The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

book cover

Review: Eyes in the Sky

Bookmark and Share

Eyes in the Sky: Eisenhower, the CIA and Cold War Aerial Espionage
by Dino A. Brugioni
Naval Institute Press, 2010
hardcover, 466 pages (421 pages plus notes and index), illus.
ISBN 978-1-59114-082-5

A couple of weeks ago marked the fiftieth anniversary of the first successful mission of a photographic reconnaissance satellite. A CORONA spysat, not much bigger than a garbage can, launched from a pad in California, flew over the Soviet Union, took some photographs on 70mm film, and that same day parachuted the film in a capsule over the Pacific Ocean northwest of Hawaii. That single mission photographed more targets than all of the previous dangerous and illegal U-2 spyplane flights over the USSR combined. This was no mere engineering feat. The mission inaugurated the age of satellite reconnaissance, which had a profound effect on the development of the Cold War.

Eyes in the Sky is Brugioni’s account of the extraordinarily productive time period from approximately 1954 until 1961, when a number of important new reconnaissance systems were introduced and changed the way that the political leadership operated.

The fact that the fiftieth anniversary was ignored by all but a few people and institutions currently involved in intelligence operations is not exactly a surprise. There is a tremendous body of literature on espionage and intelligence collection during the Cold War, and most of these works, including the highly-esteemed books that occasionally hit the bestseller lists, contain a gaping hole. Whereas the public, and writers and historians who serve them, are engaged by the daring stories of spies and traitors, during the Cold War the most significant intelligence data was collected by machines. Machines make lousy protagonists, but the sheer volume and quality of the photographs and communications and signals gathered up by various aircraft, satellites, and other platforms had a bigger effect on the development of the Cold War than the occasional double agent. Unlike spies, this intelligence never lied. By removing uncertainty about Soviet weapons developments and military capabilities it prevented miscalculations, prevented arms races, and helped keep the peace. And this was a field where the United States clearly excelled.

Dino Brugioni served as a senior analyst in the CIA during the 1950s and 1960s when strategic photographic reconnaissance was first born. Brugioni was a trained photo-interpreter and became a manager who worked closely with the people who interpreted reconnaissance; he turned their work into briefings that he and others delivered to senior government officials, including President Eisenhower. He has previously written well-regarded books about the Cuban Missile Crisis and photo fakery.

Eyes in the Sky is Brugioni’s account of the extraordinarily productive time period from approximately 1954 until 1961, when a number of important new reconnaissance systems—most notably the U-2 spyplane in 1956 and the CORONA reconnaissance satellite in 1960—were introduced and changed the way that the political leadership operated. The book contains sixteen chapters (including eighteen pages of photographs), running from early Cold War era overflights of the Soviet Union to the collection of intelligence that finally solved the so-called “Missile Gap” problem, demonstrating beyond a reasonable doubt that the Soviet Union did not possess more intercontinental ballistic missiles than the United States.

Brugioni’s focus is less on the technology development and its numerous challenges than it is on the actual missions, the intelligence they returned, and the decision making at the highest levels. In particular, he devotes considerable attention to President Eisenhower and his interest in seeing technical intelligence collection systems developed. Eisenhower had learned from personal experience that photographic intelligence was a powerful tool. Brugioni repeats a theme common to many previous books that Eisenhower was tremendously thoughtful and visionary when it came to intelligence collection.

Although Brugioni’s book contains a number of new details and fascinating insider information, it is missing any major revelations.

The book is well-written and engaging and filled with lots of color. For example, soon after the photo interpreters set up shop in the 1950s in a Washington, DC building on Fifth and K Streets, they noticed a large limousine parked across the street. So Brugioni brought his own camera and a telescopic lens and photographed the occupant and license plates, and the CIA determined it was a Soviet embassy car and Soviet intelligence agent. The book has other interesting anecdotes as well, such as the fact that low altitude reconnaissance missions sometimes returned pictures of people throwing spears at the aircraft, or using a latrine.

For those unfamiliar with the subject, this is an excellent introduction. However, it is a little more difficult to place this book in the context of other books on this subject. Philip Taubman’s Secret Empire covered much of this same territory, and Chris Pocock’s 50 Years of the U-2 recounted the history of the high-flying spyplane in greater detail; both were published in 2004. The CORONA satellite has been covered in a number of other books, including 1998’s similarly-named Eye in the Sky, which I edited. Overall, the Eisenhower era’s role in strategic reconnaissance has received a tremendous amount of attention whereas later periods, which are still obscure due to continued classification of documents, have received little coverage.

Although Brugioni’s book contains a number of new details and fascinating insider information (for instance, one source of information utilized by the CIA consisted of former Spanish Civil War veterans who had been imprisoned by the Soviet Union), it is missing any major revelations. Curiously, although the book is ostensibly about the Eisenhower period, it frequently jumps into the 1960s to include information about some later projects. For instance, the book discusses the Air Force’s Mach 3 spyplane, the SR-71, which did not enter service until many years after Eisenhower’s presidency. It also briefly discusses the Manned Orbiting Laboratory, which was started under Kennedy and canceled in 1969 by Richard Nixon. But it does not contain information on the GAMBIT high-resolution reconnaissance satellite, which started under Eisenhower, first flew in 1963, operated in upgraded versions until the mid-1980s, and was arguably nearly as important as CORONA. Early GAMBIT photography was declassified in 2002, and it was substantially better than the broad coverage CORONA imagery. Brugioni does not explain how this significantly better imagery changed the intelligence community. The omission cannot be due to security concerns, because the book contains other information, such as a brief discussion of the QUILL radar satellite flown once in 1964, which remains more classified than GAMBIT (see “Flight of a feather: the QUILL radar satellite”, The Space Review, May 24, 2010).

The book’s primary strength is that it provides unique insights into the interpretation aspect of the intelligence, an area that has received far less attention than it deserves. It delves into how dozens, and eventually hundreds of people, bent over light tables in government buildings with the windows bricked up, figured out what they were looking at and then turned that information into reports—counting the number of bombers and fighters at a Soviet airbase, for instance, and figuring out their performance based upon things like their wingspan and fuselage diameter.

The book’s weakness is its sometimes blurry focus. As already mentioned, the book tends to wander around a bit, jumping from the late 1950s to the early 1970s and then back again, skipping from one subject to the next. This is no memoir, but at times it is difficult to determine what the author knows because he was there from what the author knows because he obtained information about it from others or from documents or even books written later.

The book is also diminished by an increasingly common trait of the publishing industry, poor copy editing. Publishers, desperate to cut costs, have done away with copy editors and the result tends to be more errors that cause the reader to stumble over the text. Spell-checkers don’t catch these errors as easily. Eyes in the Sky has quite a few errors in the form of multiple spellings of names. For instance, the Steuart Building, where the Photo Intelligence Division first set up shop, is referred to as the “Steart Building” in a photo caption. There are numerous other cases just like this. There is one rather glaring copy editing mistake: the book occasionally refers to the National Photographic Interpretation Center—Brugioni’s employer—as the National Photographic Intelligence Center. But overall, Eyes in the Sky is a useful addition to the literature on the development of these vital intelligence systems and a fun read.