Lack of Intelligence
America's secret spy satellites are costing you billions, but they can't even get off the launch pad
Colucci of the NRO study commission sums up the NRO trade-offs this way: "We are mortgaging the future. We are limiting the future capabilities available to support our fighting forces and intelligence operations," he says. Concedes Teets: "It has been an agonizing activity."
Secret project. Teets remains committed to FIA, he says, but the intelligence community is exploring other avenues. In March, the Pentagon's National Imagery and Mapping Agency began discussions with contractors about a new secret project called NextView. NIMA wants commercial companies to build a new generation of sophisticated imagery satellites that can be used by U.S. military and intelligence agencies, as well as by commercial ventures. The mapping agency could award the NextView contract next month. Space Imaging, a joint venture of Lockheed Martin and Raytheon, will bid on the project.
There is other evidence of a power shift away from the NRO. In April, President Bush signed National Security Presidential Directive 27, titled U.S. Commercial Remote Sensing Space Policy. The directive places NIMA in charge of acquiring all commercial imagery for the U.S. national security community. It also instructs the Pentagon, the CIA, and other agencies to rely on "commercial remote sensing space capabilities" to the "maximum practical extent"--an indication that commercial imagery is now considered reliable enough to satisfy many national security missions. In Iraq, the Pentagon used Space Imaging's Ikonos satellite to identify security requirements at airfields and to locate positions for heavy artillery and other equipment. National security experts see the president's order and the NextView contract as blunt votes of no confidence. "I think this shows the further erosion of the NRO," says a former CIA official who was intimately involved with the spy satellite agency. Others see the moves as an insurance policy to guarantee that America doesn't lose its lead in space surveillance capabilities, should FIA fail.
The FIA project is certainly the biggest of the NRO's troubled programs, but it's not the only one. "There are probably more problems than we know about," says Richelson, the national security expert. "Very frequently a satellite is launched and goes into its proper orbit, and that is all we know. We don't know if it worked or not." Despite the NRO's vaunted secrecy, some failures are revealed. A case in point: a multibillion-dollar Lockheed Martin-built NRO satellite--launched two years behind schedule and more than $1 billion over budget. Not long after launch on Sept. 8, 2001, the satellite initially failed to operate once in orbit. "We had a problem shortly after launch," a company spokesman told U.S. News. The background: At 8:25 a.m. on launch day at California's Vandenberg Air Force Base, a classified Navy ocean surveillance satellite--dubbed the Advanced Parcae--was sent hurtling into space. The satellite was placed in orbit hundreds of miles above Earth on a flight path that took it over the Indian Ocean. Earlier generations of Parcae satellites tracked Soviet warships by homing in on their radio and radar transmissions. Today, the satellites are used, among other things, to monitor cargo ships controlled by Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network.