from the FAS Project on Government Secrecy
Volume 2002, Issue No. 37
April 30, 2002


"The National Reconnaissance Office knows how to build one hell of an office building. They have the nicest office complex in all of America, granite and marble, soaring stainless steel and glass, and mahogany desks in private offices.... But where are those revolutionary satellites that they promised us?"

That question was posed was Dave Thompson, CEO of the space industry contractor Spectrum Astro, in an unusually revealing, iconoclastic and blunt speech at the National Space Symposium in Colorado Springs on April 11.

The National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) is the intelligence agency that designs, builds and operates U.S. intelligence satellites.

"Over the past decade, the NRO has posted a sorry decline into mediocrity...," Mr. Thompson said. "The NRO has suffered a shocking decline in the technical performance of its satellites over the past several years. They haven't told you about that because it's been kept behind those doors."

Mr. Thompson went on to recite a litany of NRO technical failures which have not previously been publicly disclosed.

"At an unclassified level, let me describe how serious this is, and this is only the tip of the iceberg. Satellites, where the primary mission payload failed a few days after launch. Satellites -- where components got so hot that they actually melted causing mission failure due to thermal analysis failures, something that we've known about since the 1960's. Satellites -- which after spending billions of dollars in development cannot perform their basic housekeeping functions, which we've been demonstrating again since the 1960's. Satellites -- which again, after spending billions of dollars in development, the primary payload does not meet its basic performance specifications. It's the NRO's own version of the Hubble Space Telescope... Many satellites never even got launched as they meandered their way through years of technical and program management mismanagement. Yet no one was held accountable."

"I can't even describe many more technical disasters, as it would be too revealing. Everything that I just described to you, and much more, was just swept quietly under the rug."

"Please fix the broken NRO," Mr. Thompson concluded.

See the text of his speech here:

Other background on the NRO may be found here:


"During calendar year 2001, 932 applications were made to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court for electronic surveillance and physical search," according to a new annual report to Congress on implementation of the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).

FISA authorizations are granted by a special court for purposes of counterintelligence and counterterrorism investigations.

"The Court approved 934 applications," including two that had been left over from the previous year. "No orders were entered which denied the requested authority."

See the text of the new report, dated April 29 and released today, here:

Instead of increasing as expected due to September 11, the total number of FISA authorizations actually decreased from the previous year's record high of 1012 applications granted. This apparently reflects the fact that multiple authorizations can be associated with a single investigation, and there is therefore no direct correlation between the number of ongoing investigations and the annual number of new FISA authorizations.


The Congressional Research Service has recently published several reports of current news interest.

"Presidential Advisers' Testimony Before Congressional Committees: A Brief Overview" by Harold C. Relyea and Jay R. Shampansky responds to the continuing controversy over whether Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge ought to testify before Congress.

Relyea and Shampansky provide the relevant legal and historical background, citing numerous cases where presidential advisers did testify, and others where they did not. A copy of the April 5 report is posted here:

"Treatment of 'Battlefield Detainees' in the War on Terrorism" by Jennifer Elsea examines the Bush Administration's decision not to treat Taliban and Al Qaeda detainees as Prisoners of War. See that April 11 report here:

Unlike the US, "Britain has decided to treat al Qaeda and Taliban fighters captured by its forces in Afghanistan as prisoners of war and turn them over to the interim Afghan government, underscoring differences between Britain and the United States over how to deal with the captives under international law," the Washington Post reported today.

"Preventing Proliferation of Biological Weapons: U.S. Assistance to the Former Soviet States," by Michelle Stem Cook and Amy F. Woolf, dated April 10, is available here:


The Homeland Security Information Sharing Act, a bill introduced in the House last week, would promote the sharing of homeland security information -- including classified information -- between federal intelligence and law enforcement agencies and state and local entities.

The bill notes that classified information can be shared either by granting security clearances to appropriate state and local personnel, or else by declassifying the information, redacting it, or otherwise adapting it for dissemination.

The text of the bill, which was originally introduced in February (as HR 3825), was re-introduced in slightly modified form (as HR 4598) on April 25, and is posted here:


The National Archives and Records Administration will open another 107,200 pages of Nixon Administration records beginning on May 6.

"These newly declassified documents are from four series: President Nixon's Trip Files; Alexander Haig's Chronological Files; Alexander Haig's Special Files; and Harold H. Saunders' Middle East Negotiations Files," according to an April 29 NARA press release. See:

John Dean, the former Nixon White House counsel, claimed that he knows the identity of Deep Throat, the legendary source for the Washington Post's Watergate coverage, and said that he will name Deep Throat in an article to be published in on June 17. See:


Secrecy News is written by Steven Aftergood and published by the Federation of American Scientists.

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