DoD Buzz

NRO Loses Decision Powers on Hush-Hush Program


Even the once-vaunted National Reconnaissance Office, builder of America’s spy satellites, is having serious trouble managing the enormously complex and expensive satellite programs under its wing.

I’ve confirmed that, for the second time since early March, the NRO has been stripped of Milestone Decision Authority on a program -- the power to decide whether a program can progress from one stage of a program to the next stage. The program is so highly classified that we can’t discuss its name or what it does. The confirmation came from a former senior intelligence official.

In early March I broke the story that the NRO had had decision authority withheld by senior intelligence and defense officials about a new program called BASIC, or Broad Area Satellite Imagery Collection. Questions were raised in the Pentagon, by industry and Congress about whether BASIC would violate the Bush Administration’s national space policy directing the military and intelligence community to rely on commercial satellites for general mapping purposes. There were also serious concerns raised about whether the NRO could, on a broader basis, successfully execute the program.

At the time, DNI and NRO officials were careful to note that milestone decision authorities are reviewed every year for all intelligence agencies. But sources in the intelligence community made it clear to me then that the NRO has stumbled badly in recent years and needed the sort of close program supervision that the NSA and Air Force have been subject to for the last few years.

The Pentagon stripped the Air Force of decision authority for space and several other programs in March 2005 by Michael Wynne, who was then the Pentagon's acting acquisition czar. That authority was restored for several non-space programs in January 2006 but the undersecretary of Defense for acquisition, technloogy and logistics, John Young, still retains that authority for unclassfied space programs.

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