The new director of the National Reconnaissance Office said yesterday that Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld had ordered a review of the role of the organization, which designs, builds and operates U.S. intelligence satellites, in the aftermath of other changes taking place throughout the intelligence bureaucracy.
Donald M. Kerr, who left his position as CIA deputy director for science and technology in July to become director of the National Reconnaissance Office, said it was still uncertain whether he would have a Pentagon title, as had his predecessors who served as undersecretaries of the Air Force with responsibilities beyond NRO. "NRO can't be run by remote control; it is a full-time responsibility," Kerr told reporters yesterday.
Though part of the Pentagon, NRO, whose budget of more than $5 billion has grown into one of the largest in the intelligence community, began as a joint venture with the CIA. Kerr now works for both Rumsfeld and Director of National Intelligence John D. Negroponte, who had to concur in Kerr's nomination. The satellites it builds and operates provide imagery, communications and technical intelligence for the CIA, Pentagon agencies and warfighters as well as the White House and senior policymakers.
NRO's satellites can keep an eye on potential trouble spots, help plan and carry out military operations, and even keep track of environmental changes.
In the past, the NRO director also had Air Force responsibilities. Kerr's separation from that service has raised questions within the Pentagon about whether he would continue to provide adequate support to warfighters. Kerr said that the military's operational needs drive the intelligence collection systems, which serve both policymakers and battlefield commanders. He said he had not heard any complaints from the forces fighting in Iraq about the quality of satellite intelligence they are getting, but that officials "in Washington planning for the future may imagine the relationship might get frayed."
Among Kerr's plans is placing senior NRO officials with the various overseas commanders so they can understand potential collection capabilities. In addition, he has close relations with Gen. James Cartwright, the head of U.S. Strategic Command, whose expanded role includes running the Defense Department's intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance programs that once belonged to Space Command. "Cartwright is a very important person," Kerr said, "and in the future, I want him to think of us as the first place to come."
Kerr said different types of satellites are now able to be used in tandem, including military communication satellites and those that collect intelligence. One result has been flexibility to link satellites to other collection systems on airplanes and on the ground that allows better coverage of terrorist targets such as people in remote places. "Mobile communications provide a challenge," he said.
A growing problem, he said, was the "hollowing out" of U.S. manufacturing of satellite components. Although he said the design capability for the vehicles has remained in this country, "so much production has moved offshore that potentially has left us weaker."
NRO is using its imagery satellites to support Federal Emergency Management Agency efforts in the Gulf Coast in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Kerr said. "We are giving them a view of things as they are, not as they were," he said.
Kerr said key budget decisions should come when Congress returns on the future of two controversial, multibillion-dollar programs, Future Imagery Architecture, the name for the next generation of intelligence satellites, and the follow-on to the current stealth satellites. He described FIA as "one of the largest and most important programs that has been under review since 2002," but said it was "inappropriate" to talk about the future of specific programs.