NEW ORLEANS — The United States will soon begin pulling back spending on intelligence activities, and a strategy has been initiated to gradually phase in targeted budget cuts over the next two to three years, the nation’s top intelligence officer said Nov. 2.

U.S. Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper will start by eliminating staff positions in his office and shifting those responsibilities elsewhere within the intelligence community, he said at the GeoInt 2010 Symposium here. Clapper did not specify any other areas that will be targeted for reductions.

The U.S. intelligence budget began a steep climb following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, and intelligence agencies used most of the extra money to increase the size of their contractor work forces, Clapper said. The coming spending reductions are inevitable but not unusual, he said.

“In the early 1990s we had the same thing happen,” said Clapper, who led the Defense Intelligence Agency during that period. “We were mandated to reduce our budget by 22.5 percent through the 1990s.”

The U.S. National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) already has begun trimming its budget, canceling an unspecified program in recent months and streamlining  the building and launching of spy satellites, NRO Director Bruce Carlson said here Nov. 2. For the NRO to further reduce spending without compromising mission assurance for satellites  in development, it would have to stop operating some of its legacy spacecraft.

“Right now, we think we have cut about all the corners we can,” Carlson said. “If we have to do more, we will have to begin to bring down some of our older constellations. I hope we don’t have to make any more cuts.”