Staking out new ground
- By Randall Edwards
- Feb 08, 2004
Then mourners gathered in New York City's Battery Park for the one-year memorial of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, a small, secretive agency played a critical role in securing the site.
The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, formerly the National Imagery and Mapping Agency, provided a unique look at New York during security planning for the memorial services. Using mapping technologies to create a virtual 3-D view, NGA officials provided imagery that revealed city subway tunnels that ran directly underneath the designated podium site — a possible security breach that had not been accounted for earlier.
NGA officials have been forced to transform from mapmakers to key players in the intelligence community through the delivery of timely geospatial intelligence.
"Imagery remains absolutely essential to military operations and to strategic intelligence, and it is more widely used today than at any point in the 20th century," said John Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, an organization that works to improve the capabilities of the intelligence community, including their use of geospatial information.
NGA provides vital geographic information and analysis in support of military operations and homeland security. The agency creates a highly specialized version of geospatial information, including 3-D simulated flights for U.S. military pilots and virtual reproductions of cities and urban areas.
NGA has grown into an important intelligence partner as the United States' focus on homeland security has sharpened in recent years.
The agency combines imagery, analysis and data to produce its specialized version of geospatial intelligence for customers such as national policy-makers, military commanders, homeland security agencies and intelligence community analysts.
Not always a player in the intelligence community, the agency's supporting role in the intelligence and military communities has evolved since its establishment in 1996.
NGA incorporates four organizations — the Defense Mapping Agency, the Central Imagery Office, the Defense Dissemination Program Office and the National Photographic Interpretation Center — in addition to the imagery units of the Defense Airborne Reconnaissance Office, the National Reconnaissance Office, the Defense Intelligence Agency and the CIA.
With the leadership of the agency's director, retired Air Force Lt. Gen. James Clapper Jr., the evolution of its duties has paralleled the agency's increasing ability to produce more in-depth analysis and not just maps.
"I think that NGA is under good leadership and headed in the right direction with the focus on geospatial intelligence and not just on maps," said Robert David Steele, a former CIA and Marine Corps intelligence analyst and founder of OSS.net, an organization that works for intelligence reform.
Joe Drummey, deputy director of NGA's Office of the Americas, said the agency's profile has improved largely because of the timeliness and usefulness of its intelligence. As a result, other officials include NGA officials in planning and decision-making processes during crucial situations.
NGA analysts, for example, are stationed on site during special events with the same technological capabilities found at agency headquarters. This timely data gives intelligence organizations and planners a knowledge advantage, Drummey said.
"This advantage is provided through the added value of geospatial analysts sitting side-by-side with the planners," he said.
As the agency's role has grown, so too has the agency itself. At the time of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, NGA had 15 analysts. The agency now has nearly 90 people focusing on homeland security, including nearly 70 analysts.
Generating the virtual view
NGA's intelligence data is designed to create a common operational picture, an overall package of information regarding situational awareness and analysis.
From their unique viewpoint, NGA officials create computer-generated virtual analytic environments that consist of high-
resolution, high-density images and data on a city or designated area.
NGA made key contributions to the war in Iraq by providing geospatial intelligence to U.S. troops, an important role toward military success.
In addition to supporting global military operations,
NGA also supports security within U.S. borders by creating
virtual urban environments during special events. These 3-D views detail city maps, overhead imagery, terrain, buildings and infrastructure, elevation and even subterranean information.
That data provides security planners with a complete situational look. The planners allow NGA officials to influence the strategy and decision-making processes for allocating resources and planning for possible crisis situations.
NGA "is certainly in a position to play a larger role with respect to homeland security operations within the U.S." than they were before Sept. 11, 2001, Pike said.
Virtual environments are planned for U.S. cities deemed the most likely targets of terrorist attacks, Drummey said. Less than 10 have been completed, but officials plan to develop 50 computer simulations of cities in the next year and a half.
When supporting a special event, NGA organizes its geospatial data and analysis on a secure Web gateway named Palanterra, a one-stop service for security customers seeking specialized information.
The agency has also created a Web gateway that allows NGA to "bring the common operational picture to the desktop," Drummey said.
Palanterra, which uses geographic information system software from ESRI running on an Oracle Corp. database, provides secure Web access to real-time data and imagery for its approved customers, who enter through a secure gateway.
Placing the data online also allows NGA analysts to integrate critical infrastructure data in a spatial environment that can be continuously monitored and updated.
NGA first unveiled the Palanterra technology at the 2002 Super Bowl in San Diego. With the terrorist attacks still fresh in the minds of the public, the agency's virtual views of the San Diego area helped planners organize security resources against terrorist threats.
NGA also provided geospatial intelligence to support security efforts during the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City and will do the same at the upcoming Democratic and Republican national conventions.
Working well with others
NGA has developed effective partnerships to collect the needed geographic and spatial data.
The agency's federal partners include the civilian agencies involved in the Office of Management and Budget's Geospatial One-Stop program, which is an effort to link and catalog geospatial data from several agencies. NGA also works closely with NASA on compiling elevation data on the Earth's surface.
NGA also draws resources from commercial providers, especially for satellite imagery and data. In crises, the agency relies on classified government satellites operated by the National Reconnaissance Office because, Drummey said, the agency's "technology far exceeds commercial satellites."
Perhaps NGA's most notable civilian partner is the Interior Department's U.S. Geological Survey. Through their partnership, the geological survey acts as a broker to state and local agencies when gathering information for NGA, said Mark Naftzger, USGS program coordinator for the Cooperative Topographic Mapping program.
Naftzger reports that a 2002 memo establishes USGS as the lead agency for developing and directing working relationships with state and local departments.
NGA, as a national intelligence agency, cannot deal directly with state and local partners. Its charter also prevents the agency from collecting information about U.S. citizens on U.S. soil unless a request is made from another federal agency in the interest of homeland security, Drummey said.
Therefore, the cooperation between NGA and USGS is critical for domestic preparedness.
USGS uses a nationwide network of state liaisons to facilitate communication and prepare an inventory of information. Naftzger said much of the geospatial information is collected far in advance of special events that NGA must support.
USGS "does a lot of legwork upfront to get information to NGA so they can complete their analysis in the command centers," he said.
USGS is able to rely on state-level relationships that NGA typically does not have.
"What we bring to the table is a good history of working relationships with state and local governments," said Barbara Ryan, USGS' associate director for geography. "They're comfortable working with civilian agencies."
The partnership is beneficial to both parties. NGA is active in the National Map project, and officials then work with USGS to develop a single integrated data infrastructure of the country.
USGS' involvement has also helped raise the agency's profile throughout the country, which facilitates the collection of information from state and local officials.
NGA's partnership with the geological survey, other agencies and geospatial providers is crucial to its future success, Steele said.
"NGA will not succeed in isolation from USGS and other private-sector sources of geospatial data and expertise," he said. "We need agencies that emphasize standards and work to ensure that all information has geospatial attributes that enable automated all-source fusion."
Effective partnerships have helped stretch GIS funding while avoiding unnecessary redundancies in data collection.
"Because of these partnerships, we have been able to leverage the dollars that [NGA] has for geospatial data investment," Ryan said. "We've increased their investments. We don't want to get trapped into collecting data for just one area. We want to be able to collect the data once and use it many times."
Drummey estimates that NGA's efforts to share information have saved other federal agencies millions of dollars that would have been spent on acquiring that information.
He also said that NGA's geospatial analysis has a wide range of applications. The same data used by military and defense organizations is also helpful to civilian agencies, including the Federal Aviation Administration, which uses aeronautical data, and disaster preparation and response organizations such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
An eye on the future
NGA officials have worked for more than a year to develop the Homeland Security Infrastructure Program. The project's goal is to build a single integrated domestic infrastructure database for federal use.
The program will be the first to compile such information for the entire country into a single database. It will include infrastructures of U.S. entry/exit points, such as land borders and seaports, and up to 133 urban areas.
The program will feature a layered system of information generated from several sources, including commercial imagery, terrain elevation data and population data. The idea is to create a common operational picture for the entire country that will aid in homeland security and crisis response and recovery.
Steele supports building a network that readily shares geospatial information. "We urgently need to think in terms of global information-sharing networks that lower the cost of global coverage and real-time monitoring to the mutual benefit of all governments and organizations striving to stabilize the Earth,"
The infrastructure program will allow state and local partners to access the information, Drummey said. NGA officials take information from the infrastructure program and give it to the National Map project if the data is applicable.
Pike supports the idea of increased geospatial imagery and data collection for U.S. urban areas. He said that this effort has lagged behind the agency's military support.
"What they could do better is to get better imagery cover of American cities," Pike said. "This is part of the global war on terrorism and is something that the federal government needs to be doing."
A second infrastructure program NGA officials are developing is the National System for Geospatial Intelligence. As the program's functional manager, NGA is helping develop a Web-based system for federal decision-makers to access geospatial intelligence.
NGA officials are developing the infrastructure within their agency but hope to expand it throughout the federal government.
In conjunction with this project, NGA is attempting to modernize its infrastructure while transforming to a digital, data-
centric business environment.
Drummey feels that the biggest challenge facing NGA is "the process of working through various intelligence oversight and policy issues, along with data-sharing issues."
"But we're working through it, and we're certainly supported in the intelligence community," Drummey said.
As a strong proponent of intelligence reform, Steele said that NGA needs increased funding for the resources to accomplish its mission.
"NGA is severely underfunded, and it is incapable of making full use of commercial imagery and geospatial data sources," he said. "NGA remains in the Stone Age with respect to processing, and they are never going to overcome that problem until there has been a full and complete reform of the intelligence community as a whole."
Steele also calls for increased support of global military operations, including those in Africa, Central Asia, Indonesia and the Philippines, another area he feels could be better served with increased resources.
"NGA has done the best it could, but our troops deserve better," Steele said.
Continued development is the key to the agency's future effectiveness in a world with constantly expanding terrorist threats, regardless of funding levels, Drummey said.
Despite the many challenges facing the intelligence and homeland security communities, it's a safe bet that NGA will have a sharp eye on the situation.