Next weekend the Dulles Expo Center in Chantilly, Virginia will be hosting D.C. Big Flea, the biggest flea market in the mid-Atlantic states. If you are still looking for that flintlock musket to put over the fireplace in your family room, D.C. Big Flea is the place to be. But as long as you’re visiting the Chantilly area, you might want to check out another relic that is located right across Route 28 from the entrance to the Expo Center. It’s the headquarters of the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), the organization that manages America’s spy satellites.
NRO really is a relic. Despite the modernist façade of its headquarters, the only manner in which the agency can be said to have kept up with changing times is through adding parking spaces as the workforce grew. It hasn’t managed to grow its intelligence collection and processing capabilities at the same pace, leading some policymakers to conclude that major reform is needed. Now that reform has begun, with defense secretary Robert Gates driving the effort to tear down bureaucratic barriers between various intelligence disciplines so that the agency can be more responsive to users. This is only fitting, since it was Gates acting as Director of Central Intelligence in the late 1980s who began the unraveling of what had been a highly successful spy shop by commissioning the study that led to a stovepiped, overstaffed organization.
NRO develops and builds three types of satellites: imagery, eavesdropping and communications. The imagery, or photo-reconnaissance, satellites collect pictures using radar, infrared and visible-light sensors; the eavesdropping, or “signals intelligence,” satellites monitor transmissions in the radio-frequency portion of the spectrum; the communications satellites move sensitive intelligence between spacecraft and various sites around the globe. In the old days, such systems were developed competitively by the Air Force, CIA and Navy, but efforts aimed at consolidating and rationalizing NRO at the end of the cold war put functional disciplines in separate directorates that didn’t interact effectively.
The perverse result was that even as the previously scattered pieces of NRO were being gathered under one roof in Chantilly, the operations of the organization were being “dis-integrated” by functional compartmentation — at precisely the time when changing threats argued for integration of diverse efforts in a single, all-source intelligence picture. For example, if you want to keep up with a terrorist SUV somewhere in western Pakistan, there are a dozen different “signatures” you might need to track. But if the imagery and eavesdropping parts of your organization communicate only fitfully and don’t coordinate their development or operations, you’re probably going to miss something. So Secretary Gates is pushing the organization hard to unify its efforts, and the phrase of the hour is “horizontal integration.”
Horizontal integration means coordinating across the vertical flows of information in the organization long before they reach the level of senior policymakers. In particular, it means merging ground networks so that the disparate intelligence collections NRO is managing get fused into a timely, composite picture, such as that becoming available to tactical military users in the Distributed Common Ground System. The intelligence community already has made a very successful move in that direction with a network called MIND that combines and shares imagery from multiple sources. But much more remains to be done, especially across the divide between imagery and eavesdropping specialties. As a seasoned intelligence analyst, Robert Gates recognizes what needs to be done. Now let’s see whether the NRO bureaucracy he inherited when he took over as defense secretary is capable of responding by integrating its efforts.
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