By Karen Gilbert
National Reconnaissance Office
History was always one of my favorite subjects in school, so I was delighted to have the opportunity to interview Dr. James Outzen, Director of the Center for the Study of National Reconnaissance (CSNR) as part of NRO’s efforts to celebrate its 60th anniversary.
Karen: Dr. Outzen, thank you for giving this history buff a chance to sit down and talk with you.
Dr. Outzen: Karen, always glad to talk history.
Karen: Before we talk about NRO history and the 60th anniversary, I’m sure our readers would like to learn about the historian himself. Did you always want to be a historian? What draws people to the history field?
Dr. Outzen: The history of the historian. (Laughs.) Well, I have always been interested in how past experiences and lessons can help organizations be more effective. The Center for the Study of National Reconnaissance (CSNR) provides a unique opportunity for intelligence officers to do just that—whether through the documentation of history, describing lessons learned, or telling the national reconnaissance story through exhibits and recognition of the best of the NRO’s people and practices.
As for what draws people to this field, I believe it is a desire to connect the past to the future to make that future more successful.
Karen: Much like “what’s past is prologue” from Shakespeare’s “The Tempest?”
Dr. Outzen: (Laughs.) Shakespeare said it much better than I, but yes, exactly.
Karen: What other positions did you hold before your current one and did they prepare you for a career as a historian?
Dr. Outzen: I joined the Central Intelligence Agency in 1997 as an analyst. My first assignment was assessing the way the CIA recruited and developed its workforce. I then assisted in establishing an office in the analysis directorate where I eventually worked as a planner of the President’s Daily Brief and later as a briefer of the daily briefing for the president to a National Security Council staff member. Later, I moved into other assignments as an intelligence analyst and manager including serving as the chief knowledge officer for an analysis office. As you can see, my past positions gave me the opportunity to observe how understanding the past can lead to a more effective future.
Karen: What exactly does an NRO historian do? How long have historians existed in the IC and the NRO?
Dr. Outzen: NRO historians carry out three basic types of projects. First, they document the history of NRO programs and elements of the organization. Second, they have the privilege of siting with the best and brightest of the NRO to record their experiences through formal oral history interviews. Finally, historians share that rich history through outreach to both the public and the workforce with classroom presentations, public lectures, media and documentary interviews and other similar activities.
As for our history, elements in the NRO have hired historians since the 1960s to document NRO programs, but it was not until the 1990s that the NRO established a position for an NRO historian.
Karen: Do other members of the IC have historians, and, if so, how does CSNR interact with them?
Dr. Outzen: Members of the Intelligence Community as well as Department of Defense elements have had active historian offices and functions for many decades. We meet as a group regularly and work in partnership on specific projects.
Karen: Dr. Outzen, we have established what CSNR does, so how does it fit in with the NRO’s overall mission? What value does your office bring to the NRO?
Dr. Outzen: The CSNR is responsible for documenting the unique and critical mission of the NRO and its incredibly talented and diverse NRO workforce. The CSNR connects the NRO’s heritage of success to the future of challenges faced in building cutting-edge reconnaissance satellite systems for the United States. Understanding organizational heritage is essential for assuring future organizational success and that is the reason the NRO provides taxpayer resources for the CSNR.
Karen: As an historian, can you be objective in your presentation of history when working for the NRO? Is objectivity an important quality to maintain in this job?
Dr. Outzen: Karen, those are really interesting and important questions. Part of my academic training is in philosophy, and accordingly, I cannot claim that anyone can approach any intellectual undertaking with objectivity. Our experiences shape us and mold our biases. It is critical to recognize this as a condition of our lived experience and then strive to carry out our activities to productive ends based on that understanding. Experience as an intelligence officer is essential for telling the history of national reconnaissance. History is about context or dynamics that allow events to unfold and in this case, the context and dynamics of intelligence. This allows an experienced intelligence officer to render a more complete and fulsome account of the history of national reconnaissance.
Practitioners often make the best historians not in spite of their bias, but in recognition of their bias. For this reason, NRO histories will endure the test of time, as we have some of the best histories written by practitioners.
Karen: Many of us have heard of historians such as Doris Kearns Goodwin, David McCullough, and Michael Beschloss. How do government historians differ from historians in the public sector or academia? How are they the same?
Dr. Outzen: NRO historians are public history practitioners. We work outside an academic setting on a wide-range of projects from routine inquiries on historical events, creating displays and exhibits on key national reconnaissance stories, to comprehensive book length histories that you might expect from an historian. Our writing and research is not for advancement purposes as in an academic setting, though we follow very similar standards such as extensive research and sourcing for written projects, peer review of projects, and editorial review for finished publication. Like academic historians, we publish materials that we hope will inform the larger community interested in national reconnaissance studies, but we also have the unique responsibility to support decision-making within the NRO and support the NRO leadership and the workforce to that very important end.
Karen: Dr. Outzen, in your opinion as a historian, what was a truly defining moment in NRO history?
Dr. Outzen: In my view, it was the end of the Cold War. After almost exactly 30 years, the people who were either working in the NRO or had worked in the NRO from its founding in 1961 saw the collapse of the Soviet Union and validation of the purpose of the NRO for those first decades. That purpose was exposing the threats and facades of the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact nations through exquisite technology. This ability empowered the leadership of the United States to make better decisions that avoided a hot war, protected the nation, and eventually defeated the Soviet threat. Reliable information on an adversary is the heart of good intelligence and that is what the NRO provided during the Cold War.
Today, the NRO is well- positioned to leverage its incredible intelligence collection capabilities to meet new challenges faced by the U.S. by continuing to develop exquisite intelligence gathering systems to protect the U.S. and its citizens.
By continuing to declassify its Cold War activities and the essential role NRO played in winning the Cold War, U.S. citizens can see that the pattern for success was during the Cold War and that it continues to meet the pressing challenges today and into the future.
Karen: So here we are in 2021, the 60th anniversary of the NRO. Can you give the workforce an idea of plans to commemorate the occasion? I would imagine the pandemic probably hinders a big celebration.
Dr. Outzen: Yes, this year we celebrate 60 years of unparalleled innovation success. For this celebration we want to help the workforce better understand this legacy of innovation and innovators that keeps the paths open for the NRO’s current and future efforts.
In the fall of 2019, we formed a planning committee to plan events and activities to commemorate the 60th anniversary. Originally, the plan called for in-person activities at all NRO sites during 2021, but we have modified those plans due to the pandemic. The planning committee cancelled in-person activities until the summer of 2021, contingent upon controlling the pandemic. Instead, we will share short stories on the innovations and innovators of the past and also distribute printed materials such as a calendar. As the year progresses, we hope we can celebrate in person. If not, we will carry out virtual celebrations as we approach the NRO’s 60th anniversary on September 6, 2021.
Karen: Is this anniversary particularly different from past anniversaries? Is there something special being recognized this anniversary? Do you believe it is a good thing for an organization to look back and celebrate its past?
Dr. Outzen: The 60th anniversary commemoration will be both similar and different from past anniversary celebrations. It will be similar insofar as we have planned major declassification activities as well as recognition of NRO pioneers. And, fingers crossed, we hope to have in person workforce celebrations, like in the past. On the other side of the coin, a few things are different this year. In particular, we have prepared some activities involving the worldwide workforce, and we are highlighting decades-long innovations and innovators instead of just those associated with a major program declassification.
Karen: I knew a historian who was often fond of saying, “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” Do you see a lot of “rhyming” occurring in intelligence history? Have you seen evidence where we have learned from the past and did not repeat it?
Dr. Outzen: (Laughs.) Ah, yes. Mark Twain is attributed to that quote though there is no definitive evidence he said it. Nonetheless, it is a fair way to think about history. At a macro level, general repetitive patterns seem to repeat in history accounting for the rhyming such as struggle for freedom of the many and the thirst for power of the few forging millennia of human conflict. I think, from a micro level, that history remains a rhyme rather than an exact repeat. Humans do not purposely replicate exact failure, nor do we settle for replicating exact success. A close historical examination of events that seem similar at a high level have notable differences when examined in detail.
At NRO, the consequences of this are evident in many cases such as the high level of launch and on-orbit success the NRO experiences today compared to the early days of NRO programs, or NRO’s ability to quickly adapt systems to meet new intelligence requirements compared to the early days. The many things that the organization did to learn from mistakes and maximize improvements keeps the NRO’s history from repeating itself and instead is harmonizing. A few years ago, continuous improvement was a popular concept in business journals and press. For the NRO, however, it has been a 60-year mainstay of how we work. We just happen to call it systems engineering and it has worked to keep the mistakes from repeating and enabled each success to build upon each other for fresh innovation.
Karen: Dr. Outzen, do you have a favorite time-period in intelligence history and a favorite figure from that period? What can we, as intelligence officers, learn from them?
Dr. Outzen: For technical intelligence collection, to me the most important period is the second term of the Eisenhower administration. I believe Eisenhower was under-appreciated as a technologist when he left office. In hindsight, he is perhaps the best technologist to have served as president. While Eisenhower gained fame through his World War II leadership, he gained his bearings during the years after World War I. Perhaps no better example of this exists than his efforts within a year of the conclusion of World War I to solve the problem of mass movement of military forces and equipment across a large land mass. In 1919, Eisenhower led efforts to move US army troops and equipment from one coast of the U.S. to the other. The purpose of the experiment was identifying transportation challenges and the technological solution to those challenges.
In the years between the two “Great Wars,” Eisenhower continued undertaking similar experiences involving identifying better technology for more effective combat. He also understood the importance of information or intelligence in better understanding problems and better defining those problems.
In his second term, confronted by dramatic nuclear proliferation and the existential threat it posed to the U.S., he doubled down on technology that would yield reliable intelligence. He called upon some of the nation’s best technologists to consider the problem and Edwin “Din” Land, president and CEO of the Polaroid Corporation, a great inventor in his own right, answered the call. Land studied the use of technology for combating the nuclear threat to the U.S. along with many other notable scientists and industrialists. They advised Eisenhower to seek the “high ground” that technology permitted—first with the U-2 high altitude reconnaissance aircraft and then with national reconnaissance satellites. Eisenhower knew the technological risks were great, but the payoffs in terms of technology and intelligence could and would prevent a nuclear cold war turning hot. Today, we continue to live in an era that still has not seen a massive nuclear exchange and, if we are lucky, that will always be the case.
Karen: Dr. Outzen, as a history buff I really enjoyed my conversation with you. I, along with the rest of the NRO workforce, look forward to this anniversary year.
Dr. Outzen: Thank you.
(Do not know much about NRO history? You can read the CSNR’s histories on its web page.)