Two Agencies Melding Minds on Intelligence

Times Staff Writer

At computer cubicles deep inside the National Security Agency, the intelligence service that eavesdrops on America’s enemies, a small revolution is underway.

For the first time, NSA experts are working with analysts from the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, a newer agency that studies data from spy satellites. They share the NSA’s latest bugged phone calls and e-mails of suspected terrorists. They study NGA infrared scans and radar images of Baghdad and other hot spots.

The benefits of teamwork might be obvious. But the collaboration at the NGA and NSA -- the eyes and ears of America’s spy systems -- marks a critical shift for a cloak-and-dagger crowd that has fiercely resisted joining forces for decades and that has come under attack for glaring intelligence failures before the Sept. 11 attacks and the war in Iraq.


“The NGA and NSA are acting closer together now than any intelligence organizations in history,” Joan A. Dempsey, a veteran CIA officer who now heads the president’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, said in a recent speech.

Officials say the previously undisclosed unit, code-named Geocell, has rushed real-time tips and warnings to field operatives and White House officials. More than two dozen NSA-NGA teams were posted together in Iraq, with scores more in other military commands. So many senior staff have swapped headquarters billets that insiders complain of an “exchange of hostages.” However, few dispute the benefits.

“The payoffs of working together are immediately visible,” Lt. Gen. Michael V. Hayden, NSA director, said in an interview at his office. Collaboration is “a win-win,” agreed Lt. Gen. James R. Clapper Jr., the NGA chief.

An intelligence reform bill, signed by President Bush on Dec. 17, aims to replicate that approach wherever possible. As a first step, Bush will name a national director of intelligence who will have greater authority over an estimated $40-billion budget and a mandate to fuse the nation’s 15 spy services into a more coherent whole.

Calls for cooperation aren’t new, and the job is not expected to be easy. During the Cold War, each spy service developed its own mission, budget and bureaucracy. Over time, the agencies were divided by bitter rivalries and cultural clashes. They communicated in vertical “stovepipes” that funneled critical information up to managers but rarely across internal lines or to other U.S. agencies.

The NSA and NGA are an example. The NSA complex at Ft. Meade is only 36 miles from NGA headquarters in suburban Bethesda, Md., but until recently, the two Pentagon-funded agencies could have been on different planets.


During the Cold War, the NSA was the most secretive of the spy services. It still conducts some of the most sensitive operations, including eavesdropping on foreign leaders. It remains the largest intelligence service, with an estimated 40,000 employees and contractors collecting data from military bases, U.S. embassies and other facilities around the world.

The NGA, with 14,000 employees and contractors, was created in November 2003 to replace the outdated National Imagery and Mapping Agency. Unlike the NSA, it has no clandestine arm. It is increasingly digital but still produces millions of unclassified paper maps and charts.

Partly as a result of the historical differences, the NSA and NGA have spent “tens of thousands of man-hours” over the last three years trying to meld their systems and cultures, said Hayden, the NSA director. They have rewired computer networks, retrained staff, reorganized operations and in some cases redesigned security to collect and protect intelligence.

“It’s not as simple as laying fiber-optic cable down the George Washington Parkway,” Hayden said. “It’s ‘Is my [computer] portal the same size as yours? Your portal is too small. I’ve taken a polygraph. Why haven’t you?’ ”

Differences in rules haven’t helped. The NSA, which is hiring 1,500 people a year, uses a private company to conduct background checks for new hires instead of relying on government investigators. That has reduced the NSA application-to-clearance time to 79 days from more than a year. It takes two to three times as long at the NGA.

Still, the agencies are increasingly merging their operations. One reason they can is that both focus on fleeting intelligence targets -- an overhead photo of a suspicious truck on a road, or an intercept of a suspected terrorist talking by phone.

“You take a picture, you get an intercept -- you’re talking about time measured in minutes or at best hours in terms of operational relevance” for a military strike or other operation, Hayden said.

Both agencies deployed hundreds of people to Iraq, Afghanistan, the western Pacific and elsewhere, assigning teams at brigade level and to special operations units to help coordinate information. Rules were adjusted so teammates could serve the same 90-day tours.

“The point is to knock down stovepipes,” said Robert S. Zitz, technical executive at the NGA. “It’s not rocket science.”

At headquarters, an NGA official now works as Hayden’s deputy chief of operations, and an NSA veteran serves as a deputy chief at the NGA. They help co-produce highly classified reports, with seals from both agencies on the cover. The two spy chiefs meet for a joint briefing every few months to check progress and reduce red tape.

“We’re sort of using the Nike school of management -- just do it,” said Clapper, the NGA chief.

If the approach is unusual for the intelligence community, so is the NGA. Still unknown to many even inside government, the year-old agency relies on a new discipline called geointelligence, or what Clapper calls “imagery on steroids.” Experts use satellites, sensors and other sources to create three-dimensional digital images that often look like video games. The goal is to layer images with real-time details about every pixel -- from mud that could slow a convoy to dangerous chemicals in the air.

For example, the NGA has installed 300 read-only computer terminals in the field so military commanders can read the same updated digital maps each day showing how the battlefield has changed.

The agency also helped create interactive “fly through” digital maps of urban combat zones, replacing sand tables and other mock-ups so officers could plan future attacks.

“In the old days, say seven or eight years ago, state-of-the-art was a big paper map with a bunch of guys pushing pins or moving flags on it,” said NGA spokesman David H. Burpee. The agency’s ultimate goal, he said, is to “get rid of our vast warehouses of paper maps.”