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Spy Agency Charter Lost in Space

The proposed new charter for the nation's spy satellite builder, the National Reconnaissance Office, is stuck in the Department of Defense's general counsel's office. The lawyers are apparently worried that the new charter may expand the agency's powers into areas governed by the military services.

Information on all this is extremely close hold but we have heard variations on this from two very well informed sources. One phrase in the statement of principles that guides the charter appears to be the issue: “overhead reconnaissance systems.”

That is the key phrase in a document, called the statement of principles. It lays out eight core ideas meant to guide the NRO. The statement is meant to be the foundation for the new NRO charter, which most intelligence community and Pentagon officials feel strongly must be updated. The new charter mark the first major changes to the NRO's guiding documents 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 phrase at issue could be interpreted to include Air Force systems and thus give the spy agency powers it currently does not possess. That worries military space advocates. They believe it could allow the NRO to take budgetary and programmatic control over some systems currently controlled by the military services, especially the Air Force.

In early December, Carlson said he was confident the statement of principles would be approved soon, clearing the way for the new charter's approval. The new charter will be very short, perhaps a page or two. But to give you some idea of just how high the stakes are, one military space advocate said the delays suit him just fine. He just hopes "it goes on for a few more years."

An intelligence official offered an arch comment, saying folks in the community did not see any issues with the wording of the statement of principles. It may be, "telling that all the senior folks who actually deal with our work have not seen that wording an issue but a lawyer does."


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