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CIA, NRO, and Air Force Celebrate the U-2: A Revolution in Intelligence

September 28, 1998

On September 17, hundreds flocked to Fort Leslie J. McNair to take part in a symposium, held by the CIA's Center of the Study of Intelligence (CSI), in conjunction with the United States Air Force, the Department of Defense, the National Reconnaissance Office, Lockheed Martin, Eastman Kodak, and Raytheon, to examine the development, operations, and policy impact of the U-2 reconnaissance aircraft. The U-2 was one of America's most remarkable intelligence achievements. Three panels, comprising pilots, engineers, analysts, policymakers, and scholars, discussed the building and flying of the U-2, as well as the impact its imagery had on US policies.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower approved the U-2 project in 1954 because his advisors believed the unconventional aircraft would provide hard intelligence on the growing Soviet strategic threat. The aircraft mated newly available engine and camera technologies in a way that was beguiling in its simplicity and breathtaking in its boldness; the U-2 was both fragile and, for a time, invulnerable when it reached its unprecedented cruising altitude of 70,000 feet. Although the U-2 overflew the USSR only 24 times, it obtained precious data that unmasked the nature of Soviet deployments and may have saved America billions of dollars in unneeded defense expenditures. Even after the loss of Francis Gary Powers' U-2 over Russia on May 1, 1960 halted Soviet overflights, the aircraft continued to fly missions over trouble spots around the world. An improved version of the U-2 is still in production today; it remains a key intelligence collector in the US inventory.

The conference commemorated the service of all who worked on this project from its inception nearly 45 years ago. The conference made a special memorial tribute to those 45 pilots and support personnel who paid the ultimate sacrifice during their association with the project. DDCI for Community Management Joan Dempsey and Major General Pat Halloran (USAF-ret.) presented memorial medallions to surviving family members during a noon ceremony. In addition, CSI released a sanitized version of the CIA's 1992 official history of the program's first 20 years (when it was run primarily by the Agency). Also on display at the conference were samples of declassified U-2 imagery, selected in part from the 1.5 million images recently released by the Intelligence Community to the National Archives in College Park, Maryland.

In his introductory remarks, DCI George Tenet told the audience, ``The U-2 was, indeed, one of the CIA's greatest intelligence achievements. In fact, it may be one of the greatest achievements of any intelligence service of any nation. It was a triumph of government, great industrial partners and courageous men. A triumph which must be replicated again and again if we are to protect our country. We are fortunate to have this great legacy to build on.''

Tenet noted that in the grim context of the Cold War, ``President Eisenhower asked the Central Intelligence Agency to pull together and direct the U-2 program. Then DCI Allen Dulles put his special assistant, Richard Bissell, in charge. Bissell pulled together brilliant talent from academia, from industry and from the military - inspired talent such as MIT's James Killian and Harvard's James Baker, who is with us this morning, Edwin Land, Lockheed's Kelly Johnson, America's foremost aeronautical engineer, and Trevor Gardner, another gifted engineer from the private sector who had come into government as Assistant to the Secretary of the Air Force for R&D.

``The Mission was daunting. To design, build, and fly a photographic reconnaissance plane that could fly over the Soviet Union at a higher altitude than any plane had ever flown before. They also would have to develop high-acuity cameras to peer deep into the Soviet Union and establish a photointerpretation center to analyze the imagery that was captured. A worldwide covert operation would have to be orchestrated to support the overflights. And, last but not least, they would have to hire and train pilots to fly these totally new planes over hostile airspace. . .

``Kelly Johnson and his Skunk Works crew began by cleaning out an old hangar at Lockheed. Eighty-eight days later, they had a prototype. The U-2 Project came in on time and under budget. . .

``The U-2 program . . . instantly became a major source of our intelligence about the Soviet Union. It constituted nothing less than a Revolution in Intelligence.

``From the U-2 data captured by our overflights -- data which was corroborated by intelligence obtained by other means -- President Eisenhower could confidently resist the fierce domestic pressure to engage in a massive arms buildup. He knew for certain - for certain - that we had no bomber-gap and no missile gap with the Soviet Union, all Soviet boasting to the contrary. By any measure, that was an intelligence triumph. The men and women who worked long and hard - and often took great risks - for the U-2's early successes can be forever proud of that.

``I want to say a special thanks to the pilots, from Carmine Vito to the U-2 pilots of today. The courage that Carmine and his colleagues showed made an enormous difference to the security of our country. These men allowed generations of Americans to live in peace and prosperity. On behalf of all Americans, I want to thank you, Carmine, and all your co-pilots and colleagues, for your great and selfless heroism. And to General Chuck Simpson and all the great pilots under his command today, thank you for carrying on the legacy of greatness that has been passed down to you, for the passion you have for the U-2 Mission and for the leadership you show young pilots who are making their own history.''

Other distinguished panelists and speakers at the conference included Major General John Casciano, USAF; Lockheed/Skunk Works President Jack Gordon; former aide to President Eisenhower General Andrew Goodpaster (USA-ret.); and Colonel. Alexander Semenovich Orlov, who provided a Russian perspective on the U-2's overflights of the USSR and Soviet efforts to down the aircraft. Several former U-2 pilots, engineers, historians, and intelligence analysts also spoke. A US Air Force U-2 overflight was the highlight of the day.


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