NRO (National Reconnaissance Office)

NRO (National Reconnaissance Office)

The National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) is a member of the United States' fourteen-member intelligence community. Established in 1960, the existence of the NRO was not declassified until 1992. The NRO collects and analyzes satellite and airplane reconnaissance information for various military and civilian intelligence agencies. As part of this mission, the NRO also researches, designs, and deploys reconnaissance satellites.

Although the NRO is a Department of Defense agency, the Director of Central Intelligence and the Secretary of Defense share control over the agency. Members of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Department of Defense staff the NRO. The Under Secretary of the Air Force serves as the Director of the NRO and reports directly to the Secretary of Defense. However, the Secretary of Defense must nominate the Under Secretary of the Air Force in conjunction with the Director of Central Intelligence. The Senate must confirm the nomination. Six Congressional Committees oversee NRO operations.

Although the United States was already developing a space-based reconnaissance program, the Eisenhower administration shook up the organization of this program following the downing of Gary Powers' U-2 spy plane by the Soviet Union in May, 1960. Because of the Powers' incident, the Eisenhower administration quickly formed a committee to examine the continuation of America's high-altitude and space-based intelligence gathering capabilities.

In August, 1960, Secretary of Defense Thomas Gates presented his committee's findings to the National Security Council. Secretary Gates recommended the formation of an agency that would balance the intelligence concerns of both civilian intelligence agencies and the military. Based on the Gates committee findings, the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations worked with the Department of Defense, the CIA, and the Air Force to develop the NRO.

By 1961, control of the NRO fell to the CIA and the Department of Defense, represented by the Air Force. This power-sharing arrangement has been the source of conflicts, as each agency has advocated its specific agenda. In the early 1960s, budgetary concerns and competing interests led to clashes between the CIA and Air Force for control of the NRO. The Air Force wanted the NRO to assist in military operations and tactics, while the CIA believed that the primary role of the NRO should be to protect national interests.

These conflicts led to the development of several splintered programs in the NRO. Major reorganizations of the NRO in 1989 and 1992 centralized command of the program under the Director of the NRO. Many critics, however, argue that the effectiveness of the NRO still suffers because of these competing interests. With a substantial budget at stake each year, technological advancements tend to focus too heavily on the development of new satellite systems, some critics claim, while advancements in data analysis often suffer.

During the Cold War, the NRO's primary concern was tracking the troop, plane, and missile deployments of the Soviet Union and its satellite states. After its formation, the NRO took over administration of CORONA, the world's first photo reconnaissance satellite. The CORONA program, declassified in 1995, operated from August, 1960 until May 1972. During its twelve years, CORONA took over 800,000 images.

After the Cold War, the NRO shifted its mission to better assist in intelligence gathering in regional conflicts. The NRO provided crucial information to military and civilian intelligence agencies during the coalition efforts in the Gulf War in 1991 and United States and NATO operations in the Balkans. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the NRO also focused much of its energy on tracking the smuggling of nuclear weapon components.

Since September, 2001, the NRO has played an increased role in the effort to combat terrorism. NRO satellite information assists the intelligence community in identifying suspected terrorist training camps, tracing arms shipments, and searching for the development of weapons of mass destruction by terrorists and rogue nations. By providing military and civilian intelligence agencies with information on developments in these areas, the NRO's mission is to use satellite reconnaissance to prevent attacks against the United States military, economy, infrastructure, and civilians.



United States National Reconnaissance Office. < > (May 2003).


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