Fifty years ago, in October 1962, Soviet Union Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko sat in John F. Kennedy’s office, assuring the young American president that the buildup of Soviet-made missiles on the island nation of Cuba was purely a contribution to Cuba’s national defense capabilities.
Gromyko went on to say that the “training by Soviet specialists of Cuban nationals in handling defensive armaments was by no means offensive” and that “if it were otherwise, the Soviet government would never become involved in rendering such assistance.”
Little did Gromyko realize that Kennedy already had everything he needed to refute those lies in the form of 30-inch-resolution aerial photographs acquired by American U-2 spy planes flying 60,000 feet above Cuba. The photos clearly revealed the presence of medium-range ballistic missiles as well as launch facilities in a significant state of readiness.
Kennedy wasted little time in alerting American citizens and the rest of the world of these blatant activities, calling for the immediate removal of the Soviet arsenal—which, as we learned some 30 years later, included live nuclear warheads already on the island.
Recognizing the Geospatial Intelligence Advantage
The Cuban surveillance photos alone, however, weren’t sufficient evidence—they required expert analysis and interpretation. This was accomplished by the highly skilled personnel at the National Photographic Interpretation Center (NPIC), which began in 1953 as part of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and was renamed in January 1961 by President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Kennedy was keenly aware of the value provided by such geospatial intelligence (GEOINT). It instantly gave him the upper hand in situational awareness and placed America firmly on the moral high ground, which was vital to garnering support from its citizens and allies.
In a Nov. 8, 1962, classified letter to NPIC Director Arthur C. Lundahl, Kennedy expressed his regrets that, due to the agency’s necessary anonymity, he couldn’t publicly acknowledge its key accomplishments during the Cuban affair. He went on to commend Lundahl and his staff, noting his “deep appreciation for the tremendous task you are performing under most trying circumstances … and the reporting of your findings promptly and succinctly to me and my principal policy advisors.”
The Crown Jewel of U.S. Intelligence?
While today’s U.S. intelligence community comprises 17 agencies and organizations—all of vast importance to our nation’s security—some are more conspicuous than others. Thanks in large part to Hollywood, organizations such as theCIA, Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) often grab the headlines.
But perhaps the most intriguing member of the group is the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), which boils down a complex array of data from a host of sources into compelling visual information products that are universally understood across a broad range of disciplines, providing answers to critical questions preeminent to all intelligence professionals: “When? Where? Why?”
Formerly the National Imagery and Mapping Agency (1996-2003), NGA traces its roots to several intelligence organizations, each with its own distinct culture and history, including the NPIC, which was instrumental in defusing the Cuban Missile Crisis, along with the Defense Mapping Agency, Defense Dissemination Program Office and Central Imagery Office.
NGA’s track record is nothing short of remarkable in carrying out its mission to provide timely, relevant and accurate GEOINT to support U.S. national defense efforts and mitigate the effects of natural disasters. Current Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper told the Associated Press in May 2006 that NGA’s humanitarian work following hurricanes Katrina and Rita was the best he had seen from an intelligence agency during his 42 years in the business.
From its role in eliminating Osama bin Laden to providing humanitarian assistance following recent hurricanes and earthquakes, NGA clearly personifies U.S. intelligence superiority worldwide.
— By Jeff Specht, Publisher, Earth Imaging Journal