WASHINGTON — Senior U.S. defense and intelligence leaders have stripped the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) of its authority to make key decisions on a planned imaging satellite procurement and are poised to do the same for others managed by the spy satellite agency, according to current and former intelligence officials.

The step was taken amid concern that the NRO, which has suffered numerous setbacks in recent years including program cancellations and on-orbit failures, was in danger of running afoul of White House policy with a program dubbed BASIC, or Broad Area Satellite Imagery Collection. Questions have been raised about how BASIC, still in the planning stages, squares with a provision in the policy directing the military and intelligence community to rely on commercial satellites for general mapping purposes.

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence and the Department of Defense, which oversee the NRO and which took the action on BASIC, are now considering whether to relieve the agency of its so-called milestone decision authorities for all programs, sources said. According to the current intelligence official, this action is several weeks away.

The term milestone decision authorities refers to the authority to move a program from one phase in the development process to the next, such as from design to full scale-development. 

Vines, a spokeswoman for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, stressed March 7 that milestone decision authorities for all intelligence agencies are reviewed on an annual basis. “Each year we conduct a review of the [milestone decision authorities], program by program. That process is still ongoing and the final joint decisions have not yet been made,” she said.

NRO spokesman Rick Oborn declined comment. NRO Director Scott Large, testifying before the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee for the first time in that capacity March 4, did not discuss BASIC or the NRO’s recent performance on satellite programs.

The intelligence source said that if the decision is made to strip the NRO of its milestone decision authorities, the responsibility will revert to two offices: the deputy director of national intelligence for acquisition, Alden Munson; and the undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology and logistics, John Young. These offices already have this authority formally but traditionally have delegated it to the NRO, sources explained.

The current and former intelligence officials said the recent developments concerning the NRO’s procurement authority reflect shattered confidence in the spy satellite agency, whose past technological accomplishments, though mostly classified, are legendary.

“Is the NRO getting its job done? No, it’s not,” said one former senior intelligence official.

The current intelligence official ticked off some of the NRO’s recent failings. “There have been two cancellations over the last decade that were externally forced. Three other programs went on orbit and didn’t perform the way they were supposed to. Another program is on the cancellation list that they have been having problems with for years. They have put us in the position where we face potential capability gaps,” the official said. “The NRO has lost their edge in doing the things that once made them great and the status quo can no longer exist.”

The decision to strip the NRO of decision authority for BASIC came from a so-called joint assessment team that included intelligence and military officials, the intelligence official said. “The NRO was trying to force this decision through and lock in their choice about how to handle Tier 2 reconnaissance and we told them to back off,” the official said.

Tier 2 refers to medium-level capabilities that commercial imaging satellite operators like DigitalGlobe and GeoEye believe they are capable of providing. Both companies have multiyear contracts to provide imagery to the U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency for military and intelligence users.

Proceeding with BASIC, according to the intelligence official, probably would have violated the 2003 U.S. Commercial Remote Sensing Policy, which says the country will “rely to the maximum practical extent on U.S. commercial remote sensing space capabilities for filling imagery and geospatial needs for military, intelligence, foreign policy, homeland security, and civil users.” It also might have breached the 2006 National Space Policy, which directs the federal government to “use U.S. commercial space capabilities to the maximum practical extent, consistent with national security.”

Congress is closely watching how the NRO and other agencies plan to provide geospatial information to the military and intelligence community. In a Feb 13 letter to Defense Secretary Robert Gates,  Sens. Wayne Allard (R-Colo.) and Ken Salazar (D-Colo.) pressed for “an increased role for the U.S. commercial imagery data providers” as the department develops its next-generation imagery architecture. This expanded role would help the United States maintain its global leadership in space, said the letter, a copy of which was obtained by Space News. ”We have a clear national security interest in maintaining this leadership role and staying far out front of foreign competition in the commercial data industry,” they wrote.

is based in Boulder, Colo.; GeoEye is based in Dulles, Va., but has major operations in Denver. Mark Brender, a spokesman for GeoEye, which plans to launch its most capable imaging satellite in late August, declined to comment. Chuck Herring, a spokesman for DigitalGlobe, whose newest satellite launched in September, could not be reached for comment by press time March 7.