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Inside the Air Force
reprinted with permission
November 17, 2000

President, SECDEF, DCI would oversee new, secret shop


A high-level commission set up by Congress to assess the management of the National Reconnaissance Office suggests in a newly released report that the NRO should develop an Office of Space Reconnaissance to provide ultra-secure, streamlined acquisition services for intelligence programs.

The space reconnaissance office would fall under the "personal direction" of the president, the defense secretary and the CIA director, according to the NRO commission's report.

Programs under the space reconnaissance office's purview would also "have special acquisition authorities . . . [and] a separate budget from other agencies and activities within the National Foreign Intelligence Program," the report reads. This arrangement would exempt the office of "standard acquisition regulations," according to the report. Presumably, the office would be able to hastily and aggressively acquire and field necessary systems. However, one official in the Office of the Secretary of Defense scoffed at the suggestion of the new office. The NRO already operates with significant secrecy and streamlined acquisition processes, the source said.

"Sounds like they want to create an NRO within the NRO," this source said. "Have you ever heard of the [Federation of American Scientists]? That is what [the commission is] upset about." The source was referring to the FAS web site that contains information about many classified NRO programs, a situation that has irked some senior Defense Department officials. However, this source said paranoia over releases of classified information is overblown; for example, amateur astronomers can track satellites and plot their flyover times regardless of whether those satellites are acknowledged.

Not surprisingly, FAS officials take issue with the report's findings. Steven Aftergood, the director of the FAS Project on Government Secrecy, notes in an e-mail newsletter that the commission "blames the openness that has ensued since the 'fact of' NRO's existence was officially acknowledged in 1992 for some of the NRO's current shortcomings."

"Widespread knowledge of the NRO's existence and public speculation on how NRO satellites are used has aided terrorists and other potential adversaries in developing techniques of denial and deception to thwart U.S. intelligence efforts," the report states.

Aftergood, however, quotes fellow FAS analyst John Pike as stating that "this is basically an assertion that the 'fact of' acknowledgement was a mistake -- which is breathtaking."

Pike, who until this week headed the FAS Space Policy project, is responsible for much of the intelligence-related information on the notorious FAS web site.

A small cadre of experienced CIA and military personnel would man the office, the report suggests. Additionally, office personnel would operate under a separate "security compartment" and "rely heavily upon the creativity of the contractor community for its work."

NRO director Keith Hall recently told reporters he fears the NRO has become too "risk averse"-- with the result that scientific innovation has been hampered by the recent focus on streamlining budgets. Acquisition managers have also been forced to focus on the "ends" rather than the "means," a dynamic that can be detrimental when working with cutting-edge technology.

The suggested structure of the office would presumably encourage acceptable risks, which would not be subject to the purview of various Defense Department civilian acquisition officials.

Formation of the National Commission for the Review of the National Reconnaissance Office was included in the FY-00 Intelligence Authorization Act. The commission is comprised of prominent lawmakers and other experienced government and industry officials. Co-chairs of the commission are Rep. Porter Goss (R-FL), who also chairs the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, and Sen. Robert Kerrey (R-NB), who recently completed a term as vice chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.

Lawmakers formed the commission to redefine the roles, responsibilities and processes of the NRO in the post-Cold War era. Specifically, lawmakers were concerned that the direct attention of high-level government officials and the highly secret atmosphere had eroded over time.

"The Commission observes that one of the most important changes is that implementation of the Secretary of Defense-[CIA director] partnership has been delegated to lower-level officials," the report states.

The Office of Space Reconnaissance could also help to streamline the multiple, and often cumbersome, layers of oversight within the Defense Department that dictate space policy and requirements. Air Force Secretary F. Whitten Peters said last month that this dynamic is troubling and suggested that the NRO director's position within the Air Force be raised from an assistant secretary to an under secretary (Inside the Air Force, Nov. 10, p6).

"My frustration with space is that between [NRO director] Keith Hall and the NRO and the Air Force, we spend about 95 percent of the dollars on national security space, but we have an infinite and exquisite number of layers of oversight and review above [us], none of which has budget responsibility," Peters said. In "DOD itself," he added, both the assistant defense secretary for command, control, communications and intelligence and the assistant secretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics "claim responsibility." Peters also noted that the national security space architect has some control over space intelligence matters.

The NRO commission also encourages more cooperation among the NRO and other Defense Department agencies in developing airborne surveillance platforms. Too often, the commission says, "space reconnaissance and airborne reconnaissance are viewed as mutually exclusive capabilities. In fact, they are quite complementary and contribute unique support to a tiered concept of intelligence collection."

This recommendation specifically affects the Air Force, which owns the majority of DOD's acknowledged air-breathing reconnaissance assets. The commission specifically suggests that the "NRO should supply system engineering capabilities and transfer space system technologies to airborne applications."

This office would also be a forum to productively handle debates -- such as the current debate over "whether strategic or tactical intelligence requirements should have higher priority in NRO satellite reconnaissance programs" -- without creating a gridlock among organizations with a vested interest in certain programs.

On this issue, the commission suggests that the NRO reinstate the Defense Space Reconnaissance Program, which it says has been largely ineffective because of budget constraints since 1994. This arrangement would give DOD unified commanders direct input into NRO's funding priorities.

"The Commission believes it is time to re-establish funds within the DOD budget that will pay for the acquisition of systems and sensors designed to support tactical commanders," the report says. "If certain NRO acquisition decisions were made part of a DSRP budget process in this way, the military's Unified Commands would be directly involved in setting priorities for future space reconnaissance systems."

This initiative, if adopted, would also contribute to an overarching Air Force initiative to better integrate its air and space assets and reduce the stovepipes in acquisition and requirements generation processes. This initiative is outlined in an Air Force white paper called "The Aerospace Force," which was released earlier this year. Additionally, the service reiterated the integration initiative in its Air Force Vision 2020 statement.

Air Force airborne reconnaissance assets receive funding from various intelligence agencies, including the NRO and National Security Agency. Peters alluded to this as a potential hurdle for Air Force programs, citing his willingness to support an accelerated buy of Global Hawk unmanned aerial vehicles.

"The Global Hawk acceleration will in fact produce a Global Hawk which can drive the sensors, assuming the sensors come on [line]," Peters said. "The sensors are not all in my budget; they are in a lot of other people's budgets, too."

The commission says the NRO "should" work more closely with other agencies to supply "system engineering capabilities and transfer system technologies to airborne applications," but this recommendation is carefully worded in that it does not call for changes to the current chain of command.

However, the intention is reminiscent of the formation the Defense Airborne Reconnaissance Office. Congress prompted the Defense Department to form a central point of airborne reconnaissance efforts in 1993, but DARO was short-lived and disestablished in 1998 because of resistance from the services. DARO's responsibilities were transferred to the assistant secretary of defense for command, control, communications and intelligence.

In the area of space surveillance, the NRO commission suggests that the president, defense secretary and CIA director develop a "clear national strategy that takes full advantage of the capabilities of the U.S. commercial satellite imagery industry.

"Although a National Space Policy exists that promotes the use of the products and services of the U.S. commercial space industry, the Commission did not find any executable plan, budget, or strategy that promotes the use of the commercial satellite industry," the report notes.

Today, the NRO provides imagery to customers from its own assets "free of charge," while commercial imagery is costly, making it less attractive. The report says that if commercial assets are supposed to relieve the demands on NRO assets, intelligence officials must form a system to better equate the two products in the customers' eyes.

The NRO commission is also concerned about the daunting number of launch failures in recent years -- failures that cost the Defense Department billions of dollars. Consequently, the report suggests the NRO director and senior Air Force Materiel Command and Space and Missile Systems Center officials "develop a contingency plan for each NRO program or set of programs."

Last year, the Air Force and military satellite communications contractors scrambled to form a noncompetitive national team to provide the next generation of extra-high frequency, secure communications satellites. A launch failure delivered a Milstar satellite into an incorrect orbit in the spring of 1999, rendering it useless. The launch failure opened a gap in secure military communications, causing the Air Force and contractors to come up with a teaming arrangement.

Finally, the commission suggests that the defense secretary and CIA director carefully outline the proper roles for tasking, processing, exploitation and dissemination of imagery among NSA, NRO, the National Imagery and Mapping Agency and other related offices.

TPED especially concerned lawmakers, and some in the commission fear that processes may be duplicated among various organizations. -- Amy Butler

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