Privacy SOS

The NRO: Spying and prying, up close and personal

Ever heard of the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO)? 

One of the most secretive of the 16 US intelligence agencies, it defines its mission as follows:

Develop. Acquire. Launch. Operate.

When the United States needs eyes and ears in critical places where no human can reach – be it over the most rugged terrain or through the most hostile territory – it turns to the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO). The NRO is the U.S. Government agency in charge of designing, building, launching, and maintaining America’s intelligence satellites. Whether creating the latest innovations in satellite technology, contracting with the most cost-efficient industrial supplier, conducting rigorous launch schedules, or providing the highest-quality products to our customers, we never lose focus on who we are working to protect: our Nation and its citizens.

From our inception in 1961 to our declassification to the public in 1992, we have worked tirelessly to provide the best reconnaissance support possible to the Intelligence Community (IC) and Department of Defense (DoD). We are unwavering in our dedication to fulfilling our vision: Vigilance From Above.

So it’s all about “vigilance” from the far reaches of space. 

The NRO has hit some rough patches over the years. For instance, in the mid 1990s they were revealed to have secretly squirreled away as much as $3.8 billion as a kind of “rainy day fund.”  Some of the cash was used to build a super secret headquarters in Chantilly, VA. 

One of its main contractors is Lockheed Martin, which has a record of dropping the ball on big government contracts.

But to demonstrate just how useful the NRO spy outfit is to American taxpayers, it was recently revealed that it has been conducting orbital eavesdropping over Afghanistan. 

With all the super sophisticated hardware the US has thrown at this war, isn’t it amazing that the Taliban are still in the picture?

Now a new dimension of the NRO has surfaced, thanks to an investigation by McClatchy newspapers. It has precious little to do with “vigilance from above.” 

It’s more like “give us your secrets, face to face. And if you lie, you can’t hide, because our close-up-and-personal polygraph test will smoke you out.”

In the words of Marisa Taylor,

One of the nation’s most secretive intelligence agencies is pressuring its polygraphers to obtain intimate details of the private lives of thousands of job applicants and employees, pushing the ethical and legal boundaries of a program that’s designed instead to catch spies and terrorists. 

The National Reconnaissance Office is so intent on extracting confessions of personal or illicit behavior that officials have admonished polygraphers who refused to go after them and rewarded those who did, sometimes with cash bonuses.

The disclosures include a wide range of behavior and private thoughts such as drug use, child abuse, suicide attempts, depression and sexual deviancy. The agency, which oversees the nation’s spy satellites, records sessions that were required for security clearances and stores them in a database.

Even though it’s aggressively collecting the private disclosures, when people confess to serious crimes such as child molestation they’re not always arrested or prosecuted.

Instead, those personal confessions are categorized as “Code 55 admissions” and who knows when they will come in handy.

The aggressive use of polygraphs by the federal government has been recommended by James Clapper, Director of National Intelligence, to detect leakers of government secrets. 

Marisa Taylor reports that the Defense Department currently conducts almost 46,000 annually, with some 8,000 of them ordered by the mysterious agency with the big rainy day fund. 

© 2021 ACLU of Massachusetts.