US: Robert Gates, Defense Secretary, US, proposed to reduce the military and security budget by USD 78 billion over five years. Secretary Gates’s list of proposed cuts includes high-profile projects and weapons. But he does not mention the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), an exemplar of undisciplined spending in the name of defence, according to Gregg Easterbrook – an author of the bestselling 2010 book “Sonic Boom.”
In his blog at Reuters, Easterbrook, claimed that nine of 10 Washington pundits and political insiders don’t know the NGA exists, while perhaps one in 100 can describe its function, and that may be the reason that Gates has not exclusively taken the name of NGA.
The NGA has current touches, possessing a marketing slogan — “Know the Earth, Show the Way” — calling the Defense Department and CIA bureaus that receive its work product “customers” or “partners,” and posting photos of staff receptions on Flickr. But what the NGA does for the most is part classified. About all the agency will say is that it supplies “geospatial intelligence support for global world events” and “can create highly accurate terrain visualisation,” phrases that don’t explain much.
Like many agencies in military, security or counter-terrorism roles, the NGA has a growing budget never subject to public scrutiny and rarely questioned by Congress. Even subtracting for the costs of the war in Iraq and fighting in Afghanistan, and adjusting to current dollars, US military and security spending has increased 68 percent in the past decade. Within this runaway spending is a tremendous amount of pure waste, coupled to many programmes and agencies with valid missions but no cost discipline.
Easterbrook writes in his blog that Google and Microsoft are providing good resolution satellite imagery of NGA, free of cost; and they are doing nothing wrong by posting these images — unless it’s wrong to take aerial views, in which case the NGA is in the wrong, too.
The key point is that Google and Microsoft are able to give away topographic information, or sell it at low cost — for USD 399, Google Earth Pro offers better resolution — while a defence agency spends billions of dollars to do the same. As free-market entities, Google and Microsoft are concerned with cost-effectiveness. The NGA, exempt from cost controls and public scrutiny, wants to run up the price: its bureaucrats benefit from empire-building.