During these turbulent times for U.S. intelligence, it is important to recognize progress and exceptional performance where it has taken place. The retirement June 13 of Lt. Gen. James R. Clapper as the head of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA) gives us a solid reason to do so. NGA is the agency that, through analysis of images, maps and other spatial data, helps refine our understanding of how we and our adversaries might use geography to our respective security advantages.

Just two days after September 11 , 2001, Clapper took the reins of NGA’s predecessor organization, the National Imagery and Mapping Agency ( NIMA). At that time, NIMA, a relatively new organization created from parts of CIA, the Pentagon and other organizations, still lacked a coherent culture, an organized mission and the need to modernize, in part because of future government plans and dramatic commercial developments in geographic systems and satellite imagery.

Clapper was relentless in his pursuit of new initiatives, whether reorienting the agency around an organizational construct focused on future technologies while still performing an expanded mission, enhancing international partnerships, or forging new ties with domestic agencies in support of homeland security. Drawing upon skills and competencies developed for assessing foreign lands, NGA’s open portal in the aftermath of hurricanes Rita and Katrina became the sine qua non of spatial information for emergency responders and planners, all while maintaining appropriate restraint in an American political culture that still misunderstands intelligence.

But ultimately, Clapper’s key contribution (and those of his capable deputy, CIA veteran Joanne Isham) will be seen as forging a new overarching idea — geospatial intelligence — for organizing all intelligence data around its geographic location on Earth, and then displaying it in highly efficient and sophisticated ways for decision-makers. While this may seem simple to the uninitiated, it is a powerful organizing principle for understanding adversary behavior, especially in a world where adversaries seek to deny, deceive and gain sanctuary from U.S. intelligence.

But geospatial intelligence was only the starting point, not the end. NGA focused intently on deriving visual information seamlessly from throughout the electromagnetic spectrum and dealing with what Clapper called the “four V” emerging challenges — volume, variety, velocity and veracity — of geospatial information.

He challenged a uniquely American obsession with satellites, expanding NGA’s access to airborne, unmanned aerial vehicles and even commercial data sources , all the while emphasizing the new analytic tradecraft to make it useful for decision making.

NGA, in concert with the nation’s signals intelligence producer, the National Security Agency, began to take advantage of multiple sources of intelligence at lightning speed, disrupting a wide range of terrorists and others that would do us harm. And he established the agency as a leader and standard setter across a myriad of government agencies and private companies, each trying to make the most of geographic information for our security.

Why the rush in such a seemingly exotic and technical area of American intelligence? Sept. 11 , as he would say, was only the first wake-up call; widespread foreign experiences in map-making, burgeoning foreign airborne and satellite programs, and the increasing public availability of sophisticated information through tools like Google Earth also meant that the agency had to modernize quickly in order to maintain the dominant imagery and mapping edge traditionally enjoyed by American intelligence.

Re-creating NIMA as NGA was the symbolic rebirth of the agency, catalyzing all of Clapper’s efforts to orient the organization around the goal of being a lead guarantor of the nation’s security.

Later this year, in NGA, the nation will celebrate the 10th anniversary of an idea to more fully exploit the curiosity of the imagery analyst with the precision of the cartographer, and many other sources and skills, for intelligence and security purposes.

All in all, it has been a very good idea, whether through the eyes of the producers or the thousands of diplomats, soldiers and first responders who have benefited from their efforts. Getting there has not been easy, but the results are fruitful and efficient. While many, many people have contributed, Jim Clapper’s dedication deserves special recognition upon the occasion of his retirement.

Beyond today’s dramatic headlines about American intelligence, professionals strive to innovate and maintain the important information edge that intelligence provides. Geospatial intelligence, inarguably, will be recognized as one of the most important modern innovations in the history of American intelligence, and certainly the most openly recognizable one.

NGA’s future leaders — such as its next director, the highly respected Rear Adm. Robert Murrett — will need to refine and elaborate on this elegant set of ideas — both NGA and geospatial intelligence — and accelerate their progress into the 21st Century.

Kevin O’Connell is the director of the Center for Intelligence Research and Analysis in Washington. He was the former staff director of the Independent Commission on the National Imagery and Mapping Agency (1999-2000).