Chapter 18 Working for the National Reconnaissance Office

First rule of production:  Don’t run out of supplies.  

980820-O-0000X-001 Photograph of the Zhawar Kili Al-Badr Camp (West), Afghanistan, used by Secretary of Defense William S. Cohen and Gen. Henry H. Shelton, U.S. Army, chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff, to brief reporters in the Pentagon on the U.S. military strike on a chemical weapons plant in Sudan and terrorist training camps in Afghanistan on Aug. 20, 1998. (Released)

The NRO budget and even the initials were classified until 1995.  Building spy satellites, the size of a greyhound bus takes many billions of dollars.  So, billions of dollars the NRO took.  I was officially assigned to the NRO in 1986, but I really started working for them in 1982 or so.  The NRO is an arranged or forced marriage between the Air Force, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the Navy.  In 1960, beginning space programs all had extensive cost overruns and duplication of effort was crippling the entire defense budget.  So, Dwight Eisenhour threw all three agencies in a barrel together.  Only the Director and his deputy were permanent employees of the NRO itself.  Everyone else was on loan from their parent agency.  The Air Force hated the CIA, but the CIA was too arrogant to care.  They both hated the Navy which is quite understandable.

I retired from the Air Force in 1996 and was fortunate to have worked on programs for all three agencies. When I retired, I knew more people at CIA HQ in Langley than I did at the Pentagon.  While the NRO enjoyed the highest priority in the federal government, it still needed to rob its sister programs to survive.  And so, the CIA would try and kill Air Force Programs and vice versa.  There was little need to rob the Navy, they didn’t have much money anyway.  

The Air Force and CIA missions were different.  The CIA wanted to build systems to channel information to policy makers in the State Department and up to the President.  Because of this, their data was triple wrapped in secrecy, and you needed to be on a special list to be in “their” club.  The Air Force on the other hand wanted systems that sent information to combat forces around the world.  They wanted their data to be everywhere except the six o’clock news.  The mission focus was different, the systems were different, and they hated each other.  But it was a subtle hatred, like the hatred that grows in a bad marriage.  Me?  I was just a happy kid that grew to love both parents.  

To make matters worse, each Program had their own special clearances and need to know.  My first job in DC was at the NRO’s satellite ground station at Fort Belvoir.  I was one of a few Air Force Officers assigned to the CIA’s satellite crown jewel program.  We were on loan.  A hostage exchange program.  My official Air Force boss was now 3,000 miles away and had never met me.  

I started out as a “data analyst ” on the collection side. This was an extremely detailed job and one that I learned to do poorly. Satellite data collection is tremendously complex. Just for basics — A satellite travels at 17,000 Miles per hour plus or minus three. That means it circles the earth every 90 minute or so. So, if you take a few hundred images every pass, you’ve got a boat load of images. Requests for imagery came from all over the government and had to prioritized. Was your target covered in clouds? Was your target too low a priority? My job was to figure it out and help the “requirements officers” from throughout the Intelligence Community get their imagery. How the hell did I know why the big satellite in the sky missed your damn target?

War Story 67  REDACTED

Thankfully, I did this job for only a few months.  A Lieutenant Colonel was retiring, and his job was coming open.  Denny was a senior person at the Ground Station and one of the five branch chiefs in the entire station.  Somehow, my past caught up with me.  Denny was the Chief of Production.  Let me put this in perspective.  The Satellite Ground Station where I worked consumed a million dollars a day.  Denny was in a full colonel’s slot and I was getting his job as a Captain.  While I’d never managed some aspects of digital satellite data processing before, much of it was old hat.  In fact, many of the NCOs who worked for me in Omaha were now defense contractors processing the film at the ground station.  So it goes, I was 31 years old, and I was in a job spec’d for a Colonel.  The other Branch Chiefs were all senior ranking civilians.  Thankfully, the Chief of Operations, my CIA handler, told the other Branch Chiefs that if they had a problem with me, they could find another job.  But I had a problem with me, I said.  You’ll do fine, the Ops Chief said. 

I was now the Chief of Production at the premier ground station in the NRO.  A CIA ground station.  A funny fact about data production and ground stations.  Nobody cares.  Nobody cares unless you screw up.  And I knew screw up.  No wonder I got the job.  All the big brains either flew the Satellites or managed the target selection.  Data processing, production and distribution were thought to be a given.  Still, my office was in the executive suite.  A General’s office was next to mine and a civilian senior service executive was on the other side.  The other branch chiefs were not happy I was their organizational equal.  Additionally, while it takes a few people to run the satellite collection as well as the command-and-control portions, it took a legion of people to manage all the data production and distribution.  While the other branches managed a few dozen people each, I managed well over 400.  The other branch chiefs didn’t like me initially, but slowly I won them over.  

Getting the beer out.  Here are a few rules about managing an assembly or production line:  

  • Never run out of supplies
  • Ok, that’s it.

So, we did.  Almost.  

War Story 87  Less than a year into the production job we had ourselves a genuine crisis.  Magnetic tape was running low.  Our magnetic tape was much like the VHS or cassette tape you all remember.  But ours was special.  Apparently, 3M forgot the recipe.  At that time, we’d record the satellite data on tape and then print it on film.  I know, I know, you’re kidding right?  No, I’m not.  It sounds ancient but that’s because you take technology for granted.  This was a giga load full of data and at the time it was the only way we could produce that much product.  Anyway, the 3M tape was running out and they couldn’t make more.  I’ll spare you the details, but 3M is a terrible company.  While their products are ok, their management and organizational structure are ridiculous.  Anyway, I was less than a year on the job and I needed tape.  Lots of miles of tape.  Tape to record the satellite passes and turn that into film for the Army, Air Force, Navy, State Department, CIA, . . . you get the picture.  We were running out of tape.  If we ran out, my production line would shut down and the entire Department of Defense and the Intelligence Community would be blind.  Oh, I hate it when I understate the obvious.  

Then one of those old NCOs I knew from Omaha showed up at my mahogany outfitted office.  Turns out he’d been retired from the Air Force for a few years and had worked as a contractor on numerous NRO programs. Remember each of these programs were “need to know” and all separate.  But if you worked on a few of them it was hard to forget what you shouldn’t know.  Anyway, he’d been my chief of logistics back in Omaha.  On the sly he told me he knows of a program that has all the tape we need and more.  “Really,” I said.  “Sure thing,” he said.  “Really,” I said.  And so, I did it.  I took their tape.  This other program used similar magnetic tape to record their satellite data.  They actually used a boatload more, so what could be the harm?  

And so, I took it.  No money.  No IOU.   I just took it.  I can’t remember how much, but it was at least several million dollars’ worth.  Nothing is cheap in the space business.  On my signature, millions of dollars’ worth of some other program’s supplies were transferred to me.  To add insult to injury, I didn’t sign my name to the transfer.  Instead, I signed the name of the Ground Station Chief of Station.  The Chief was the equivalent to an overseas Embassy chief.  He was the equivalent to a three-star general.  Bob Iwai was the smartest engineer I’d ever met.  He was no nonsense and he never smiled.  

Bob Iwai never spoke to me.  He never said a word to me for the first six months I ran the production branch.  I briefed Bob at the morning standup meeting every day.  At best he’d grunt.  Bob expected excellence and young engineers hid in fear.  Bob had a knack for spotting and training good engineers.  He also, didn’t suffer fools and would discard the underperformers without remorse.  Everyone was in fear of Bob Iwai.  What the hell, I signed Bob’s name.

Shortly after this, Bob stopped by my office.  Did I sign for a truck load of tape?  Well?  Maybe?  I said.  Were we about to run out?  Yes, I said.  How did you know where to find that tape?  Forget it, I don’t want to know.  

A few months later, our tape crisis over, I paid the other program back in full.  I also arranged to meet the other Program’s production manager.  She was my sister from another Program, but we couldn’t know our mother.  We could talk all day long about our ends of the business, but the satellites we served were off limits.  We used our collective buying power to pressure the 3M Corporation into improving their quality control procedures.  At this time in the NRO’s history, working with a rival program toward a common objective was very rare.  

When I left the CIA satellite Ground Station, Mr. Iwai gave me a small lapel pin with the program symbol.  A symbol signifying “Excellence in All We Do.”  To my knowledge, very few non-CIA people ever got one.  

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