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Executive Summary

Changes in The National Security Environment

The Commission found that NRO reconnaissance satellites have had a crucially important role during the past four decades in providing American Presidents a decisive advantage in preserving the national security interests of the United States. These satellites, which can penetrate hostile and denied areas with no risk to life and rapidly deliver uniquely valuable information, have allowed a succession of Presidents to make informed decisions based on critical intelligence and to respond appropriately to major crises, threats and challenges to U.S. interests. Without them, America's history and the world's could have been dramatically different.

For 40 years, the NRO has pioneered technical marvels in support of space reconnaissance. Quite literally, the NRO's achievements in space have provided the nation its "eyes and ears" for: monitoring the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and compliance with arms control agreements; tracking international terrorists, narcotics traffickers and others who threaten American lives and interests around the world; providing operational intelligence and situational awareness to our armed forces in situations ranging from combat to peacekeeping; and helping to anticipate and cope with disasters, ranging from wildfires in the American West to volcanic eruptions in the Pacific to humanitarian crises in the Balkans.

In many ways, the risks to the security of the United States from potentially catastrophic acts of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction and mass disruption are more complex today than those the United States confronted during the Cold War. The number of extended U.S. military commitments and other U.S. interests around the globe that require continuing support is stressing the capacity of NRO reconnaissance systems and the Intelligence Community to detect critical indications and warnings of potentially threatening events. Further, the NRO does more than just build satellites. Integrating all-source intelligence requires it to produce new technologies. Together, these and other evolving conditions place an enormous premium on maintaining a strong space reconnaissance capability.

Graphic: Terrorism Poses New Challenges To U.S. National Security Interests

NRO capabilities have been available for the past 40 years because President Dwight Eisenhower and his successors clearly understood the significance of space reconnaissance to our national security. They had the tenacity and determination to endure the many risks and failures inherent in space technology, and they personally directed and sustained the investment needed for its development. The United States is far more secure today because of this prior investment, commitment and level of personal attention.

Graphic: Great technical advances do not come without trial...and some errors

However, the clarity of mission and sense of urgency that led past Presidents and Congresses to invest in the future of space reconnaissance dissipated with the Cold War's end. The disappearance of a single large threat has provided a false sense of security, diverting our attention from national security issues and, for the NRO, resulting in under-investment. Unfortunately, this false sense of security has been accompanied by a particularly ill-timed lack of policy direction to the NRO from senior officials. This comes at a time when the array of threats facing the United States has never been more complex and the demands on the NRO from new customers have never been more intense.

Users of the intelligence provided by the NRO's satellites have long competed for priority. But now, the number of these customers has expanded dramatically. Advances in military technology have led military customers to develop a voracious appetite for NRO data. At the same time, non-military customers increasingly demand more information from the NRO regarding a broad array of intelligence targets. Also, dynamic changes throughout the Intelligence Community and enormous growth in information technology are significantly affecting the NRO. In the absence of additional resources, the NRO is being stretched thin trying to meet all its customers' essential requirements.

We believe the American people may assume that space-based intelligence collection matters less today than it did during the Cold War at a time when, paradoxically, the demand for the NRO's data has never been greater.

This Report stresses the need for decisive leadership at the highest levels of the U.S. Government in developing and executing a comprehensive and overarching national security policy and strategy that sets the direction and priorities for the NRO. Ensuring that the United States does not lose its technological "eyes and ears" will require the personal attention and direction of the President, the Secretary of Defense and the Director of Central Intelligence (DCI).

There has been and will continue to be understandably heavy pressure to maintain current, aging capabilities rather than to bear the expense of riskier modernization and development of advanced technologies. Without bold and sustained leadership, the United States could find itself "deaf and blind" and increasingly vulnerable to any of the potentially devastating threats it may face in the next ten to twenty years.

Overall Finding and Conclusion

The Commission concludes that the National Reconnaissance Office demands the personal attention of the President of the United States, the Secretary of Defense and the Director of Central Intelligence. It must remain a strong, separate activity, with a focus on innovation, within the Intelligence Community and the Department of Defense. Failure to understand and support the indispensable nature of the NRO as the source of innovative new space-based intelligence collection systems will result in significant intelligence failures. These failures will have a direct influence on strategic choices facing the nation and will strongly affect the ability of U.S. military commanders to win decisively on the battlefield.

Summary of the Commission's Key Findings and Recommendations

Changing NRO Responsibilities
Throughout its history, the NRO has met the challenge of providing innovative, space-based reconnaissance solutions to difficult intelligence problems. Since the earliest days of the Corona spy satellites, when the NRO developed the first space-based photographic capability, the NRO has remained on the leading edge of space technology.

The NRO's success at innovation has been made possible by:

  • involvement by the President and the joint Secretary of Defense-DCI responsibility for management of the NRO;
  • its status, under the NRO Director, as the only Government office responsible for developing space reconnaissance systems;
  • staffing by Department of Defense (DoD) and Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) personnel;
  • adequate funding with sensible reserves;
  • a high degree of secrecy;
  • technological depth focused on developing space reconnaissance solutions to difficult intelligence problems; and
  • experienced program managers empowered to make decisions and requiring minimal oversight.

It is important that the NRO remain focused on its primary space-based reconnaissance mission. It is equally important that both the NRO's special talents and the institutional foundation that has facilitated its success for four decades be carefully preserved.

The NRO has often approached its mission from an "end-to-end" perspective. The NRO did more than build satellites to collect information. It also built capabilities to task the satellites, process the data collected and disseminate the information to its primary users. By taking this comprehensive approach, the NRO was able to develop high-performance satellite systems that better served its customers' needs.

However, the structure of the Intelligence Community has changed since the NRO's earliest days. New organizations exist and many intelligence functions are now shared. Tasking, processing, exploitation, and dissemination (TPED) functions are dispersed throughout the Intelligence Community. In this changed environment, some officials are concerned that the NRO is duplicating efforts in areas for which other agencies now have primary responsibility.

The National Imagery and Mapping Agency, the National Security Agency, and the Central MASINT [measurement and signature intelligence] Organization bear primary responsibility for managing the tasking and dissemination of information collected by NRO satellites, and processing of intelligence data is shared among these same organizations. At the same time, the NRO is responsible for ensuring its satellites operate efficiently and effectively.

In developing TPED processes in connection with its own systems, the NRO often has developed innovative solutions to difficult problems in these areas. To encourage development of creative solutions in the future, the Commission believes it important that the delineation of responsibilities for TPED be carefully and regularly evaluated by senior officials in order to avoid duplication and enhance Intelligence Community efficiency and effectiveness.

The Secretary of Defense and Director of Central Intelligence must direct that the NRO mission be updated and focused as a first priority on the development, acquisition and operation of highly advanced technology for space reconnaissance systems and supporting space-related intelligence activities, in accordance with current law.

The Secretary of Defense and Director of Central Intelligence should determine the proper roles for the NRO, National Security Agency, National Imagery and Mapping Agency, and Central MASINT Organization in tasking, processing, exploitation, and dissemination activities.

NRO Technological Innovation
Over time, the NRO has gained a well-deserved reputation as the preeminent research, development and acquisition (RD&A) organization in the Intelligence Community and DoD. As a result of changes in recent years, however, some claim the NRO has lost its streamlined acquisition and integration capability and its ability to develop and apply new technologies rapidly.

The Commission believes NRO leadership is doing its best in emphasizing RD&A; in accepting new ideas, concepts and base technologies from any source; and in applying "leap ahead" and "revolutionary" technologies to its work. The NRO's focus is, as it should be, on technologies that will enhance, improve, or fundamentally change the way in which the United States engages in space-based reconnaissance.

The NRO's development and application of new technologies has sometimes been limited by a resource-constrained budget process. The budget process is not well suited to making judgments about the value of developing new technology. In these circumstances, recommendations from the Intelligence Community, Office of Management and Budget, or other budget staffs regarding whether or not to provide resources for an NRO program should not be made without the benefit of clear guidance from senior officials based upon the value of the technology being developed in the NRO program. Decision-makers must ensure that they are provided personally with the technical understanding needed to assure that the decisions they make with regard to NRO technology innovation efforts are informed decisions.

The President of the United States, the Secretary of Defense and the Director of Central Intelligence must pay close attention to the level of funding and support for the NRO Director's research, development and acquisition effort.

The Secretary of Defense and Director of Central Intelligence should ensure common understanding of the NRO's current and future capabilities and the application of its technology to satisfy the needs of its mission partners and customers.

Office of Space Reconnaissance
From its beginning, NRO success has been based upon several special attributes. Among these have been: the personal attention of the President; a close partnership between the Secretary of Defense and the Director of Central Intelligence; a single Director and organization with technological expertise focused on space reconnaissance on behalf of the DoD and CIA; experienced CIA and military personnel and program managers; and a strong cloak of secrecy surrounding its activities.

Over time, these attributes have eroded. The Commission observes that one of the most important changes is that implementation of the Secretary of Defense-DCI partnership has been delegated to lower-level officials. Also, the NRO Director is caught in the middle of an intense debate regarding whether strategic or tactical intelligence requirements should have higher priority in NRO satellite reconnaissance programs. The personnel practices of other organizations are discouraging NRO personnel from seeking repetitive assignments within the NRO. The NRO has become a publicly acknowledged organization that openly announces many of its new program initiatives.

These changes are a direct response to the circumstances described earlier. While many of the changes have been warranted, they have had a limiting effect on the NRO's ability to attack the most difficult intelligence problems quickly with the most advanced space reconnaissance technology. Perhaps more importantly, they have weakened the foundation of congressional and presidential support upon which the NRO's success has been built.

The Commission believes structural change is needed. A new office should be established that, by recapturing and operating under the NRO's original attributes, will respond more effectively to technological challenges in space reconnaissance. The Commission suggests this office be called the Office of Space Reconnaissance.

This would require that the Secretary of Defense grant this Office special exemptions from standard DoD acquisition regulations. It would rely heavily upon the DCI's special statutory authorities for procurement. It would be under the direction of the NRO Director, but would operate in secure facilities separated from NRO activities. It would create and defend a separate budget element within the National Foreign Intelligence Program and have its own security compartment. It would have a small CIA and military staff and senior and experienced program managers, and would also rely heavily upon the creativity of the contractor community for its work. It would respond, through a special Executive Committee, to direction from the President, the Secretary of Defense and the DCI. The new Office would attack the most difficult intelligence problems by providing advanced technology that will lead to frequent, assured, global access to protect U.S. national security interests.

The Commission emphasizes that creation of the Office of Space Reconnaissance does not diminish the fundamental importance of the NRO and its mission. Under this approach, the NRO would continue to serve the broad and growing strategic and tactical customer base. It would also continue to evaluate and apply leading edge technology to meet the needs of those customers, and to confront and overcome the intelligence challenges facing the Intelligence Community and DoD.

The Secretary of Defense and the Director of Central Intelligence should establish a new Office of Space Reconnaissance under the direction of the Director of the NRO. The Office 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.

The Secretary of Defense-Director of Central Intelligence Relationship
The NRO serves both the Secretary of Defense and the DCI. In the NRO's early days, several agreements established the relationship between the Secretary of Defense and the DCI. Today, the NRO is operating under agreements between these two officials, all of which are at least thirty-five years old.

Space has proven to be the most effective means for gaining frequent, assured access to denied areas on a global basis. The NRO's history is filled with successes in answering intelligence questions asked by military and civilian leaders who faced difficult national security challenges.

The Commission evaluated the desirability of recommending the creation of an "NRO statute." Such a law could firmly secure the NRO's position in the national security community. After debate, the Commission concluded that congressional action in this regard could make the situation worse, rather than better. It believes senior level Executive Branch attention should be sufficient at this time.

Therefore, in order to achieve the most cost-effective means for gaining global access to denied areas, the President, Secretary of Defense and Director of Central Intelligence must work closely together to direct the NRO's efforts.

The President must take direct responsibility to ensure that the Secretary of Defense and Director of Central Intelligence relationship regarding the management of the NRO is functioning effectively.

Balanced Response to Customer Demands
Developments in information technology have both benefited and challenged the NRO. Because of these developments, information the NRO collects is more readily available to tactical military commanders and plays a significant role in gaining information dominance. As a result, military theater and tactical commanders increasingly expect and demand NRO support.

The NRO's global presence also continues to provide senior strategic decision-makers with information essential to their understanding of the international environment. As has been the case since its earliest days, the NRO's satellites acquire information other intelligence sources are unable to provide. Its satellites furnish a unilateral, low profile, zero risk, and secure means of collecting highly sensitive intelligence. They support diplomacy, prevent war, aid the war on drugs, monitor the development of weapons of mass destruction, and help thwart terrorist activities.

Customer demands, however, exceed the NRO's capabilities. As is the case with all U.S. national security activities today, the NRO's budget is constrained and it competes for resources with other intelligence agencies that are also facing new challenges created by the changing threat and the explosion in information technology.

Because it responds to both the Secretary of Defense and the DCI, the NRO frequently is caught between the competing requirements of both DoD and non-DoD customers, all of whom expect to be satisfied by NRO systems. With its systems over-taxed and unable to answer all demands, yet attempting to be "all things to all agencies," the NRO often bears the brunt of criticism from all sides.

Because of these pressures, the NRO is a strong and persistent advocate for greater resources in an era of limited Intelligence Community budgets. However, the Commission's recommendations are focused on balancing competing needs because it is not possible simply to "buy" a way out of the problem.

The Secretary of Defense and the Director of Central Intelligence must work closely together to ensure that proper attention is focused on achieving the appropriate balance between strategic and tactical requirements for NRO systems, present and future.

Defense Space Reconnaissance Program
In response to the long-standing need for the NRO to develop space reconnaissance assets that respond to both strategic and tactical requirements, the Defense Support Project Office was established in 1981. The NRO Director also served as the Director of that Office.

The Office was responsible for the annual development of the Defense Reconnaissance Support Program (DRSP) contained in the DoD Tactical Intelligence and Related Activities (TIARA) Program. DRSP funds generally were used to pay for NRO activities that were necessary to satisfy military-unique space reconnaissance requirements.

In 1994, DRSP funding was substantially reduced. Responsibility for satellite acquisition and infrastructure costs was shifted to the National Reconnaissance Program. The name of the DRSP was changed to the Defense Space Reconnaissance Program (DSRP), which became focused on educating military customers on how to use NRO systems more effectively. These changes ended DoD's direct funding of NRO reconnaissance systems and took place even as DoD's appetite for NRO information was growing substantially in response to the military's experiences in the Gulf War.

The debate over which customers should have higher priority for NRO space reconnaissance capabilities is partly the result of the need to allocate scarce funds. Experience since 1994 suggests that certain programs to support tactical military requirements have had increasing difficulty competing for funds within the National Reconnaissance Program (NRP). This is because NRP spending to address those requirements consumes resources appropriated to the National Foreign Intelligence Program (NFIP). Some believe those requirements should be supported by intelligence funding taken from the DoD budget. Thus, the debate often is not about whether the NRO should undertake an activity, but rather how the NRO will fund it.

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. 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. Further, budget pressures on the NFIP would be reduced by such direct DoD funding for NRO systems.

The Secretary of Defense, in consultation with the Director of Central Intelligence, should re-establish the Defense Space Reconnaissance Program as a means of funding tactical military requirements for NRO systems and architectures.

Increased Resource and Budgetary Flexibility
Budget constraints affect the entire National Foreign Intelligence Program (NFIP). As each Intelligence Community activity strives to meet new challenges, it competes with other NFIP activities that have strong claims for resources. The dynamic budgetary environment and the diffuse national security threats require flexible measures for shifting resources to meet rapidly changing priorities.

The Director of Central Intelligence is responsible, in consultation with the Secretary of Defense, for the creation of the NFIP. This clear responsibility, however, is not matched by a similar responsibility for actual expenditure of the funds after they have been authorized and appropriated to the NFIP by Congress. Under current law, the Director may not shift such funds between intelligence activities if the affected Secretary or department head objects.

The Commission's principal concern is the potential limit that this provision of current law places on the DCI's ability to shift resources to match quickly changing priorities in a dynamic intelligence environment. While the Commission recognizes this issue extends beyond the NRO, it believes it is of such significance for the NRO that a recommendation to remedy the situation is warranted.

The Director of Central Intelligence should be granted greater latitude to redirect funds among intelligence collection activities and agencies in order to respond most effectively to the specific types of issues that arise in NRO programs.

NRO Technical Expertise
The NRO's historic success is directly attributable to the high quality and creativity of its DoD, CIA and contractor workforce. Until the recent past, many military and civilian Government personnel served the majority of their careers as part of the NRO. Some never returned to their parent organizations for any appreciable length of time. This allowed a highly skilled cadre of personnel to advance within the NRO structure, gaining relevant experience in various positions of greater responsibility as they rose in rank.

New personnel assignment practices adopted by other organizations, such as the Air Force, have had the effect of limiting the tenure of personnel assignments to the NRO. There is a resulting concern that the NRO could lose its ability to sustain the cadre of highly-skilled and experienced personnel it needs to guarantee mission success because rotational assignments back to their parent organizations appear to be a requirement for career advancement. In some cases, this cadre of personnel is prevented from obtaining equivalent broad space-related experience during these rotational assignments. While it is understandable that a parent organization may want to exploit the special skills its personnel develop in the NRO, the cost to NRO space reconnaissance programs may be greater than the value of broader experience to these other organizations.

The Commission believes there is a compelling need for a separate NRO career path and assignment policy that provides an opportunity for selected highly trained engineers, acquisition professionals and operations specialists to be assigned to the NRO on a long-term basis and progress through a broad range of NRO positions. The technical complexity of NRO systems is unique, and it requires the continuity of a dedicated cadre. The Commission believes the high quality and creativity of the NRO's military, CIA and contractor workforce must be sustained.

The Secretary of Defense and the Director of Central Intelligence should jointly establish NRO career paths to ensure that a highly skilled and experienced NRO workforce is continued and sustained.

Increased Launch Program Risks
The U.S. Government's national security space program is proceeding along several parallel paths. At the same time the NRO is embarking upon new satellite acquisition programs, the Air Force is transitioning its launch program to the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) family of space launch vehicles. The NRO relies upon the Air Force to provide its launch capability. Thus, all the new NRO satellites are to be launched on the new EELV.

Historically, spacecraft and launch vehicle development programs have failed to meet original estimated delivery dates. In addition, the spacecraft and launch vehicles that initially emerge from new developmental programs carry a significantly increased risk of unforeseen difficulties. In the past, the effects of delays and launch failures could be mitigated because robust satellite capabilities were on orbit or sufficient launch vehicles were available as a back-up. Today, the fragility of the satellite and launch vehicle architectures offers no margin for error.

The Commission is alarmed that there appears to be no comprehensive strategy to address the increased risks presented by simultaneously developing new reconnaissance satellites and launch vehicles. This contributes to an already uncertain situation where new satellites will be launched on new boosters.

The NRO Director, with the support of the Air Force Materiel Command and Space and Missile Systems Center, should develop a contingency plan for each NRO program or set of programs. These plans should describe risks, contingency options and failure mitigation plans to minimize satellite system problems that might result from satellite or launch vehicle failures.

Commercial Satellite Imagery
Rapid technological developments in the commercial space industry are yielding capabilities that could usefully supplement U.S. Government-developed space reconnaissance systems. 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 commercial satellite imagery.

The Commission supports Government purchases of one meter and one-half meter resolution commercial imagery, which can meet a large percentage of U.S. Government imagery requirements. The Commission believes there is a need for an overall assessment--independent of the NRO--of the utility of commercial technologies to supplement traditional NRO missions.

NRO imagery is provided to Government users "free of charge," while in many cases those same users have to use current funds to pay for commercial imagery. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that they find commercial imagery less attractive even as their demand constantly increases for the "free" NRO imagery. If commercial imagery is to achieve its potential to reduce the demands on NRO systems, decisions regarding the use of commercial imagery must be made on an even footing with decisions about the use of NRO-provided imagery.

The Presidential Decision Directive (PDD-23) that establishes U.S. policy regarding exports of remote sensing technology and data may be inhibiting effective U.S. responses to proliferation of such technology internationally. The Commission urges the next Administration to re-examine this Directive in light of recent experience.

A clear national strategy that takes full advantage of the capabilities of the U.S. commercial satellite imagery industry must be developed by the President, Secretary of Defense and Director of Central Intelligence.

The strategy must contain a realistic execution plan--with timelines, a commitment of the necessary resources and sound estimates of future funding levels.

NRO Airborne Reconnaissance Responsibilities
Until the early 1990's, the NRO also developed high altitude airborne reconnaissance systems, such as the SR-71 aircraft. In fact, a 1964 DoD Directive that remains in effect assigns responsibility for strategic airborne reconnaissance to the NRO.

Too often, space reconnaissance and strategic 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.

To achieve and maintain a proper balance between space-based and airborne reconnaissance, the Commission believes the NRO needs to restore its interest in airborne platforms and participate in engineering studies to select the proper platform for the required mission.

The NRO should participate jointly with other agencies and departments in strategic airborne reconnaissance development. Specifically, the NRO should supply system engineering capabilities and transfer space system technologies to airborne applications.