Outside observers can only speculate as to why U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld elected to cut short retired U.S. Air Force Lt. Gen. James R. Clapper’s term as director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA), but it is safe to say that it had nothing to do with job performance.

At Mr. Rumsfeld’s behest, Gen. Clapper will be leaving the NGA this coming June, rather than in September as previously planned. To be sure, shaving three months from a senior defense official’s planned five-year tour of duty is not exactly a scandal — the NGA director serves at the pleasure of the defense secretary, after all.

Still, it is an odd way to treat someone who is widely regarded as the NGA’s most effective leader since the agency’s creation just under 10 years ago.

If the Baltimore Sun newspaper was correct in reporting Jan. 6 that Gen. Clapper was forced out as payback for telling Congress that the NGA would not suffer under the management of the director of national intelligence — as opposed to the Pentagon — then Mr. Rumsfeld is being petty. If the intent was primarily to send a signal to John Negroponte, the director of national intelligence, that the NGA remains a Pentagon-controlled agency, it is unfortunate that Gen. Clapper had to be the messenger in this increasingly tiresome Washington turf spat.

The irony is that Gen. Clapper is a military man with a distinguished career in military intelligence. At the NGA, he has been a unifying force, helping to neutralize tensions among legacy organizations that traditionally have served different masters: the military and the intelligence community. The NGA, after all, was cobbled together from all or parts of several agencies with related missions, chief among them the Defense Mapping Agency and the National Photographic Interpretation Center. In the years immediately following its creation, the agency struggled like two large families suddenly forced to share the same dining room table.

Gen. Clapper was able lift the NGA out of that rut, largely by redefining what it is that the agency provides. Rather than focusing on imagery for the intelligence community or maps for the military, the NGA under Gen. Clapper has emphasized an integrated product — geospatial intelligence — based on the theory that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Agency name changes usually don’t mean much, but the NGA, previously known as the National Imagery and Mapping Agency, is an exception to that rule.

One the ways in which Gen. Clapper has tried to break the compartmentalization mentality at the NGA is by shifting personnel among the agency’s various disciplines. Though not always popular, it was effective, agency observers say.

The NGA has taken this global view of intelligence to the next level through worker exchanges with the National Security Agency, which specializes in collecting and analyzing signals intelligence. At the heart of this approach is the notion that everything worth noting in the intelligence business happens in a place, or a geospatial context.

Gen. Clapper also deserves credit for engaging industry, and for successfully integrating commercial satellite imagery into the NGA’s products and services. It took some outside prodding by Congress and former CIA Director George Tenet, but Gen. Clapper has come to recognize the virtues of unclassified commercial imagery, and he set up the mechanisms that have helped stabilize the industry to the benefit of the NGA’s growing customer list.

That list includes the federal, state and local government agencies responsible for responding to natural disasters. When the Indian Ocean tsunami and hurricanes Katrina and Rita struck, the NGA was quick to respond with the geospatial information — much of it derived from commercial satellites — that disaster-response teams needed to do their jobs. The NGA embraced this mission despite already having its hands full with the U.S. military actively engaged in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Of course, Gen. Clapper also is known as someone who says what he thinks, rather than what he believes his superiors might want to hear. This is often, and rightly, hailed as a quality that keeps both government and business organizations effective, and helps revive those that have become moribund. In Washington, however, it is all too often rewarded with an invitation to leave.