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Key Intel System's Teething Troubles

A revolutionary ground system being built by the National Reconnaissance Office, designed to take data from any kind of intelligence satellite, whether one serving the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency, the NRO or the CIA, and feed the data to analysts, troops or senior leaders is experiencing exactly the sort of teething problems experts feared would afflict it.

Several years ago the then-head of the NRO, Don Kerr, declared the agency would shift strategy and pay at least as much attention to what it did with the data it collected from satellites as it paid to building the satellites and their sensors.

Last summer, two study groups considered how best the spy satellite agency could implement that strategy. The way ahead, insiders warned, would be fraught with difficult cultural and technical issues, the types of issues on which intelligence and other space programs have foundered in recent years.

Two sources we spoke said this is exactly what is happening with the new ground system.

Designing and building the systems depends heavily on the adoption of data and encryption standards by the intelligence agencies and by the NRO. That process is taking much longer than hoped for, although one source said this was to be expected. In the past, satellite designers built a satellite and the ground system for the satellite handled data only from that type of satellite. This allowed for the development of nice cozy stovepipes within the intelligence community. It allowed program managers to defend their budgets for their systems. And it allowed for relatively simple control of data. But it also meant that data was kept incredibly close to the vest and sharing information was cumbersome.

Kerr's plan meant to change all this, but changing the land of the four towers in Chantilly, Va. is rarely simple. The NRO's headquarters reflects the traditional cultural and managerial divisions of the intelligence community. Each tower is home to one of the so-called INTs -- ELINT, MASINT and IMINT -- for electronic intelligence, measurement and signals intelligence and imagery intelligence.

Traditionally, the people who operate in these towers work on different technologies are cleared for different types of information and only senior NRO leaders operate across these divisions. So getting people at the NRO -- let alone at the NSA, NGA, CIA and DNI -- to agree to new ways of doing business and to rapidly implement those changes is asking a great deal.

So far, no one has mentioned formal schedule slips or cost overruns but with systems this highly classified hearing such information usually means things are seriously awry. So far, I'm hearing that there are serious challenges but that they are largely rooted in culture and should be fixable.

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