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Know Your Intelligence Agencies

Introducing ... the National Reconnaissance Office! The so-called U.S. Intelligence Community consists of 16 agencies--an alphabet soup that includes the FBI, DEA and CIA. That umbrella moniker is a brilliant piece of semantics: "intelligence" feels smart; "community," sounds, well, neighborly. The..


Introducing ... the National Reconnaissance Office!

The so-called U.S. Intelligence Community consists of 16 agencies--an alphabet soup that includes the FBI, DEA and CIA. That umbrella moniker is a brilliant piece of semantics: "intelligence" feels smart; "community," sounds, well, neighborly.The reality, however, is that the Intelligence Community is a network of organizations bankrolled by an annual taxpayer budget of $43.5 billion. Each operates with some level of secrecy and autonomy from the others, and most people don't even know some of the agencies exist. For example, ever heard of the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO)?Probably not.Despite being among the oldest American intelligence agencies-founded as a little brother to the Department of Defense during the peak of 1960s Sputnik paranoia-the NRO was top-secret until 1992. It's not hard to keep the lid on, say, a paper-pushing bureaucratic wing of the government-but in this case it's pretty unbelievable. That's because the NRO, based in Chantilly, Va., is a space agency. Like NASA, it shoots satellites into orbit, employs thousands of people, and conducts research on far-fetched ideas, such as space-based radar systems. The big difference, however, is that the satellites the NRO distributes are destined to monitor the Earth rather than the cosmos; they're designed to spy, not to study.Military literature refers to the agency as "freedom's sentinel in space" and America's "eyes and ears in space." Unofficial mission patches depict the NRO as a massive dragon with American flag-wings, holding the entire planet in its steely grip. Add to that the ludicrous money poured into the Intelligence Community after 9/11-not to mention Dick Cheney's comments about engaging the "dark side" of American justice-and that dragon depiction starts to feel uncomfortably real.The creation of the NRO in 1960 transformed an openly acknowledged U.S. space reconnaissance effort into a "black" (that's "classified" in intelligence-speak) program. The main purpose: so the Soviets wouldn't shoot down U.S. surveillance equipment. Incredibly, the NRO managed, over the course of its 32 "black" years, to send hundreds of covert spy satellites (and goodness knows what else) into space to survey every corner of the globe without anyone knowing-except those that did.How could an agency stay secret while operating rocket launches and controlling "ground stations" all around the world, collecting and distributing data gathered from reconnaissance satellites with code names like "Misty" and "KH-13"-all built, incidentally, by civilian military contractors, like Lockheed-Martin and Boeing?Whatever the reason, the NRO hasn't shaken its near-ritualistic clandestine roots since the early-‘90s declassification.Case in point: In 1995, it took a CIA inquiry and White House intervention for the NRO to admit it had gone excessively over budget in the construction of its new headquarters-the project's classification effectively blocked any oversight. The Office has a track record of using its secrecy to burn through money without consequence: a "Future Imagery Architecture" spy satellite program frizzled away $10 billion without sending a single orbiter into space, something that Congress kept in mind this year when it recently nixed BASIC, another potentially money-guzzling satellite mapping program.Certainly, some information should be kept under wraps for the sake of useful, international espionage, but government agencies with $6.5 billion budgets shouldn't get to operate with impunity by playing the "top secret" card whenever the public wants to know how its money is being spent.Now that the NRO is public, it has to submit to some transparency, such as announcing when it's sending spy satellites into orbit-an awkward position for an intelligence agency-but it doesn't need to reveal too many details aside from its stated mission: "track international terrorists, drug traffickers, and criminal organizations having the potential to threaten U.S. citizens and our way of life." Occasionally something will slip out of the blackness and make a media splash, like the malfunctioning satellite that had to be shot down by a Navy cruiser earlier this year. But, for all intents and purposes--because it concerns defense-the dark agency stays dark.And we stay in the dark.