Sunday, May 31, 2009

Five Guys, Three-Letter Agency

It probably won't make the President's "public" calendar, but Navy Vice Admiral Robert Murrett will soon pay a visit to the White House.

Murrett's job? Get Barack Obama up-to-speed on the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency (NGA), the organization Murrett has led since 2006. As you probably know, the agency came up in conversation as Mr. Obama stood in line at a D.C. hamburger stand on Friday. Engaging a fellow patron named Walter in casual conversation, the President appeared clueless when the man identified himself as an NGA employee.

A transcript of their chat, courtesy of C-SPAN and Ben Smith at the Politico:

Obama: What do you do Walter?

Walter: I work at, uh, NGA, National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency

Obama: Outstanding, how long you been doing that?

Walter: About six years

Obama: Yea?

Walter: Yes.

Obama: You like it?

Walter: I do, keeps me...

Obama: So explain to me exactly what this National Geospatial...uh...

Walter: Uh, we work with, uh, satellite imagery..

Obama: Right

Walter: [unintelligible] systems, so...

Obama: Sounds like good work.

Walter: Enjoy the weekend.

Obama: Appreciate it.

Mr. Smith speculates that NGA "isn't getting much time in the President's daily brief," which (supposedly) explains why Obama hasn't heard of the agency. Never mind that NGA has over 9,000 employees around the world, making it fourth-largest among the three-letter spy agencies. Or that NGA, as its name implies, provides most of the nation's satellite imagery and other forms of geo-spatial intelligence.

It's not a matter of face time. Traditionally, the Presidential Daily Brief (PDB) has included a healthy dose of satellite imagery, which accompanies the various articles found in the update. Images provided by NGA are emblazoned with that organization's logo, but (apparently) it didn't make much of an impression on the intel consumer-in-chief.

And, Mr. Obama's introduction to NGA and its capabilities came long before he entered the Oval Office. As a Senator, one of Obama's "signature" legislative accomplishments was passage of a bill (co-sponsored by Indiana Republican Richard Lugar) which provides funding for the destruction of conventional weapons stockpiles, and the intercept of WMD materials. As you might expect, NGA plays a key role in supporting that effort, furnishing imagery and other products that track conventional weaponry and WMD sites.

NGA analysts routinely provide briefings for members of Congress and their staffers. Given his "interest" in the non-proliferation issue, there's a good bet that Senator Obama sat through a presentation from NGA, or a joint intelligence team that included experts from the agency. But again, the organization's unique capabilities and products failed to register on Mr. Obama, resulting in that stilted exchange with Walter, waiting for a burger at Five Guys.

As Commander-in-Chief, there is no requirement for Mr. Obama to know the intricate details of how the government's 16 intelligence agencies operate. But as the ultimate customer for intelligence, you'd think he'd have a little more interest in an organization that employs thousands of Americans, spends billions of dollars every year, and provides critical intel that helps him formulate policy decisions.

That's why Admiral Murrett will soon come calling at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Mr. Obama is not a student of the U.S. intelligence community, but he is a master of the art of politics. Friday's exchange at the burger joint was clearly a major gaffe, although it's received little attention outside of the Politico or conservative blogs.

If we've learned anything about President Obama during his time in office, it's this: he appears to have a thin skin, and doesn't take kindly to personal embarrassments. So, it's time for a little sit-down with Admiral Murrett on the finer points of NGA, just in case the president finds himself in another line, and wondering aloud about this "National Geospatial" organization that supports him on a daily basis.

NGA doesn't need more face time, Mr. Smith. What they need is a commander-in-chief who's a bit more engaged on the intelligence system, its agencies and their capabilities.


ADDENDUM: Can you imagine how the press would have reacted if George W. Bush had uttered similar comments about one of "his" intelligence organizations?


lgude said...

The addendum is the main point for me. The media has set the bar so scurrilously low with Bush that it is tempting to just make an issue of any gaffe his successor makes. I think the position the post takes is reasonable - the President should have known the agency that produces the satellite shots he sees every day, but it is understandable he didn't. The media's treatment of Bush was overwhelmingly biased. Sampling pictures with Google tells the tale visually. Put Bush into Google images and the preponderance of negative photos is obvious. Interestingly putting in Clinton gets mostly dignified Bill shots and some of Hill of both sorts. Like Bush, Hill is actively disliked, but she comes off much better than Dubya. I remember when the mere mention of Harry Truman elicited rage in 'rock-ribbed' Republican New Hampshire.

CJG said...

After some searching, here is the actual video from CSPAN ( since I couldn't believe the story. The amazing thing is that he talks to another guy at 03:40 who says he works for NGA and "we get some papers to you every morning" and Obama is nodding and saying, ok. Then at 05:15, it almost sounds like another guy says he works for NGA, but at 06:01 with Walter he stops and asks for an explanation of NGA. Apparently, with all the NGA people there he decides he needs to find out what they do.