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 3 of 7)
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.
Program C, the Navy’s ocean reconnaissance operation, reacted to the maelstrom by distancing itself from the NRO and pretty much going its own way, though Martin Marietta eventually got a contract for surveillance satellites. Wheelon, who at 23 had gotten a Ph.D. in physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, replaced Scoville in 1963. Like Bissell and Scoville, he saw space reconnaissance as a valuable intelligence tool and told McCone as forcefully as he could that the agency had to play a pivotal role in the program—that strategic reconnaissance was primarily the agency’s job.
Since the old intimate partnership with the Air Force was ancient history, Wheelon advised his boss, competition was the only alternative. McCone was already coming to the conclusion that the CIA had lost its influence within the NRO during the Scoville years, but the NRO had only increased its hold over satellite reconnaissance during that time. Something had to be done to get the CIA back in the satellite business, but the agency would have to do better than Corona. Now spoiling to compete, McCone got the ear of Jerome Wiesner, President John F. Kennedy’s science advisor, and the highly influential “Din” Land, both of whom supported the CIA.
The tumultuous period from 1963 through 1965 saw the greatest breakthrough in space espionage since spy satellites started flying. First called Kennan and later Crystal, the famous KH-11 satellite sent imagery in near real-time—virtually as an event occurred. The KH-11 had its genesis in an improbable convergence of Soviet ballistic missiles and American football. On an autumn Sunday in 1963, Wheelon sat in his living room in Annandale, Virginia, watching a football game broadcast from San Francisco. He recalled that not one useful photograph had been obtained by Corona during the missile crisis in Cuba the previous October. By the time the returning film capsules had been snatched in mid-air, their film sent to Eastman Kodak in Rochester for processing, and the pictures forwarded to Washington for analysis, the crisis was over. It struck Wheelon that if an NFL game could be transmitted live from San Francisco, so could imagery from the Soviet Union and elsewhere.
Wheelon would need the newly invented charge-coupled device, then being developed at Bell Labs. A CCD is an electronic retina: a mosaic of many thousands of tiny light sensors that is no bigger than a postage stamp. CCDs convert photons of light to electrical signals that can be transmitted digitally. It took 13 years before the first Kennan was forward-passed into orbit. Part of the delay involved engineering, since the Greyhound bus-size spacecraft was fantastically complicated. But as usual, part was political.