When it first flew in 1955, the U-2 reconnaissance airplane was simply unprecedented. Even thirty-four years later, in 1989, the plane was able to set sixteen world altitude and time-to-climb records with the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale. Thought its time as the most advanced photographic reconnaissance platform in the world was brief – the first photo reconnaissance satellite flew only four years later – it broke new ground in intelligence collection.
It makes sense that the organization that collected and analyzed the U-2’s photographs would also be unprecedented in the scope of its efforts to understand what it saw. Its analysts would fly over the United States’ most secret facilities to get a comparative perspective and draw on the expertise of every branch of government and the private sector. So it might be a surprise that this crack team, which became the National Photographic Interpretation Center in 1961, began life not in a custom-built secret facility but on the upper floors of an automobile salesroom in downtown Washington.
The CIA’s Photo-Intelligence Division (PID) began with thirteen employees, a $40,000 budget, and 800 square feet in a temporary wooden building on the National Mall. Without access to new photography of the Soviet Union, the division’s photo interpreters spent most of their time working with German aerial photography that was captured at the end of the Second World War. As the U-2 program took shape PID acquired more space, including “the third floor of the dilapidated former Briggs School building.”
Eventually, the portion of the division that would handle the highly-secret photographs taken by the U-2’s cameras moved to a separate and still larger space: 55,000 square feet on the upper floors of the Steuart Motors building at 5th St. and New York Ave., N.W. A new codeword, TALENT, distinguished U-2 photography from other TOP SECRET intelligence. The photo-intelligence operation was codenamed HTAUTOMAT, a little joke by the director, Arthur C. Lundhl, who expected that the new operation would be as busy as an automated restaurant (or “automat”).
According to historian and photointerpreter Dino Brugioni, Lundahl’s recollection of the new office was that “there was no place to eat, no place to park, no air conditioning, our people were getting mugged on the streets before it was fashionable. I guess the best thing you could say is that it had wonderful security cover, because I am sure nobody would ever believe that anything of any importance to the United States could be taking place in the trashy neighborhood.” The location’s security was somewhat compromised by the sign “Rented to CIA” that was put up several days before the photo interpreters arrived, as well as the steady stream of high-ranking visitors who came either to see the imagery or to be involved in its interpretation. (You can see pictures of the building in its later, more dilapidated years, here.)
Among the more advanced and esoteric technology that HTAUTOMAT acquired was an early mainframe computer. The code-breaking National Security Agency already owned an ALWAC-III when the photointerpreters acquired one in late 1957. The delivery itself was a comedy of errors. The computer, delivered directly from a business show in Cleveland, was sent to the wrong address, rerouted to the mail dock at one of the CIA’s other buildings, and only delivered through the intervention of a extra government moving crew and a truck whose lift gate could barely take the load.
HTAUTOMAT used the computer to make the calculations involved in measuring the size of objects in photographs. Eventually, the engineers involved were able to automate much of the process. The overall system was something of a kludge: a comparator was used to measure points on the negative, the measurements were output onto a punched paper tape, the paper tape was loaded onto a teleprinter that could read the printer tape and convert it into electrical impulses that could be understood by the ALWAC and converted into an actual distance measurement.
Upgraded to from a “division” to a “center” in 1958, the CIA Photographic Interpretation Center was merged with the Department of Defense’s strategic photointerpretation resources in 1961 to become the National Photographic Interpretation Center. Two years later it moved into what would be its home for forty-eight years – longer than it would have the NPIC name. Unlike the Steuart Motors building, NPIC’s new facility was not a converted commercial space. Instead it was a converted industrial space at the Washington Navy Yard that had been built in 1944 to store the steel blanks for naval guns. Despite its mundane origins, Building 213 was enough of an improvement on the Steuart building that employees nicknamed it “Lundahl’s Palace.”
The business of photo intelligence had changed a lot by the time Building 213 was vacated in 2011. By then NPIC had gone through two agency amalgamations, becoming part of what is now the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA). NGA consolidated its Washington, DC-area staff into a single campus in 2012 and the new building is pretty swanky. Architects RTKL told Metal Architecture magazine that the $1.4 billion campus had a concept based on
the “terrestrial” meeting the “celestial.” “NGA uses their assets to develop an understanding of the earth and man-made improvements on it,” says [vice president Timothy J.] Hutcheson. “Traditionally this information has come from maps, aerial reconnaissance and satellites. The act of NGA looking down on the earth has become a metaphor for the building design, which is the reason why we chose a metal as the primary cladding element.” … “The upper portion of the building is more futuristic, with V columns that are intended to impart a feeling of lightness to the way the building touches the terrestrial base,” Hutcheson adds. “This allows the majority of the building to hover over the earth with precast façade divided into triangles reinforcing a celestial language.”
That’s a far cry from a temporary wood building, a dilapidated former school, and an auto manufacturer’s upper floors.