Undisciplined spending in the name of defense

January 20, 2011

AUSTRALIA-FIRES/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)


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The arguments in this article are circular. If NGA was not funding GEOEYE and DGI for these commercial satellites, we would have to pay three times as much to buy classified satellites from Boeing and others to provide the same imagery coverage.
The NGA funding has provided the financial incentive to GEOEYE and DGI to spend their own internal R&D funds (hundreds of millions)to provide the imagery required by the DoD,CIA, and the Administration. Without this cooperative funding between the NGA and the commercial satellite companies, there is no way that GOOGLE and Microsoft could provide low cost satellite images.

Posted by joepuska | Report as abusive

The author may make a few valid points, but they are comingled with a bunch of irrelevant and even sensationalist statements. Sure, Bing has great images of downtown Cincinnati, but how does it do in the AfPak border region or in Natanz? I don’t expect an answer to that one. And do you really believe that the gov’t images are no better than free online services? You can’t be that naive, hence the sensationalist accusation.
The privacy concerns are legitimate, especially given the gov’t propensity of characterizing each new law enforcement issue as being of nat’l importance, such as the war on drugs. How long before local law enforcement start gaining access to backyard photos (“He’s growing a PLANT in his backyard! Send in the SWAT team.”)? The author should dedicate his energies to these questions, not the juvenline observations contained in this article. Time and again Mr. Easterbrook demonstrates his (dare I say “misguided”) antagonism towards US power, which is why I enjoy reading and commenting on his articles so much. Keep at it.

Posted by mheld45 | Report as abusive

Only a downpayment is right!! Defense and Education will need to be cut significantly too-like it or not!! Just another example of the moral consequences of too much debt/deficit and not enough will to make the cuts on time! Anyone in leadership that believes this isn’t the case is weak in basic math or must have gambling problem!! Make the mental adjustment or step aside, there’s no bubble that’s going to bail us out at the 12th hour folks-this may be as good as it get’s for a generation-the good old days!

Posted by DrJJJJ | Report as abusive

You people have no clue what the military does or doesn’t do….That is the problem the Department of Defense is a black box we just throw endless amounts of money into(thanks GOP) and we have no clue how important that funding is or where it goes.

There is NO terrorist threat that is simply a myth, so why are we spending trillions to find some guy in a desert? More people die from suicide then terrorist attacks every year. Why aren’t we spending trillions on mental health?

If we can spend trillions to help people half way around the world why can’t we spend trillions to help our own citizens get back on their own two feet after the BUSH recession devastated the entire economy.

Posted by victorshultz | Report as abusive

Easterbrook is off base. I have no doubt there is pork and waste to be cut at NGA, but he is off on some basic points here.

First, Google and Microsoft in effect get their satellite imagery from NGA! The commercial firms use the same providers as NGA (e.g. DigitalGlobe), it’s not like MSFT launched a satellite. DigitalGlobe and GeoEye are dominated by NGA and other Defense Dept money, and that government money subsidizes the provision of lower-resolution images to the public (with governmental approval). If NGA were not doing so, Google and Microsoft would not be able to offer such a large imagery database so cheaply — they are piggybacking on the Defense Dept effort. In fact, even Google Earth is sort of subsidized by the DoD, which has some big contracts to Google (including from NGA) for provision of customized Google Earth tools.

What Easterbrook is doing is the equivalent of saying that because Garmin exists, why does the DoD pay to run GPS satellites? When of course, Garmin couldn’t exist w/o the DoD-paid for satellite constellation.

Second, Google/MSFT supplement the satellite imagery with aerial photography. For the United States, much of this is available for free or cheap from the USGS, or it’s reasonably cheap to hire your own plane to do even better photo surveys of high-demand urban areas. As others have noted, you can’t just hire a plane and fly it over Waziristan or Pyongyang taking photos at will. Even some relatively friendly countries don’t allow that sort of surveying except by their own goverments, who don’t release the hi-rez data. Getting detailed photo maps and terrain models of California is easy; the big money is spent getting maps and models of potential adversaries.

Third, the NRO satellites have a different purpose — they are built to take incredibly detailed images/video of small specific targets. They are incredibly long telephoto lenses if you like, and you need a different optical system to do continuous mapping coverage of larger areas.

Posted by milprof | Report as abusive

Does the NGA gather,sort, and organize all this data in an attempt to enable our government to steer us in a preplanned direction? A direction of less liberties and more control? Companies pay good money for this type of information, why wouldn’t a government spend great amounts for it?

Posted by wearytraveler | Report as abusive

Both the writer and the commenters (obviously government employees or DoD contractors) have absolutely no basis for their statements.

The fact of the matter is that we have no idea what it costs for these types of “products” (or even the defense of this nation) because the Department of Defense is both unwilling and utterly incapable of conducting an independent audit of its activities.

What is a crime is that we continue to hear this lazy argument from both sides of the political spectrum, as well as selfish and greedy government employees and their contractors to maintain the status quo.

God forbid that we actually evaluate whether or not the 500+ billion in taxpayer dollars that DoD receives are spent in an efficient and effective manner in support of the Department’s mission.

Posted by edsm | Report as abusive

“As free-market entities, Google and Microsoft are concerned with cost-effectiveness.”

This is like the congress man who proposed doing away with the Census and buying the data from the private sellers of demographic data.

Wake up kiddies; Google and Microsoft take the data from the Government!
No government activity no pictures. There are other satellite companies but I do not know the terms for their images. Some are under contract from the Government to manipulate the Government images and they then sell the non-classified data into the market or use it for their own purposes.

In the early days of imagery I bought an image on photographic paper, no net then, for 20 or 30 dollars. Then congress because of the lobbying of early resellers of the data made the agency sell the images for hundreds of dollars. That was when hundreds was real money.

Either the blogger is ignorant (don’t think so) or as most media is today, shilling for the interests of the other satellite companies who sell these images.

What a Country, money for the Plutocrats and the Citizens go begging……

Posted by Whatisreal | Report as abusive

How good is Google at the Afghan border? No, you can’t call heads on a coin flip, but you can make out individual trees and detect agricultural plantings and roads. If we need better, we may indeed be able to buy them cheaper from others, but “privatization” isn’t a panacea either. Why pay a corporation when an USAF captain is operating the US-owned drone? Why do we need both an NRO and an NGIA, each with its own management? DoD only knows! What’s dead certain is that “contracting” has been a disastrous drain on US resources. What we pay overseas even to have a meal served by a civilian is outrageous compared to what we formerly paid Navy-trained cooks.

But we have now “out-sourced” war itself, first with Blackwater, now Xe, another huge and disgraceful chapter in government rip-offs. Think the Marines don’t know enough about security to guard an embassy? Whose fault is that? For the first-time in American history we have a standing private army on our shores. If you don’t think that’s a threat to national security, you’re not reading enough. The horrible battle of Fallujah was largely provoked by Blackwater’s incompetence––and who benefited? Um, that would be … Blackwater. Remember when we used to teach the school kids about the hated Hessian mercenaries sent to put down our Revolution? Democracy is under fire whenever we stray from using our citizen soldiers, sworn to protect our Constitution not profits. Today’s new Hessians are the cozy you-scratch-my-back relationship between the Pentagon and its grasping contractors, and they’ve gotten totally out of hand.

The answer is for Congress to drop their perennial partisan pissing match, ask the GAO for a top to bottom review of our two wars, and tackle a whole new set of Truman hearings. Sadly, the Supreme Court’s “Citizens United” decision makes that unlikely, as it virtually guarantees we’re stuck with the best Congress corporations can buy.

Posted by Reader5 | Report as abusive

Uh… where to you think Google gets the images it uses? If there is a scandal, it is the old, old scandal of the government trying to offset its expenses by auctioning off its assets to private industry.

“Conservative” politicians prevent the govt from building a public version, knowing full well that private companies will pay a pittance.

Posted by BobN | Report as abusive

A foolish article. Google and Bing get their imagery from government sources.

No government sources, no earth images.

Pretty dumb. If he’d argued for more accountability I’d agree.

Posted by eleno | Report as abusive

“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.”

How do you know?

Posted by Bob9999 | Report as abusive

Commentators raise a valid point. It is actually government subsidizing Google not government competing with private entities. But that’s even more odd. What was supposed to bet the prime example of American entrepreneurial skill turns out to be a government subsidized entity… No wonder the Chinese had some problems with that…

Posted by tk2 | Report as abusive

In 1974 I was doing research for the CDC on waterborne diseases in the Lousisiana wetlands. We were able to access satellite imagery with one meter resolution back then, similar to what google offers today. I was told that an international treaty forbid access to better resolution but was assured the military had better. I’m definitely a “hawk” for the military, but I do think a lot of the duplication in the military and the rest of government could be elliminated without any effect on our military effectiveness.

Posted by zotdoc | Report as abusive

A little of the meat of the argument here, but in response to those that bring up the out-sourcing of defense contractors like Xe (formerly Blackwater): the reason that these companies are hired is because there are not enough volunteer soldier in America to fill the quotas needed in Iraq and Afghanistan. If America had to instate a draft to fill the jobs that Xe fills, the wars would be over tomorrow because there would be as close to 0% support as is possible. So, govt has war aims (ie exit strategy and conditions thereof) and so they will do what they can to keep it going until those aims are met – one can characterize it as nefarious if it helps them sleep at night, but as usual there is more going on than most care to consider.

I feel it’s important to say without caveat that having TWO wars going for almost eight years (Iraq) and over nine years (Afghan) is completely bonkers and those that were in charge of planning at the beginning and early on in the conflicts should have their feet held to the fire and have it all become public. To have to prosecute wars for that long against completely out-matched opponents is a disgrace to the DoD and the military and govt need to be held accountable. This is not to say that going in to either was wrong – it wasn’t – but that there was no planning or reasonable idea of what would/should happen is criminal… is over a million dead (vs less than 10k Americans including 9/11) not reason enough for it to be criminal?

Posted by CDN_finance | Report as abusive

I am not an employee of DoD or am affiliated with the department.
I just have a quick point to make. I agree with the first comment. The author is making very generic conclusions on very subjective non-facts. You can not infer poor money management from mere fact that they get a lot of it and you don’t know how they spend it. It is possible, but not a fact, just based on the information provided.
Another point, Google and Bing airel maps are delayed, some times by weeks. Where gov maps are near real time.

Posted by kobz | Report as abusive

The military-industrial complex is pervasive in America and has plenty to spend on public relations. Money is falling out of their pockets even. Hence it’s not surprising to see their quick response via comments to this interesting article. It’s called spin control.

Great article.

victorshultz battles against them, and says it right.

Posted by AdamSmith | Report as abusive

This is the same argument made by a US Senator back in the late 90′s. On the floor of the Senate he wailed that we shouldn’t be paying for NOAA (weather satellites) when the local television stations provided it “for free”. He was clueless that these “free services” were piggy backing on the public domain nature of US satellite imagry (just like Google and MS).

When there was a budget stall that sent NOAA employees on furlough, it was less than a week before all those “free” local images switched to cartoon graphics as the flow of data from federal sources dried up.

I have yet to hear of either Google or Microsoft launching their own satellites.

Posted by bufford | Report as abusive

I agree with those who say that it is actually not google competing with government but government subsidizing google. Nice. But wait a minute! Is this company the one we usually praise, as a proof of the fact that some American companies can still compete? And what about the whole Chinese vs. google story? It looks like the Chinese were pretty much right back then.

Posted by tk2 | Report as abusive

Evidently no one is aware of privately owned satellites. There are hundreds of satellites in orbit and they do not all belong to the United States. Some belong to other countries and others to media corporations. The first one that comes to mind is Viacom which contracts with our government for gps and air traffic control through their satellites and equipment.

You all need to check your facts before you spout off. Many readers are inclined to believe you over Reuters.

Posted by coyotle | Report as abusive

The author of this article has no clue what the government capabilities actually are in the area of satellite imagery. It extends much further than what Google or Bing or any of the commercial satellite imagery services offer. Nor should he know unless he was directly involved with the work being done. This is another lame attempt to attack an agency that is providing a valuable service to our war fighters. As to waste in defense spending?? Yes, of course there is, and through responsible cuts where justified and cancellation of programs where justified we can rein in some of these wastes. Get off the soap box man!

Posted by stonewall54 | Report as abusive

Please, author and people – there is a reason we cannot know everything about this and other similar agencies. Americans need to put their paranoia and distrust of the U.S. Government caused by the few becuase there are many other patriots who are working hard to defend everyone’s freedom.

Posted by asdddud | Report as abusive

There are many free countries in the world. Switzerland is free. France is free. Brazil is free. The so-called patriots in uniform here in America that tell us they are fighting for our freedom — I don’t trust them, because they are in the military business, the business of killing humans.

Isn’t that what the military trains to do? They learn the science of killing humans, and revel in that science. They extract a huge paycheck to boot, and then expect me to be grateful to them. Corruption on a gigantic scale.

My freedom comes from people who are not in uniform. My freedom is threatened by people in uniform. Look at the greatest calamities of mankind. They’re always committed by people in uniform. When a man puts on a uniform he gives up his soul.

Posted by AdamSmith | Report as abusive

This goes to show Reuters will publish even the most baseless, unsupported drivel someone will sling at the US government. The author’s assertion “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” is demonstrably false. Executive Order 12333 and DoD Regulation 5240.1-R lay out elaborate procedures to protect the privacy of “US Persons” (people in the US or even people outside the US who are connected to the US in one of the defined ways). There is layer upon layer of oversight all the way up to Congress. But the author of this piece clearly doesn’t feel he should let facts get in the way of a good story. Reuters apparently agrees.

Posted by Realist99 | Report as abusive

The author overlooks the most obvious and fundamental reason why this agency does more than Google or Microsoft. The data it provides is in real time, or at least very, very new. Google and Microsoft offer photos that are months old at best. It is also likely that the NGA provides images of much, much higher resolution.

Posted by jaglowsd | Report as abusive

I absolutely love when people that have no idea what a government agency does tries to pretend like they do. I wouldn’t sleep well at night if NGA wasn’t doing what they did, because it just isn’t maps!! If you want to attack wasteful spending programs, attack the programs that pay lazy people or illegals to sit on their butt and do nothing – to include pay taxes!! Thank you to NGA and the other intelligence community professionals that work to keep us safe every day!

Posted by Hatesstupidity | Report as abusive

Still feel safe?

Posted by robertsgt40 | Report as abusive