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Ike as spymaster: secrets on high

Secret Empire: Eisenhower, the CIA, and the Hidden Story of America's Space Espionage, Philip Taubman, Simon and Schuster: 464 pp., $27

March 23, 2003|James Bamford | James Bamford is the author of "The Puzzle Palace: Inside the National Security Agency, America's Most Secret Intelligence Organization" and "Body of Secrets: Anatomy of the Ultra-Secret National Security Agency From the Cold War Through the Dawn of a New Century."

The sleek spy plane slipped quietly over the border into Iraq just before noon. Black as onyx and invisible from the ground, its graceful wings were more than two-thirds the length of a football field. Thirteen miles above, the U-2 was looking, listening and sniffing for any evidence of weapons of mass destruction. Feb. 17, an Air Force pilot on the edge of space began penetrating years of secrecy with the first United Nations high-altitude reconnaissance mission in nearly five years.

For four hours and 20 minutes, the "Dragon Lady" -- as the U-2 was referred to by the Air Force -- flew over arid deserts and crowded cities as it zigzagged from one suspicious location to another. On board, supersophisticated cameras were capable of photographing enormous swatches of Earth at the press of a button: from strips 120 kilometers wide and hundreds of kilometers long, to objects as small as 15 centimeters, the size of a petri dish. Other sensors could detect radioactivity and eavesdrop on telephone calls, faxes and even e-mail.

One hundred miles farther up, American spy satellites pass over Iraq several times a day, instantly relaying detailed imagery back to analysts at the U.S. National Imagery and Mapping Agency. And 22,000 miles farther out, deep space satellites with enormous web-like antenna dishes eavesdrop on Iraqi government communications, and transmit their contents in near-real-time to linguists and code breakers at the U.S. National Security Agency.

For more than half a century, small teams of engineers, physicists, mathematicians and scientists have spent their working lives in virtual anonymity building America's vast arsenal of overhead spy machines. Sealed in windowless rooms behind cipher-locked doors, they exist in an "Alice in Wonderland" world of code words, black budgets and retina scanners. The early pioneers of this strange land are the subject of Philip Taubman's "Secret Empire: Eisenhower, the CIA, and the Hidden Story of America's Space Espionage."

Taubman, a New York Times editor, discovered while on the paper's spy beat that most of America's intelligence came not from agents but from supersophisticated machines, many located high above. "The massing of Soviet forces on the Afghan border in 1979 -- the indication that an invasion was imminent -- had been tracked by spy satellite," he writes. "When Soviet troops assembled for a possible invasion of Poland in December 1980, satellite photographs helped to alert Washington."

In 1990, imagery from spy satellites gave an early warning of Iraq's plan to invade Kuwait. And last month, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell used spy satellite imagery of alleged Iraqi weapon violations during his presentation before the U.N. Security Council.

Taubman focuses primarily on the pioneers, from the mid-1940s to about the mid-1970s. It is a subject that has been written about by other writers, especially William E. Burrows whose "Deep Black: Space Espionage and National Security" was published in 1986 and Jeffrey T. Richelson's 1990 "America's Secret Eyes in Space: The U.S. Keyhole Spy Satellite Program." But Taubman takes the subject further with newly declassified archival documents and interviews with pioneers who had previously been reluctant to talk. The result is a fascinating story of America's secret space race.

During the 1950s and early 1960s, most of the world was focused on the highly publicized battle between the United States and the Soviet Union to put a person into space. But at the same time, like a parallel but invisible universe, another space race was taking place. This one was the struggle to be the first to put a spy camera into orbit, and in the end, in terms of national security, it was by far the more important race.

Even today, because of enormous secrecy restrictions, few realize just how risky American espionage operations were during the early years of the Cold War. On the top of the list were the highly illegal reconnaissance-bomber penetration flights of Soviet territory. The Air Force bombers would snap pictures and eavesdrop as they flew across Soviet borders and passed directly over populated cities and sensitive military and naval facilities. The risk of war was great. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who personally approved each mission, left no doubt what he would have done had Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev launched similar penetration operations against the United States. Taubman says Eisenhower told Pentagon officials that "nothing would send him more quickly to Congress to request authority to declare war than the violation of American airspace by Soviet aircraft."

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