BETHESDA, Md. — In the name of homeland security, America's spy imagery agency is keeping a close eye close to home. It's watching America.
Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, about 100 employees of a little-known branch of the Defense Department called the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency -- and some of the country's most sophisticated aerial imaging equipment -- have focused on observing what's going on in the United States. Their work brushes up against the fine line between protecting the public and performing illegal government spying on Americans.
Roughly twice a month, the agency is called upon to help with the security of events inside the United States. Even more routinely, it is asked to help prepare imagery and related information to protect against possible attacks on critical sites.
For instance, to secure the Ronald Reagan funeral procession, the agency merged aerial photographs and 3D images, allowing security planners to virtually walk, drive or fly through the Simi Valley route.
The agency is especially watchful of big events or targets that might attract terrorists -- political conventions, for example, or nuclear power plants.
Everyone agrees that the NGA's domestic mission has increased dramatically in the wake of Sept. 11, even though carefully crafted regulations are in place to prevent government surveillance aimed at Americans.
The agency is not interested in information on U.S. citizens, said Bert Beaulieu, its America's Office director. "We couldn't care less about individuals and people and companies."
But that's not good enough for Steven Aftergood, who oversees a project on government secrecy for the Federation of American Scientists. "What it all boils down to is, 'Trust us. Our intentions are good,' " he said.
Added Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington: "As a general matter, when there are systems of public surveillance, there needs to be public oversight."
Geospatial intelligence is the science of combining imagery, such as satellite pictures, to physically depict features or activities anywhere on the planet.
Outside the U.S., it can be a powerful tool for war planners who may use imagery to measure soil wetness to determine if tanks could travel in an area. It can help weapons proliferation experts look for ground disturbances that can indicate underground bunkers.
Before Sept. 11, the NGA's domestic work often meant such things as lending a hand during natural disasters by supplying pictures of wildfires and floods.
But now the agency's new Americas Office has been called on to assemble visual information on more than 130 urban areas, including maps of the national mall, the country's high-voltage transmission lines and disaster exercises.
Sometimes, agency officials may cooperate with private groups, such as hotel security offices, to get access to video footage of lobbies and hallways. That footage can then be connected with other types of maps used to secure events -- or to take action, if a hostage situation or other catastrophe occurs. The level of detail varies widely, depending on the threat and what the FBI or other agency needs.
"In most cases, it's not intrusive," said Laura Jennings, NGA associate general counsel. "It is information to help secure an event and to have people prepared to respond should there be an attack, or to analyze the area where a threat has been made."
According to Executive Order 12333, signed by President Reagan in 1981, members of the U.S. intelligence community can collect, retain and pass along information about U.S. companies or people only in certain cases.
Information publicly available or collected with the individual's consent is fair game, as is that acquired by overhead reconnaissance not directed at specific people or companies. The NGA says that it has aggressive internal oversight and that employees go through annual training on what is and isn't allowed.
"If they deviated from their own rules, how would it be discovered?" asked Aftergood, the independent secrecy expert. "I am not satisfied that they have an answer to that question."
One oversight committee in Congress noticed after Sept. 11 that an intelligence agency was snapping pictures of the U.S., said a congressional aide, speaking on condition of anonymity. A staff member is now monitoring the issue, and the aide said so far problems have not been spotted.
But Aftergood notes that while intelligence budgets have increased dramatically in the last five years, congressional oversight budgets have not.
Even the agency concedes that gray areas do emerge. Generally, intelligence resources can't be used for law enforcement. So the FBI or other agency could use an NGA-produced photograph to solve a domestic crime. But the NGA couldn't target a specific individual, such as highlight a suspect's home, unless the information was linked to a national security issue.