The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) collects, processes, and dispenses satellite imagery for national security purposes. This imagery is used to depict the planet’s physical features or activities that are being monitored by the intelligence community. The agency, which is a part of the Department of Defense, also supports combat troops with tactical data, such as targeting information for precision bombing. Much of the NGA’s satellite work is contracted out to private corporations in multi-billion-dollar deals.
Official U.S. mapping and charting efforts arguably began in the early 1800s, with the Lewis and Clark expedition. World War I, however, revolutionized these efforts, ushering in an era of battlefield intelligence obtained through aerial reconnaissance. This transformation matured during the Second World War, and the Cold War helped institutionalize it. In 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower ordered secret surveillance flights over the Soviet Union using U-2 airplanes; at the same time, the United States was developing its first system of reconnaissance satellites for use against the USSR. To help process the information obtained from these satellites, Eisenhower created the National Photographic Interpretation Center in 1961.
Multiple reorganizations of the federal government’s mapping and charting operations followed. First, the armed forces combined all their mapping agencies into one outfit, dubbed the Defense Mapping Agency, in 1972 (see Memorandum link below). In 1996, the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 1997 (pdf) authorized Congress, the Central Intelligence Agency and the Department of Defense to unite their mapping and charting offices, creating the National Imagery and Mapping Agency. The NIMA combined both intelligence and combat-support operations in one entity.
On Nov. 24, 2003, President George W. Bush signed the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2004 (pdf). The act enabled NIMA to rename itself the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency. “This name change is more than cosmetic; it represents the latest in a series of major steps to provide the nation’s war fighters and senior policy-makers with the best intelligence available to support decision making,” wrote Tom Cooke, NIMA deputy chief of public affairs, in the 2003 “State of the Agency” issue of the Pathfinder (pdf) publication.
The NGA was credited with providing vital intelligence that supported the successful raid on Osama bin Laden’s hideout in Pakistan in 2011.
Memorandum: Organization and Management of the U.S. Foreign Intelligence Community (by President Richard M. Nixon) (pdf)
Agency’s Name Changes, But Mission Continues (by Rudi Williams, American Forces Press Service)
NGA History (pdf)
The collection and analysis of satellite imagery is called geospatial intelligence, or GEOINT for short. This imagery may be used in a number of ways:
The NGA director also manages the National System for Geospatial Intelligence (NSG), which coordinates intelligence activities for the many entities that rely on NGA services. The NGA director reports to both the national intelligence director and the secretary of defense.
NGA Fact Sheet (pdf)
Secretive Government Agency Working with NASA on Mapping Mission (by Paul Hoversten, Space.com)
Secretive Map Agency Opens Its Doors: NIMA helping prepare for possible war with Iraq (by David Ensor, CNN)
Seminar on Intelligence, Command and Control (by Roberta E. Lenczowski, NIMA) (pdf)
The NGA is headquartered near Fort Belvoir in Fairfax County, Virginia, having relocated from Bethesda, Maryland, in 2011. The $2.6 billion, 2.3 million square foot campus is the third largest government complex in the Washington area. NGA has two additional offices in St. Louis, Missouri, and support sites around the world
New Campus East (pdf)
Where Does the Money Go?
The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency has spent more than $36 million on 32 contractor transactions between FY 2002 and FY 2012, according to USASpending.gov. The top five types of products or services purchased were electronics and communications equipment ($30,362,816), ADP facility management ($2,849,000), other ADP and telecommunications services ($1,873,788), other research and development [R&D] ($292,683), and additional electronics and communications R&D ($187,964).
The top five contractors that were recipients of this spending by NGA during that decade were:
1. Northrop Grumman Corporation $30,564,506
2. ORODAY Inc. $1,873,788
3. SAIC Inc. $1,788,000
4. Computer Sciences Corporation $1,061,000
5. Concurrent Technologies Corporation $292,683
Former NGA Director James R. Clapper Jr., who served from 2001 to 2006, oversaw the privatization of much of the NGA’s imagery gathering. The agency now relies heavily upon commercial vendors of satellite imagery, such as DigitalGlobe and GeoEye. In August 2010, both companies were awarded 10-year contracts by the NGA with a potential combined value of $7.35 billion. The deals were part of the agency’s EnhancedView commercial imagery program. GeoEye has made a number of attempts to acquire DigitalGlobe, including a $792 million offer in May 2012. However, in June, NGA announced that it will end its GeoEye contract early due to budget constraints, putting the company’s survival at risk and setting it up as a potential takeover target for DigitalGlobe, whose NGA contract has been renewed through 2013. (GeoEye also provides satellite imagery for the Russian Federal Service for State Registration, Cadastre and Cartography, through its Russian partner, ScanEx Research.)
From the Web Site of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency
Magazine – Pathfinder (pdf)
Accidents Caused by Inaccurate Maps
The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) has been repeatedly criticized for producing faulty maps that led to numerous tragedies, even before it was called the NGA.
Known previously as the National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA), the organization’s bad mapping has been the center of controversy.
In 1999, during the Kosovo crisis, an American military pilot mistakenly dropped four precision bombs on the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, Serbia, because of a faulty map provided by the NIMA. The CIA claimed to have used a flawed NIMA map for targeting the Yugoslav Federal Directorate of Supply and Procurement during the NATO bombing campaign. The incident killed three Chinese journalists and injured 20 other people.
An investigation by The Los Angeles Times found the NIMA had been making similar mistakes going back to the mid-1980s. In one 15-month span, NIMA maps played a role in three tragedies that caused 28 deaths, including the shearing of an Italian gondola cable by a Marine Corps fighter plane in 1998, which killed 20 people. An investigation showed that the NIMA-produced navigation map didn’t indicate that the ski lift existed.
The Times also noted that the agency had suffered other troubles, including a loss of senior analysts and cartographers, budget cuts, and “friction between intelligence and defense communities for its services.”
As recently as January 2013, the USS Guardian, a minesweeper, hit a reef in the Sulu Sea near the Philippines because the NGA’s digital mapping system placed the reef about 8 nautical miles away from where it actually is positioned.
U.S. Military Accidents Linked to Flawed Maps (by Lisa Getter, Los Angeles Times)
U.S. Ship in Tubbataha “Flooded” (Rappler.com)
Ski Lift Where 20 Died is not Shown on Map Used by U.S. Pilot (by John Tagliabue, New York Times)
Nato Bombed Chinese Deliberately: Nato hit embassy on purpose (by John Sweeney, Jens Holsoe and Ed Vulliamy, The Guardian)
U.S. Media Overlook Exposé on Chinese Embassy Bombing (Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting)
New York Times Reports on Embassy Bombing Investigation (Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting)
Time and Peace (by Stephanie Faul, Mappa Mundi)
Chinese Embassy Bombing: A Wide Net of Blame (by Steven Lee Meyers, New York Times)
Declassification of NGA Satellite Imagery
The NGA promised in 2011 to declassify a large volume of intelligence satellite imagery from the Cold War. Then, it changed its mind without explaining why.
“The NGA [National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency] is anticipating the potential declassification of significant amounts of film-based imagery… in 2011,” the agency stated in a solicitation that was published in Federal Business Opportunities on February 14, 2011, according to Steven Aftergood at Secrecy News.
The images expected to be released were taken from the KH-9 satellite during a 15-year span (1971-1986).
When asked why the NGA decided not to publish the images, a spokesman said the agency was still reviewing the material and after finishing its assessments would make a recommendation to the Director of National Intelligence on how to proceed.
Declassification of Intelligence Satellite Imagery Stalled (by Steven Aftergood, Secrecy News)
FOIA Letter (National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency)
Declassified Documents Trace U.S. Policy Shifts on Use of Commercial Satellite Imagery from 1970s to Today (National Security Archive)
Controversial NJVC Contract
While running the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), director James Clapper contracted out the agency’s information technology functions in 2001. The decision forced 600 NGA employees to either join the company taking over the work or just be laid off.
The 15-year, no-bid contract (which was worth up to $2.2. billion) went to NJVC, a joint venture of two Alaska Native corporations.
Five years later, Congress investigated NJVC and found its NGA work “seriously deficient with respect to security issues.” It also discovered the company was doing only about a third of the work specified under the contract. And yet NJVC was paid most of its performance fees.
In 2012, NJVC secured a contract modification with the NGA for $14 million, bringing the total actual value of the contract to $347 million.
In 2006, Clapper left the agency and in 2010 he became President Barack Obama’s Director of National Intelligence.
Problematic Contract Lurks In Intelligence Nominee's Past (by Ken Dilanian, Los Angeles Times)
NJVC to Continue NGA IT Enterprise Operations (by Ross Wilkers, The New New Internet)
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper in 2011 ordered employees at many of the U.S. government’s top intelligence agencies to take lie detector tests in an effort to stop leaks to the media.
The order affected those working at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, as well as the Central Intelligence Agency, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Department of Energy, and the National Security Agency, among others.
Clapper also requested the Intelligence Community inspector general to head up leak investigations when the Department of Justice declined to prosecute officials involved.
Polygraph tests were expected to include a specific question regarding contact with journalists and unauthorized leaks to the media. Anyone failing the test was subject to losing their security clearance and to criminal investigation.
Spy Chief James Clapper Wields Lie Detector In War On Leaks (WikiLeaks News)
James Clapper, Top U.S. Intelligence Official, Tightens Security Rules To Avert Leaks To Media (by Jim Miklaszewski and Courtney Kube, NBC News)
Drone Info Swamps the NGA
With the expansion of military surveillance drones, U.S. intelligence operations have become flooded with more video footage than they can handle.
In just three years, the video collected by Air Force drones over Afghanistan and Iraq tripled in quantity—enough for someone to spend 24 years straight to watch all of it.
The NGA, one of the agencies charged with analyzing the footage, has turned to television networks to see how they process the large volumes of video images they handle every day to see what might be of use. Some NGA officials spent time in network broadcast trucks parked outside football stadiums to learn how the crews tagged and retrieved highlight film in hopes that the NGA would be able to use the same techniques with the drone footage.
Military Is Awash in Data From Drones (by Christopher Drew, New York Times)
The NGA was criticized in 2011 for falling behind on archiving its collection of printed maps, according to the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).
NARA officials conducted an audit of the NGA after learning the agency was not keeping up on preserving hard copies of its maps. It turned out that the NGA had not archived any of the maps since 1996.
The inspection report noted that the NGA’s records management program had “shortcomings that need to be rectified to ensure the agency’s compliance with federal records management laws and regulations.”
Problems included a lack of awareness among staff about properly managing records and “an overall lack of established records management processes that ensure the proper disposition of records,” the report concluded.
NGA Falls Short On Archiving Hard Copy Maps, Inspectors Say (by Alice Lipowicz, FCW)
Restrictions on NGA Maps
The NGA decided in 2005 to remove most of its aeronautical data, including maps and publications, from public view.
NGA officials said they took this action because many foreign source providers had complained about intellectual property-rights concerns. But there also seemed to be a national security angle, as much of the NGA material is meant for “limited distribution” to begin with.
For instance, Australia asked the NGA to not publish maps of Indonesia, where certain terrorist organizations were located.
“The removal of this aeronautical data from general public access will assure the continued availability of information vital to national security,” James Clapper, NGA director and a retired Air Force three-star general, told the media. The agency stopped selling CD-ROMs of this material in early 2006 and stopped giving it out over the Internet in the fall of 2006.
The decision meant public mapmakers and librarians would no longer have access to many detailed aeronautical charts and data. But they could still obtain maps with a scale of 1-to-250,000 to 1-to-5 million, due to their lack of detail.
NGA Bans Flight Data From Public View (by Frank Tiboni, Federal Computer Week)
U.S. Makes Spy Images Inside U.S. (Associated Press)
Management of Hard Copy Mapping Products in the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (National Archives and Records Administration)
Indian Nuclear Test: Caught by Surprise
The United States was reportedly taken by surprise when India tested its first nuclear weapon in 1998, despite the fact that NIMA analysts had been instructed to monitor the supposed test site closely.
U.S. Intelligence and the Indian Bomb (National Security Archive)
India's Nuclear Weapons Program - Operation Shakti: 1998 (Nuclear Weapon Archive)
NGA Should Support War on Drugs
California lawmakers in Congress advocated in 2012 for intelligence agencies, including the NGA, to help in the war against drugs.
Legislation introduced in the House would have required the NGA and other spy operations to produce an annual report that detailed what activities they did to stop drug cartels.
“The local folks [in law enforcement] need all the help they can get,” Representative Mike Thompson (D-California), a member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, told McClatchy Newspapers. “Every day, there’s a new reason for concern.” One of the major concerns was the use of public lands in the Western states for marijuana growing and meth production.
Steven Aftergood, an expert in government secrecy working for the Federation of American Scientists, said the proposed change was “unlikely to alter agency behavior in significant ways ... but they can lead to subtle changes of emphasis, and they can signal to the executive branch that the subject is a focus of some congressional concern.”
House Bill Forces Spy Agencies' Help In Drug Fight (by Michel Doyle, McClatchy Newspapers)
Should EnhancedView program funding be cut?
EnhancedView is a public-private program that was established to launch a new generation of high resolution imaging satellites to provide data to the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA).
With steep cuts to the Department of Defense budget, Pentagon officials have been forced to reevaluate the $7.3 billion EnhancedView contract, which was awarded to two companies: GeoEye and DigitalGlobe.
A debate has ensued over what the government should do with EnhancedView and whether it can afford to keep it around. The program has reportedly been successful in providing high-resolution images to the NGA.
But some in the Pentagon have wondered if the government wouldn’t be better off if it relied on its own agencies for the satellite images, instead of paying billions of dollars to contractors.
On one side of the debate are leaders in the defense and intelligence communities. These officials face the difficult task of deciding what programs to cut funding for in light of shrinking defense budgets in future years. As much as some appreciate the work being produced by EnhancedView, supporters for cutting the program say the realities facing the Pentagon leave them with little choice. They add that it is possible for the NGA to still obtain the images it needs without EnhancedView, by relying on the spy satellites operated by the National Reconnaissance Office.
High Stakes For EnhancedView (by Karen E. Thuermer, Geospatial Intelligence Forum)
SASC Report Lifts Veil on Commercial Satellite Imagery Rift (by Marcia Smith, Space Policy Online.com)
In the other camp of this debate is the commercial remote sensing industry, more specifically the companies GeoEye and DigitalGlobe. The executives of these businesses desperately need funding for EnhancedView to continue, since about 60% of their partnership stems from the program. They warn that to cut its funding would likely mean the death of at least one of these corporations. They add that the program has proven to be valuable by providing high-quality images, and their supporters contend that reducing EnhancedView could adversely impact innovation and the future of the commercial remote sensing industry.
At a Crossroads (by Kristin Quinn, Trajectory Magazine)
White House Orders Commercial Spy Sat Study As Deep Cuts Rumored (by Colin Clark, AOL Defense News)
Satellite-imagery firms in Colorado hope to avoid steep federal cuts (by Ann Schrader, Denver Post)
James R. Clapper (2001-2006)
A Conversation with Lt. Gen. James R. Clapper (Lockheed Martin) (pdf)
NGA Head General James R. Clapper Answers Wide-Ranging Questions about NGA (by Hal Reid, Directions)