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GlobalSecurity.org In the News

The Washington Post June 6, 2006

Senators Seek Better Defense Imagery

Committee Wants More Photos, Video and Maps Available to Troops in Field

By Walter Pincus

The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence wants to expand the mission of the nation's imagery intelligence agency so that it can provide U.S. forces on the ground with laptop computers that display still pictures and video of what may lie over the next hill.

"New products including full-motion video and ground-based photography should be included with available positional data [such as maps] in National Geospatial-Intelligence libraries for retrieval on Defense Department and intelligence community networks," the Senate panel said in its report on the fiscal 2007 intelligence authorization bill.

"The committee wants troops to be able to dial up what the route ahead will look like and where potential ambush points may be," said John Pike of GlobalSecurity.org, an expert in satellite- and ground-based intelligence. He said digital still photos taken by military attachés and Special Forces teams that have slipped in and out of potential target countries such as Iran and North Korea as well as video footage taken by unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have been collected for years, but have not been integrated into the main data libraries maintained by the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA).

"The NGA's current library of geospatial products reflects its heritage -- predominantly overhead imagery and mapping products," the committee wrote in its report. "While the NGA is beginning to incorporate more airborne and commercial imagery, its products are nearly devoid of FMV [full-motion video] and ground-based photography," it added.

The panel's solution is to give the director of national intelligence authority to direct the NGA to "analyze, disseminate and incorporate" into its national system "likenesses, videos, or presentations produced by ground-based platforms including handheld or clandestine photography taken by or on behalf of human intelligence collection organizations."

The new visual materials would be available along with traditional mapping data for retrieval by mission planners and troops in the field. "The route to and from a facility or photographs of what a facility would look like to a foot soldier -- rather than from an aircraft -- would be of immense value to our military personnel and intelligence officers," the report said.

Sensitive to the unique roles played by human collectors, including Special Forces teams and clandestine CIA operatives, the report made clear that the NGA's new mission would not give the agency authority to "manage or direct" the collection or set the technical requirements for "handheld or clandestine photography." The human collection agencies would also control the classification of their photography as well as how and to whom it is distributed.

Instead, the panel encouraged the NGA, whose database includes the exact location of where images are taken and the timing, to work with the other collection agencies so their data can easily be retrievable from the National Geospatial data libraries.

Pike said, however, that technical difficulties exist in finding ways to integrate the new collection into the NGA data libraries. "Lots of still-camera imagery does not have time and place stamped into it as do the satellites," he said. He also noted that full-motion videos, where a UAV can be traveling 100 mph, creates a problem in stamping locations so viewers know the start and finish of the target.

An NGA spokesman said the agency does not comment on pending legislation such as the Senate intelligence committee's version of the authorization bill. But the NGA has been making changes in its databases over the past few years. More commercial imagery has been purchased and some video from UAVs such at the Predator and Global Hawk have gone into the system.

Last December, Director of National Intelligence John D. Negroponte gave the NGA responsibility for overhead, non-imagery infrared and space-borne collectors of measurement and signature intelligence, which involves sensors that, among other things, gather signs of chemical, electronic, nuclear or other radiations emitters.

The NGA also has linked elements of its group with the National Security Agency, whose satellites and ground-based facilities collect electronic messages. Negroponte recently praised this step as "linking our nation's 'eyes and ears.' "

In a presentation last September, retired Lt. Gen. James R. Clapper Jr., the head of the NGA, described his view of "geointellingence" as seeking to answer such questions as "Where am I? Where are the friendlies? Where are the enemies? Where are the noncombatants? Where are the obstacles, natural and manmade, and how do I navigate among them? And what is the environment?"

Clapper, who became director of the NGA in 2001 when it was still the National Imagery and Mapping Agency, plans to retire this month.


Copyright 2006, The Washington Post Company