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NRO 40th Anniversary Gala

NRO 40th Anniversary Gala

Remarks of the Director of Central Intelligence, George J. Tenet at the National Reconnaissance Office 40th Anniversary Gala (as delivered), 27 September 2000.

It gives me great pleasure to join the dedicated men and women of the National Reconnaissance Office and their families—as well as their many partners, supporters and admirers in industry and government—in this celebration of the NRO’s 40th Anniversary.

We have in this room a remarkable constellation of leaders who have come out to honor those four decades of pioneering service to our nation. I especially want to welcome representatives from:

  • Administrations past and present
  • The Congress, including our key oversight committees
  • Former Secretaries of Defense and Directors of Central Intelligence
  • Former and current officials from the Department of Defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the combatant commands, and the Intelligence Community
  • Former Directors and Deputy Directors of the NRO and
  • Representatives from the many great American corporations that have teamed so successfully with the NRO over the years.

Another distinguished group is represented here tonight—the National Reconnaissance Pioneers and the Founders of National Reconnaissance, whose pathbreaking contributions we recognized at a ceremony this morning at NRO Headquarters.

But the people I most want to welcome this evening are the ones who truly made the NRO’s first forty years of sustained excellence possible: the spouses of our NRO employees—the wives, husbands and families who have given so generously of their love and understanding so that their spouses could give their all to the Mission. I know that the burdens of secrecy are heavy for NRO families. I speak for the entire Intelligence Community when I say how deeply grateful we are to you for your willingness to shoulder them for the sake of our country.

Of course, there are many other reasons why the husbands and wives of NRO employees deserve our deepest thanks: the family time sacrificed for the office, the prolonged absences on tours of duty. I have also been told that when you are married to an NRO officer, you cannot enjoy a stroll in the moonlight, holding hands and gazing up at the stars, without the nagging feeling that your spouse is thinking about work, not romance. On behalf of all the lovelorn spouses, let me say: Get a life!

But, let me tell you: This is one night when you can serve the Mission by having a great time. In a little while, Stephanie and I and Linda and Keith hope to see you out on the dance floor. In the meantime, please join me in a big round of applause for the wonderful husbands and wives and kids that make up the great families of the NRO.

I would like to take just a few minutes to talk about the NRO’s proud past, accomplished present, and exciting future.

When President Eisenhower decided in the late 1950’s to create the office that would become the NRO, his driving concern was to avoid "another Pearl Harbor"—another devastating surprise that could turn the Cold War hot. It was not an easy decision to make. After the Soviets shot down one of our U-2s, it took great political will to pursue a peacetime strategy of national reconnaissance. It also took conviction and faith in equal measure on the part of the President and his scientific advisers, because in those days, space reconnaissance was purely "seat of the pants." The demand was as much for courage as it was for engineering.

The founders and pioneers of the NRO—from intelligence, academia, the military and industry—met the Cold War challenge with the boldness, persistence, teamwork and sheer enthusiasm that have been the secrets of its success ever since. Your NRO trailblazers have told me that their sense of urgency, excitement, and commitment to Mission was so high that they could hardly wait to get to work each day. They dreamed the impossible. They dared the impossible. And they did the impossible—day in and day out.

They proved the adage that the story of great accomplishments is truly a story of great people. And it is those great people we celebrate tonight.

Whether you were part of the NRO’s Program A under the Air Force, Program B under the CIA, Program C under the Navy, or Program D, which managed the aerial systems later transferred to the Air Force, your work was cutting-edge, critical to the country–and exhilarating.

Almost as exhilarating as the feeling John Glenn got as he sat on the launch pad, preparing to become the first American to orbit the Earth. He is quoted as saying it suddenly struck him that everything around him — everything he was sitting on — had been built by the lowest bidder.

And if anybody today thinks that the exhilarating early days of the CORONA program were not also nerve-wracking, frustrating and occasionally heartbreaking, imagine the persistence it took to endure 12 successive launch failures. What could go wrong, did. One launch was aborted when a humidity sensor reported 100%. Inspection revealed that a member of the crew—which was four black mice—had relieved itself on the sensor. That was one of the first leaks to plague the NRO.

Finally, failure gave way to success. And what a success! On its first truly operational mission, CORONA captured more usable photography than all the previous U-2 flights combined. Over its lifetime, CORONA flew 145 missions and returned over 800,000 images.

Thus, in deepest secrecy, CORONA helped answer—in the negative—the burning intelligence question of the day: Whether there was indeed a strategic bomber and missile gap with the Soviet Union. And the Naval Research Laboratory’s GRAB satellite, which was orbited before CORONA, completed the picture by providing invaluable data on Soviet air defense radar.

GRAB, too, had its moments. One of its more spectacular failures rained debris down on Cuba. Havana charged that a cow was killed in a deliberate US action. The Cubans soon paraded another cow through the streets with a placard reading "Eisenhower, you murdered one of my sisters." It was the first – and last – time that a satellite has been used in the production of ground beef. The episode has gone down in history as "the herd shot round the world."

As is true to this day, NRO’s amazing, though unheralded, successes vastly exceeded its momentary failures. From its earliest days, the NRO has handed American Presidents a commanding information edge over all other leaders in the world. If you count the systems gathering visible images alone, the take from the NRO’s first 40 years exceeds 12 million individual pictures. We cannot even begin to calculate the number of emissions monitored or signals gathered by other NRO systems.

Fast forward to the present. Today, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, NRO gives our country that decisive information edge. From space, NRO "birds" penetrate hostile territory without putting a single American pilot in harm’s way or risking the capture of a single American soldier. We can collect and transmit critical data to Earth in near real-time, and deliver it to our customers in a few hours. Just consider how long it would take to plan, stage, and conduct conventional collection operations to capture the same information!

As Director of Central Intelligence, it fills me with great pride to be able to assure the President that the information he needs will not only reach him when he needs it, but often before he expects it.

What you do is nothing short of magnificent.

Today, almost on a daily basis, the missions assigned to our satellites change. But one thing remains constant—their reliability and the credibility that the leaders of our nation accord the vital information they collect. Whatever and whenever the need, the NRO is there, helping to save American lives, advance America’s global interests and promote world peace.

You monitor the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and compliance with arms control agreements.

You track international terrorists, narcotics traffickers and other criminals who threaten American lives, communities and businesses.

In situations ranging from combat to peacekeeping, you help us give our men and women in uniform the best force protection in the world.

Thanks in part to timely information and warnings from the NRO, not one American pilot or plane—not one—has been lost to hostile fire in nine years of hazardous patrols over the "no-fly" zones in Iraq.

When one of our F-16s went down over Kosovo, our intelligence systems were central to guiding in the search and rescue teams that brought our pilot safely home. Think what that capability means to the families of our airmen!

And you help relief agencies, governments and the scientific community cope with disasters ranging from wildfires in the American West to volcanic eruptions in the South Pacific and humanitarian crises in the Balkans.

From NRO’s founding forty years ago to this very day, you and your great partners in American industry have pushed the technological envelope, engineering breakthroughs that not only strengthen our national security, but expand the bounds of human knowledge and enhance the quality of life for people everywhere:

NRO imagery is a key part of a global environmental database that helps predict climate change, assess crop production, track oil spills, and study fragile wetlands.

Using mirror-polishing techniques pioneered by the NRO, NASA’s Hubbell Space Telescope has given us our deepest glimpse yet into the origins of our universe.

NRO research in communications, pixel arrays, and high-speed data switching played an important part in the development of high-definition television.

Every time you snap a family photo, you are using durable polyester-based film developed for NRO satellites.

And, by applying to mammography the "change-detection" techniques developed for use in satellite imagery, medicine has gained a valuable tool in the fight against breast cancer.

What you have done and what you are doing is nothing short of incredible. But, as Keith Hall rightly says: "The best is yet to come." The next forty years will be as challenging for America as the past forty. We in the Intelligence Community will still have to track our traditional targets even as we meet a daunting host of fresh requirements.

The NRO will need new and ingenious strategies and exceptionally agile systems to deal with the complexities and uncertainties of the 21st Century collection environment and the accelerating speed of technological advance.

We will need the NRO to stay ahead of our adversaries’ increasingly sophisticated use of cover, concealment, and deception.

We will need the NRO to track border-blurring transnational dangers and to protect against potentially devastating asymmetric threats, not just to our deployed military, but to the critical infrastructures that undergird American society itself.

And, while you are doing all of that, you must also ensure that the invaluable "information advantage" you provide moves faster than ever to a growing and ever more demanding array of customers—whether they are in Washington, in the air, in the field or under the sea.

The men and women of the NRO are more than equal to the task. Already, you are modifying, adjusting, and re-engineering to stay ahead of the challenges of this new century.

And, if you approach your work in the future with the passion, vision, daring, and creativity that have defined your past, you will not only meet—but beat—any specification out there.

The intelligence collection systems that you and your partners in industry design, build, launch and operate remain absolutely critical to our country’s security. But you, the dedicated men and women of the NRO—the patriots behind the technology—are more critical still. Each day, you make a vital difference. As never before, America needs your pioneering spirit, your technical leadership, and your absolute commitment to Mission.

This morning in honoring the NRO’s Founders and Pioneers, I addressed some comments to today’s employees. They are worth repeating:

Your history is vitally important. The names Baker, Perry, Davies, Drell, Garwin, Kohler, Wheelon, Lehan and so many more should energize you -- inspire you -- push you to live up to an era of achievement that may be unparalleled in the history of our government. Their care for our country and their genius should propel you to the realization that you do not just have a job – but a sacred mission with which few are entrusted. Your burden -- or more appropriately, your joy in life -- is to carry forward the great achievements of the men and women before you. You must never forget who you are and where you come from.

The NRO is a crown jewel in the arsenal of peace. Its greatness will continue to require patience—and the recognition that great risk often comes with failure. If there is one thing as DCI that I would ask of the future leaders of our country and all those who must legitimately probe and oversee our intelligence community, it would be to allow the men and women of the NRO the flexibility to push the envelope. Have the confidence of knowing that they have delivered -- and that they always will deliver – for the United States of America. Because if you have that confidence, the next forty years will prove even greater than the last forty. The men and women of the NRO will prove again and again that they truly are "America’s Sentinels of Freedom in Space." Thank you and may God bless you all.


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Directeur de la publication : Joël-François Dumont
Comité de rédaction : Jacques de Lestapis, Hugues Dumont, François de Vries (Bruxelles), Hans-Ulrich Helfer (Suisse), Michael Hellerforth (Allemagne).
Comité militaire : VAE Guy Labouérie (†), GAA François Mermet (2S), CF Patrice Théry (Asie).