Overhead: New Photos of the NSA and Other Top Intelligence Agencies Revealed

February 10, 2014

In partnership with The Intercept, artist Trevor Paglen offers a glimpse of America's vast surveillance infrastructure, photographing three of the United States' most powerful intelligence agencies—including the NSA—and placing the images in the public domain.

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What does a surveillance state look like?

Over the past eight months, classified documents provided by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden have exposed scores of secret government surveillance programs. Yet there is little visual material among the blizzard of code names, PowerPoint slides, court rulings and spreadsheets that have emerged from the National Security Agency’s files.

The scarcity of images is not surprising. A surveillance apparatus doesn’t really “look” like anything. A satellite built by the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) reveals nothing of its function except to the best-trained eyes. The NSA’s pervasive domestic effort to collect telephone metadata also lacks easy visual representation; in the Snowden archive, it appears as a four-page classified order from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. Since June 2013, article after article about the NSA has been illustrated with a single image supplied by the agency, a photograph of its Fort Meade headquarters that appears to date from the 1970s.

The photographs below, which are being published for the first time, show three of the largest agencies in the U.S. intelligence community. The scale of their operations were hidden from the public until August 2013, when their classified budget requests were revealed in documents provided by Snowden. Three months later, I rented a helicopter and shot nighttime images of the NSA’s headquarters. I did the same with the NRO, which designs, builds and operates America’s spy satellites, and with the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), which maps and analyzes imagery, connecting geographic information to other surveillance data. The Central Intelligence Agency—the largest member of the intelligence community—denied repeated requests for permission to take aerial photos of its headquarters in Langley, Virginia.

My intention is to expand the visual vocabulary we use to “see” the U.S. intelligence community. Although the organizing logic of our nation’s surveillance apparatus is invisibility and secrecy, its operations occupy the physical world. Digital surveillance programs require concrete data centers; intelligence agencies are based in real buildings; surveillance systems ultimately consist of technologies, people, and the vast network of material resources that supports them. If we look in the right places at the right times, we can begin to glimpse America’s vast intelligence infrastructure.

These new images of the NSA, NRO and NGA are being placed in the public domain without restriction, to be used by anyone for any purpose whatsoever, with or without attribution. They can be found on Creative Time Reports, which commissioned this piece, as well as on Flickr, Wikimedia Commons and The Intercept.

Download high resolution images of these photos: NSA, NRO, NGA

Overhead: New Photos of the NSA and Other Top Intelligence Agencies Revealed for First Time

NATIONAL SECURITY AGENCY (NSA)
With a 2013 budget request of approximately $10.8 billion, the NSA is the second-largest agency in the U.S. intelligence community. It is headquartered in Fort Meade, Maryland.

Overhead: New Photos of the NSA and Other Top Intelligence Agencies Revealed for First Time

NATIONAL RECONNAISSANCE OFFICE (NRO)
The NRO is in charge of developing, deploying and operating reconnaissance satellites. With a budget allocation of $10.3 billion, it is the third-largest U.S. intelligence agency. Its headquarters are in Chantilly, Virginia.

Overhead: New Photos of the NSA and Other Top Intelligence Agencies Revealed for First Time

NATIONAL GEOSPATIAL-INTELLIGENCE AGENCY (NGA)
The NGA is responsible for collecting, analyzing and distributing intelligence derived from imagery. According to documents provided by Edward Snowden, the NGA’s latest budget request was $4.9 billion—more than double its funding a decade ago. It is headquartered in Springfield, Virginia.

This piece was produced in partnership with The Intercept.

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  • Katrina Nation

    correction, according to the documents “stolen via espionage” by Edward Snowden.

    • kam Johnson

      No “correction” needed. It’s fine as stated, thanks.

  • Bob

    I could be wrong but the last photo looks like NRO not NGA

  • Eric

    Wonderful. I’ll bet if the 9-11 terrorists had access to these images they might not have stopped at attacking the pentagon. There’s a balance between too much and too little. Find it.

    • kam Johnson

      It is not up to you to dictate the parameters of this naive balance you propose. And for that I am very glad. If “terrorists” were to use these locations as targets, history would look back on them as heroes and the people would be much the better for it moving forward. Be careful which enemy you support and which you condemn. There is a far more organized and powerful enemy in the world right now than the concept of terrorism.

      • VictorErimita

        You advocate terrorists attacking these facilities and killing the people in them?

        • kam Johnson

          I advocate patriots attacking these facilities and holding the people in them accountable on an individual basis. Killing them all is a desperate, bloodthirsty solution that I would not implement if I were in charge. Some are merely paper pushers trying to make a dime following orders and, apart from being foolishly misguided, they are ultimately not to blame. The leaders should be tried and executed for treason.
          Let all that be on me as a personal opinion if you aren’t prepared to accept it. I feel I will at least be able to look back years from now and not feel guilty that I was a part of this disgrace. Downvote it if you like, but my viewpoint is a sincere one and it is one shared by a steadily increasing number of people. I will now flesh out and expand on my perspective so as to create a larger target for potential ridicule.

          Let me say one thing first: I do believe there are proper definition terrorists in the world. A lot of those people are actually not CGI. I am not blind to the existence of real people who will want to kill others simply for being American or Christian or a vast many other reasons. it has always been so. They are not all of any one color or denomination. There are those who will scheme ways to kill as many Americans, etc as they can. There are reasons why some hate us and there are some who hate us for no reason at all other than they are programmed to. Many institutions, primarily religions, perpetually breed extremists who are intolerant of any different way of life. All that being said…

          Terrorism is also a concept the fascist American governmentangled web has manipulated the populace into accepting as the standard bogeyman of our times. The macguffin which incites reaction and empowers agendas without needing clearly defined facts and evidence. It also conveniently takes the blame for a great many wrongs that no one else wants to take responsibility for. It is the shiny decoy to trot out for public consumption as cover while far more dangerous and insidious ideas are proposed and implemented “on our behalf.” Terrorism is the path of least resistance. It is our witchcraft. As long as we continue to use terrorism in this way and assume our employees in Washington are actually deities/wise elders/inquisitors which have our best interests in mind, then we are part of the problem. Busy engaged in dark ages rhetoric and playing the game as we are meant to play it.

          • VictorErimita

            You and Bill Ayers should have a lot to talk about.

            It’s not a question of “being prepared to accept” your opinion. I understand it and disagree with it. People have been calling our government a terrorist outfit since I was a teenager in the 60s and no doubt before that. I’m concerned about massive government overreach too. But calling them terrorists and traitors and calling for them to be tried for treason or bombed by terrorists is a great way to get people to stop listening to you. Or worse yet, regard all criticism as unhinged. Maybe it makes you feel good to rant against all those who don’t have your deep vision. But you aren’t going to convince anyone or help change things for the better.

          • kam Johnson

            You are aghast and I understand. I’m afraid I can’t make this more palatable for you. I will slow things down and address a couple errors though.
            While some of their activities could legitimately be called into question as terroristic (especially those outside the warm and cozy American bubble), I didn’t say the government is a terrorist outfit. They do, however, use terrorism as their agent of change. The change is starting to be viewed as a greater threat than the terrorism and that is not the doing of my unhinged ranting. No, I can let a few hundred much more highly paid unhinged people in Washington D.C. do that just by continuing their merry work.

            Calling treason for the leaders who disregard human rights, create imaginative tangents to the constitution and implement destructive policy harming not only innocent citizens of other nations but the citizens they are paid to work for is not only appropriate, but is certainly not grounds to stop anyone from listening except for those most fiercely indoctrinated. You have the mistaken impression that I care about changing your mind or the minds of others here. My opinions don’t require any heroic effort on my part to defend and make others capitulate to. You may be surprised in time by which way sentiment will eventually shift (already starting) on some of these issues but I’ll leave it at that.
            As for my fruitless attempt to help change things for the better, this is a reply of a reply to a comment on a blog. I am under no delusion of anyone else even seeing this other than you. I also have no expectation that you care.
            Nope, the real work to change things for the better is still ahead and I will certainly do my share.
            This will probably inspire you to write again to tell me how it was in the 70s perhaps or in what interesting way you feel I am destined to be institutionalized and that’s fine. But to make it all less complicated, you mentioned early on that you disagree with my opinion. I can accept that.

        • kam Johnson

          Why make it the responsibility of terrorists to solve our problems?

    • Carl Pham

      Er…right. Because terrorists are far too stupid to rent a helicopter and take photos. Or they’ve never heard of these agencies, and can’t use Google to find out their addresses. Or something like that.

      • FlyoverGuy

        But if they do, they draw attention to themselves.

        But if they use other people to do their recon for them — so much the better, cheaper, easier, safer for people who want to murder us.

    • willbilson

      This is what worries me. What if the Iranians have the bomb now and are planning to annihilate us with a nuclear attack? I want a large U.S. effort directed at stopping that. I want resources and personnel who understand the risks we face and who are professionally dedicated to protecting our country. What about the North Koreans. We KNOW they have nukes. We know that they hate us and see us as the ultimate enemy of their country, and that they are plotting to kill us all. With their nukes and ballistic missile systems out there they may well succeed. I want a strong NSA and NRO and all of the other agencies that we use to protect ourselves. I want them to be apolitical and “clean”, but NUMBER ONE I want our country to survive. I have kids.

      • nukgod

        Maybe you should be advocating that these agencies spend more time on the threats you mentioned rather than focusing their efforts on the populous that they report to serve. I have kids as well, none of the threats you mentioned can destroy America, but these agencies can destroy America in all but name. NUMBER ONE should be for your kids to live free.

        • FlyoverGuy

          Actually, yes, the threats that he mentions can effectively destroy America, if we do nothing about them.

          If you want your kids to live free, you should concentrate on real threats to their freedom in government intrusions on legitimate liberty, not worry about the NSA having phone records of how often you called your aunt Tilley in 2008.

    • Mr. Fever Head

      Or they can use that insidious technique called looking on a map. By the way the entrances to all these facilities are labeled by big signs that say NSA, NRO, and NGA. Sneaky, indeed.

      • EttaCat

        Even better, just look on Google Earth. In my little experiment, I just went to the general D.C. area and searched each agency by just its acronym. Bingo! Easy-peasy! Try Street View, while you’re on GE, for even more of a look. You can do this with any military base or power station in this country, too, as long as you know the name of it. Those aren’t hard to find with a simple Google or Bing search. Jeez, you don’t have to be a spy, a genius or Trevor Paglen to find these things.

    • Tedd

      LItmus test question: Rank by order of which would be least bad for terrorists to attack, one of these buildings, the WTC, or the Pentagon.

  • Maurice

    Eric is a clearly over reacting. Have you ever asked yourself WHAT THE REASON WAS America got attacked on 9/11? Government discretion is not something to be taken lightly, and is largely kept in the dark to even its own people for fear they might be publicly watched good or bad. But what does Snowden and other whistle blowers have to gain against what the CIA has to gain?. In my opinion the fact that we can’t publicly know what three government agencies are doing IN REALITY (not taking the answer of some mission statement on a web page) that cumulatively spend over 30 BILLION DOLLARS annually is an atrocity.

    We need to know these agencies exist visually to confirm mentally that they are actually real. And have a trusted unbiased public agency to criticize their policies.

    I will be following what these agencies will be doing because FREE PRESS IS FREEDOM

    • massa

      Whatever happened to the Electoral College?

      • DevilDog Ding

        It lost to Slippery Rock n the first round of the 2013 NCAA Div 2 football tournament.

  • David Govett

    A people of the government, by the government, and for the government.

  • Wodun

    Enjoy your IRS audit. Don’t worry, even if you have everything in order for the last decade, they will just make something up. Might run ya up to $5k.

    • Nailbanger

      After you get pulled over 2-3 times by local cops, have a state police cruiser fly by, hit the brakes, get behind you and ride you for 30 miles. Then there is the ATF home visit, the EPA and OSHA multipl compliance inspections, fines for desk cable cords, poor lighting….

      You can keep your freedoms if you want too.