The new director of the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) said the agency will not take a step back and de-emphasize the importance of getting classified satellite data to troops in the field, despite the recent separation of his post and that of undersecretary of the U.S. Air Force.
“I’ve made it a matter of commitment on my part not to have that change,” NRO Director Don Kerr said during his first briefing with reporters since taking the job.
The military and the intelligence community are looking at a variety of options to help ensure continued cooperation in this area, and expect to decide on a path forward over the course of the next month, Kerr said.
The Pentagon combined the positions of undersecretary of the Air Force and director of the NRO in 2001 based on recommendations from an expert panel headed by Donald Rumsfeld prior to his nomination to serve again as U.S. secretary of defense in December 2000. Rumsfeld announced July 22 that the positions would once again be separated .
Officials such as Gen. John Jumper, who retired as chief of staff of the Air Force Sept. 2, and Rep. Terry Everett (R-Ala.), chairman of the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, have expressed concern that splitting the positions would make it more difficult for troops in the field to gain access to classified data.
Everett, who sits on the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence as well, said during an interview in July that he also was worried that the split could result in costly duplicative satellite development.
One possible way of ensuring cooperation between the Air Force and the NRO could be to give the NRO director a position within the Air Force as well, Kerr said during the Sept. 1 press briefing at the Pentagon. Keith Hall, the last NRO director prior to the combination of that position with undersecretary of the Air Force, had also held the title of assistant secretary of the Air Force for space.
Kerr indicated that he was not necessarily opposed to a similar arrangement, but noted that the intention behind establishing an official solely responsible for running the NRO was to maintain a constant presence at the agency’s Chantilly, Va., headquarters.
“The whole point of my taking this job and being at Westfields is that the senior leader of the NRO is in fact at residence at the NRO, and it was felt that it was too physically separated to be run essentially by remote control from the Pentagon, too large an entity with too much [in the way of] programs to not have somebody who sees that essentially as a full-time job,” Kerr said.
However, Kerr noted that he had visited the Pentagon every day during the previous week. Kerr said that illustrated his commitment to collaborating with military officials, but also said he hopes to spend more time at NRO headquarters in the future. Nonetheless, Kerr said that he and his deputies will be in regular contact with military officials.
Continuing to support military users with classified data is not necessarily a distraction from supporting intelligence users given the strategies employed by the military and intelligence community following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Kerr said. Officials from the CIA have been frequently deployed alongside special forces troops, with both of them requesting similar data, he said.
While satellites will continue to gather information that supports long-range strategic work, intelligence assets will increasingly be called upon to address more immediate needs, Kerr said.
“The important thing is that actionable intelligence, essentially real-time actionable information on the ground is the era we’ve moved into, and while we still do foreign intelligence and people attached to that view long-term intelligence and trends, the operational requirements are what are driving some of the characteristics of new systems or the way that we’re using the old ones,” Kerr said. “What we need to do both on the intelligence community side as well as one the defense side is very much the same.”
Kerr said that cooperation with the military is nothing new for him, and noted that he has worked closely with senior military leaders like Jumper and Marine Corps Gen. James Cartwright, the commander of U.S. Strategic Command, during his tenure as the CIA’s director of science and technology. He said that he hoped the NRO would be the first agency that Strategic Command will turn to for the development and acquisition of new intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance capabilities.
Kerr also said that he hopes to place higher level NRO officials than the liaisons currently stationed at major military commands today to help improve the delivery of classified products to the military.