The announcement of Director Letitia Long’s departure from the U.S. National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) this fall offers an opportunity to reflect upon her legacy and highlight some key issues that her successor will need to address.

Early in her tenure, Director Long laid out a vision of “Putting the power of GEOINT [geospatial intelligence] into the hands” of warfighters, intelligence analysts and policymakers. She has relentlessly pushed for NGA to forgo the traditional path of target-centric maps, images and analytic reports — to transition the agency from “a road to irrelevance already surpassed by the Internet, advanced technologies and the explosion of social media,” as she put it, to a broker of robust online, on-demand geoint services that provide access to multisource content, applications, expertise and knowledge. She also has sought to modernize the capabilities of NGA analysts, enhancing their contribution to solving hard intelligence problems and raising their standing across the intelligence community.

Despite numerous bureaucratic, cultural and other hurdles, remarkable progress has been made toward accomplishing these goals.

During Long’s tenure, support to military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan has been the agency’s top priority mission. To meet warfighter needs, NGA deployed many support teams overseas to ensure that military officials, from senior commanders to the troops deployed at forward operating bases and special operations forces, had timely access to geoint products, services and data to aid in the planning and conduct of counterterrorism and other operations.

One particular noteworthy accomplishment was the advent of activity-based intelligence, or ABI. Working alongside U.S. special operations forces and their interagency partners, NGA analysts led an effort to rapidly fuse data from multiple sources including wide-area motion imagery, full-motion video, tactical signals intelligence, human intelligence reports and other platforms and assets in order to provide a comprehensive picture of enemy combatants, their associates, networks of financiers and couriers, and more. The results clearly demonstrated how multidiscipline “pattern of life” information can be used to dramatically improve our understanding of the enemy and help enable, in real time, highly effective “find, fix and finish” operations. This effort has far-reaching implications and offers other members of the intelligence community an avenue for necessary change.

Another significant accomplishment during her tenure was the maturation of the U.S. commercial remote sensing industry. Changes in NGA’s approach to the market enabled capital expenditures to modernize and simultaneously consolidate an industry transitioning from imagery collection to knowledge creation. DigitalGlobe’s acquisition of GeoEye in 2013 right-sized a sector with excess capacity, paved the path for new commercial entrants and business models, and pushed the industry to take advantage of the data-centric environment that we live in today.

Separately, Long took important steps to leverage the massive investments by the private sector in emerging technologies such as big data analytics and geolocation-based services. Recognizing that commercial developments were far outpacing limited NGA research-and-development dollars and programs, she established a dialogue with Silicon Valley and other innovators to identify promising geoint technologies with relevance to NGA’s mission. To open the agency to these opportunities, she began changing the way NGA acquires such capabilities by jettisoning old, inflexible contracts in favor of more-agile mechanisms that provide more-rapid access to solutions from a broader set of providers.

Long’s replacement will be Robert Cardillo. He brings with him three decades of service in the intelligence community, currently serving as deputy director of national intelligence for intelligence integration, where he leads efforts to improve coordination and collaboration among the 17 agencies and organizations that comprise the intelligence community. As deputy director, he also is responsible for overseeing production of the president’s daily brief and leading several community-wide transformational initiatives.

As NGA’s sixth director, Cardillo will face several significant challenges. Among these:

  • Leading the organization during a period of significant budget contraction. In addition to anticipated budget cuts, he will face an immensely complicated fiscal environment, with possible sequestration and continuing resolutions making it difficult (if not impossible) to move the community forward in the direction of a common vision effectively.
  • Institutionalizing efforts begun under Long to leverage commercial investment in and development of new geoint technologies. Cardillo must develop the relationships and processes that implement a repeatable approach to discovering and integrating these innovative, breakthrough technologies within NGA.
  • Define the future of geoint. The scope of geoint will continue to move beyond the use of imagery. All information and activity is created in the context of a spatio-temporal georeference framework. Cardillo will have to navigate a path through the larger intelligence community for NGA’s successful evolution to a multisource analytic cadre, instead of specializing exclusively in traditional geoint analysis.

Director Long served with honor and distinction during an important period in NGA’s history. We would not be surprised to see her eventually return to government service and lead the community once again in a different capacity. Supporters of good government — and smarter government — should welcome such a development.

Chris Williams is an independent consultant who served as chairman of the Department of Defense Policy Board and deputy staff director of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Josh Hartman currently is a member of the board of directors of the U.S. Geospatial Intelligence Foundation and chief executive of Horizon Strategies Group.