Robert Kohler & Dennis Fitzgerald Debate the NRO's Past, Present, & Future


Robert Kohler is the former Director of the CIA's Office of Development and Engineering (1982-1985). After leaving the CIA, he held positions at ESL Inc., Lockheed Missile & Space Corp., and TRW. He retired from TRW in 1995. Kohler is a supremely and, at times, annoyingly confident individual. His, "we bring projects in on time, on budget, and on spec," should be well remembered by those who heard him speak while D/OD&E. Kohler knows as much or more about managing engineering, development, and operation of major technical collection systems as anyone.

Dennis Fitzgerald became NRO's Deputy Director in August 2001, and served as Acting Director/NRO in the interim between Peter Teets and Donald Kerr. Immediately prior to becoming DDNRO, he served as CIA's Associate Deputy Director for Science and Technology. He joined the CIA in 1974 and spent the majority of his career in CIA's Office of Development and Engineering, including substantial assignments in the NRO. His responses to Kohler's critical remarks basically seek to differentiate the "now" from "the way we were."

These two knowledgeable individuals are articulating very significant issues rather publicly and in reasonable candor; their thoughts merit a wider audience than they are likely to get in the publications (or here) which have carried this debate.

Kohler, Robert. "One Officer's Perspective: The Decline of the National Reconnaissance Office." Studies in Intelligence 46, no. 2 (2002): 13-20. National Reconnaissance: Journal of the Discipline and Practice (2005-U1): 35-44. [A scanned version is available at]

The former Director of the CIA's Office of Development and Engineering (OD&E) argues that "the NRO today is a shadow of its former self. Its once outstanding expertise in system engineering has drastically eroded. This article explores the dissolving relationship between the NRO and the CIA, which traditionally supplied a major portion of the organization's technical expertise. It provides a perspective on key issues as the NRO faces tough decisions and an uncertain future."

Fitzgerald, Dennis D. "Commentary on 'The Decline of the National Reconnaissance Office': NRO Leadership Replies." Studies in Intelligence 46, no. 2 (2002). National Reconnaissance: Journal of the Discipline and Practice (2005-U1): 45-49. [A scanned version is available at]

The Deputy Director of the National Reconnaissance Office responds basically that "times are different now." The senior officers "who serve in the NRO today ... work on requirements-driven and cost constrained overhead technical collection systems in an environment characterized by public openness and intense oversight by Congress. In the Peace Dividend era, I believe that they are producing superior intelligence under conditions that Mr. Kohler and his contemporaries never experienced."

Kohler, Robert. "Recapturing What Made the NRO Great: Updated Observations on 'The Decline of the NRO.'" National Reconnaissance: Journal of the Discipline and Practice (2005-U1): 51-57. [A scanned version is available at]

NRO's establishment as a Joint Venture between the Department of Defense (DoD) and the CIA "was recognition that not only the DoD and the CIA needed intelligence from space, but other elements of the USG did as well. Further, it was realized that the USG could not afford to have every department build its own reconnaissance systems; therefore, a national approach was needed.... The new DNI needs to insure that the DoD not end up owning the NRO and needs to reestablish a proper balance between the DoD and the IC in forming NRO requirements and priorities."

In addition, "[t]he CIA needs to make a conscious decision on its continued participation in the NRO. Currently, only 25% of the total CIA contingent in the NRO are engineer/scientist/program management personnel. The rest are administrative types. The CIA should not be the administrative arm of what is increasingly becoming a DoD organization."

Fitzgerald, Dennis D. "Commentary on Kohler's 'Recapturing What Made the NRO Great: Updated Observations on "The Decline of the NRO."'" National Reconnaissance: Journal of the Discipline and Practice (2005-U1): 59-66. [A scanned version is available at]

The NRO Deputy Director takes particular issue with Kohler's assertion that "the NRO is unwilling to fund programs adequately." Fitzgerald points out that among the results of the 1995 funding crisis was that "[t]he absence of margin and the certainty of cost overruns presented the NRO with a reality of not being able to fund programs adequately. Another result ... was the NRO lost budget autonomy; whenever a program exceeded its funding limits, we had to go back to Congress to get permission to move money from some other program in the NRO to fix the problem."

In addition, "whenever the Intelligence Community (IC) finds itself with a financial crunch, the NRO tends to be the 'piggy bank' of choice.... [I]f CMS [Community Management Staff, now part of the DNI's Office] takes money out of the NRO, there is no visable impact tomorrow when the President looks for his intelligence. However, five years later when a needed satellite capability cannot be delivered, the NRO customers have a problem.... The current funding problem is ... that the NRO does not have the flexibility required to manage its programmatic portfolio effectively."

Nowinski, Edmund H., and Robert J. Kohler. "The Lost Art of Program Management in the Intelligence Community." Studies in Intelligence 50, no. 2 (2006): 33-46.

This article supplies additional thoughts on the subject of management of national reconnaissance, as previously developed in the discussion between Kohler and NRO Deputy Director Dennis Fitzgerald.

"With a few exceptions in CIA, no organization in the Intelligence Community (IC) effectively manages complex and complicated acquisitions. That costs are overrun may be bad enough, but even more serious are years-long delays in delivery of capabilities that are now badly needed or the complete failure to deliver such capabilities.... We ... suggest that the community needs to get 'back to basics' on a number of fronts in order to recover its ability to successfully manage projects that are essential to the delivery of new capabilities in collection, analytical tools, automation, and better integration and interaction of IC components....

"[P]erhaps what is missing today is the right balance between community needs, technology advancement, program cost, and community-wide buy-in. In many ways, in the old days, we were lucky. Nobody doubted the need for collection, especially real-time imaging, from space. People argued over how to accomplish such missions but not the basic need for them. So it was relatively easy to align the administration and Congress around a strategy and funding. Many programs in trouble today lack this balance."

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