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NGA, the most secretive spying agency: ‘It can zoom in on a a stick of butter’

Foreign Policy reports that the little-known National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, or NGA, is an American spy agency fond of drone warfare.

Published: April 1, 2017, 11:01 am

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    St Louis

    Former president Obama soon realised the potential of launching foreign wars without having to go through Congress for authorisation. It remains to be seen how President Donald Trump will further exploit the multibillion-dollar surveillance network.

    Like the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the National Security Agency (NSA), the NGA is an intelligence agency, but it also serves as a combat support institution for the Pentagon.

    Foreign Policy’s James Bamford reports. “Eight years after that videotape aired, the NGA remains by far the most shadowy member of the Big Five spy agencies, which include the CIA and the National Security Agency.

    “The NGA is to pictures what the NSA is to voices. Its principal function is to analyze the billions of images and miles of video captured by drones in the Middle East and spy satellites circling the globe.”

    Up to now, the NGA has only targeted the Middle East, turning away its ultra-high-resolution cameras from the United States, but that could change with Trump’s position on immigration as weel as international terrorism.

    “It can zoom in on an object as small as a stick of butter on a plate and store up to 1 million terabytes of data a day,” Bamford explains.

    A partially redacted March 2016 report released by the Pentagon revealed that drones is being used used domestically. “As the nation winds down these wars,” the report explains, and ”assets become available to support other combatant command (COCOM) or US agencies, the appetite to use them in the domestic environment to collect airborne imagery continues to grow.”

    Originally tasked primarily with cartography — before a mammoth expansion, the spy arm had been called the National Imagery and Mapping Agency — until a name and mission switch in 2003.

    The NGA’s headquarters are bigger and more expensive than the CIA’s, with their new building costing $1.4 billion to complete in 2011. In 2016, the NGA bought extra land in St. Louis, and added an extra $1.75 billion to taxpayers for more office space.

    In Baltimore and Compton, US police departments have already deployed aerial surveillance technology without issuing a warrant or seeking authorisation from local or state lawmakers.

    Police in Baltimore began conducting persistent aerial surveillance, possibly using ARGUS-IS, the world’s highest-resolution camera with 1.8 billion pixels. Invisible from the ground some 7km in the air, it uses a technology known as ‘persistent stare’ — the equivalent of 100 Predator drones peering down at a medium-size city at once — to track everything that moves.

    Bamford points out for Foreign Policy the Trump administration signed a significant expansion of surveillance on mosques and Islamic centers.

    “While most of the technological capacities are classified, an anonymous NGA analyst told media the agency can determine the structure of buildings and objects from a distance, has some of the most sophisticated facial recognition software on the planet and uses sensors on satellites and drones that can see through thick clouds for ‘all-weather’ imagery analysis,” reports news.com.au.

    In 2007, George W Bush’s Department of Homeland Security set up an agency known as the National Applications Office with the goal of establishing direct spy satellite surveillance in America, but Congress cut off the agency’s funding.

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