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Profile: National Reconnaissance Office (NRO)

National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) was a participant or observer in the following events:

John Fulton.John Fulton. [Source: NLESI]A training exercise is scheduled to begin at a US intelligence agency located just over 20 miles from the Pentagon, based around the scenario of a small corporate jet plane experiencing a mechanical failure and crashing into a tower building there. The exercise, which has been planned for several months, is to take place at the headquarters of the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) in Chantilly, Virginia, four miles away from Washington Dulles International Airport and 24 miles from the Pentagon. (Lumpkin 8/21/2002; Hess 8/22/2002) Its purpose is to test the agency’s employees’ ability to respond to a small aircraft crash. (Lumpkin 8/21/2002; 9/11 Commission 7/14/2003)
Simulated Plane Crash - The exercise is set to commence at 9:00 a.m., when its observers meet to be briefed. The observers and exercise role players are to move to their positions for the exercise 10 to 15 minutes later. The plane in the exercise scenario is a Learjet 35A with two pilots and four passengers on board, which takes off at 9:30 a.m. from Dulles Airport. (9/11 Commission 7/14/2003) This is the airport Flight 77, which crashes into the Pentagon at 9:37 a.m., took off from earlier in the morning (see (8:20 a.m.) September 11, 2001). (9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 8-10) A minute after taking off, the Learjet is supposed to experience a mechanical failure. It then goes out of control, leading it to crash into one of the four towers at the NRO’s headquarters at around 9:32 a.m. (see 9:30 a.m.-10:30 a.m. September 11, 2001). No real plane is going to be used in the exercise, but some stairwells and exits at the NRO headquarters are to be closed off in order to simulate the damage from the crash, forcing employees to find other ways to evacuate the building. (Lumpkin 8/21/2002; 9/11 Commission 7/14/2003)
Scenario Created by War Gaming Division - The exercise scenario was imagined by the NRO’s internal war gaming division. (Hess 8/22/2002) The exercise is being run by John Fulton, the chief of this division, and his team at the CIA. (National Law Enforcement and Security Institute 8/4/2002; National Law Enforcement and Security Institute 8/6/2002 pdf file)
Highly Secretive Agency - The NRO is an agency of the US Department of Defense. Its mission is “to ensure that the US has the technology and spaceborne and airborne assets needed to acquire intelligence worldwide.” (US Department of Defense 9/18/1992) It operates many of the nation’s spy satellites. (Lumpkin 8/21/2002) According to the New York Times, “It designs, builds, and operates spy satellites that photograph and overhear what other countries are up to.” (New York Times 8/10/1994) The NRO employs some 3,000 people. These employees are drawn from the CIA and the military. (Lumpkin 8/21/2002) The New York Times has called the NRO “probably the most secretive of the intelligence agencies.” Until 1992, its existence was not even officially disclosed. (New York Times 8/10/1994)
Exercise Canceled - According to NRO spokesman Art Haubold, the exercise will be called off “as soon as real world events began to unfold.” However, he does not give a specific time. All but the NRO’s most essential employees will then be sent home. (Hess 8/22/2002) Haubold will later comment, “It was just an incredible coincidence” that the exercise scenario “happened to involve an aircraft crashing into our facility.” (Lumpkin 8/21/2002)

A Learjet 35A.A Learjet 35A. [Source: enviscope GmbH]A training exercise planned by a US government agency is scheduled to include the scenario of a small corporate jet plane hitting a building just over 20 miles from the Pentagon around this time, though whether the scenario is actually played out before the exercise is called off is unclear. (Hess 8/22/2002; 9/11 Commission 7/14/2003) The exercise was set to begin at 9:00 a.m. at the headquarters of the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) in Chantilly, Virginia (see 9:00 a.m. September 11, 2001), which is just four miles from Washington Dulles International Airport, from where Flight 77 took off. (Lumpkin 8/21/2002; Hess 8/22/2002)
Simulated Crash around Time of Pentagon Attack - In the exercise scenario, a Learjet 35A with two pilots and four passengers takes off from Dulles Airport at 9:30 a.m. About a minute later, an explosion is heard, and the pilot complains that one of the engines is on fire and he is losing altitude. Around 9:32 a.m., the plane crashes into tower 4 at the NRO headquarters. (9/11 Commission 7/14/2003) This would be just five minutes before the real attack occurs at the Pentagon, which is 24 miles away from the NRO headquarters (see 9:37 a.m. September 11, 2001). (Hess 8/22/2002; 9/11 Commission 7/24/2004, pp. 10)
Simulation Includes Numerous Deaths and Injuries - According to a description of the exercise scenario: “Various parts of the aircraft struck the outside portions of the building, spraying jet fuel. The final portions of the wreckage were scattered around the entryway between tower 1 and 2. Jet fuel was burning uncontrollably in the vicinity of the flagpoles. There are a number of injured and dead NRO employees.” (9/11 Commission 7/14/2003) No real plane is to be used in the simulation, and the crash is to be the result of mechanical failure, not terrorism. (Lumpkin 8/21/2002)
Exercise 'Inputs' - The exercise is set to include numerous “inputs,” which are presumably communications and other actions that will make it appear more realistic to participants. Planned “inputs” include, at 9:30 a.m. a smoke generator is to be started. At 9:32, numerous phone calls are set to begin flooding in, from people reporting fires in various locations in the building. At 9:34, after someone reports that a small civilian jet has crashed, NRO personnel are to be instructed to evacuate their building. At 9:37, the first engine from Fairfax County Fire Department is scheduled to arrive. (The exercise description states that “inputs from simulated Fairfax responders” are to be used “if Fairfax does not play.”) At 10:03, four more fire department trucks and emergency medical technician vehicles respond to the crash. By 10:30 all the simulated fires will have been extinguished, but at least four NRO employees will be confirmed to have died in the crash. The exercise is set to end at 11:45 a.m. (9/11 Commission 7/14/2003)
Exercise Canceled, Timing Unclear - The exercise is reportedly called off in response to the morning’s real world crisis. However, the time when it is canceled is unstated. NRO spokesman Art Haubold will only say, “As soon as the real world events began, we canceled the exercise.” (Lumpkin 8/21/2002) It is therefore unclear whether the simulated plane crash is actually played out, or whether the exercise is brought to an end beforehand. After the exercise is called off, all but the NRO’s most essential employees are sent home. (Hess 8/22/2002)

Retired Lieutenant General Brent Scowcroft leads a presidential panel which proposes that control of the National Security Agency, the National Reconnaissance Office, and the National Imagery and Mapping Agency be transferred from the Department of Defense to the head of the CIA, the director of central intelligence (DCI). The plan is favored by the Congressional 9/11 joint inquiry but opposed by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Vice President Dick Cheney. For years experts have argued that the US intelligence community’s 13 disparate agencies—“85 percent of whose assets reside in the Defense Department”—should be consolidated under the head of the CIA. (Robinson 8/12/2002; Pincus 8/19/2004)
Intelligence Community Still Focused on Cold War Needs, Scowcroft Finds - Scowcroft, the head of the Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board and a close friend and confidant of former President George H. W. Bush, actually revises a report he began before the 9/11 attacks. The report concludes that the US intelligence apparatus had been designed to meet the needs of the Cold War era and should now be overhauled. The 9/11 attacks are evidence of this, Scowcroft believes. The attacks came from rogue Islamist terrorists, not a superpower like China or the old USSR.
Opposition from Rumsfeld, Cheney - But, as Ron Suskind will write in his 2006 book The One Percent Doctrine, Rumsfeld is “strongly opposed” to Scowcroft’s idea, presumably because, by transferring control of the NSA from the Pentagon to the CIA, it would take power away from him. Scowcroft approaches Cheney with the dilemma. Scowcroft is well aware of Cheney and Rumsfeld’s long political partnership, and gives Cheney an easy out. If his proposals are overly “disruptive,” Scowcroft says, “I’ll just fold my tent and go away. I don’t want to… but I’ll be guided by you.” Cheney now has a choice. Knowing this is a battle Scowcroft will not win, he can either call Scowcroft off now and defuse a potential political conflict within the administration, or, in author Craig Unger’s words, he can “send Scowcroft off on a fool’s errand, pitting Bush 41’s close friend, as Suskind noted, against Bush 43’s cabinet secretary [Rumsfeld], who just happened to be Bush 41’s lifelong nemesis (see September 21, 1974 and After). Cheney chose the latter.” Cheney tells Scowcroft to “go ahead, submit the report to the president.” He knows President Bush will listen to Cheney and Rumsfeld’s advice and ignore the report. Unger later notes, “Scowcroft had once been Cheney’s mentor, his patron. Now the vice president was just humoring him.” (Unger 2007, pp. 225-226)


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