What is Geospatial Intelligence?

The United States influenced the geospatial intelligence discipline with the creation of intelligence organizations. The NIMA Act of 1996 establishing the National Imagery and Mapping Agency (link is external), and the subsequent amended language in the 2003 Defense Authorization Act codified the mission of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA). This resulted in the integration of multiple sources of information, intelligence and trade crafts into NIMA, which subsequently became NGA. Then Director James Clapper (2001- 2006) designated this discipline as Geospatial Intelligence, or GEOINT. It teaches something that Director Clapper used a hyphen when the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency was formed. What might have been the “NGIA” is referred to today as the NGA and thereby giving it seeming parity with its three-letter counterparts; the FBI, CIA, DIA , NSA, and NRO. This naming seems to be a public policy decision by agency officials, so it’s not unreasonable to suggest that politics played a role not only in the name, but that it also influenced the vocation and discipline that emerged as Geospatial Intelligence, or as abbreviated, GEOINT. The following quote from a former three-decade agency employee illustrates the nature of the change:

I was at work the day he [Director Clapper] declared we are NGA, not NIMA. We all looked at each other and said “now what the hell is he doing?” Clapper was, without a doubt, the most prolific reorganizer I ever worked under, and we figured it was just an excuse to reorganize yet again. Everyone ran all around, including my boss, waving their arms “what does geospatial mean? … As we found out later, it was really the beginning of the true integration of maps, charts, geodesy, imagery and intelligence that has evolved into what NGA is today.

Significantly, the term Geospatial Intelligence, and GEOINT, has become an internationally recognized concept as exemplified by its use in events such as the United States Geospatial Intelligence Foundation’s (USGIF) GEOINT Symposium, which has roots back to 2003. Why do I mention this history?

What is Geospatial Intelligence, or GEOINT? Let’s begin examining this question with a video produced by the US National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA).

So, what is unique about this discipline that distinguishes it from other branches of geography and geographic analysis? Let’s begin by defining the individual terms Geospatial and Intelligence.

  • Geospatial pertains to or relates to the relative position of things on the Earth’s surface.
  • Intelligence is information gathered to guide decisions. It includes information that may be both open and closed, and may be obtained from many different sources.

Let me expand upon the word geospatial. While the words geospatial, geographic, and spatial are often used interchangeably to mean similar things, the reasoning behind the linguistic blend forming geospatial is that spatial alone is too generic and geographic is too related to the particular discipline of geographic intelligence—one of the oldest forms of military intelligence.

Let’s also look at the word intelligence. Intelligence provides a “decision advantage” intended to prevent surprise, capitalize on emerging opportunities, neutralize threats, or provide time to adapt to a changing situation. To the average person, intelligence is often associated with secrets and spying. However, according to noted author, academic, and experienced national security expert, Mark Lowenthal, viewing intelligence as primarily secrets misses the important point that intelligence is ultimately information that meets the needs of a decision maker. Intelligence is information that has been collected, processed, narrowed, and offered to meet those needs, which could apply to any domain. Lowenthal also asserts a central notion that intelligence is not about truth, but is more accurately thought of as a “proximate reality.” Intelligence analysts do their best to arrive at an accurate approximation, but they are rarely certain that their best analytic insights are true when completing an analysis. So, semantically, GEOINT provides insights to a decision maker about how humans relate to the Earth.