The strange tale of a congressman’s fight to build a US listening post in the Azores
By TIM JOHNSON | McClatchy Washington Bureau (TNS) | Published: November 18, 2016
WASHINGTON — A powerful California congressman of Portuguese descent has pushed for years for the installation of a costly U.S. intelligence facility in the Azores, a Portuguese archipelago in the North Atlantic.
On Thursday, Rep. Devin Nunes, the Republican chair of the House intelligence committee, kept at his campaign, confronting two senior Pentagon officials and the top U.S. intelligence chief over why they favored a site in England.
“Are you aware that the Azores Islands are a popular vacation spot for people from the U.S. and Europe and have daily flights?” Nunes asked National Intelligence Director James Clapper, seeking to knock down arguments that the archipelago is backward or out of the way.
“No, I’m not,” responded Clapper.
“Do we have trouble getting people to move to Hawaii?” Nunes asked.
“Actually, we do because there are issues there with compensation for the very high cost of living,” Clapper said. “Living there permanently, supporting a family, that sort of thing. I spent two tours in Hawaii, and it’s quite expensive.”
“So the Azores is also a vacation spot and it has the cheapest cost of living in Western Europe. Why would that not be a place where people would go?” Nunes asked.
“Well, in Hawaii there are high schools, and there are medical facilities, and there are PXs and commissaries, and that’s kind of lacking right now in Lajes (air base),” Clapper said, referring to a NATO facility on Terceira Island in the Azores.
Nunes, whose forebears came from the Azores, represents California’s 22nd district in the heart of the fertile Central Valley, winding around Fresno from the north to the southeast. The area has a high concentration of Portuguese-Americans, with ancestors who arrived on whaling ships to settle in California in the mid-1800s.
Despite fierce opposition by Nunes, and to a lesser extent other legislators, the Pentagon has moved ahead with plans to build a major intelligence complex at a Royal Air Force base 70 miles northwest of London. The site at Croughton would anchor U.S. intelligence operations of the U.S. military’s European Command.
But Nunes accused the Pentagon of fast-tracking Croughton and not giving sufficient consideration to 15 other potential locations, especially Lajes Air Base in the Azores, where a U.S. military contingent already exists.
The rare open session of the intelligence committee began on a curious note, with Nunes asking the officials about their views of Wikipedia, then dropping a zinger: Sections of a Pentagon document responding to queries from his committee about the matter had been lifted from Wikipedia, he said.
“I’m just alarmed, Secretary Work, that you would rely on Wikipedia, a free online encyclopedia that is famously known for high school students plagiarizing their homework,” Nunes said, ripping into Robert O. Work, the deputy secretary of defense.
“I would say that I’m surprised that this comes directly from a Wikipedia page,” Work said, leading into a back and forth over whether the Pentagon had withheld information from the House committee over the intelligence complex because it didn’t like the “tone” of an inquiry from Nunes and the House panel, an allegation that Work rejected.
In early 2015, the Pentagon announced a downsizing at Lajes, saying it would reduce a contingent of 650 airmen and other personnel to 168. The reduction sent shockwaves across the Azores, which has played a major role as a defense outpost since World War II. Nunes, a member of the congressional Portuguese-American Caucus, has visited the islands and sought to reverse the decision.
A Government Accountability Office report Sept. 30 cited “shortcomings” in how the Pentagon selected a site for the Joint Intelligence Analysis Complex. A separate inspector general probe is ongoing into whether cost estimates for the various locations were doctored to favor RAF Cloughton.
Clearly irritated, Nunes said the Pentagon had not cooperated in answering questions.
“Why for nine months did your department decide not to provide information to this committee?” Nunes asked Work.
“We’ve provided over 1,000 pages of documents,” Work said. “We believe we’ve been extraordinarily responsive.”
Nunes peppered Clapper with questions about the complex, asking if the Pentagon chose locations “based on where employees want to live.”
Clapper confirmed that morale was an issue and that employees would probably not move their families to the Azores.
“These are older people, you know, that have children in schools, particularly high school age, and the general reaction to that, to move to an island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, was not very positive,” Clapper said.
Before adjourning the hearing, Nunes got in the last word, saying the committee had looked into the Azores and “I don’t think there’s anything lacking there.”