An Interview with Mike Starr

In this written interview, @TheIntellComm talks to Mike Starr, an experienced senior intelligence officer for the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) who worked within the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) in Afghanistan in 2013.


The origins of the NGA could be found back in November 1995, when President William Jefferson Clinton organized a meeting in the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base (Dayton) with the involved ethnical representatives (Serb, Croat and Muslim) in order to find a solution to the Bosnian conflict. The US Delegation in Dayton relied on a technical team led by the Defense Mapping Agency (DMA) and the US Army Topographic Engineering Center, and drew together a support team of over fifty individuals from various intelligence organizations. The technology used and the experienced team effort allowed the obtention of a reliable solution that gave the political representatives the confidence needed to solve the conflict.

The main result of these activities were obtained in 1996 with the creation of the National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA) that merged eight agencies and offices that included CIA’s National Photographic Interpretation Center, the Defense Intelligence Agency’s (DIA) Imagery Analysis Directorate and DMA. With the introduction of Geospatial Intelligence (GEOINT), the agency took a new name in 2003, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA).

TIC: Mike, can you please introduce yourself.  Give us a background on your professional achievements and personal motivations for joining NIMA.

MS:  My name is Mike Starr.  I am from Meadville Pennsylvania, a small town about 90 miles north of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and left for the Marine Corps right after graduating high school in 1978.  I am currently the Deputy Chief of the NGA’s Counterdrug and Western Hemisphere Division.  I have 29 years of combined service with the Department of Defense, including four–plus years in the United States Marine Corps.  I began my civilian government service with the Defense Intelligence Agency in 1990 after graduating from George Mason University with a B.A. in International Studies, and was detailed to the CIA’s National Photographic Interpretation Center as an Imagery Analyst working North Korean ground forces.  Subsequent assignments included six years in the Pentagon as an Imagery Analyst and later as an Operations Chief with a year-long rotation to the President’s Imagery Team between the two.  In 2001, I began my foray into management as Chief of the Central and South America Branch.  Immediately following 9/11 I served as NIMA Liaison to the CIA’s Counter Terrorism Center before accepting a position as Chief of the Special Operations Branch in NIMA’s Office of Counterterrorism.  In 2003 I took the helm of what became the Iraq/Iran Counterterrorism Branch and moved on to take over the SOCOM Reachback and Support Division five years later.  My time with the Office of Counterterrorism was highlighted by two deployments to Iraq and one to Afghanistan in support of the Joint Special Operations Command.  Assignments that followed included stints as Deputy Director of the Joint Persistent Surveillance Integration Office in InnoVision – NGA’s R&D Directorate, and Chief of the Mission Operations Division in the Joint Operations and Integration Office.  Prior to my current assignment I completed a fourth deployment, serving as NGA’s Senior Intelligence Officer in Afghanistan.

I would say that my motivation for becoming an intelligence officer can be traced back to my military service. As a Marine I served in the Far East as a Reconnaissance Marine, from which I developed an understanding of the importance of intelligence gathering on the tactical level and its potential to impact decision makers. My later assignments as a Marine Security Guard at the US Embassy in Lima, Peru and the American Consulate General in Hamburg, Germany piqued my interest in international relations and US foreign policy.  These assignments, coupled with a strong desire to serve my country led me on this career path.

TIC:  After your experience gathering intelligence on North Korean ground forces, how was your transition to the Pentagon?

MS:  My transition to the Pentagon in the fall of 1995 was not all that difficult, but it took some time to adjust to the nuances of working in the footprint of the customer, in this case the CJCS/J2. Our mission was to provide timely and accurate imagery analysis on topics of high current interest relating to DoD priorities within the first 24 hours of collection, unlike my previous assignment where the focus was on current (post-24 hours) and long-term analytical production. The most difficult part of this transition was its impact on the home-front where a 24/7/365 environment meant missing family meals, soccer games, school performances, holidays, etc.  Still, the very nature of the mission, its impact on military operations, and the immediate gratification that we received were its own reward.  

TIC:  In June 1997 you moved to the CIA as an analyst for the President's Imagery Team, a year later you returned to the Pentagon as a team lead and in January 2000 you were became an operations chief.  What were the main challenges that you faced during this process in terms of leadership and what advice would you give to professionals in a similar path?

MS:  From a leadership perspective, each of these positions afforded me an opportunity to broaden my perspective on the roles of the agencies within the Intelligence Community (IC).   My time on the President’s Imagery Team and as an Operations Chief in the Pentagon necessitated coordinating and collaborating across the IC on a variety of intelligence issues, and with it a whole set of challenges.  I often found myself in front of senior officials and policymakers where it was necessary to speak truth to power in crisis situations.  I think the best advice I could offer is to only speak of that which you are absolutely certain.  It is not a failure to state that you do not have answers and offer to get back to them.  Along this same thread, do not pretend to be the subject matter expert on a topic you are not familiar with. Learn to use the resources at your disposal and make sure to recognize those whose expertise you covet.  It goes a long way in building your network and establishing trust.  

On a more personal note, if your career requires shift work, as the three assignments above did, knock it out early in your career.  I missed a lot of sporting events, school recitals, birthday and holidays.  You can’t get those moments back, so plan accordingly if at all possible.

TIC:  How do you think GEOINT is helping national defense nowadays?

MS:  Before being combined in the creation of NIMA/NGA, Imagery Analysis and Mapping were separate and unique disciplines that played vital roles in the defense of our nation. The Gulf War brought about the realization that combining the two disciplines was a necessary marriage in a post-Cold War environment that coincided with technological evolution. 

Today I would say that the concept and application of GEOINT is still maturing, but it is no longer a silent partner in military planning and operations. GEOINT has demonstrated its unique ability to illuminate critical situations in ways that permit both intelligent policy decisions and timely action.  Bringing geospatial information fully into imagery intelligence added a new dimension in terms of analytical content and the visualization of the information. 

TIC: After some years leading NGA teams, in 2001 you moved to the Central and South America Branch, was this driven by terrorism activities in those areas?

MS:  My assignment as chief of the Central and South America Branch occurred a full three months prior to the events of 9/11, and was my first management role. We were tasked to “break the mold” in our quest to become the first work unit in NIMA to combine the imagery and geospatial analysis disciplines. Prior to 9/11, terrorist activity in this area was not a high level concern, hence the lack of Intelligence Community resources devoted to this region. 

TIC:  What is the Joint Persistent Surveillance Integration Office purpose and how are their activities, generally speaking, applied to conflicts?

MS:  The now-defunct Joint Persistent Surveillance Integration Office was in our R&D Directorate known as InnoVision.  JPSIO’s charter was to coordinate the activities of the Defense Intelligence enterprise, elements of the Intelligence Community, Academia, Federal Research Labs, and Industry in the development and integration of collection management, processing, exploitation, dissemination and data storage capabilities necessary to enable airborne persistent surveillance, and provide advice and support to the USD(I) on related matters.

As we shifted operations to Afghanistan and Iraq the thirst for persistent surveillance (PS) platforms became intense.  Each of the Services found it necessary to cultivate their own PS capabilities, each with their own unique architecture and capabilities, as well as shortcomings.  It became clear very quickly that such disparate efforts provided few advantages, the least of which were economy, integration and efficiency.  The Pentagon moved to consolidate the development of these capabilities and NGA was tabbed to play a major role, hence the establishment of the JPSIO to lead the effort.

TIC:  How did you end up in the ISAF group? How does NGA provide support?

MS:  As a prior deployer who served as NGA SIO in Iraq, I was on the short list of candidates for the position in Afghanistan. When the call came to be part of the NGA Leadership Team, which was headquartered at ISAF Headquarters located in the Green Zone of downtown Kabul, I accepted.  NGA had GEOINT Support Teams (GSTs) embedded with US and NATO forces throughout Afghanistan.  Some sites were single threaded, whereas others consisted of multi-person teams.  In all, NGA had over one hundred deployers – analysts and support personnel stationed throughout Afghanistan before the final drawdown began in 2013. As NGA’s SIO I was charged with leading all NGA analytical efforts in support of US, NATO and Coalition forces, and interagency and diplomatic missions. Those analysts that were embedded provided GEOINT support to operations that ranged from simple mapping products to complex GEOINT analysis products in support of operations. The scope and breadth of support was astounding and in some cases required reaching back to greater NGA for assistance from subject matter experts.  On my many site visits I heard nothing but glowing admiration from those we supported. 

TIC:  Which are the main challenges in terms of national security and geospatial intelligence that you think national security will need to face in the coming years?

MS:  From my perspective I believe that money is the driving factor here.  Intelligence gathering is expensive and the current and future Administrations and Congressional leaders are going to be faced with some difficult choices. We grew very large following 9/11 and the era of huge budgets and supplementals are gone.  The IC is already feeling the pain across the board and National intelligence priorities are under constant review.  The mantra now is ‘do less with less’. NGA is certainly not immune to this reality and is adapting where necessary and appropriate. 

TIC:  Any books you would recommend on the NGA?

MS:  Books on NGA are few, but I recommend “Priorities for GEOINT Research at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency” that discusses ways in which NGA can continue to provide timely, accurate and relevant GEOINT in the face of data sources that continue to increase in number, type and volume.  I also recommend “The US Intelligence Community” by Jeffrey T. Richelson. 

TIC: What would you recommend to people that want to work at NGA?

MS: Without question I would recommend classes in Geospatial Information Sciences, or anything that prepares you to for conducting geospatial analysis.  The basics of Imagery Analysis can be picked up relatively quickly, but Geospatial Analysis is much more intense and those analysts that understand geospatial concepts have an advantage. Courses in remote sensing would also be of great benefit.