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Secretive map agency opens its doors

NIMA helping prepare for possible war with Iraq

From David Ensor
CNN Washington Bureau

The National Imagery and Mapping Agency is headquartered in Bethesda, Maryland.
The National Imagery and Mapping Agency is headquartered in Bethesda, Maryland.

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CNN's David Ensor reports on the National Imagery and Mapping Agency (December 9)
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- It spies on terrorists and rogue states, guides war fighters to their targets and helps rescue teams during disasters, all with an array of space-age technology.

Yet hardly anyone has heard of NIMA -- the National Imagery and Mapping Agency.

"What is that? That's usually the first response," said NIMA imagery analyst Heidi Smith of people's reaction when she tells them where she works.

That could change, as a potential war with Iraq looms. Besides helping the Pentagon and the CIA prepare for that possibility, NIMA is assisting the FBI and other law enforcement agencies with homeland security matters.

CNN was given unprecedented access to show what the virtually unknown spy agency is all about.

'Everybody has to be someplace'

The agency keeps a low profile, with a headquarters tucked away in the Washington suburb of Bethesda, Maryland. Its budget and number of employees are secret.

NIMA was created six years ago to combine several agencies, including the Defense Mapping Agency and the CIA's satellite photo analysis office. The goal was to create something bigger than the sum of the parts.

"If you think about it, everything and everybody has to be someplace," said retired Air Force Lt. Gen. James Clapper, NIMA's director. "We try to create the setting, the geographical setting if you will, and help determine where things and people could be."

A NIMA employee studies a satellite map.
A NIMA employee studies a satellite map.

One room at the headquarters holds millions of maps filed away in deep, narrow drawers. Several drawers are dedicated to maps of the Iraqi capital, Baghdad.

Using satellite imagery, NIMA photo analysts scour the world, working closely with other intelligence agencies to search for al Qaeda fugitives, from Osama bin Laden on down.

If, for example, a prisoner tells the CIA he knows of an al Qaeda safe house on a dead-end street in Karachi, Pakistan, NIMA can find every house that fits that description.

"We can provide, again, that sort of ... road map as to where that specific facility in question might be," Clapper said.

Errors in past

NIMA has made mistakes. In the days before India tested a nuclear weapon in 1998, too few photo analysts were assigned to watch the suspected test site closely enough, and the test took the United States by surprise.

Some critics charge that NIMA is too centralized and puts too much emphasis on tactical military needs -- the requirements of the war fighters -- at the expense of strategic intelligence, such as which nations might be developing nuclear weapons.

One former analyst said folding the CIA satellite imagery analysis office into NIMA six years ago was a mistake.

"It creates a corporate culture that does not encourage challenging prevailing views and wisdom," said former CIA photo analyst Patrick Eddington. "And that is absolutely death. It guarantees intelligence failures."

Clapper disagrees, saying it's unfair to charge that NIMA cannot serve both military needs and the nation's strategic intelligence requirements.

"I think we do a very good job of satisfying all of our masters," he said.



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