GEOINT 2012 reflections on the Intelligence Community

The following are my reflections following attendance at this year’s geographical intelligence (GEOINT) conference in Orlando, FL.

If you ask me to identify this year’s key terms in the GEOINT sector, I would identify the following:

Source: GEOINT 2012, David Gauthier (NGA).

Activity-based intelligence (ABI). This was the overall key term and concept by far. According to various speakers, it means focusing on “transactions” that connect entities (often people) and objects over space and time, in real time. Compare and contrast to “situational awareness” in more general terms. Includes “big data” for more efficient “discovery” of significant happenings, “patterns of life,” and networks for what is sometimes called “tipping and cueing” ie noticing something interesting is going on and directing further sensors to stare at that event. (For more on ABI, see the Sept/Oct. issue of NGA magazine Pathfinder, pp. 8-10.)

Persistent surveillance (perhaps more of a goal and technology than a concept). Related to the above, sometimes called persistent ISR (intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance).

Multi-INT fusion. Needed to do ABI (ie not just satellites, or SIGINT, but all the INTs).

Human geography and “patterns of life” over space-time. As last year, this was a big theme, and related to activity-based intelligence. ABI was cited as drawing upon patterns of life (meaning, identifiable

Soldier as sensor.

Evidently, a number of these have connections to research in geography and to research by geographers and other social scientists. Compare “citizen as sensor” research for example. I am not aware, however, of all that many people in academia (with some notable exceptions, such as Derek Gregory) who study what the intelligence community is currently doing with these approaches.

Just as one small example, consider the take-up of the 13 “themes in human geography” that are being implemented by the joint NGA/State Department effort called the World Wide Human Geography Database (WWHGD). The approach here is a more-or-less untheorized attempt to identify the most important data layers and to compile them together into a very ambitious GIS dataset. Themes include: climate, ethnicity, land use, language etc.

These will strike many geographers as straight out of the post-war regional geography (what Peter Gould used to call the “midden heap” of useless facts) and/or “area studies.” If that is true, and the IC and military are taking geography up as such, we have to ask why. There are only a few possibilities:

1. We (geography) have mistakenly (or deliberately) abandoned an approach which others find valuably actionable;

2. We have not made the case for what we do now in the “post-regionalist” era;

3. Related to that last point, that the IC is not interested in what we do now (same idea, just places the onus outside of geography, and assumes the IC is aware of what we do).

At my institution (Univ. of Kentucky) and at many others, geography majors are declining or at best stable whereas majors in “international studies” have ballooned. Why is this?

As I hang out with the IC and think about their interaction with academia I have observed two things. First, that the IC has very little interaction with academia as a whole, except those parts of the latter that one might expect to be already aligned with IC/DoD goals. I’m thinking here of places like Penn State and GMU that have implemented GEOINT Certificates with support from the IC community (especially USGIF and NGA). But this is often limited to specialized communities rather than interaction across a diversity of academia. (In IC terms, the IC is not doing an “all source” engagement.)

Second, however, there seems to be increasing interest in the full range of (social science) academia and geography, and, coupled with this, I would estimate that they are quite willing to hear views that speak truth to power. Several speakers, including the Director of the NGA, Tish Long, mentioned the value of human geography for example.

Now, of course there is a big difference between tolerating/welcoming those views and changing one’s culture. The IC at the end of the day is currently set up to produce “actionable” intelligence. All the same, one can detect alignment of goals between academia and the IC at some fundamental level, ie., in improving and securing well-being. I’ll assume that both communities align themselves with that goal. (A tension around this is whose well-being, but I’ll leave that aside for now.)

For example, after 9/11 geographers often pointed to the production of terrorism not “over there” but in the homeland, so to speak, through misguided foreign policy. (We see this today in critiques of the US drone policy in Yemen and other countries with which the US is not at war.)

Another example is the work on globalism and its effects on increasing disparities or placing valued ways of life under threat (see Colin Flint on how we should understand the presence of the US in the Arabian Peninsula as an element of global geopolitics).

What if that kind of argument were to prevail within the IC as “actionable intelligence” that acts to secure the homeland from terrorism? This is what I mean by the possibility of an alignment of the goals of academia and the IC.

There are two objections to this that come to mind. One I’ve already mentioned is that the IC has no awareness or, or use for, current geographical research that is “post-regional.” The other is that social scientists (geographers) may reject having their current work appropriated by the IC and/or the state for pursuit of militaristic goals (the NGA, while it is in the National Intelligence Program is a combat-support agency). We saw this during the AAA objections to the human terrain system for example.

However, and I think we should be crystal-clear on this, this will not stop or retard the IC/the state from appropriating social science and “human geography,” nor the proliferation of academic GEOINT certificates, nor the IC funding geographic research. Nor will it mitigate the influence of writers such as Tom Friedman and Robert Kaplan (the latter was mentioned several times during GEOINT, including by a young professional who works for the Army Corps of Engineers and who described herself as a geographer).

These feed into comments such as this one from Air Chief Marshal Sir Stuart Peach a few days ago, that “geography doesn’t change…a good place for an ambush in Afghanistan in 1842 remains a good place for an ambush today. Understanding that sense of place is very important to tactical commanders” (See comments from 9′ 45″ onwards…).

But why? Here’s Gerry Kearns rebutting Kaplan:

the fact that today’s conflicts are in many of the same places as yesterday’s is a testament not to the guiding hand of Mother Nature, but to the pitiful legacy of those earlier wars — colonialism, political instability, and economic exploitation. (The British alone fought wars in Iraq during 1914-1918, 1920-1921, 1922-1924, 1943, and 1945, and in Afghanistan during 1839-1842, 1878-1880, and 1919, and of course are again in both places.)

Thus what we need is not some of “natural earth” where “complex theories of economic development or of international relations to a stable set of factors (such as climate, physiography, and location)” (Kearns again) but the full-on grasping of social, political and economic inequalities and asymmetries.

Thus I would reach two (tentative) conclusions.

1) We (social scientists and geographers) should explicitly engage the IC/DoD with critical political geographies or critical geopolitics (or whatever our favorite post-regional geographies may be). There are examples of this already, particularly in humanitarian aid and crisis mapping, and in open source technologies;

2) A fall-back proposition if that is too much of a leap; we should and can do more to know about, trace, and critique appropriation of the types of human geography (eg., regional science or area studies) by the IC. The latter is a multi-billion dollar operation maintained by all countries to one degree or another, and yet the geographic literature is curiously silent, apart from neat slogans such as “weaponizing x”) or historical studies. (I exempt, perhaps wrongly, critiques of the military, which has attracted a substantial literature, but here again we are justified in asking for an accounting of what effects it has had within military cultures).

For example, in “patterns of life” analysis in the IC, the goal is to identify those traits over time-space that flag activities of interest. Without the full socio-political interpretation these can be rendered not only simplistic but false, for example identifying transport of weapons in the back of a truck equated to a threat, when in fact it is quite common for weapons to be transported by truck in some parts of the country.

Reflecting on the above I’ve devised a short series of questions that an academic might answer, in order to see where they fall regarding intelligence. As soon as you answer “no” stop the test and note the question number you stopped on.

1. Do you agree that from time to time states may legitimately collect  intelligence?
2. Do you agree that the United States may legitimately collect intelligence at the current time?
3. Do you agree that the United States may legitimately collect secret or clandestine intelligence if it is properly overseen by and transparent to external authorities?
4. Do you agree that current US intelligence is fundamentally about improving well-being for those within the US?
5. Do you agree that current US intelligence capabilities would be improved by drawing on academic work on well-being?
6. Do you agree that US intelligence community may legitimately employ human geography methods, research and concepts?
7. Do you agree that the US intelligence community may legitimately employ drone surveillance?
8. Do you agree that the US intelligence community may legitimately use drone strikes?
9. Do you agree that the US intelligence community may legitimately employ drone surveillance drawing on human geography methods, research and concepts?
10. Do you agree that the US intelligence community may legitimately employ drone strikes drawing on human geography methods, research and concepts?

The terms used in the quiz are deliberately not explicitly defined (eg. “authorities” may be either Congress or a group of elected concerned citizens) because I want you to see if you can think of a definition that is satisfactory to you. Nor need you say yes to all the questions.

Let me know how many questions you say yes to, and which ones you do and on’t agree with.

5 responses to “GEOINT 2012 reflections on the Intelligence Community

  1. Pingback: The Forever War | Open Geography

  2. Pingback: COIN and the cultural turn | Open Geography

  3. Legitmately? Not a question. You either collect intelligence or you don’t. You are asking the wrong questions about the wrong things. Not a lecture, just an observation.

  4. It’s quite possible. What are the right questions then?

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