The Creation and Evolution of the NRO

Dr. Jeffrey T. Richelson, Senior Fellow
National Security Archive

September 13, 2000

On May 1, 1960 the Soviet Union shot down an American U-2 aircraft piloted by Francis Gary Powers, forcing President Dwight Eisenhower to halt aerial overflights over the Soviet Union. At the time, the United States had two ongoing programs to develop satellite reconnaissance systems: the SAMOS program run by the Air Force and the CORONA program run by the CIA. However, both of these programs were experiencing difficulties at the time of the U-2 shoot down: all eleven of the CORONA launches to date had resulted in failure.

A joint report submitted to President Eisenhower on August 25, 1960 on the technical aspects of the SAMOS program and plans on how to employ the resulting system led to a reorganization of the Air Force satellite program. As a result the manager of the program began reporting directly to the Undersecretary of the Air Force, Joseph V. Charyk, who reported directly to the Secretary of Defense.

These changes left some unsatisfied, however. In particular, James Killian and Edwin Land, influential members of the President's intelligence advisory board, pushed for permanent and institutionalized collaboration between the CIA and Air Force. Under the Kennedy Administration, the push to create a permanent reconnaissance organization was supported by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and his deputy, Roswell Gilpatric.

A September 9, 1961 letter from Gilpatric to Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) Allen Dulles established the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO). NRO was to be responsible for all satellite and aerial overflights over denied territory, including the CORONA, ARGON, LANYARD, GAMBIT, and SAMOS satellite programs and U-2, A-12, ST/POLY overflight programs. Two key features of the early NRO were the joint directorship and the lack of special assignment of functions to the Air Force and CIA. The joint directorship was a result, in part, of Dulles' fear that the CIA would be held liable for actions taken by Air Force personnel.

The new organization was not welcomed by either the CORONA program at the CIA or the Air Force. The National Security Council was also concerned that the joint directorship structure of the organization was not appropriate for such an important undertaking and so a new agreement was reached in May 1962 that created a single director for the organization.

Charyk, who was named director of NRO after the NSC-induced restructuring, issued a directive on July 23, 1962 that laid out the internal organization for the NRO. The directive established separate programs for the Air Force (Program A), CIA (Program B) and Navy (Program C). This memo was the basis of the NRO's organization for the next thirty years. A significant consequence of this directive was that it cut out the National Security Agency (NSA) from developing signal intelligence (SIGINT) payloads for satellites.

Relations between Charyk and Herbert Scoville, Director of Research at the CIA with responsibility for satellite programs, soon became acrimonious. Scoville resisted Charyk's attempts to bring Scoville under the formal NRO chain of command and Charyk's moves to strengthen NRO's oversight of the CIA's satellite programs.

In March 1963, following the departure of Charyk, the NRO was substantially strengthened. The Secretary of Defense was designated the executive agent for reconnaissance with the Director of the NRO, now Brockway McMillan, as his agent. The CIA filled the deputy director position under the new arrangement. The director of NRO became the key decision-maker on systems engineering, technical management of programs and payload characteristics with the CIA's resources employed as needed. As a result, the CIA now had a subsidiary role in national reconnaissance. Twenty five years later, Scoville characterized McMillan as an "incompetent whose only talent was empire building."

Bud Wheelon, who succeeded Scoville as Director of Research at the CIA, persuaded DCI McCone that the agency needed to reassert its role in satellite development. McMillan and Wheelon clashed over satellite development priorities and technologies as well as the nature and extent of the NRO's authority. In August 1965, a national reconnaissance program committee, composed of the Deputy Secretary of Defense, DCI and the President's science advisor, was created to decide on which systems to develop, who would develop them and which agency would operate them. As a result, the director of NRO lost his considerable autonomy and was now, in the words of Wheelon, "under adult supervision".

Bureaucratic rivalry, personal hostility, and differing missions all contributed to these conflicts. The CIA viewed the NRO as a way for the Air Force to take over successful programs. The Air Force provided the bulk of the NRO's manpower and Program A was the CIA's main competition in the satellite field. The different missions of the two organizations also caused tension. The mission of the CIA was to produce intelligence on a wide range of political, military and economic issues. Thus, the agency was more innovative in developing satellite technology due to evolving intelligence requirements. The Air Force element of the NRO was more interested in launch schedules and film capsule recoveries. It viewed its mission as taking pictures, and was not as concerned with the value of the film. The 1965 agreement was followed by the departures of McMillan and Wheelon leading to a dissipation of the bitter personal rivalries within the organization.

Conflict was not absent from the NRO, however, during the next two decades. Development of the next-generation imagery satellite in the 1970s brought the CIA and the Air Force into conflict yet again. The CIA favored moving to an electro-optical system that would provide virtually instantaneous transmission of the imagery to analysts on the ground. The Air Force favored a film-based satellite with a slower transmission mechanism. Secretary of Defense Laird approved the Air Force concept but after the intervention of senior scientists and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger, President Nixon in 1972 chose the CIA approach. This program became the KH-11 or KENNAN.

Between 1989 and 1996, the end of the Cold War and its budgetary and secrecy implications, led to the commissioning of three separate studies on the future of the NRO. The recommendations of these studies led to a restructuring of the agency into IMINT and SIGINT directorates, more significant support to military operations, greater emphasis on advanced technology and the declassification of the agency. The mission of the agency was also expanded to global information superiority to ensure continuous battlespace dominance.

There are several remaining concerns about the future of the organization. There has been a pronounced "blueing" of the NRO over the past several years. In October 1996, 44% of NRO personnel were Air Force and 36% were CIA. In October 1999, 52% were Air Force and 22% were CIA. There has also been a decline in innovation. At the insistence of customers with tight budgets, NRO has cancelled a half dozen new initiatives in order to continue funding existing systems. Questions also remain about the feasibility of achieving global information superiority.

Dr. Richelson is director of the U.S. Intelligence Policy Documentation Project at the National Security Archive. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Rochester and has taught at the University of Texas and the American University. His most recent books are America's Space Sentinels: DSP Satellites and National Security (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1999) and The U.S. Intelligence Community, Fourth Edition (Boulder: Westview Press, 4th ed., 1999).

Rapporteur: Gregory Koblentz

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