Big Brother Doesn’t Have to Be a Bully

How Washington can use surveillance to save lives — not target them.

bamford
bamford

Within the rarified world of technical intelligence, few have matched the extraordinary instincts of Arthur Lundahl, who, in 1961, founded and headed the CIA’s National Photographic Interpretation Center (NPIC) -- and who, a year later, alerted President John F. Kennedy to his agency’s images of Soviet nuclear warheads in Cuba, leading to the missile crisis. In late November 1984, I had lunch with Lundahl at O’Donnell’s, a bustling seafood restaurant near his home in Bethesda, Maryland; afterward, he asked me back to his place, where we could talk more privately. On a wall of his small wooden house on Chestnut Street were a number of his awards, including the National Security Medal, the highest honor in the U.S. intelligence community; the CIA’s Distinguished Intelligence Medal; and even the Order of the British Empire, with the rank of honorary Knight Commander, presented to him by Queen Elizabeth II.

Gripped by severe arthritis, his hands were swollen and knotted as he handed me a coffee cup. “We believe that one day the United States might want to consider having a center like NPIC established somewhere, but completely dedicated to the handling of world peaceful problems,” he said. “I don’t mean monitoring the SALT agreement; I don’t mean anything to do with military intelligence. I mean when there’s an earthquake in a country, a fire, a flood, a huge volcanic eruption, a big tidal wave, a disaster, a famine like in Africa at the present time.”

The “White Center,” as he called it, “would be freely open,” he said. “We’ve got the machines; we’ve got the guys with the know-how here in Washington.”

Within the rarified world of technical intelligence, few have matched the extraordinary instincts of Arthur Lundahl, who, in 1961, founded and headed the CIA’s National Photographic Interpretation Center (NPIC) — and who, a year later, alerted President John F. Kennedy to his agency’s images of Soviet nuclear warheads in Cuba, leading to the missile crisis. In late November 1984, I had lunch with Lundahl at O’Donnell’s, a bustling seafood restaurant near his home in Bethesda, Maryland; afterward, he asked me back to his place, where we could talk more privately. On a wall of his small wooden house on Chestnut Street were a number of his awards, including the National Security Medal, the highest honor in the U.S. intelligence community; the CIA’s Distinguished Intelligence Medal; and even the Order of the British Empire, with the rank of honorary Knight Commander, presented to him by Queen Elizabeth II.

Gripped by severe arthritis, his hands were swollen and knotted as he handed me a coffee cup. “We believe that one day the United States might want to consider having a center like NPIC established somewhere, but completely dedicated to the handling of world peaceful problems,” he said. “I don’t mean monitoring the SALT agreement; I don’t mean anything to do with military intelligence. I mean when there’s an earthquake in a country, a fire, a flood, a huge volcanic eruption, a big tidal wave, a disaster, a famine like in Africa at the present time.”

The “White Center,” as he called it, “would be freely open,” he said. “We’ve got the machines; we’ve got the guys with the know-how here in Washington.”

I was shocked. Here was the father of space intelligence suggesting that an organization could take top-secret space surveillance imagery, reduce its resolution, declassify it almost in real time, and make it available to the public. His idea would turn espionage on its head: Back then, the U.S. government didn’t even acknowledge that espionage from space took place, and the name of the agency that built the spy satellites and controlled them in orbit, the National Reconnaissance Office, was top secret.

Nevertheless, Lundahl told me, he and a small group of associates were determined that a White Center be built. With it, imagery useful for everything from predicting humanitarian crises to directing rescue efforts during natural disasters could be sanitized and made available to the world.

But in the days of President Ronald Reagan, there was no interest in helping the world with American secrets. So the idea quietly died.

Thirty years later, long after the Cold War, Lundahl’s White Center is once again worth considering. And his words still ring true: The United States has the machines and the people — including the digital mapping expertise at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), the mammoth data-crunching computers at the National Security Agency (NSA), and the bevy of epidemiologists at the National Center for Medical Intelligence (NCMI) — to create a White Center that could mitigate, or even forestall, the effects of natural or man-made catastrophes, potentially saving countless lives in the years to come.

* * *

THE NGA, WHICH LONG AGO absorbed Lundahl’s agency, is now the eyes to the NSA’s ears, collecting billions of images around the world every year with tools ranging from drones packed with 192 cameras to school-bus-sized satellites orbiting deep in space.

An agency almost unheard of outside the intelligence community, the NGA’s headquarters is housed in an ultramodern $1.7 billion building tucked inside a giant military base in Northern Virginia. At 2.77 million square feet, it is the third-largest government building in the Washington, D.C., area, just after the Pentagon and the Ronald Reagan Building and International Trade Center.

In the same way the NSA has been expanding exponentially since the 9/11 attacks — building additional listening posts, launching more satellites, and creating Cyber Command — the NGA has been burgeoning, both in size and in importance. It was the NGA that kept a constant eye on Osama bin Laden as he took long strolls in his high-walled compound in Pakistan. And it was the NGA that used imagery to construct a model of his house.

In fact, the agency has been gathering so much information that it is now looking to build an enormous data warehouse like the NSA’s facility in Bluffdale, Utah. According to a redacted 2013 procurement document from the Defense Information Systems Agency, the NGA is looking to store “hundreds of billions of objects” that will take up to 4 exabytes of data. That’s about 400,000 times the printed material held by the Library of Congress, and this is in addition to the NGA’s roughly 10 petabytes of data, which, if printed, would fill some 200 million four-drawer filing cabinets, according to a 2012 report by the Government Accountability Office. These “objects” run the gamut from high-definition, full-motion videos to hyperspectral imagery — photographs snapped at various wavelengths.

To some extent, the NGA has already begun moving toward a White Center. An NGA document from 2012 describes the agency’s new focus on what’s known as “human geography,” which it defines as a “discipline that looks for interconnections between people and places, including how people use the physical landscape and how, based on a number of factors, that use evolves over time.” By analyzing human geography, the document said, the agency can obtain “new insight into age-old questions, like: Where will the next pandemic occur?, Where will transnational criminal activity spread?, Where will the next mass migration event occur?”

In 2014, in response to the Ebola crisis, the agency launched a public website containing unclassified, continuously updated geospatial imagery, as well as computerized mapping tools, to assist in a worldwide effort to fight back against the disease in West Africa. This allowed users anywhere to pinpoint cases of the virus and locate nearby field hospitals and airfields. “The level at which we are trying to expose our data and commercial imagery products is unprecedented,” Martin Cox, the official who leads the NGA’s Ebola effort, said in a quote on the agency’s website in October. “Why would we not want to help?”

But this approach needs to be even more technologically sophisticated to tackle the many crises — from health to environmental to man-made disasters — that are constantly springing up around the world. It should be expanded beyond the use of satellite imagery to other types of intelligence. In the same way the NGA might use its spies in space to pick up clues about a potential missile attack by observing movement in a missile facility’s parking lot at an odd hour, it could seek to detect the spread of a contagious disease. For example, a study in Mexico, Chile, and Argentina has shown that traffic measurements in hospital parking lots can quite accurately predict future influenza outbreaks.

It’s worth noting that rogue viruses pose far greater risks to most countries than do rogue terrorists. For example, in Liberia in 2006 (the last year the U.S. government published such statistics), terrorism accounted for 11 deaths — but between March and November 2014, the country reported more than 3,000 deaths from Ebola. In a worst-case scenario, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that the disease could infect more than 1.4 million people in Sierra Leone and Liberia by early 2015.

An obvious tool that could help address this crisis would be the NSA’s supercomputers — the largest collection in the world. And there are models to follow: In Canada last year, for example, researchers drafted their country’s most powerful supercomputer into the fight against Ebola. Hoping to find a drug to stop the virus, Chematria, a start-up supported by the University of Toronto, began evaluating millions of potential drugs using a 32,767-core IBM Blue Gene/Q computer. “What we are attempting would have been considered science fiction, until now,” Abraham Heifets, Chematria’s chief executive officer, stated in a news release. “We are going to explore the possible effectiveness of millions of drugs, something that used to take decades of physical research and tens of millions of dollars, in mere days with our technology.”

The NSA’s massive data-mining capability could also be redirected from reading everyone’s telephone metadata, a practice that has turned up virtually no terrorists, to searching the Internet for any clues or indications of new diseases or outbreaks in news reports and other publicly available data. According to world health experts, there is an enormous need for powerful computers to better extract patterns from data. With these computers and thousands of personnel expert in data mining, the agency could contribute greatly.

Another key area in which the NSA could provide invaluable assistance is in translation. The agency — which has spent billions of dollars on developing highly sophisticated translation hardware and software to identify even the slightest signs of terrorism — could use its technologies for early detection of infectious diseases and for transmitting this information, in near real time, to a White Center. (Some of the preliminary signs of the Ebola outbreak were reported in local newspapers, but in French or Portuguese, and much of the U.S. government’s data mining is limited to English-language newspapers.)

* * *

OTHER AGENCIES COULD BE instrumental in a White Center too. Fifty miles from the NSA’s headquarters is another intelligence organization few have ever encountered. Housed in a low-slung, windowless red-brick building behind barriers and fences is the NCMI, part of the Defense Intelligence Agency. In its basement sits a version of a war room, an operations center with large, flickering wall-mounted screens. Along the hallways, 150 medical spies wear lab coats instead of cloaks and carry syringes instead of daggers. Ironically, the 45,000-square-foot facility is housed at Maryland’s Fort Detrick, where earlier bioweapons specialists developed deadly germs to assassinate world leaders such as Congo’s Patrice Lumumba and Cuba’s Fidel Castro.

For years, the NCMI’s principal focus has been tracking diseases threatening U.S. forces overseas. But more recently it has begun expanding its mission to include investigating infections that could endanger civilians in the homeland. Understanding the risk of every endemic disease in every country is a key requirement of the center’s Infectious Disease Division.

Although the NCMI’s greatest benefit is to provide the world with early warning of a highly infectious disease, the problem, of course, is that the NCMI is an intelligence organization, so it mostly provides that information, confidentially, to senior policymakers. Thus, when in April 2009 the organization determined that there would soon be a global outbreak of H1N1 influenza, the warning came in the form of a classified intelligence report; it took two months before the World Health Organization and CDC officially issued a similar warning.

Declassifying such infectious disease-related data and making it available in a timely manner to the international medical community could allow for more accurate predictions of a virus’s spread, thus saving more lives. And it could even hasten a cure, such as a vaccine.

* * *

AS ART LUNDAHL MADE CLEAR during our lunch three decades ago, there is a direct correlation between preventing disasters around the world and American security at home. As Sierra Leone and Liberia have shown in recent months, disasters often cause destabilization in weak nations. And weak nations sometimes turn into failed states, which can then become breeding grounds for terrorists.

The nexus between disaster abroad and security at home was a point emphasized by President Barack Obama at the United Nations in September 2014. “This is also more than a health crisis. This is a growing threat to regional and global security,” he said of Ebola. “In Liberia, in Guinea, in Sierra Leone, public health systems have collapsed. Economic growth is slowing dramatically. If this epidemic is not stopped, this disease could cause a humanitarian catastrophe across the region. And in an era where regional crises can quickly become global threats, stopping Ebola is in the interest of all of us.”

In the short run, Obama’s decision to send 3,000 troops into Liberia to build medical treatment facilities and train health-care workers may help ease this crisis. But in the long run, given the potential for global disasters — from diseases to earthquakes to tsunamis to famines — a more permanent solution to anticipating and dealing with emergencies is vitally needed. Lundahl’s White Center could make all the difference in the world, possibly demonstrating that the United States can respond to international crises with solutions beyond just war and killer drones.

Illustration by MATT CHASE

James Bamford is a columnist for Foreign Policy and the author of The Shadow Factory: The Ultra-Secret NSA From 9/11 to the Eavesdropping on America. He also writes and produces documentaries for PBS. Twitter: @WashAuthor

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