Dennis Blair, director of National Intelligence, has drafted a panel of trusted intelligence experts to revamp the troubled National Reconnaissance Office, builder of America's multi-billion dollar spy satellites.
The panel, led by Trey Obering, former director of the Missile Defense Agency, includes several people who also advised Blair on the electro-optical spy satellite program recently approved by President Obama.
The panel, some of whose members Blair met with Thursday, includes: Marty Faga, a member of the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board and a former NRO director; Joanne Isham, head of Washington operations for L-1 Identity Solutions and former deputy director of the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency; Paul Kaminski, former undersecretary of Defense for acquisition, technology and logistics who recently penned a study recommending acquisition changes for the NRO; Tom Moorman, a VP at Booz Allen who was named by Space News as one of the 10 most influential space leaders; and Vincent Vitto former president and CEO of the Draper Lab, a private research and development company and vice chairman of the Defense Science Board.
The panel will examine every facet of the NRO -- its mission, charter, staffing, requirements, organization, funding and relationship to other organizations. It should report its findings by mid-June, according to a former government official familiar with the effort.
One source who is following the panel's work was highly skeptical of its work, reflecting widespread disillusionment in some intelligence circles with an organization that once was so secret its existence was classified.
"The panel is just another look at a terminally ill patient for whom last rites and pulling the plug is required," said this source.
The former government official said the NRO’s death is not one of the options being considered by the Obering panel. Its members believe the organization still offers the country crucial capabilities no other entity could produce. However, the former official said that the NRO is being crippled by interference and conflicting demands from the many groups with which it interacts. Blair, this source said, understands the damage these conflicting needs and desires are causing the NRO.
A former senior intelligence official agreed that the NRO has far too many masters. "The DNRO [NRO director] now has a lot of bosses: JCS, USD(ATL), USD(I), ODNI, CIA (manning), AF (manning), and of course, four to six committees in Congress. These groups are all taking active roles, pulling the NRO in different directions, and the DNRO doesn't have the ability now to lead properly," this official said.
One of the key jobs the Obering panel will have is drafting a new charter for the NRO. The current charter was drafted 44 years ago, noted the former government official, and refers to jobs that no longer exist. A quick reading of the charter also reveals that many of the jobs once done by the NRO are now done by other agencies such as the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, whose creation was driven by technology changes that the charter's drafters could not have foreseen, such as digital mapping. The charter also endows the Secretary of Defense with final budget authority for the NRO, something that Defense Secretary Robert Gates himself overturned in a memo two years ago. That memo granted the DNI budget authority over any program funded with 51 percent or more of money from the National Intelligence Program.
In an exchange with Gates at Wednesday's House Armed Services Committee budget hearing, Rep. John Kline of Minnesota asked how the rewriting of the charter was faring. Kline, a Republican, is also a member of the House Select Permanent Committee on Intelligence.
"Director Blair and I are in full agreement on the need for a new charter for NRO. The only thing holding it up is the appointment of a new director," Gates said, putting his best intelligence community spin on things. The last director, Scott Large, resigned one day after Obama approved a massive new satellite system to be built by the NRO.
But the charter may be the last thing the Obering panel works on. The former government official said Blair was told by a panel member to hold off on writing the charter until the NRO's new missions and authorities have been determined. "You write the charter after you decide what you want to do," this source said.
Also, the chase for a new NRO director faces rough ground. Three sources told us that numerous candidates have been approached and have turned the job down. The former intelligence official said the new charter may have to be written before they can get a new director, which might complicate Gates' life. "I'm guessing that they are having a hard time getting a great leader to fill the position, and a clarifying charter might very well be a condition to get someone great," the former intelligence official said.