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Agency’s top-secret mission on display at NGA Museum

National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency Museum

Museum manager Jim Mohan talks about the early history of the NGA as the St. Louis Arsenal in the 19th century, and how it's changed and adopted cutting-edge technologies.
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Museum manager Jim Mohan talks about the early history of the NGA as the St. Louis Arsenal in the 19th century, and how it's changed and adopted cutting-edge technologies.

Much of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency’s history can’t be told, at least not publicly.

The Defense Department agency, which specializes in map-making and satellite imagery analysis, engages in some of the most highly classified intelligence work there is.

But the part of NGA’s story that can be told is encapsulated in a timeline at the NGA Museum that runs along the interior walls of a three-story red-brick house on the 20-acre NGA campus at 3200 S. Second St. in St. Louis.

It is a story that tethers nearly all the major events of the past 75 years — from the killing of Osama bin Laden and the 9/11 terror attacks he planned, to the Cold War and Cuban Missile Crisis, to the start of World War II and its major battles.

It’s a story that St. Clair County leaders hope one day to add to, with the announcement early next year that NGA has chosen a site in the county, next door to Scott Air Force Base, as the home of NGA West, the agency’s $1.6 billion western headquarters and the 3,100 jobs it will bring.

That decision is still uncertain, as three other sites in the St. Louis area also are vying for the agency. With about five months to go before NGA chooses the winning site among the four contenders under consideration, St. Clair County leaders are expressing cautious optimism their 182-acre site will get the nod.

Museum chronicles NGA history

At the start of the timeline in the front parlor of the three-story brick house that is the NGA Museum is a photo of the gargantuan NGA main headquarters building in Springfield, Va., that opened in 2010.

“In the lobby you can take the Statue of Liberty, stick it in the lobby and the torch wouldn’t touch the top,” said Jim Mohan, the museum manager.

The museum that Mohan runs is normally closed to visitors. Almost all the tours he conducts are to help orient new NGA employees, giving them a sense of the histories and cultures of the NGA and its predecessors, Mohan said.

Mohan directs his visitors’ attention to a minutely detailed model of the walled compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, where a Osama bin Laden had holed up for five years, and where on the night of May 2, 2011, a Navy SEAL Team 6 special operator ended bin Laden’s life with three well-aimed shots from an HK 416 assault rifle.

NGA technicians built the model of bin Laden’s walled compounded based on satellite images and analysis provided by the Central Intelligence Agency and other spy agencies. The model served as the template for full-scale 1:1 replicas built at the Harvey Point Defense Testing Activity facility in North Carolina and at a secret site in Nevada, where three weeks before the raid the SEALs conducted full-scale dress rehearsals.

After the raid, NGA’s director at the time asked the SEAL team commander whether the replica was helpful.

“He said it was critical,” Mohan said. “‘We felt we had been there before,’ he said. And that’s classically what our mission is.”

Mohan pointed to the iconic photo of President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and other top White House officials seated in the White House Situation Room, where they watched on a monitor as the Abbottabad raid went down in real time.

Hillary Clinton, the secretary of state at the time, gazes at the monitor in rapt fascination. On the keyboard of her laptop computer are several print-outs of maps.

“That’s an NGA product sitting at her elbow,” Mohan said. “She’s looking at NGA imagery while this is going on.”

Further along the timeline are highlights that include a 3-D map of the Moon that aided NASA planners of the Apollo moon missions of the late 1960s and early 1970s; satellite maps of Cuba that were used to brief President John F. Kennedy during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis; and a drawing depicting a U.S. Air Force plane making a mid-air retrieval of a film canister ejected from a spy satellite during a 1960s program called Project Corona.

NGA performs a job that’s kind of like painting the San Francisco Bay Area Bridge. You’re never done painting. As soon as you’re done with one area, you start all over again.

Jim Mohan, NGA Museum manager

Behind glass enclosures in the museum are a wide variety of tools and artifacts from NGA’s predecessor agencies, such as compasses, surveyors’ theolodites and rulers. They highlight an era of cartography and analysis that predates satellites and computers. These low-tech tools underscore the sheer amount of tedious human effort, brain power and intuition that were required to create aerial and nautical maps useful to everyone from Pentagon generals to CIA agents in the field.

For example, visitors can check out the mirror stereoscope used by photo analysts during World War II. Two photos taken with a 60-percent overlap are placed under the stereoscope. When lined up properly, the photographs can be viewed in three dimensions.

Nearby is a model of the NAVSTAR global positioning satellite, which was developed by the Department of Defense and made operationally ready in 1993. NGA provides technical support and real-time data for the GPS system.

With a global mission that includes the updating of maps of literally everything on and below land and sea, and even the ocean floor, NGA performs a job that’s “kind of like painting the San Francisco Bay Area Bridge,” Mohan said. “You’re never done painting. As soon as you’re done with one area, you start all over again.”

Until 2003, the NGA was known as the National Imagery and Mapping Agency. It was renamed NGA to reflect its focus on Geospatial intelligence, or intelligence derived from human activities and that visually depicts physical features and geographically referenced activities on the Earth.

The renaming also coincided with an effort to streamline the nation’s intelligence agencies, end redundancy and spur collaboration among them.

Old arsenal rich with history

NGA’s days at its current home at the old St. Louis Arsenal, located next to the Anheuser-Busch Brewery and related office buildings, are numbered.

The arsenal dates back to 1827, with several other buildings still in use at the 20-acre site dating to the 1830s. NGA needs more room to grow, as well as modern infrastructure such as power lines and air-conditioning for high-speed computers to handle a mission that continues to expand and evolve in complexity.

Plans are still being worked out as to the future of the arsenal, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The Air Force owns the property and plans to maintain it once the NGA leaves in 2021 to move into its new home.

Andrew Weil, executive director of the Landmarks Association of St. Louis, said he is hopeful that one day the old arsenal could be managed as a state historic site.

“There’s a lot of excess land there that’s not central to the sort of historic identity of the arsenal that could be parceled off and sold,” Weil said. “But the historic core of the arsenal itself is reasonably intact and it’s a really, really important historic site.”

Political tug-of-war

Four sites are being considered to relocate and build what will be called NGA West, an 800,000 square-foot edifice that carries an estimated $1.6 billion price tag. One in North St. Louis, two in St. Louis County and one in St. Clair County.

On Oct. 28, more than 200 St. Clair County residents showed up at the Katy Cavins Community Center in O’Fallon to hear about the environmental impact statement the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has generated on the proposed 182-acre site in the county next to Scott Air Force Base and show their support for NGA to relocate here.

Yet their optimism is tempered with concern that all the advantages the St. Clair County site offers — vast room for growth, the security of proximity to a major air base, free land, the fact that Scott is already a major NGA customer — will be undermined by a backroom deal that sends NGA to the North St. Louis site being considered.

“There is that fear out there, that politics will come into play,” said county board member Craig Hubbard, R-O’Fallon.

NGA is scheduled to make its decision on the winning site in March 2016.

Between now and then, the political tug-of-war between Missouri and Illinois lawmakers concerning NGA’s new home will likely intensify.

Earlier this month, St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay presented a book laying out plans for the proposed 99-acre NGA site in North St. Louis, at the corner of North Jefferson and Cass avenues, home to the demolished Pruitt-Igoe complex, once the largest housing project in the nation. Slay and other city leaders are pushing hard in the effort to keep NGA in the city. St. Louis collects $2.2 million annually in city earnings tax from NGA workers, and the loss of that revenue would be devastating to the city, according to Slay.

We are dedicated to retaining the NGA’s 3,100 well-paying jobs, creating new construction jobs with this massive project, and creating a new anchor to help catalyze development in North St. Louis.

St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay

“We are dedicated to retaining the NGA’s 3,100 well-paying jobs, creating new construction jobs with this massive project, and creating a new anchor to help catalyze development in North St. Louis,” Slay said. “If we are successful, it also means keeping millions of tax dollars in state and local economies.”

One of the cards that St. Louis leaders plan to play is to cite multiple federal initiatives in and around the site to help blighted urban areas. These initiatives include the Strong Cities/ Strong Communities, Promise Zone, and Choice Neighborhood programs, all of which aim to leverage federal tax dollars to help areas beset by crime and unemployment.

During a public information session on the environmental impact statement for the North St. Louis site last Thursday afternoon, top leaders from Missouri and St. Louis set aside their normal political differences to make a joint plea to NGA officials to keep the spy agency in St. Louis.

Gov. Jay Nixon showed up for the open house at the St. Louis Gateway Classic Sports Foundation, along with Slay, U.S. Rep. William Lacy Clay, D-St. Louis, former U.S. Sen. Christopher “Kit” Bond, and several state senators and representatives.

But U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., has discounted the economic arguments to keep NGA in St. Louis. What should matter most is what’s best for NGA and national security, according to Kirk.

Therefore, NGA West should come to St. Clair County because of the ample room there for growth and the high level of security that proximity to a military base would offer.

“In the past, local congressmen and senators have said, ‘Bring it to my community because I want the jobs and the money that spins off from this institution,’” Kirk said in a recent interview. “The argument I’m going to make is purely from my military background, on a pure sense of military capability. (NGA) should be at Scott so we can protect this asset. Protect it from accidents, make sure if it is next to the information backbone of the (Department of Defense), then it is always available to the war-fighter.”

Mike Fitzgerald: 618-239-2533, @MikeFitz3000

History of the St. Louis Arsenal

  • The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency sits on the 20-acre home of the old St. Louis Arsenal, one of the Midwest’s most historically significant sites.
  • The Arsenal opened in 1827. The next year, it began to make and repair small arms and gun carriages. The first recorded weapons shipment arrived in 1829. It consisted of 12,000 six-pound and 3,000 12-pound cannon balls.
  • At the start of the Civil War, the arsenal was a highly coveted prize for Union and Confederate forces. In April 1861, Missouri’s, Gov. Claiborne Jackson, a Confederate sympathizer, planned to seize the arsenal by force. Anticipating this scheme, Capt. Nathaniel Lyon, the arsenal commander, shipped about 21,000 small arms and 110,000 cartridges upriver to Illinois for safekeeping. Seven thousand muskets remained to equip Union partisans.
  • In May 1861, Lyon marched his troops to Gov. Jackson’s encampment at the present day East campus of St. Louis University, and accepted the surrender of the pro-Confederate militia. While being marched to the arsenal, the prisoners scuffled with Union troops, resulting in a gun battle that left 28 people dead on both sides.
  • By 1863, the arsenal was a garrison for 12,000 Union troops, with a workforce of 700.
  • Over the next 90 years, a variety of Army tenants made use of the arsenal site. In 1952, the facility was transferred to the U.S. Air Force, which moved its Aeronautical Chart Service from downtown St. Louis to the site. The ACS later became the Aeronautical Chart and Information Center.
  • In 1972 the Arsenal site was taken over by the Defense Mapping Agency, and then by the National Imaging and Mapping Agency in 1996. The latter became the NGA in 2003.
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