Spy Agency Watching Americans From Space
Saturday, May 13, 2006; 6:29 AM
WASHINGTON -- A little-known spy agency that analyzes imagery taken from the skies has been spending significantly more time watching U.S. soil.
In an era when other intelligence agencies try to hide those operations, the director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, retired Air Force Lt. Gen. James Clapper, is proud of that domestic mission.
He said the work the agency did after hurricanes Rita and Katrina was the best he'd seen an intelligence agency do in his 42 years in the spy business.
"This was kind of a direct payback to the taxpayers for the investment made in this agency over the years, even though in its original design it was intended for foreign intelligence purposes," Clapper said in a Thursday interview with The Associated Press.
Geospatial intelligence is the science of combining imagery, such as satellite pictures, to physically depict features or activities happening anywhere on the planet. A part of the Defense Department, the NGA usually operates unnoticed to provide information on nuclear sites, terror camps, troop movements or natural disasters.
After last year's hurricanes, the agency had an unusually public face. It set up mobile command centers that sprung out of the backs of Humvees and provided imagery for rescuers and hurricane victims who wanted to know the condition of their homes. Victims would provide their street address and the NGA would provide a satellite photo of their property. In one way or another, some 900 agency officials were involved.
Spy agencies historically avoided domestic operations out of concern for Pentagon regulations and Reagan-era executive order, known as 12333, that restricted intelligence collection on American citizens and companies. Its budget, like all intelligence agencies, is classified.
On Clapper's watch of the last five years, his agency has found ways to expand its mission to help prepare security at Super Bowls and political conventions or deal with natural disasters, such as hurricanes and forest fires.
With help, the agency can also zoom in. Its officials cooperate with private groups, such as hotel security, to get access to footage of a lobby or ballroom. That video can then be linked with mapping and graphical data to help secure events or take action, if a hostage situation or other catastrophe happens.
Privacy advocates wonder how much the agency picks up _ and stores. Many are increasingly skeptical of intelligence agencies with recent revelations about the Bush administration's surveillance on phone calls and e-mails.
Among the government's most closely guarded secrets, the quality of pictures NGA receives from classified satellites is believed to far exceed the one-meter resolution available commercially. That means they can take a satellite "snapshot" from high above the atmosphere that is crisply detailed down to one meter level, which is 3.3 feet.
Clapper says his agency only does big pictures, so concerns about using the NGA's foreign intelligence apparatus at home doesn't apply.