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NGA History

Featured NGA in History Articles

Charting our past, defining our future

A history project that documents some of the innovators, leaders and defining moments from NGA's past. The project is designed to provide an introduction to not only NGA, but to the history of geospatial-intelligence and all the intelligence disciplines, heritage organizations and trailblazers that came before. For those already familiar with GEOINT the project gives a better understanding of NGA’s importance to national security.

From Lewis and Clark, to World War II, to the Osama bin Laden raid, each update will highlight a defining moment in GEOINT.  NGA will also highlight the leaders of our past, from National Photographic Interpretation Center (NPIC) Director Arthur Lundahl, to current NGA Director Vice Admiral Frank Whitworth.

With its roots in cartography, mapping and imagery analysis, GEOINT is a highly evolved intelligence discipline that goes beyond telling you what is happening, where it is happening and when it is happening — it also reveals how it is happening, why it matters and what is likely to happen next. The term was adopted in 2003 by Director of National Intelligence James R. Clapper, Jr. to properly describe the mission of the agency.

The agency was founded in 1996 as the National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA). “The history of NGA goes well beyond our name change or even the founding of NIMA,” said Dr. Gary E. Weir, NGA historian. “Look back at the defining moments of our country – from the Revolutionary War on – and you will find GEOINT. Our history is American history.”  

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Well before the tragedy of September 11, 2001, Intelligence was based upon the Earth’s physical and man-made attributes—and the art and science of interpreting that information. By combining America’s most advanced imagery and geospatial assets within the National Imagery and Mapping Agency in 1996, our nation created a much-needed critical mass of skills and technologies under a single mission umbrella. As a result, the intelligence community was able to take its geospatial products to a new level. In 2003, this area of intelligence took another leap forward, allowing us to integrate multiple sources of information, intelligence and tradecrafts to produce an innovative and sophisticated new discipline that then NGA director James Clapper formally christened as geospatial intelligence, or GEOINT. 

The agency’s change from NIMA to NGA in 2003, had little to do with semantics and much to do with achieving greater insight into GEOINT. Using this new paradigm, intelligence professionals were better able to exploit and analyze imagery and geospatial information to describe, assess and visually depict physical features and human activity on the Earth. Today, NGA continues to deliver these vital intelligence products in responding to, and anticipating, our nation’s most critical national security challenges. NGA works hard to put GEOINT in the hands of our customers— when, where and how they need it. 

From the discovery of atrocities in Kosovo, to support for the cities hosting the Olympics, through the response to Hurricane Katrina, and our work in Haiti and Japan, NGA has provided critical GEOINT support when our nation needed it most. In the White House report reviewing the response to Hurricane Katrina, NGA was specifically commended for our timely response during the crisis. GEOINT offered an early version of the same total picture for responders that the administration later recommended for the entire nation as its plan to address major disasters in the years ahead. 

With this modest analysis of its past, NGA uses history to better understand its present and its future. While firmly rooted in a legacy that extends back to surveyors like the young George Washington  and explorers like Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, GEOINT combines extraordinary modern technologies and diverse personal skills to solve today’s most difficult and complicated intelligence problems. In fact, NGA helped track down al Qaeda leader Osama bin Ladin and shared insights with the special operations team that successfully stormed his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan on May 2, 2011. 

Challenges continue to face our nation. In September 2011, we completed the consolidation of most of operations on the East coast to a new state-of-the-art campus and in November 2019 we broke ground on a new facility in St. Louis. The combination of our facilities in Springfield, Virginia, St. Louis, and support teams around the world will help further unify and focus our efforts on behalf of America’s warfighters and policy makers. NGA will continue to learn from our past GEOINT successes, and we will continue to find innovative ways to better prepare for the challenges that our nation will face in the future.​​​ 

Associated Document(s)

The Advent of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency
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Historical Handbook of NGA Leaders
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NGA Reference Chronology
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