A Look Back ... The Founding of NPIC, 1961
Since January 1961 the United States has owned a "national" imagery analysis capability. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, on almost his last day in office, created the National Photographic Interpretation Center (NPIC) as a joint project of the Central Intelligence Agency and the Department of Defense. His act ended years of drift for imagery intelligence.
Imagery analysis won a place as its own discipline in World War II. Aerial photography long predated that conflict, of course, but what made it "intelligence" was the new and tightly guarded sophistication of the analysis that interpreted the pictures in light of other sources to maximize the strategic impact of air power. Allied theater commanders in Europe and the Pacific needed such intelligence, both to identify significant targets and to understand the effects that their efforts were having on the enemy. With British tutelage, the U.S. Army Air Forces built a formidable capability to provide it.
Ironically, by 1946 much of that capability had been demobilized in the United States. In the very years when strategic airpower was recognized and built up as a key component of national security, intelligence to guide strategic bombing campaigns faced institutional jeopardy and professional stagnation.
Revival came with CIA’s U-2 program in the mid-1950s. With help from the Defense Department, the Agency established its own Photographic Interpretation Center (PIC) to analyze the valuable imagery obtained by U-2 reconnaissance flights over the Soviet Union and other denied areas. Over the years of the Cold War, such imagery became critical to the Intelligence Community's analysis of the Soviet Union.
Just after the Soviets downed a U-2 in May 1960, President Eisenhower authorized a survey of the Intelligence Community, tasking an ad hoc team of senior intelligence officials from the CIA and the State and Defense departments. This "Joint Study Group," headed by CIA's Inspector General, Lyman B. Kirkpatrick, Jr., gave the President recommendations that he could act upon in his last month in office.