National Reconnaissance Office

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National Reconnaissance Office
National Reconnaissance Office, 2013.jpg
NRO headquarters at night
Agency overview
FormedEstablished: September 6, 1961 (1961-09-06)
Declassified: September 18, 1992 (1992-09-18)
JurisdictionUnited States
HeadquartersChantilly, Virginia, U.S.
MottoSupra Et Ultra
(Above And Beyond)
Annual budgetClassified
Agency executives
  • Betty J. Sapp[1], Director of the National Reconnaissance Office (DNRO)
  • Susan S. Gibson, Inspector General
  • Frank Calvelli, Principal Deputy Director of the NRO (PDDNRO)
  • Maj. General Stephen T. Denker, Deputy Director of the NRO (DDNRO)
Parent agencyDepartment of Defense

The National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) is a member of the United States Intelligence Community and an agency of the United States Department of Defense. NRO is considered, along with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), National Security Agency (NSA), Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), and National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), to be one of the "big five" U.S. intelligence agencies.[2] The NRO is headquartered in unincorporated Fairfax County, Virginia,[3] 2 miles (3.2 km) south of Washington Dulles International Airport.

It designs, builds, and operates the reconnaissance satellites of the U.S. federal government, and provides satellite intelligence to several government agencies, particularly signals intelligence (SIGINT) to the NSA, imagery intelligence (IMINT) to the NGA, and measurement and signature intelligence (MASINT) to the DIA.[4]

The Director of the NRO reports to both the Director of National Intelligence and the Secretary of Defense[5] and serves in an additional capacity as Assistant Secretary of the Air Force (Intelligence Space Technology). The NRO's federal workforce consists primarily of Air Force, CIA, NGA, NSA, and Navy personnel.[6] A 1996 bipartisan commission report described the NRO as having by far the largest budget of any intelligence agency, and "virtually no federal workforce", accomplishing most of its work through "tens of thousands" of defense contractor personnel.[7]


The National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) develops and operates space reconnaissance systems and conducts intelligence-related activities for U.S. national security.[8]

It also coordinates collection and analysis of information from airplane and satellite reconnaissance by the military services and the Central Intelligence Agency.[9] It is funded through the National Reconnaissance Program, which is part of the National Intelligence Program (formerly known as the National Foreign Intelligence Program). The agency is part of the Department of Defense.

The NRO works closely with its intelligence and space partners, which include the National Security Agency (NSA), the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), the United States Strategic Command, Naval Research Laboratory and other agencies and organizations.

It has been proposed that the NRO share imagery of the United States itself with the National Applications Office for domestic law enforcement.[10] The NRO operates ground stations around the world that collect and distribute intelligence gathered from reconnaissance satellites.

According to Asia Times Online, one important mission of NRO satellites is the tracking of non-US submarines on patrol or on training missions in the world's oceans and seas.[11]


Close-up of Atlas 501 payload fairing with NROL-41 satellite (poster commemorating 50 years of NRO).
Serum and Vaccine Institute in Al-A'amiriya, Iraq, as imaged by a US reconnaissance satellite in November 2002.
US Satellite imagery of Syrian tanks departing Da'el in Daraa province after several days of assaults against the town in April 2012.

The NRO was established on August 25, 1960, after management problems and insufficient progress with the USAF satellite reconnaissance program (see SAMOS and MIDAS).[12]:23[13] The formation was based on a 25 August 1960 recommendation to President Dwight D. Eisenhower during a special National Security Council meeting, and the agency was to coordinate the USAF and CIA's (and later the navy and NSA's) reconnaissance activities.[12]:46

The NRO's first photo reconnaissance satellite program was the Corona program,[14]:25–28 the existence of which was declassified February 24, 1995, and which existed from August 1960 to May 1972 (although the first test flight occurred on February 28, 1959). The Corona system used (sometimes multiple) film capsules dropped by satellites, which were recovered mid-air by military craft. The first successful recovery from space (Discoverer XIII) occurred on August 12, 1960, and the first image from space was seen six days later. The first imaging resolution was 8 meters, which was improved to 2 meters. Individual images covered, on average, an area of about 10 by 120 miles (16 by 193 km). The last Corona mission (the 145th), was launched May 25, 1972, and this mission's last images were taken May 31, 1972. From May 1962 to August 1964, the NRO conducted 12 mapping missions as part of the "Argon" system. Only seven were successful.[14]:25–28In 1963, the NRO conducted a mapping mission using higher resolution imagery, as part of the "Lanyard" program. The Lanyard program flew one successful mission.[citation needed]NRO missions since 1972 are classified, and portions of many earlier programs remain unavailable to the public.


The first press reports on NRO started in 1971.[15] The first official acknowledgement of NRO was a Senate committee report in October 1973, which inadvertently exposed the existence of the NRO.[16] In 1985, a New York Times article revealed details on the operations of the NRO.[17]

The existence of the NRO was declassified on September 18, 1992, by the Deputy Secretary of Defense, as recommended by the Director of Central Intelligence.[18]

Funding controversy

A Washington Post article in September 1995 reported that the NRO had quietly hoarded between $1 billion and $1.7 billion in unspent funds without informing the Central Intelligence Agency, the Pentagon, or Congress. The CIA was in the midst of an inquiry into the NRO's funding because of complaints that the agency had spent $300 million of hoarded funds from its classified budget to build a new headquarters building in Chantilly, Virginia, a year earlier.

In total, NRO had accumulated US$3.8 billion (inflation adjusted US$ 6.2 billion in 2019) in forward funding. As a consequence, NRO's three distinct accounting systems were merged.[19]

The presence of the classified new headquarters was revealed by the Federation of American Scientists who obtained unclassified copies of the blueprints filed with the building permit application. After 9/11 those blueprints were apparently classified. The reports of an NRO slush fund were true. According to former CIA general counsel Jeffrey Smith, who led the investigation: "Our inquiry revealed that the NRO had for years accumulated very substantial amounts as a 'rainy day fund.'"[20]

Future Imagery Architecture

In 1999 the NRO embarked on a $25 billion[21] project with Boeing entitled Future Imagery Architecture to create a new generation of imaging satellites. In 2002 the project was far behind schedule and would most likely cost $2 billion to $3 billion more than planned, according to NRO records. The government pressed forward with efforts to complete the project, but after two more years, several more review panels and billions more in expenditures, the project was killed in what the Times report calls "perhaps the most spectacular and expensive failure in the 50-year history of American spy satellite projects."[22]


In what the government described as a bizarre coincidence, the NRO was planning an exercise on September 11, 2001, involving an accidental aircraft crash into one of its buildings.[23] They planned to simulate the crash by closing off an area of doors and stairwells in the building to make employees find alternate routes out. This has been cited by 9/11 conspiracy theorists as proof of their beliefs.[24] During the attacks most of the employees at NRO headquarters were evacuated, save for essential personnel.[23] In charge of the exercise was CIA man John Fulton, head of the NRO's Strategic War Gaming Division.[23] [See below.]

Mid 2000s to present

In January 2008, the government announced that a reconnaissance satellite operated by the NRO would make an unplanned and uncontrolled re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere in the next several months. Satellite watching hobbyists said that it was likely the USA-193, built by Lockheed Martin Corporation, which failed shortly after achieving orbit in December 2006.[25]On February 14, 2008, the Pentagon announced that rather than allowing the satellite to make an uncontrolled re-entry, it would instead be shot down by a missile fired from a Navy cruiser.[26]The intercept took place on February 21, 2008.[27]

In July 2008, the NRO declassified the existence of its Synthetic Aperture Radar satellites, citing difficulty in discussing the creation of the Space-Based Radar with the United States Air Force and other entities.[28]

In August 2009, FOIA archives were queried for a copy of the NRO video, "Satellite Reconnaissance: Secret Eyes in Space." [29] The 7 minute video chronicles the early days of the NRO and many of its early programs.

At the National Space Symposium in April 2010 NRO director, General Bruce Carlson, USAF (Ret.) announced that till the end of 2011 NRO is embarking on "the most aggressive launch schedule that this organization has undertaken in the last twenty-five years. There are a number of very large and very critical reconnaissance satellites that will go into orbit in the next year to a year and a half."[30]

In 2012, a McClatchy investigation found that the NRO was possibly breaching ethical and legal boundaries by encouraging its polygraph examiners to extract personal and private information from DoD personnel during polygraph tests that were purported to be limited to counterintelligence issues.[31] Allegations of abusive polygraph practices were brought forward by former NRO polygraph examiners.[32] In 2014, an inspector general's report concluded that NRO failed to report felony admissions of child sexual abuse to law enforcement authorities. NRO obtained these criminal admissions during polygraph testing but never forwarded the information to police. NRO's failure to act in the public interest by reporting child sexual predators was first made public in 2012 by former NRO polygraph examiners.[33]


NRO Organizational Chart (Sep. 2010)

The NRO is part of the Department of Defense. The Director of the NRO is appointed by the Secretary of Defense with the consent of the Director of National Intelligence, without confirmation from Congress. Traditionally, the position was given to either the Under Secretary of the Air Force or the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Space, but with the appointment of Donald Kerr as Director of the NRO in July 2005 the position is now independent. The Agency is organized as follows:[34]

Principal Deputy Director of the NRO (PDDNRO)

  • Reports to and coordinates with the DNRO on all NRO activities and handles the daily management of the NRO with decision responsibility as delegated by the DNRO; and,
  • In the absence of the Director, acts on behalf of the DNRO.

Deputy Director of the NRO (DDNRO)

  • Senior USAF general officer. Represents those civilian/uniformed USAF personnel assigned to the NRO;
  • Assists both the DNRO and PDDNRO in the daily direction of the NRO; and,
  • Coordinates activities between the USAF and the NRO.

The Corporate Staff

  • Encompasses all those support functions such as legal, diversity, human resources, security/counter-intelligence, procurement, public affairs, etc. necessary for the day-to-day operation of the NRO and in support of the DNRO, PDNRO, and DDNRO.

Office of Space Launch (OSL)

  • Responsible for all aspects of a satellite launch including launch vehicle hardware, launch services integration, mission assurance, operations, transportation, and mission safety; and,
  • OSL is NRO's launch representative with industry, the USAF, and NASA.

Advanced Systems and Technology Directorate (AS&T)

  • Invents and delivers advanced technologies;
  • Develops new sources and methods; and,
  • Enables multi-intelligence solutions.

Deputy Director for Business Plans and Operations (BPO)

  • Responsible for all financial and, budgetary aspects of NRO programs and operations; and,
  • Coordinates all legislative, international, and public affairs communications.

Communications Systems Acquisition Directorate (COMM)

  • Supports the NRO by providing communications services through physical and virtual connectivity; and,
  • Enables the sharing of mission critical information with mission partners and customers.

Ground Enterprise Directorate (GED)

  • Provides an integrated ground system that sends timely information to users worldwide.

Imagery Intelligence Systems Acquisition Directorate (IMINT)

  • Responsible for acquiring NRO's technologically advanced imagery collection systems, which provides geospatial intelligence data to the Intelligence Community and the military.

Management Services and Operations (MS&O)

  • Provides services such as facilities support, transportation and warehousing, logistics, and other business support, which the NRO needs to operate on a daily basis.

Mission Operations Directorate (MOD)

  • Operates, maintains and reports the status of NRO satellites and their associated ground systems;
  • Manages the 24-hour NRO Operations Center (NROC) which, working with U.S Strategic Command, provides defensive space control and space protection, monitors satellite flight safety, and provides space situational awareness.

Mission Support Directorate (MSD)

  • Engages with users of NRO systems to understand their operational and intelligence problems and provide solutions in collaboration with NRO's mission partners.

Signals Intelligence Systems Acquisition Directorate (SIGINT)

  • This directorate builds and deploys NRO's signals intelligence satellite systems that collect communication, electronic, and foreign instrumentation signals intelligence.

Systems Engineering Directorate (SED)

  • Provides beginning-to-end systems engineering for all of NRO's systems.


In 2007, the NRO described itself as "a hybrid organization consisting of some 3,000 personnel and jointly staffed by members of the armed services, the Central Intelligence Agency and DOD civilian personnel."[35] Between 2010 and 2012, the workforce is expected to increase by 100.[36] The majority of workers for the NRO are private corporate contractors, with $7 billion of the agency's $8 billion budget going to private corporations.[14]:178


NRO budget FY 2004 to 2013

The NRO derives its funding both from the US intelligence budget and the military budget. In 1971, the annual budget was estimated to be around $1 billion (inflation adjusted $ 6.2 billion in 2019).[15] A 1975 report by Congress's Commission on the Organization of the Government for the Conduct of Foreign Policy states that the NRO had "the largest budget of any intelligence agency".[17] By 1994, the annual budget had risen to $6 billion (inflation adjusted $ 10.1 billion in 2019),[37] and for 2010 it is estimated to amount to $15 billion (inflation adjusted $ 17.2 billion in 2019).[38] This would correspond to 19% of the overall US intelligence budget of $80 billion for FY2010.[39] For Fiscal Year 2012 the budget request for science and technology included an increase to almost 6% (about $600 million) of the NRO budget after it had dropped to just about 3% of the overall budget in the years before.[36]

NRO directives and instructions

Under the Freedom of Information Act the NRO declassified a list of their secret directives for internal use. The following is a list of the released directives, which are available for download:

  • NROD 10-2 – "National Reconnaissance Office External Management Policy"
  • NROD 10-4 – "National Reconnaissance Office Sensitive Activities Management Group"
  • NROD 10-5 – "Office of Corporate System Engineer Charter"
  • NROD 22-1 – "Office of Inspector General"
  • NROD 22-2 – "Employee Reports of Urgent Concerns to Congress"
  • NROD 22-3 – "Obligations to report evidence of Possible Violations of Federal Criminal Law and Illegal Intelligence Activities"
  • NROD 50-1 – "Executive Order 12333 – Intelligence Activities Affecting United States Persons"
  • NROD 61-1 – "NRO Internet Policy, Information Technology"
  • NROD 82-1a – "NRO Space Launch Management"
  • NROD 110-2 – "National Reconnaissance Office Records and Information Management Program"
  • NROD 120-1 – The NRO Military Uniform Wear Policy
  • NROD 120-2 – "The NRO Awards and Recognition Programs"
  • NROD 120-3 – "Executive Secretarial Panel"
  • NROD 120-4 – "National Reconnaissance Pioneer Recognition Program"
  • NROD 120-5 – "National Reconnaissance Office Utilization of the Intergovernmental Personnel Act Mobility Program"
  • NROD 121-1 – "Training of NRO Personnel"
  • NROI 150-4 – "Prohibited Items in NRO Headquarters Buildings/Property"

Strategic War Gaming Division

According to a pamphlet advertising a security conference in 2002, the NRO has a Strategic Wargaming Division, then headed by John Fulton, who was "on staff for the CIA".[40]


NRO's technology is likely more advanced than its civilian equivalents. In the 1980s the NRO had satellites and software that were capable of determining the exact dimensions of a tank gun.[17] In 2012 the agency donated two space telescopes to NASA. Despite being stored unused, the instruments are superior to the Hubble Space Telescope. One journalist observed, "If telescopes of this caliber are languishing on shelves, imagine what they're actually using."[41]


KH-9 Hexagon during integration at Lockheed

The NRO maintains four main satellite constellations[42]:

  • NRO SIGINT constellation
  • NRO GEOINT constellation
  • NRO Communications Relay constellation
  • NRO Reconnaissance constellation

The NRO spacecraft include:[43]

GEOINT imaging

  • Keyhole series – Imagery intelligence:
    • KH-1, KH-2, KH-3, KH-4, KH-4A, KH-4B Corona (1959–1972)
    • KH-5 – Argon (1961–1962)
    • KH-6— Lanyard (1963)
    • KH-7 – Gambit (1963–1967)[44]
    • KH-8 – Gambit (1966–1984)
    • KH-9 – Hexagon and Big Bird (1971–1986)
    • KH-10Dorian (cancelled)
    • KH-11 – Kennan (or Kennen), Crystal, Improved Crystal, Ikon, and Evolved Enhanced CRYSTAL System (1976–2013)
  • Samos – photo imaging (1960–1962)
  • Misty/Zirconic – stealth IMINT
    • Enhanced Imaging System
  • Next Generation Electo-Optical (NGEO), modular system, designed for incremental improvements (in development).[45]

GEOINT radar

  • Lacrosse/Onyx – radar imaging (1988–)
  • TOPAZ (1–5) and TOPAZ Block 2[43]


  • Samos-F – SIGINT (1962–1971)
  • Poppy – ELINT program (1962–1971) continuing Naval Research Laboratory's GRAB (1960–1961)
  • Jumpseat (1971–1983) and Trumpet (1994–2008) SIGINT
  • Canyon (1968–1977), Vortex/Chalet (1978–1989) and Mercury (1994–1998) – SIGINT including COMINT
  • Rhyolite/Aquacade (1970–1978), Magnum/Orion (1985–1990), and Mentor (1995–2010) – SIGINT
  • NEMESIS (High Altitude)[43]
  • ORION (High Altitude)[43]
  • RAVEN (High Altitude)[43]
  • INTRUDER (Low Altitude)[43]
  • SIGINT High Altitude Replenishment Program (SHARP)

Space communications

  • Quasar, communications relay[43]
  • NROL-1 through NROL-66 – various secret satellites. NROL stands for National Reconnaissance Office Launch.

This list is likely to be incomplete, given the classified nature of many NRO spacecraft.

NMIS network

The NRO Management Information System (NMIS) is a computer network used to distribute NRO data classified as Top Secret. It is also known as the Government Wide Area Network (GWAN).[46]


NRO ground station at Buckley Air Force Base, Aurora, CO

In October 2008, NRO declassified five mission ground stations: three in the United States, near Washington, D.C.; Aurora, Colorado; and Las Cruces, New Mexico, and a presence at RAF Menwith Hill, UK, and at the Joint Defence Facility Pine Gap, Australia.

In popular culture

  • The NRO frequently appears in the tabletop RPG Delta Green. The player characters can be agents of the NRO and Delta Green's rival, Majestic-12 has extensive ties to the NRO, existing partially through the organization and using most of their Black budget."NRO section DELTA" is the fictional black ops section of the NRO used by Majestic for wetwork. The original sourcebook released in 1997 classifies the NRO as a "black operation off the books" that doesn't officially exist, explaining why Majestic operations run so deep in the organization. The 2017 standalone RPG has the NRO relegated to a minor intelligence agency.[50]
  • The NRO is featured in Dan Brown's novel Deception Point.

Image gallery

See also

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