James Clapper on the Foundation of GEOINT

The former DNI was the guest of honor at the opening of USGIF’s new Trajectory Event Center


A standing room only crowd of geospatial intelligence professionals gathered Sept. 10 as a jovial James R. Clapper, former Director of National Intelligence, reminisced about the early days of both the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) and the United States Geospatial Intelligence Foundation (USGIF). The audience was attending a special edition of USGIF’s GEOINTeraction Tuesday networking event, sponsored by Vricon, to celebrate the grand opening of the Foundation’s Trajectory Event Center (TEC).

From left to right, The Honorable Jeffrey K. Harris, James R. Clapper, and Stu Shea cut the ribbon to USGIF’s new Trajectory Event Center.

To kick off the evening, USGIF’s founding Chairman of the Board Stu Shea and current Chairman The Honorable Jeffrey K. Harris stood alongside Clapper, the first director of NGA, to perform the official ribbon-cutting for the new facility.

Clapper began his remarks by sharing a personal story about one of his earliest intelligence collection ventures. The setting was the summer of ’53 in Philadelphia, where young Jim Clapper and his sister were visiting their grandparents. One night, while tinkering with the television knobs, he suddenly heard voices but saw no picture.

“I soon realized it was the Philadelphia Police Department dispatcher,” Clapper recalled. “The next night, I got a map of the city of Philadelphia and began plotting the police codes.”

The would-be intelligence officer then found himself sleeping all day and “working” all night. A few days later, when his parents returned, Clapper’s father, who was an Army intelligence officer, asked what he had been up to.

“So, I pull out my map and my 3×5 cards and give him a 20-minute discourse on the operation and organization of the Philadelphia Police Department,” Clapper said. “I still remember the expression on my dad’s face, ‘My God, I’ve raised my own replacement.’”

As the room erupted with laughter, Clapper explained why he told this story: to illustrate the nature of intelligence.

“You are always dealing with incomplete information and you build hypotheses and then you try and test those hypotheses,” Clapper said. “Even then, you don’t have complete information, so you are trying to build an assessment.”

A New Intelligence Discipline

Clapper also shared some anecdotes from the inception of both NGA and USGIF—it all started with tradecraft and mission.

Isaac Zaworski (left) and Barry Tilton (right) of GEOINTeraction Tuesday sponsor Vricon provide a technology demo to former DNI James R. Clapper.

In 2001, two days after 9/11, he became the first civilian director of NGA’s predecessor organization, the National Imagery and Mapping Agency (NIMA). Soon after becoming director, he began to re-define how NIMA would better serve its national security mission.

Clapper described receiving a report produced by the NIMA Commission as the genesis of NGA. The commission reported that timely development of a robust geospatial information system was critical to achieve national security objectives in the 21st century.

“The name itself, the National Imagery and Mapping Agency, was divisive,” Clapper said. “So, the two cultures (imagery and mapping) had pretty much remained separate.”

Under his leadership in 2003, with the goal to integrate the sources and tradecrafts, Clapper helped to coin the term geospatial intelligence (GEOINT) and appealed to Congress to change the organization’s name to the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA). The new name was made official in 2003, when Congress passed the National Defense Authorization Act.

Later that same year, Shea worked with members of the burgeoning GEOINT Community to stand up USGIF, an organization to help advance the new tradecraft.

“The idea early on was to forge a partnership with industry,” Clapper said. “USGIF has grown and flourished as a tremendous outreach for industry and what it does with and for people is phenomenal. The most important aspect of intelligence is people and we need to continue providing this invaluable platform to advance the tradecraft, accelerate innovation, and build the community.” 

  • USGIF continues to flourish and bring more individuals into the organization and the greater GEOINT Community. Click here to learn more about our upcoming events and here to learn more about our new Trajectory Event Center.

Posted in: Event Recaps   Tagged in: Intelligence, NGA

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