History of the World Factbook

September 30, 2020

Innovation and Tech

The World Factbook & Its Predecessors: Painting a Picture of Our World Since 1943

Let’s travel back in time for a moment. The year is 1943, the United States is in the throes of battle against the Axis powers, and the fate of the world is hanging in the balance. Still reeling from the intelligence failure that resulted in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in late 1941, the Roosevelt administration recognized that the country needed to undertake a more coordinated approach to intelligence gathering and synthesis. He asked his Coordinator of Information (COI) – a newly created position in the administration – General William Donovan to lead the charge as Director of the newly formed Office of Strategic Services (OSS).

Among his many charges as Director of OSS, Donovan was responsible for the collection, collation, and dissemination of basic intelligence. Basic intelligence, not to be confused with current or estimative intelligence, is the fundamental and factual information on any given topic. For reference, current intelligence refers to those reports on new developments and estimative intelligence is a judgement on probable outcomes. If we think of intelligence as a pyramid, basic intelligence would be at the bottom, building the foundation of the other forms of intelligence.

Finding a Solution

And so, in 1943, recognizing the essential role of strong basic intelligence, General Donovan partnered with General George Strong of Army Intelligence and Admiral H.C. Train of Naval Intelligence to launch the Joint Army Navy Intelligence Studies (JANIS). JANIS was the country’s first interdepartmental basic intelligence program and represented an authoritative and coordinated appraisal of strategic basic intelligence. It became an essential tool for commanders and warfighters alike, providing timely and accurate reference material that allowed for educated planning and execution of mission priorities. JANIS proved its worth through the duration of the war, publishing 34 studies between April of 1943 and July of 1947.

The need for more comprehensive basic intelligence in the postwar world was well expressed in 1946 by George S. Pettee, a noted author on national security. He wrote in The Future of American Secret Intelligence that world leadership in peace requires even more elaborate intelligence than in war. He says that “the conduct of peace involves all countries, all human activities – not just the enemy and his war production.”

CIA Takes Over

With the signing of the National Security Act of 1947 on July 26, CIA was officially born. Just a few months later, on October 1, CIA assumed all responsibility for the JANIS basic intelligence program. Shortly thereafter, JANIS was renamed the National Intelligence Survey (NIS), but continued along the same tradition, providing policymakers and military leaders with up-to-date data, maps, and other reference materials.

In 1954, the need for an authoritative source of basic intelligence was reaffirmed by the Hoover Commission’s Clark Committee, which was charged to study the structure and administration of CIA. In an address to Congress in 1955, the Committee reported: “The National Intelligence Survey is an invaluable publication which provides the essential elements of basic intelligence on all areas of the world. There will always be a continuing requirement for keeping the Survey up-to-date.”

Progression of The World Factbook Logo from 2001 to today.

In 1971, the Factbook was created as an annual summary of the NIS studies and in 1973 it supplanted the NIS encyclopedic studies as CIA’s publication of basic intelligence. It was first made available to the public in 1975 and in 1981 was renamed The World Factbook. In 1997, The World Factbook made its leap into the online world where is has lived as a public resource ever since. Today, it continues to be an essential resource for the U.S. Government, institutions of higher learning, and countless private citizens who have come to rely on The World Factbook for timely and accurate reference materials about the world in which we live. It continues to evolve to meet the needs of our customers and represents a tremendous culmination of efforts from some of our country’s brightest analytic minds.

And so, before there was a Wikipedia to search on, before there was a Bing to consult, and most certainly before ‘Google’ became a verb, there was CIA’s World Factbook. It has been a resource used by presidents, by warfighters, and by the world’s greatest scholars. It is used in times of crisis, in times of uncertainly, in times of peace, and in times of war. It is an authoritative source of basic intelligence that has and will continue to be an essential part of CIA’s legacy.