The "floodgates of fraud reporting" have opened at the National Reconnaissance Office, the nation's top-secret builder and operator of spy satellites. This bit of news comes from no less a source than the NRO's inspector general, Eric Feldman. Yet Feldman and other NRO officials are mum about just how big the flood is over there.
This might not be such a big deal were the stakes at hand not so high. The NRO and its many contractors have grown notorious for massive cost overruns and quality control failures so serious they threaten the U.S. edge in high-tech reconnaissance satellites. Whether they're eavesdropping on al Qaeda communications or photographing Iranian nuclear facilities, these are the crown jewels of the U.S. intelligence community. But the current generation of spy satellites is burning out–and replacements are years away.
Feldman suggested something was amiss in the Journal of Public Inquiry, an obscure publication put out twice a year by the nation's inspectors general. With Alan Larsen, his general counsel, he described how contractors have systematically delayed and brushed off IG requests for information. When his office pushed through a revision to all contracts, explicitly stating the need to cooperate, some contractors "were hysterical, accusing NRO of violating four different amendments to the U.S. Constitution," they wrote. But since then, "the floodgates of fraud reporting mysteriously opened from companies that had previously had little interest in talking to us. . . . We believe that we have barely scratched the surface in identifying possible fraudulent activity on our contracts."
What kind of fraud is he talking about? Hard to say, but there are huge sums in play. The NRO grabs some $7.5 billion of the $44 billion annual intelligence budget–and most of that amount is shelled out to contractors large and small. The agency's troubled next-generation satellite, a $25 billion boondoggle called Future Imagery Architecture, has been so dogged by cost overruns and technical trouble that the director of national intelligence cut the project in half last year. Back in 1995, revelations surfaced that the NRO ran what some in Congress called a slush fund of over $1 billion, which the agency used to build a lavish new headquarters. The NRO director and his deputy were subsequently fired, and Congress stopped the agency from squirreling away unspent funds year after year.
The last NRO fraud case we found on the public record is six years old and involved a mere $160,000 in payoffs–a pittance in the world of defense contracts. The culprit was a Los Angeles-area contractor trying to corner routine maintenance and repair work on buildings run by TRW, an NRO contractor that no longer even exists.
The NRO says it has had no cases since then–at least that it can talk about. That seems hard to believe. More likely at work is the kind of knee-jerk, pervasive secrecy that infects so much of the U.S. intelligence community–the kind of needless secrecy that fosters the very lack of accountability the IGs should be fighting against.
NRO Inspector General Feldman declined repeated requests to comment. A pity. Even in the world of spy satellites, Americans have a right to know if billions of their tax dollars are being stolen.
Photo caption: An NRO satellite is launched from Vanderberg Air Force Base in 1996.
Credit: National Reconnaissance Office