Secret Empire: Eisenhower, The CIA, and the Hidden Story of America’s Space Espionage

secret-empireThis book by Philip Taubman introduced me to a fascinating world of spying by the United States on the Soviets during the high-stakes era of the Cold War when both the U.S. and the Soviets desperately wanted to learn everything they could about their adversaries. “In a brief period of explosive, top-secret innovation, a small group of scientists, engineers, businessmen, and government officials rewrote the book on airplane design and led the nation into outer space.” That refers to the U-2 and the Corona projects. Corona was a capsule containing cameras and new types of film launched to circle over the Soviet Union before reentry, deployment of a parachute, and recovery by a plane. It is an incredible story of repeated failures before the first success. The persistence in the face of all the failures is a tribute to the people who worked on the project and the desperation for information that politicians providing funds even when it seemed the scheme might never work. I learned much about both Corona and U-2, and more than I really cared to know about the people involved. I also learned about Eisenhower who was willing to commit huge sums of secret money and take great political risks to learn more about what was going on behind the Iron Curtain.

The book begins with an interesting description of a Strategic Air Command (SAC) bomber crew violating Soviet air space to collect pictures of military installations. The plane was attacked by a new MiG and suffered damage but was able to make it back to base. The book provides some disturbing information about the costs of such spy flights. “Hundreds of men in the Air Force and Navy risked their lives flying along or across the Soviet frontier in an effort to learn more about Russian air defenses and military forces…At least 252 air crewmen were shot down on spy flights between 1950 and 1970, most directed against the Soviet Union…It is certain that 90 of these men survived…But the fate of 138 men is unknown. It is possible, even likely, that some of them survived for years in captivity while Washington made little effort to determine if they were alive and make arrangements for their repatriation.”The human costs and political risk of such flights prompted Eisenhower to approve secret funding through the CIA to develop reconnaissance techniques through development of the U-2 spy plane and the Corona project.

The details of technology that had to be developed for high altitude reconnaissance are fascinating. One example is the fuel for the U-2. Normal jet fuel would evaporate at the low air pressures above 70,000 feet. Shell Oil Company developed a special low-volatility kerosene fuel named LF-IA. The fuel incorporated a number of petroleum by-products and included several that were used in a popular insecticide called Flit. “Consumers across the country who wondered why there was a shortage of Flit on store shelves in 1955 had no idea that the cause was a secret spy-plane project.” You will learn more than you might have wanted to learn about all the technology development to include the cameras and film.

An interesting aside that I shared with grandchildren was that test flights for the U-2 were on a dry lakebed north of Las Vegas near the government’s nuclear weapon test range called Groom Lake. It was the most isolated spot that could be found to keep people from seeing the obviously unique airplane. The pilots called the desolate spot Paradise Ranch. Paradise Ranch acquired other names including Watertown Strip and Area 51.  The book says, “Over the years, Area 51, which encompassed the airfield as well as the surrounding nuclear test site, became famously associated with alien spaceships. Most of the UFO sightings were stimulated by the new Lockheed plane and the subsequent test flights of ever-more-advanced aircraft that the government developed during the cold war. Many sightings came at sunset when the lower atmosphere was cloaked in darkness but the sun could still illuminate a plane flying in the stratosphere…the sight of sunlight reflecting off an object streaking across the edge of space led to dozens of alarmed reports, many of them from commercial airline pilots mystified by the view as they flew across the Southwest.”

I found the origin of the U-2 designation somewhat of a letdown. I had expected some exciting tale about espionage or some such thing. The plane needed an Air Force designation, and it couldn’t be called a reconnaissance plane because of secrecy. It therefore was classified a “utility aircraft.” There were already two other utility aircraft, the U-1 and the U-3, so plane became the U-2. There is a fun fact that a U-2 was flown over Eisenhower’s farm in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.  Ike was suitably impressed by the clear photos of his cattle and their feeding troughs

Eisenhower had ordered that no U.S. military pilots could fly the new spy plane into Soviet air space. The search for foreign pilots who had the necessary skills failed. Air Force pilots were allowed to separate from service to fly the planes and later reenter with no break service time. The pilots, or at least those who flew the early flights, were provided suicide capsules to take on their missions. There is no mention whether Gary Francis Powers was provided a suicide capsule. He obviously didn’t use one if he had it.

The book takes a minor diversion to describe a silly project Eisenhower approved in an attempt to collect information about the Soviets. “Moscow had a field day…when it recovered dozens of balloons equipped with cameras that the Air Force had launched into the jet stream in hopes they would drift over Soviet territory.”  Eisenhower had approved the operation code-named Project Genetrix that sent 516 balloons into the skies over a two month period. Forty-six balloons were recovered. The Soviets gleefully displayed the “espionage balloons” along with the cameras and transmitters in Moscow. The Eisenhower administration lamely explained that they were merely weather balloons.

The descriptions of the U-2 flights are quite interesting, and the flights gathered the information Eisenhower needed. They proved that the Soviets did not have the massive number of long-range bombers, resulting in the “bomber gap,” that had been previously believed. There were twenty-four U-2 flights ending when the one piloted by Powers was shot down on May 1, 1960.

Plans for Corona were expedited with the end of the U-2 flights. I found the description of that project less interesting than the U-2 story. Perhaps the most interesting part of the Corona story was the history of at least a dozen failures before the first success. The project eventually did provide valuable information about the Soviets and dispelled the “missile  gap” fear.

The book closes with some tantalizing references to the KH-11 spy satellite that was or perhaps is a technical marvel. “William Kampiles, a disgruntled CIA employee, sold a copy of the top-secret manual for the satellite to Soviet agents for $3,000. Transfer of the manual, for which Kampiles was convicted and sentenced to a forty-year prison term, gave the Russians more than enough information about the spying powers of the satellite to take evasive action by disguising new weapons systems and trying to shield them from sight.” Advanced models “…provide Washington with pictures of North Korean missile sites, Iranian nuclear reactors, Iraqi military and industrial complexes, terrorist training camps, and an infinite variety of other potential threats.”

Bud Wheelon, the man who set the course on developing powerful espionage technologies whether there was anything spy satellites could fail to learn about terrorists. He replied, “Oh, everything that you want to know, like where they are headed, what they are going to do, and when they are going to pull the trigger.”

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