One of the most secretive agencies in the federal government, the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) launches the nation’s military spy satellites. NRO takes orders from both the Secretary of Defense and the Director of National Intelligence and is funded through the National Reconnaissance Program, part of the National Foreign Intelligence Program. The agency shares its top secret data not only with military planners, but also members of the Intelligence Community. At one time, NRO’s technical sophistication was highly regarded, but after a series of blunders in recent years, the agency’s reputation has plummeted.
The National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) was officially established in September 1961 as a classified agency in the Department of Defense (DoD) to create the nation’s first system of orbiting spy satellites to keep watch over the Soviet Union. CORONA, the nation’s first spy satellite system, was operational from 1960-1972 and collected more than 800,000 images. But DoD government did not declassify information about the satellites until 1995, along with the spy satellites ARGON and LANYARD. GRAB, the nation’s first signals intelligence satellite system, wasn’t declassified until 1998.
NRO itself wasn’t publicly acknowledged by US officials until 1992, when the Bush administration began making changes to American military policy in the wake of the ending of the Cold War. In 1996, military officials for the first time verified the launching of a spy satellite by NRO at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. NRO also launches from Cape Canaveral Air Force Base in Florida.
Once the cloak of secrecy was partially removed from NRO, the media began to uncover financial misdeeds by those running the agency. Since its founding (and even through to today), the budget of NRO has been classified, and only a select handful of lawmakers in Congress are privy to how much is given each year to the agency. In 1994, NRO was caught having secretly and illegally spent $300 million on an office complex in Fairfax County, Virginia, that defense contractor Rockwell International helped construct.
The following year, the media reported that NRO had stashed away $1 billion in unspent funds without informing superiors at the Pentagon and CIA or in Congress. Then-CIA Director John Deutch ordered an investigation in the wake of the revelation and supposedly instituted a restructuring of NRO’s financial management.
During the administration of George W. Bush, NRO officials have continued to get in trouble over money matters and for their satellites falling out of the sky (see Controversies). One story described the agency as being “shoved to the sidelines”
by President Bush because he did not view it as reliable in helping fight the Global War on Terrorism.
Congressional Panels Take Back $1 Billion From Satellite Agency
(by Tim Weiner, New York Times)
The National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) is responsible for launching and maintaining the nation’s military spy satellites. A highly secretive agency located in the Department of Defense, NRO takes orders from both the Secretary of Defense and the Director of National Intelligence and is funded through the National Reconnaissance Program, part of the National Foreign Intelligence Program. The agency shares its top secret data not only with military planners, but also members of the Intelligence Community.
However, NRO provides very little information about its operations to the public because specific NRO satellite capabilities, numbers and names are classified. It does announce when a new satellite goes into orbit, such as its March 13, 2008
release, but no details are provided. NRO describes itself as “a hybrid organization” that is jointly staffed by members of the armed services, the CIA and Pentagon civilian personnel.
NRO consists of more than a dozen offices including: Management Services and Operations; Business Plans and Operations; Chief Information Officer; Chief Operating Officer; Deputy Director for Mission Support; Program Control; Systems Engineering; System Operations; Ground Enterprise Directorate; Imagery Intelligence Systems Directorate; Signals Intelligence Systems Directorate; Communications Acquisition and Operations Directorate; Advanced Systems and Technology; Office of Space Launch.
In addition to taking care of its fleet of spy satellites, NRO conducts war game scenarios to prepare the agency in the event of an attack or accident that might disrupt its operations. On Sept. 11, 2001, the very day a hijacked airliner crashed into the Pentagon, NRO officials were planning to simulate a plane crash
into NRO’s headquarters in Chantilly, Virginia. The scenario, NRO officials later insisted, had nothing to do with terrorism, but involved a private plane accidentally crashing into the agency’s building.
Information on the NRO by the Federation of American Scientists
The National Reconnaissance Office’s expenditures are classified, which limits information on agency contracts. What is known is that defense contractor Lockheed Martin has performed work for NRO since at least 1998, based on this release
by the agency regarding a satellite launch.
in 1999 stated that Boeing had been hired to develop the “next generation of imagery reconnaissance satellites.” Defense analysts estimated that the contract was worth approximately $4 billion
. However, because of delays and cost-overruns by Boeing, NRO brought Lockheed Martin in to help straighten out the program. In 2008, one of the first new satellites went dead shortly after going into orbit and had to be shot down (see Controversies).
NRO also has revealed that another defense giant, Raytheon, was awarded a contract to build the ground infrastructure portion of the Future Imagery Architecture
. Northrop Grumman was hired to help build a new kind of space radar.
Other, smaller companies have received contracts from NRO include Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC) which was awarded a $30 million
contract to continue supporting the Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) Applications and Integration Office (SAIO) and NRO’s SIGINT Directorate.
Globecomm Systems Inc., which handles satellite-based communications, was awarded a $1.1 million
contract for the design and build of “new transportable multi-band earth terminals.” The contract, which included a $3 million option for production units, represented the first time the company had worked for NRO.
Veridian Corporation won a $19.7 million
deal to provide a range of core technical and administrative support to NRO. Veridian supplies information-based systems, integrated solutions and services specializing in mission-critical national security programs for the Intelligence Community, the Pentagon and government agencies involved in homeland security.
Veridian awarded $19.7m core services contract to support National Reconnaissance Office
(EDP Weekly's IT Monitor)
NRO Cancels Space Radar System
The National Reconnaissance Office notified Northrop Grumman and Lockheed Martin in early April 2008 that it was terminating their contracts on the troubled Space Radar development project. The program had suffered from cost overruns, schedule delays and technological problems.
The space radar system was designed to provide the military and intelligence officials constant data, surveillance and reconnaissance around the world.
According to the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the cost to develop, produce and operate Space Radar through 2027 was estimated at between $20 billion and $25 billion. The military had planned to launch the first Space Radar satellite in 2016, but GAO found that the five technologies central to Space Radar were not yet available based on current science.
Military Shoots Down NRO Satellite
In January 2008, the National Reconnaissance Office had to admit that one of its satellites was in danger of crashing to earth, forcing the Pentagon to draw up plans to shoot it down. Even more embarrassing was the revelation that the satellite, identified by amateur astronomers as a USA-193
built by Lockheed Martin, had failed shortly after being launched in December 2006.
The satellite was part of the next-generation of spy satellites that NRO had invested billions into developing.
On February 21, 2008, the Navy successfully shot down the ailing satellite without causing harm to anyone on the ground.
NRO Chief Admits Failures
Before leaving NRO for a post under the Director of National Intelligence, Donald Kerr told Congress that he was in favor of killing two expensive satellites systems under development. The testimony represented a rare public admission by the secretive agency over its failure to launch next generation satellites into space. Neither Kerr nor the lawmakers at the hearing revealed the names of the two satellite systems in question. However, speculation indicated that one program was the Misty satellite program, which was to have stealth qualities so it could not be tracked from Earth. The other program was not identified.
Nominee Defends Ending Programs: Kerr Testifies About Satellite Contracts
(by Walter Pincus, Washington Post)
In response to the controversies that enveloped the agency duting the 1990s, Congress authorized a special panel to evaluate the work and operations of the National Reconnaissance Office. The National Commission for the Review of the National Reconnaissance Office reported its findings in November 2000. It offered up several recommendations.
Establish an Office of Space Reconnaissance
Following recent concerns over a decline in NRO’s technical developments of new satellites, the agency should create a new office that would allow it to concentrate its most advanced research, development and acquisition efforts to restore the high caliber work NRO used to be known for. The Office of Space Reconnaissance should have special acquisition authorities, be staffed by experienced military and CIA personnel, have a budget separate from other agencies and activities within the National Foreign Intelligence Program, be protected by a special security compartment and operate under the personal direction of the President, Secretary of Defense and Director of Central Intelligence, according to the commission.
Bring back the Defense Space Reconnaissance Program (DSRP)
During the 1980s and 1990s, NRO relied on the work and supplemental funding of the DSRP, which helped the agency meet unique military requirements for NRO satellite reconnaissance systems. These funds, totaling several hundreds of millions of dollars, paid for additional satellites or military-specific systems. But a reorganization ordered by Congress in 1994 led to the stripping of the DSRP budget and eventually dissolution of the program altogether. The commission believed that restoring this program would help revitalize the NRO.
Avoid Brain Drain
NRO leadership should jointly establish career paths to ensure that highly skilled and experienced NRO engineers stay with the agency and are not tempted to move on to other government or private sector opportunities.
Report of the National Commission for the Review of the National Reconnaissance Office
Annual Budget: Classified (Estimated $10 billion)
National Reconnaissance Office