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Super-secret spy agency now trying child's play

The Lompoc Record
7/20/03

Corey Corona and Dana Drop, agents for the nation's spy satellite agency, have a mission that once would have been impossible.

That's because the two characters promote an agency whose programs and very existence were secret just a decade ago.

Welcome to the new world order, where the National Reconnaissance Office not only admits it exists but also owns up to satellite launches, honors its pioneers publicly and even has a Web site geared toward children. NROjr.gov targets kids between the ages of 3 and 10 with songs, stories, games and art.

The Web site for NRO, which is jointly operated by the CIA and Defense Department, was born out of a family day for the Virginia-based agency, according to NRO spokesman Art Haubold. The agency announced the Web site's presence late last year.

"We thought it was something that could be fun, and there's some educational elements to it," said Haubold.

"The realities of today are different than when NRO was shrouded in a complete cloak of secrecy," said Haubold. "One of the reasons we are doing this is we want today's youth to become interested in science and technology. This is one way we do some outreach to them.

"Whether or not they end up working for NRO, its importance to get today's youth interested in the science and technology we need to continue United States pre-eminence in space," he added.

So Corey Corona -- named for NRO's first space-based spying effort four decades ago -- offers games.

Dana Drop pushes coloring projects.

Whirly Lizard carries stories.

And Earth Watch touts tunes.

Haubold couldn't give a cost estimate for the kids' page, noting that the site was designed by a contractor who handles the agency's main Web site at www.nro.gov.

Scott Hollister, operations manager for Space Endeavour Camp at Vandenberg Air Force Base, said he supports anything that educates people.

"My hat's off to them," said Hollister. "I applaud them ... Anywhere you educate people is great."

NROjr.gov creates mixed feelings among the many who lobbied for an end to the spy satellite agency's secrecy.

"I think they sort of have a split personality," said Steven Aftergood from the Federation of American Scientists in Washington D.C. "On the one hand they're not releasing what you would expect. On the other hand, they're publishing all kinds of things you'd never look for, like this kid site."

NASA has long had Web sites geared toward children. The Clinton administration pushed for kid-friendly Web sites, Aftergood said. The CIA has a site offering youth a chance to don disguises or decode messages in cyberspace.

NRO admitted to existence in 1992, and began pre-announcing its launches a few years later.

"It still comes as a surprise and a bit of a shock," said Aftergood. "I think NRO may have some uncertainty about its own identity as an intelligence organization. It looks like NRO can't decide whether they are a clandestine intelligence organization or just another government bureaucracy."

He's not intending to be critical of the site, Aftergood said, but it seems a little bit odd to have a Web site for kids.

"I don't think it does any harm," said Aftergood, who has waged a long war to get information about the government's "black program" budgets, but "I don't think it's a substitute for public accountability. That is something that is still deficient at NRO, beginning with the amount of money they spend."

He continues to fight for a statement of what NRO costs.

"The kid site is fun and games, but the public information is not a joke," he said. "It's a responsibility they have that they are not discharging. I'm getting more worked up as we talk."

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