Harsh Words About the National Reconnaissance Agency (2002)

OK, this is hardly breaking news, but it was new to me. I thought that hiding a billion dollars or so to build themselves a marble-plated office building showed bureaucratic smarts; misplacing a couple of billion on the other hand, didn't sound so smart. To hear Dave Thompson, President & CEO, Spectrum Astro tell it at the Space Technology Hall of Fame Dinner in 2002, the National Reconnaissance Agency (NRO), had “posted a sorry decline into mediocrity and aristocracy.”

Among the charges: its satellites cost more and are technologically inferior to other agencies'. They fail too often. The agency makes choices poorly, favoring friendly contractors. And the NRO has no desire to change, or to innovate to help catch Al Qaeda. (Good news for 'Ossama bin Forgotten'?)

the NRO's procurement policy could be better described in three steps. I call this the policy of the smoked filled room. Step one – get all of the graybeards into the smoke filled room. Step two – close the door. Step three – pick the club member contractor who sucked up best.

As a result the “NRO is actually moving backwards, getting less capability and fielding less capable technology for the future. You know the NRO's real slogan should be “Buying Yesterday's Technology at Tomorrow’s Prices.”

And it gets worse:

The NRO has suffered a shocking decline in the technical performance of its satellites over the past several years. They haven't told you about that because it’s been kept behind those doors.

At an unclassified level, let me describe how serious this is, and this is only the tip of the iceberg. Satellites, where the primary mission payload failed a few days after launch. Satellites – where components got so hot that they actually melted causing mission failure due to thermal analysis failures, something that we've known about since the 1960's. Satellites – which after spending billions of dollars in development cannot perform their basic housekeeping functions, which we've been demonstrating again since the 1960's. Satellites – which again, after spending billions of dollars in development, the primary payload does not meet its basic performance specifications. It's the NRO's own version of the Hubble Space Telescope. And that satellite that we spent the extra two hundred million on for the light switch, it had constant power upsets to its computer once it got in orbit. Many satellites never even got launched as they meandered their way through years of technical and program management mismanagement. Yet no one was held accountable.

I can't even describe many more technical disasters, as it would be too revealing. Everything that I just described to you, and much more, was just swept quietly under the rug.

Last but not least, the NRO exhibits an astounding lack of revolutionary innovation to get Al Qaeda. It's not because of a lack of good ideas. They are getting tons of good ideas thrown at them. The overrunning large programs are sucking every possible dollar out of the future cutting-edge projects. What is the NRO's staffs answer to that? “We need more money.”

Maybe things have changed in the last year and a half. But that's not the way big bureaucracies usually work…

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