AAG Presentation

Below are the slides and text of my AAG 2012 presentation in New York City: “Spooks, Scholars and Secrets.”


Spooks, Scholars and Secrets: Geographies of “Volunteered” and Open Source Intelligence (OSINT)

Jeremy Crampton
Department of Geography
University of Kentucky
KY 40506

Presentation delivered at AAG Annual Conference, New York City, Feb. 25, 2012.

This paper examines these developments. On the one hand, we need to improve our understanding of the relationship between intelligence and science. Can scholarly work, traditionally open, co-exist with intelligence, traditionally closed? Will the IC become more transparent or science less so? Can scholars exploit “counter-intelligence” such as WikiLeaks?

On the other hand, what are the geographies of the intelligence landscape–the “alternative geography of the United States” (Priest 2010)? How is the IC exploiting social media and especially the geoweb for intelligence? Does this constitute an extension of surveillance into the everyday, an “infra-power” (Foucault 1977: 49), and if so, to what extent is (geographic) information truly “volunteered”? To ask these questions is to recognize the extent of the information asymmetries of the modern security state: we still know very little about it even as it collects ever more information about us.

As some privacy advocates argue, we lose privacy not because of exposure of our secrets, but by networking and datamining of our public data footprint.

Background and Introduction

In 2010 for the first time ever the USA disclosed its total intelligence budget: $80.1 billion. Since 9/11 the USA has doubled its spending on intelligence to more than $500 billion (Aid 2012: 42). By contrast the Department of Homeland Security budget is $42.6 billion and the State Department request for FY 2013, including all foreign aid, is $51.6 billion. According to an official report to Congress there are now some 4.2 million people with security clearances (over 1 million with the highest “Top Secret” clearance). In 2010, investigative journalists Dana Priest and William Arkin uncovered over 100,000 locations in the USA devoted to counter-terrorism and intelligence.

Slide: Top Secret America map

Last year, however, the country’s chief intelligence official, James R. Clapper, warned that the post-9/11 era of asking for and getting unlimited funds was over. At the GEOINT Conference held in San Antonio in October, he stated that the intelligence community (IC) was looking at cuts in the double digits “with a B” over the next ten years. The Washington Post’s Walter Pincus reported this month that the National Intelligence Program will see a cut of 4.4% or $2.4 billion in the Obama fiscal 2013 budget (although this is compared to the 2012 request and effectively keeps spending level).[1]

Slide: Talk outline

In the first part of this talk I’d like to give a brief context to intelligence in this country and point to the fact that scholars, including geographers, have long been involved in its production, before noting recent developments in geographic and open source intelligence (GEOINT & OSINT). In the third part of the talk I’d like to present ways in which it’s possible to collect geospatial intelligence ourselves using cheap but high resolution materials. Drawing on Foucault, I call this a counter-mapping project.

The Origins of Modern Intelligence

In the United States centralized intelligence across branches of civilian and military departments did not emerge until WWII with the formation of the OSS.[2] This was relatively late compared to other nations; the UK established its MI6 in 1909 and reflects the still-ongoing difficulty of integrating intelligence across the government. (Roosevelt played Hoover’s FBI and Donovan’s OSS against each other.) When the OSS was disbanded in 1945 it did not disappear. Some elements emerged in 1947 as the CIA, while others, especially the OSS research division, were absorbed into the Department of State to become the Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) which today houses the Office of the Geographer and the Humanitarian Information Unit (HIU).[3] (Today there are still an unwieldy 17 organizations that comprise the intelligence community, although only six are primarily responsible for intelligence: NGA, NRO, NSA, FBI, DIA & CIA.[4])

The bulk of America’s intelligence resources (personnel and funding) occurs in the national intelligence organizations. The most pertinent of these from a geographical standpoint are the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) and the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO); the existence of the latter was only revealed publicly in 1992. The NRO is responsible for the US’s spy satellites programs and the collection of geospatial imagery (IMINT) and has a black budget of around $10 billion, with maybe 3,000 employees (Richelson 2012: 40). The NGA is responsible for the nation’s GEOINT. GEOINT is officially defined as “exploitation and analysis of imagery and geospatial information to describe, assess, and visually depict physical features and geographically referenced activities”.

The NGA has a black budget sometimes estimated around $5 billion, and it has 16,000 employees, about half of whom are at the new NGA offices at Fort Belvoir, VA, called NGA Campus East (NCE). This facility cost $1.7 billion and is the third largest building in the National Capital Region. That is, the NGA is about the same size as the CIA.

Slide: NGA exterior

Slide: NGA atrium

Slide: NGA hallway

NGA recently celebrated 15 years of existence, but its origins go back to the Defense Mapping Agency (chartered in 1972) and prior to that, various mapping activities in the armed services and Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA).[5]

Slide: NGA Budget Justification

The NGA mission is to deal with all matters that are related to GEOINT, including geographic data collection, processing and analysis, provide the DoD lead on GEOINT standards, build system architectures, and manage the National Geospatial Intelligence Program within the National Intelligence Program. Although much of its source imagery still comes from the NRO, the NGA has a significant and ongoing commercial remote sensing (CRS) agreement with satellite operators to purchase their products (the ClearView Program). In sum, the NGA is the nation’s top geographic spy agency.

2. Open Source Intelligence (OSINT)

How might we assess the legacy and role of intelligence, and especially geographic intelligence, (GEOINT)? There are two issues to consider: open source intelligence and geospatial standards. As noted earlier, the NGA is responsible for creating and advancing geographic standards. Recently, the NGA, in conjunction with the Department of State Bureau for Intelligence and Research have created a joint working group, the World-Wide Human Geography Data Working Group (WWHGD) to create a complete workup of what it calls human geography data layers.

Slide: Working Group flyer

Slide: HG Foundational Themes, John Goolgasian, NGA, at GEOINT 2011

The point here is that this human geography, or socio-cultural analysis (SCA) extends the traditional remit of the NGA from directly observable physical features into the trickier issues of human social relations, political alignments, population measures etc. These efforts are worthy of further attention from geographers, on a number of grounds including the assumptions behind the effort, the suitability of amalgamating such disparate issues etc. This is far more than the “human terrain teams” which have been deployed to assess local sentiment and have included geographers and other academics. Currently, about 45 HTT are deployed worldwide, with 31 in Afghanistan.

Slide: Human Geography Data Sub-Models

As part of this effort, the IC and NGA are seeking to increasingly exploit open source intelligence. In practice, OSINT may account for 70 or 80 percent of all intelligence collected, ie from unclassified sources. Open source is not necessarily “open.” Much OSINT is actually “private intelligence” from companies whose primary motivation is to make a profit. This is the neoliberalisation of intelligence.

This may mean exploiting Twitter feeds to better anticipate social protests such as the Tahrir Square Arab Spring, or it may mean bringing in experts and knowledge from science and academia.

3. Counter-mapping

The remit of the NRO and NGA has traditionally been the one most difficult to do, involving the launching of billion dollar satellites, expensive ground and tracking stations.

[Discussion here around the slides.]


If in fifteen years “there will be no more secrets” as the CIA’s Don Burke said in 2008, does that mean that eg WikiLeaks, FOIA and the Obama adminstration are creating a new, transparent government? Or will it mean more asymmetrically, where it is we citizens who will have few secrets? As Matt Hannah recently put it, is this the age of governmental epistemic sovereignty? If so, in what sense are we “volunteering” (geographic) information? What are the possibilities of an informational citizenship and an activist politics around data rights? There are no guarantees that acceptable answers are possible, but asking them is part of the job I think of an open geography in a democrtatic society.



Aid, M. M. 2012. Intel Wars. The Secret History of the Fight Against Terror. New York: Bloomsbury Press.

Richelson, J. T. 2012. The US Intelligence Community. 6th Edn. Boulder, Co: Westview Press.


[2] COI: 11 July 1941-13 June 1942, OSS, 13 June 1942-1 October 1945.

[3] Research & Analysis went to State, while X-2 (counter-intelligence) and secret intelligence went to the War Department. At State the group was initially known as the Interim Research and Intelligence Service (IRIS), and since 1957 as the Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR). For FY2011 INR actual budget was $64.9 million with 336 staff (source: http://www.state.gov/documents/organization/181061.pdf, accessed Feb. 21, 2012).

INR includes the Office of the Geographer and Global Issues (GGI, 24 staff, $4.28 million, founded in 1921, see http://www.state.gov/documents/organization/120655.pdf, pp. 30-33), cyber affairs (5 staff), and the regional offices (Africa, Europe, East Asia/Pacific, Russia and Eurasia, Near East and South Asia and Western Hemisphere) which range from 14-25 staff each. It provides external input (eg., to the National Intelligence Estimates (NIE)) and internally to the State Department itself. It also includes the Humanitarian Information Unit (HIU) and a War Crimes Unit. The HIU has a support team from the NGA detailed to it.

[4] CIA, Defense Intelligence Agency, NGA, NRO, NSA, intel in the Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, Marine Corps and Navy, and the DOE, DHS, DEA, State, Treasury, FBI, and the ODNI.

[5] The NGA was officially formed out of the National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA) which itself was a consolidation of the Defense Mapping Agency (DMA), the Central Imagery Office the National Photographic Interpretation Center (NPIC) and portions of the Defense Airborne Reconnaissance Office and National Reconnaissance Office (NRO). NIMA was formed in October 1996 and had its name changed to NGA in November 2003. In 2011 the NGA celebrated its 15th anniversary. It is the first of the “Quad” or big four national intelligence agencies to hire a female director, Letitia Long, in 2010. NGA is responsible for far more than just imagery acquisition, as it also oversees GEOINT planning in the DoD, monitors other government departments that have GEOINT capabilities, liaises and exchanges imagery products and services with the commercial sector [recently released NGA budgets cited figures of 750 terabytes per year, see fas.org], and is the DoD lead for GEOINT standards etc. In 2006, it added ground-based imagery collection to its mission to provide products suitable for soldiers on the ground. It has five Directorates: Source Operations & Management (S), Enterprise Operations (E), Analysis & Production (P), Acquisition (A), and InnoVision (I). See Richelson, J. T. 2012. The US Intelligence Community. 6th Edn. Boulder, Co: Westview Press. for an overview.


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