US doubles down on tracking North Korea ahead of Trump, Kim meeting

The intelligence community is doubling down on tracking North Korea as a potential one-on-one meeting between President Donald Trump and Kim Jong Un draws closer, following a historic summit between the North Korean leader and South Korean President Moon Jae-in where both committed to peace and denuclearization on Friday.

National Geospatial Intelligence Agency director Robert Cardillo told CNN that the Pentagon spy agency and other branches of the intelligence community are briefing the White House or senior policy makers ‘almost every day.’ His agency uses satellites, drones, maps, analysis, and other methods to keep watch over the earth’s surface from the sky and is playing a crucial role tracking North Korean activity.

Just last week, NGA quietly requested companies provide a detailed data-set of all military facilities in North Korea over the next year starting at the end of May, using satellite imagery, sensors, and other technology.

North Korea is often cloudy, making it difficult to rely on overhead photos alone, but companies are providing the NGA additional data from remote sensors capable of penetrating clouds, as well as underground sensors to monitor subterranean changes like buried objects, sources familiar with those contracts tell CNN.

Targets of interest include airfields, ammunition storage facilities, and training areas, as well as vehicles traveling in and out of military facilities over time, according to documents describing the request.

“I can tell you with confidence that there’s no topic that ends up more in [the Oval Office] than North Korea,” Cardillo told CNN at the 2018 GEOINT Symposium, an annual intelligence conference hosted by the United States Geospatial Intelligence Foundation in Tampa.

Cardillo made clear NGA plays an important role providing material for the President’s Daily Brief, the daily sensitive intelligence report the President receives in order to be aware of the world’s threats, present and future.

“We’re providing a lot more [geospatial intelligence] to those kinds of audiences,” Cardillo said. He added that Trump and his advisers prioritize information about North Korea for the Daily Brief.

In recent months, as rhetoric between President Trump and Kim Jong Un escalated, the collective focus of the intelligence community has zeroed in on North Korea. Foreign Policy Magazine reported that digital infrastructure for potential cyber attacks has been built up over the last several months, and the different agencies began pivoting their focus and resources towards Pyonygang. Given how difficult a target North Korea is, due to its isolation, the satellite imagery generated by NGA has long been incredibly important to the US government.

NGA, among other agencies, will play a key role tracking whether Kim keeps his promise to denuclearize. “We have the same issue with Iran, are they adhering to the agreement?” said Cardillo.

In the future, if the meeting with Trump happens and a formal agreement is reached, “we’d be a key part of monitoring their adhering to that agreement,” Cardillo said, though he emphasized that “we couldn’t do it alone.” He didn’t say he’d seen evidence of anything that concerned him or any indications Kim might be lying.

It’s rare to hear operational details of how different intelligence agencies are supporting different regions around the globe, particularly those facing major regional threats.

But during Cardillo’s keynote at the symposium, he also revealed that NGA helped South Korean forces deploy new Amazon “Snowball storage devices” in the field. The Snowball program allows users to transfer massive amounts of data very quickly using a physical object mailed through a rugged shipping container, rather than transmitting it over the internet.

According to Cardillo, “Hosting applications on an Amazon snowball had never been done before. “A few weeks ago, our team delivered this innovation to the tactical edge in South Korea,” he said. Those files were put “to warfighting use,” he concluded.

Intelligence officials continue to be key stakeholders in early phases of the discussions, as CNN has previously reported. They began meeting with their counterparts in North Korea several weeks ago to discuss logistics and over Easter weekend, CIA Director Mike Pompeo met with Kim Jong Un himself.