NRO Budget Request Reflects Internal, External Challenges

In its efforts to improve responsiveness to the needs of its customers, the National Reconnaissance Office this year planned to “provide intelligence data to warfighters in the field using mobile devices.”  Evidently this capability had not been widely available up to now.

That’s one of the slivers of information to be found in the NRO budget justification for FY 2012 that was released this week — in heavily redacted form — in response to a Freedom of Information Act request.

The NRO is the U.S. intelligence agency that builds, launches and operates intelligence satellites.

“The NRO acquires and operates satellites that provide constant global access to critical information otherwise unavailable to the President, his cabinet, other national leaders and numerous customers in the Defense and Intelligence communities,” explains the FY2012 NRO Congressional Budget Justification Book, which NRO submitted to Congress in February 2011.  “These satellites provide services in three broad categories:  GEOINT [geospatial intelligence], SIGINT [signals intelligence], and Communications.”

“Over the past 50 years, data collected by NRO systems has provided advance warning of military aggression, supported combat operations, and assisted arms control treaty verification.  More recently, data from NRO systems has been used to verify environmental treaties, support humanitarian relief efforts, identify WMD programs, and locate terrorists.”

Setting aside the salesmanship and the rhetoric of “striving for excellence” that is the idiom of budget requests, and allowing for the fact that perhaps 90% of the 450 page budget document remains classified, it is still possible to glean at least fragmentary insight into the current state of the NRO from the newly released budget document.  For example:

  •   The NRO workforce is aging.  “The number of experienced officers eligible or approaching eligibility for retirement is growing.  Of the current workforce, 53 percent are eligible or will become eligible to retire in the next 10 years.” (p. 10)
  •   As in other agencies, unauthorized disclosures and the “insider threat” are a renewed focus of attention.  NRO security personnel “conduct daily CI [counterintelligence] activities to include auditing, monitoring, and analyses [against] the insider threat” (p. 268).  In FY 2012, NRO proposed to “expand automation of IT to provide analysis-enabling auditing and monitoring of user activity on classified computer systems to detect anomalous behavior” (p. 3).
  •   NRO mission ground stations conduct “24 hour a day operations to continually apprise DoD, IC and National users of NRO systems’ status” while “maintaining awareness of and protection of NRO systems from environmental and manmade threats.”  The NRO ground stations provide “24 hour a day overhead SIGINT operations management capability on behalf of the IC” and are responsible for “allocating SIGINT satellite collection assets against intelligence targets in accordance with priorities and guidance established by the National SIGINT Collection Subcommittee” (p. 190).
  •   In FY 2012, the NRO Mission Support project “expects … to accomplish the following:  provide intelligence data to warfighters in the field using mobile devices;  [and] enhance the detection and tracking of maritime vessels” (pp. 261-262).
  •   The NRO security program anticipated that it would “complete 15,000 initial and periodic [security] clearance reviews” in FY 2012 (p. 267).
  •   The NRO spectrum management program said it would “provide immediate, emergency support in response to real-world frequency interference issues in operational scenarios” (p. 271).

Unlike most other intelligence agencies — and unlike the Department of Defense as a whole — the NRO conducts its finances in a manner that is susceptible to external audit.

“For the third year in a row, the NRO received a clean audit opinion on our Financial Statements, a truly unprecedented accomplishment within the IC,” said Ms. Betty Sapp, the new NRO Director, in congressional testimony earlier this year.

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