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Senate Intelligence Leaders Oppose NRO As Part of Space Force, Welcome Scolese Nomination

Senate Intelligence Leaders Oppose NRO As Part of Space Force, Welcome Scolese Nomination

The Republican and Democratic leaders of the Senate Intelligence Committee left no doubt today that they strongly oppose the idea of merging the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) into the Space Force.  That is not part of the current Space Force proposal, but apparently is still under consideration for the future.  The comments came today at a hearing to consider the nomination of Chris Scolese to be the next NRO Director. The nomination was well received.

NRO designs, builds, launches and maintains the fleet of U.S. spy satellites.  It is one of the 17 elements of the Intelligence Community (IC), which is overseen by the Director of National Intelligence (DNI).

Sen. Richard Burr (R-North Carolina)

Historically the position of NRO Director was not a Senate-confirmed position.  Scolese is the first to have to go through the confirmation process.  The nomination must be approved by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI) and then the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) before being voted on by the Senate as a whole.

SSCI Chairman Richard Burr (R-North Carolina) and Vice Chairman Mark Warner (D-Virginia) both expressed support for Scolese’s nomination and no opposition was voiced by other members who were there.  At the end of the hearing, Burr said he hoped the process could be completed quickly.

“You have the full support of this committee and we’ll expedite your nomination as quickly as we possibly can.  My hope is that we can take it up on the floor as quickly as we report it. …. We’d like to have you there tomorrow if we could.  It’s not going to work quite that fast.” — SSCI Chairman Richard Burr

Scolese currently is Director of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.  Many of the questions today honed in on the need for NRO to build and launch satellites faster and less expensively, and leverage commercial technologies, a familiar theme these days.

Burr and Warner honed in on the debate over whether NRO should be part of the Trump Administration’s proposed Space Force, which would be a component of the U.S. Air Force.  The question pits those who view NRO as part of national security space enterprise against those who see it as part of the IC.  SSCI clearly is in the latter category.

Space Policy Directive-4 (SPD-4) seemed to settle the issue by specifically excluding NRO from the Space Force (along with NASA, NOAA and other non-military government space organizations).  However, at an April 11 SASC hearing, Acting Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan implied that is a temporary decision. He said integrating NRO into the Space Force would be needed in the future, but was too time consuming to pursue now.

Sen. Mark Warner (D-Virginia)

Warner referenced those remarks today and proceeded to list many reasons why NRO should not be moved, including the fact that more than 40 percent of its personnel are CIA officers. If NRO moved to Space Force “almost half of the NRO wouldn’t go with it.  This would break the organization.”  NRO is “more than 91 percent funded by the national intelligence program” and responsible for satellites that deliver information to the IC.  “We should focus on deepening the NRO’s existing partnerships and capabilities that are serving the IC well rather than trying to fix something that isn’t broken.”

In response to direct questioning from Burr and Warner, Scolese agreed that NRO should remain in the IC citing SPD-4 and the disruption that would be caused by moving it.  Warner called on Scolese to continue resisting “these bureaucratic moves to roll NRO into Space Force” and offered the committee’s assistance if required.

Burr did not set a date for the committee to vote on the nomination, but said he would do it as quickly as possible.  If confirmed, Scolese will succeed Betty Sapp, who served as NRO Director for 7 years and retired last month.

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