The world is a complicated place.
And as America’s spy agencies capture more and more information about cyber hackers and security threats around the world on a daily basis, the world gets ever more complex.
In a nutshell, this explains why over the past five years the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency has grown so big, so fast, and has become an indispensable asset of the Department of Defense.
The NGA’s growth and importance to national security are trends that will only accelerate in the years ahead as America’s growing fleets of spy satellites and drones scoop up vast loads of images, videos and phone calls — Himalayan-size massifs of data that the NGA stores and analyzes
That’s why the NGA wants to build a new state-of-the-art facility, to be called NGA West, that will replace its cramped, aging St. Louis operation at 3200 S. Second St. in South St. Louis, near the Anheuser-Busch brewery.
St. Clair County is one of four venues being considered. Two other sites under consideration are in St. Louis County, while the fourth site is in North St. Louis at the abandoned Pruitt-Igoe housing complex, which today is overgrown by an inner-city forest.
NGA often is described as a map-making agency. In truth, it stands at the center of a constellation of 17 powerful, if little-known, agencies that anchor America’s intelligence-military-industrial complex. Also serving as a major anchor is the National Security Agency, or NSA, whose colossal data-crunching computers and eaves-dropping powers made headlines several years ago with the help of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden.
The NGA, in the words of journalist James Bamford, “is now the eyes to the NSA’s ears, collecting billions of images around the world every year with tools ranging from drones packed with 192 cameras to school-bus-sized satellites orbiting deep in space.”
15,400Number of NGA employees in Washington, D.C., St. Louis and Arnold, Mo.
With an annual budget of about $5 billion and a workforce of 15,400 people in suburban Washington, D.C., St. Louis and Arnold, Mo., the NGA specializes in intelligence-gathering of all kinds, from super-secret spycraft to public kinds of information about crises around the world, such as the public website it launched in late 2014 in response to the Ebola crisis in West Africa. The website features unclassified, continuously updated geospatial imagery, plus computerized mapping tools, Bamford wrote in January for Foreign Policy magazine.
Robert Cardillo, NGA’s director, has described NGA’s agenda as “human geography — the overlay of cultural, sectarian, tribal and other demographic features on top of physical features.”
Cardillo noted that Islamic State militants are very active on social media and “we leverage it to figure out where they were, what they were doing, how does that video connect to that location.”
In effect, the NGA is the Swiss Army knife of data collection, and, as a result, the federal government is investing heavily in it. The NGA’s family tree includes such agencies as the Central Imagery Office, the Defense Dissemination Program Office, the Defense Mapping Agency and the National Photographic Interpretation Center.
“The technology boom that led to big data, mobility and cloud computing raised the stature and importance of NGA to both the intelligence and Defense Department communities,” wrote journalist Jason Miller in a 2014 article explaining the agency’s soaring prominence.
The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency began its existence as the National Imagery and Mapping Agency. It changed its name in 2003.
The NGA’s spectacular growth coincides with some big wins in recent years, the most prominent being its ability to build a near-perfect replica of Osama bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.
NGA gathered the details for the full-scale model with the help of laser radar and imagery that were so precise that its analysts figured out how many people lived in bin Laden’s lair, their gender and even their heights. The replica and other important data played a critical role in the success of Operation Neptune Spear — SEAL Team 6’s successful mission in May 2011 to kill bin Laden. Not only did the SEALs take out the architect of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York city with zero casualties, but they walked away from the al Qaeda leader’s lair with a treasure trove of computer hard drives, thumb drives and other important information.
The NGA is part of a cybermission team that includes the Pentagon and other intelligence agencies. Client agencies approach NGA with information about potential cyber targets. The NGA uses that information to determine the cyber attacker’s location, according to a June 2014 article in Signal Magazine.
“When you actually find a location where cyber activity might be occurring, when you see it, it really does enable much better understanding of what might be going on,” said Lisa Spuria, NGA’s analysis director, in an interview with Signal. “We bring the location information — the finding information — as well as visualization, being able to see it.”
NGA satellite imagery can reveal whether a new road near a suspected Iranian uranium enrichment site suspiciously dead-ends at a mountainside. Such imagery can also help NGA analysts detect effluents, such as liquid waste, and exhaust vents that suddenly appear out of the ground, revealing suspicious activities, but also potential weak spots that would provide the perfect target for a well-placed missile shot should the U.S.-Iranian nuclear deal fall apart.
NGA was an early investor in a firm called Keyhole, Inc., whose Earth-viewing software became the basis for Google Earth.
In 2010, the NGA moved into its new headquarters building near Springfield, Va., on the grounds of Fort Belvoir. The ultramodern, $1.7 billion edifice houses 2.77 million square-feet of office space, making it the third-largest government building in Washington, D.C. after the Pentagon and Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center.
What’s more, the NGA is looking for a place to store “hundreds of billions of objects” that will take up four exabytes of information, or about 400,000 times the printed material held by the Library of Congress. These objects include everything from high-definition videos of Islamic State fighters in Syria and Iraq, to maps of the melting polar ice caps.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is overseeing the site selection process for the new St. Louis regional facility, is set to release the environmental impact statements for all four sites on Oct. 9, with public hearings to follow two weeks later. The NGA will make its final choice for a site by March 2016.
NGA West will house 800,000 square-feet of office space and cost $1.6 billion to build. Construction alone will create an estimated 15,000 jobs, while it will provide a home to at least 3,100 NGA workers, with plans to bump that up to 5,000 employees over the next decade. This will be the biggest building ever erected in the metro-east, covering nearly four times as much square footage as St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
The NGA could be the first of other large intelligence agencies, such as NSA and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, to relocate nearby, creating a hotbed of brainpower with big ripple effects for the area in terms of thousands more jobs federal government and civilian contractor jobs.
“If they (NGA) are here, you would have a concentration of the brightest logistics minds and intelligence minds and technology minds in the United States,” said Ted Shekell, O’Fallon’s economic development director. “It would be a mini version of Silicon Valley as it relates to the federal government.”
St. Clair County
Location: Near Scott School and Chocktaw roads, just west of the north entrance to Scott Air Force Base
Site size: 182 acres
- All the land for the site will be donated by St. Clair County, saving the federal government millions of dollars.
- Site is surrounded by thousands of undeveloped acres, providing virtually unlimited room to grow for future new facilities put up by NGA’s partners in intelligence, such as the National Security Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
- High level of security afforded by proximity to adjacent Scott Air Force Base.
- Easy access to Interstate 64 and the joint-use airplane runway shared by Scott and neighboring MidAmerica St. Louis Airport.
- MetroLink service from St. Louis directly to Scott Air Force Base, with plans to extend the light rail line to the NGA site if St. Clair County is chosen.
- The Defense Information Systems Agency, which has a large unit based Scott, already provides network security for the existing NGA facility in St. Louis. DISA also oversees a 27-mile underground fiber-optic line that runs between the St. Louis NGA facility and Scott. Concerns about the safety of that fiber-optic line in the event of an earthquake or terrorist attack are a big reason DISA wants to NGA West to St. Clair County.
- The U.S. Transportation Command, headquartered at Scott, is one of the NGA’s biggest customers.
- NGA, which is a Department of Defense agency, receives its imagery intelligence from the U.S. Air Force and works jointly with it to determine events on the ground and where the U.S. should focus strategy and assets.
- NGA is assuming a major role in the search for cyber attackers against U.S. government assets. The NGA already helps America’s cyber warriors track down online adversaries by providing imagery of the facilities from which cyber attacks originate. Not coincidentially, by December, Scott will be home to two new cyber-security squadrons that could work closely with NGA.
- NGA’s move to St. Clair County would further anchor Scott to the region, helping cement the base’s future from future base closing efforts by Congress.
- NGA actively recruits much of its workforce from active-duty and recently retired military personnel at Scott.
- Enthusiastic community, county and regional political support.
- Strong support of the Illinois congressional delegation, including U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., the ranking Democrat on the Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee.
- At 24.5 miles, it is the furthest of the four sites from the current NGA location in South St. Louis.
Former Chrysler plant
Location: 1050 Dodge Drive, Fenton, Mo.
Site size: 167 acres
- Proximity to major highways, including interstates 44 and 270.
- Near the Meramec River, enhancing its security profile.
- A private developer has already purchased the site for a $500 million light-industrial/retail mixed-use development, the first phase of which is already underway. The developer and city leaders have promised to carve out part of the complex for the NGA.
- No political support from St. Louis County leaders (but has the backing of Fenton city leaders).
- The federal government would have to spend millions of dollars to acquire the acreage it needs, and millions more dollars for future expansions.
Metropolitan Life Building
Location: 13045 Tesson Ferry Road, Mehlville, Mo.
Site size: 101 acres
- Relatively isolated location in South St. Louis County, helping make it more secure.
- Second-closest of the four sites, at 13.5 miles, from the current NGA facility near downtown St. Louis, meaning the shortest commute to current NGA employees.
- No easy access to a major highway or airport
- No political support from St. Louis or St. Louis County leaders.
- Privately owned, meaning the federal government will need to spend millions of dollars to acquire the site, tear down the existing structure and replace it with a new building.
North St. Louis (Pruitt-Igoe)
Location: Near the corner of Cass and Jefferson avenues
Site size: 100 acres
- Major highways nearby, including Interstates 70 sand 64.
- NGA’s presence would help revitalize the surrounding neighborhood and create new jobs.
- Located in a federal Promise Zone, which seeks to bring jobs from federal agencies to disadvantaged communities and spur urban renewal.
- Located 4.4 miles from the current NGA location, it is the closest of the four sites in contention to current NGA facility at 3200 S. 2nd St., near downtown St. Louis.
- Strong support among Missouri, St. Louis County and St. Louis city leaders.
- Low neighborhood support for the project, resulting in a petition drive to keep NGA out.
- Voters recently rejected a bond issue referendum that would have paid for infrastructure improvements near the site.
- High crime rate in the are surrounding the site compared with the other three sites.
- High potential cost for acquiring the properties inside the proposed site boundaries and demolishing the existing structures. Estimated cost: $130 million.
- Proposed site is landlocked, with schools, houses and businesses surrounding it on all sides, making future expansion extremely difficult and expensive.