Shortly after the attacks of September 11, 2001, U.S. President George W. Bush and several advisors gathered at Camp David to weigh the country’s options. On the table in front of them, as you can see in the photo below, was a map of Afghanistan created by cartographers at the Central Intelligence Agency. It was among the first of what would become thousands of maps the CIA produced after September 11 to track terrorist networks and support U.S. military operations, including the raid to capture Osama bin Laden in 2011.
As with much of the CIA Cartography Center’s work, these maps were classified, seen only by people in the intelligence community and at the highest levels of the government. But in honor of the center’s 75th anniversary this year, the agency has released a remarkable collection of declassified maps that illustrate—and perhaps even played a role in—many significant events in U.S. history.
On September 29, 2001, President George W. Bush discussed plans for a response to the 9/11 attacks with his chief of staff, Andrew Card (far left), Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet (far right), and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice. PHOTOGRPAH BY ERIC DRAPER, WHITE HOUSE
The Cartography Center was born in the days leading up to the United States’ entry into World War II. In the summer of 1941, with Europe already embroiled in war, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the intelligence agency that eventually gave rise to the CIA. One of the agency’s first recruits was Arthur H. Robinson, a 26 year-old graduate student who later became one of the most influential geographers of the 20th century (among his accomplishments is the Robinson projection, a mathematical formula for depicting the spherical Earth on a flat map that was for a time the preferred projection of National Geographic). After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the map division headed by Robinson kicked into high gear, churning out maps that were used for strategic planning during the war.
From the beginning, the cartographers had a broad mission—to acquire and create maps and geographic data relevant to national security. “Geographers and cartographers amassed what would be the largest collection of maps in the world and produced strategic maps and 3D plaster terrain models in support of strategic studies and military operational plans,” the CIA says in a statement.
In the early days the maps were drawn by hand—in pen—on large translucent sheets that could be stacked in layers before being photographed and printed. (Nerd alert: the CIA has just posted a Flickr gallery of more than 200 images of slide rules, compass clamps, planimeters, and other vintage tools used by their cartographers.)
This soon changed, however, since the CIA was an early adopter of digital technology. “In 1966, a large working group, using a borrowed digitizer, compiled and digitized coastlines and international boundaries for the entire world—in a single weekend,” the agency says. This digital database helped automate map production and eliminate hours of tedious work that had previously been done by hand.
As you can see in the gallery above, the focus of the maps has changed over the decades with shifting world events. In addition to mapping obvious national security issues like nuclear proliferation and terrorist networks, in recent decades the Cartography Center has mapped natural disasters, pandemics—and even elephant poaching in Africa.