At hand is one of the more important books ever published about the CIA - a working insider’s account of the aerial reconnaissance program that was, in many opinions, the cardinal Cold War achievement of America’s intelligence community. Beginning with the first manned U-2 flight in 1956 and culminating with satellite missions that produced detailed images of the vast Soviet landmass, the “eyes in the sky” closely monitored Soviet missile and atomic programs, permitting arms-limitation agreements that truly benefited all of mankind.
Dino Brugioni was there at the very beginning as one of the analysts who made sense of the scores of thousands of photographs taken from outer space, and his book contains the sort of insider detail you will not find elsewhere. Mr. Brugioni is generous in his praise for President Eisenhower, whose repugnance at the thought of a nuclear war led him to push for the overflight programs even though he realized the risk of provoking a confrontation with the Soviets. As Richard Helms, the director of central intelligence, later summarized, “For the first time, American policymakers had accurate, credible information on Soviet strategic assets … It was the greatest bargain and the greatest triumph of the Cold War.”
Only in recent years has Eisenhower begun to receive his full - and well-deserved - credit for his overflight advocacy. One reason is that few traces of the programs can be found in his administration’s archives. Even astute space historians such as R. Cargill Hall have commented on the paucity of documentary evidence about covert space operations.
Mr. Brugioni begins his account with an overview of aerial reconnaissance over the centuries. The term “ferret mission” was first used in 1943 to describe manned flights to gather information on Japanese radar installations. (The flights were named “after the domestic polecat that enters the lair of rats and other vermin and chases them out into the open where they can be killed,” Mr. Brugioni notes.) The nickname carried over when flights on the periphery of the Soviet Union began in 1946, when U.S. intelligence had scant knowledge of the adversary’s bomber capabilities.
Secrecy was the watchword from the beginning, for the “ferret flights” brushed against strictures of international law. Few records survive because, according to Mr. Brugioni, no central repository was kept of the missions. Individual flights were ordered by military theater commanders under broad authorization from the White House. “The secrecy that shrouded flights was so tight that even today no one knows how many flights occurred or how many reports were repaired.”
Most of the flights originated in the Air Force’s Far East Command because of its physical proximity to Soviet air bases and missile sites. In the early years, even CIA analysts such as Mr. Brugioni did not receive the actual images obtained on the missions. Months after a flight, they would receive a series of “town plans” of Soviet and Chinese cities “that we knew were based on a [covert] flight.” Only in the mid-1950s, when the CIA began gathering its own photographs from U-2 flights, did the agency develop its full photo-interpretation staff, housed on the upper floors of the Steuart Ford agency at Fifth and K streets NW, a scruffy downtown neighborhood. No one in the CIA had any qualms about the sustained violation of Soviet airspace.
As Mr. Brugioni correctly notes, “The USSR’s size, internal security measures, and close monitoring of embassy personnel and visitors were not conducive to old-fashioned collection methods” - i.e., spying.
As Mr. Helms would recall later, “There was an extraordinary absence of knowledge. It was totally frustrating to learn anything, no matter how hard we tried or how imaginative we were. Eisenhower was sorely pressed to know what his enemy was about.” Eisenhower was concerned also “about the possibility of loss of … B-47 aircraft to the Soviets and the … compromising of our latest equipment.”
The flights were highly dangerous. Crew members, chiefly drawn from the Air Force and Navy and their signal units, were briefed on the perils involved. According to a National Security Agency historian, “Of the 152 cryptologists who lost their lives during the Cold War, 64 were engaged in aerial reconnaissance.” Families of the downed airmen were never told what happened to them, only that they had been on “secret missions.”
Mr. Brugioni notes that Eisenhower approved the U-2 flights only after the Soviets curtly rejected his offer of an “open skies” policy that would permit mutual overflights that would prevent either side from launching a surprise attack a la Pearl Harbor. Ike still receives harsh leftist criticisms because a flight piloted by Francis Gary Powers was shot down on May 1, 1960, just 15 days before a summit conference in Paris. The Soviets angrily demolished the conference. (Given the desultory record of past such conferences, my own estimate is that the “collapse” of the Paris talks was no great diplomatic loss.)
Development of unmanned satellites was far along by the time of the Powers mission. Any questions Eisenhower had about the legality of unmanned satellites were dashed by the Soviets’ launch of their Sputnik space vehicle in 1957. The success of Sputnik - a noisy gimmick, in the main - was a public relations coup but a strategic blunder, for Moscow would have no grounds to protest any overflights by U.S. satellites. Mr. Brugioni gives a sweeping panorama of generations of satellites that probed the Soviets’ darkest secrets.
Despite its value, “Eyes in the Sky” is not without faults. Sadly, Mr. Brugioni lacked a skilled editor to give chronological coherence to his book. One’s attention is often tested trying to follow the skein of events. The index, with many key names omitted, is worthless. The rough neighborhood around the Steuart Ford building is painstakingly described twice - scores of pages apart. There also are some spellings that are … well, let us say interesting.
No matter; forgive the glitches. “Eyes in the Sky” is a superb account of an undisputed success by CIA and the rest of the intelligence community. A five-cloak, five-dagger read.
Joseph C. Goulden is a Washington writer. His e-mail is JosephG894@aol.com.