In the world of clandestine intelligence, obscurity is desired. But the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency has perfected the practice.
When he met with federal employees for a photo op at a burger joint in 2009, even the president seemed unsure of what exactly the agency did, according to The Atlantic.
The Bethesda, Md.-based National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, known as NGA, makes maps. But these are not your average atlases.
Starting with the high-resolution imagery that its satellites beam back to Earth, NGA blends and integrates those images with a host of other data: tips from spies on the ground, information about demographics, even the composition of the area’s soil to create three-dimensional and interactive maps, according to The Associated Press.
NGA is beginning to take baby steps out of the shadows. The rise of commercial geospatial applications (think Google Earth) has contributed to its more public profile, as did the appointment of Letitia Long as NGA director — the first woman to head a major U.S. intelligence agency.
But the biggest shot of publicity, so far, was the U.S. Special Forces raid — bolstered by years of painstaking intelligence collection and analysis — that killed al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden in May. Prior to the raid, the agency created 3-D maps of bin Laden’s hideout in Abbottabad, Pakistan, from imagery supplied by an unmanned aerial vehicle, The Atlantic reported.
Because of its sophisticated imagery and analysis, the agency determined how many people lived in the compound, and physical characteristics such as height and gender. It’s rumored that NGA satellites are equipped with facial-recognition software and other biometric indicators.
Said Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, “In my nearly 50 years in intelligence, never have I seen a more remarkable example of focused integration, seamless collaboration and sheer professional magnificence.”
The pride in Clapper’s statement isn’t unusual when you consider his background. The current head of the intelligence community once served as NGA’s director and is known in some quarters as the “father” of GEOINT — short for geospatial intelligence.
Recently, NGA has been characterized as a “top computer-geek shop” in the intelligence community, as the AP put it. But the agency has a long and storied history.
Its roots go deep into the early part of the 20th century and its beginnings included a disparate number of agencies. One of the most prominent was the National Photographic Interpretation Center, established in 1961 by the departing President Dwight Eisenhower. It first spotted the Soviet Union’s missiles in Cuba, leading to the 1962 near-nuclear crisis.
Mapping efforts were consolidated into the Defense Mapping Agency in 1972 and further streamlined into the National Imagery and Mapping Agency by executive order in 1996.
The agency was rebranded the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency in 2003. In a post-9/11 world, a key NGA mission was the assimilation of valuable intelligence among the various 16 intelligence communities.
The end result — and one of the elements that led to success in the bin Laden raid — was a strengthened partnering between the National Security Agency and traditional levers of power in the intelligence community and its upstart, NGA.
Not Your Average Cartographers
NGA takes mapmaking to a high art form. Using satellite imagery to create 3-D and interactive maps, the agency has a window onto nearly any spot on Earth. Intelligence experts often say geospatial is a foundation or common denominator for many other kinds of intelligence.
But even before the bin Laden headlines, the enigmatic agency made news when Letitia Long, a veteran of the intelligence community, was appointed the agency’s director, breaking through the intelligence community’s glass ceiling.
Long came to NGA after a 32-year career and a resume filled with senior management positions. She served as the deputy director of naval intelligence, deputy undersecretary of defense for intelligence, deputy director of the Defense Intelligence Agency and as a senior official with the CIA. But for all of that, Long has kept a relatively low profile in her new position.
In the past, she has spoken of breaking down the barriers between the 16 intelligence agencies that make up the wider community. “The walls between the cultures exist because each agency has a separate mission,” she said in congressional testimony in 2004. “For this reason, they will be hard to tear down.”
The Bottom Line
NGA’s low-key rise to prominence coincides with even more attention paid to the intelligence community as a whole, including its finances.
In an unprecedented move last year, Clapper disclosed the total amount the government spent annually on intelligence gathering for the previous year: a little more than $53 billion. When that’s added to military intelligence programs, the bottom line inches closer to $80 billion, which is more than double what it was before 9/11.
And the growth isn’t likely to slow down any time soon. For the upcoming fiscal year, the administration has requested $55 billion for intelligence, a 4 percent increase over the previous year.
Even though observers point to a positive economic portrait, budget pressures are ever-present.
A ‘New Space Race’
The government’s quest for cost-affordability comes amid what many are calling a “new space race” among geospatial companies.
This race is led by two frontrunners — Dulles, Va.-based GeoEye and DigitalGlobe, based in Longmont, Colo.
Last year, NGA inked a $7.3 billion deal, split between the two companies as part of its EnhancedView contract vehicle. The program encourages the companies to build satellites with more output and better resolutions and allows the agency to piggyback off those enhanced capabilities.
Risk in terms of building, launching and managing the satellites is shifted to the private sector; and the companies — because they are commercial entities — are able to spread costs over a number of customers. Said GeoEye President and CEO Matthew O’Connell: “GeoEye provides a very cost-effective supply of high resolution commercial satellite imagery to the U.S. government — in part, because we sell a substantial part of our imagery to international and
commercial clients as well. The geospatial industry is becoming increasingly important as decision makers need precise, real-time insight into our changing world.”
Now, both DigitalGlobe and GeoEye are working on next-generation versions of their satellites: WorldView-2 for the former and GeoEye-2 for the latter.
Both promise an increased cache of higher-resolution imagery.
The commercial transformation of geospatial intelligence-gathering can be traced to 2002, according to a USA Today report. Then-CIA Director George Tenet said, going forward, the intelligence community would use commercial geospatial options “to the greatest extent possible.”
Geospatial companies are hybrids of the field — they are commercial companies with an expanding customer base, but they still derive much of their revenue from defense-related contracts.
Their hybrid nature goes even deeper, however. Geospatial is extensively used in foreign military operations, but also stateside in disaster relief and even in more everyday applications such as farming and tracking weather.
Geospatial refers to specific technologies, but can also encompass an entire ecosystem of services and subcontractors. And the growing geospatial opportunities don’t only flow to the two frontrunners in this new space race.
In addition to the prime contractors on the EnhancedView contract, subcontractors, such as Lockheed Martin, Ball Aerospace and ITT, are tasked with actually building the satellites, sensors and cameras that make up the satellites.
There is a wealth of opportunities in the oceans of data the geospatial satellites churn out. Observers expect data management and data analytics to be emerging areas.
In this new space race, NGA isn’t likely to take the role that NASA did in the 1960s — the very public symbol of the United States’ outer-space aspirations.
After all, it’s still an intelligence agency.
But the stunning imagery of Google Earth — available to all with the click of a mouse — is a striking reminder of the power of geospatial technology and of the intelligence agency that has the power to pull the strings.