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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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The NRO’s subsequent history was marked by extraordinary spy satellites funded by huge, hidden budgets and developed by scientists, engineers, and administrators who formed a cat’s cradle of daring held taut by technical brilliance, bitter competition, and intrigue. The internal wars were caused by sharp differences over how the reconnaissance “product” was to be used, how the satellites were to be procured and operated, and how power in the NRO itself was to be allocated. It all boiled down to seizing and protecting turf that was valuable both economically and politically. “The Air Force was driven early by what was going to be instantly usable for war-fighting,” says Admiral Bobby R. Inman, a soft-spoken former director of naval intelligence, the National Security Agency, and deputy director of the CIA. As Inman sees it, the airmen wanted information on enemy deployment—its order of battle—and what it took to win a war. The Air Force believed, as did the CIA and successive presidents, that the best way to prevent a war was to acquire excellent intelligence. The difference had to do with focus.

“The CIA [was driven] more by what was going to give information on unanswered questions—what would facilitate moving forward on arms control, as an example,” Inman says. Bud Wheelon, who was the CIA’s first deputy director for science and technology from 1963 to 1966 and ran the agency’s spy satellite and aerial reconnaissance programs, agrees. “It was a roles and missions fight,” he says. No CIA operative was ever going to be sent to bomb Vladivostok or shoot down MiGs. The agency’s job was to produce long-term estimates of Soviet and other potential enemies’ strategic capabilities.

An example of the continuing conflict between the two priorities was evident as recently as January 1991, just before the Persian Gulf War. For a period of four days, General Norman Schwarzkopf, commander of the coalition forces, monopolized reconnaissance satellites to map the area in Iraq where his troops would engage the enemy. That angered his counterparts in the other services and in the CIA.

Satellite procurement was another battleground. The CIA had very flexible procurement rules, moved money quickly, had close working relationships with contractors, and took chances. That approach had worked famously during development of two spyplanes (see “That New Black Magic,” Dec. 1998/Jan. 1999 and “The Oxcart Cometh,” Feb./Mar. 1999). The Pentagon was buried under mountains of procurement rules and, in Inman’s view, was under enormous pressure from Congress not to make mistakes. (The spooks’ mistakes were more easily hidden.) The agency, somewhat arrogantly but justifiably, thought it deserved the right to call the shots on spy satellites and the aerial reconnaissance programs. Inman notes that the CIA had a fundamental stake in intelligence and was therefore doubly determined to control the system because, to use his word, it was an end “user.”

That led to disagreement over how the NRO was to be run. Charyk, the first director, believed that spying from space ought to be controlled by the NRO—his office—because a tidy and efficient setup prevented anarchy. He wanted tight control from the top—a “chief executive officer” approach.

Herbert “Pete” Scoville Jr., who succeeded Bissell but did not enjoy his clout, was just as determined that the CIA be the master of the intelligence-collecting house because that was the agency’s inherent responsibility. Scoville and his successor, Wheelon, took what can be called a “chairman of the board” approach: The NRO should loosely preside over its various constituencies, let the CIA tell the satellite contractors what was needed, and give them plenty of money. He and Wheelon fought with both Charyk and Charyk’s successor, Brockway McMillan, who arrived in March 1963.

The security cover under which the NRO operated disguised the fact that its director was the special assistant for reconnaissance to the new Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara. It seemed a sensible idea to locate the office within the Air Force section of the Pentagon and provide cover for the NRO staff members with Air Force designations. The idea backfired, in part because the personalities changed, but also because the CIA had been reorganized after Bissell left. Now the CIA began to complain openly about the way the NRO was run. The Corona Story recounts: “It became convenient for a CIA representative to complain to Secretary McNamara about the offenses ‘of the Air Force’; it would have required a good deal of courage to substitute the words ‘of your office.’ ”

Scoville, who technically represented the CIA in the NRO and was in charge of Program B, had delegated that assignment from the beginning of his tenure in 1962 and absolutely refused to work on the NRO’s premises in the Pentagon. “By late October 1962, he [Scoville] and Charyk were no longer willing to talk directly to one another; written correspondence from one to the other, even of the most formal kind, stopped shortly thereafter,” according to Robert L. Perry’s Management of the National Reconnaissance Program, 1960–1965, another recently declassified NRO history. Scoville had become convinced that the NRO was an instrument of the Air Force aimed at pirating Corona and other CIA programs. Lacking support from John A. McCone, who had replaced Dulles as director of central intelligence, he grew increasingly weary and disillusioned and left the agency in June 1963.

But Pete Scoville was mistaken about collusion between the NRO and the Air Force. Soon after McNamara became secretary of defense in early 1961, he began to cut Air Force programs. Steel-willed, he tried to move an unsuccessful Air Force satellite program called Samos, and the Air Force’s supporting role in Corona, to the NRO. The air staff felt betrayed. The Air Force and the NRO both operated within the Department of Defense, but that did not make them allies. ”So, from the beginning, the NRO was an abomination in the eyes of the Air Force and Air Force officers selected to man the NRO knew that they did so at their own career risk,” recounts The Corona Story. Ironically, the account reports, a stint in the NRO could damage the careers of spies as well as airmen, since each side thought the NRO was in the other’s political pocket. The air staff “looked on the NRO group as a not-quite-respectable collection of dissenters under the thumb of the CIA,” with the result that Air Force officers who were “wholly loyal” to their NRO responsibilities sometimes felt that the “regular” Air Force had cast them out. Likewise, at least one CIA staffer who was assigned to the NRO and embraced its spirit found himself effectively frozen out of his own agency. “To be assigned to the NRO in any capacity, particularly in the troubled days between 1963 and 1966, was not uniformly looked on as a wholly happy circumstance,” stated NRO historians in Management of the National Reconnaissance Program, 1960–1965.

The Navy was in the fray too, according to Inman. The sailors had their own fleet of spacecraft to handle communication, navigation, ocean reconnaissance, and other orbital chores. The Navy had wanted its Naval Research Laboratory to design and build satellites for programs such as White Cloud and Clipper Bow. “The NRO wanted to make sure that they were all commercially done,” Inman says.

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