National Reconnaissance Office, Chantilly
For over three decades, the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) was one of the deepest secrets of the Top Secret Government. In fact, the name “National Reconnaissance Office” was classified until September 18, 1992. The NRO coordinates all of America’s spy satellite operations, including those of the CIA, Air Force, and Department of Defense.
The National Reconnaissance Office was created on August 25, 1960, through an executive order issued by President Dwight Eisenhower. On August 12, 1960, America’s first spy satellite, named “Corona,” successfully returned film capsules (which were recovered in mid-air by Air Force planes) containing photos of the Soviet Union. These photos had resolution down to two meters and were an intelligence breakthrough, giving previously unknown details of Soviet missile and nuclear facilities. A turf war quickly broke out between the Central Intelligence Agency and the Department of Defense over who would get to control the spy satellite program, and the NRO was created to address both civilian and military intelligence concerns.
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When “Corona” proved successful in 1960, it was believed that the Soviet Union was unaware of the new American intelligence-gathering tool (this assumption turned out to be correct; KGB documents released since the collapse of the Soviet Union show it wasn’t until 1963 the Soviets began to realize that their territory was being photographed from space). As a result, extraordinary measures were taken to protect the secret. The very existence of the NRO was kept secret, even from most members of Congress, until its existence was finally disclosed in 1992. Its funding was hidden in budgets under code names, cryptic references, or simply buried under “miscellaneous.” Even now, the exact amount of funding the NRO has received since its founding is unknown.
While the NRO is not as secretive as before for example, in December 1996, the NRO for the first time announced the launch of one of its spy satellites it is still far more secretive than the CIA. The capabilities of the NRO’s satellites are classified, although it’s safe to assume they now include signals interception and eavesdropping capabilities in addition to photography (it is also rumored that real-time video, including infrared, is also within NRO capabilities).
The procedures, methods, and protocols of collecting, analyzing, and processing data gathered by spy satellites are likewise highly classified. In other words, there are still a lot of secrets in Chantilly.
What’s There: The NRO seems to have followed a “hide in plain sight” philosophy for much of its existence, and its current headquarters (completed in 1992) is an example of that: it looks like an ordinary commercial office park that could be occupied by an insurance or financial services company. There are four buildings on 68 acres, and over 3,000 employees are believed to work in Chantilly. But while the facility looks ordinary and non-threatening, it is heavily guarded and under constant human, video, and electronic surveillance and any trespassing or other intrusion will be quickly noted. Those who loiter near the building or any of its entrance roads can expect a visit from security and/or local police.
Getting a Look Inside: Nope.
Unusual Fact: A 1994 audit by the General Accounting Office found the NRO had spent over $4 billion since 1961 that could not be accounted for in any way. While some observers felt this was evidence of sloppy management and poor accounting practices, others wondered if the funds had actually been redirected as difficult as this might be to conceive to even more highly classified activities.
Getting There: NRO headquarters is located at 14825 Lee Road in Chantilly. Chantilly is about 30 miles west of Washington.