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U.S. OFFICIALLY ENDS SECRECY CONCERNING SPY SATELLITES

Psssst.

You didn't hear it here, but the U.S. government operates satellites - spy satellites - pointed at other countries.Decades after that became common knowledge, the Defense Department 'fessed up last week in a news release, another marker of the Cold War's segue to a new world order.

Sort of.

Actually, all the Pentagon did was acknowledge existence of the National Reconnaissance Office, which its statement defined as "the single, national program to meet U.S. government intelligence needs through spaceborne and assigned airborne reconnaissance."

Even the name - National Reconnaissance Office - was sensitive, compartmented information before that, classified "Top Secret TK." TK, for Talent Keyhole, is the basic level of classification for satellite data.

Someone managed to draft Friday's seven-paragraph news release without once using the word "satellite."

Nor did the release mention the estimated $5 billion to $6 billion spent every year in designing, building, launching and operating all that hardware, by far the largest budget among all U.S. intelligence agencies.

"We're not going to talk about the budget," said Air Force Capt. Renee Strickland, reached at the NRO's hastily established "office of external relations."

There was a time, briefly, when the 32-year-old NRO was a genuine secret. In the early 1960s, when the Soviet Union considered overhead espionage an act of aggression, the United States tried to hide the extent of its program.

The superpowers eventually came to see advantages in their mutual surveillance, although the subject remains diplomatically sensitive with other nations.

In 1987, Rep. George E. Brown Jr., D-Calif., was forced to resign from the House intelligence committee after referring to the NRO by name in a floor speech. Brown noted that its existence was "officially classified, although anyone can read about in various unclassified articles, reports and books."

Watchdog groups and outside analysts have long since learned many details, down to the NRO's Pentagon room number - 4C958. Cognoscenti tracked the NRO's funding by watching the Air Force budgets for procurement "Special Programs" and research and development "Special Activities," and they knew who ran the NRO by checking the Pentagon phone book for "who Jimmie Hill was working for," as John Pike of the Federation of American Scientists said.

Hill was acknowledged Friday to be the long-time deputy director of the NRO.