Last week James Bamford published a piece in Foreign Policy named “The Multibillion-Dollar U.S. Spy Agency You Haven’t Heard of“. It is about the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA). What a sensational and full of crap piece of writing.
I can see NGA’s building from my home, almost. Straight line, it’s perhaps one mile from my house. Every time I drive to Ft. Belvoir I can see the building on the near horizon and I live a hop, skip and a jump from Ft. Belvoir.
NGA has been around a long time, they only changed the name. It is the old NIMA, the National Imagery and Mapping Agency, but Geospatial Intelligence became such a big thing, they changed the name.
An old former boss of mine, then LTG James King, changed the name around the 2002/2003 time frame. Yeah, the same Jimmy King that got caught up in the MZM scandal in 2004 after he retired, but that never really made the news in a big way.
I last worked with NIMA when they pointed out some equipment in Afghanistan to me, when I had a team of theirs working for me in 2001. The equipment in Afghanistan turned out to be Wave Line Traps, which theoretically could have allowed Usama bin Laden to communicate via Power Lines. First, they wanted to verify the equipment was in place in Afghanistan and second, they wanted to make sure it wasn’t connected to any other means of communication, such as a simple cordless telephone to allow him to communicate from a cave in Afghanistan to, for instance, Libya, without being monitored. The lines turned out to be clean (clear of equipment) and most were so rusted they couldn’t be used (they were installed in the 1970s).
I’m certainly not an expert in Geospatial Intelligence, but there was going to be a gap if NIMA didn’t embrace the field, hence the mission and name change. They’ve always been very quiet because how sexy is a map or an image? Not very. But with all the new sensors, hyperspectral sensors for instance, and new ways to detect deep and buried targets, this particular area of expertise had to be developed.
Good people but what they do is normally as boring as watching paint dry. Yes, the work they do is normally very classified but it doesn’t attract a lot of attention, only because it’s all very technical and very, very boring to most of us. They have great quality people and they do great work. The thing they do that I find most interesting is called Change Detection. They take a picture of some place on earth and can compare it to another picture taken previously – automatically. If someone dug a hole where there was none before, a computer will recognize the change. A new building will appear as a new building. By inference, if you take a sensor looking at ultra low frequency emissions, for instance, of a hillside in Afghanistan, and it changes, chances are there is a tunnel underneath where there was none before. New chemicals might be detected, new compounds can appear, explosive detonations might have particular micro-by products with specific emissions, a new hollow space might change the resonance of an area, the list is endless. These people are masters at thinking outside the box, applying technology in new ways, and inventing new technologies for detecting things better and more efficiently.
Because of the drawdown known as BRAC, NGA moved to Ft. Belvoir from a hole-in-the-wall place known for map making near Bethesda, Maryland. 28,000 new jobs were moved to Ft. Belvoir, including NGA. It’s actually nice to see them getting some attention. With the rise in popularity of GPS and automated mapping tools, the name change makes sense.
There will always be a need for paper maps, however. A bullet hole in a map doesn’t stop it from working. That part of the old NIMA will always be necessary.