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Deep Black by William E. Burroughs (Random House: $19.95; 389 pp.)

December 28, 1986|Philip J. Klass | Klass, a senior editor with Aviation Week & Space Technology magazine for nearly 35 years, authored the first book on spy satellites published in 1971 ("Secret Sentries in Space," Random House). and

Much as technology has radically altered the nature of weapons and warfare in recent decades, so it also has drastically changed the means of gathering military intelligence. Where once secret agents were almost the sole sources of military intelligence, today invaluable photographic and electronic intelligence data are supplied principally by satellites, diminishing but not eliminating the role of human intelligence ("Humint").

"Deep Black" provides a "once-over-lightly" history of a broad spectrum of these technical intelligence ("Techint") sources which play a vital role in assessing the military strength of a potential adversary, discovering the existence of new types of strategic weapons and monitoring arms control agreements.

A principal focus of the book is on the history and "politics" of photo reconnaissance and electronic intelligence gathering satellites pioneered in the early 1960s by the United States which the Soviet Union at first vehemently protested but later copied. But the book also covers other photo-intelligence sources, such as the infamous Lockheed U-2, shot down in the Soviet Union, and its hypersonic successor, the Lockheed SR-71, as well as a brief potpourri of other Techint systems.

Because of the rigorous secrecy that envelopes all intelligence activities, and especially many of the satellite programs, author William E. Burroughs necessarily has had to try to piece together the puzzle relying heavily on already published material. Generally, he has done a good job.

But with his training in political science and what he characterizes as a "modest" technical background, Burroughs sometimes has difficulty distinguishing scientific fact from fantasy. For example, Burroughs claims that from an altitude of 300 miles, a satellite can detect a submerged submarine's faint wake--a "wake so minute that it cannot be seen from ships or even from most aircraft."

When the author attempts to compare the advantages and disadvantages of using low-altitude and high-altitude "Sigint" satellites (some of which serve to determine the locations and signal characteristics of Soviet radars while others monitor Soviet missile tests), he cites technically spurious issues rather than explaining that different orbital altitudes are optimum for different missions.

Burroughs is at his best in recounting the bitter behind-the- scenes struggle between the CIA and the U.S. Air Force in the early 1960s for operational control of reconnaissance satellites because of their differing intelligence needs. This eventually led to the creation of the National Reconnaissance Office, directed by the civilian assistant secretary of the Air Force with a CIA deputy.

But the photo reconnaissance satellites "belong" to the CIA, and the USAF's function is to put them in orbit and control them to carry out missions whose priorities have been set by COMIREX (Committee on Imagery Requirements and Exploitation) with representation from all potential "customers" for satellite imagery.

Because all of the Techint satellites "belong" to the CIA and the Defense Department's even more secretive National Security Agency (NSA), whose former employees are subject to extremely severe penalties for disclosing classified information, Burroughs has done remarkably well to obtain even limited details on the internecine battles. Yet the book, despite its title, should cause no serious heartburn in the CIA or NSA.

At times, the author is critical of what seems to him to be unjustified secrecy, revealing his own lack of experience in the tricks of the trade of intelligence. For example, Brooks claims that the U.S. "technical intelligence establishment does know just about everything the Russians know about its (U.S.) collection systems, according to several knowledgeable sources who were interviewed for this book." (Emphasis added.)

The author should be less trusting of any source who makes such a claim,, unless that source can demonstrate that we know precisely what the Soviets don't know about the U.S. collection systems. Such knowledge could only come from very deep and very extensive "penetration" of the Soviet intelligence community which would eliminate the need for many of the U.S. Techint satellites.

As the book's jacket indicates, Burroughs focuses on the "political rather than technical maneuvering . . . and the question--perhaps the most urgent of our time--of whether or not it is possible to adequately verify" arms control treaties. This reviewer generally shares the author's opinion that today's Techint permits adequate verification for many strategic weapons with minimal risk, but not his conclusion that it is adequate to detect small, nuclear-armed cruise missiles. Or that advances in spaceborne reconnaissance technology can make up for this deficiency.

The book reflects the author's extensive research and an ability to fit together a complex jigsaw puzzle despite many missing pieces that would make him a valued analyst in the CIA. If the book suffers some technical inaccuracies, these are not of great consequence for the general public. Overall, "Deep Black" makes a useful contribution to public understanding of an important technology.

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