by Claire Bernish, The Free Thought Project:
While most Americans would consider the CIA, and perhaps the NSA, household names, one U.S. spy agency — whose headquarters surpasses the U.S. Capitol in size — has managed to keep to the shadows while possessing cutting edge tools of the surveillance trade.
Called the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), even former President Barack Obama didn’t know of its existence when he first took office — despite that the agency employs some 15,400 people.
“So, what do you [do]?” Obama asked a customer at a Washington, D.C., Five Guys hamburgers in May 2009.
“I work at NGA, National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency,” he answered.
Outstanding,” then-president Obama asserted. “How long have you been doing that?”
“So, explain to me exactly what this National Geospatial …” Obama asked, unable to recall the agency’s full name.
Timidly, the man replied, “Uh, we work with, uh, satellite imagery.”
“Obama appeared dumbfounded,” Foreign Policy’s James Bamford reports. “Eight years after that videotape aired, the NGA remains by far the most shadowy member of the Big Five spy agencies, which include the CIA and the National Security Agency.”
The NGA’s secretive identity belies the agency’s massive physical size and the scope of its surveillance activities, as Bamford continues,
“Completed in 2011 at a cost of $1.4 billion, the main building measures four football fields long and covers as much ground as two aircraft carriers. In 2016, the agency purchased 99 acres in St. Louis to construct additional buildings at a cost of $1.75 billion to accommodate the growing workforce, with 3,000 employees already in the city.
“The NGA is to pictures what the NSA is to voices. Its principal function is to analyze the billions of images and miles of video captured by drones in the Middle East and spy satellites circling the globe. But because it has largely kept its ultra-high-resolution cameras pointed away from the United States, according to a variety of studies, the agency has never been involved in domestic spy scandals like its two far more famous siblings, the CIA and the NSA. However, there’s reason to believe that this will change under President Donald Trump.”
Originally tasked primarily with cartography — before a mammoth expansion, the spy arm had been called the National Imagery and Mapping Agency — until a name and mission switch in 2003 gave the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency its name, with the hyphen allowing a three-letter acronym so enamored by the government.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower, whose fondness for imagery intelligence became known when he served as a general during World War II, created the National Photographic Interpretation Center shortly before leaving office — an agency also later absorbed by the NGA.
Now, the NGA works in conjunction with the U.S. Air Force to analyze the staggering amount of data collected through aerial surveillance abroad — mostly by unmanned aerial systems, such as drones with high-powered cameras.
According to at least one source, as of 2013, the NGA was integral in the analysis of surveillance data pertaining to Iran’s nuclear capabilities.
Revelations on the depth and breadth of the Central Intelligence Agency’s domestic capabilities, long believed out of its territory, was exposed by Wikileaks Vault 7 recently to be on par with National Security Agency programs — so much so, analysts say it constitutes a duplicate Big Brother.
Data provided to the NGA by military officials has assisted in various U.S. operations in the Middle East by tracking vehicles believed responsible for planting improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, and for monitoring hot spots for insurgent breakouts.
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