The U.S. National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) outside Washington is currently flying colorful banners celebrating six successful intelligence satellite launches over the last seven months. Not in more than two decades has the NRO attempted such an ambitious launch campaign. This is an extraordinary achievement — deserving of celebration by the NRO and the nation. These programs are crucial elements of the so-called unique capabilities that the United States brings to bear in support of its national and international security responsibilities.
The programs have varied stories. Some have been consistently successful over many years. One is a culmination of herculean efforts to overcome a painful program initiation. Another represents a critical effort to recover capabilities compromised by an earlier program failure and cancellation. And one was a test of promising new technologies.
While no banners are in evidence at its headquarters, the National Security Agency (NSA) is proud to have recovered its milestone decision authority — the authority to move programs along their development paths. The Senate had rescinded NSA’s authority in 2004 over concerns about the agency’s ability to conduct procurement programs. By rededicating itself to the fundamentals of procurement execution, the NSA is achieving a solid procurement track record and is touted as a leader across the intelligence community and Department of Defense for its agile software development processes.
The intelligence community’s yearly program management plan report, documenting the progress of its large procurement programs for Congress, has shown steady improvement since it was initiated as a requirement of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorist Prevention Act of 2004 (IRTPA) and the formation of the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI). The recently delivered 2010 report documents that of the 50 or so current major intelligence community procurements, 100 percent are on track to meet fully their performance requirements and only 10 percent have cost or schedule challenges — none serious.
How did all this good performance come about? To begin, aside from a bare handful of regrettable intelligence community program difficulties stretching back over a decade or so, procurement in the intelligence agencies has never been as bad across the board as critics have charged — including some in Congress. And the worst of past difficulties came about with plenty of “help” from outside the agencies — including from Congress — mostly in a well-intentioned pursuit of a post-Cold War peace dividend. A “conspiracy of hope,” at the root of so many procurement difficulties in space and other programs, was all too prevalent. Costs, technical challenges and risks were underestimated, and domain knowledge, management discipline and organizational and individual capabilities were underemphasized — all in hopes that a program would be approved or sustained. These issues, and more, were addressed in new procurement policies and processes instituted and enforced across the intelligence community under focused DNI leadership.
In an op-ed in The Washington Post last year, my fellow former deputy directors of national intelligence, Mary Margaret Graham and Tom Fingar, gave eloquent testimony to the substantial progress made in addressing shortcomings in the processes for planning intelligence collection, analyzing data, creating reports and assessments, and then sharing such reports and assessments among all who have legitimate need. These shortcomings were highlighted in both the 9/11 Commission report and the Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) Commission report. Graham and Fingar aver that the intelligence community from before 9/11 has been replaced by a rapidly improving one, facilitated through the DNI’s authorities and leadership; I wholeheartedly agree with them. To quote: “Those who argue otherwise are ill-informed or disingenuous.” And there can be no more compelling demonstration of the current capabilities of the intelligence community than the recent takedown of Osama bin Laden. Intelligence community procurement issues were not central features in the commission reports. However, procurement problems had drawn harsh criticism from Congress and figured prominently in the IRTPA, and the DNI was strongly admonished to “fix them.”
The hard work of improving the intelligence community’s procurement performance was done by the dedicated men and women of the agencies and their industry partners. But leadership from the DNI was important in regaining the commitment to budget and execution discipline, which had been hallmarks of intelligence community programs in former times, and in rebaselining relationships with members in Congress — vital to regaining their trust. All intelligence agencies did not need this intensified oversight equally, and oversight can be tricky business with organizations that see themselves as independent and as operating within their statuary authorities. Still, it is hard to argue with the banners of success flying at the NRO and with the improvements across all intelligence community procurement programs documented in the DNI’s report to Congress.
The period leading up to the IRTPA and the formation of DNI was a particularly dark time for the intelligence community. With the intelligence agencies having responded to the challenges and directives of IRTPA and having demonstrated substantially improved capabilities in all dimensions, it may be appropriate for DNI to use a lighter touch in oversight going forward. However light that touch, the pivotal role of the DNI must not be abandoned or eroded; Congress and the American people must not allow it.
Alden Munson, the first U.S. deputy director of national intelligence for acquisition and technology (2007-2009), is a senior fellow at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies, a member of the Defense Science Board and an adviser to government and industry.