by Trowbridge H. Ford
One of the least known agencies in the Cold War against the Soviet Union – and what little is known is often wrong – is the National Reconnaissane Office (NRO). Conceived to learn more about the internal workings of the USSR after the simplistic assumptions about ending the confrontation proved hopelessly wrong – e. g., the Soviets could easily be rolled back, spies could readíly unlock what real secrets it possessed or defectors could supply what the West really needed to know about it – the NRO showed that Moscow was much weaker than human intelligence (HUMINT) claimed.
In achieving this result, though, it became so powerful that it functioned almost without any public supervision – almost a state within a state. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the NRO became the instrument of Republican and Democratic Presidents alike to win the war on Washington’s next opponents, whoever they might be, without almost any congressional or democratic control. The NRO became Washington’s preferred secret weapon in the “war on terrorism” because its capabilities were hardly known, hard to stop the continual development of, and much less capable of being defended against.
In WWII’s aftermath, the reorganization and expansion of America’s intelligence agencies was a most confusing process because of uncertainty about its future, how to proceed under the circumstances, and bureaucratic opposition, especially by J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI, to any significant changes. Given the desire by the weakened Republican opposition for a return to America’s splendid isolation, the Democratic followers of FDR had a difficult time in gaining support for a continuing international role, particularly when many of them were increasingly suspected of being communist tools.
The root of the problem rested with Earl Browder, leader of America’s communists who believed he had influence with the President, allying them with the Democratic Party, arousing beliefs among liberals that he had the support of the fallen President, and suspicions of betrayal among anti-communists – what was only compounded by Stalin seeing to Browder’s ouster from the leadership in 1945, and later expelled. Louis Budenz, a former leader of the Communist Party of the USA turned FBI mole, soured the situation even further by claiming that Browder’s successor, Eugene Dennis, “…had directed a ring of Communist agents in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) that included Carl Marzani.” (John Earl Haynes & Harvey Klehr, Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America, p. 218)
The leader of the OSS had been Colonel ‘Wild Bill’ Donovan, and he was involved in trying to revive the spy agency after its post-war shutdown was being reconsidered, as the amalgamation of the code-breaking services of the Army, Navy and the new Air Force took center stage. Thanks to Hoover’s continuing opposition to any encroachments on his turf, especially because of his intense dislike of Harry Truman and his entourage, though, only the Armed Forces Security Agency (AFSA), and a weak Central Intelligence Group( CIG) – headed by a Director, and assisting a National Intelligence Authority – were allowed to be created. The beginning of the Cold War in earnest led to the expansion of the CIG into the Central Intelligence Agency, and the signal intelligence (SIGINT) problems surrounding the Korean War resulted in the creation of the National Security Agency (NSA) out of the AFSA.
The NSA’s creation caused the greatest intelligence turmoil with the CIA, the fleeing of Soviet spies Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess to the Soviet Union providing the catalyst. Their flight proved that American intelligence had been riddled with leaks, and NSA’s decoding capacity provided a sure way of proving so at the expense of other intelligence agencies, especially the CIA and its forebearers. NSA’s challenge to the CIA was also most threatening since almost no one knew of NSA, aka ‘No Such Agency’, since it was established by secret presidential order rather than an act of Congress, like the CIA. (For more on this, see Christopher Andrew, For the President’s Eyes Only, p. 168ff.)
While NSA was busy at Arlington Hall and later at Fort Meade working on Moscow’s coded messages during part of WWII with those people who had had contact with Soviet intelligence (Venona Project) – what threw far more panic throughout American society than the claims of Senator Joseph McCarthy about communist conspiracies – the CIA really got involved in overthrowing governments Washington did not like, and assassinating troublesome foreign leaders. While most people are aware of the successful coups that the Agency engineered against Iran’s Mohammed Mossadegh, and Guatemala’s Jacobo Arbenz, few are acquainted with its elimination of Korean opposition leader Kim Koo, North Korea’s Premier Kim II Sung, Mossadegh himself, Philippino opposition leader Claro Recto, Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, and Egypt’s President Gamul Abdul Nasser, plus unsuccessful attempts on several other world leaders. (For more on this, see William Blum, Rogue State, p. 38ff.)
CIA also prevented NSA’s SIGINT capability from making inroads into its intelligence operations by persuading its leading codebreaker, Frank B. Rowlett – when the new agency wanted to make him head of its code-making business, COMSEC – to come over, and run its operations,”… stealing foreign cipher materials and recruiting foreign crypto clerks and communications employees.” (James Bamford, Body of Secrets, p. 447) DCI Allen Dulles hoped that Rowett aka The Magician could do some more magic on the Soviet codes.
Rowlett had been the leading genius of the William F. Friedman’s Black Chamber which the Army had reconstituted from WWI back in June 1930, and Friedman was now running the CIA’s Division D and wanted Rowlett to rejoin him. Rowlett had been particularly responsible for breaking the Japanese diplomatic code Purple aka Magic on September 20, 1940, resulting in decrypts which increasingly showed that Japan was preparing to attack French Indochina – what meant war with Washington but failed to foresee that it would be triggered by the attacks on Hawaii. (For more, see Andrew, p. 105ff.)
The only trouble with CIA’s ‘little NSA’, to use Bamford’s term, was that it had little to work with. Prohibited from operating within the United States, and having a most chilly relation with the FBI, it was unable to do what MI5’s Peter Wright in its D Branch had accomplished in Britain regarding stealing codes and breaking encryption machines at the expense of its SIGINT agency, GCHQ.(Spycatcher, p. 80ff.) While Britain was finding out what Egypt was up to during the Suez crisis, NSA did not have a clue about Israel’s ambitions because that was co-conspirator Britain’s responsibility during the preemptive action, and the Eden government didn’t tell Eisenhower’s anything about what was planned.
Up until that time, NSA had been going great guns with its RB-47 reconnaissance flights over the USSR, their Air Force Ravens operating electronic cameras to photograph Soviet installations of interest while other equipment monitored Soviet responses to the intrusions – what established that the USSR was unaware that it could be attacked with devastating results by bombers flown over the North Pole from Greenland (Project Homerun). Once Moscow learned of these numerous intrusions – what Eisenhower approved despite the fact that they could trigger WWIII – and protested to Washington behind the scenes about them, NSA’s capability in this regard became greatly reduced, as the planes could be shot down, and the Soviets rapidly improved their radar all over the vast country to achieve it.
NSA’s embarrassment over these difficulties – what caused the retirement of its first director, Ralph Canine – provided the CIA with an opportunity to recoup, and Richard Bissell, the new Deputy Director for Planning, was quick to take advantage of it. Bissell had been given the post after its warring factions in carrying the war to the Soviets had been humiliated by the Hungarian uprising – what they helped foment – and Eisenhower was looking for a more reliable instrument for containing the struggle. Bissell’s claim to fame was the designing and construction of the U-2 reconnaissance plane which flew above the range of Soviet defenses. “The plane could in one flight,” Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones wrote in The CIA & American Democracy, “take up to 4,000 high-definition photographs of an area 2,174 miles long and 30 miles side.” (pp. 107-8)
To put the U-2’s capability on an analytical intelligence basis, Bissell was given the assignment. It was, of course, because of the U-2’s ability to systematically monitor a given piece of territory that Soviet IRBMs were discovered in Cuba in September 1962 – what resulted in the Cuban Missile Crisis. As R. Jack Smith, a senior Agency analyst who helped brief the President about the crisis, claimed in a somewhat biased way: “American intelligence, and especially the CIA, experienced one of its finest hours…we sifted and sorted until we finally got the evidence that enabled us to target the U-2 correctly.” (Quoted from Rhodri Jeffreys-Jones, Cloak and Dollar, A History of American Secret Intelligence, p. 191.)
Unfortunately, the Agency’s HUMINT, its dominant side, did not see matters that way at all. The settlement of the Cuban Missile Crisis was its final humiliation – going all the way back to the alleged “missile gap”. Back then, William King Harvey, who had taken over Division D after Rowlett had gone back to the NSA in 1957, had arranged an engine ‘flame out’, it seems, which brought down Gary Powers’ unauthorized U-2 flight – making it look like the Soviets had brought it down for the May Day 1960 celebration – but not only Powers but also his aircraft essentially survived to Eisenhower’s great embarrassment, making the claim about the intrusion a matter of international record. Given the fuss that Khrushchev made over the flights, the Paris Summit was canceled, and Ike was forced to show what they could potentially disclose, somewhat minimizing the assertions by the “missile gap” scaremongers.
Still, the downing of Powers’ U-2 ruined the summit – what the President had put such great hopes in, and seriously considered resigning over – once the lying by the White House was exposed. No sooner had it denied any such overflight than the Soviet leader produced the pilot and part of the U-2 wreckage on television. Of course, the Soviet explanation of the crash – a missile did enough damage of bring it down while destroying a Soviet fighter which was closing in for the kill of the U-2 – made no sense, and the Agency did not help matters by failing to explain how Powers still survived the doomed flight, as did the plane itself. Damaged U-2s were programmed to self-destruct.
Moscow had been tipped off about the U-2 overflights by two NSA analysts, mathematicians Bernon F. Mitchell and William H. Martin. The increasingly dangerous antics by its Deputy Director Louis Tordella – who ran the agency for a generation – finally persuaded Mitchell to fly to Mexico City in December 1959 where he asked for political asylum, but the KGB persuaded him to stay in place, so that it could learn more about NSA operations. Tordella was Wright’s leading ally in Washington, prepared to do any operation which stirred up anti-communist paranoia. (See Spycatcher, p.145ff.) While Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin tried feebly to make out in The Sword and the Shield that Mitchell and Martin had somehow defected then (pp. 178-9), they were in Washington on May Day when Powers went down.
They told Moscow of the planned ‘flame out’, and the Soviets made sure that it was shot down. And after the crisis had passed without any claims of American spying having contributed to the crisis, Mitchell and Martin made their escape to the USSR, via Mexico City and Havana. On September 6th, they gave a press conference in Moscow’s House of Journalists, explaining that they had defected because Washington had been spying on the secret messages of its allies, like France, Britain and Israel, which had recently caused the Suez Crisis!
Of course, it would have been a far different matter if Mitchell and Martin had explained that they had helped shoot down Gary Powers’ U-2 – something that neither Krushchev nor Ike wanted known. While the defectors ultimately settled down grudgingly in the USSR, ultimately marrying Russian women, they contributed little more to Soviet covert government. They even contemplated returning to the West, but they never made it, as Andrew and Mitrokhin have explained: “As chairman of the KGB, Yuri Andropov gave personal instructions that under no circumstances was either Mitchell or Martin to be allowed to go, for fear of deterring other potential defectors from the West.” (p. 179) Moscow, actually, could not afford them saying that they had made such sacrifices for nothing.
To prevent a recurrence by the Agency, Eisenhower took its photo-reconnaissance capability away from it, creating the National Reconnaissance Office right after the embarrassing show trial of Powers in Moscow had ended and right before the embarrassing press conference by Mitchell and Martin. “For the next generation,” Andrew has written, “NRO was to be the most secret of all U.S. intelligence agencies. Its existence was not discovered by the media until 1973, and not officially acknowledged until September 1992.” (For …, p. 250) It was a high price for CIA to pay for just keeping the “missile gap” myth alive. To limit further damaging fallout, the CIA exchanged the most successful Soviet spy, Colonel ‘Rudolf Abel’, for Powers when it got the chance.
Then, thanks to the prodding by Wright (see Spycatcher, p.145ff., esp. p. 154.) Harvey got Division D deeply involved in trying to assassinate Castro, using the cover story that it was trying to steal codes and recruiting Cuban cryptographers. Thanks to poison pills provided by the Agency’s Technical Services Division, and contacts supplied by the Mafia, two unsuccessful attempts were made to kill the Cuban leader while power was being transferred from Ike to JFK. After the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion, Harvey was again at it – thanks to more prodding by Wright – as head of the Agency’s Task Force W in Miami, providing agents with a wider variety of weapons to kill Castro but still no success.
To get a handle on increasingly runaway covert government, Kennedy had rightly raised the alleged “missile gap” claim and the plans to overthrow Castro’s regime during the 1960 presidential campaign in the hope that the electorate could make a reasonable choice about the risks America faced but Nixon wrongly declined to debate the issues on the grounds of national security. It was only after Jack’s election that Eisenhower – along with Bissell and Art Lundahl, the head of the Agency’s National Photographic Interpretation Center (NPIC) – set the record straight by briefing him about the intelligence capability America had in terms of technology and allies, concluding spiritedly: “The enemy has no aerial photographic systems like ours!” (Quoted from Andrew, p. 258.)
Still, soon after JFK was inaugurated, he suffered the black eye of the Bay of Pigs fiasco (Operation Zapata) by Bissell’s people, and the President reacted by forcing the retirement of DCI Dulles and DDP Bissell because of the fallout from the fiasco. While the President had assured the public at a press conference on April 12th that American armed forces would not take any part in an armed intervention in Cuba, the facts turned out to be far different, as Aleksandr Fursenko and Timothy Naftali have reported in The Secret History of the Cuban Missile Crisis: “One Hell of a Gamble”: “Reconnaissance missions flown by U-2s on April 8, 11, and 13 picked up that Cubans had thirty-six combat aircraft, some of which were T-33 jets.” (p. 92)
The NRO had helped the anti-Castro Cubans before JFK spoke, and continued to do so right up until the invasion. Thanks to information supplied by the NRO, as Andrew has indicated, “Zapata began at dawn on Saturday, April 15, with an air strike against Cuban airfields by eight B-26s flown by Cuban exiles.” (p. 263) When the White House learned of the NRO’s support for the bombers – what happened the next day at 10 a.m. during a meeting at CIA headquarters (see National Security File, Maxwell Taylor Papers, Box 12, Memoranda of Meetings, JFK Library, Boston.), Secretary of State Dean Rusk and American Ambassador to the UN Adlai Stevenson insisted that there be no more aerial attacks, dooming the mission.
To make sure that Bissell did not maintain some informal influence in the NRO, Kennedy appointed Dr. Joseph V. Charyk, an Air Force undersecretary, as its director in Setepmber 1961. Charyk, though, was an areonautical engineer, only interested in developing replacements of the U-2s and new satellites. Ultimately, Charyk, and his replacement Dr. Brockway McMillan, relied upon gung-ho Air Force Brigadier General Jack C. Ledford to carry out NRO operations, and he was ready to follow up any discovery of Soviet IRBMs in Cuba with attacks by the 1040th Field Activity Squadron, stationed at Washington’s Bolling AFB. When JFK was assassinated, Ledford was director of the US Air Force’s special operations projects.
To receive more reliable intelligence and fewer surprises from the CIA, Kennedy approved the creation of the Defense Intelligence Agency, and transferred the CIA’s paramilitary operations to the DOD. To head the new coordinating agency, SOD McNamara picked one-time FBI agent, and Air Force Inspector General Joseph Carroll because he was not just another Pentagon bureaucrat. Carroll had not only arrested Public Enemy No. I Roger “Tough” Touhy during WWII, but also helped explain away the defections by Mitchell and Martin – making out that there were more homosexuals in government because of abnormal sexual activity while they were adolescents. While the agency was being revamped from top to bottom because of their leaks – what had been attributed to more communist disaffection – Carroll determined that they were homosexuals who feared being caught!
And the showdown with Cuba and the USSR over the IRBMs – what hardliners in government planned to result in the end of the Castro regime – did nothing to redeem them despite all the evidence that Oleg Penkovsky supplied about Moscow’s strategic weakness. As an unidentified source, most likely NSA Diretor General Gordon Blake, in the Cabinet Room on October 19, 1962 explained during the height of the crisis about General Joe Carroll’s capability: “The National Reconnaissance Office is involved in this. They’re, in a sense, a third agency, responsible for the U-2s, responsible for the drones, anything relating to special reconnaissance for CIA, DIA. Carroll knows how to do this.” (Quoted from Ernest R. May & Philip D. Zelikow, The Kennedy Tapes, p. 188.)
To rub in Carroll’s triumph, papers like Washington’s The Evening Star ran stories about how his analysis of photographs taken by an NRO U-2 – what CIA analysts had not found convincing – had changed “the days that shook the world”. On October 15th, Carroll had noticed signs of construction being carried out in a remote area of western Cuba, near San Cristóbal, and alerted the Deputy Secretary of Defense Roswell Gilpatric about it, starting a process which would only end when Khrushchev started removing the IRBMs from the island. (Kelman Morin, “Gen.Carroll Saw Something,” November 1, 1963, p. 1.)
Carroll’s son James put it this way in his biography of his father, An American Requiem: “His rivals within the military intelligence establishment had been defanged, and his turf-protecting counterparts at CIA, NSA, and the State Department had learned to work with him – a tribute to my father’s skills as a bureaucratic infighter, and also a signal of the strong support he had from McNamara.” (p. 140) As evidence of this, Carroll was appointed to the U. S. Intelligence Board two months before the Dallas assassination in the hope that he could continue to keep the renegades at bay.
The fallout from the settlement, however, drove Harvey, with Helms’s tacit approval, to increasingly desperate measures against the Kennedys. (For more on Harvey and Helms, see my articles on Veterans Today, and in the Trowbridge Archive at codshit.com about them.) Harvey – as head of the ZR/RIFLE project in the Agency’s new center of operations in Miami, code named JM/WAVE and run by a leading operator Ted Shackley -crucially misused NRO’s capabilities to conclude his own war against Castro and the White House. Claiming that he was still trying to achieve Rowlett’s objectives (see Bamford, pp. 478-9 for details.), he actually arranged to make it look as if Castro had shot down another U-2 reconnaissance flight – what constituted an act of war, if true – once his efforts to recruit two Red Army colonels from the island as spies, and to claim that Castro had not removed all the IRBMs had failed. (For more on the Bayo-Martino-Pawley mission, see Peter Dale Scott, Deep Politics and the Death of JFK, p. 113ff.)
While most people thought that Cold War relations were improving with the Soviet withdrawal of its IRBMs from Cuba – with JFK and Mrs. Kennedy trying to make amends with the disgruntled Cuban-American community, Department of the Army adviser Major Al Haig trying to find livelihoods for veterans of the Bay of Pigs operation, Attorney General Robert Kennedy beginning to enforce the Neutrality Act against those who still wanted to overthrow the Castro regime, Harvey finally being told to cut his ties with Sam Giancana’s contact Johnny Rosselli and forced to take off for Rome, the President signing a Limited Test Ban Treaty with the Soviets, etc. – the changing mood just drove the hardliners to more reckless measures.
The first alarming sign was when DCI John McCone reorganized all the Agency’s science and technical capability under one roof, ignoring the concerns of its predecessor, Deputy Director of Research Herbert Scoville, Jr. As Scoville, a dove, wrote to McCone on April 25, 1963 – after he had resigned and refused to return when asked because of his continuing disputes with the other directorates about the planned reorganization – “he also expressed his frustration with regard to a joint CIA-DOD program – a reference to the CIA’s participation in the National Reconnaissance Program and the National Reconnaissance Office.” (See synopsis of ltr., Document 20, in The National Security Archive of SIGINT material, obtained by FOIA applications of its managers.) Scoville had been at odds too with NRO directors about its authority, their authority, and their relation with the DDR.
“McCone,” John Marks wrote in The Search For The “Manchurian Candidate”, “apparently believed that science should be in the hands of the scientists, not clandestine operators, and brought in fellow Californian, an aerospace ‘Whiz Kid’ named Albert ‘Bud’ Wheelon to head a new Agency Directorate of Science and Technology.” (p. 209) The DCI, though, in letting the scientists who had tried to create intelligence zombies – former Technical Services Staff head Sidney Gottlieb, his new chief Seymour Russell, hypnotist Dr. George White and others – know what he thought of them, he just angered them, and induced them to more reckless operations, as one ex-CIA recalled upon learning of wild cowboy Seymour’s appointment: “The idea was to get a close interface with operations.” (Quoted from Marks, p. 210.) And this is what Wheelon wanted too.
While this close interface was demonstrated when White tried to quickly hypnotize Lee Harvey Oswald, it seems, in Mexico City in July 1963 to kill JFK (pp. 202-3, and n., bottom p. 244) – which failed, and led to Miami Agent George Joannides helping set him up as the fall guy for the JFK assassination, the more relevant experience for this article was the apparent downing by the Cubans of NRO Captain Glenn Hyde, Jr.’s flight while over Cuba on November 20, 1963, on the eve of JFK’s fatal trip to Texas – what crashed into the Florida Straits, activating new agent Porter Goss to retrieve the plane and its photographic material in the hope that it would show that the Soviets still had IRBMs on the island, and were willing to use force to hide their existence.
The LaGrange (Ga,) Daily News (LDN), the paper of Hyde’s home town, headlined its issue the next day thus: “LaGrange Pilot Missing In U-2 Crash Near Cuba” and printed under it a large photograph of the smiling pilot. There were three stories under the headline: one about the man behind another downed U-2, another about Hyde’s last moments Stateside before his sudden disappearance, and a nationally syndicated story about the apparent shoot-down. A United Press Bulletin reported that Navy divers, operating from a PT boat in the Florida Straits, had found the wreckage of the plane, and had started salvage operations to raise the plane. Then there was a story about his wife, entitled “I Believe My Husband Is All Right”, from Leland, Mississippi where the flight had originated from, and where she was residing while he was performing this crucial duty.
The crux of the stories was what while the Strategic Air Command (SAC) theorized that the plane had experienced mechanical difficulties, military sources in Washington “…did not discount entirely the possibility of a Cuban attack on the U2, the intelligence craft that discovered the Soviet missile buildup in Cuba last year and has kept the island under surveillance since.”
On the day JFK was assassinated, the whereabouts of the missing pilot was the headline on the front page, and the story added that an all-out search was underway to find Hyde, and that “divers, during a preliminary investigation at a 100-foot depth, said there was no signs of Hyde inside the fuselage of the plane.” Its implication was that evidence on the craft would determine what it had encountered, and what was the cause of the crash.
The day after the fouled-up conspiracy assassination – what had accidentally or deliberately included Texas Governor John B. Connally, and he had survived, threatening to prosecute those who had apparently double crossed him – the interest in connecting it to Cuba simply died, and with it the fate of Captain Hyde and the evidence within the downed U-2. In the LDN, these concerns were reduced to a three paragraph story on the bottom of a inside page, the fuselage on the bottom of the Florida straits reduced to merely “minor debris”. Much of the hoax was in evidence when the alleged deceased’s survivors were awarded at the Greenfield AFB in May 1964 his Distinguished Flying Cross and the Fifth Oak Leaf Cluster to his Air Medal for flights which did not include the one which, it seems, killed him.
The crude cover up of this NRO hoax might have been exposed if several other more immediate cover-ups of the killing were not already underway, and the agency was not the vital instrument of JFK’s lasting legacy – landing an American on the moon by the end of the decade. The Apollo program was the NRO’s baby, and it played it for all it was worth. While the NSA was getting embroiled in the Vietnam War because of its fabrications regarding the Tonkin Gulf incidents, the CIA because of its illegal MH-CHAOS operation against its opponents, and the Bureau because of its similar COINTELPRO program, the NRO, with its satellites, spacecrafts, and new aircraft, was pushing everyone’s vision towards the stars.
Still, in its most secret enclave, it would get into much more dangerous projects and results, as we shall see.
See Also – A History of America’s National Reconnaissance Office – part 2