I hope everyone who attended the Fall Intelligence Symposium at the National Reconnaissance Office shares my view that even within the high standards set for these events over the years, this was something special. First of all, the audience heard from an extraordinary set of speakers, from the DNI through the Director and Deputy Director of the NRO, and on and on. Consistent with our tradition, our guests had the opportunity to speak candidly in a non-attribution environment, and it was apparent they enjoyed the freedom to do that. In addition, we had the privilege of honoring two distinguished intelligence professionals, the late Dennis Fitzgerald and Lawrence Gershwin, the longtime National Intelligence Officer for Science and Technology. Finally, we had the opportunity to do this within the context of helping the NRO celebrate its 50th anniversary. It was especially fitting that we could honor Dennis Fitzgerald at an important moment in the history of the organization he helped lead and build over many years.
As I left the first day’s session, a thought struck me. We had spent the day discussing space as a critical area of national security interest and activity. We discussed future policies, the evolution of technology and capability, the integration of space (and NRO’s role in that integration), and a number of other subjects. We did this with little if any conscious thought that none of the concepts, rules, or “lanes in the road,” if you will, of which we spoke so familiarly existed when the NRO was established. In reflecting on this, it occurs to me that we have every reason to congratulate NRO for the many unprecedented technical feats it has achieved over the last fifty years.[i] (One of our speakers said during the symposium that “the space community has made the miraculous look mundane.” That’s a great thought, and since it was used in a non-attribution environment, I plan to take liberty to use it without attribution. Frequently.)
Think of this for a moment. We have at least some measure of international policy for the use of space. We have worked out arrangements for the implementation of space policy within the United States government. We recognize at once when a new development, China’s experiments in killing satellites, for example, threatens the equilibrium of the structure that has evolved over the years, even if that balance exists only as a modus vivendi rather than as formal international law.
If any of this could have been imagined when President Eisenhower created the NRO, it could only have been imagined in the most general terms. The arrangements and institutions of the last fifty years may have come in part from planning, but in large part they came from evolution, even of the trial and error variety. Who could have guessed that the space environment, which seemed so unknown and so frightening with the launch of Sputnik, could over time have become a source of international transparency? Who would have guessed that an area considered among the most sensitive of America’s Cold War capabilities would emerge as a commercial industry in a relatively short period of time? In truth, these developments are so much part of the landscape of our lives and our world that they truly have become mundane. That is, they do so if we do not step back from time to time and add an extraordinary conceptual component to the confluence of both technical achievements and policies that allow the framework to operate.
Today’s American community faces many complex challenges. Nine years after entering a homeland security environment we still struggle with what this means, especially as it involves domestic security and all that entails given our history, laws, and values. If this was not clear at the Fall Symposium, the subsequent controversy over full-body scans and “pat-downs” should remind us how delicate the American balance between security and privacy will always be.
The cyber environment, with significant overlap with our ongoing homeland security challenges, presents its own set of complexities. What are the threats that face us in cyberspace? Who, in the federal government and beyond, are the stakeholders in this new domain? Are the laws, policies, and institutions we developed for previous eras and other challenges adequate to and aligned with this new environment? Is there a need for some measure of international regulation and understanding to govern cyberspace?
As is my habit in this forum, it’s not my job – my primary executive decision as chairman -- to answer these questions. It is, however, worth pointing out that the space environment of fifty years ago faced an equally complex set of questions, which must have seemed equally daunting. Within a few years of Sputnik and its American counterparts, satellites were providing useful national security information. (Seeing grainy film of the retrieval of a Corona package never gets old, does it?) Conceptual and regulatory progress moved at an equal pace, with nuclear testing in space prohibited within a very short time of the first satellite launches.
Once again, AFCEA’s intelligence professionals welcomed the opportunity to celebrate with the men and women of the National Reconnaissance Office their half century of achievement. We not only wish them well in the next fifty years, but we encourage them to make available to their colleagues in other organizations their lessons learned on defining new domains in national security activity. The specific issues may be different; but fundamental challenges present significant areas of continuity.
William Nolte is chairman of the AFCEA Intelligence Committee and research professor at the School of Public Policy, University of Maryland
[i] This is not to underestimate the technology. In fact, it occurred to me during the Symposium that someone should propose an International Space Park of some sort, where the remarkable instruments we have built over the last fifty years could be parked until future generations could either bring them down or perhaps the future will see routine space tourism an affordable reality. Generations of satellites, built for various purposes, the Hubble Telescope, and the Space Station, represent some of the great design and manufacturing achievements of our age. It is painful to think of them not being available to future generations to admire, as we do artifacts from the Acropolis to the Gutenberg Bible.