Geospatial Intel Agency Releases Declassified Budget Docs

The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) hired 600 to 700 new employees each year between 2005 and 2008, newly released budget documents indicate.  Still, “the coming wave of retirement… presents significant risks that the program will lose valuable institutional knowledge and critical skills and capability.”

These observations were presented in NGA’s annual budget justification materials for fiscal years 2009, 2010 and 2011 (pdf).  Unclassified excerpts of the budget documents were released by NGA last week in response to Freedom of Information Act requests from the Federation of American Scientists.

NGA is an intelligence agency that provides all manner of imagery, mapping and other “geospatial intelligence” (GEOINT) products for national security as well as other applications.  It is funded through the National Intelligence Program (NIP) and also through the Military Intelligence Program (MIP).

NGA products “support mission planning, mapping, environmental monitoring, urban planning, treaty monitoring, safe navigation, management of natural resources, homeland defense planning, emergency preparedness, and responses to natural and manmade disasters worldwide,” the budget documents say.

Only a fraction — perhaps 10% or so — of the classified NGA budget documents survived the declassification process and were released under FOIA.  Some of the coherent themes that emerge from the declassified documents include the transition to a new Agency headquarters at Fort Belvoir, which was completed last year, and the continuing integration of commercial satellite imagery into the NGA product line.  The Agency’s classified programs and activities (and spending levels) were not disclosed.

But many unfamiliar fine details of Agency operation and management were described.  The National GEOINT Committee was established as an Intelligence Community body chaired by NGA to promote cross-discipline collaboration on GEOINT issues.  Beginning in FY 2010, a program or process called “LEAR JET” was introduced as “a CI [counterintelligence] network monitoring tool to combat the cyber insider threat.”  And so on.

These budget justification materials are the first such documents to be released by NGA.  The move invites the question:  Why did the Agency release them?  (This in turn is a subset of a broader question:  Why and how does secrecy policy ever change?)

In this case, several factors leading up to release can be identified.  First, there was a “demand” for the documents; they would not have been spontaneously released.  Second, the Agency might have attempted to withhold them anyway, but a ruling by Judge Reggie B. Walton in a 2006 lawsuit against the National Reconnaissance Office found that such documents are subject to the FOIA.

But even that might not have been enough without an indispensable measure of good faith on the part of the Agency.  “NGA wants to make it easy for the public to understand who we are,” said NGA Director Letitia Long earlier this month.