Metro-East News

Fiber-optic line convinces Sen. Kirk that NGA West should be in St. Clair County

Sen. Mark Kirk says fiber-optic cable is vulnerable to attack

U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk says a fiber-optic cable running from Scott Air Force Base to the current National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency center in St. Louis is vulnerable to natural disasters or terrorist attacks.
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U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk says a fiber-optic cable running from Scott Air Force Base to the current National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency center in St. Louis is vulnerable to natural disasters or terrorist attacks.

U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk said he feels confident that St. Clair County will be selected early next year as the new home for the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, and its 3,100 jobs.

The reason behind his optimism?

A fiber-optic cable, about one-inch thick, containing six color-coded wires. Kirk, Illinois’ Republican senator, held a sample section of the cable during a visit this week with a News-Democrat reporter.

He offered the section of cable as Exhibit A as to why NGA, one of the nation’s most important intelligence agencies, can move its NGA West headquarters to one location: the 182-acre site on St. Clair County land adjacent to the northwest boundary of Scott Air Force Base, in Mascoutah.

“I’m here, basically, to make the case for NGA to come to Scott,” said Kirk, who swung by the newspaper after a visit at Scott to talk to military leaders there about the air base’s ability to support NGA. “And the essence of my case is this cable.”

Kirk’s fiber-optic cable is similar to the 27.5-mile fiber-optic line that runs from the current NGA campus at 3200 S. 2nd Street, in St. Louis, under the Mississippi River, and then onto Scott Air Force Base.

The NGA, working in concert with America’s most top-secret satellite imagery, provides intelligence for a host of classified intelligence and military purposes, from battlefield maps updated in real time for America’s armed forces, to images of Iran’s uranium enrichment sites.

Vast amounts of invaluable information flow along the NGA fiber-optic cable — information too vital to America’s military forces to risk losing even for a second if the fiber-optic line were cut or damaged, whether from a natural disaster, such as an earthquake, or through terrorist activity.

Besides St. Clair County, two of the candidate sites for the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency center are in St. Louis County, Mo., with the fourth in North St. Louis, near the abandoned Pruitt-Igoe public housing site.

“So in many ways I would make the argument that NGA could be seen as the most valuable intelligence agency,” said Kirk, a retired Naval Reserve intelligence officer. “If its link to the outer (Department of Defense) world could be cut by accident on the Mississippi River, then national defense is hurt.”

Various economic arguments have been made as to why NGA should remain in St. Louis. Kirk, however, dismissed those arguments.

“For us in the national government, the critical question is military capability to the war-fighter. And that is the key issue,” Kirk said, noting that a battlefield’s landmarks can change rapidly, and accurate, up-to-date maps are critical. “You’ve got to make sure the war-fighter has the most recent imagery available.”

Kirk grasped the piece of severed fiber-optic cable and pondered it for a moment.

“And that’s making sure this could never happen,” he said, lifting the cable up for effect. “By making sure (NGA) is on this side of the river...by having the golden apples right next to the golden apple delivery cart, makes sense.”

By making sure (NGA) is on this side of the river...by having the golden apples right next to the golden apple delivery cart, makes sense.

U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill.

NGA Director Robert Cardillo is set to make a decision in March on which of four candidate sites to choose as the home of NGA West and its new $1.6 billion campus. Besides St. Clair County, two of the candidate sites are in St. Louis County, Mo., with the fourth in North St. Louis, near the abandoned Pruitt-Igoe public housing site.

Missouri leaders are pulling hard for the North St. Louis site, principally on the argument that locating NGA and its good-paying jobs would spark an economic renaissance in a neighborhood beset by high rates of crime and unemployment. What’s more, the city’s loss of the NGA facility and the nearly $2.2 million in income tax revenue that its workers generate would inflict a terrible economic blow on the city, according to St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay.

“The NGA is vital to our city’s economic health, and its relocation to north St. Louis will reinvigorate a significant urban area of our community,” Slay wrote in a briefing book delivered last week to NGA. “Conversely, losing the NGA would be a devastating blow to our city’s economy.”

U.S. Rep. William Lacey Clay, D-St. Louis, issued a statement in which he said that a recent Army Corps of Engineers environmental-impact statement report showed that the North St. Louis site “would advance NGA’s vital mission, yield maximum economic benefits for the massive federal dollars invested, and would boost our entire region by transforming a distressed neighborhood near downtown St. Louis.”

For Kirk, however, the only criteria that should matter in the decision on where to locate the new NGA campus are rooted in what’s in the best interest of NGA and national security.

“In the past, local congressmen and senators have said, bring it to my community because I want the jobs and the money that spins off from this institution,” Kirk said. “The argument I’m going to make is purely from my military background, on a pure sense of military capability, it should be at Scott so we can protect this asset. And protect it from accidents. Make sure if it is next to the information backbone of the DoD, then it is always available to the war-fighter.”

Kirk noted further that the Defense Information Systems Agency, whose United States headquarters is based at Scott, already works closely with NGA to protect and maintain the fiber-optic cable.

“Then there is a synergy there,” he said. “I like the idea of keeping it all on military property.”

To sweeten Scott’s appeal even further, St. Clair County has offered to donate the entire 182-acre site to NGA free of charge. In contrast, the cost of taking control of the dozens of parcels that comprise the North St. Louis candidate site could run as high as $130 million.

“Free is the perfect price for us,” Kirk said with a smile. “I’ll take that to the bank.”

Support for St. Clair site

Ten days ago, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued environmental-impact statement reports on each of the four candidate sites. Members of the public will be allowed to provide their input on the reports during three meetings set to begin Oct. 26.

Public support for NGA West is one of the criteria the agency will use to evaluate the worthiness of each site. As a result, the Greater Belleville Chamber of Commerce is encouraging a big a turn-out at the meeting set for 4 to 7 p.m., Oct. 28, at Katy Cavins Community Center in O’Fallon.

Chamber officials are also urging members to submit comments online directly by clicking on the “comment” link at the top of NGA West’s Public Involvement page.

The environmental-impact reports, which evaluated everything from economic effects to the impact on historic properties, did not name a preferred site. NGA will pick the winner in March, with construction set to begin on the 800,000-square-foot edifice a year later, and with construction set to be finished by 2021.

The environmental-impact statement for St. Clair County noted the presence of a previously identified archaeological site within the footprint of the St. Clair County site. Otherwise, the report listed only minor to moderate negative impacts that would likely occur if NGA built its new home at the county location just west of Scott Air Force Base.

Mike Fitzgerald: 618-239-2533, @MikeFitz3000

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