A little-known spy agency that analyzes imagery taken from the skies
has been spending significantly more time watching U.S. soil.
In an era when other intelligence agencies try to hide those operations, the
director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, retired Air Force Lt.
Gen. James Clapper, is proud of that domestic mission.
He said the work the agency did after hurricanes Rita and Katrina was the best
he'd seen an intelligence agency do in his 42 years in the spy business.
"This was kind of a direct payback to the taxpayers for the investment
made in this agency over the years, even though in its original design it was
intended for foreign intelligence purposes," Clapper said in a Thursday
interview with The Associated Press.
Geospatial intelligence is the science of combining imagery, such as satellite
pictures, to physically depict features or activities happening anywhere on
the planet. A part of the Defense Department, the NGA usually operates unnoticed
to provide information on nuclear sites, terror camps, troop movements or natural
After last year's hurricanes, the agency had an unusually public face. It set
up mobile command centers that sprung out of the backs of Humvees and provided
imagery for rescuers and hurricane victims who wanted to know the condition
of their homes. Victims would provide their street address and the NGA would
provide a satellite photo of their property. In one way or another, some 900
agency officials were involved.
Spy agencies historically avoided domestic operations out of concern for Pentagon
regulations and Reagan-era executive order, known as 12333, that restricted
intelligence collection on American citizens and companies. Its budget, like
all intelligence agencies, is classified.
On Clapper's watch of the last five years, his agency has found ways to expand
its mission to help prepare security at Super Bowls and political conventions
or deal with natural disasters, such as hurricanes and forest fires.
With help, the agency can also zoom in. Its officials cooperate with private
groups, such as hotel security, to get access to footage of a lobby or ballroom.
That video can then be linked with mapping and graphical data to help secure
events or take action, if a hostage situation or other catastrophe happens.
Privacy advocates wonder how much the agency picks up - and stores. Many are
increasingly skeptical of intelligence agencies with recent revelations about
the Bush administration's surveillance on phone calls and e-mails.
Among the government's most closely guarded secrets, the quality of pictures
NGA receives from classified satellites is believed to far exceed the one-meter
resolution available commercially. That means they can take a satellite "snapshot"
from high above the atmosphere that is crisply detailed down to one meter level,
which is 3.3 feet.
Clapper says his agency only does big pictures, so concerns about using the
NGA's foreign intelligence apparatus at home doesn't apply.
"We are not trying to examine an individual dwelling, for example, because
what our mission is normally going to be is looking at large areas," he
said. "It doesn't really affect or threaten anyone's privacy or civil liberties
when you are looking at a large collective area."
When asked what additional powers he'd ask Congress for, he said, "I wouldn't."
His agency also handles its historic mission: regional threats, such as Iran
and North Korea; terrorist hideouts; and tracking drug trade. "Everything
and everybody has to be some place," he said.
He considers his brand of intelligence a chess match. "There are sophisticated
nation states that have a good understanding of our surveillance capabilities,"
including Iran, he said. "What we have to do is counter that" by taking
advantage of anomalies or sending spy planes and satellites over more frequently.
Adversaries who hide their most important facilities underground is a trend
the agency has to work at, he said.
NGA was once a stepchild of the intelligence community. But Clapper said it
has come into its own and become an equal partner with the other spy agencies,
such as the CIA.
Experience-wise, the agency is among the youngest of the spy agencies. About
40 percent of the agency's analyst have been hired in the last five years.
"They are very inexperienced, and that's just fine. They don't have any
baggage," said Clapper, who retires next month as the longest serving agency
director. "The people that we are getting now are bright, computer literate.
... That is not something I lie awake and worry about."