CHANTILLY, Va. - From across Route 28, amid acres of business parks and grassy islands, rises a series of dazzling light blue buildings that look nothing like a government office complex.
But that is the point.
Behind the gridiron gates and armed guards is the National Reconnaissance Office, possibly the most secret agency in government, one that has long escaped the scrutiny and notoriety of its counterparts at the FBI, CIA and the National Security Agency.
For 40 years, the NRO has designed, built and operated the nation's spy satellites. It's capable of collecting all sorts of communications, from phone calls to e-mails, and photographing cars on the ground anywhere in the world. Some industry experts believe the agency can even read license plates.
Just as the NSA has stood casually for "No Such Agency," the NRO has spent the past four decades nicknamed, "Not Referred to Openly." After the agency began drawing up plans for the complex in 1990, when even its existence was a secret, officials initially asked the contractor to hang its sign out to confuse passersby.
In a recent rare interview at the agency's headquarters, NRO Director Keith R. Hall said the secrecy is a necessary part of a "cat and mouse game" the United States plays with its adversaries.
"I'd like to be known as the agency that's even more super-secret than NSA and leave it at that," Hall said. "We don't attract publicity and we don't seek it. ... People have many more questions about us than answers are available."
These days the agency has made some inroads to declassify some of its earliest satellite projects and hangs its own sign on the front lawn. But much about what it does and how it operates are some of the most closely guarded secrets in government.
Three weeks ago, the agency was dragged into the limelight when retired Air Force Sgt. Brian P. Regan, 38, who worked as a contract employee for the NRO, was charged with conspiring to commit espionage after authorities say he attempted to flee the country with classified documents.
It had last attracted attention in 1995 when it faced harsh criticism from congressional intelligence committee members after the discovery that the agency had accumulated a surplus of $3 billion in secret money and was not readily able to locate the funds. The director and deputy director were replaced.
But overall, the NRO has succeeded in largely avoiding the spotlight. While it has the largest budget of all 13 intelligence agencies, it has the smallest number of employees. And until its complex was finished in 1995, it lacked a central headquarters.
NRO officials acknowledge that the office complex houses about 3,000 workers, and several sources estimate the agency's budget to be well over $6 billion a year. The exact numbers are classified.
In the past, the agency would break projects into pieces and contract them out to different companies to maintain secrecy and boost competition. But in a break with that tradition last year, the agency announced that it had selected Boeing to oversee what many industry insiders believe is the largest NRO contract in its history - overhauling the nation's satellite systems. In size and scope, several experts speculate, the overhaul could rival the Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bomb in the 1940s.
Though classified, the project, called Future Imagery Architecture, is estimated to be worth $25 billion over two decades. It will require thousands of aerospace industry workers to complete and will most likely operate out of Southern California, said John Pike, a space intelligence expert and director of Virginia-based GlobalSecurity.Org.
"By basically just giving the whole thing to Boeing, to a great extent at some point you just have to trust they know what they're doing and are decent fellows," Pike said. "These are extremely complex programs with high risk factors."
Hall declined to discuss the scope and purpose of the project or what he called the "winner-take-all contract," but said the program would focus on building smaller, lighter satellites and more of them. He said the agency did not feel that giving the entire project to Boeing would eliminate competition in the aerospace industry.
Some in the industry believe Future Imaging Architecture will also push the satellites farther out into space, perhaps to thwart the possibility of their being attacked or shot down. Many spy satellites orbit at a little more than 100 miles above Earth, while communication satellites park in geosynchronous orbits around the equator, 22,300 miles high. At that height, their orbit matches the rotation of the earth, so they seem to hover in one place.
In a conference room at the agency, a computer simulation shows the orbits of hundreds of satellites currently spinning around the earth. The NRO monitors these satellites - and a growing accumulation of space trash, including an astronaut's glove - from locations across the country, though not from the Chantilly headquarters.
The number of satellites the NRO operates is also a secret. Since the agency began acknowledging its satellite launches in 1996, it has launched between three to five a year, mostly from Cape Canaveral in Florida and Vandenburg Air Force Base in California.
Since Hall took over the agency in March 1997, he has turned his focus toward research and development. Four years ago, it accounted for 3 percent of the overall budget and now accounts for more than 9 percent, NRO officials said.
In one of the agency's most innovative programs, it has begun giving out $400,000 grants to academics, scientists and even some one-man "garage companies" to explore new technologies and return to the agency nine months later to present their findings to an auditorium of scientists.
Agency officials call the program "high-risk, high-payoff" research. So far, 45 percent of the 171 projects they've supported have received additional funding.
Hall has also shepherded an initiative to get the information gleaned from satellites to soldiers and pilots in the field.
John Brownell, director of the Operational Support Office of the NRO, said before declassifying the agency's existence in 1992 and acknowledging they photographed images on Earth, agency officials couldn't show soldiers the photos or explain how commanders knew the enemy was over the next hill.
"There's still some problems with lack of awareness of what we do and the NRO's abilities, but it's better than it has been," Brownell said. "Before it would have been tightly held. Only a very secretive, small group of people would have been aware of the data available. ... We want to feed pictures into cockpits of targets and say, 'OK, here it is.'"
The NRO dates to the late 1950s, when in the midst of the Cold War U.S. leaders needed a way to see what the Russians were building and planning - without their knowing it. Balloons carrying cameras were easily shot down, and officials didn't want to risk another U2 spy plane after one was shot down in 1960 and its pilot captured.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower approved a super-secret program to launch satellites into space in 1958 under the code name Corona. Project coordinators quickly began testing their ideas - with little success. The first satellite, called Discoverer like the 13 failures that would follow it, blew up on the launch pad. Another blew up as it took off.
According to a series of documents on the project declassified several years ago, one satellite went "sub-orbital" and a piece of debris landed in Cuba, killing a cow. President Fidel Castro filed a complaint with the United Nations, leading top U.S. officials to dub the incident the "herd shot 'round the world."
But starting with the 14th mission, NRO satellites began successfully circling Earth, taking pictures and drastically altering the way the country viewed the Cold War. The term "missile gap" disappeared from President Kennedy's speeches after he viewed the first fuzzy pictures of Russia's airfields and military bases in August 1960.
"It was one of the major revolutions in intelligence," said Jeffrey T. Richelson, a satellite intelligence expert and a senior fellow at the National Security Archive. "For the first time you could put something up for a day and a half and just keep going around taking pictures and cover more territory than all the U2 missions combined."
Buried in the back of one of the declassified reports, the author notes that when the Corona missions finally came to an end in 1972, several scientists got together and decided to keep one of the satellites for "sentimental" reasons. They put it in the basement of the National Photographic Interpretation Center (now part of the National Imaging and Mapping Agency) on the Navy Yard outside Washington, where it sat for almost three decades, its own secret museum.
When Gregg Herken took over as curator for military space at the Air and Space Museum, he remembered hearing about a satellite that was sitting in a basement when he worked for the CIA in 1971. He wrote to the center three times starting in 1988 asking for the rumored satellite. Each time the answer was no.
Finally, in February 1995, Corona was declassified and Herken asked again. With great fanfare in May of 1995, the Smithsonian invited the former Corona scientists to witness its transfer to the museum, and served them Corona beer, just for fun.
"They didn't like that too much," Herken remembers. "It was all so hush-hush, it was like cursing your mother to them. You just didn't say Corona. ... But lots of people come to see the exhibit now. They know about its background and taking pictures, but it's kind've cool to actually get to see it."