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.
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. 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
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 and the U.S. Geological Survey worked together to determine the extent of damage to the site of the former World Trade Center, following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks
- The agency provided the military, government and humanitarian groups with satellite imagery of areas decimated by Hurricane Katrina
- Map data has been used to settle border disputes, including a generations-long feud between Peru and Ecuador
- Map data of St. Louis was provided to the Secret Service in 1999 so it could make security arrangements for a visit by Pope John Paul II
- Warplanes rely on the NGA for precision bombing and navigation maps
- The agency instructs satellites to spy on rogue states and terrorist groups
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.
The NGA is headquartered in Bethesda, MD, with additional offices in St. Louis; Reston, Va. and the Washington Navy Yard in Washington, D.C. The agency will move all of its eastern operations to one site, at Fort Belvoir in Fairfax County, VA, by Sept. 15, 2011.
New Campus East
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
Photographing Inside the U.S.
Bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade
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 of 1999. Four precision bombs struck the Chinese embassy in Belgrade, killing three and wounding nearly two dozen.
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.
Marine Corps Pilot Kills 20 on Italian Ski Lift
A Marine Corps jet pilot struck an Italian ski lift in 1998, killing 20 people. An investigation showed that his NIMA-produced navigation map didn’t indicate that the lift existed.
Ski Lift Where 20 Died is not Shown on Map Used by U.S. Pilot
(by John Tagliabue, New York Times)
Some suggest that the NGA’s intelligence and combat-tactics functions be separated (see Debate above). Others take issue with confusing lines of budgetary and appointment authority exercised by the secretary of defense and the national intelligence director over the NGA.
You Call That a Reform Bill? (by Fred Kaplan, Salon)
James R. Clapper (2001-2006)
Founded: 2003 (with forerunners dating back to 1961)
Annual Budget: Classified
National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency