Lack of Intelligence
America's secret spy satellites are costing you billions, but they can't even get off the launch pad
In a four-month examination of the NRO's performance, U.S. News interviewed three dozen current and former officials at the NRO, the CIA, and the Defense Department. The magazine also interviewed contractors and congressional investigators, and reviewed dozens of government and industry reports on the NRO's programs. Most of the sources declined to be identified. The principal findings:
Two top-secret NRO satellites launched in the fall of 2001 have experienced major technical problems that have hindered their ability to gather intelligence. The satellites are used, in part, to monitor the operations of terrorists and unfriendly countries.
The NRO hasn't launched a satellite since October 2001. The agency postponed its two planned launches last year to avoid the problems that plagued the 2001 missions. "They aren't ready to be launched because they are broken," says a former CIA official. The NRO faces a critical test later this month, when it is scheduled to launch an eavesdropping satellite from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
Massive cost overruns on the NRO's troubled $25 billion Future Imagery Architecture program--its next-generation satellite system--have forced the agency to cut funding from other spy satellite programs. A classified audit, prepared by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in June, found that the FIA program was deeply flawed and relied on unrealistic cost estimates. Alarmed at the scope of funding and technical problems, Congress has directed the inspectors general of the Pentagon and the CIA to investigate the program.
The man who now directs the NRO, Peter Teets, was forced to resign as president of Lockheed Martin Corp. in 1999 because of management failures in its Titan rocket program, according to government and industry sources. The NRO and the military lost three satellites during Teets's run as Lockheed Martin's top boss. In one case, a rocket blew up on launch; in the two other cases, the satellites were launched into useless orbits. Teets declined to discuss his removal.
"We'll let our 40-plus years of success stand on its own," says Richard Oborn, an NRO spokesman. He says dealing in "cutting-edge technology" inevitably leads to higher costs. In an interview, Teets acknowledges that he is struggling to identify and fix the problems at the NRO. "We need to make sure," he says, "we can deliver what we have promised we are going to deliver."
That won't be easy. The history of the Future Imagery Architecture program is a perfect illustration why. The original objective of the FIA system, when it was proposed in 1997, was to build advanced imaging satellites that would be lighter and cheaper and outperform NRO's aging fleet, which proved inadequate during the Persian Gulf War in 1991. The new breed of spacecraft would provide photographs with much finer resolution, have a longer "dwell time" over specific targets, track moving targets, and be able to revisit targets more quickly.
Cutting corners. That was the plan, anyway. Current and former government officials say that the program was doomed from the start. "If everything goes better than perfect, it will work fine," one former government official recalls thinking at the time. Adds Ken Colucci, chief of staff of a congressional commission that studied the NRO in 2000: "FIA, as it was structured, was an unexecutable program from the start."