ADCI Speech: Early Satellites in US Intelligence
Acting Director of Central Intelligence
at the Signing of the Executive Order Declassifying Early Satellite Imagery
Early Satellites in US Intelligence
February 24, 1995
Vice President Gore, distinguished guests, friends, I welcome you here today for a historic event. Vice President Gore is here to announce the signing of an Executive Order declassifying imagery from our early intelligence satellite systems. Within 18 months, imagery from the CORONA, ARGON, and LANYARD systems will be available to the public through the National Archives and the US Geological Survey.
These satellite systems are obsolete now, but in their time they played a pivotal role in our national security. As we debate the role and mission of intelligence in the next century, it is important to understand how the images sent back by these early satellites altered our view of the world during the Cold War and how satellite imagery continues to shape our worldview today.
I would like to focus on one system--CORONA. CORONA was conceived in the late 1950's, an era when facts were scarce and fears were rampant. The size and nature of the Soviet threat were largely unknown, but many believed that the United States was falling dangerously behind Moscow in critical areas. The Soviet threat grew in the imagination of the public as our leaders debated the supposed "bomber gap," the "missile gap," and the "science gap." The successful launch of Sputnik in 1957 even raised public fears that the Soviets would drop bombs on the US from space.
In 1958, President Eisenhower approved a program that would answer our questions about Soviet missile capabilities and replace risky U-2 reconnaissance flights over Soviet territory. The CIA and the Air Force would jointly develop satellites to photograph denied areas from space. That program had both a secret mission and a secret name--CORONA.
The CIA and Air Force developed this first-generation space program with great speed and tight secrecy. In August of 1960, we successfully launched a CORONA satellite and recovered the film capsule it dropped from space. It was 110 days after Moscow shot down the U-2 aircraft piloted by Gary Powers, ending U-2 flights over Soviet territory. During the next 12 years, CORONA satellites would usher in a new era of technical intelligence and a new era of "firsts."
The CORONA system successfully photographed its first intelligence target on August 18, 1960. We have that image here on the left; it shows a military airfield near Mys Schmidta, on the Chukchi Sea in far-northeastern Russia. By today's standards, the image looks fuzzy and distant, but technical advances soon produced sharper pictures. The image on the right, taken in 1966, shows a Soviet Long-Range Aviation Airfield near Dolon, Kazakhstan.
Such pictures held enormous significance for the course of the Cold War. They provided information that allowed our leaders to weigh the Soviet threat and measure our response. CORONA debunked the missile gap. It allowed us to base our national security strategy--and spending--on facts rather than fear, on information rather than imagination. These images, combined with the expertise of photo interpreters and analysts on the ground, provided us with precise information on our adversaries' offensive and defensive capabilities. Continuing advances in surveillance and reconnaissance technology allowed the United States to closely monitor the development, testing, production, and deployment of weapons in denied areas.
CORONA ushered in technological firsts that contributed to advancements in other areas. The program taught us how to recover objects from orbit--methods that were adapted by NASA to recover astronauts. It gave us a fast and relatively inexpensive way to map the earth from space. Before CORONA, cartographers had adequately mapped only a quarter of the earth's surface. CORONA also provided the first stereo-optical images from space, which gave photo interpreters a 3-dimensional view of terrain.
The most important contribution of the CORONA system to national security came from the intelligence it provided. CORONA looked through the Iron Curtain and helped to lay the groundwork for disarmament agreements and the collapse of the Berlin Wall. With satellites, we could verify reductions in missiles without on-site inspections. Satellite imagery gave the United States the confidence to enter into negotiations and to sign arms control treaties with the Soviet Union. Successor programs continued to monitor ICBM sites, and verify strategic arms agreements and the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
The CORONA program has now taken its place in history, but satellite imagery continues to play a vital role today. Satellite imagery confirmed that North Korea was developing an offensive nuclear capability in the early nineties and gave us early warning when Saddam Hussein deployed two elite Republican Guard Divisions to the Kuwaiti border last Fall.
The lessons of the CORONA program can tell us much about how the Intelligence Community operates today.
First, CORONA demonstrated that the ability to adapt rapidly to a changing world is critical to the success of US intelligence. The CIA and Air Force pushed the CORONA program at breakneck pace, because we knew that the Soviets were working on countermeasures against the U-2. While the Soviets developed ways to hide their weapons programs from CORONA, American intelligence experts were working on the next generation of satellites to defeat those measures. For the Intelligence Community, this process of adaptation has been continuous. The need to adapt will grow even more acute as the pace of technological advancement increases. It is not enough to answer the questions that policymakers and military commanders ask today, we must anticipate the questions they will ask in the next century. We must design the technologies, methods, and collection strategies that will provide the answers.
The second lesson--satellites alone don't provide answers, you need experts on the ground to tell them where to look, to analyze the images, and to get information quickly to the people who need it. To give you an example from Desert Storm; after Iraq invaded Kuwait, our analysts anticipated that Saddam might release stored oil into the gulf. Early on 24 January, shortly after the war began, satellites sent images of a massive oil slick forming around Kuwait's offshore oil loading facilities. Analysts were well prepared. They had studied the Kuwaiti oil facilities and knew how the oil flowed through manifold valves to the offshore terminal. They provided the military with the precise location of the manifold and an image of the target. On 26 January laser-guided bombs struck the manifolds, greatly reducing the flow of oil. It was a success that involved people from across the Intelligence Community working in cooperation with the military. The Pentagon later released the footage of the bombing tha t we all saw on TV news.
The third lesson from the CORONA system--it is cheaper to counter a known threat than an imagined threat. Just as military planners in 1960 needed to know Soviet missile capabilities to make prudent decisions, today's planners need to know which countries are developing weapons of mass destruction, how long it will be until such weapons are operational, and what systems these countries have for delivering weapons.
The fourth lesson--secrecy for current collection systems is critical. The more the adversary knows about the collection system, the faster and cheaper he can develop measures to counter it. That principle applied in the era of Nikita Khrushchev and it applies in the era of Saddam Hussein. We must constantly weigh national security interests against a real need for greater openness.
The final lesson from the CORONA program is that these intelligence systems are valuable assets that belong to the American people. We should declassify them when their secrets are no longer critical to national security. Film from these early broad-area-search systems still contains a wealth of information.
When he was in the Senate, Vice President Gore led an effort to make this data available for environmental studies. He approached former DCI Robert Gates with the idea and their discussions led to the formation of the Environmental Task Force in the spring of 1992. The purpose of the task force was to determine how we could apply classified systems and data to environmental studies.
At the same time, the Central Imagery Office conducted an extensive review of classification policy and procedures under a DCI Classification Review Task Force. That group, made up of both military and civilian members, concluded that the declassification of the satellite imagery collected by the obsolete, broad-area-search satellite systems does not present a risk to national security.
Just as CORONA gave the Intelligence Community a view through the Iron Curtain, today that program offers information that can open doors not only for environmentalists, but also for scientists, scholars, and historians.
The process of bringing these early spy satellites in from the cold has been long. We are working on ways to provide critical information to people who need it sooner, without compromising national security concerns.
Before I turn over the podium, I would like to call your attention to this camera from the CORONA Program. Later this year, we will transfer the camera to the Smithsonian to commemorate the 35th anniversary of the beginning of CORONA. On 24 May, there will be an unclassified symposium on the revolution in intelligence collection and analysis inaugurated by the CORONA system. That evening, there will be a commemoration ceremony at the Smithsonian to honor Americans who made major contributions to the pr ogram.
At this time it is my pleasure to introduce Vice President Gore, who played a key role in bringing about the Executive Order on imagery declassification.