Title:                      NPIC

Author:                  Jack O’Connor

O’Connor, Jack (2015). NPIC: Seeing The Secrets And Growing The Leaders: A Cultural History of the National Photographic Interpretation Center. Alexandria, VA: Acumensa Solutions

LCCN:    2015908116

JK468.I6 O36 2015


Date Posted:      September 21, 2016

Caveat. Perpendat itaque lector cavendum (civilis).[1]

Reviewed by Joseph C. Goulden[2]

On 20 June 2014, as Washington Nationals fans emerged from the parking lot at 1st & M Street SE and headed for the stadium to see the Stephen Strasburg pitch, they passed a partially demolished building across the street in the Washington Navy Yard[3]. Few knew that they were witness to the end of Building 213, former home of the National Photographic Interpretation Center (NPIC) where, from 1963 until 1996, the nation’s satellite imagery had been exploited by teams of CIA, DIA, and military imagery analysts. In NPIC: Seeing the Secrets and Growing the Leaders, former CIA officer Jack O’Connor, a veteran of 15 years at NPIC, tells the story of its creation as part of the U-2 Program and its operations as the key producer of intelligence from satellite imagery.

Although O’Connor mentions each of the eight NPIC directors, his account is intentionally not comprehensive. Such a history would require a much longer treatment. Instead, he looks in-depth at the two directors who did the most to shape NPIC’s future—Art Lundahl and Rae Huffstutler. It was Lundahl who was given secret marching orders by Allen Dulles to create what, in time, became NPIC, established to handle the imagery exploitation from the U-2 in 1956. And that is what he did while working in less than optimal facilities before moving to Building 213—an absorbing story in itself.

It was Huffstutler that managed NPIC’s transition from film to digital imagery. This required new facilities, equipment, and additional training for the analysts. At the same time Huffstutler, building on the Lundahl foundation, created a management culture that, O’Connor argues, produced many senior executives who later served throughout the Intelligence Community.

To give the reader a sense of NPIC’s operations, O’Connor discusses each of the satellite systems and its impact in terms of launch frequency (and occasional failures), quantity of imagery collected, and NPIC’s methods of organizing the work. He also describes the sequence of events from the requirement to request coverage, to the reporting-on the imagery acquired. As a real-world example, he presents an account of how the disaster at Chernobyl was documented by digital satellite imagery before the Soviet Union admitted the catastrophe. Chernobyl was not a routine collection experience and he describes the organizational and bureaucratic battles that had to be overcome, just one of many such conflicts that were routinely confronted as various agencies competed for the scarce overhead coverage and often disagreed with the imagery-analysts’ reporting. An example of the latter is discussed in the account of the “Third Typhoon,” a Soviet submarine whose NPIC-reported launch disagreed with the Community consensus. (pp. 148ff) As O’Connor relates these examples and others—particularly the Cuban Missile Crisis—readers get a good sense of the life of an imagery analyst and what happened when differences arose with all-source colleagues who often thought they could read the imagery just as well.

For those who encountered NPIC over the years, O’Connor’s contribution will bring back mostly agreeable—if not amusing—memories. It was an unusual organization with its own personality. For all other readers concerned with the history of the nation’s imagery interpretation program, he has provided a solid, well written foundation. O’Connor has implicitly made a good argument for a sequel. NPIC is a great contribution to the intelligence literature.

[1] On occasion, personal loyalties and opinions can be carved in stone and defended with a vengeance — at times with some venom thrown in. In these situations, the actual importance of the subject matter is dwarfed by the amount of aggression expressed. Retain a sense of proportion in all online and in-person discussions. [From The Intelligencer: Journal of U. S. Intelligence Studies.]

[2] Goulden, Joseph C. in The Intelligencer: Journal of U.S. Intelligence Studies (22, 2, Spring 2016, p. 130). Joseph C. Goulden’s 1982 book, Korea: The Untold Story of the War, was published in a Chinese-language edition in 2014 by Beijing Xiron Books. He is author of 18 nonfiction books. Goulden is a long-time reviewer of espionage and spy books for The Washington Times, for AFIO’s Intelligencer, for law journals, and other publications. Some of the reviews appeared in prior editons of The Washington Times or The Washington Lawyer (DC Bar Association) and are reprinted by permission of the author. Goulden’s most recent book [as of 2016] is Goulden, Joseph C. (2012). The Dictionary of Espionage: Spyspeak into English. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications.

[3] I (Fred L. Wilson) passed by that building every day on the way to the Munitions Building from Ft. McNair.

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