Secret Empire: Eisenhower, the Cia, And the Hidden Story of America's Space Espionage

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9780756780579: Secret Empire: Eisenhower, the Cia, And the Hidden Story of America's Space Espionage

During the early and most dangerous years of the cold war, a handful of Americans, led by President Dwight D. Eisenhower, revolutionized spying and warfare. In great secrecy and beyond the prying eyes of Congress and the press, they built exotic new machines that opened up the Soviet Union to surveillance and protected the United States from surprise nuclear attack. "Secret Empire" is the dramatic story of these men and their inventions, told in full for the first time. In a brief period of explosive, top-secret innovation during the 1950s, a small group of scientists, engineers, businessmen, and government officials rewrote the book on airplane design and led the nation into outer space. In an effort no less audacious than the creation of the atomic bomb, they designed, built, and operated the U-2 and supersonic SR-71 spy planes and Corona, the first reconnaissance satellites -- machines that could collect more information about the Soviet Union's weapons in a day than an army of spies could assemble in a decade. Their remarkable inventions and daring missions made possible arms control agreements with Moscow that helped keep the peace during the cold war, as well as the space-based reconnaissance, mapping, communications, and targeting systems used by America's armed forces in the Gulf War and most recently in Afghanistan. These hugely expensive machines also led to the neglect of more traditional means of intelligence gathering through human spies. Veteran "New York Times" reporter and editor Philip Taubman interviewed dozens of participants and mined thousands of previously classified documents to tell this hidden, far-reaching story. He reconstructs the crucialmeetings, conversations, and decisions that inspired and guided the development of the spy plane and satellite projects during one of the most perilous periods in our history, a time when, as Eisenhower said, the world seemed to be "racing toward catastrophe." Taubman follows this dramatic story from the White House to the CIA, from the Pentagon to Lockheed's Skunk Works in Burbank, from the secret U-2 test base in Nevada to the secret satellite assembly center in Palo Alto and other locations here and abroad. He reveals new information about the origins and evolution of the projects and how close they came to failing technically or falling victim to bureaucratic inertia and Washington's turf wars. The incredibly sophisticated spies in the skies were remarkably successful in proving that the missile gap was a myth in protecting us from surprise Soviet attack. But in some ways, the failure to detect the planning for the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, can also be attributed to these powerful machines as the government became increasingly dependent on spy satellites to the neglect of human agents and informants. Now, as we wage a new and more vicious war against terrorism, we will need both machines in space and spies on the ground to fight back.

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About the Author:

Philip Taubman, deputy editorial page editor of the New York Times, has reported on national security and intelligence issues for more than twenty years. The recipient of two Polk awards, he was the Times's Moscow bureau chief in the late 1980s and directed the Washington bureau's coverage of the Persian Gulf War. He lives in New York City.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One: "Racing Toward Catastrophe"

Hal Austin had always assumed that the first time he flew an American warplane into Russian airspace, Moscow and Leningrad would be burning, incinerated by an American nuclear attack. This was no Strangelovian fantasy. It was his job description.

As a reconnaissance pilot in the Strategic Air Command (SAC), he had standing orders in the early 1950s to join the initial wave of American bombers over Moscow if the cold war turned hot. He would activate high-powered cameras to record the damage below. Every week, no matter where he was based, Austin would carefully review his role under the Emergency War Order, the top-secret plan for SAC operations in the opening hours of World War III. Though his day-to-day work was training other pilots in flight techniques, Austin knew his ultimate responsibility, however unthinkable it might seem, was to guide his aircraft through the nuclear firestorm to determine what was left of the targets around the Soviet capital that the bombers were supposed to destroy.

His assumptions were overturned on May 8, 1954. As first light faintly illuminated the rolling English countryside west of London that Saturday morning, Austin and his two-member crew were summoned to an unscheduled meeting at Fairford Royal Air Force Base, where they were temporarily stationed. The three men, dressed in their flight suits and anticipating another uneventful day of flying, were separated from the other American crews by their wing commander, Col. Joe Preston, and directed to a small, simply furnished conference room. There, two SAC colonels whom they had never seen before -- one an operations officer, the other an intelligence officer -- invited them to be seated, then gave them startling news.

That day, the airmen were told, they were to fly over the Soviet Union to photograph military airfields on Russia's northern frontier. They would be hundreds of miles from friendly airspace, under orders to maintain radio silence. If they were shot down, the U.S. government would disavow their mission and make no effort to rescue them.

Any doubt that they were about to venture along the most hazardous front lines of the cold war was eliminated when one of the colonels unfurled a long, narrow map and placed it on the table. It showed a corridor starting over the Barents Sea and running southeast from the Soviet port of Murmansk across the Kola Peninsula and White Sea to Arkhangel'sk. The remote Arctic area was studded with Soviet air and naval bases and air defense forces.

The three men, part of the 91st Strategic Reconnaissance Wing, stood up to get a closer look at the map. Nine airfields were marked along the flight plan. The two colonels did not explain why these bases had been selected for photographing, but Austin surmised that the war planners at SAC wanted fresh targeting information. As Vance Heavilin, the navigator for the flight, examined the thin strip of paper, he learned there was a reason for its diminutive dimensions. If the plane was forced down in Soviet territory, his duty was to crumple the map into a small ball and swallow it before the Americans were captured.

In the chilling, cold war calculus that prevailed at the time, the mission was a necessary intelligence-gathering task. The United States had to update its war plans frequently, and monitoring the picket line of airfields along the northwest Soviet border would show whether the Russians were gathering their forces for a surprise attack. Knowing what aircraft were in the area would also help SAC figure out how to suppress Soviet air defense units so American bombers could reach their assigned targets over the Russian heartland. Austin's high-flying RB-47E, a six-engine jet that could cruise above 40,000 feet at better than 600 mph, would be well above the range of the Soviet MiG-15 fighters that were thought to be based in the region. The crew was told that the most advanced Soviet fighter, the MiG-17, was still being tested and none of the new planes would likely be stationed along their route. The new fighter was designed to fly higher and faster than the MiG-15, and might be able to intercept the American plane.

In truth the flight plan was a high-risk gamble, a cold war roll of the dice that might well end up killing Austin and his crew or depositing them in a Siberian prison camp. Once the American plane crossed into Soviet airspace, there was no guarantee it would ever get out. There was even a chance that the flight could ignite a wider conflict with the Soviet Union.

Under international law and the rules of war, the planned violation of Soviet airspace would be an act of aggression, potentially reason enough for the Kremlin to retaliate by attacking the United States. President Dwight Eisenhower well understood the danger, and kept a tight rein on flights over Soviet territory, insisting that most missions be cleared in advance by him. Later in his presidency, he would tell the Pentagon's top civilian and military leaders that nothing would send him more quickly to Congress to request authority to declare war than the violation of American airspace by Soviet aircraft.

Harold R. Austin, a native of Sweetwater, Oklahoma, was twenty-nine years old, a quintessential SAC warrior immersed in the unforgiving business of preparing to wage nuclear war. Flying was his life and passion, and he was skilled at it. His commanders had placed him among the elite group of pilots selected to make sure other airmen met the SAC standards for handling of the RB-47E jets that had recently been acquired for reconnaissance work.

As Austin surveyed his aircraft on the morning of May 8, 1954, it seemed well suited to his daring mission. The streamlined plane with swept-back wings was equipped with six General Electric J47 engines, each capable of producing 7,200 pounds of thrust. With a maximum speed of 610 mph, a range of 3,500 miles, and a cruising ceiling above 40,000 feet, it was ideal for high-altitude, long-distance reconnaissance flights.

The reconnaissance model was built to carry cameras, not bombs. The bomb bay, which would normally hold one nuclear bomb, was instead configured to house cameras for photographing ground installations. Other cameras on board would make a record of the plane's radarscope during the flight. The combination would allow SAC not only to study the Soviet bases and combat aircraft in the Arctic region, but would also provide a sequence of radar images that could later help to guide pilots to the same targets at night or in bad weather.

Like most 1950s bombers, Austin's RB-47E was only lightly armed. Two M-24 20mm cannons were located in the tail. They could only be operated by remote control by the co-pilot if he swiveled around to face the rear. Bomber crews knew the guns were unreliable and would offer only a feeble defense against far more agile and heavily armed fighters.

Austin entered the hatch at the belly of the plane and climbed a short ladder to the cockpit, where he took his accustomed place in the front seat. Carl Holt, the co-pilot, was from Pittsburgh. He settled in behind Austin, divided by the co-pilot's instrument panel. A bubble canopy would cover them in flight. Heavilin, an Ohio native, descended a step to the navigator's quarters, a windowless space in the nose that was crammed with navigational instruments, a radar screen, and other equipment. There was just enough room in a cramped aisle alongside the pilots for the crew members to move about during the flight.

Austin powered up the engines, and with a deafening rumble, the plane rolled down the taxiway to await takeoff clearance from the control tower. The English countryside was a lush green from the spring rains. As the plane climbed into the sky shortly after 7 a.m., the tidy little village of Lechlade was visible below. The plane crossed over the meandering Thames River, which stretched east toward Oxford and on to London.

As agreed in advance with the other two crews that were flying with Austin that day, he took the lead as the three aircraft headed out over the North Sea. The flight plan called for the planes to refuel off the Norwegian coast, then proceed around the northern tip of Norway to a point 100 miles north of Murmansk, where the other two crews believed all three planes would turn back.

The tankers, also from the 91st Strategic Reconnaissance Wing, were waiting when Austin reached the preset rendezvous point off Stavanger, a port city on the southwest coast of Norway. In a delicate piece of aerial choreography that he had practiced dozens of times, Austin guided his plane under and slightly behind the tanker and slowed his speed. The long refueling boom was lowered from the plane toward Austin and into the RB-47E's receptacle. Once the connections were secure, thousands of gallons of jet fuel streamed into fuselage tanks.

From Stavanger, Austin proceeded northeast along the Norwegian coast for more than an hour, passing by Bergen and Trondheim. He soon crossed the Arctic circle. The northernmost region of Europe was now visible, a desolate, windblown landscape at the top of the world. At the far tip, Norway, Finland, and the Soviet Union coexisted uneasily by the Barents Sea. Murmansk was less than 150 miles down the coast from the Norwegian-Soviet border.

The moment to part company with the two other SAC aircraft had come. Heavilin checked the map and the aircraft heading, plotting a course toward Murmansk. He relayed the information to Austin, who then banked the plane to the right on a southeast flight path. As the plane slowly wheeled toward the Russian mainland, Austin could see the pilot and co-pilot of one of the other planes twist around and look at him in disbelief. Jimmy Valentine, the other pilot, was a good friend, and Austin waited tensely to see if he would break the radio blackout. He didn't, though he was mystified and alarmed by Austin's unexpected maneuver.

Within minutes, the Soviet coastline loomed in the distance, and, with it, the invisible dividing line between international and Soviet airspace. Austin was right on course. But after flying through the morning without generating contrails, the plane entered a new air mass, and its progress across the cloudless sky was clearly marked by a white ribbon stretching back to the horizon. The Russians didn't need a radar system to see that an unidentified intruder was coming their way.

They were waiting, on high alert. Unbeknownst to Austin, ten days earlier three British crews, using American RB-45C airplanes temporarily based at Sculthorpe Royal Air Force Base on England's east coast, had made a nighttime flight over the western Soviet Union. Soviet air defense forces around Kiev had unsuccessfully tried to shoot down one of the planes with antiaircraft fire. The two other aircraft were pursued by Soviet fighters, but escaped untouched. Commanders in Moscow were furious at the ineffectual performance, and the entire air defense system had been placed on heightened alert.

Heavilin switched on the cameras and Austin leveled the plane as it coasted in over Murmansk, a gritty seaport that served as the Soviet Union's main fishing and naval hub in the Arctic region. Directly below were the shipyards and concrete-block buildings that the Russians had erected in the inhospitable terrain to take advantage of the ice-free waters, warmed by the remnants of the Gulf Stream. One of Russia's most sensitive military installations, the submarine base at Severomorsk, was located not far up a narrow inlet that leads to the open sea.

As instructed, Austin had climbed to 40,000 as he neared the Soviet coast, even though the plane was carrying the fresh load of fuel it had picked up off Stavanger. The combination of weight and altitude reduced the plane's speed to about 510 mph. Austin had questioned the assigned altitude at the morning briefing, concerned that he would lose airspeed just as he penetrated Soviet airspace. There was no sign of Russian resistance as the RB-47 passed over its first targets, two airfields outside Murmansk. But as the crew completed the photographing of the second base, Holt spotted three fighters rising toward the American aircraft. The planes approached but made no effort to attack. They had apparently been scrambled into the air to get a better look at the intruder.

Austin, Holt, and Heavilin were determined to complete their mission, believing that their altitude and airspeed provided protection against any attack. The first group of Soviet planes dropped back toward their base. A second and then a third set appeared, but remained out of attack range below the Americans. Austin continued over the White Sea to Arkhangel'sk, where the crew photographed several other airfields. At that point, six new fighters roared into view, climbing rapidly toward the reconnaissance plane. As they got closer, Austin concluded that they were MiG-17s.

Austin ordered Holt to unbuckle himself from his seat so he could swivel around to see what the Russian planes were doing and get the guns ready for firing. Holt was just turning when Austin saw tracer rounds streaking above and below. Any illusions about invulnerability vanished instantly. "We had been identified as foe, and they were going to shoot us down if they could," he said.

He told Holt to return fire with the cannons, warning that the next attack run would come right up their tailpipes. The co-pilot got off two or three shots before the guns jammed. But the brief burst forced the pursuing jets to pull away from the prime firing position behind the American plane. Firing from 30 to 40 degrees to the side, the Russian pilots would not have as good a shot at disabling or destroying the plane.

Austin hollered, "The hell with this 40,000-foot bit. I'm gonna let down." Since the altitude wasn't proving any defense against the high-performance Russian planes, he wanted to descend to 37,000 feet, where he would pick up speed. "I pushed the nose over," he recalled. In an effort to outrun the Russians, he rammed forward the six throttles that controlled the plane's engines.

The plane accelerated to 550 mph as it descended, and Austin momentarily thought he might have eluded the pursuing jets. He turned toward the next airfield. As he was making the 45-degree turn to the left, the plane shuddered as a shell smashed into the top of the port wing, about 8 feet from the fuselage. It exploded on impact, knocking a jagged hole in the top of the wing and piercing the fuselage in a dozen spots in the area of the forward main wheel well and the number one main fuel tank. The largest hole was big enough for a football to fit through. Austin and Holt, seated forward of the wing, couldn't see the damage, but they knew the plane had been hit when the intercom system suddenly went dead. The Russian planes, possibly short on fuel and struggling to keep pace with the RB-47 as it picked up speed, broke off pursuit. Heavilin quickly calculated that the final airfield on their list was located along their escape route toward Finland, so Austin headed southwest toward that target. They got the photographs they wanted, then raced for the border.

Flying time to Finland would be about twenty minutes, the last part of it over Karelia, a land of lakes, pine forests, and wooden churches that had been contested for centuries by Finland and Russia. The Russians had time for another attack before the Americans crossed into Finnish airspace. It came just as the plane neared the border. Three fighters swooped into view. The leader came up alongside, on the right wing, close enough that...

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