Lack of Intelligence
America's secret spy satellites are costing you billions, but they can't even get off the launch pad
The coming months will be pivotal for the NRO. The agency hasn't put up a satellite in 22 months, and planned launches have been repeatedly delayed. But if all goes well, the NRO will launch two satellites before the end of the year, the first scheduled for August 18. The spacecraft is said to be an updated version of the Mercury eavesdropping satellite lost in August 1998 during one of the Titan rocket failures at Lockheed Martin.
Despite the NRO's best efforts, many believe it will continue to malfunction. Such a view was outlined in a scathing article published last summer in the CIA's internal journal, Studies in Intelligence. In the article, "The Decline of the National Reconnaissance Office," Robert Kohler, who was honored by the NRO as a reconnaissance "pioneer" just three years ago, describes the long demise of the office. "Unfortunately, the NRO today is a shadow of its former self," Kohler wrote. "Its once outstanding expertise in system engineering has drastically eroded. NRO managers adopted the principle that anybody could run anything, regardless of skill, background, or experience." The NRO is "on a downward slide toward mediocrity that the country cannot afford," he added.
Kohler is a former director of the CIA's Office of Development and Engineering within its Directorate of Science & Technology. He has played a leading role in establishing the secret CIA satellite office, sources say, though he refused to confirm its existence. Kohler's views are anathema to NRO officials. "I read the article," says Teets, "and I don't agree with him. I think the NRO has a brilliant future."
Circling the Globe
The roughly 100 U.S. national security satellites orbiting the Earth are critical for military and intelligence operations. Many of these satellites are near the end of their life span, while new, improved models have been delayed because of technical problems and soaring costs. The U.S. intelligence community is relying more and more on commercial spacecraft so that America doesn't face a "satellite gap."
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Spying Through the Keyhole
Three Advanced KH-11 Keyhole satellites, code-named Improved Crystal, take pictures of targets on the ground.
Taking the Picture
Light is directed from a secondary mirror to a primary mirror to a high-resolution digital camera uses infrared and thermal sensors to identify objects on the ground as small as 6 inches across.
Aiming the Satellite
The sun shield is raised and the satellite is positioned for photographing an area of interest.
Sending the Image
The pictures are converted to electronic signals and transmitted in real time to relay satellites that pass them to ground stations.
MISSION: Provide high-resolution pictures critical to national security, on targets like terrorist hideouts and suspected weapons of mass destruction sites. The NRO's new Future Imagery Architecture system suffers from technical glitches and bloated costs.
TYPE: Signals intelligence
MISSION: Eavesdropping spacecraft like Mercury, built by the NRO, vacuum up communications signals such as radar and radio transmissions. The National Security Agency then combs the data looking for clues to terrorist or other activity. A planned new eavesdropping satellite named Intruder has endured technical troubles and seen costs skyrocket.