75 Years of CIA Maps Now Declassified & Made Available Online


Satel­lite-con­nect­ed devices do all the hard work of nav­i­ga­tion for us: plan jour­neys, plot dis­tances, tell us where we are and where we’re going. The age of the high­ly skilled car­tog­ra­ph­er may be com­ing to an end. But in the past few hun­dred years—since Euro­pean states began carv­ing the world between them—the win­ners of colo­nial con­tests, World War bat­tles, and Cold War skir­mish­es were often those who had the best maps. In addi­tion to their indis­pens­able role in sea­far­ing and bat­tle strat­e­gy, “good maps,” writes Dan­ny Lewis at Smith­son­ian, have been “an inte­gral part of the trade­craft of espi­onage.”

The CIA will tell you as much… or they will now, at least, since they’ve declas­si­fied decades of once-secret maps from the days when they “relied on geo­g­ra­phers and car­tog­ra­phers for plan­ning and exe­cut­ing oper­a­tions around the world” rather than on “dig­i­tal map­ping tech­nolo­gies and satel­lite images.”

Now cel­e­brat­ing its 75th anniver­sary, the CIA’s Car­tog­ra­phy Cen­ter boasts of “a long, proud his­to­ry of ser­vice to the Intel­li­gence Com­mu­ni­ty,” at the Agency’s friend­ly web­site; “Since 1941, the Car­tog­ra­phy Cen­ter maps have told the sto­ries of post-WWII recon­struc­tion, the Suez cri­sis, the Cuban Mis­sile cri­sis, the Falk­lands War, and many oth­er impor­tant events in his­to­ry.”


What­ev­er noble or nefar­i­ous roles the Agency may have played in these and hun­dreds of oth­er events, we can now see–thanks to this new online gallery at Flickr–what pres­i­dents, Direc­tors, and field agents saw when they planned their actions, begin­ning with the country’s first “non-depart­men­tal intel­li­gence orga­ni­za­tion,” the COI (Office of the Coor­di­na­tor of Infor­ma­tion). Once the U.S. entered WWII, it became the Office of Strate­gic Ser­vices (OSS). The Car­tog­ra­phy Center’s first chief, Arthur Robin­son, was only 26 and a grad­u­ate stu­dent in geog­ra­phy when COI direc­tor William Dono­van recruit­ed him to lead the orga­ni­za­tion. The office rapid­ly expand­ed dur­ing the war, and by 1943, “geo­g­ra­phers and car­tog­ra­phers amassed what would be the largest col­lec­tion of maps in the world.”


In the ear­ly for­ties, “map lay­ers were draft­ed by hand using pen and ink on translu­cent acetate sheets mount­ed on large Strath­more boards.” These drafts were typ­i­cal­ly four times larg­er than the print­ed maps them­selves, one of which you can see at the top of the post, “The Russ­ian Front in Review.” In the fifties, “improved effi­cien­cy in map com­pi­la­tion and con­struc­tion” pro­duced visu­al­ly strik­ing doc­u­ments like that fur­ther up from 1955, “USSR: Region­al Dis­tri­b­u­tion of Gross Nation­al Prod­uct.” Not a map, but what we would call an info­graph­ic, this image shows how the Car­tog­ra­phy Cen­ter per­formed ser­vices far in excess of the usu­al map app—visualizing threats to the U.S. from Cuban sur­face-to-air mis­sile sites in 1962 (above) and threats to the African ele­phant pop­u­la­tion from poach­ers in 2013 (below). Fur­ther down, you can see a 2003 map of Bagh­dad, with the omi­nous­ly non-threat­en­ing note print­ed at the top and right, “This map is NOT to be used for TARGETING.”


These maps and many more can be found at the CIA Car­tog­ra­phy Flickr account, which has a cat­e­go­ry for each decade since the 1940s. Each map is down­load­able in low to high res­o­lu­tion scans. In addi­tion, one cat­e­go­ry, “Car­tog­ra­phy Tools,” fea­tures high-qual­i­ty pho­tog­ra­phy of vin­tage draughtsman’s instru­ments, all of them, like the Ger­man-made ink pens fur­ther down, sym­bols of the painstak­ing hand­i­craft map­mak­ing once required. While we can prob­a­bly draw any num­ber of polit­i­cal lessons or his­tor­i­cal the­ses from a deep analy­sis of this deep state archive, what it seems to ask of us first and fore­most is that we con­sid­er car­tog­ra­phy as not only a use­ful dis­ci­pline but as a fine art.


As the Car­tog­ra­phy Center’s first direc­tor put it, “a map should be aes­thet­i­cal­ly pleas­ing, thought-pro­vok­ing, and com­mu­nica­tive.” Giv­en these stan­dards we might see how cur­rent tech­nol­o­gy, for all its tremen­dous ease of use and unde­ni­able util­i­ty, might improve by look­ing to maps of the past. Vis­it the CIA’s flickr gallery here.


via Smith­son­ian

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Free: Nation­al Geo­graph­ic Lets You Down­load Thou­sands of Maps from the Unit­ed States Geo­log­i­cal Sur­vey

New York Pub­lic Library Puts 20,000 Hi-Res Maps Online & Makes Them Free to Down­load and Use

19th Cen­tu­ry Maps Visu­al­ize Measles in Amer­i­ca Before the Mir­a­cle of Vac­cines

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Karen Nemet-Nejat says:

    Very inter­est­ing site. I would like to add that Prof. Shlo­mo Dov Goitein of Uni­ver­si­ty of Penn­syl­va­nia, helped the US gov­ern­ment dur­ing WWII by draw­ing maps of the Mid­dle East as the US gov­ern­ment lacked such maps.

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