16 January 2018

Shake-Up at Pentagon Intelligence Agency Sparks Concern


The director of the agency responsible for analyzing satellite imagery says he wants to modernize the work. Some employees fear they’re being replaced by artificial intelligence. When Kim Jong Un gears up to launch a ballistic missile, analysts at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency comb through satellite imagery, looking for distinct signs on the the ground in North Korea indicating test preparations are underway.

Now, the U.S. agency is in the midst of a concentrated push—what some have called a reorganization—emphasizing the use of advanced technology to do analysis typically done by humans, five sources with knowledge of the matter told Foreign Policy.

That shift in priorities is worrying some veteran imagery analysts who fear that their jobs might drastically change, and the technology being pushed isn’t mature enough to replace human skill and analytic capability. Those working inside and with the agency say it’s unclear exactly what the changes entail, but it’s scaring some employees, who worry the reorganization is part of a push to move work done by human analysts to artificial intelligence, and to outsource some of NGA’s work.

The agency’s director, Robert Cardillo, appears to be “doing away with imagery analysis, NGA’s bread and butter,” at least the way such analysis has historically been done, one former intelligence official with knowledge of the reorganization told FP.

NGA is an important, albeit low-profile, part of the intelligence community. While the National Reconnaissance Office is responsible for the satellites that collect earth imagery and data, NGA plots the information on maps for use by the military and the intelligence community. In places where it is near-impossible to send in human sources, the military and intelligence community can get a bird’s-eye view of the landscape.

In 2011, for example, analysts at the agency helped locate the Abbottabad compound in Pakistan where Osama bin Laden was living in his final years. The agency even helped build the replica of the compound used to train special operations forces for the 2011 raid that led to the killing of al Qaeda’s founder.

In an interview with FP, Cardillo confirmed that there were changes underway that involved advanced technology, but he denied it was pushing people out of jobs or moving too fast with technology.

“It might feel like a really big reorganization to some folks,” Cardillo told FP. “The fact of the matter is, from this office, I’ve done very little reorganization. We’ve closed down a shop or two to realign some efforts. Most recently, I did change my top tier of leadership.… I now call it an executive committee.”

About a year and a half ago, Cardillo named a new head of the directorate of analysis within NGA, what he calls the “heart” of the agency. The director, Sue Kalweit, is “trying to create an entrepreneurial spirit,” he said. “But we start and finish our day with tradecraft.”

But technology, particularly machine learning that can allow computers to scan the massive stockpile of imagery in NGA’s possession, is attractive to the agency.

While some inside the intelligence agency feel these changes are inevitable and will help move NGA into the 21st century, the restructuring is troubling some of its employees, particularly its veteran imagery analysts, who are worried their jobs are at risk and are seeking positions in other government agencies or considering early retirement.

No comments: