms haven’t gone unchallenged in St. Louis.

Otis Williams, executive director of the city’s economic development office, attempted to assure Cardillo in a May 2 letter that the “misinformation” offered by his Illinois counterparts shouldn’t deter the head of the defence mapping agency from reiterating his initial choice when announcing a final selection in early June.

Among the errors cited by Williams are challenges to the St. Louis site’s vulnerability to terrorist attacks based on 2007 Defence Department standards rather than more recent parameters which he says the city meets.

St. Louis is also looking beyond the verbal volleys. The mayor’s office on Wednesday announced an upcoming community meeting it calls Project Connect STL aimed at “leveraging new development opportunities in the neighbourhoods surrounding and connecting to the next NGA West site.”

The meeting is scheduled for June 6 — three days after the expected final approval of the St. Louis site.


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