The departure of a key and much feared figure, Don Kerr, from the office of Director of National Intelligence appears to have opened the way for a complete reassessment of what could be a critical gap in the country's secret satellite intelligence capabilities. The new effort is plowing full steam ahead, with recommendations expected by the end of this month.
Kerr, when he was the principal deputy director of national intelligence, pushed hard several times to put the country on the path to build at least two highly classified electro-optical imaging satellites. We chronicled his most recent attempt, which failed when the Office of Managment and Buidget said no to adding $3.5 billion to the just-passed economic stimulus bill to begin work on two highly capable EO satellites and provide roughly $300 million to buy data from American' commercial satellite imagery companies.
The new DNI, Dennis Blair, has named Paul Kaminski to lead a panel of so-called intelligence greybeards to figure out how daunting the satellite gap may be and, if it needs fillling, just how best that would be accomplished and make sure both the military and intelligence communities get what they need. Kaminski recently completed a study on how to fix the acquisition problems of the country's spy satellite maker, the National Reconnaissance Office, which many senior leaders and policy analysts believe has stumbled badly in recent years.
Joining Kaminski is a who's who of respected intelligence experts: John Deutsch, former CIA director and deputy defense secretary who returned to teaching at MIT; Tom Moorman, a VP at Booz Allen who was named by Space News as one of the 10 most influential space leaders; Peter Marino, chairman of the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency's advisory board and co-chair of CIA director's senior advisory group; and Marty Faga, a member of the President's Intelligence Advisory Board, former NRO director and a board member at GeoEye, one of the companies that may benefit from the EO decisions.
Unlike most panels, that make consensus recommendations, Blair has said he wants personal recommendation from each panel member. One person watching the issue said Blair is taking this approach because previous efforts by the DNI and NRO seemed to be hastily done and driven largely by Kerr. "I think the reason is that the process had not been thorough or honest," this source said. "To keep them honest he wants them to speak freely."
The group is takings its charge seriously, having met for 14 hours on Monday. And in a sign of just how important all this is, Marine Gen. James Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, made a several-hour presentation to Blair on the issue last week.
A senior military officer told me earlier this week that Kerr's departure had opened the door to all this debate and study. While we don't know much about the substance of the discussions yet, it seems a reasonable conclusion that money may migrate to the commercial satellite companies since the DNI has been rebuffed every time it has tried to take the approach of building so-called exquisite capability satellites.