L4.03: The GEOINT Tradecraft


So what is the GEOINT tradecraft when examined broadly beyond its implementation by any single nationality? Tradecraft is how GEOINT gets done; it includes the principles, tools, and standards of rigor for an analyst's thinking. An interesting early example of the GEOINT clandestine tradecraft is the artwork of Robert Baden-Powell, who served as a military intelligence officer in the British Army during the 1890s. Powell sketched enemy fortifications by pretending to be an entomologist making detailed sketches of butterflies and leaves that, on close scrutiny, were revealed to be maps of gun emplacements or trenches.

Photograph of Lt. Robert Baden Powell circs 1878
Figure 4.1: Young Lt. Robert Baden-Powell (13th Hussars) in stable dress, Circa 1878
Source: Wikimedia

Current day GEOINT tradecraft is a merging of science and technology with the conventional notion of tradecraft. Historically, tradecraft is defined as how an intelligence officer makes clandestine contact with an agent to obtain information, how the information is passed (or processed), and the tactics for preventing detection. In a more modern sense, tradecraft is also defined as an organization's sources and methods. GEOINT sources may include information obtained clandestinely with humans (like Baden-Powell), with technical collection systems (satellites), and using modern-day open source information (tweets). Methods pertain to the techniques used by analysts. An organization's geospatial sources and methods may be closely guarded so as not to give opponents the opportunity to know the capabilities and interests of an intelligence gathering organization. Unique from other forms of intelligence tradecrafts, GEOINT’s tradecraft is based on geospatial reasoning. Here, geospatial reasoning is reflective, skeptical, and analytic; implying that the successful application of the tradecraft can never be rote, but must always involve the educated mind of the analyst in an active questioning and examination of assumptions, techniques, and data if it is to meet the rigorous standards of good intelligence work. In this course we use the following definition:

The GEOINT Tradecraft is unique and sometimes privileged organizational sources and methods for obtaining information of a place and making sense of the information to support the decision maker in understanding human activities and intentions. Methods comprise the technologic tools to organize geospatial data and the cognitive techniques used by the analyst to make sense of it when rendering judgments, insights, and forecasts.

As we said, the GEOINT tradecraft is how an organization carries out its work producing geospatial intelligence. This GEOINT organization might be a branch of government, a business, or a law enforcement agency. The implication is that tradecraft know-how is not unique to an intelligence community. In a commercial enterprise, manufacturing tradecraft would be the confidential business knowledge of how to manufacture a product. Frequently in business, this institutional knowledge is guarded from a competitor as a trade secret. Critically, there is an interrelationship of humans and technologies that shapes the aspects of analysis, which is why GEOINT's tradecraft has been particularly influenced by the Geospatial Revolution. Geospatial intelligence's analytic craft has been shaped by Geographic Information Science (GIScience) and Geographic Technologies. The relationship might be illustrated as in Figure 4.2:

graphic showing the relationship between Geographic Technology, GIScience, and GEOINT Tradecraft.
Figure 4.2: The relationship between Geographic Technology, GIScience, and GEOINT Tradecraft.
Source: Bacastow

GEOINT tradecraft guides the collection of information about a place and the analysis in terms of human activities and intentions. Frequently unique from geographic analysis taught in academia, the GEOINT analyst may need to contend with deceptive information and operate in conditions of secrecy.

Geospatial Deception

Remotely sensed imagery, like the below DigitalGlobe image of Islamabad, Pakistan, is a central source of GEOINT data. 

As you can imagine, there are circumstances where people want to deny successful analysis of such imagery. This is particularly true in a military context where we prevent enemies from performing reconnaissance by concealment, camouflage, and deception. However, it could be equally true for someone wanting to deny the ability to count the number of automobiles awaiting shipment in an auto factory's parking lot. A core skill of the GEOINT tradecraft is contending with deceptive information. Deception should not be mistaken for the error or misinformation you might deal with in a routine spatial analysis. Here deception is designed to gain an advantage. The idea of deceiving someone about geospatial features is not new and can occur on a grand scale. For example, after December 7, 1941, the Boeing aircraft factory was camouflaged as a village to hide it from Japanese aircraft attack. The plant had fake houses and trees over the factory.

Deception in the form of camouflage is common. In nature, protective coloration serves to protect some flora and fauna—either by making them difficult to see or by causing them to resemble something of little interest to predators. Deception in the form of camouflage allows an otherwise visible object to remain indiscernible from the surrounding environment. Avoiding being deceived requires the analyst to know the ways by which concealment or obscurity is attained. This know-how includes how the method is tailored to a particular observer and how the observer might make a false judgment about the camouflaged object.

Photograph of the Boeing Seattle Plant under Camouflage in WW II
Figure 4.4: Boeing Seattle plant under Camouflage as a village in WW II.

Geospatial Reasoning

Geospatial reasoning includes processes that support exploration, understanding, and sensemaking. Geospatial reasoning begins with the ability to use space as a context, or framework, to make sense of what we see. There are three spatial frames within which we can make the transition from what is observed to meaningful information; these are behavioral spaces, physical spaces, and cognitive spaces. In all cases, the definition of the space provides an interpretive context that gives meaning to the data.

  • Behavioral space is the four-dimensional space-time where spatial thinking is a means of coming to grips with the spatial relations between yourself and objects in the physical environment. This is cognition in space and involves thinking about the world in which we live. It is exemplified by navigation.
  • Physical space is also built on the four-dimensional world of space-time, but focuses on a scientific understanding of the nature, structure, and function of phenomena. This is cognition about space and involves thinking about the ways in which the world works. An example might be how an earthquake creates a tsunami.
  • Cognitive space is in relationship to concepts and objects that are not in and of themselves necessarily spatial. This is thinking with space. An example might be an invading army encroaching on national territory, a gang moving into a rival district, or a driver trying to steal a parking space.

Learning to think spatially is to consider objects in terms of their context. This is to say, the object's location in behavioral space, physical space, or cognitive space, to question why objects are located where they are, and to visualize relationships between and among these objects. The key skills of spatial thinking include having the ability to:

  • Understand the context. The significance of context was discussed above, but it is important to say that if the data upon which the decision is based are placed into the wrong spatial context, for example behavioral space rather than physical space, it is likely the analysis will be flawed since behavioral space is governed by the rules of culture (e.g., use the crosswalks when crossing a street) and physical space is governed by the rules of physics (e.g., I can't walk through a steel fence to cross the road at this point).
  • Recognize patterns and shapes. The successful spatial thinker needs to retain an image of the simple figure in mind and look for it by suppressing objects irrelevant to the task at hand. This ability allows a geospatial analyst to identify patterns of significance in a map, such as an airfield.
Four images of different airfields
Figure 4.5: A set of images of airfields.
Source: Bacastow
  • Recall previously observed objects. The ability to recall an array of objects that was previously seen is called object location memory.
  • Integrate observation-based learning. Synthesizing separately made observations into an integrated whole. The expert analyst moves through the data, gathering information from separately observed objects and views, and integrates this information into a coherent mental image of the area.
  • Mentally rotate an object and envision scenes from different viewpoints. The ability to imagine and coordinate views from different perspectives has been identified by Piaget and Inhelder (1967) as one of the major instances of projective spatial concepts. Mental rotation ability or perspective-taking ability could be relevant to those analysis tasks that involve envisioning what an object, such as a building, would look like if seen from another position.
Envisioning scenes from different viewpoints
Figure 4.6: Envisioning scenes from different viewpoints
Source: Google Earth.