'Eye in the Sky': the case file on NGA Director Letitia Long
March 9th, 2012
10:26 AM ET

'Eye in the Sky': the case file on NGA Director Letitia Long

By Suzanne Kelly and Pam Benson

Editor's note: In the Security Clearance "Case File" series, CNN national security producers profile the key members of the intelligence community.   As part of the series, Security Clearance is focusing on the roles women play in the U.S. intelligence community


On May 1, 2011, Letitia 'Tish' Long was at Central Intelligence Agency headquarters, watching the greatest intelligence-special operations mission of the past decade, unfold.

"We were anxious. It was tense. There were periods of time when we didn't know exactly what was happening," Long told CNN.

Long and others could do little but wait to see whether months of intelligence preparation would pay off as Navy SEALs raided the compound in Pakistan where they believed al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden was hiding out.

She was one of only a few women in the room that day, and the only woman who headed a major intelligence agency.

In August 2010, Long was named director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, one of the U.S. intelligence agencies that played a critical role in the bin Laden mission.

Yet even today, few have probably ever heard of Long or the agency she runs outside of Washington's inner circles.

The agency she leads is a combat support agency that falls within the Department of Defense and serves up highly-detailed images that inform an impressive list of clients ranging from the president to the director of national intelligence to the wartime commanders on the ground who plan day-to-day combat and special operations missions.

To zoom in just a bit more, you might imagine NGA's mission as being akin to building an integrated model of the world. Building that model requires images that are precise, that incorporate not only the merging of maps and physical features such as mountain ranges, but also the imagery that comes from satellites orbiting the earth.

It is truly 'intelligence from above', and below - and the side.

NGA then often integrates detailed images with human geographic information and even social media as it creates the most accurate picture possible of any place on the planet.

Why does it matter? Because it influences intelligence decisions at the highest levels. For example, that 'compound' in Pakistan had been placed under constant surveillance. Based on imagery that NGA helped gather, analysts and military planners could see a tall man repeatedly walking around the compound yard. Although they couldn't know for sure it was bin Laden, those pictures along with other information, was enough for President Barack Obama to green light the mission.

As a lifelong intelligence professional, Long will tell you that the value of such detailed imagery and analysis cannot be overstated, particularly when it comes to the support of a special operations mission. She uses the bin laden raid as an example.

"The first thing our analysts asked the teams afterward, when we had a chance to debrief them, was, 'What surprised you?'" said Long. "'What didn't you know that you should have? What could we or should we have told you that you needed to know beforehand?' And the answer was, 'Nothing. We felt like we had been there before.'"

That was, in part, because NGA analysts had combed over every detail imaginable in the weeks before the raid. Working with both the National Security Agency and the Central Intelligence Agency, NGA delivered information that led to the mock-up of a near-exact replica of the compound. It meant the SEALs could literally measure the steps it would take to get to bin Laden after determining that the world's most-wanted terrorist could very well be hiding out in that location.

"We were able, through what we call pattern-of-life activity analysis, to determine that there was certainly a very important person there because there was operational security that was taking place at that compound that was unusual for any other compound in that area," said Long. "It was a large compound, it was built in a very different way than surrounding compounds ... (featuring) the situational security, the high walls, the concertina wire, very little interaction with other members of the community."

Today, the small-scale mock-up of the compound that was used to brief the president on the planned raid sits in the atrium of the massive new NGA complex in Fort Belvoir, Virginia.

The eye-shaped building was designed to represent the earth it covers. Every last detail has a meaning and a link to something else.

Each floor is broken up into five color-coded areas - so called "neighborhoods" - which represent geographic features: mountains, forests, volcanoes, deserts and water. Each area is named after an actual location with the same numbers of letters as the floor it is on. For instance on the sixth floor, the blue area –water - is called Amazon, a six-letter river.

Long's office overlooks a vast span of Virginia countryside, and is filled with the images of her own past, including trinkets from her alma mater, Virginia Tech. Behind her desk sits a framed picture of Rosie the Riveter, the cultural icon that came to represent female contributions to the World War II effort.

Just like Rosie, Long is used to doing the heavy lifting. She often travels the world to visit the clients who rely on NGA imaging, whether it is first responders or those working to rebuild what was lost by years of conflict. She's been to Afghanistan several times.

"I'm going again in the near future," said Long. "I'm not supposed to tell you exactly when."

Nor will she say just how many people her agency has on the ground in either Afghanistan or Iraq. But NGA's actual relationship with the Afghans is not classified. NGA is working to help strengthen the Afghan's mapping capabilities, covering everything from basic cryptography to how to visualize a map on a 3-D device.

"What some folks don't know is that the Afghans actually had a very, very good and advanced mapping capability before the Soviets came in and then before the Taliban really wiped out that whole elite, learned class of folks, so we are helping them to rebuild that capability, and we did the same thing in Iraq."

For U.S. and coalition partners, the products that NGA produces are far more sophisticated. They include real time applications that they have built and delivered to enable clients to pull up specific details on almost any location in the world on their mobile device. They do it today in an unclassified environment, according to Long, but are working closely with the NSA to build the capacity to do it in a classified setting.

But even in a digital world, there is still the need for the printed maps. Long said airmen "put them in their hip pocket, so that if, God forbid, there is a crash landing and they lose all of their digital, on line access, they still have the latest paper product."

The agency has other non-classified missions. It supports first responders on humanitarian missions and disaster recovery for mostly domestic clients, but it will assist other nations as it did at the request of the Japanese government in the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan last year. And NGA helps law enforcement in planning security for major public events such as the Super Bowl or the Olympics.

Charting her own path

The woman who heads the geospatial agency describes herself as a very down-to-earth person. Long is one of eight children. Three of her brothers made an intelligence career at the National Security Agency, as did her father, but she wanted something different.

"I knew I wanted to be in a public service position, probably in the intelligence community. I just knew I didn't want to work at the NSA. I wanted to make my own way," said Long, who grew up in Glen Burnie, Maryland.

In high school, she excelled in math and science and thought she'd make a great math teacher until a guidance counselor recommended she think about becoming an engineer. She joined a work-study program and ended up working for the Navy at the David Taylor Research Center in Maryland.

Her degrees in both electrical and mechanical engineering put her in a strong position for an intelligence career. Once she graduated, she started working on an intelligence collection system for submarines.

"My engineering degrees prepared me in many ways," said Long, "More on how to approach a problem, how to analyze a problem set in a very structured way. Also, the program management skills in leading very diverse teams, tackling really hard problems prepared me to go on to bigger and better things."

Her resume is lengthy, and includes senior roles in the intelligence community: Deputy director of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), deputy under secretary of defense for Intelligence and director for intelligence community affairs at the CIA.

Today, Long gets together with other women in the intelligence community who are looking for advice on navigating their own careers. While women make up nearly 40% of the intelligence community, the percentage of women in leadership positions remains much lower.

It's an area the trailblazing Long is working to change.

"What I want to accomplish is that it is natural for women and minorities to be in leadership positions across the intelligence community," said Long. "It's important to me. It's an honor that I'm the first woman to run an intelligence agency, a major intelligence agency. I would like to be at a point where we are no longer saying, 'the first.' I mean, to me, the measure of success is the women and minorities that come after me."

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