Shortly after the attacks of September 11, 2001, U.S. President George W. Bush and several advisors gathered at Camp David to weigh the country’s options. On the table in front of them, as you can see in the photo below, was a map of Afghanistan created by cartographers at the Central Intelligence Agency. It was among the first of what would become thousands of maps the CIA produced after September 11 to track terrorist networks and support U.S. military operations, including the raid to capture Osama bin Laden in 2011.
As with much of the CIA Cartography Center’s work, these maps were classified, seen only by people in the intelligence community and at the highest levels of the government. But in honor of the center’s 75th anniversary this year, the agency has released a remarkable collection of declassified maps that illustrate—and perhaps even played a role in—many significant events in U.S. history.
The Cartography Center was born in the days leading up to the United States’ entry into World War II. In the summer of 1941, with Europe already embroiled in war, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the intelligence agency that eventually gave rise to the CIA. One of the agency’s first recruits was Arthur H. Robinson, a 26 year-old graduate student who later became one of the most influential geographers of the 20th century (among his accomplishments is the Robinson projection, a mathematical formula for depicting the spherical Earth on a flat map that was for a time the preferred projection of National Geographic). After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the map division headed by Robinson kicked into high gear, churning out maps that were used for strategic planning during the war.
From the beginning, the cartographers had a broad mission—to acquire and create maps and geographic data relevant to national security. “Geographers and cartographers amassed what would be the largest collection of maps in the world and produced strategic maps and 3D plaster terrain models in support of strategic studies and military operational plans,” the CIA says in a statement.