DCI's Address to CSI CORONA Symposium
May 23, 1995
Good morning. It is a pleasure to participate in this conference on the CORONA program. I would like to welcome all of the distinguished representatives of government, academia, and industry who are here today and thank you for taking the time to participate. I want to especially thank George Washington University and its Space Policy Institute for cosponsoring this event with the Center for the Study of Intelligence.
It is hard to project ourselves back to an era when we knew so little about the most important national security challenge of the day. We knew that in 1953 the Soviets had tested a hydrogen bomb; that in August 1957 they had successfully tested an intercontinental ballistic missile; that in October, they had launched Sputnik.
Beyond that, however, we had little hard evidence of the real military capabilities of the Soviet Union. Many believed that the Soviets were far ahead of the United States in developing and producing guided missiles. In the absence of reliable information about the nature of the Soviet threat, we had no choice but to build up our own forces.
Unknown to the public, our leaders got their first look behind the iron curtain through photographs from the U-2 reconnaissance plane. As President Eisenhower and the Intelligence Community well knew, however, the U-2 was a limited and an interim solution. It only covered a fraction of the territory of the Soviet Union. Its flights were infrequent and each carried enormous physical risks for the pilot and political risks for the country. But the U-2 did show us things we had never seen, from the nuclear test sites at Novaya Zemlya and Semipalatinsk to the missile launch facility at Tyuratam. When a Soviet missile brought down Gary Power's plane in May of 1960, it left an intelligence gap that stretched across the 11 time zones of the Soviet Union.
Exactly 110 days later, pictures from a CORONA satellite began to fill this intelligence gap with a quantity and quality of information unimaginable before.
Today, you will be hearing from many experts who participated in the CORONA project. I would like to focus on just a few elements of the process that led to CORONA because I believe this history has relevance for today. The elements contain simple lessons that should be relearned. These elements are: (1) the process that led to the decision to build CORONA, (2) the characteristics of the industry-government team that accomplished this goal in such a short time and under such enormous pressure, and (3) the significance of that first successful satellite reconnaissance mission.
(1) The Impetus for CORONA. I take some pride that two individuals related to MIT were important driving forces behind the decision to build a photoreconnaissance satellite system. Jim Killian Jr., president of MIT, chaired the Killian Committee, which was established to examine the threat of any surprise enemy attack on the United States. Din Land, of the Polaroid Corporation, chaired a subcommittee responsible for finding ways to monitor Soviet military capabilities.
The concept of this CORONA photoreconnaissance system was first broached in late 1957. The charter of the system was no less than to resolve the great debate over the number and capabilities of Soviet missiles targeted on the United States. In other words, to take the dimensions of the missile gap, if one existed. At that time, however, the United States was still more than three months away from successfully launching its first small satellite.
President Eisenhower formally endorsed the project in February of 1958. CORONA moved forward in a series of swift decisions, hastily-called meetings, and short memoranda. The DCI's memorandum approving funding for CORONA's photographic payload, for example, is a model of simplicity. In three short paragraphs, it commits seven million dollars to this phase of the project.
Today, such haste would seem a recipe for disaster. But in a little more than two years time, we had the first successful recovery of film from space on 18 August, 1960. The lesson here is when there is an intelligence need, the intelligence community and the highest governmental leadership can and should take prompt action to collect the information needed to make critical national security decisions.
2. The Team. A CIA/Air Force/industry team made this achievement possible. CORONA was managed jointly by the Central Intelligence Agency and the US Air Force. The CIA Project Director was Richard M. Bissell, Jr., the Special Assistant to the DCI for Planning and Development. Brig. Gen. Osmund Ridland was in charge of Air Force CORONA support for Maj. Gen. Bernard A. Schriever. They brought in an industry team that included Lockheed Missiles & Space Company, Itek Corporation, Fairchild Camera & Instrument Corporation, Eastman Kodak, General Electric, and Douglas Aircraft Company.
The government and industry team pulled together a group of talented individuals who could turn this concept into reality in a very short time. They had to reach out for the best technology and expertise that private industry could offer. They had to encourage innovation and collegial effort and they had to accomplish all of this under conditions of the utmost secrecy.
This team had enormous technical obstacles to overcome and no time for lengthy preliminary studies. They suffered a number of mission failures, each with a unique cause: weakness in the reentry system, camera malfunction, or failure in the recovery system. Richard Bissell fought for the time to move the program from failure to success.
The lesson here is that when the government and industry work together on an important project, it is possible to achieve great results in a short period of time at surprisingly low cost. Today, unfortunately, except perhaps in the intelligence area, the relationship between government sponsor and industry performer is too often adversarial.
3. The consequences of the project
Once success was achieved, it was spectacular. The first capsule successfully recovered from CORONA contained 3,000 feet of film and covered more than 1,650,000 square miles of Soviet territory. This was more overhead photographic coverage of the Soviet Union than the U-2 obtained in all of its 24 flights over Soviet territory.
CORONA marked the beginning of an explosion of intelligence data. As Richard Bissell said, overnight we went from "famine to feast" in terms of intelligence information. In sum, decisions in Washington were made with the benefit of hard information. That situation profoundly altered the course of the Cold War and was probably instrumental in keeping us back from the nuclear threshold.
But, for me the important lesson of CORONA is the role that technology can play in intelligence. At the right time, taking advantage of an advance in technology can revolutionize the business of intelligence. Today, we should not lose sight of the need to boldly grasp the opportunities that new technology presents.
Openness. Satellite photoreconnaissance was nothing short of a revolution--for intelligence analysis, for the conduct of foreign policy, for the planning of our defense strategy. It was a revolution, however, that had to be kept from the American public for many years for legitimate security reasons.
That brings me to the final point I will emphasize today, the opportunity for openness in the Intelligence Community. As CORONA demonstrates, intelligence has played a vital role in our history. We have an obligation to explain that role to the public when it is appropriate to do so, that is when the national security is not jeopardized by releasing information about sources and methods.
The idea of declassifying the CORONA program has been around for a long time. We know, back in 1972, former DCI Richard Helms, who has been kind enough to join us today, was talking about eventually declassifying the program. This step has taken much longer than he probably anticipated. There were two catalysts that finally spurred the effort to release this information to the public: the end of the Cold War, and the determination of then-Senator Gore, who led an effort to make this data available for environmental studies. He approached former DCI Robert Gates with the idea in the spring of 1992.
In February, the President signed an executive order declassifying imagery from the early satellite systems, CORONA, ARGON, and LANYARD. This historical resource will be available to the public through the National Archives and the US Geological Survey, and will even be available on the Internet.
The release of the imagery is only one aspect of the story. This conference is also part of a larger effort to educate the public about the role of intelligence in US history and to share information with academia and the public. One of the challenges for intelligence today is to decide what can be released to the public.
Telling the story of CORONA is the easy part of the openness policy. The story is positive, and the rapid pace of technological change has made the decision to declassify imagery from these obsolete systems much easier. It is important, however, for the Intelligence Community to be just as open about the stories that are not so positive. We are determined to do that.
New Challenges. Before I conclude, I would like to point out that the experience of CORONA remains relevant. Imagery continues to play an important role in countering today's threats, from monitoring the North Korean nuclear program, to keeping track of the movements of Iraq's army.
One of the things I intend to do to ensure that we get the most out of our imagery capabilities is to establish a National Imagery Agency that will pull together all aspects of collection, analysis, and distribution of imagery. We need to go beyond the technical magic of space photos, to develop better ways to present this information to the people who need it, from the President, to the military commander on the battlefield.
As we search for new ways to apply technology to intelligence challenges, we would do well to study the experience of the CORONA team. Their determination, innovative spirit, and the enormously productive partnership they established between industry and government is a model of effective problem-solving. Once again, I would like to salute all of the people who were involved in the CORONA project.