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The People of the CIA ... Art Lundahl: Father of Imagery Analysis

Ever since Thaddeus Lowe flew a balloon over Confederate troops during the Civil War, photo reconnaissance has been an important part of intelligence gathering. Over the years, many important policy decisions have been made with the help of photo imagery, including President John F. Kennedy’s decision to press the Soviets to remove missiles from Cuba. An Agency employee, Art Lundahl, led the way in showing U.S. policymakers how vital photo imagery can be to their decisionmaking. As a result, he became known as the father of imagery analysis.

Early Career

Art Lundahl was born in Chicago in 1915. He attended the University of Chicago, where he earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in geology. Lundahl combined his training in geology with his love of photography to examine photos and help distinguish natural from man-made structures. Over time, he became an expert photographic interpreter.

During World War II, Lundahl joined the Navy, where he used his skills to study aerial photographs of targets in Japan.

The CIA and the U-2 Program

In 1953, the Central Intelligence Agency hired Lundahl to lead the Photographic Interpretation Division (PID), where he managed that important mission for the Agency.

In the late 1950s, amid growing concern over a missile gap between the United States and the Soviet Union, Lundahl was asked to analyze products from the U-2 program. His analytical effort required a variety of skills, including:

  • Photographic Interpretation
  • Automatic Data Processing
  • Photogrammetry
  • Graphic Arts
  • Communications
  • Technical Analysis

Within two months of the first U-2 overflight, Lundahl and his colleagues were able to ease fears of a missile gap. For more information on the Agency’s analysis of the missile gap, please see our Historical Collection Division publication, Penetrating the Iron Curtain: Resolving the Missile Gap with Technology. The U-2 program continued to provide U.S. policymakers with timely intelligence in other crises as well, including the Suez Crisis in 1956 and tensions in Tibet and Lebanon.


Creation of NPIC

In 1961, on one of his final days in office, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed a directive creating the National Photographic Interpretation Center (NPIC). The directive established NPIC as a joint project of the CIA and the Department of Defense. With Eisenhower’s signature, the discipline of “photo interpretation” (now called imagery analysis) had a home in NPIC, led by Lundahl.


Cuban Missile Crisis

On October 14, 1962, Lundahl’s skills were put to the test again when he and his colleagues discovered what looked like Soviet Medium Range Ballistic Missiles (MRBMs) in Cuba in U-2 photographs. This was the beginning of the 13-day Cuban Missile Crisis. Lundahl and his team regularly briefed President John F. Kennedy with photographic imagery taken over Cuba.

With the benefit of the highly accurate intelligence Lundahl presented, President Kennedy was able to compel the Soviets to remove the missiles. President Kennedy awarded Lundahl with a personal commendation and NPIC with a Presidential Unit Citation.


Life After CIA

After a distinguished 20-year career with the Agency, Lundahl retired in June 1973.  President Richard M. Nixon authorized the National Security Medal for Lundahl’s extraordinary achievement and outstanding contributions to national security. The CIA awarded Lundahl the Distinguished Intelligence Medal. In December 1974, Queen Elizabeth II inducted Lundahl into the Order of the British Empire with the rank of Honorary Knight Commander.

Lundahl died at Suburban Hospital in Bethesda, Maryland, on June 22, 1992.


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Posted: Dec 01, 2011 12:15 PM
Last Updated: Apr 30, 2013 12:55 PM