by John Campbell, Lt. Gen., USAF (Ret.)

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch article “Feds, city finalize deal to transfer land for $1.7 billion NGA project,” describes a four-year effort by city and Missouri state officials to retain one of St. Louis’s largest employers, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency and win the competition for construction of a new, expanded NGA facility. The article is a positive account of the complex financial, political, and legal issues that the project supporters had to overcome and emphasizes the long-term economic benefits that will accrue when the project is completed in 2024-25 — especially when the alternative could have been losing the 3,100 NGA employees currently employed in St. Louis.

Two questions emerged: the cost to the taxpayer for this project (after all, $1.7B is real money) and whether somehow the growing capabilities of the NGA — part of the 17-agency U.S. Intelligence Community — could affect the privacy of our citizens.

Regarding the cost, it is safe to say that, like many government projects, it is very likely to increase over the life of the project, but $1.7B for very specialized construction of a facility that meets the stringent government security requirements seems reasonable. However, it’s much more significant to me that this project is a perfect example a public-private partnership between the federal government, state, and local governments and the private sector to accomplish what would have been impossible for any of them alone, with a result that will have long-term benefits for all, and indirectly the U.S. taxpayers. For example, the story indicates that while the city of St. Louis spent $114M to buy property, relocate businesses, prepare the site, and work through the myriad of local issues that would have been a challenge for the federal government, independent analyses indicate that the economic benefits will outweigh the costs and the NGA will maintain and expand its historic ties with its largest facility outside the Washington, D.C. area: a “win-win” result that’s the objective of any public-private partnership.

Does the expansion of the NGA’s facilities imply new or enhanced capabilities that somehow pose a threat to the privacy of U.S. citizens? For those folks who believe that the agencies of the U.S. Intelligence Community use their capabilities — in violation of the law — to intrude on U.S. citizens, nothing I can say in a short op-ed will make a difference; however, it may be useful to provide some background on what the NGA does and why the new St. Louis facility will provide capabilities that will benefit our nation.

I served for three years as the senior military representative at the CIA where I worked closely with the NGA and was later on the NGA Advisory Board for a time after I retired from the U.S. Air Force in 2003. However, much of my experience with the NGA and its predecessor agencies came from my time as an Air Force fighter pilot and on the Joint Staff in the Pentagon.

The modern NGA took shape in 1996 when several disparate agencies with missions related to mapping and imagery interpretation were consolidated into the National Imagery and Mapping Agency, which was renamed in 2003 the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency to better reflect its core competency of Geospatial-Intelligence, or in intel-speak, GEOINT. The NGA motto “Know the Earth…Show the Way…Understand the World” is a pretty good summary of the GEOINT concept and is one of the core intelligence community “INTs”, alongside HUMINT (human intelligence), SIGINT (signals intelligence), and MASINT (measurement and signals intelligence).

One of the facilities rolled up into the NGA was the Defense Mapping Agency facility in St. Louis, which produced a variety of products used by the government, from the aeronautical charts that I used as an Air force aviator, to NASA’s lunar charts, to the terrain maps used for precision targeting during Desert Storm.

I was on the Joint Staff during the war in the Balkans in the late 1990s and at CIA after 9/11, and had extensive experience with NGA, and saw the power of the fusion of the INTs to provide military commanders and national leadership a nuanced picture of the battlefield and the world. As a friend said: “NGA really came of age after 9/11” and it became a leader in producing and pushing out products to the soldiers and airmen in the field so they would have current, accurate data to aid in targeting and reconnaissance. In fact, another friend of mine spent a good part of the early months of the war in Iraq ferrying hard drives with imagery and maps to users in the field when electronic transmission could not keep up with the data flow. By the time I retired in 2003, the concept of multi-INT intelligence fusion cells seamlessly delivering warfighter products was standard operating procedure.

Aside from support for our soldiers, the NGA has a variety of peacetime missions including providing strategic warning of critical world events, domestic support to counterterrorism, counternarcotics, cybersecurity and border security, and planning for major special events like the Super Bowl. When disasters strike in the U.S. and abroad, the NGA assists humanitarian and disaster relief efforts by providing current imagery and derived products to assist first responders and recovery efforts. They still produce the aeronautical and marine charts, much like the ones I used for years, although today they are likely to be in digital form rather than on paper. Most importantly, they maintain the geospatial foundational databases that underpin the exquisite capabilities we use to understand and move about the earth.

So with all this power, does the NGA intrude on the privacy of U.S. citizens? As part of the intelligence community, the NGA is subject to the legal and oversight processes which govern the conduct of foreign intelligence collection and limit the domestic use of its capabilities to carefully controlled and supervised circumstances. So, if you’re not an international terrorist or narcotics trafficker, the “three letter agencies” of the intelligence community — including the NGA — should not have much interest in you.

More worrisome is the incredible amount of personal information that is easily available today. With free commercial imagery, anyone can tell what kind of car is in your driveway, what your front door looks like, and what is in your back yard. Social media platforms collect data on the myriad details of your life, and commercial data aggregators build exquisite composite pictures of your social connections, financial situation, and political beliefs. Big data analysis and artificial intelligence comb through all that information to tease out patterns and develop connections. While NGA operates under stringent legal restrictions and Congressional oversight, commercial industry seeks only to maximize profits. I’m a lot more worried about Google and Facebook than I am about the NGA.