The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency is helping paint a clearer picture on the muddied Crimean Peninsula that was annexed by Russia from Ukraine in 2014.
"We have been able to expose, identify and document the geospatial component of the Russian aggression in and around Ukraine. Some of that we've done through our more traditional capabilities, the establishment of new, permanent bases on the proximate border with Ukraine," NGA Director Robert Cardillo told the Senate Intelligence Committee in a rare public hearing Tuesday. "These are the movement of Russian forces that used to be there in a temporary status and now they are moving to a permanent status. What that obviously does is gives Russia more opportunity to effect a next step in a very short period of time…I'm speaking on the border of Ukraine and the Russian border of Ukraine."
Seized through what many — including the United States — have called illegal means, Russian troops deployed to the peninsula and reclaimed it. Russia has continued to foster unrest in the region utilizing proxies and what some have termed "hybrid warfare" to undermine the central Ukrainian government.
In his written testimony submitted to the committee, Cardillo wrote that geospatial intelligence has contributed to the understanding of this complex region adding they have used a variety of sources an analytic strategies to track military operations, supply flow and "characterize the environment and the forces at play."
Cardillo told the Committee that the U.S. must utilize other forms of collection to track the "non-traditional aspect of Russian aggression." These include using social media, open sources, press reporting and identifications gathered from partners.
He also explained how NGA partners with others in the intelligence and defense communities to use social media and other resources for anticipatory reporting describing it as an open process. "If I’m exploring a social media stream in eastern Ukraine — because we’re trying to find out what’s really going on inside that opposition held territory — I’m going to do that with the Defense Intelligence Agency, with the Central Intelligence Agency, with the Army to make sure that we’re not all doing the same thing at the same time," he explained. "I won’t kid you, though, this is an evolving tradecraft and under this tradecraft, John Brennan has the community responsibility. I just to one of his board of governors meetings to make sure we are in fact sharing so that we’re not inefficiently or redundantly applying our assets."
Crimea is easier to understand Russia’s actions as they operate more openly there, he said. Eastern Ukraine, however, is "quite different," Cardillo asserted noting that the Russian narrative is one attempting to point the situation as a local uprising indigenously produced without their involvement.
"In an open session what I’d like to be able to assure you and the American people that we are applying non-traditional capabilities to expose that to you and to our customers," he said adding he’d prefer not elaborate because "if I explain it to you then I’d be explaining it to the Russians."
Cardillo also told the committee that he is disappointed with the human-machine teaming at NGA saying some of the problems are due to technology, while others are due to science. The biggest inhibitor, he said, is mindset.
"We’re quite comfortable with that human path — we all know it, we’ve lived it, we’ve learned it, etc. — turning over, if you will, to an algorithm gets us a little anxious. So part of my mantra has been to establish pilots and test beds so that we can gain some, obliviously technical experience, but also that cultural experience that I’d like to build," he said.
He provided an example in which an analyst physically counted 25,000 buildings in a particular area as there was no algorithm designed to do this for them. "Think of the hours he had to spend to do that," Cardillo exclaimed. "I turned to my head of research and I said don’t let that happen again."
He added that he wants to do better in this area and the agency is on a path to do so.