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The Coldest Warriors

Tales from the corridors of an agency so secret that officially it didn't exist.

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 On August 18, 1960, the first operational U.S. spy satellite snapped scores of pictures of forbidden places in the heart of the Soviet Union. The high-flying sentinel and its successors, known by the suitably ambiguous name Discoverer, were part of a top-secret program called Corona, and they started a revolution in intelligence by returning to Earth film that contained unprecedented detail about the Russians’ fiercely protected military structure and facilities.

Air Force generals who had been indifferent toward spying from space changed their minds about the value of satellites when eye-popping photographs of Soviet bombers and missiles, submarines and cruisers, tanks, airfields, nuclear test sites, navy yards—more targets than they’d ever seen—began floating down out of the blue. And old hands at the Central Intelligence Agency saw that a new era was at hand.

“For the analysts and estimators,” the CIA’s Albert D. “Bud” Wheelon would write years later, “it was as if an enormous floodlight had been turned on in a darkened warehouse.” But with the floodlight came the inevitable question of who would get to aim it, and shortly after the first dramatic triumphs of Corona, a battle for control of the country’s intelligence assets erupted. The beginning of the long reconnaissance war coincided roughly with the creation in 1961 of a secret organization—the National Reconnaissance Office—to manage all spyplanes and satellites under a National Reconnaissance Program. Perhaps more relevantly, the start of hostilities also coincided with the departure from public service of Richard M. Bissell Jr., the CIA’s assistant director for plans and development under Director Allen W. Dulles.

Bissell was part of the brainy club of scientists, engineers, and high-level bureaucrats who thought up the Corona program. Other members included Polaroid’s Edwin “Din” Land, Harvard’s James Baker and Edward Purcell, RAND Corporation’s Merton E. Davies and Amrom Katz, and MIT’s president, James R. Killian. These men worked together so congenially that they amounted to a fraternity of grown-up whiz kids, but it was Bissell who set the tone of the program.

The scion of Connecticut insurance Brahmins, Bissell was a courtly, mild-mannered guy who ran the Idealist (U-2) and then the supersonic Oxcart (A-12) spyplane programs. He believed in spartan, streamlined command systems, small staffs, collegiality, and generous funding from a pocket that was deep, black, and free of red tape. Bissell’s U.S. Air Force counterpart in Corona was Brigadier General Osmund J. Ritland, the vice commander of the Ballistic Missile Division.

By all accounts, the two worked well together and got things done. Bissell had firm control of Corona, but he, Ritland, and others communicated with a chat and a handshake instead of directives and memos. “Imprecise statements of who was to do what permitted a range of interpretations; however, vague statements of responsibilities caused no appreciable difficulties in the early years of Corona,” reports The Corona Story, a history of the program by Frederick C. E. Oder, James C. Fitzpatrick, and Paul E. Worthman published by the NRO and declassified in 1997. “The organization was small and had a single concern: producing a reconnaissance satellite. Much later (1963–65) those loose statements were analyzed more parochially and became a source of friction between the CIA and [the Department of Defense].”

President Dwight Eisenhower ordered the creation of the Office of Missile and Satellite Systems within days of the first successful Corona flight. Eisenhower, wary of inter-service rivalries, wanted the OMSS to coordinate and streamline Corona and follow-on space reconnaissance programs. The office was supposed to ensure that such programs were national in scope rather than serving the narrow needs of one or two military services—and he wanted it run by civilians. Ike insisted that Corona and its successors disappear in the ultra-secret world. No sense in rubbing sensitive Russian noses in the fact that many of their deepest secrets were being laid bare.

The OMSS was superseded without ceremony on September 6, 1961, by the National Reconnaissance Office. Its creation formalized an agreement worked out earlier by Bissell and Undersecretary of the Air Force Joseph V. Charyk during the Idealist-Oxcart-Corona partnership. The NRO was to be run by two civilians: the undersecretary of the Air Force and the CIA’s deputy director for plans, both “acting jointly” for the benefit of all the services. That meant buying satellites, supervising their design and development, and operating them. With the arrival of the Kennedy administration and some predictable changes in directors, Bissell departed, and Charyk became sole director of the NRO. He created three separate domains: program A, to develop Air Force satellites, Program B, to develop satellites for the CIA and run the agency’s air operations, and Program C, for the Navy’s ocean reconnaissance satellites. A fourth, Program D, covered aircraft. Creation of the fiefdoms would lead to intense competition, some of it brilliantly constructive. But some was intensely destructive.

The CIA-Department of Defense directive establishing the NRO assumed that the informal style of doing things would continue. It made no reference to a single director. After Bissell left government early in 1962, the reconnaissance hierarchy, deprived of his harmonious presence, became mired in a conflict between the Department of Defense, the Air Force, and the CIA. If an intimate look at one family can portray an epoch, as Dickens and Tolstoy believed, then events within the NRO serve as a telling portrait of the U.S. intelligence community during the cold war and its aftermath.

From the beginning, the NRO was cloaked in utmost secrecy. Its cover was the Pentagon-based Office of Space Systems. It drew its personnel almost exclusively from other organizations, notably the Air Force and the CIA, and almost everybody in Room 4C956, the NRO’s tightly protected sanctum in the Pentagon, was borrowed from someplace else. Even the logo on its letterhead (a spherical satellite that ironically resembled Sputnik orbiting Earth) was classified. Mere mention of the organization’s name was absolutely forbidden. Officially, the National Reconnaissance Office did not exist.

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