Professional defense and aviation journals suggest that the NGA, the National Reconnaissance Office, and the Air Force have developed sensors that can penetrate foliage on the ground and peek deep under water and even into the ground. Officials wouldn't comment.
James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, ran the NGA during the first part of George W. Bush's administration. Although the agency is best known for its maps, he shifted its focus toward real-time, dynamic, three-dimensional support using all parts of the spectrum.
When Clapper said in a statement after the bin Laden raid that the intelligence integration he observed in the operation was “the best” he’s seen in 50 years of intelligence service, part of his pride came from the knowledge that his former agency was a significant contributor to the mission’s success.
The NGA’s work is expensive, but it has escaped much of the budget pressure faced by other national-security agencies, in part because the premium on exploiting intelligence is so essential to battling terrorism and in dealing with states with extensive nuclear ambitions, such as Iran and North Korea.
“We are very proud of the role we played, but there are problems to scaling this,” the analyst said. By scaling, the analyst means that demand, in other words, exceeds capacity. The agency describes itself as serving customers—other government agencies—and those customers are ravenous. It not only includes the military but also, say, helping the Federal Emergency Management Agency with hurricanes and wildfires. If it involves analyzing aerial data, the NGA is on it. In a world of climate change, terrorists, and rogue states, the demand for the agency's analysis isn't likely to abate anytime soon, even with the death of Osama bin Laden.
Want the news first every morning? Sign up for National Journal’s Need-to-Know Memo. Short items to prepare you for the day.