In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Geographical Intelligence

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Primary Documents and Archives
  • Non-US Sources
  • Geographic Intelligence in World War I
  • 9/11 and the War on Terror
  • The National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency
  • The National Reconnaissance Office
  • Human Geography, Sociocultural Analysis, and Human Terrain System
  • Geosurveillance and Countergeosurveillance
  • Drones and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles and Systems
  • Leaks, Whistleblowers, and Insider Threat Detection

Geography Geographical Intelligence
Jeremy W. Crampton
  • LAST REVIEWED: 03 May 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 June 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199874002-0059


Geographical intelligence is the product arising from the collection, processing, analysis, evaluation, and interpretation of geographical information, concepts, and theories about foreign or domestic entities or geographical areas. Its historical origins are probably as old as the first dispute or conflict, and it refers to intelligence with geographical content (e.g., area or country reports) and to the use of geographical technologies such as mapping, remote sensing, geographic information systems, and geosurveillance. Contemporary geospatial intelligence is known in the United States as GEOINT, defined in Title 10 USC §467 as “exploitation and analysis of imagery and geospatial information to describe, assess, and visually depict physical features and geographically referenced activities on the earth.” GEOINT is more specific and technology-oriented than geographical intelligence. Geographical intelligence in the United States is a critical component of the intelligence community (IC), most notably the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency and the National Reconnaissance Office. It is used for threat detection and assessment, informing national security policy, support for military and covert actions, and occasionally for humanitarian relief. Throughout the second half of the 20th century, the United States developed superior technical capabilities to acquire imagery intelligence (IMINT) from airborne and satellite platforms such as the covert “Keyhole” spy satellite system and unmanned aerial vehicles (or “drones”). In recent years, this effort, which captures the physical terrain, is increasingly supplemented by intelligence about the “human terrain” (e.g., social values, kinship networks, or ethnicity). This has meant an increased role for human geography concepts and information. It has attracted concern, however, that it is reductive (e.g., to enemies and “good guys”) and that it involves non-IC members such as academics and contractors. Geographical intelligence is often but not always classified. Proponents of open government advocate less classification. Classified IMINT and GEOINT are occasionally leaked or can be known in general terms. Furthermore, the capacity for nongovernment actors to acquire GEOINT is blurring the line between official and unofficial geographical intelligence. Commercial entities such as DigitalGlobe supply the IC with imagery through a program called EnhancedView. Off-the-shelf drones and “balloon-mapping” now allow cheap do-it-yourself remote sensing and mapping. Mobile technologies and devices increasingly require quality digital mapping products and services. These developments, along with funding challenges after ten years of budget increases following 9/11, may significantly alter the geographical intelligence landscape. Although geographic intelligence is worldwide in scope, due to limitations in material and other reasons, this article focuses on the United States.

General Overviews

The United States today has two national intelligence programs: the National Intelligence Program (NIP) and the Military Intelligence Program (MIP). Today, NIP is directed by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI). MIP is headed by the Pentagon. There are also much smaller intelligence services carried out by civilian government agencies such as the Bureau of Intelligence and Research at the Department of State. The departments of Energy, Homeland Security, and Justice (DEA and FBI) also conduct intelligence. In 2012, the NIP budget request for the forthcoming budget year was declassified by ODNI for the first time: $55 billion. The 2013 fiscal year MIP request was also released for the first time in 2012: $19.2 billion (down from $27 billion in the 2010 fiscal year). This total, although down from a previous high of $80.1 billion, is still considerably above that of the State Department 2013 fiscal year request of $51.6 billion. The two Foreign Relations of the United States (FRUS) volumes (Thorne, et al. 1996 and Keane, et al. 2007) provide the historical context (primary sources) of the United States’ emergent intelligence community (IC) in the postwar period and are essential for the serious scholar. While Thomas 1963 provides an early view, it is somewhat sketchy. Aid 2012 is good for a modern assessment of the IC and terrorism, while Cloud 2002 should be consulted by readers interested in technological developments in geographical intelligence during the Cold War and what are delicately referred to as America’s “National Technical Means” (i.e., spy satellites). Mayer 2008 is good on the political implications of secret intelligence and special operations. Begin with Kean, et al. 2004 to get a contemporary picture of the IC through the early 2000s. Then consult Richelson 1995 for specific entries on the entire intelligence community, particularly the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency and National Reconnaissance Office.

  • Aid, Matthew. Intel Wars: The Secret History of the Fight Against Terror. New York: Bloomsbury, 2012.

    Written by a Fellow at the National Security Archive in Washington, DC, this book takes a war-on-terror perspective to assess the successes and failures of the US intelligence community. Includes the estimate that more than $500 billion has been spent on intelligence since 9/11.

  • Cloud, John. “American Cartographic Transformations during the Cold War.” Cartography and Geographic Information Science 29.3 (2002): 261–282.

    DOI: 10.1559/152304002782008422

    Provides an account of geographical innovations in Cold War intelligence, such as the World Geodetic System, the basis of global positioning systems.

  • Kean, Thomas H., Lee Hamilton, and the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States. The 9/11 Commission Report: Final Report of the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks upon the United States. New York: W. W. Norton, 2004.

    The 9/11 Commission Report, jointly chaired by Thomas Kean and Lee Hamilton, analyzes what happened on 9/11 and the intelligence gaps that allowed it to happen (specifically, not the lack of intelligence per se, but the inability to piece it together and make an impression on policy makers). It drove many IC recommendations such as reporting of the budget topline, a more integrated geospatial intelligence capability.

  • Keane, Douglas, Michael Warner, and Edward R. Keefer, eds. Foreign Relations of the United States, 1950–1955: The Intelligence Community. Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 2007.

    Brings us right into the beginnings of the modern era of intelligence. The main geographic interest here is how the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) established a scientific research office for the production of estimates. Allen Dulles, the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) Bern station chief and later CIA director, figures prominently.

  • Mayer, Jane. The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals. New York: Doubleday, 2008.

    The title is a reference to a phrase attributed to Vice President Dick Cheney, that after 9/11, America had to turn to the “dark side” (covert ops and clandestine intel) to pursue the War on Terror. In this well-sourced book, Mayer provides a serious account of America’s reaction to the attacks of 9/11 and the role of intelligence in the political process.

  • Richelson, Jeffrey T. A Century of Spies: Intelligence in the Twentieth Century. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

    An invaluable history of espionage internationally. Well footnoted, covering the period from 1900 to the first Gulf War, this book contains much of geographical interest. See especially chapters 10 (aerial spies), 12 (“Knowing the Enemy,” including mapping), 18, and 20 (spy satellites). Works well as a consultative reference when combined with Richelson 2012 (cited under Reference Works).

  • Thomas, Louis. “Geographic Intelligence.” Studies in Intelligence 7.4 (1963): A1–A18.

    A classic article published in the CIA house journal. Discusses applications at the time to political, military, and economic intelligence.

  • Thorne, C. Thomas, Jr., David S. Patterson, and Glenn W. LaFantasie, eds. Foreign Relations of the United States, 1945–1950: Emergence of the Intelligence Establishment. Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 1996.

    The FRUS volumes are reprints of primary historical documents that have been cleared for release. This volume, covering the immediate postwar period that includes the dissolution of the OSS, the National Security Act of 1947, and the founding of the CIA, is perhaps the more interesting of the two. Discussion around the disposition of the OSS geographical desks (e.g., Docs. 81–83 and 85) are of relevance.

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