Broken Government

Published — December 10, 2008 Updated — May 19, 2014 at 12:19 pm ET

Mismanagement at National Reconnaissance Office

Satellite surveillance office’s project ran billions over budget on a failed project


The highly-secretive National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) — responsible for U.S. surveillance satellites — saw its high-tech image tarnished in a series of management and technology failures. Most of the failures related to a $25 billion satellite program known as Future Imagery Architecture (FIA), which the agency envisioned as the next generation of U.S. super-surveillance systems. While the NRO’s funding and operations are closely held national security secrets, industry and government officials have let slip that FIA ran up a nearly $10 billion tab on what was supposed to be a $5 billion to $7 billion satellite development project with The Boeing Co.; ultimately, the Department of Defense, NRO’s parent agency, cut its losses and dropped the program altogether in 2005. Other elements of the FIA program ran years behind schedule due to mismanagement, including a classified program intended to develop advanced lenses for space-based surveillance imagery systems. Former Director of National Intelligence John Negroponte, whose office has jurisdiction over all intelligence program budgets, killed that program soon after taking office in April 2005. “It was killed, dead, buried, stake in the heart,” said Patrick F. Kennedy, a Negroponte deputy. “We have an alternate [system] that will deliver the capability that we’ve needed cheaper, better, faster.” But in October, congressional budget makers, with a still-skeptical gaze toward NRO, scrapped funding — reportedly more than about $1 billion — for two NRO launches scheduled for around 2012 as part of the proposed alternate system: the Broad Area Space-Based Imagery Collection satellite system.

The current director of the NRO, Scott Large, says “We have reinvigorated our mission assurance standards and practices, and have satellites under development within budget and on schedule.” But he is forthcoming about the challenges facing the organization. “I think our most humbling challenge — my most humbling challenge — is how do I regain the credibility of this organization, the credibility of the NRO?” Large said in a speech to an industry group in October. “How do I regain the confidence of our overseers, both the administration and Congress, and for that matter, the American citizens, that the NRO still is a quality acquisition organization? We can deliver on our commitments. And that is what our focus is today.”

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