National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency analyst Kyle Schmidt looks over a map produced for emergency agencies in preparation for Hurricane Rita, Sept. 21, 2005 in New Orleans, La.

National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency analyst Kyle Schmidt looks over a map produced for emergency agencies in preparation for Hurricane Rita, Sept. 21, 2005 in New Orleans, La. Charlie Riedel/AP

The Quiet Rise of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency

The NGA's intelligence-gathering has played a key role in every major world crisis since the raid on Osama bin Laden in 2011. By Jack Moore

As far as intelligence agencies go, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency has remained relatively low profile -- attracting neither the intrigue of, say, the CIA nor the umbrage directed toward the National Security Agency.

But even as other realms of spycraft have been battered by revelations over intrusive government surveillance, the role of geospatial intelligence—interactive mapping and satellite imagery—appears poised for primetime.  

A telling detail that encapsulates the growing primacy of GEOINT in the intelligence world: Prior to taking over as the new NGA director Friday, Robert Cardillo, the 31-year intelligence community veteran, most recently worked in close consult with the White House—Customer No. 1, in intelligence parlance—to compile and present the top-secret Presidential Daily Brief.

"What I want to help NGA with is, how do we take the expertise, how do we take the base of knowledge that we have here and convey it in a way that's meaningful to the customer at their time of decision,” Cardillo told reporters after the change-of-leadership ceremony at NGA headquarters in Springfield, Virginia.

In a video message presented at the ceremony Friday, President Barack Obama said of Cardillo: “He's smart; he's unflappable. He's earned my complete confidence as he prepares to lead this agency forward."

(Related: The Public Will Soon Be Able To Buy Military-Grade Satellite Images)

Long-Time Agency Head Retires

Increasing recognition of the agency’s growing role in the intelligence world was on full display Friday. Letitia Long, the first woman to head a major intelligence agency, officially retired after four years at the helm of NGA and more than 36 years total in the intelligence community.

Long is widely credited for leading a transformation of NGA’s capabilities, putting more sophisticated GEOINT into the hands of more customers—members of the military, diplomats and decision-makers alike.  

“Together, we have transformed NGA from a static product producer”—think basic maps and satellite images—“into a provider of dynamic content, analysis and services,” she said during the ceremony.

Intelligence officials hailed the critical role of geospatial intelligence during the successful raid on Osama bin Laden’s Pakistan compound in 2011. And in every major world crisis of recent years since, NGA intelligence-gathering has played a key role, officials say.

Increasingly, NGA "is the IC's backbone for global coverage," said Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence Michael Vickers during the leadership changeover event.

Clapper: NGA More Transparent

Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, who also spoke at the ceremony has hinted before about NGA’s burgeoning role in the intelligence firmament—especially in the wake of damaging revelations about NSA’s online surveillance activities.

“GEOINT has a great advantage in our current environment because it’s the most transparent of the collection disciplines,” Clapper said last spring at the GEOINT Symposium in Tampa, Florida.

In part that’s because of the agency’s unclassified work in civil disaster relief efforts, including after the Fukushima nuclear crisis in Japan in 2011 and following Hurricane Sandy’s destructive landfall in the Northeast in 2012.

But the agency’s growing profile isn’t only happenstance.

NGA has taken a lead role in the broader intelligence community’s technology-integration plan—known as ICITE—and in spearheading activity-based intelligence, the agency’s bid to harness the power of big data.

Agency Plays Key Role in Tech Integration, Big Data Project

ICITE, the Intelligence Community Integrated Technology Enterprise, aims to deliver a common IT framework to be used across the 17 intelligence agencies and is “the technological linchpin of intelligence integration,” according to Vickers.

NGA has partnered with the Defense Intelligence Agency to build a common desktop environment across the IC.

“ICITE, I'll say simply, clears the decks, corrects the plumbing and enables all of us to bring that integrated intelligence together in one place,” Cardillo told reporters.

For now, the project is mostly about driving intelligence operations toward greater efficiency. But the end-goal is something more ambitious.

"I think we're going to move from desktop to the back-office, but more importantly to the analytic integration that's necessary at the end of ICITE,” Cardillo added.

Hand-in-hand with ICITE is a growing focus on more predictive intelligence.

It’s called activity-based intelligence—akin to combing through vast amounts of geospatial data, including video, satellite imagery and other sensor data to look for patterns. It stands in contrast to the traditional target-based methods of intelligence pioneered, for example, by the CIA.

“We need to let the systems and the software do the work that, quite frankly, I used to do as an analyst,” Cardillo said.

Analysts can’t just point to the data they uncover. They need “to find meaning in the noise,” he said.

Cardillo said he doesn’t view the pace of private-sector pace of innovation as threatening or disruptive to NGA’s mission.

“I want us to leverage the big data revolution, the geospatial information services that are blossoming, the startups that are happening in New York and California and around the world … We don't need to reinvent that material or that piece of software. We need to figure out how to leverage it."