Intelligence: January 12, 2001

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A new study by a Congressional panel has warned that the US reconnaissance satellite system is overworked and, due to a lack of attention at the highest levels, is in danger of losing its ability to keep track of things that US security needs to know about. There are far more requests for data than existing satellites can provide, and the military and intelligence communities are competing fiercely for access to satellites. One factor in this is "force protection", a term that means watching out for terrorists planning attacks on US forces abroad, a relatively new mission that is consuming a major share of available satellite assets. This new time-consuming mission is at the heart of the long-standing feud between the Pentagon and the CIA over who gets the satellite time they really need, and over what is really needed and what is just "nice to have" or a "fishing expedition". The overriding theme of the report is that these problems would not have occurred if several previous presidents had not ignored the satellite programs. They call for presidential attention to the issue, both in order to bring new satellites into service and to resolve conflicts between demands on the time of available assets. The National Reconnaissance Office is, according to the report, not taking risks to develop leading edge technology because it fears retaliation (in the form of budget cuts) if such programs fail. The report says that the highest levels of government must decide to take these risks and protect the NRO if they fail. Congress wants the NRO to set up a new branch that will pursue these cutting-edge technologies.--Stephen V Cole


 


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