ADVICE+DISSENT: Intelligence File Worldly View

Geospatial agency shifts with the times: buys images, gives them away.

In 2004, Internet giant Google made John Hanke an offer he couldn't refuse. The Silicon Valley video game entrepreneur had built a software program called Keyhole, which let users "fly over" 3-D maps of points on the globe. Google bought Keyhole-for an undisclosed sum-hired Hanke, and renamed the product Google Earth. It has been downloaded more than 100 million times. Television viewers see it every day when military analysts zip around Baghdad and Afghanistan, offering a God's eye view of the war. But before Google recognized Keyhole's potential, the company got off the ground with financing from an unusual source, and one that became a very big customer: the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.

Before Keyhole, NGA-formerly called the National Imagery and Mapping Agency-was the place to go for 3-D maps and images. Military commanders used them, and still do, to guide troops and target missiles, and spies relied on NGA to covertly capture and analyze satellite photos of America's adversaries. But by the late 1990s, companies like Keyhole were better at building the technology to do this, and they did it for less money. So NGA changed with the times. Today, the only thing classified about most of its maps and charts is how they're used. The tools to build them are bought off the shelf. NGA's workforce also has evolved. Of its more than 14,000 full-time cartographers, geodesists and other specialists, more than half are contractors. This means that NGA might be the closest thing to a quasi-private institution in the intelligence community, and the privatization trend is continuing.

This is partially driven from the top. In May 2003, the White House announced a new national policy instructing agencies to use commercial satellite imagery "to the maximum practical extent." Today, NGA has a contract worth $500 million to buy commercial imagery. "This has been the push of this administration-outsourcing," says David Burpee, NGA's chief spokesman.

The administration certainly has pushed. But NGA's mission also has changed. After the Sept. 11 attacks, the government ratcheted up domestic security, particularly around high-profile events such as the Super Bowl and political conventions. NGA supports those efforts by creating exquisitely detailed digital renderings of entire city blocks. They show security planners the location of every piece of critical infrastructure-gas and phone lines, hospitals, even fire hydrants. To get this information, NGA often buys it from companies that laid the infrastructure or built the buildings in the first place.

Not only does the agency buy data, it gives it away. After Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in 2005, officials provided up-to-date satellite scans to Google and Microsoft, which also makes an interactive Earth viewer. Rescuers used those programs to see which roads and buildings were flooded. NGA also has published a colossal set of radar data covering most of the planet's land mass, taken during an 11-day space shuttle mission in 2000. Cartographers use it to create-and sell-the most detailed 3-D maps of the Earth on Earth. NGA takes no royalties.

The demands of a post-9/11 world have forced overworked intelligence agencies to outsource what, in an earlier time, would have been called inherently governmental functions. But well before the attacks, NGA recognized that technological innovation was no longer the elite province of the intelligence community, much less the federal government. It faced reality, and took advantage of it. History will show whether the outsourcing strategy pays off. Private analysts, journalists and armchair commentators lately have shown that they're as good, if not better, at parsing and predicting world events as institutions such as the CIA and the State Department. Since those and other agencies are struggling to find their place in a changing world, and not be overtaken by it, they might look to their cousins at NGA for ideas.

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