Photographic Interpretation Center (NPIC), United States National

Photographic Interpretation Center (NPIC), United States National

The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) established the National Photographic Interpretation Center (NPIC) in the 1950s to provide skilled interpretation of photographic images obtained by low- and high-flying aircraft, and later by satellites. Originally a unit of the CIA Directorate of Intelligence, NPIC in 1973 transferred to the Directorate of Science and Technology (DS&T). In 1996, it was moved to the newly formed National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA).

An intelligence photograph, rather like the sonogram of an unborn baby, seldom yields an abundance of secrets to the untrained eye. An expectant parent is unlikely to guess the sex of the child from a sonogram photo, whereas an experienced practitioner can ascertain such information with a high degree of certainty. Similarly, an aerial image of a military installation may appear, to the layman, as no more than a grid of fuzzy rooftops and curving roads, whereas a specialist skilled at extracting intelligence from photography may see all manner of incriminating details.

Americans became more acquainted with photographic interpretation on February 5, 2003, when Secretary of State Colin Powell presented NIMA/NPIC imagery to the United Nations (UN) Security Council as proof that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was stockpiling chemical weapons in defiance of international bans. Likewise, NPIC played a critical role in a much earlier international situation, that of the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962.

The center's analysts had been studying photos taken from U-2s over the Soviet Union since July 1956, and over Cuba since October 1960, but it did not officially come into existence until President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed National Security Council Intelligence Directive No. 8 on January 18, 1961. As the Soviets began sending arms and other supplies to Havana during the early days of John F. Kennedy's administration, NPIC personnel attempted to measure—and, if possible, identify the contents of—each crate unloaded on the docks. Kennedy relied heavily on NPIC, as well as Defense Department equivalents in the navy and air force. During the crisis, he dispatched emissaries, bearing NPIC photographs as proof, to several U.S. allies before he confronted Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev with evidence of the buildup in Cuba.



Munro, Neil. "Fighting for Intelligence Funds." Washington Technology (July 27, 1995): 1.

Pincus, Walter. "CIA, Pentagon Back NIMA 'Concept,' Combining Spy Satellite Photo Units." Washington Post. (November 29, 1995): A23.

Seffers, George I. "NIMA 'Inadequate' in Analyzing Spy Data." Federal Computer Week 15, no. 3 (February 5, 2001): 55.


National Photographic Interpretation Center. Fellowship of American Scientists. < > (February 13, 2003).


CIA Directorate of Science and Technology (DS&T),
NIMA (National Imagery and Mapping Agency)
Photographic Resolution
Photography, High-Altitude

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