The U.S. Office of the Director of National Intelligence will soon begin working with Congress to restore milestone decision authority to the National Security Agency (NSA) on most programs the signals intelligence agency buys and operates, according to a senior intelligence official “By the end of the year, we hope to begin restoring [milestone decision authority]
to NSA on a program-by-program basis,” Alden Munson, U.S. deputy director of national intelligence for acquisition, told Space News in an interview March 26.

Congress in 2004 stripped the NSA of its milestone decision authority for major programs, including the pivotal Trailblazer modernization program. Milestone decision authority refers to the power to move an acquisition program from one phase to the next. That year’s defense authorization act transferred milestone decision authority to undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, currently John Young, where it still resides.

The law allows for the Pentagon acquisition chief to return milestone decision authority to NSA provided Congress is notified and a determination is made that the spy agency
has implemented sound acquisition management policies, procedures and practices. The law requires that the secretary of defense approve the decision.

Milestone decision authority for intelligence programs officially resides with the Pentagon and intelligence acquisition chiefs, but has in practice been delegated to collection agencies like the NSA and National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) as a matter of course.

Recently, however, there have been steps taken to rein in these agencies. In March, Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell and Defense Secretary Robert Gates signed an agreement which, among other things, dictates that milestone decision authority for intelligence programs be delegated only by specific order after a thorough review. The memo, a copy of which was obtained by Space News, also says the defense and intelligence acquisition chiefs – Young and Munson – are to hold quarterly reviews of intelligence programs managed by agencies like the NRO and NSA.

The NRO recently was stripped of its milestone decision authority, at least temporarily, on a program dubbed Broad Area Satellite Imagery Collection, which is in its beginning stages. But this decision was made by the Pentagon and Office of the Director of National Intelligence, not Congress.

According to two intelligence sources, the Defense Department and Office of the Director of National Intelligence have or are preparing to take similar action on two other NRO programs.

A congressional aide, told of the coming push to give the Pentagon and director of national intelligence full discretion to delegate acquisition decisions to the NSA, was skeptical. This aide said the NSA had successfully passed some low-level milestone reviews but had not demonstrated a widespread improvement in its acquisition practices. Continued hands-on oversight by Munson and Young would help ensure that the NSA consolidates whatever improvements it has made on the acquisition front, the aide said.

A former intelligence official said NSA executives have “been slowly building their case” that they have improved their acquisition performance. This source said the NSA’s improvements were “in large part due to” U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Keith Alexander, the NSA’s director for almost three years.

The drive to restore decision authority to the NSA will probably not have a large immediate impact on space programs, cautioned a former senior intelligence official. Although the NSA is a customer for information gathered via satellite, most of its funding and programs are for ground systems. The signals intelligence satellites built and operated for the NSA by the NRO are funded and managed separately. However, NRO ground systems may well be affected by the push, this source said.

McConnell made improving intelligence acquisition one of his top six priorities soon after his appointment in January last year. “Our goal is to shorten development timelines and produce more reliable systems,” McConnell said last April. Munson’s job was created by McConnell one year ago and was a major component of that effort.