The Coldest Warriors
Tales from the corridors of an agency so secret that officially it didn't exist.
- By William E. Burrows
- Air & Space magazine, January 2000
(Page 5 of 7)
What was remarkable was that the convulsive power struggles of the 1960s spawned a highly effective system. However contentious the participants were in the beginning, the National Reconnaissance Program forced them to focus on the overall intelligence problem in an extraordinarily creative (and financially lush) environment.
In the 30 years after the Vance-Raborn agreement, the NRO’s cover of secrecy was gradually torn away until it was in tatters. On September 18, 1992, a tersely worded, single-page “Memorandum for Correspondents” announcing the “declassification of the existence of the National Reconnaissance Office” was issued by the Department of Defense: “There is a National Reconnaissance Office…,” it read. Two and a half years later, President Clinton signed an order declassifying Corona, which had flown the last of its 145 missions on May 25, 1972.
In 12 years of operation, the satellites had sent down 167 film capsules with more than two million feet of film—some 800,000 pictures. A party of sorts to celebrate Corona’s public unveiling was held at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington on May 24, 1995. One of the host sponsors was the NRO.
Coming in from the cold required substantial adjustment by the NRO, some of it discomfiting to its veteran shadow people. With the need for the organization’s activities greatly reduced, its estimated $6 billion annual budget (larger than the CIA’s) began shrinking. Then, in 1994, the Washington Post reported that the NRO was abandoning its lair in the Pentagon for luxurious new $300 million digs in Chantilly, Virginia, almost 30 miles from Washington. The four crisp, slate-blue, glass-and-steel buildings off Lee Road could pass for an upscale corporate headquarters. A year later, Congress went into an uproar when the Post reported that the NRO was “hoarding” more than $1 billion in unspent satellite funds.
It was an unfair hit. Spy satellites’ lifetimes, and therefore replacement rates, are determined by how much fuel they use and by their ability to generate electrical power. With the cold war at an end, the requirement to maneuver was reduced, so the satellites used less fuel and therefore lasted longer. That meant fewer replacements had to be launched and unspent money accumulated. Then, in June 1996, it was disclosed that the NRO had “lost track” of more than $2 billion (“more than the annual operating budget of the State Department,” The New York Times reported). It was all enough to make the old hands long for their collective cloak.
Left unreported was the fact that the NRO had worked its way out of the old system. After the breakup of the former Soviet Union, programs A, B, and C were combined into a single group. Borrowing a page from Darwin—adapt or die—the NRO joined the CIA in trying to adjust to a world without a Soviet Union. As it had once embraced absolute secrecy, it now resorted to the intelligence world’s most disagreeable activity: PR. It opened an Office of Corporate Communications, sent speakers to talk to students at the nearby Cub Run Elementary School, and even started a Web site (www.nro.odci.gov). In this, it joined the CIA, whose own Web site (www.odci.gov/cia) even has a “Kid’s Secret Zone.”
Recently published brochures note that technology developed by the NRO has led to high-definition television, mammography screening for breast cancer, and other innovations. The new NRO said it wanted “partnerships with customers and industry” and started shopping for them. Today the National Reconnaissance Office has a new clientele, new products, and a new set of rules that enable it to use information from satellite imagery to assist federal agencies. Assessing natural disasters for relief operations, identifying toxic waste sites, monitoring oil spills, surveying land use, mapping difficult terrain, and monitoring mining operations are all ways the NRO has recently used its spy satellites as Earth monitors. Richard Bissell, who died in 1994, had practiced economics before he practiced espionage. He undoubtedly would have nodded and smiled approvingly. �
How Things Worked
Today, the development of spyplanes and satellites normally begins within the United States Intelligence Board, whose members represent all of the nation’s intelligence organizations. The first step in the creative process, as in other kinds of engineering, is defining the requirement, which is framed by the board and sent to the NRO, where scientists and engineers mull over ways to fulfill it. Then they share their ideas with those who will use the intelligence and with the contractors. This interactive process involves the CIA, the military (the Air Force launches and controls satellites, while all of the services need the intelligence), and prime contractors such as Lockheed Martin, TRW, and Hughes Aircraft. The NRO pays for the spacecraft through secret budgets on the Department of Defense’s books and operates them through the Air Force.