Top positive review
Look,up in the sky...
Reviewed in the United States on January 7, 2008
The book Secret Empire: Eisenhower, the CIA, and the Hidden Story of America's Space Espionage by Philip Taubman could be likened to a triptych of America's first steps into the dark world of space through the murky processes of Cold War intelligence operations and military competitiveness. The first third looks at the period of time immediately following World War II, when the Cold War had not yet become a matter of settled doctrine, nor had the Soviet Union been identified as the key adversary. The second portion looks at the time of the spy planes, before satellite technology was available but when surveillance from the air was considered vital for national security. The final third continues the tale into space and, to a certain extent, into the post-Cold War era. This is a sweeping history.
The intelligence operations that had been started during World War II were new the United States in many respects; continuing this process on a global scale during peacetime and in civilian as well as military hands was also a new aspect. The British, with their worldwide empire, had been the masters of international intelligence, but had neither the resources nor the technology to even attempt to continue this role. The early days of intelligence gathering across the Soviet Union - the largest nation on earth geographically, and one very remote from most Western national borders - were fraught with danger. Taubman's narrative begins with one such dangerous mission - the flight of Hal Austin over the northern edge of the Soviet Union, trying to get updated intelligence information while flying a souped-up but admittedly conventional aircraft. Austin's flight took on aspects of Mission: Impossible ideas - the government would disavow knowledge of the mission in event of discovery, would not attempt a rescue in event of capture, etc. However, it was becoming too dangerous in a world that was growing in MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) proportions.
Ironically, despite the riskiness of missions such as Austin's flight, the new developments intended to be safer, both politically and personally, were not necessarily so on either front. Yet intelligence was essential. Not knowing what the Soviet Union was up to, particularly by a government whose members vividly remembered the attack on Pearl Harbor, was a threat to national security in and of itself. "In the nuclear age, such ignorance was untenable" (p. 27). Eisenhower's need was seen and satisfied by the work of figures such as Richard Leghorn, Mert Davies, Kelly Johnson, Jim Killian and others, who in Taubman's narrative have various roles to play in the up-and-down world of developing better, faster, and `stealthier' aircraft.
Turned over to the CIA under Dulles and funded from the contingency reserve (thus minimizing both scrutiny and paper trails), the Aquatone project, later and better known as the U-2, was developed. This is a plane that is still in operation today in various places and in various forms, although it was beset with problems mechanical and political from the start.
Taubman highlights figures such as Richard Bissell, Jim Baker, Edwin Land and others in the pursuit of a plane that would give the feedback needed for intelligence purposes without enormous risk. The scientists, military and political figures involved were not always working together - indeed, often plans would go astray or be rejected, only to be picked up again later. For example, Leghorn's idea of a long-range, high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft came to fruition in the U-2 after he had left government service. Leghorn had an article in U.S. News & World Report just a week before the first U-2 test flight (Leghorn had not known about this development at the time).
Prior to the full development and implementation of the U-2, Eisenhower presented a proposal that was somewhat shocking to the military and intelligence leaders in America - his "Open Skies" proposal. "Historians still debate Eisenhower's motivations in making an offer that seemed both idealistic and calculating. It was a grand and visionary proposal that in a single stroke could have lessened tensions between the two nations, reduced the danger of surprise attack, and provided a means for verifying arms control agreements, if such accords could be reached" (p. 141). This would find echoes later in Ronald Reagan's offer, also astonishing to most, to share all of the Strategic Defense Initiative ("Star Wars") technologies with the Soviet Union under Gorbachev. Just as the Soviets were not inclined to trust Reagan, they were similarly not inclined to trust Eisenhower.
For long-range reconnaissance, however, the U-2 was ultimately too high a cost, in terms of material, personnel, and public relations. Gary Powers was but one of the public relations difficulties for the American government. Eisenhower was under no illusions how bad it would be should the Soviet Union be found to conducting similar flights over the United States; this meant that American flights had to be higher and faster, which meant making the leap into space.
The U-2 project was successful; indeed, the U-2 continues to be of use in various settings. It also provided the initial intelligence that the Soviet Union was not as well equipped numerically or technologically as America's Cold War worst-fears scenarios might have envisioned. However, it also provided the prompting for continued surveillance, to ensure America's continued security.
At first, this security seemed to be threatened by Sputnik, a momentary turning of the tables of traditional American dominance in technology. "Sputnik was a humiliating defeat for the United States - perhaps the darkest hour of the cold war - but it was also a transforming event in American life" (p. 212). Apart from the military and intelligence aspects that this implied (Sputnik I was in fact little more than a dumb projectile, far form a menacing spy satellite), the public relations aspect was tremendous. One radio report of the event broadcast a beeping tone, purportedly drawn from Sputnik, saying in the voice-over that this "was the sound that all is not right with America."
Satellite technology was pursued in both military and civilian spheres. Additionally, in the Kennedy era, the space race would take a much more public face with the race to the moon. However, in the late Eisenhower days, the drive for satellite technology took on a surveillance orientation, to supplement and perhaps replace the U-2 and other manned flights over the Soviet Union and other problem spots in the world.
Taubman's text traces the development under Bissell and the CIA, under the code name Corona, which picked up steam tremendously after the Francis Gary Powers incident in 1960. The political issue in the United States had become one of a military gap, which wasn't actually true, and more specifically, a "missile gap," which was not entirely true, either, but caught the public imagination such that the Democrats had in it a formidable campaign weapon against Eisenhower's Republican successor candidate (as well as making it into the popular imagination in ways such as Dr. Strangelove).
The Corona project was intended as a temporary fix, but according to Taubman, was difficult to dislodge. The terminology of "Keyhole" was first used in the Corona satellites (first used for KH4, with earlier satellites back-named). Taubman doesn't explain this terminology, though he does use the abbreviation KH-11 and similar unexplained terms (an occasional shortcoming in his text). Corona and other contemporary and subsequent systems were certainly successful in getting intelligence information to the government. "The problem in Washington was no longer collecting information but making use of it. The trickle of intelligence about the Soviet Union that frustrated Dwight Eisenhower when he moved into the White House at mid-century had turned, by the end of the century, into a tidal wave of information that threatened to engulf Washington and overwhelm the ability of analysts to identify the most urgent and important intelligence and then make sense of it" (p. 354).
Taubman's conclusion takes issue with what he identifies as America's excessive reliance upon technological intelligence-gathering means over the more traditional and personal kinds of intelligence. Several presidential candidates have referred to intelligence issues in the campaign debates, and some would agree with Taubman's analysis that the intelligence we need is going to come from someone overhearing a conversation in a café in Turkey or Pakistan rather than in a satellite photograph. Taubman entitles his epilogue Losing the Inventive Spark, claiming that not only have we lost the groundwork intelligence, but that our technological drive toward intelligence is likewise not being developed as it once was. Taubman connects this to the intelligence failures in the 9-11 attacks, but argues that they were known beforel Taubman cites the Indian development of nuclear weapons as a key incident of intelligence failure in addition to 9-11.
In part, he argues it is because of the orientation of the spy satellite system rather than any particular failure within the system. "Terrorists are everything Soviet military forces were not: invisible, elusive, improvisational, and cunningly creative" (p. 361). These require a different kind of surveillance, Taubman argues. Not all analysts would agree with Taubman's assessment here - while it makes good journalism, it might not in fact be true that case managers and other human elements in intelligence have been neglected.
The intelligence communities continue to look for more and better ways of collecting, distilling and using information. The reformation of the intelligence community in the post-9-11 government is a key indicator of how divergent and diverse the community had become, although as Taubman's book demonstrates, this should be no surprise, given the wide range of turf battles, personalities, intentions and other divergent attributes there were there at the start.
This text serves as a good survey of the politics of the time, both the Cold War international politics, as well as the bureaucratic politics of the American government, using this issue as a case study with implications for the larger-scale operation of the government then and now.