NRO Observes 50th Anniversary with Declassification

09.16.11 | 2 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

The National Reconnaissance Office, the agency that develops and operates U.S. intelligence satellites, is observing the 50th anniversary of its establishment in 1961 with a burst of declassification activity.

Tomorrow, September 17, the newly declassified KH-9 HEXAGON satellite will go on public display — for one day only — in the parking lot of the Udvar-Hazy Center of the National Air and Space Museum.

The KH-9 HEXAGON was a photographic reconnaissance satellite that was first launched in 1971 and ceased operation in the mid-1980s.  At sixty feet long and ten feet in diameter, it is said to be the largest intelligence satellite ever launched by the U.S.

The GAMBIT satellite is also to be unveiled at a Saturday evening reception.  In addition, “almost all” of the voluminous historical intelligence imagery captured by the KH-9 is expected to be released.

“The National Reconnaissance Office is a hybrid organization consisting of some 3,000 personnel that is jointly staffed by members of the Armed Services, the Central Intelligence Agency and Department of Defense civilians,” noted Rep. C.W. Bill Young yesterday. “Headquartered in Chantilly, Virginia, the National Reconnaissance Office launches from Cape Canaveral, FL and Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, while maintaining ground station operations in Virginia, Colorado, New Mexico, the United Kingdom, and Australia.”

After a series of expensive missteps in recent years, the National Reconnaissance Office now seems to be performing with growing consistency and reliability, having successfully launched six satellites in seven months over the past year.  (“NRO Has ‘Most Aggressive’ Launch Record in 25 Years,” Secrecy News, August 25, 2011).

It may be no coincidence that the NRO is the only intelligence agency whose expenditures are capable of being independently audited. For the last two years, the agency’s financial statements have been reviewed by an outside auditor.  And for the second time this year (pdf), the agency’s financial statements were found to “present fairly the financial position and the results of the organization’s operations in accordance with U.S. generally accepted accounting principles.”

By contrast, other U.S. intelligence agencies are not and cannot be audited.  They simply do not generate the type of data that would enable an independent reviewer to verify the integrity of agency expenditures.

It will not be feasible to audit the other large intelligence agencies for several more years, said Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper last Tuesday.  “Right now our stated objective, I think, is to be fully auditable by 2016,” he told a joint hearing of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees.