The Coldest Warriors
Tales from the corridors of an agency so secret that officially it didn't exist.
- By William E. Burrows
- Air & Space magazine, January 2000
(Page 2 of 7)
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.
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.