NEW YORK — The U.S. intelligence agency that tasks spy satellites to monitor military maneuvers and to find secret weapons plants has been pressed into service to help in the relief effort following Sunday's earthquake and resulting tsunami.
The National Geo-spatial Intelligence Agency, known as NGA, is the intelligence agency that provides spy satellite imagery and analysis to the U.S. government.
It is assisting both the State Department's Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA); the U.S. Pacific Command (USPACOM), in whose military region the tsunami occurred; as well as other U.S. government agencies supporting humanitarian relief activities.
The main focus is checking on transportation infrastructure to see what can and cannot be used to bring supplies to the tragedy's victims.
Not uncommon use for satellites
Officials say the effort is not uncommon although with so much of the earth's surface affected, this operation will present a number of challenges in acquiring and organizing the key data.
The agency has long had an environmental department as well as a coastal department that houses experts in those two areas. Under a long-standing agreement with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), NGA provides similar data to emergency management analysts in the government. In fact, CIA archival material obtained by the National Security Archive shows that as early as 1973, the United States was using spy satellites to monitor flooding along the Mississippi.
The agency began working with both classified and commercial spy satellite imagery "shortly after the tsunami hit on Dec. 26," said Stephen Honda, an NGA spokesman.
"Without getting into specific time frame, I can tell you we began very soon afterwards, and our imagery analysts have been working 24/7 since then providing information to various agencies," Honda said.
(U.S. intelligence officials won't discuss the precise times imagery is gathered because the information could be analyzed to determine a satellite's orbital path.)
Classified spy satellites vs. commercial satellites
The agency works with imagery from both its own highly classified spy satellites and from commercial satellites such as those owned by Space Imaging and Digital Globe.
In some cases, the actual imagery is provided to officials while in others only a written analysis of the imagery is provided. In part, the determination is based on whether recipients are cleared to view the highly classified spy satellite images.
The images from the classified and commercial satellites are very different.
With a commercial satellite's resolution, the smallest item that can be distinguished is around two to three feet while a military spy satellite can "see" things between three to five inches, which can be critical when viewing objects like airfield runway debris.
Both systems have infrared capability as well, and certain classified spy satellites can "see" in the dark or through clouds, using radar to "paint" targets, again helpful in a relief effort.
Among the targets of both satellite systems are roads, airports, bridges, seaports and electrical grids, the NGA spokesman said.
Major help for relief efforts
"Is there debris preventing ships with emergency supplies from entering a harbor? Is the airport up and running, ready to receive shipments? What roads are washed out? What bridges are still standing? What railroads can handle what loads? Those are some of the things we are looking at," Honda said.
This assessment will assist the Pentagon's Transportation Command (USTRANSCOM) and others providing assistance in the region, according to the agency.
"The imagery can also see how far inland the damage is from the tsunami," Honda noted. Particularly helpful he said is the NGA's archive of materials. "We can do the before and after."
Although the agency cannot release its classified imagery, analysis done by Digital Globe shows just how much can be done with imagery of the effected areas in South Asia
Analysts for Digital Globe, an NGA contractor, were able to work with images acquired in the hours after the tsunami struck Kalutara, a beach resort area on the southwestern coast of Sri Lanka, just south of the city of Colombo.
Collected at 1020 local time, slightly less than four hours after the earthquake, it showed high water at least one kilometer inland and churning ocean swells and whirlpools off shore from the receding water.
Bob Windrem is an NBC News Investigative Producer. To see more satellite imagery see the Digital Globe website.