Little-Known Geospatial Agency Played Vital Role

In Raid on bin Laden

The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency provided key data and intelligence for tracking down the terrorist leader.

Marc Ambinder

National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency

The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency produced this 2005 aerial image of bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan.

The NGA integrates several core intelligence functions. It makes maps and interprets imagery from satellites and drones; it also exploits the electromagnetic spectrum to track terrorists and decipher signatures off of enemy radar. And notably, the NGA is the first intel agency to be headed by a woman: Letitia Long, an intelligence veteran.

The NGA’s contributions to the bin Laden mission are substantial. As described to National Journal by senior U.S. policymakers who do not work for the agency, they include:

  • Creating three-dimensional renderings of the Abbottabad compound using imagery and laser-based sensing devices—laser radar, or ladar.
  • Analyzing data from a sophisticated next-generation drone that kept watch on the compound before, during, and after the raid. The drone was an RQ-170 built by Lockheed Martin.
  • Helping the Joint Special Operations Command create mission simulators for the pilots who flew the helicopters into the breach. (This was first reported by Washingtonian magazine.)
  • Providing to the CIA and other policymakers assessments of the number of people who lived inside the compound, their heights and genders.

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