The Coldest Warriors

Tales from the corridors of an agency so secret that officially it didn’t exist.

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(Continued from page 3)

While the rivalries of the early ’60s resulted in solutions that were often brilliant, by 1965 the atmosphere within the NRO and the relationship between Defense and the CIA had deteriorated so badly that McNamara and McCone finally agreed to establish a National Reconnaissance Executive Committee chaired by the director of central intelligence and reporting to the secretary of defense on the NRO’s research, development, and budget. If the DCI disagreed with the secretary of defense, he could take the matter to the president. At the same time, McNamara and McCone accepted three written peace agreements as well as “monitors” from each camp to make sure the terms of the agreements were being met. That helped ease the tension. So did Al Flax, who firmly believed that the Air Force and CIA were complementary assets. He too tried hard to reconcile their differences.

A final agreement was signed on August 11, 1965, by Deputy Secretary of Defense Cyrus Vance and Admiral William F. Raborn, the new director of central intelligence. It established the NRO as a separate agency within the Department of Defense. Significantly, it also substantially reduced its director’s authority and made the CIA responsible for establishing intelligence collection requirements and priorities. The CIA had won.

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 ( In this, it joined the CIA, whose own Web site ( 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. �

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