67. Letter From the Chairman of the Military Operations Subcommittee of the House Committee on Government Operations (Holifield) to President Johnson1

Dear Mr. President:

I take this opportunity to convey to you my deep concern over recent developments in the Government’s program for satellite communications. My Military Operations Subcommittee has been holding extensive hearings on this subject, updating some earlier work in this field.

In April of last year, General Starbird of the Defense Communications Agency told us about the Defense Department plans for a medium [Page 129] altitude random orbit system of satellite communications. The Defense Department has been ready for some time to build such a system, but the project has been held up since at least October 1963, when Secretary McNamara decided to explore with the Communications Satellite Corporation the possibility of a joint military-commercial system operation.

Many months have been consumed in technical and policy discussions. Numerous options have been analyzed, numerous proposals made and discarded. Several drafts of an “agreement” between the Department and the Corporation have been formulated, the latest of which is now before the Corporation for approval or, possibly, further negotiations.

Even if an “agreement” is entered into, the Defense Department will not know until October 1965 whether the Corporation is prepared to meet its requirements. The Corporation may decide the military tie-in is not profitable because of added satellite weight and complexity. The Corporation may go synchronous, in which case the military specifications will not be met. Or the Corporation may find that its foreign partners object to the military tie-in, in which case the State Department will not approve it. Our hearings have made it clear that a time delay of a year or more would be involved if the Department waits on the Corporation to decide what system it wants to choose.

While it appears, through the testimony and our other investigations, that most of the civilian and military experts in Government communications are opposed to a shared system operation, or at least have serious reservations about it (because the operating advantages are nil and the economies dubious), the Defense Department is still trying to work out an agreement. Possibly an agreement has this attraction—that public capital outlays on satellite communications will not be necessary for the next several budget years. And later, the Defense Department will pay off that portion of the Corporation’s investment required for special Government purposes by paying yearly rates for services approved by the Federal Communications Commission. From the Corporation’s standpoint, presumably there is an advantage in having a “built-in” major customer committed several years in advance of system operations.

The hearings impel me to seriously question whether the long-range interests of the United States will be served by associating the most sensitive military and other essential Government requirements for satellite communications with the business requirements of a commercial corporation which must pay dividends to stockholders. I see all kinds of political and international implications. For the next few years the Corporation will be deeply involved in transactions and arrangements with domestic and foreign carriers and in devising a system operation which will produce revenues in competition with [Page 130] cable and other communications systems. Can the Government afford to hold up while these complicated problems are being solved—a lengthy process which entails numerous international negotiations, regulatory agency proceedings, and other involvements? Indeed, the Government adds to the Corporation’s domestic and international problems by the proposed tie-in.

The Cuban crisis showed how seriously deficient we were in our communications, and the directive for a National Communications System was President Kennedy’s immediate response to these deficiencies. While the Government now buys communications services from carriers and will buy such services from the Corporation in the future, it seems to be the better part of wisdom for the Government, without further delay, to move ahead with its own hard-core military system, already carefully studied, already designed and engineered.

I trust you will give this matter your personal attention.2

Respectfully yours,

Chet Holifield
  1. Source: Johnson Library, National Security File, Subject File, Communications (Nat’l Communications System, COMSAT, etc.), Vol. 1. No classification marking.
  2. A response to Holifield’s letter provoked debate among the White House staff. Special Assistant Joseph Califano and Deputy Secretary of Defense Cyrus Vance urged Lawrence O’Brien to sign a letter to the Congressman, reassuring him that “The present shared satellite design meets all of the important technical and operational requirements that would also be met by an independent Government design.” (Memorandum from Califano to O’Brien, June 10; ibid.) But Edward Welsh, Executive Secretary of the National Aeronautics and Space Council, disagreed, explaining that Holifield had made a persuasive case and that the proposed response “is not fully responsive to the Congressman’s letter.” Welsh also pointed out that the Department of Defense proposal “would make the whole problem more difficult for the State Department.” Welsh noted that “In fact, it would be better not to send any further response than to send the one proposed.” (Memorandum from Welsh to O’Brien, June 11; ibid.) No final response to the Congressman has been found.