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 was 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.
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.
National Security Agency (NSA) – Fort Meade, Maryland
National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) – Chantilly, Virginia
National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) – Springfield, Virginia