Undisciplined spending in the name of defense
Defense Secretary Robert Gates just proposed cutting the military and security budget by $78 billion over five years — perhaps only a downpayment on coming further reductions. Secretary Gates’s list of proposed cuts includes high-profile projects and weapons. But he does not mention the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, an exemplar of undisciplined spending in the name of defense.
Never heard of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency? You’re not alone. A fair guess is that nine of 10 Washington pundits and political insiders don’t know the NGA exists, while perhaps one in 100 can describe its function.
The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency has 16,000 employees — nearly as many as Google — and a “black” budget thought to be at least $5 billion per year. The NGA is building a new headquarters complex with the stunning price of $1.8 billion, nearly the cost of the Freedom Tower rising in Manhattan. That new headquarters, near Fort Belvoir, Virginia, will be the third-largest structure in the Washington area, nearly rivaling the Pentagon in size.
The NGA has current touches, possessing a marketing slogan — “Know the Earth, Show the Way” — calling the Defense Department and CIA bureaus that receive its work product “customers” or “partners,” and posting photos of staff receptions on Flickr. But what the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency does for the most is part classified. About all the agency will say is that it supplies “geospatial intelligence support for global world events” and “can create highly accurate terrain visualization,” phrases that don’t explain much.
This is what the NGA does: take detailed aerial pictures of the Earth’s surface — mainly of cities, including America cities — then overlay them with other forms of data, such as maps of streets and power lines. Think there are drone aircraft only in the skies of Afghanistan and Pakistan? Drone aircraft controlled by the NGA have been crisscrossing the skies of the United States for several years, photographing minute details of roads, houses and campuses. Supposedly this is a counter-terrorism measure: good luck explaining how extremely detailed images of individual homes will deter terrorists. If you were sunbathing nude when an NGA drone passed above your backyard, agency files contain a photo you’ll hope not to see on Flickr.
The NGA also merges pictures with satellite imagery from the National Reconnaissance Office, itself a little-known agency; the NGA is in the process of acquiring imaging satellites under its own control. The goal is a kind of ultimate TomTom for much, perhaps eventually all, of Earth’s surface.
NGA topography could help during natural disasters. More to the point, it could direct soldiers down the correct street during battle, or cause GPS-guided bombs to hit the correct building, or allow a cruise missile to fly underneath bridges before striking not just the right building but the right part of the right building. The agency’s super-maps could also be used to invade privacy. Put a tarp or tent above anything you do outdoors that you don’t want to run the risk of this agency having photos of, because there’s no privacy-protection cross-check.
Like many agencies in military, security or counter-terrorism roles, the NGA has a growing budget never subject to public scrutiny and rarely questioned by Congress. Even subtracting for the costs of the war in Iraq and fighting in Afghanistan, and adjusting to current dollars, U.S. military and security spending has increased 68 percent in the past decade. Within this runaway spending is a tremendous amount of pure waste, coupled to many programs and agencies with valid missions but no cost discipline.
On the same day last August that Defense Secretary Gates led the nation’s newscasts by announcing an initiative to “reduce excess overhead” in defense and security spending, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency quietly signed two contracts that increase defense overhead. The NGA will pay nearly $1 billion each year to GeoEye and DigitalGlobe, start-up firms, for more spy photos of cities, taken from satellites the companies own or will launch.
Given the National Reconnaissance Office already has numerous imaging satellites, why does the country need spy satellites under a duplicative agency? Given the NGA already has 16,000 employees, why does it need to spend billions of dollars on contractors? Since this is all stamped SECRET, there is no discipline or accountability.
Here is the kicker: most of the photography and topographic information generated by the NGA at great expense to taxpayers is very similar to what Google and Microsoft give away for free.
This Google view of the current headquarters of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, available free, differs only a little from what the NGA produces at fantastic expense. Zoom in: the image is good enough to count the cars in the NGA headquarters lot, inspect the small wood to the west where employees stroll, determine that NGA communication and power cables are buried. (No satellite dishes or utility poles.) There is ample resolution to select which of the four current NGA structures a targeting planner wants the cruise missile to hit. Here is the Microsoft Bing view, which even shows condensate rising from the HVAC station.
Google and Microsoft are doing nothing wrong by posting these images — unless it’s wrong to take aerial views, in which case the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency is in the wrong, too.
The key point is that Google and Microsoft are able to give away topographic information, or sell it at low cost — for $399, Google Earth Pro offers better resolution — while a defense agency spends billions of dollars to do the same. As free-market entities, Google and Microsoft are concerned with cost-effectiveness. The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, exempt from cost controls and public scrutiny, wants to run up the price: its bureaucrats benefit from empire-building.
This is everything that’s wrong with defense spending in a nutshell.
Good reading: This excerpt of the important new book “Unwarranted Influence,” by James Ledbetter, describes how President Dwight Eisenhower, a former five-star general, became wary of the military-industrial complex.
Photos, Top: NASA satellites image of the Australian wildfires in southeastern Australia taken by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer on February 9, 2009. The red boxes indicate the location of the fires. REUTERS/NASA/Handout
Bottom: This satellite image, taken February 26, 2009 and released March 9, 2009, shows the North Korean missile facility at Musudan. REUTERS/GeoEye Satellite Image/Handout (KOREA)