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Geospatial Intelligence Director Talks Satellite Technology and Government Intelligence

By Lucas Ward, Crimson Staff Writer

National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency Director Robert Cardillo argued for his agency’s role at the intersection of earth sciences and national security at a Kennedy School event last month.

NGA, a member of both the Department of Defense and the Intelligence Community, collects geospatial intelligence, including geography, plate tectonics, and any information needed to assist military navigation as well as provide intelligence to policymakers. In addition to military navigation, Cardillo said NGA also provides information that helps plan flight paths for consumer airlines.

“It truly is a global interest. People like to have airplanes take off once and land once,” he said.

When Cardillo started working for the government, public organizations had what he described as a “monopoly” on space and satellites. However, in recent years, more private companies have become interested in space and satellite technology, and Cardillo has seen NGA’s relationship with private companies change as a result.

“Our partnerships were pretty limited—you had to be another government, or a very big company,” Cardillo said. “With the advent of things like Spacex, and Jeff Bezos’ space efforts, it’s just two American-based efforts, but there’s a global phenomenon going on reducing what used to be a pretty firm barrier to space.”

In addition to technological innovations, the development of private space companies has changed the hiring process for NGA.

“In the old days, they used to knock at our door…now I’ve got to go to Silicon Valley,” Cardillo said, “I’ll never compete with a Google salary, I can compete on the mission side.”

To respond to the growing competition for talent, Cardillo pitched the creation of the “GeoCorps,” a two-year program for undergraduates studying science and technology-related fields. Cardillo emphasized that the program does not exist yet but could provide a model for recruiting those who might otherwise go straight to Silicon Valley or other tech hubs.

“Let us really talk to you about how you can take your raw but maturing technical capability and apply it in support of a US national security issue, and then take that, put it on your resume, and then go on.”

Appointed director of NGA in 2014, Cardillo stressed what he saw as the apolitical nature of the agency. Drawing a contrast between NGA and the Environmental Protection Agency, an agency that has been the center of recent heated political debate, Cardillo emphasized the importance of nonpartisan intelligence work.

—Staff writer Lucas Ward can be reached at Follow him on twitter at @LucaspfWard.

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PoliticsHarvard Kennedy SchoolGovernment