The sleek spy plane slipped quietly over the border into Iraq just before noon. Black as onyx and invisible from the ground, its graceful wings were more than two-thirds the length of a football field. Thirteen miles above, the U-2 was looking, listening and sniffing for any evidence of weapons of mass destruction. Feb. 17, an Air Force pilot on the edge of space began penetrating years of secrecy with the first United Nations high-altitude reconnaissance mission in nearly five years.
For four hours and 20 minutes, the "Dragon Lady" -- as the U-2 was referred to by the Air Force -- flew over arid deserts and crowded cities as it zigzagged from one suspicious location to another. On board, supersophisticated cameras were capable of photographing enormous swatches of Earth at the press of a button: from strips 120 kilometers wide and hundreds of kilometers long, to objects as small as 15 centimeters, the size of a petri dish. Other sensors could detect radioactivity and eavesdrop on telephone calls, faxes and even e-mail.
One hundred miles farther up, American spy satellites pass over Iraq several times a day, instantly relaying detailed imagery back to analysts at the U.S. National Imagery and Mapping Agency. And 22,000 miles farther out, deep space satellites with enormous web-like antenna dishes eavesdrop on Iraqi government communications, and transmit their contents in near-real-time to linguists and code breakers at the U.S. National Security Agency.
For more than half a century, small teams of engineers, physicists, mathematicians and scientists have spent their working lives in virtual anonymity building America's vast arsenal of overhead spy machines. Sealed in windowless rooms behind cipher-locked doors, they exist in an "Alice in Wonderland" world of code words, black budgets and retina scanners. The early pioneers of this strange land are the subject of Philip Taubman's "Secret Empire: Eisenhower, the CIA, and the Hidden Story of America's Space Espionage."
Taubman, a New York Times editor, discovered while on the paper's spy beat that most of America's intelligence came not from agents but from supersophisticated machines, many located high above. "The massing of Soviet forces on the Afghan border in 1979 -- the indication that an invasion was imminent -- had been tracked by spy satellite," he writes. "When Soviet troops assembled for a possible invasion of Poland in December 1980, satellite photographs helped to alert Washington."
In 1990, imagery from spy satellites gave an early warning of Iraq's plan to invade Kuwait. And last month, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell used spy satellite imagery of alleged Iraqi weapon violations during his presentation before the U.N. Security Council.
Taubman focuses primarily on the pioneers, from the mid-1940s to about the mid-1970s. It is a subject that has been written about by other writers, especially William E. Burrows whose "Deep Black: Space Espionage and National Security" was published in 1986 and Jeffrey T. Richelson's 1990 "America's Secret Eyes in Space: The U.S. Keyhole Spy Satellite Program." But Taubman takes the subject further with newly declassified archival documents and interviews with pioneers who had previously been reluctant to talk. The result is a fascinating story of America's secret space race.
During the 1950s and early 1960s, most of the world was focused on the highly publicized battle between the United States and the Soviet Union to put a person into space. But at the same time, like a parallel but invisible universe, another space race was taking place. This one was the struggle to be the first to put a spy camera into orbit, and in the end, in terms of national security, it was by far the more important race.
Even today, because of enormous secrecy restrictions, few realize just how risky American espionage operations were during the early years of the Cold War. On the top of the list were the highly illegal reconnaissance-bomber penetration flights of Soviet territory. The Air Force bombers would snap pictures and eavesdrop as they flew across Soviet borders and passed directly over populated cities and sensitive military and naval facilities. The risk of war was great. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who personally approved each mission, left no doubt what he would have done had Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev launched similar penetration operations against the United States. Taubman says Eisenhower told Pentagon officials that "nothing would send him more quickly to Congress to request authority to declare war than the violation of American airspace by Soviet aircraft."
To a small group of scientists and technocrats, what was needed was an aircraft that could fly high above Soviet MIGs, missiles and even radar. Among the questions that the aircraft could help answer was the Soviets' progress in nuclear weapons development, details on its new advanced bomber, and whether it was far ahead in the manufacture of ballistic missiles. "As of now the world is racing toward catastrophe," Eisenhower wrote in his diary at the end of 1953.
Among the members of the group were Edwin H. Land, who would later develop the Polaroid instant camera; MIT President James R. Killian Jr.; Harvard optics expert James G. Baker; Kodak research scientist Richard S. Leghorn; Clarence L. "Kelly" Johnson, a brilliant airplane designer for Lockheed Corp.; CIA planner Richard M. Bissell Jr.; and Air Force official Trevor Gardner. Most important, the group had the ear of Eisenhower, who knew there had to be a better choice between intelligence blindness and spy flights that risked World War III.
Thus, the group was given access to a large cache of secret funds, and bureaucratic red tape, such as competitive bidding, disappeared. The result was a design for an aircraft -- part plane and part glider -- that could fly for more than a dozen hours at the edge of space, above 70,000 feet, higher than anyone had ever flown. It was completed in 1956 under budget and ahead of schedule and given the bland designation "U-2."
The first mission was scheduled for July 4, 1956. Because no one was certain whether the Russians would be able to successfully track the plane, the decision was to go for broke; there might not be a second chance. The flight was an enormous success, bringing back invaluable photographs of Soviet military installations and resolving the question of whether Russia had greatly outpaced the United States in bomber production, a "bomber gap." It hadn't.
But there was also disappointment: The Soviet Air Force had tracked the U-2 for nearly its entire flight. Nevertheless, because its altitude was beyond the reach of Soviet weapons, the decision was to continue the missions, sparingly, over the years. But it all came to a dramatic end four years later, on May Day 1960, with the shoot-down over the Soviet Union of U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers. No more flights would ever be allowed over Soviet territory, although modified versions of the U-2 would continue flying to this day.
Fortunately, as the life expectancy of the U-2 began to grow short, the pioneers were already far ahead on its successor: a space-based camera that could orbit over the Soviet Union numerous times a day. Taubman does an admirable job describing the enormous difficulties in pushing space and espionage into areas never before imagined.
Success came on Aug. 18, 1960, less than four months after Powers' U-2 was shot down. At 1 in the afternoon, an Agena rocket lifted off from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California and placed a small silver satellite into orbit. On board was a sophisticated camera and 20 pounds of film. Around and around it flew, photographing deepest, darkest Russia with every pass. On its 17th revolution, a capsule containing the film was ejected into space and fell to Earth protected by a heat shield. Waiting for it was an Air Force C-119 with a specially designed nose. Soon after the capsule's parachute opened, the plane snagged the object, like an outfielder catching a fly ball. Inside was 3,600 feet of film covering more than 1.5 million square miles of Soviet territory. It was "more coverage than all the pictures of that country taken during the entire U-2 program," Taubman quotes the CIA's Bissell.
By the time the program ended a dozen years and 145 launches later, it had covered more than half a billion square miles of territory, photographed all 25 Soviet ICBM complexes many times over and cost U.S. taxpayers a total of $850 million. "A real bargain," says Taubman.
Eventually the scientists, led largely by the CIA's chief wizard, Albert D. "Bud" Wheelon, went on to develop new satellite systems that used near-real-time transmission methods, instead of the capsule-ejection technique, to get the imagery back to analysts on the ground. Today the emphasis is on smaller but far more numerous imaging satellites that may eventually provide near-continuous coverage of hot spots around the world.
Satellite imagery has revolutionized American intelligence collection, but that can be viewed in positive and negative terms. It has opened windows on dark areas off-limits to any other form of collection, but it also distracted the CIA from the human side of espionage -- especially developing officers and agents to penetrate international groups that may threaten the country. As many now realize, there must be a balance between the spies above and the spies below.