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The People of the CIA ... Richard Bissell: An Agency Leader

The history of the Central Intelligence Agency is rich with stories of men and women who dared to be leaders and innovators. If it weren’t for these brave Agency officers, our country might be a very different place today. One such leader and innovator was Richard Bissell. He became a CIA legend because he dared to take risks during one of the nation’s darkest periods, the Cold War. Under Bissell’s leadership, the Agency developed the U-2—a high-altitude reconnaissance aircraft—which debunked the myth that the Soviet Union was way ahead of America in producing missiles and weapons.


Bissell’s Upbringing and Education

Richard Bissell was born in Hartford, Conn., in September 1909 to a wealthy and powerful New England family. He attended the prestigious Groton School in Massachusetts for his primary education. He then went on to study at Yale University and the London School of Economics. During his time at Yale, Bissell was tapped to join the legendary Skull and Bones secret society, but he declined. In 1934, Bissell returned to Yale to teach economics.


An Introduction to Foreign Intelligence

With the beginning of World War II, Bissell wanted to find a way to serve his country. He left Yale and got a job at the Shipping Adjustment Board in Washington. Bissell’s economic background, childhood fascination with memorizing train timetables, and superb organizational skills earned him a reputation as the “American merchant shipping planner.”

At the end of the war, Bissell enjoyed a brief break from the hustle and bustle of Washington by teaching at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and consulting with U.S. Steel before he was called back to help plan the effort to rebuild Western Europe. In 1948, Bissell was appointed to help write the Marshall Plan. As a result of that work, Bissell became renowned among diplomats and foreign policy makers. His colleagues praised him as one of the sharpest minds in Washington. Bissell became part of a group known as the Georgetown Set, which included Agency officers Deputy Director of Plans (DD/P) Frank Wisner and James Angleton and future Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) Allen Dulles.


Recruited by Friends

After completing the Marshall Plan, Bissell went to work for the Ford Foundation. However, Frank Wisner and DCI Allen Dulles routinely tried to persuade Bissell to join the Agency. Their persistence paid off. In 1954, Dulles offered Bissell a job as his special assistant. Bissell accepted.


Managing the U-2 Project

Shortly after Bissell started at the Agency, he took the job of a lifetime. It all began with a tasking from President Dwight Eisenhower to boost intelligence collection on the Soviet Union. The result was that Bissell became the Agency’s project manager for the development of the U-2—a photo reconnaissance plane that would fly far above Soviet air defenses. Bissell in turn worked with Kelly Johnson, of Lockheed’s well-known “Skunkworks,”—Lockheed Martins’ advanced development team program that was responsible for a number of famous aircraft designs—and the only slightly less famous Edwin Land, the developer of the Polaroid camera. Together, in the space of 18 months, they created, tested, and fielded the U-2, a power glider that:

  • Could fly at 70,000 feet
  • Had a range of 2,950 miles and
  • Carried the finest camera lenses in the world.

The information that the U-2 gathered during its flights was crucial. It is said that by 1958, 90 percent of all intelligence on the Soviet Union was gathered through the lens of the U-2. Photos taken by the U-2 showed that America was on the winning side of the so-called “missile gap.”


Bissell as Deputy Director of Plans

In the fall of 1958, DCI Dulles chose Bissell to replace Wisner as DD/P. While Bissell had no experience running covert operations, he brought his excellent managerial skills and ability to think about any situation statistically. As DD/P, Bissell went on to lead the Agency through many challenging times, including the Bay of Pigs.

In 1962, President John Kennedy asked Bissell to become the director of the new science and technology department at the Agency. This post would allow Bissell to continue work on a new spy plane.  Bissell declined, opting instead to take a job at the Institute for Defense Analyses. During his post-Agency career, Bissell also worked for United Technologies and the Ford Foundation.

Bissell died in 1994 at the age of 85.


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Posted: Jan 19, 2012 10:55 AM
Last Updated: Apr 30, 2013 12:57 PM