Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair should sign by Dec. 1 a document laying out new responsibilities for the National Reconnaissance Office, builder and operator of America's spy satellites.
This will set in motion the first substantial changes to the NRO charter since 1965, four years after then-Defense Secretary Robert McNamara created the NRO and drafted its charter. The NRO is led by former Air Force Gen. Bruce Carlson,
The new document, called a statement of principles, lays out eight core ideas meant to guide the NRO, according to a source familiar with the document. This will become the foundation for the new NRO charter, which most intelligence community and Pentagon officials feel strongly must be updated.
But the document's main guiding principle has some observers worried that it will give the NRO too much power, particularly over some Air Force satellite systems. The key here is just what will the NRO build and operate. One phrase in the statement of principles worries these observers: "overhead reconnaissance systems."
This, said our source, “could include Air Force systems,” and thus gives the spy agency powers it currently does not possess. That worries military space advocates. They worry that the NRO could take budgetary and programmatic control over some systems currently controlled by the services, especially the Air Force.
A former senior government official argued that no one should worry since the intelligence community performs different functions than does the military. NRO reconnaissance satellites look for the unknown, this source said, and then cue military systems which perform surveillance. This source said surveillance means watching known targets.
But two Pentagon sources vehemently disagreed. "In my opinion it would certainly create the potential for the NRO to intrude on military work. Those distinctions [between reconnaissance and surveillance] are not delineated in any clear way anywhere," said one source with long experience in space issues. "What are we going to do? Ask the NRO director what he thinks and go by that?"
The other principle that sparked mistrust among the Pentagon sources is that the NRO director "will be the only person in government who knows everything we do in space," thanks to language in the statement of principles to the effect that he or she must be aware of all space activities and "will inform other partners" of what is occurring.
With heavy sarcasm, the source familiar with the charter said "it would be so nice of the DNRO to tell us poor saps what is happening up there."
The Pentagon source also described this as troubling: "I sure don't see the utility of that. Why would the SecDef sign up to that and make the DNRO that person instead of the StratCom commander?"
Regardless of whose interpretation is correct about the principles, the need remains to clarify the NRO's role. "People are somewhat confused about just what role the NRO plays vis-à-vis other U.S. entities involved in space," the former senior government official said. "This has been clouded because ISR is being treated as one thing, and it's not."
Two other principles are worth noting. Another area that raised a red flag with the source familiar with the statement of principles was that the NRO director would be designated "principal advisor" to the Defense Secretary and to the Director of National Intelligence on space reconnaissance. This worried this source as it could appear to give the NRO director a handle on issues currently beyond his bailiwick. However, the Pentagon source and the former government official largely brushed off that concern, saying that it is largely in keeping with the current state of play.
Finally, the NRO will not fund systems on an annual basis but on a portfolio basis. The NRO is already doing something similar to this, funding 28 capability bunches instead of individual programs, according to the Pentagon source.