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Geospatial-Intelligence Agency Provides More Than Just Maps

By Steven Donald Smith
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, May 18, 2006 – It might not be a household name, like, say, the CIA, but the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency is an integral part of the U.S. intelligence community.

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Satellite Image of Islamabad, Pakistan. Courtesy of National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency

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Geospatial intelligence, or GEOINT, is the collecting and analysis of satellite imagery of the earth's surface. The mission of the agency, headquartered here, is to provide that type of intelligence to support national security objectives.

"If it's something manmade or natural on the face of the earth and it has national security implications, then we map it, chart it, analyze it, and make that information available," Sue Meisner, an NGA spokeswoman, said. "Geospatial intelligence provides layers of data, or foundation data, upon which other intelligence agencies can build upon."

GEOINT might be used to help pilots navigate through mountainous terrain during low-flying missions or target enemy positions for precision-weapons strikes.

NGA was formerly known as the National Imagery and Mapping Agency. Even though the agency now deals mostly with electronic products, it still produces hard-copy maps.

Because NGA is a member of the U.S. intelligence community and is a Department of Defense combat-support agency, its director reports to both the director of national intelligence and the secretary of defense.

The agency gets its raw imagery from either National Reconnaissance Office satellites or through commercial operations, such as DigitalGlobe, a Colorado-based digital-mapping company.

NGA also contributes to humanitarian-relief efforts, such as tracking floods and fires, and has aided domestic law enforcement agencies during major events like the Super Bowl.

"Our main mission and focus is to support the military overseas," Meisner said. "But stateside, if a lead federal agency such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency says we need your help to respond to a hurricane, then we can step in."

The agency fields support teams around the globe. About a quarter of the NGA workforce operates outside of its headquarters. A lot of its personnel are collocated with combatant commanders or at other intelligence agencies.

Scott Kather, an NGA geospatial analyst, has deployed twice to Iraq to help troops on the ground. During his second deployment, from October 2005 to February 2006, he was with the 101st Airborne. He said some troops were vaguely familiar with NGA mapping products, but most knew little about the agency itself.

Kather said his goal was to find out what the agency could do to help the troops perform their mission and then provide the appropriate products.

"If they thought there were some bad guys at a particular coordinate, I would find an image of that coordinate," Kather said. "A lot of the time all they wanted was that image on a PowerPoint slide. What they were looking for mostly were ways in and ways out. That was about 90 percent of what I did over there."

Kather said he got a great deal of satisfaction from helping the troops in Iraq. "I've been with NGA 15 years, and it was the most gratifying thing I've ever done," he said. "Just going over there and working directly with the customer, & that meant a lot to me."

Air Force Brig. Gen. Michael Planert, the NGA military executive, who has been with the agency for just six months, said he didn't know much about the agency when he arrived. "My view of this agency was maps and charts," Planert said. "But what I'm finding is a lot more than that."

He said one big challenge the agency faces is getting the word out about what it does and letting people know how to access its products, particularly combat troops.

"I think the marketing part is important, letting people know the capability and products we have and how to get them," Planert said. "We want to get the GEOINT into the foxhole."

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National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency

Click photo for screen-resolution imageScott Kather, a National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency analyst, discusses his deployment to Iraq with reporters at the agency's headquarters in Bethesda, Md., May 16. Photo by Steven Donald Smith  
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