Category Archives: GEOINT

Harvard CGA presentation

Last week I was a panelist at the annual Center for Geographic Analysis conference at Harvard University. The panel topic was on privacy and legal aspects of locative media and the geoweb.

My remarks focused on what I’m coming to call “sustainable security” and posited that in many respects we have lost personal privacy and are willing to lose even more for the promise of being safer. Sustainable security seeks a level of security that is sustainable in the long run, and does not accept that all security is good or that it makes us safer.

Are we safer for all the money we spend on security? I suggested three reasons why we might not be (I’ve pasted my ppt below and I believe it was recorded on video).

1. outsourcing is growing the old military-industrial-academic sector, this outsourcing is for-profit, and leads to lack of oversight;

2. geographical research is being enrolled into the securitization agenda, converting “peaceful” research into militaristic purposes;

3. numerous legal provisions which enable the security state undermine civil liberties (not just privacy).

My co-panelists were Kirk Goldsberry (Harvard CGA), David DiBiase (Esri) (my first boss at Penn State) Nicolas Oreskovic, and Sarah Williams (MIT). We might have had some good discussion but unfortunately one of the panelists spoke for at least double the allotted time (we were asked to speak for about 10 minutes).

I would have especially liked to engage more with David, who felt I was being hypocritical in flagging Esri’s government (and DoD) contracting without mentioning the huge sums pulled in by universities (including UKY). This is certainly true–universities like UKY, and George Mason, Penn State and indeed Harvard do take large government contracts (although I was told that Harvard does not allow “secret” research)–but I think the reason to flag Esri is that (along with DigitalGlobe and GeoEye) it is a top ten contractor with the NGA, and as a privately held company does not publish its contracting details with DoD and NGA. (For its part, the NGA has had a special dispensation since 2006 not to report dollar figures it contracts out.) Esri is also a major mover in the GIS/locative space, and government funding of its efforts, and its role in working with DOD combat-support intelligence agencies, is worthy of note.

Nevertheless, as I noted in a tweet reply to David, he is right to wish for a more complete picture of the political economy of the geoweb. This is something I’d like to work on a bit more, and something some colleagues and I have discussed in more length in a paper in submission. 

Data on government spending is available at a couple of different places, eg., and, but for both the source is the Federal Procurement Data System (FPDS). According to the FPDS the following government awards have been made:

  • Esri $878m ($479m from DoD)
  • University of Kentucky $260m ($23m from DoD; including four awards over $1m, all from the Army)
  • George Mason University (a previous employer), $185m ($78m from DoD)
  • Penn State (David’s previous employer and my alma mater) $2.8b ($2.5b from DoD)
  • Johns Hopkins (top university recipient of federal contracts) $9.7b ($9.1b from DoD)
  • Harvard University $146m ($29m)

Penn State and Johns Hopkins’ size seriously dwarf the other examples given here. Harvard’s relatively tiny numbers (for an institution with a $32b endowment) are presumably a factor of its refusal to do “secret” research.

It would be worth looking at what these institutions are being funded to do, but here we run into problems of accessibility, absent sending in multiple FOIA requests. (If Esri wants to release financial summaries of its government and DoD contracts, I would be obliged, and give it due credit for transparency.)

These flows of money may seem like a lot, but in context of government and DoD funding they are relatively small. (Perennial government consultants Booz Allen Hamilton has absorbed more than $11.3b of tax-payer’s money; the top government contractor of all time is Lockheed Martin at $393b–how’s that for corporate welfare?)

But surely dollars are only part of the story. There’s also personnel and the rotation of government contractors, such that contractors become government  employees with the power to award contracts (and vice versa). This is partly why so many contracts are awarded on an “uncompeted” or if competed then only done so by a single company.

As I allude to in point 2. above, there are also the circulations of knowledge between various parts of the academic-military-intelligence-contractor “nexus.”  These are harder to pin down but potentially more illuminating. In my case, I am interested in how geography gets put to work.

In other words, how does expertise (concepts and methods) get co-opted (advertently, inadvertently) and circulate?

Take this story in The New Republic for instance. They found

at least 49 people who have simultaneously worked as lobbyists for outside entities while serving as top staff, directors or trustees of 20 of the 25 most influential think tanks in the United States.”

The list includes people who worked on national security issues at think tanks, but simultaneously lobbied for military munitions manufacturers:

[Center for American Progress] senior fellow Scott Lilly, whose beat includes national security issues, lobbied for Lockheed between 2005 and late-2011.

Should this reduce the credibility of Lilly or CAP? What if the financial support gained is not disclosed or only partially disclosed? Would transparency completely fix the problem–is it enough?

We also have this:

This should remind us that there is no such thing as the efficacy of pure knowledge–knowledge has a politics. How can we then develop reputable or consensual knowledge about what constitutes sustainable security (rather than security for security’s sake)? And of what do those consensual knowledges consist?

Harvard CGA slides: Sustainable Security

GeoIQ, Esri and NGA

The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), which is a DoD combat-support mapping and geospatial imagery intelligence agency, recently provided a short update (pdf) on GeoIQ, which was bought by Esri last year. GeoIQ has also received funding from the CIA’s venture-capital company, In-Q-Tel.

Even in an environment bursting with practitioners,  many at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency recognize the need for  geographical analysis tools that can be accessed and enhanced by users across the customer base. 

GeoIQ was one platform that particularly stood out to NGA and In-Q-Tel,  because it allows users to collect massive amounts of information and analyze it through geospatial analysis, said Jay Brennan, deputy program manager for the NGA IQT Program.

“I think a product like GeoIQ fits nicely with the (NGA) director’s desire to get GEOINT into the hands of users,” said Brennan. “It does a good job of making it easier for the non- (Geographic Information System) person to create their own maps, bring in their own data and do some first-level analysis. This frees up NGA analysts to do second-order or third-order analyses.”

In-Q-Tel is a private, independent organization that identifies and partners with companies that produce technologies of interest to the U.S. intelligence community. Since 2003, In-Q-Tel has received more than $17 million in funding from NGA. On average, for every $1 NGA spends, In-Q-Tel leverages an additional $37 from venture capital firms and the larger U.S. intelligence community, allowing NGA to maximize the impact of its investment.
In-Q-Tel made its first investment in GeoIQ in May 2007. Since then, the technology has found a place in the Integrated Work Group-Readiness, Response and Recovery (IWG-R3), where it is used within NGA and by many of its outside customers, such as first responders in the field.

GeoIQ has been employed during the recovery efforts following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, in the wake of hurricanes, and after other natural disasters, said Nathaniel Wolpert, an IWG-R3 geospatial intelligence analyst.

IWG-R3 uses GeoIQ to geospatially visualize and determine areas that are flooded or in need of supplies, and to understand the overall situation on the ground, said Wolpert.

NGA maintains a contract with GeoIQ, which was acquired by California-based Esri in July 2012, to source additional capabilities and tools based on the technology. NGA has provided feedback throughout its development and the company has been and continues to be very responsive, said Wolpert.
“It’s a powerful tool that we want to keep using and make more robust in the future,” said Wolpert.

Geopiracy and the Bowman Expeditions

Geopiracy: Oaxaca, Militant Empiricism, and Geographical Thought. 2013. By Joel Wainwright. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Joel Wainwright’s new book is an indispensable contribution to the Bowman Expeditions controversy.

Geopiracy is an intervention in the “Bowman Expeditions” and the controversy that has arisen around them since 2009. It appears in a new imprint from Palgrave Macmillan designed to provide an outlet for pieces that are longer than an article but shorter than a monograph–according to the publisher targeting texts of about 20-25,000 words. Geopiracy is fewer than 100 pages of text, but it acts like a glove to the face of geography, issuing a challenge.

Wainwright divides his book into 6 short chapters. He begins by discussing the initial objections to the Expeditions and reproducing selections of the letters from Oaxaca and the Union of Organizations of the Sierra Juarez of Oaxaca (UNOSJO) that were issued in January 2009. Although these letters are available online, it is useful to have large portions of them available here. The letters accuse the Bowman Expedition to Oaxaca and their project leader Peter Herlihy, the American Geographical Society (AGS) and the Foreign Military Study Office (FMSO) of the US Army of “geopiracy.” Wainwright glosses this later in the book:

the Bowman geographers were able to proceed expeditiously to [Oaxaca], conduct fieldwork, collect data, and capture this object in a GIS for the US Army (p. 72).

Wainwright states that these letters inspired his book. As he puts it, the question today is “how are we to rethink the question of representing space and place after the postcolonial critique?” (p. 71). This is our “ethical” question today.

Two sets of responses from geographers are discussed in the next two chapters, first from the “accused” geographers (Jerry Dobson, faculty at Kansas University and AGS Director, and Peter Herlihy also at KU). Again Wainwright provides large portions from their articles, including public presentations at conferences, which would not otherwise be available (Wainwright appears to have recorded these and it would be nice to also have them available online). He accepts that Dobson and Herlihy disclosed US Army funding of their research on the web (p. 11). If that were all the controversy were about, the book could end there, but of course it’s not just a question of disclosing military funds, but of accepting them in the first place.

Wainwright  Chapter 3 sets up the geographic discipline’s response, namely an AAG committee to revisit the organization’s ethics statement. Here Wainwright is frankly critical of the then-AAG president, John Agnew, a political geographer at UCLA and his refusal to take on the issue more fully. Wainwright is especially disturbed by Agnew’s comments (which he goes so far as to call an “attack”) about Joe Bryan, Wainwright’s co-author on several pieces about the Bowman Expeditions.

This is the most personal section of the book, and it will be easy for Wainwright’s critics to claim that this is nothing more than a personal riposte to Agnew. (Full disclosure: I have met Agnew a number of times, and admire his writings on political geography.) Wainwright clarifies that “his intent is not to analyze the psyche of Professor Agnew but to read these texts and draw out their lessons for polemos” (p. 29). On the whole, Wainwright succeeds in this. Nevertheless, it is hard to deny that in Wainwright’s telling, Agnew does not come out well from the episode.

Wainwright contrasts the AAG’s rather hopeless response to the controversy with the way anthropology handled the Human Terrain System controversy in their discipline. They too re-did their ethical statement, but made it much more muscular and definitive, stating flatly that if work “occurs in the context of war, integrated into the goals of counterinsurgency, and in a potentially coercive environment […] it can no longer be considered a legitimate professional exercise of anthropology” (pp. 32-3, ellipsis and emphasis in original). As Wainwright notes, Oaxaca was precisely in wartime conditions when the Expedition visited, meaning it cannot count as scholarly anthropology.

Why did anthropology do so much more, and more thoughtfully, when confronted with its dilemma? Wainwright offers two reasons: self-interest (ie if there are no subjects willing to talk to anthropologists they can’t do their work) and disciplinary politics. Anthropologists have long engaged with the legacy of the discipline’s “imperial roots” (p. 33) and the field has become politicized (Wainwright means this as a good thing). Quoting David Price, an anthropologist who has written extensively about HTS, it is war that “gives anthropology ethics” (p. 34). (This is partly what Wainwright means by polemos, quoted above, a term he deploys from Heidegger.)

Yet has not geography, cartography and GIS been developed to pursue war? Indeed. (As I’ve noted elsewhere, GIS company Esri has taken more than $3/4 billion in government funding, more than half of it from the Department of defense.) Another answer occurs. Anthropologists are trained to approach their work in a more holistic, cross-cultural, and contextual manner, which allows the consequences and linkages of actions to be brought forth. Thus it might not appear to be a big deal for an expedition to receive military funding (“and anyway we declared it on the first slide”) but it has, as we continue to see, consequences.

In other words, there are linkages between knowledge and power. This contrasts with (some of) the geography discipline’s belief in the efficacy of pure knowledge (the classic position of the modern good liberal; just get the right knowledge, or the right people in the room, and the solution will happen. In Wainwright’s view, this is Dobson and Herlihy’s fatal error.) This belief produces what Wainwright calls “militant empiricism” or the tendency to collect data–in the context of a declining US empire–for counterinsurgency and human terrain mapping (see Table 1, p. 58).

While counterinsurgency may have had its heyday, and its primary architect, General Petraeus, has resigned in embarrassment from his position as CIA director, it is true that shall we say GEOINT more generally is still ascendant. Comprising what historian Alfred McCoy calls the “triple canopy” (both the name of a defense contractor, and the idea of a complete ground-to-space vertical security and surveillance capability) the need for both physical and cultural data on populations is paramount (eg for drones to perform “signature strikes” based on “patterns of life” or “activity-based intelligence [ABI]).

It is no surprise however that in Chapter 4 Wainwright finds that the Bowman Expeditions have produced very little of scholarly value (despite taking in what he estimates is some $2.5 million in funding, see p. 54). He argues that the reason for this is not intellectual shortcomings but because of the very involvement of the military.

Here we get to the core of the issue, in my opinion. The involvement of the military is not problematic because Wainwright and his readers may be anti-military, but because 1) the military’s interests shape the research; not a fatal point as no doubt the NSF’s interests shape the grants it gets, as he seems to admit (p. 75), and 2) all labor is social (Marx) and this means “sharing and criticizing ideas openly” (p. 54) which is a huge difference between GEOINT and other funding agencies.

Why is this? On the one hand is an enterprise which seeks to lock down and “secure” knowledge, and on the other is an intellectual tradition of critique which seeks to problematize. This latter issue is the subject of Wainwright’s fifth chapter, which takes up the work more generally of Spivak and Ismail on postcolonial fieldwork. In my 2010 book Mapping, I visualized it this way:

Figure 12.1

It’s a set of differences between attempts to secure formal knowledges (eg., in GIS “ontologies” and make them do certain kinds of work, often for the state). Wainwright has a bit of fun with one of Dobson’s proposals for a a big macroscope for fieldwork, which has the effect of distancing subject and object (cf. Butler’s observation that “subject” has dual connotations; we are both subjects and we subject others to ourselves, subjects are constituted, not a priori). As she points out (in eg., Gender Trouble), following Foucault, it is necessary to trace a genealogy, in this case of mapping, GIS and GEOINT, precisely as technologies that constitute their subjects, rather than to “posit” a fieldwork site “from where we derive data” (p. 76).

Wainwright ends with a summary of his argument, in eight “theses.” These recapitulate and bring together his argument in the earlier chapters. For Wainwright, geography is–but does not have to remain–a reactionary discipline, adopting the empiricist epistemology “in the spirit of Isaiah Bowman” and “keeping our conscience clear” by putting “critical” before geography, and GIS (p. 87). In this way, Wainwright delivers a kind of parallel critique, not just of the Bowman Expeditions themselves, but of geography (Agnew, the AAG) and especially geographies which all too often employ insincere critique.Here Wainwright runs the danger of alienating all sides, although one might also read it as a call for a renewed spirit of inquiry (most detailed in Chapter 5 on postcolonialist geography). Wainwright does not profess to know what that renewed geography looks like; although we are warned away from weaponizing of geography (p. 88) in the service of the military. He reverses the usual dictum that “war is God’s way of teaching geography” to say that “war is a geographer’s excuse for ‘playing God'” (p. 89), a game we should refuse.

Wainwright’s book is not perfect. It is not aimed at the casual reader, but is a kind of cross between say David Price’s Weaponizing Anthropology (2011) and Polt and Fried’s Companion to Heidegger’s Introduction to Metaphysics (2000). There is also an element of court documents (with accusations and “defense”). It will not settle any debates (indeed problematizing, as here, may require ongoing inquiry). But it is a passionate call for a new geography that refuses militant empiricism. It offers little on methodology except what you could forge from the discussions on subject-object or calls to study not just the dispossessed but “those who can call the cops” in Bernie Neitschmann’s phrase (p. 91), ie., those doing the geopiracy. But it’s a brave little book of a type we are not used to in geography, taking on issues that are usually avoided (will it be reviewed in the Geographical Review?) and showing that the issues are not just academic “controversies.”

Questions for John Brennan

David Cole, a professor of law at Georgetown, poses twelve essential questions for Obama’s nominee for Director of the CIA, John Brennan.

There are a number of great questions here, including a question about the “legal authorities” behind the classified drone program–a topic recently pursued by Senator Wyden (about the only Senator willing to question the administration’s military/intelligence programs). But the one that I’d most like to see an answer to is this one:

5. It has been reported that, in addition to “personality strikes” against particular known individuals, the administration also uses “signature strikes” against unidentified individuals who show patterns of behavior characteristic of a particular militant or terrorist group. In what situations, beyond a traditional battlefield, is it appropriate to use such strikes? What constitutes a sufficient “signature” to warrant a strike?

In other words, what are the specific “patterns of life” that constitute a perceived threat? And how are these patterns surveilled and made knowledgeable? If we had answers to those questions we would advance our understanding of how geographical technologies and concepts were being used or misused.

In this context, check out this poll by Pew Global on attitudes towards the US drone program around the world:

Spy satellite imagery to be released

Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) has an update on the release of KH-9 satellite imagery to the public:

Intelligence community officials have been meeting with representatives of the National Archives to discuss the anticipated declassification and release of intelligence imagery from the KH-9 satellite dating between 1971 and 1984.

Officials have been negotiating the transfer of the original negatives from the KH-9 system and the provision of finding aids, according to a newly released but heavily redacted report from the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, dated June 2012.

If “keyhole” reminds you of keyhole markup language (kml) it should. Keyhole was the name of the software which was bought by Google and turned into Google Earth. I interviewed Avi Bar-Zeev, one of the co-founders of the company in Cartographica (article is freely available here).

The June 2012 report was obtained by Aftergood through FOIA. As he correctly points out, it is quite heavily redacted, but it details the release of historical imagery from the KH-9 systems, operational between 1971 and 1984 (and officially decommissioned in 2011).

Geographic knowledge and war

Today at the ASPRS meetings, Jerry Dobson, Professor at Kansas University, President of the American Geographical Society (AGS) and Jefferson Fellow at the Department of State, repeated a claim he’d first made in 2010:

So, you know, we hear a lot of people now agonizing over Iraq and Afghanistan and saying, “How did we get it so wrong?” But, it’s not just Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s Korea, it’s Vietnam, Beirut, Somalia, and so forth. We have this century of first half story victories, second half more quagmires than victories. What changed? Was it the valor of our troops? No, they’re as outstanding as always. Was it the training, or equipment, or technology? No, those are better than ever. Policy, strategy, foreign intelligence? We’ve been playing a dangerous game of blind man’s bluff and that corresponds with the American purge of geography. America abandoned geography after World War II and hasn’t won a war since. Now, that’s debatable based on what’s ‑‑ how you define a war and how you define a victory, but it makes a point. Sometimes that was because geographic ignorance drove the initial decision to choose war over peace, and sometimes because geographic ignorance led to poor intelligence, strategy, tactics, and diplomacy.

(The Department of State video of this talk is available here.)

The fact that he repeated this claim belies any idea that this might be a spur of the moment phrasing–Jerry actually seems to really believe this stuff.

Part of his argument is that geography has died since reaching a peak under Isaiah Bowman. In fact, this is backwards–geography is richer and more vibrant today than under Bowman. And you can’t help but feel has died is not so much geography, as Dobson’s preferred form of it; America-centric, with imperial overtones. The other part is that Dobson clearly states that geographical knowledge helps the US “win” more wars and that that is what geography is for.

Second, and somewhat confusingly, Jerry argues that this “death of geography,” this lack of geographic knowledge, has led to increased militarism due to geographic ignorance. The trouble with this argument is that it’s less than half right. It omits the fact there there is no such thing as pure efficacious knowledge, but in Foucault’s useful phrase, power/knowledge. Knowledge and power–in this case political goals–are intertwined. So knowledge is not a panacea, and in fact is often in the service of military endeavors, as is well-known.

In fact it’s the “good liberal” argument he made at AAG 2012, in dismissing Karen Morin’s new book, Civic Discipline and defending the work of the AGS. In his remarks  (published this week in the Geographical Review), he says:

She faults Daly for “his alignment with a  subsequently declining geographical society.” But  Daly died in 1899 and the AGS soared through the 1920s. Did she really mean to say that the AGS with Isaiah Bowman was less impactful than the AGS under Daly? What does she mean by “declining,” anyway? We survived. We’re still doing great things. She says “unfortunate obstacles in the later twentieth century. . . damaged [our] stature within the geographic community.” If that is true, how can the AGS still have three former presidents of the Association of American Geographers, one former president of the National Council for Geographic Education, and one former president of the Conference of Latin Americanist Geographers on its council? And, what were those “obstacles”? The only one I know is that we ran short of money and had to reduce our expenditures accordingly. Does she fault us for the decline in philanthropy that swept through corporate donors from the 1970s on? Would she disparage Daly for his close ties to business and then disparage us for shedding ours beyond what we intended?

This misses several things. Most importantly, I take it that it’s clear that Morin is referring to the AGS “obstacles” of the Bowman Expeditions and Mexico Indigena. This factually and definitely has “damaged the AGS’ stature.” The AGS is much shrunken, and recently had to give up its offices in Manhattan and move to a small office in Brooklyn. (One positive outcome: due to lack of space they finally had to yield up their archives to a proper facility at Univ. Wisconsin-Milwaukee–a boon for researchers. It was there this summer that I found an interesting trail of letters from Bill Bunge to people around the world on behalf of Fred Schaefer.)

Dobson continues:

Civic Discipline demeans the life and works of one of the greatest geographers and humanitarians who ever lived. It maligns one of geography’s most venerable institutions. Morin damns with innuendo and baseless accusations. She relies exclusively
on popular social theories and ignores other plausible explanations. She neglected to ask those who know Daly best.

By this last phrase, Dobson means himself. In a remark which drew much laughter at the AAG session, but which is unfortunately not printed here, Morin paused to say that she would no more ask the AGS President about 19th century geography than she would ask Michael Palin about the RGS! [Palin is the  Past-President of RGS]. You go where the archives are, and in this case, the AGS no longer has the relevant papers (they have discarded and sold a lot of stuff off over the years), or they lie elsewhere (NYPL).

Dobson’s claim that Daly was a great geographer and humanitarian is starkly at odds with the fact that he let off (Daly was a judge by trade) the state militia who had shot into an unarmed crowd, killing 22 people and injuring 45, as Neil Smith points out in his contribution.

Returning to the theme then, it is not a case of the good liberal throwing knowledge at a problem and expecting liberal outcomes. Knowledge for whom? For what? The Bowman Expeditions are a dead letter because they are construed as producing knowledge for the military in the hope that they’ll invade and bomb less frequently. Is it working?

Final note on this: Dobson is going to lecture on “ethical issues in geography” next week, wherein he will demonstrate the “public’s boundless embrace of geographic technologies.”

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.

Is transparency enough?

Two recent events have got me thinking about transparency. Particularly whether demands for transparency of process, coupled with oversight, are sufficient to ensure good practice.

The proximate cause of these thoughts was Sarah Elwood’s excellent talk to the geography department “Activism, Civic Engagement and the Knowledge Politics of the Geoweb.” Sarah discussed NGOs and their use of geospatial and GIS technologies, and noted that they claimed these offered a benefit to the user (eg., to increase participation) due to their added transparency compared to previous NGO efforts. Sarah was careful to note that these were the NGO claims, and that they needed further assessment. Given the subject matter of her talk, the clear implication was that transparency alone (ie., access to knowledge about their activities) is no more sufficient than previous claims for transparency of the map were ever sufficient. (The map as a transparent window on to the real world.)

The original comments that started me on this however were a couple of posts on Derek Gregory’s blog (here and here) on covert killing through drone strikes. Here are the pertinent sections, first in the context of a recent report on the civilian impact of drones:

military protocols are indeed more public, even transparent, as the authors note, but the space between principle and practice is still wide enough to inflict an unacceptably heavy burden on the civilian population.

Derek had previously made a more developed version of his point:

Madiha’s root objection is to the way in which what she calls the Obama administration’s ‘theatrical performance of faux secrecy’ over its drone war in the FATA (and elsewhere) – a repugnantly teasing dance in which the veil of secrecy is let slip once, twice, three times – functions to draw its audience’s entranced eye towards the American body politic and away from the Pakistani bodies on the ground.  The story is always in Washington and never in Waziristan.  It’s a hideously effective sideshow, in which Obama and an army of barkers and hucksters – unnamed spokesmen ‘speaking on condition of anonymity’ because they are ‘not authorised to speak on the record’,  and front-of-house spielers like Harold Koh and John Brennan – induce not only a faux secrecy but its obverse, a faux intimacy in which public debate is focused on transparency and accountability as the only ‘games’ worth playing.

It is certainly true that the administration’s “now you see it, now you don’t” position on CIA drone strikes (as opposed to those performed by the military in Afghanistan) are hypocritical. On the one hand they issue the standard Glomar response (“neither confirm nor deny”) about drone use in countries with which the US is not at war (Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia). On the other they send out self-congratulatory announcements about killing suspected al-Qaeda members in Yemen, even when they hold American citizenship (such as Anwar al-Awlaki). (Glenn Greenwald has written the most informatively on this, eg here.)

I would also agree with Derek that “false transparency” is deceptive (as is the quest for total or full transparency). However, I would argue that the conditions of knowledge, or if you like the politics of knowledge, are currently in such an asymmetrical state that efforts to rebalance these asymmetries are meritorious. Not just the two recent reports on drones (which I haven’t read yet but plan to do so), but also efforts like WikiLeaks, which I wrote about recently in Geopolitics. The Obama administration’s war on whistleblowers has been truly unprecendented, and brave employees of the NSA, like Thomas Drake, and of the CIA, such as John Kiriakou (who revealed its practice of waterboarding and admitted it was torture) have been charged under the Espionage Act. Not to mentioned Bradley Manning, accused whistleblower, who allegedly provided State department cables to WikiLeaks. (The Drake case was dismissed but the Kiriakou case continues. Proceedings against Bradley Manning are also continuing today.)

While transparency is not enough, and false transparency is misleading, I think it’s important to continue to work for increased government oversight, and I know that it is effective. Things like FOIA and working on declassified documents in archives do yield plenty of information. The FAS Secrecy blog is also highly informational (not least in part because of their use of FOIA to obtain eg., the NGA Congressional budget justifications). In a paper I wrote this summer with two colleagues, Susan Roberts and Ate Poorthuis, we used information we obtained from  corporate filings with the SEC. The paper would not have been as empirically rich without it.

This issue has connections to the vexed problem of visuality, but my focus has more often been on knowledge, and, as here, access to knowledge and denial of access (secrecy). I have a blog post coming up on “the secret” so more on that soon.

GEOINT 2012 [pictures]

GEOINT (geographical intelligence) 2012 is the largest open gathering of intelligence-related participants (contractors, government employees, directors of intel agencies) I know of. This year it is being held in Orlando, Florida and it closes out tonight. Here are some pictures of the event so far.

The main presentation room looking at the stage and the main screen. Presentations here are recorded and appear on

Views of the massive exhibition hall.

Somebody brought a missile from the Cuban missile crisis!

The meeting is organized by the US Geospatial Intelligence Foundation. Here’s their huge banner in the atrium of the Gaylord Palms hotel.

..and what was below that banner!

Human geography at the NGA: “boots on the ground”

The latest (Sept-Oct 2012) issue of the NGA’s in-house magazine, Pathfinder, is a special issue on “Human Geography” (cover below). Motto:

Right Place, Right Time

Human geography tells “when” and “where” to put boots on the ground.

Now I don’t usually get too bothered about military/intel appropriations of the discipline, but the photo and text above is just so ridden with contradictions and, well, let’s just be frank, propaganda, that it’s impossible to let pass.

Whatever happened to geography as a tradition of care, so well put by Peter Gould in his brilliant piece “Thinking like a Geographer” ? Or the rest of his senses: a sense of communion, of disquiet, of relevance, of justice, of the spatial, of need, of right? Of course these could apply to any discipline, not geography alone.

Is that an apple the child is offering? A ball? Is the infantryman representative of the teacher? But no:

On the cover. The study of human geography allows NGA’s geospatial intelligence analysts to provide decision makers with the information necessary to ensure our military is at the right place at the right time to provide assistance to those in need. U.S. Marine Corps Lance Cpl. Tom Morton hands an Afghan child a toy during a security patrol in the Garmsir district of Afghanistan’s Helmand province, Feb. 25. Morton is a team lead assigned to Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment.

So boots on the ground is now primarily = “assistance to those in need”? Ah, that’s what happened to the social safety net and welfare! It turned into one that carries loaded weapons around children.

I shouldn’t think even readers of the magazine predisposed to its message will be convinced by this one, much less those wearing the “boots on the ground.”