The Little-Known Agency That Helped Kill Bin Laden

The National Geospatial Agency mapped bin Laden's compound, analyzed drone data, and helped the SEALs simulate their mission

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President Obama's first brush with the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency was ignominious. Out for lunch in May 2009, at a Five Guys burger franchise in Washington, the new President started to shake the hands of other customers, TV cameras in tow. Then he turned to men with government ID badges.

"So what do you?" the president asked. "I work for at NGA, National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency," one said.

"Outstanding. How long have you been doing that?" Obama wondered. "Six years." Obama then asked: "So, explain to me exactly what this National Geospatial..." His voice trailed off. "Uh, we work with, uh, satellite imagery." Obama: "Sounds like good work." The response is obscured by the audio.

Suffice it to say: Obama knows what the NGA does today.

Any number of officials and agencies have been in the limelight since the raid on Osama bin Laden, including the CIA and the Defense Department. But the little-known and little-heralded work of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, often called the NGA, was central to the demise of the terrorist leader.

The NGA integrates several core intelligence functions. It makes maps and interprets imagery from satellites and drones; it also exploits the electromagnetic spectrum to track terrorists and decipher signatures off of enemy radar. And notably, the NGA is the first intel agency to be headed by a woman: Letitia Long, a longtime intelligence veteran.

The NGA's contributions to the bin Laden mission are substantial. As described to National Journal by senior U.S. policymakers who do not work for the agency, they include:

  • Creating three-dimensional renderings of the Abbottabad compounds using imagery and laser-based sensing devices--laser radar, or ladar.
  • Analyzing data from a sophisticated next-generation drone that kept watch on the compound before, during, and after the raid. The drone was an RQ-170 built by Lockheed Martin.
  • Helping the Joint Special Operations Command create mission simulators for the pilots who flew the helicopters into the breach. (This was first reported by Washingtonian magazine.)
  • Providing to the CIA and other policymakers assessments of the number of people who lived inside the compound, their heights and genders.

NGA Director Long issued a statement on May 2 saying, "I am extremely proud of the work that NGA men and women have done that led directly to this outcome. Their GEOINT was critical to helping the intelligence community pinpoint bin Ladin's compound."

Long is being modest. The NGA also helped the CIA find the compound itself. Based on tips from human sources and intercepted cell phone conversations, intelligence analysts had a basic description of the type of place where the courier trusted by bin Laden lived. But it was NGA analysts who pored over detailed maps and crunched data, coming up with several places in Pakistan that fit the model. One of them was Abbottabad. The bin Laden compound itself was easily noticeable.

"We found a location, and it eventually, as we got more and more fidelity, we were able to render it visually. You can build a story and an understanding that you can take to the senior analysts," a senior NGA analyst said in an interview.

The analyst, who participated in the bin Laden hunt and who has been forward deployed to Afghanistan, was permitted to speak only on the condition of anonymity. His account was confirmed by intelligence officials who don't work for the agency.

Not surprisingly, NGA's technological capacities are very secret, because if the terrorists can ascertain what the agency can do with remote sensing data, they can alter their plans accordingly. But the NGA analyst, who had several tours of duty alongside warfighters in Afghanistan, described some of them.

  • NGA can determine, from quite a distance, what an object or a building is made out of.
  • It conducts sophisticated pattern analysis of human characteristics, like gait and body size.
  • It possesses some of the most sophisticated facial recognition software on earth.
  • It has mastered "all-weather" imagery analysis: hyperspectral and multispectral sensors on satellites and drones can see through thick clouds.

Professional defense and aviation journals suggest that NGA, the National Reconnaissance Office, and the Air Force have developed sensors that can penetrate foliage on the ground, peek deep under water and even into the ground. Officials wouldn't comment.

James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, ran NGA during the first part of George W. Bush's administration. Though 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.

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 a war on terror 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 departments--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.

Image credit: Department of Defense