The Time Of The Angel

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Dwight Elsenhower entered the Presidency with a strong bias toward photographic reconnaissance. He felt that the intelligence-gathering services of the U.S. placed far too much reliance on “humint” (the spy trade’s term for intelligence gathered from human sources) and “sigint” (the interception of radio and other electronic signals). Humint was prone to errors of judgment, bias, and exaggeration. As for sigint, most sensitive radio traffic was encrypted, and thus had to be decoded. Photographs neither lied nor required code-breaking.

Another factor made the time ripe for a breakthrough in the techniques of spying. In recruiting agents during the war, the Office of Strategic Services—the CIA’s predecessor—had turned to the academic community, particularly to Ivy League and other prestigious universities. The reason was simple enough: the OSS needed people who had traveled abroad and who had proficiency in foreign languages; with the U.S. just emerging from the Depression, only the highly educated were apt to have such experience. This alliance of spies and scholars remained intact during the Eisenhower and Kennedy years, indeed remained intact until the academic community grew disillusioned over the war in Vietnam and over revelations of assassination plots and other dirty tricks carried out by the CIA.

Then of course there was the Cold War itself. During the early 1950’s there was widespread concern about Russian nuclear superiority. In 1953 the Soviet Union exploded a hydrogen bomb. Shortly afterward it became clear that the Russians were working on the production of long-range aircraft, and in 1955 they unveiled an intercontinental bomber, the Bison, which was capable of striking the U.S. The Russians took pains to suggest that they were far along in their bomber program by skipping numbers in the serial designations on the planes they publicly displayed. When Western observers saw planes numbered, say, 19 and 21, they assumed that there was a bomber number 20, which did not in fact exist.

At the time, the U.S. had no reliable way of determining whether or not the Soviet Union had achieved superiority in nuclear weapons and delivery vehicles. Grasping at straws, American spies launched camera-carrying balloons that soared across Russia at sixty thousand feet or more, and then, over western Europe, dropped their camera mechanisms by parachute—with luck into the hands of waiting intelligence agents. But some of the spy balloons went astray, and others drifted down inside Russia where they provided grist for Soviet propaganda. In any case, the balloon cameras produced pictures that, while adequate for making maps, did not provide enough detail to enlighten the U.S. about Russian weapons development.

Eisenhower was appalled at the lack of sound information about Russian capabilities. Thus in 1954 he created a special presidential committee to study the subject of surprise attack. Chaired by James Killian, the president of MIT, the committee was charged with determining whether or not the U.S. might be facing another Pearl Harbor. At a meeting in the fall, the committee decided that the U.S. should begin reconnaissance overflights of Russia and the Soviet-bloc countries.

The only problem was that no aircraft existed that could carry out such a mission. But in the course of its investigations the committee learned that a conceptual design for a high-altitude reconnaissance plane had recently been submitted to the Air Force by Clarence “Kelly” Johnson, the chief aircraft designer for Lockheed. Johnson’s proposed design was so extraordinary that the Air Force turned it down on the grounds that such a plane simply could not be built. But the President’s committee was more sanguine, and they passed on their views to Eisenhower, who immediately told Allen Dulles, then head of the CIA, to get that airplane built—urgently and secretly.

Dulles appointed one of his top deputies, Richard Bissell, to ramrod the project. A recent CIA recruit, Bissell was an economist who had taught on the faculty of Yale and MIT, and who had served as an administrator in the Marshall Plan. Bissell started things moving that very day. With an opposite number from the Air Force, he hatched a scheme to finance the project secretly. The CIA had a special reserve fund for which it had to make no specific accounting. From this fund the agency would pay for the air-frame development. The Air Force already had on order a large number of Pratt and Whitney engines that could power the Lockheed design. The Air Force would buy a few more engines and bury the extras in their larger order. Financing settled, Bissell phoned Kelly Johnson at Lockheed and told him to get to work.