One of the most secretive agencies in the federal government, the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) launches the nation’s military spy satellites. The 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, the NRO’s technical sophistication was highly regarded, but after a series of blunders in recent years, the agency’s reputation has plummeted. It did, however, receive accolades for its role in the May 2011 operation that resulted in the killing of Osama bin Laden. The agency’s spy satellites were critical in helping its sister intelligence agencies pinpoint the terrorist’s precise location in Pakistan.
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 the DoD 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.
The NRO itself wasn’t publicly acknowledged by U.S. 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 the NRO at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. It also launches from Cape Canaveral Air Force Base in Florida.
Once the cloak of secrecy was partially removed from the NRO, the media began to uncover financial misdeeds by those running the agency. Since its founding (and even through today), the budget of the 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, the 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 the 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 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. Nonetheless, the NRO’s contribution to the hunt for Osama Bin Laden—which Bush had confessed little interest in—was critical, as its spy satellites helped to determine the master terrorist’s whereabouts in Pakistan, where he was killed by U.S. Special Forces in May 2011.
A new DoD directive on the NRO (pdf), issued in 2011 by then-Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates, replaced the previous directive of 1964 (pdf). Among other things, the new directive states that the NRO is funded through both the National Intelligence Program (NIP) and the Military Intelligence Program (MIP), illustrating the agency’s support of both military operations and national policymakers.
Lack of Intelligence: America's secret spy satellites are costing you billions, but they can't even get off the launch pad (by Douglas Pasternak, U.S. News & World Report)
Black holes: how secret military and intelligence appropriations suck up your tax dollars (by J. Whitfield Larrabee, Humanist)
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, the 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, the NRO provides 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 June 29, 2012 release, but no details are provided. The NRO describes itself as “a hybrid organization” that is jointly staffed by members of the armed services, the CIA, and Pentagon civilian personnel.
The 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; Office of Corporate Communications; Office of Inspector General; Office of Contracts; Information Access and Release Team.
The NRO maintains network of ground stations, which include: the Aerospace Data Facility–East at Ft. Belvoir, Virginia; the Aerospace Data Facility–Southwest at the White Sands Missile Test Range, New Mexico; and the Aerospace Data Facility–Colorado at Buckley Air Force Base, Colorado. Each of these facilities supports the collection, analysis, reporting, and dissemination of global intelligence information for numerous agencies. The NRO’s overseas locations include the Joint Defense Facility Pine Gap in Alice Springs, Australia, and RAF Menwith Hill, in Harrogate, United Kingdom.
The NRO’s global communications network includes encrypted satellite data relay and messaging Systems, such as Special Operations Communications (SOCOMM).
NRO satellites collect a number of forms of intelligence, which include:
In addition to taking care of its fleet of spy satellites, the 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.
Agency planned exercise on Sept. 11 built around a plane crashing into a building (by John J. Lumpkin, Associated Press)
From the Web Site of the National Reconnaissance Office
Annual Report 2010 (pdf)
Congress and the NRO (pdf)
Fact Sheet (pdf)
Strategic Vision (pdf)
The National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) 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 a release (pdf) by the agency regarding a satellite launch.
In 2012, the NRO confirmed that a multi-billion contract was awarded to Lockheed Martin for the development of the Next Generation Optical system, a new series of optical satellites. According to Loren Thompson, a former adviser to Lockheed Martin as well as its competitors, the FY 2013 Department of Defense budget request supports each of the military satellites that Lockheed builds, indicating that Lockheed stands as “the dominant player in space-based missile warning, secure communications and global positioning through 2025.”
An announcement (pdf) 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, the NRO brought in Lockheed Martin 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).
Boeing teamed with Lockheed Martin, under its United Launch Alliance (ULA) joint venture, to provide launch services for the NRO, Air Force, and meteorological satellites as part of a $1.5 billion government contract. For the NRO, the duo built the largest rocket ever launched from the West Coast, the 235-foot-tall Delta IV Heavy Launch Vehicle, which carried a classified NRO satellite into space in January 2011. Eight NRO spacecraft were launched during a seven-month period since September 2010. ULA utilizes the services of a subcontractor, ATK, which designs and manufactures such rocket elements as thermal shields, liquid oxygen structures, nose cones, and engine nozzles.
The 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 the 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 the 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.
Analysts Expect Spy Satellite Number to Increase (by Kenneth Silber, Space.com)
SAIC Awarded National Reconnaissance Office Contract (PRNewswire)
Globecomm Systems Awarded $1.1 Million Contract from the National Reconnaissance Office for the Design of a New Transportable Multi-Band Earth Terminal; Options for Production Systems Bring Contract Value to $4 Million (Business Wire)
Veridian awarded $19.7m core services contract to support National Reconnaissance Office (EDP Weekly's IT Monitor)
Pentagon Budget Secures Major Strategic Win For Lockheed (by Loren Thompson, Aol Defense)
Secret Government Satellite Launches from Cape Canaveral (by Lee Rennais, Red Orbit)
Highly Intrusive, Personal Questions in NRO Polygraphs
A newspaper investigation exposed the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) in 2012 for abusing lie-detector tests to obtain intimate information on thousands of job applicants—though in some cases, the agency failed to contact law enforcement about criminal behavior committed by potential workers.
McClatchy Newspapers found out that the NRO pushed its polygraph operators to extract confessions of illegal or illicit behavior by employees and job seekers. The agency also admonished polygraph operators who refused to pursue certain lines of questioning, while rewarding those who did what they were told.
But when it came to child molestation, the NRO sat on information it obtained from one applicant, rather than referring it to local officials.
“You’ve got to wonder what the point of all of this is if we're not even going after child molesters. This is bureaucracy run amok. These practices violate the rights of Americans and it’s not even for a good reason,” Mark Phillips, a veteran polygrapher who resigned from the agency after what he claimed was retaliation for resisting abusive interviewing techniques, told McClatchy Newspapers.
National Reconnaissance Office Accused Of Illegally Collecting Personal Data (The Last Chance of Freedom)
National Reconnaissance Office View: Whistleblower Is Merely A Malcontent (by Marisa Taylor, McClatchy Newspapers)
National Reconnaissance Office Accused Of Illegally Collecting Personal Data (by Marisa Taylor, McClatchy Newspapers)
National Reconnaissance Office Illegally Collected Personal Data (Free Thought Manifesto)
National Reconnaissance Office Hasn’t Told Police Of Crime Confessions (by Marisa Taylor, McClatchy Newspapers)
Whistleblower Controversy at NRO
The NRO was accused in 2012 of conducting an internal witch hunt against whistleblowers within the agency.
After NRO officials revealed the agency had financially mishandled contracts, its deputy director, Air Force Major General Susan Mashiko, tried to punish whistleblowers.
Mashiko reportedly was upset about a “series of allegations of malfeasant actions” associated with contracts coming out of the NRO, which prompted the agency’s leadership to launch an investigation.
“You’re talking about a lot of money at this agency and a culture within the intelligence community that isn’t really comfortable with the idea of transparency,” former NRO Inspector General Eric Feldman told McClatchy Newspapers. “Generally speaking, people in that agency are ethical but there is a certain dependency on contractors and closeness with contractors that can create an awkward environment.”
Feldman had been a party to another controversy three years earlier, when he sued the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) for allegedly leaking damaging information about him. An internal investigation had accused Feldman of filing for the same travel and lodging expenses twice.
In his lawsuit, Feldman claimed the information about his travel expenses was deliberately leaked by a CIA agent, Anthony Cipparone, whom Feldman said had a personal vendetta against him because Feldman had passed Cipparone over for a promotion.
Official Says CIA Had It In for Him (by Ryan Abbott, Courthouse News Service)
Lawsuit Exposes Rumored CIA-NRO Turf War (by Ian Allen, IntelNews.org)
Whistleblower Scandal Rocks National Reconnaissance Office (by David Dayen, FDL)
The head of the NRO tried in 2011 to downplay an ongoing debate between Congress and the Pentagon over what kinds of spy satellites the agency should be deploying at a time when the militarization of space is becoming a reality.
Two years earlier, the NRO offered up a plan to build a few, large imaging satellites similar to those already in use and to be built by Lockheed Martin. But two key U.S. senators, Democrat Dianne Feinstein of California and Republican Kit Bond of Missouri, disagreed with the plan, arguing instead for more numerous, smaller satellites for the Next Generation Electro Optical system.
NRO Director Bruce Carlson offered a more conciliatory tone at a public address in 2011, which demonstrated his willingness to try to accommodate lawmakers’ concerns.
Carlson and General William Shelton, commander of the Air Force Space Command, reportedly were working on a “series of options” that would give policymakers choices of action under various scenarios—in order to close the gap between those favoring aggressive action and those concerned about militarizing space.
The NRO had expressed concern about the survivability of its spy satellites in orbit ever since China launched an anti-satellite rocket at one of its own weather satellites and was able to destroy it in 2007.
Spy Agency Softens Position On Next Spy Sats (by Ben Iannotta, Defense News)
Spike Coming in US Air Force, NRO Launches (by Amy Butler, Aerospace Daily & Defense Report)
NRO and China—Spy vs. Spy
News reports in 2011 revealed that China might have hacked into information transmitted from two U.S. government satellites several years earlier. The cyberattacks occurred four times in 2007 and 2008.
The hackers reportedly accessed computers at a satellite control station in Norway, which operated the Landsat-7 and Terra AM-1 satellites. The satellites, operated by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, were used to monitor climate change and map the Earth’s surface.
During public discussions of the hacking controversy, National Reconnaissance Office Director Bruce Carlson said in regards to China and space warfare: “I’d be a lot happier if [we] knew exactly what their intent was. They’re an incredibly modern society but their military philosophy goes all the way back to probably, 4,000 years ago. They believe in deception, that’s just one of their mantras so I remain concerned about their intent, and exactly what it is, I do not know—but I’m concerned about it.”
China May Have Hacked U.S. Satellites (by John Reed, Defense Tech)
NRO Maintains Nation’s Intel Satellite Edge (by Karen Parrish, American Forces Press Service)
NRO Cancels Space Radar System
The NRO 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.
National Reconnaissance Office cancels contracts for proposed space radar project (by Megan Scully, Government Executive)
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 the 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. A formal failure investigation and three different independent review team investigations were conducted, and the cause of the failure remained a mystery. “It has left the NRO in a fragile state with a poor history of performance,” said then-NRO director Scott Large.
Satellite Spotters Glimpse Secrets, and Tell Them (by John Schwartz, New York Times)
Hobbyists vs. National Reconnaissance Office (by Mike Nizza, New York Times)
U.S. Officials Say Broken Satellite Will Be Shot Down (by Thom Shanker, New York Times)
DoD Succeeds In Intercepting Non-Functioning Satellite (Press Release)
CIA vs. NRO
A retired Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) officer wrote a critical essay on the state of the NRO in 2007, to which the NRO took exception.
Robert J. Kohler, who spent almost 20 years at the CIA supporting NRO programs, started out by saying the NRO was “once the benchmark organization for excellence in acquisition and program management.” Kohler wrote the agency responsible for producing the nation’s spy satellites “had a reputation for designing and procuring the most sophisticated unmanned satellite and aircraft reconnaissance systems in history.”
But over time, following the end of the Cold War, the NRO started to lose its edge. Kohler insisted the NRO had become “a shadow of its former self. Its once outstanding expertise in system engineering has drastically eroded.”
He also remarked in his essay that the CIA and the NRO now had a “dissolving relationship,” which was contributing to the NRO’s decline due to the fact that the CIA had “traditionally supplied a major portion of the [NRO’s] technical expertise.”
In response to Kohler’s comments, Dennis Fitzgerald, the NRO’s deputy director, crafted a rebuttal that refuted much of the criticism. He also pointed out that all the defense services have been hit by budget cuts and the resultant downsizing means personnel are less experienced than during Kohler’s time at the CIA, which had the advantage of the lavish Regan-era spending.
The Decline of the National Reconnaissance Office (by Robert J. Kohler, CIA)
Commentary on “The Decline of the National Reconnaissance Office” (by Dennis Fitzgerald, National Reconnaissance Office)
NRO Chief Admits Failures
Before leaving the 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 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)
National Commission for the Review of the National Reconnaissance Office Report
In response to the controversies that enveloped the agency during 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.
Bruce A. Carlson Apr 2009 – July 2012
Scott F. Large Oct 2007 – Apr 2009
Donald M. Kerr July 2005 – Oct 2007
Dennis Fitzgerald (Acting) Mar 2005 – July 2005
Peter B. Teets Dec 2001 – Mar 2005
Keith R. Hall Feb 1996 – Dec 2001
Jeffrey K. Harris May 1994 – Feb 1996
Jimmie D. Hill (Acting) Mar 1993 – May 1994
Martin C. Faga Sept 1989 – Mar 1993
Jimmie D. Hill (Acting) Dec 1988 – Sept 1989
Edward C. Aldridge, Jr. Aug 1981 – Dec 1988
Robert J. Hermann Oct 1979 – Aug 1981
Hans M. Mark Aug 1977 – Oct 1979
Charles W. Cook (Acting) Apr 1977 – Aug 1977
Thomas C. Reed Aug 1976 – Apr 1977
Charles W. Cook (Acting) June 1976 – Aug 1976
James W. Plummer Dec 1973 – June 1976
John L. McLucas Mar 1969 – Dec 1973
Alexander H. Flax Oct 1965 – Mar 1969
Brockway McMillan Mar 1963 – Oct 1965
Joseph V. Charyk Apr 1962 – Mar 1963
Richard M. Bissell, Jr. and Joseph V. Charyk (co-directors) Sept 1961 – Apr 1962
History of NRO Directors (pdf)
A retired general from the U.S. Air Force, Bruce Allen Carlson began serving as the director of the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) in June 2009. The NRO is in charge of launching and maintaining the nation’s spy satellites. Carlson had no background in intelligence or space, but was brought on to lead the budget-troubled NRO because he was a logistics and acquisition specialist. On April 18, 2012, Carlson announced his resignation effective July 20.