It is possible that those who pushed for separating the positions of U.S. Air Force undersecretary and National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) director had earnest intentions, but it is hard to interpret their apparent success as a blow for progress.
To the contrary, it looks more like a victory for change-averse intelligence bureaucrats who, while no doubt dedicated to their specific mission, are jealously protective of turf and inclined to put their institutional interests above all else. The result may be an NRO director and Air Force undersecretary occasionally working at cross purposes with one another, to the detriment of the national security space community, and its customers, as a whole.
The NRO director and Air Force undersecretary positions were combined in 2001 at the direction of Donald Rumsfeld, who had just begun a second stint as U.S. Secretary of Defense. The move, recommended by an expert commission chaired by Mr. Rumsfeld prior to his nomination, was part of a broader effort to help raise the profile of space within the military establishment while fostering closer integration of classified and unclassified space activities.
The merged position was given to space industry veteran Peter B. Teets, who thus became national security space’s top manager and No. 1 advocate, both in the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill. In that capacity, Mr. Teets successfully drew attention to the needs and issues facing both the black and white space worlds, including a dwindling industrial supplier base and potential weaknesses in certain capabilities, such as space launch.
The major complaint about the arrangement was that Mr. Teets simply did not have enough time to devote to the NRO, and the intelligence community took that concern to Congress. In backing the decision to make the NRO director’s job a dedicated position, U.S. Rep. Heather Wilson (R-N.M.), chairman of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence’s technical and tactical intelligence subcommittee, cited an NRO inspector general’s report that said Mr. Teets spent 80 percent of his time off premises during his tenure.
There is little doubt that Mr. Teets was an extremely busy man. In addition to trying to get major initiatives off the ground, he inherited the task of trying to fix a number of broken programs, the legacy of a dysfunctional acquisition system that was not of his making. On top of that, he was saddled near the end of his tenure with the jobs of senior Air Force officials who had departed, including that of service secretary.
But Mr. Teets had two deputies, one dedicated to the day-to-day management and oversight of unclassified space programs and one with similar responsibilities for classified — as in NRO — programs. The latter, Dennis Fitzgerald, was in fact deputy director of the NRO.
Whether the intelligence community truly suffered under the arrangement — as the push for a dedicated NRO director suggests — is hard to say, since the agency’s activities are by and large classified. But it is well known that the NRO was not without issues when it did have a dedicated director, which suggests that the prescribed solution is no silver bullet.
The most clearly evident benefit to the NRO of having a dedicated director is that the agency will have its own advocate in the outside world, someone who does not have to weigh the NRO’s interests against those of the military services. There are no doubt many in the NRO who liked the way things were before 2001, when they did not have to share assets or compromise on system requirements.
But the NRO will pay at least part of the price for its new independence: space advocacy will be divided and likely weakened; the military will continue to fight an uphill battle for access to space capabilities; and the national security establishment will lose out on potential efficiencies resulting from integrating very expensive systems and activities that are so closely related.
Combining the Air Force undersecretary and NRO director positions could not and should not have been expected to deliver on all of its promises overnight, especially under the circumstances Mr. Teets was faced with. But the decision to once again divide the positions will make achieving the goal of a truly integrated and efficient national security space community that much harder to achieve.