You can tell when the US is about to bomb an enemy target simply by watching one parking lot in suburban Maryland.
The lot sits outside a campus of windowless buildings at the little-known National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA), which creates and updates detailed maps, used by the Pentagon, of virtually the entire world.
When it's full of cars late at night, it means the intelligence analysts and cartographers with top-secret clearances are inside plotting on easels and tapping on computers, making maps eagerly awaited at the military hot spot.
But lately there's less thanks for their long hours in the wake of tragedies that critics, including some in the intelligence community, blame on faulty maps.
From the bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Belgrade earlier this month to the Italian gondola crash involving a Marine Corps jet that killed 20 skiers near Aviano, the quality of NIMA's products and procedures are getting a good share of the blame.
NIMA insists its maps are not to blame, particularly for the embassy bombing.
Scrutiny set back
As the three-year-old agency struggles to modernize and enter the digitized 21st century, concern is growing that the scrutiny could set back years of reorganization - efforts some believe are just now gaining traction.
"There are a lot of people who are afraid they're going to take the impact of the blame game," says a NIMA employee who believes fault lies more with the intelligence community who failed to input the Chinese Embassy's new address into a NIMA database.
At least four investigations and hearings are under way or planned to determine culpability in the Belgrade mishap. An intelligence source says a study, due this week, is expected to find fault with mapmakers. Congressional hearings are set for June 11.
It is not the first time NIMA, which plays a crucial role in war planning and subsequent operations, has been criticized.
"Historically, the work they do is good, but slow," says Michael Vickers, a former CIA employee and Special Forces veteran now at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Studies. "The classic point is the invasion of Grenada, where we had to use tourist maps."
But it wasn't the Caribbean embarrassment that led to an overhaul in American mapmaking and imagery gathering. It was the Persian Gulf War.
NIMA was created in 1996 after its predecessor, the Defense Mapping Agency (DMA), had problems providing up-to-date intelligence during the Gulf War.
"In Desert Storm, it took 36 hours to defeat the third largest army in the world," says a member involved in the restructuring. "It took the DMA 48 hours to get a single image into the field."
The solution was a major reorganization, marrying the expertise of eight smaller agencies from the CIA and Pentagon with the government's mapmaker to give military planners, troops, and bombers real-time information.
The consolidation has improved production and quality of some maps and NIMA products.
But the transition has not produced the hoped-for efficiencies. There have been clashes between military cartographers and intelligence analysts, who resent being co-opted into the Defense Department from the CIA.
A wave of experienced workers retired early or transferred out. "They just lost too many senior people, and they have had a hard time getting everything organized," says former CIA Director James Woolsey, who opposed the NIMA consolidation.
Along with inadequate staffing, the agency is overwhelmed by a cascade of raw data from U-2 imagery and satellite photographs. Ideally, the data will be digested and included in NIMA products.
"We collect more signals and photos than they are able to process and exploit," says Mark Lowenthal, who was on the House Intelligence Committee when NIMA was created.
Analysts also point to chronic congressional underfunding of the agency.
Even as it struggles with its disparate personnel and low funding levels, NIMA is upgrading its materiel and facilities, converting many of its products to an easier-to-use digital format. Plant upgrades are expected to cost $4.5 billion over five years.
Despite the difficult transition, some inside NIMA say cohesion is beginning to occur among the ranks, and that a "buy in" to the new process of mapmaking is occurring, albeit slowly.
But as investigative and congressional review falls on NIMA in coming weeks, it will provide a forum for critics and proponents of the organization alike.
"It will be a chance for [critics] to say, 'See, we told you this [reorganization] won't work,' " says a NIMA employee.
Meanwhile, NIMA is defending itself against accusations in the embassy bombing. "No database available to NIMA identified the targeted location as the location of the Chinese embassy," wrote spokeswoman Laura Snow following the May 7 incident.
NIMA has friends in Congress sympathetic to its transition. "The maps don't determine the target, it is the intelligence community [that does]," says Bob Lockwood, defense adviser to Sen. Orrin Hatch (R) of Utah. "The guys who work at NIMA are technicians, down in the trenches. You can't expect cartographers to run out and observe the situation on the ground."
"They are not a stepchild but an emerging agency, and whether you agree with their establishment in the first place, we are all committed to making it a success," says Rep. Porter Goss (R) of Florida, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee.
Meanwhile, the White House insists NIMA's maps are among the best in the world, and that sensitive targets are getting added scrutiny. "We have full confidence in the process under way and the targeting measures and that similar mistakes will not be made again," says National Security Council spokesman David Levy.