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National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, Bethesda

“Geospatial intelligence ” is the process of analyzing multiple satellite images to determine what is present, and what is happening, at a given point on the Earth. For years, the main targets of the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency (NGIA) and its predecessor agencies were foreign nations. But that was before the September 11 attacks. Today, more and more targets in the United States are being analyzed. And, yes, NGIA cooperates with domestic law enforcement agencies such as the FBI, DEA, and even local police.

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The National Geospatial Intelligence Agency was created in 2004 by combining the National Imagery and Mapping Agency with various geospatial intelligence functions in other government agencies. NGIA was created to provide more efficient and accurate analysis of satellite imagery as well to develop commercial applications of geospatial intelligence. NGIA headquarters is in Bethesda, but it has operations in northern Virginia, Washington, DC, and St. Louis, MO.

One of the main tasks of NGIA is to develop and maintain the most highly detailed and accurate maps in the world. Maps are maintained in digital form for rapid processing and comparison by computers. For example, suppose the CIA learns from an informant that a wanted terrorist is hiding in a “safe house” in a Middle Eastern country, but this informant has no street address or other definitive identifying details of the house’s location. But if the informant could supply some other details such as the house’s size, color, type of roof, whether it has a fence, whether it has trees in the front or back, etc. then NGIA computers could identify houses in the area meeting those criteria. Further examination of those “suspect” houses would then be done to determine traffic patterns around them, whether people and vehicles entered and left the house, when the lights were on and off in the houses, what type of heating was being used and when (this could be determined by the infrared emissions from the houses), etc. By this process, it would be possible to soon identify a small number of houses that could be the “safe house” and target them for human surveillance or possible military action.

Such capabilities are great when the targets are terrorists or hidden caches of nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons. But does NGIA ever turn its “eyes” on the United States? The answer is yes.

Some of the NGIA’s geospatial intelligence of the United States is undeniably helpful. For example, it has produced imagery of forest fires and flooding that proved valuable in firefighting and disaster relief efforts. NGIA also helped identify critical security lapses in such vulnerable infrastructure as nuclear power plants, dams, and electrical transmission systems. But the NGIA admits it has also collected and analyzed image data on political demonstrations (such as those during the 2004 political conventions) and has offered what it terms “passive assistance” to law enforcement agencies. According to Bert Beaulieu, director of NGIA’s Americas office, an example of such passive assistance could be NGIA checking to see whether they have an image showing a certain vehicle in a given location on a specific day and time. But, Beaulieu added, “I can’t remember a single case where we actually had such an image for that day.”

NGIA can only specifically track targets (such as homes and businesses) in the United States when national security and anti-terrorism issues are involved. Flowever, it is much easier for law enforcement agencies to raise such issues in the post-September 11 environment. So if you’re doing something unusual like having all the lights in your home on at 3 a.m. you might find yourself a NGIA target.

What’s There: The NGIA headquarters is your standard-issue brick government office; only the guardhouse at the entrance road indicates Top Secret Stuff is going on inside.

Getting a Look Inside: Forget it!

Getting There: The main NGIA building is at 4600 Sangamore Road in Bethesda.

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