In an interview over the summer, the NGA Director Letitia Long argues that the secret agency can do much more with “human geography.” While the physical landscape is prime fodder for their surveillance:
human geography of the same place would reveal much more–tribal boundaries, political ideology, ethnicity and languages. According to Long, it could include such elements as birth and death rates, degree of education, access to media, principal market commodities and proximity to health care facilities.
The agency has released few examples of its work influenced by human geography, and none with anywhere near the degree of detail that analysts would typically use. One map–perhaps the only one–cleared for public release is an aerial photo of Baghdad taken in 2009 overlaid with semi-transparent patches of green, orange, red and blue to indicate various concentrations of Shias, Sunnis and Christians.
“Knowing which areas of the city are predominantly Sunni and which are Shia helps coalition forces better understand their environment,” says a caption published with the map in NGA’s magazine, Pathfinder.
This is not terribly new to intelligence (the OSS compiled reports on regions or countries with information on social factors, and the WWI Inquiry made ethnicity maps of disputed areas).
But it is an indication that the NGA wants to supplement its task of taking satellite imagery other information.
Where and how they are collecting this information is not revealed. The only example mentioned is that of the Dayton Peace Accords in 1995 (and about which I wrote a paper examining the cartography used, which as far as I know remains the only academic paper on the topic).
But note the following, where NGA says they will not have agents in the field a la the human terrain project, but will rather use open source intelligence (OSINT) and “the internet.”
…human terrain teams proved controversial. The American Anthropological Association warned that participating in the teams could compromise anthropologists’ ethics, undermine anthropology as an academic discipline, and endanger both researchers and their subjects.
The harshest critics charged that human terrain teams were an attempt to weaponize anthropology.
A comparable backlash to NGA’s use of human geography seems unlikely, Sallaway says. “It depends on whether you’re operating on a tactical level or a strategic level. The human terrain teams were in certain towns, operating at a local level.” That’s not how NGA envisions its analysts using human geography. Mostly they’ll be at NGA sites in the United States, and human geography will be one among many factors that shape their analysis, she says.
There are two concerns then; how this information will be exploited and frankly how good it could possibly be without working on the ground.
The story goes on to quote Jerry Dobson extensively, who describes his plans to establish a large-scale program to send geographers overseas (including the controversial Bowman Expeditions). He envisages a joint program between intelligence agencies such as the NGA and the State department funding academics to gather the required imagery and human intelligence.
So it’s almost like if agencies don’t collect human-social information they’re not fulfilling their mission but if they do they’re not likely to be able to do it sensitively and without political ramifications. I think this is a key reason why we need to re-examine the very mission of intelligence agencies in the first place.