BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Philip Taubman, what is your book "Secret Empire" about?
PHILIP TAUBMAN, AUTHOR, "SECRET EMPIRE" It`s about the creation of spy satellites in the 1950s, in the Eisenhower administration, and the whole vaulting of American spying from the conventional airplanes up into the stratosphere with the U-2 and then on out into space. All this happened in a compressed period of about six years during the Eisenhower administration, and it essentially revolutionized the intelligence business and, I think, played a major role in stabilizing the cold war and keeping from turning hot.
LAMB: What got you interested in it?
TAUBMAN: Covering intelligence issues for "The New York Times." Started out about 20 years ago now. One day, I walked into the office, and my boss said, We want you to start covering intelligence. And that`s when the journey that led to this book began. Did that in the Washington bureau of "The Times" for four or five years, then went overseas, worked in Moscow, but never really lost interest, kept writing about it and talking to people in this field. And then the book was really born in the late `90s, when a tremendous amount of classified material at the National Reconnaissance Office and CIA was opened up. And that`s really when the story became possible to tell.
LAMB: Why did Bill Clinton approve the declassification of this material?
TAUBMAN: I think he sensibly made the decision that it was no longer sensitive. The materials dealt with events that took place mostly in the 1950s. The satellites that were considered so secret for so long had passed on to subsequent generations, which, by the way, still remain classified, the more recent generations dating back to the mid-1970s. Those systems, many of which we still use, or at least their successor forms, are still classified. But if you`re in the business of trying to open up American history, which I think both Al Gore and Bill Clinton were interested in doing, and you had a succession of CIA directors, beginning with Bob Gates, who recommended going back and opening these archives, it was the right decision to make.
LAMB: In the back, in your acknowledgement sections, you say that both Carnegie Corporation...
LAMB: ... and Hoover Institution both funded part of this. What was their interest?
TAUBMAN: Historical, I think. Both institutions, I think, are interested in American history. And they`re kind of an unlikely pair, in some ways. I don`t know that they want to be characterized politically, but certainly, Hoover over the years has been associated with Reagan administration and has a history of being more conservative. Carnegie`s kind of non-ideological, but I felt pretty good about getting support from very different kinds of institutions.
LAMB: Let`s go to a story that everybody`s either heard of, or if they haven`t, they should have, and that`s Francis Gary Powers.
LAMB: What was that all about? What year did this happen? And explain what happened.
TAUBMAN: Well, what I learned -- the basic story was May 1, 1960 -- the United States had flown, at that point, 23 missions over the heartland of the Soviet Union in the U-2. And along came Powers’ flight on May Day. He was shot down over Sverdlovsk, and it created a huge international ruckus.
The Eisenhower administration had feared for some time that the plane might be vulnerable to attack, but they were -- put out the most kind of reckless lies, basically, in the days immediately after the shootdown. At first, they didn`t know that Powers had been caught alive. Khrushchev sprang a surprise on them. And so it was -- when one looks back at it, it was -- it was both a kind of -- very volatile moment in the cold war, and it was a moment that I think changed the perception of Americans about their government.
This was, you know, before Vietnam, before Watergate, but it was a moment in which the American government lied boldly to the American people about something because in the immediate days after the shootdown, first we said there was no spy plane going over the Soviet Union, it was simply on a weather reconnaissance mission. And then when it became clear that it had strayed over the Soviet Union and might even have gone in deliberately, the most amazing story was put out by the White House, which was that the plane had gone up without the approval of anybody in Washington, which was ludicrous, of course. And within a day or two, they had to retreat from that.
But it was -- I think, in going back and looking at this history, it became clear to me that this was, in a way, a preview of things to come, in terms of Americans recognizing that their government was prepared to lie about activities in such a kind of naked way that I think it eroded confidence in the government.
LAMB: Back in the `70s, when Henry Kissinger went to China, he took a flight, I believe, from Pakistan to get in there. And it was secret.
LAMB: I was interested to find out in this case, the U-2 took off from Pakistan?
TAUBMAN: In fact, this very mission that Powers flew started from Pakistan. We flew the plane out of various places over the years, but they opened a secret base not far from Peshawar in Pakistan. And the theory was that if you came in under the sort of soft underbelly of the Soviet Union, over Afghanistan, and came in over those Asian republics of the Soviet Union, the radar coverage would be less intense than it was if you flew in from Western Europe. Turned out that was not really the case, and in fact, the second that Powers crossed into Soviet airspace, he was being tracked.
LAMB: What was so unusual about the U-2? And what did the "U" and the "2" stand for?
TAUBMAN: Utility. They couldn`t figure out what to call the plane when they created it because they didn`t want to identify it as an intelligence-gathering aircraft or reconnaissance aircraft. And they didn`t want to identify it as a bomber or something that it wasn`t. So they were trying to disguise the purpose of the plane. And somebody found in the Air Force manuals that there were so-called "utility planes." And there was already a U-1 and a U-3, so they randomly, basically, called this the U-2.
The creation of the plane was a really amazing kind of seat-of-the-pants operation that unfolded in 1953, `54, `55 after a long process in which the Air Force had resisted the development of a specialized reconnaissance plane that would penetrate deep into Soviet airspace. And it was only because of science advisers, basically, that Eisenhower brought into play. And he put a lot of faith in science.
He had a couple of people, particularly Jim Killian, who was the president of MIT, and Edwin Land, I think a name a lot of your viewers know, the man who created instant photography and the Polaroid Corporation. Those two men really were terrifically important in identifying the Lockheed plan for this exotic aircraft, which in its day was a kind of revolutionary airplane.
The notion was that you would fly at 70,000 feet, which was way above any altitude where there`d been sustained manned flight up until that point, that you would cruise across the Soviet Union for thousands of kilometers, taking photographs that would reveal what kind of aircraft they had. The whole undertaking was basically improvised. And the Air Force, in fact, turned down the Lockheed plan that was the creation of this wonderful airplane designer named Kelly Johnson. Kelly`s plan was discarded by the Air Force, and it was only through the intervention of Killian and Land and other scientists that Eisenhower reached in and said, Let`s build that plane.
And he did something equally revolutionary. Instead of giving it to the Pentagon to build, he put the whole project in the hands of the CIA.
LAMB: What did the U-2 plane look like?
TAUBMAN: It`s basically a jet-powered glider, rather ungainly-looking plane, where the wingspan was exceptionally long because under the aerodynamics and laws of physics, in order to operate a plane at that altitude for that kind of sustained flight, you had to have tremendous lift, basically, from the wings. And so you had to have these especially long wings.
But it also made the plane very delicate. And under the Johnson plan, which is one of the reasons the Air Force didn`t like it -- it had no armaments. It had no military specifications of the kind that the Air Force would usually insist on. It was a very radical idea. And the plane was so fragile that there was something that the pilots referred to as the "coffin corner," which was when you got up to your cruising altitude of about 65,000, 70,000 feet, if you flew that plane -- you had to fly it, basically, between, I think it was, you know, 390 knots and 396 knots, some very narrow window. If you went below that, the plane would stall. And because it was so delicately constructed, it would basically disintegrate. And if you went above the speed, it would be too fast for the plane and it would start being buffeted and it would disintegrate.
There`s a great moment when one of the pilots who -- one of the first pilots who used the plane sort of took a look at it, and -- and he tested the wings with his hands, and they were so flimsy, he said, This thing`s made out of toilet paper. I mean, it was just -- it was an amazing aircraft. It still is. We`re still using it today.
LAMB: How many do we have today, do you know?
TAUBMAN: I think we have about 40 that we use, and it`s one of the few aircraft that have survived over the course of basically now a half a century.
LAMB: And back in -- you mentioned it earlier, but what was the first year that the first U-2 was built?
TAUBMAN: The first test flight took place in mid-1955, and it went into service on -- July 4th, I think, 1956, was the first day that it was flown over the Soviet Union.
LAMB: What was the goal?
TAUBMAN: The goal was desperation, basically, to find out what kind of weapons the Russians had in those days. It`s hard now, looking back, to imagine there was a time like this, although in some ways, it`s not that dissimilar to what we face with groups like al Qaeda, in the sense that there was a new threat emerging in the 1950s. It was the Soviet Union. Remember, they`d been our ally in World War II. And then quickly after the war, the relationship disintegrated, and we soon found ourselves in a cold war, and we didn`t know what kind of weapons the Russians had. And we were desperately concerned that they were developing the means to deliver nuclear weapons to the United States in a surprise attack that would have been devastating. It would have made Pearl Harbor look like a pinprick.
Eisenhower became consumed with this. At one point early on in his presidency, he became -- he was sworn in in January, 1953. He said the world was racing toward catastrophe, and he was right. And so he needed to have some kind of intelligence-gathering machinery that could look over the Iron Curtain, inside the Soviet Union, and see, at this point, what kind of bombers they had, and then later, there was equal need to find out what kind of missiles they were developing.
And in 1953, `54, the Soviet Union introduced a new bomber, a new intercontinental bomber that was roughly the equivalent of the American B-52. And that was a whole new ball game for us because up until then, they`d had piston planes, would have taken them, you know, 15 hours to get to the United States. Suddenly, we`re looking at jet aircraft that could, you know, make the trip much more quickly. And for the first time, really, in American history, we were facing the prospect of a devastating surprise attack from overseas.
LAMB: Is that the Bison airplane?
TAUBMAN: The Bison, correct.
LAMB: That was built by the Soviets.
TAUBMAN: It was built by the Soviets.
LAMB: Again, go back to Francis Gary Powers. May 1, 1960.
LAMB: How old a guy was he?
TAUBMAN: At that point, he must have been in his 20s or 30s, I guess. He was a young man.
LAMB: How was he trained?
TAUBMAN: He was trained by the CIA. Like the other U-2 pilots, he was kind of plucked out of obscurity. What they did -- Eisenhower did not want to have these planes manned by Air Force pilots. In fact, his original notion was to train foreign pilots. He didn`t want Air Force insignia on the planes. This is one of the reasons he turned it over to the CIA. The theory being, quite correctly, that the penetration of Soviet air space was an act of war, basically, and he wanted to reduce the potential for these planes to set off some kind of confrontation with the Russians. So Powers, like other pilots drawn out of the Air Force, came from elite Air Force units, and they went through something that was called "sheep-dipping," which was a kind of sort of idiomatic way of describing the process where you retired them, ostensibly, from the Air Force, they became civilians, and they went to work for the CIA. And they went through a lot of training to learn how to fly this plane. They went through some crazy medical tests that were sort of a preview of what later happened to the Mercury astronauts, the same place, in fact, down in Albuquerque, at the Lovelace clinic. Tom Wolfe made that famous in his book, "The Right Stuff." And a lot of them -- I`m sure Powers among them -- when they were plucked out of the Air Force and recruited to do these missions, assumed they were going to be flying an unbelievably, you know, sort of futuristic aircraft. They thought -- some of them even thought they might be being recruited to go into space. And when they got out to this secret airfield in Nevada and they saw this really ungainly-looking aircraft, they were kind of stunned and disappointed.
LAMB: Is this Area 51 that they...
TAUBMAN: Yes. Well, it goes under a lot of names. Area 51 is one of them. And the reason that Area 51 became sort of famous for UFO sightings was that this is where the CIA and later the Air Force were testing a lot of their most exotic airplanes. And they would go up to altitudes that were inconceivable at the time. The U-2, as I said, is operating about 70,000 feet. And later, you got to what was known as the A-12, or better known in Air Force parlance as the SR-71 Blackbird, which was flying at 70,000 feet. And so people could see these airplanes at sunset. Even pilots of commercial aircraft would come across the country, and the sun would be setting, and yet these planes would be reflecting the sun because they were still -- they were so high in the sky. That`s led to a lot of so-called UFO sightings out there.
It`s a base that was constructed by the CIA on ground in Nevada -- it`s north of Las Vegas -- that basically, at the time, was under the control of the Atomic Energy Agency. It was where we tested our nuclear weapons.
LAMB: May 1, 1960, how many U-2s did the United States have, at that point?
TAUBMAN: At that point, we had probably no more than a dozen, maybe 20.
LAMB: How many times had we flown over the Soviet Union by 1960?
TAUBMAN: That was the 24th flight. They started -- in 1956, when we started, and to 1960, there were 24 flights. That`s all, because Eisenhower was terrified of flying in because he feared exactly what happened with Powers.
LAMB: Did the Soviets know we were flying these planes?
TAUBMAN: They knew from day one. In fact, the first flight must have given -- we know it gave Khrushchev tremendous heartburn because it was July 4th. It was the American Independence Day. And he was invited to the residence of the American ambassador, Charles Bohlen, in Moscow, Spaso House. And so there he is, you know, receiving the hospitality of the United States, one of the few times that he was kind of making a gesture to the Americans by going over there. And that very day, we`re making our first flight over the Soviet Union. He was burned up over it. In his memoirs and his son`s memoir, you can see how angry they were, and particularly -- humiliated because the plane, at that stage, was beyond their ability to shoot down.
LAMB: To add a personal note, I was checking into a hotel in Denver a couple weeks ago, and the man in front of me was Sergei Khrushchev.
TAUBMAN: The son. Right.
LAMB: Have you met him?
TAUBMAN: Yes. Yes.
LAMB: What is he doing in this country?
TAUBMAN: He`s -- I think he`s teaching up at Brown University.
LAMB: Is he an American citizen?
TAUBMAN: He`s an American citizen. One of the great ironies of the end of the cold war is that the son of the man who said "We will bury you" later became an American citizen.
LAMB: Do you know why he did that?
TAUBMAN: I`m not really sure. I think he -- he found life here, I would assume, to be preferable to living in the Soviet Union.
LAMB: How many years did you spend in the Soviet Union?
TAUBMAN: I was there for three-and-a-half years as a correspondent for "The Times."
LAMB: What were the years?
TAUBMAN: The beginning of the Gorbachev era, 1985 to 1989, just a fascinating moment when the Soviet Union was beginning to -- not break up, but the glacier was beginning to melt a little bit, and it was the years -- in some ways, even more interesting than the convulsions that came a few years later because at that time, you didn`t know for sure what was happening. You weren`t sure whether Gorbachev was doing these things to impress the West, whether he was sincere about reforming the Soviet Union or not. It was a great, unbelievably interesting mystery for a journalist to try to unravel in those first years.
LAMB: Of the 24 flights, how many of them took off from Pakistan?
TAUBMAN: Just a handful. We flew flights out of Western Europe, and eventually, they moved down to Pakistan, as I said, because we were trying to come in where there was less radar coverage.
LAMB: At one point, you mentioned Iran.
TAUBMAN: Yes. There was a famous flight -- in fact, it was a flight not long before the Powers flight, in which, looking for a place to land, we picked an air base in Iran, which, of course, at that time was our ally. The shah was running Iran. We`d installed him there in 1953 through a coup that was engineered by the CIA. So a few years later, the CIA said this would make a good place to bring the plane in to land.
And the pilot -- I spoke to the pilot of that flight, Martin Knutson, who lives out in the Bay Area in California, and he described this hair-raising trip, where he basically was about to run out of fuel before he came into that airfield. And they had this kind of crazy system to warn him if there were kind of bandits, in those days, who were operating in that part of Iran. And they had smudge pots, and he was told that if he came in and the pot -- he could see smoke, he shouldn`t land, he should ditch the plane. And then he basically landed on fumes, he said.
LAMB: Now, how many of the U-2 pilots were available for you to talk to in the last couple years?
TAUBMAN: There`s still a few around. I spoke to Martin and interviewed some others on the telephone. You know, these men for years were not really able to talk about their careers, even after the Powers flight. When the existence of the plane became public, there was still a reticence on the part of the pilots to talk about their missions. And you know, the truth is, as I said, the U-2`s still in use today. So I think it was really only until recent years that the men who flew these original missions felt that the secrecy had finally ended.
In fact, it was only in 1998, not so long ago, that the CIA held a formal declassification conference on the U-2 and took a secret history that they had written internally and made it publicly available, which was invaluable to me in working on my book.
LAMB: How much of what you have in "Secret Empire" is new for people?
TAUBMAN: A good deal of it. In fact, on the U-2, if we can stick with that for a second, I think one of the new things that`s in the book is that just before the Powers flight, there was a lot of intelligence that should have told the Eisenhower administration that his plane was likely to be shot down. And what I discovered in these declassified materials was that as of March, 1960, the Air Force had concluded that the Russians had developed surface-to-air missiles that could reach the altitude and had the accuracy to knock the plane down.
And basically, from the day that that report landed, they should have ended the use of the U-2 over the Soviet Union, but they proceeded anyway. And it`s clear, in retrospect, as you look through these documents and you talk to people who worked with President Eisenhower, he was not adequately informed about the rising danger of a shootdown.
LAMB: Where do we use the U-2 today?
TAUBMAN: We`re using it -- anywhere there`s trouble, we want to use it. In fact, in Iraq, one of the issues that has come up in terms of the inspectors was could they fly the U-2 over Iraq? And the Iraqis finally gave approval, at one point, and we started to use the plane.
LAMB: Do I remember that Francis Gary Powers became a traffic reporter?
TAUBMAN: Yes, he tragically -- he was put on trial in Moscow. He was convicted of espionage, and then he was exchanged for a Soviet spy who was incarcerated in the United States. He came back, and he became a helicopter traffic reporter in Los Angeles, and he was killed when his helicopter crashed.
LAMB: Go back to May 1, 1960 again. How did we get the U-2 -- is it Peshawar?
LAMB: Pakistan. How did we get it there?
TAUBMAN: It was an interesting system they set up because you couldn`t keep the plane anywhere for very long, other than a couple of secure bases that we had established. And if you brought it into some place like Peshawar, you knew it wasn`t going to be long before word got out about the plane. I mean, this is not exactly your normal-looking aircraft.
So they set up a whole elaborate system, where they basically would bring in all the supplies they needed, including the fuel, which was very specialized fuel for the U-2. You couldn`t use regular aviation fuel. They would bring in the fuel in barrels. They would bring in all the equipment they needed. They would fly the pilot in who was going to pilot the plane because before they took off, they had to go through something that was known as pre-breathing of oxygen. This is like doing deep-sea diving. You have to get your body ready for the high altitude. And so they would breathe oxygen for 90 minutes.
So they would bring in the pilot and the equipment, and then they would fly the plane in. They would fuel it up, and the pilot who was prepared to make the mission would board and take off. They`d pack up all the stuff and ship out as fast as they could.
LAMB: So what happened to Francis Gary Powers?
TAUBMAN: Well, unbeknownst to the CIA and the Eisenhower administration, the route that they had designed for this flight, unhappily and unluckily, took him right over a missile battery outside of Sverdlovsk, which is on the eastern flank of the Urals. In fact, it`s the city that`s probably better known as the place where Czar Nicholas was assassinated by the Bolsheviks after the revolution. He and his family had been taken. They were killed there, and that`s where Boris Yeltsin was born and grew up and where he made his career in the Communist Party before moving to Moscow. It`s a gritty industrial city.
Anyway, Powers comes in, and the route of flight for the first time -- this -- you know, the 23 previous missions had all been what they called "racetrack" missions, where they basically went in, did a big circle route and came back out pretty much where they started. On this mission, it was the first one they were going to fly across the whole mid-section of the Soviet Union, starting from the south and ending up in Norway. And on the way, he was supposed to photograph some new missile test sites that we were concerned about and some aircraft factories.
And when he approached Sverdlovsk -- as I said, they`d been tracking him from the moment he entered the Soviet Union because just a few weeks before, we`d flown another mission where they`d almost -- they`d basically been ready to shoot down the plane, and because of bad communications and scrambling their aircraft belatedly, they couldn`t catch up with it. And Khrushchev was furious and basically said, The next time they come, we`re going to get them.
So he comes in, and as he`s flying over Sverdlovsk, they fire off three surface-to-air missiles. One of them hits a Soviet MiG fighter that`s scrambled up to attack the plane, and the Russian pilot is killed. Another one blows -- goes harmlessly by, and the third one blows up right behind the plane, basically knocks it out of commission. I mean, this plane, as I said, was so delicate, you know, you could have hit it with a sledgehammer and it would have started to come apart.
LAMB: About how long is it?
TAUBMAN: It was -- the wings were 70 feet across, and the fuselage was about 40 feet. So it`s like -- kind of like a gull. And the detonation of the missile behind the plane basically knocked it out of commission. We`ll never know what piece came off. But Powers realized instantly he was in big trouble, and it`s a miracle that he survived because the plane basically went into -- you know, into a tailspin down to the ground. And he managed to extricate himself from the cockpit. He was kind of hanging on for dear life, connected by his oxygen hose, as the plane is, you know, coming down. And then he finally just barely in time managed to get the hose cut loose so that he could fall free of the plane and open his parachute.
So the guy descends onto a collective farm outside of Sverdlovsk, where the -- you know, the farmers are looking up, What the heck is going on? And they arrest him. And as I said earlier, Khrushchev did not say immediately that they had the pilot, so they kind of set a trap for the Eisenhower administration.
LAMB: Well, you made this point earlier, but I want to go back to the atmosphere in the world at that time -- May 1, 1960. Dwight Eisenhower`s about to leave office.
TAUBMAN: He`s about to leave office, but even more importantly, he`s about to go to Paris for what in those days was known as a Four Powers Summit, which was the Soviet Union, the United States, Britain and France. And this -- he had hoped, even though the cold war had kind of been a roller-coaster during his administration, he was hoping that this would be a moment when, towards the end of his presidency, he might be able to lessen tensions. But the whole thing blew up, basically.
I mean it’s amazing in retrospect that they even bothered to go, but the four leaders assembled de Gaulle, Macmillan, Eisenhower and Khrushchev in Paris – and then Khrushchev not surprisingly threw a fit and the summit collapsed and Eisenhower came home with a – despondent basically with what had happened
LAMB: Up until 1960, 24 U-2 flights, what difference did they make back then?
TAUBMAN: They made a huge difference. They basically stabilized the Cold War. I think the irony of the plane is that it delivered such invaluable service to the country in terms of stabilizing the Cold War by allowing us to count the number of bombers that the Soviet Union had and these bison intercontinental bombers that we feared so much and that there were estimates that they were developing hundreds of them turned out they had far fewer than we thought.
So, the fact that the plane was able to penetrate Soviet airspace was a very important factor in reducing tensions and giving the United States the feeling that it was not as vulnerable to surprise attack, and yet ironically the missions ended with, as I said, one of the most volatile moments of the Cold War when a plane was shot down.
So, it was frustrating, I think, to the builders of the plane that the flights ended in such a disaster that had sort of almost erased all the accomplishments that the plane had achieved up to that point.
LAMB: I personally had another big surprise in this book. A fellow who was a pioneer in our business, early supporter of this network by the name of Richard Leghorn...
LAMB: ...who had an organization called Cape Cod Cable Vision turns out, and we didn`t know this because of the secrecy of it, a big deal in this thing.
LAMB: Who is Dick Leghorn?
TAUBMAN: Dick Leghorn is in a way the father of modern overhead reconnaissance. He was a combat or reconnaissance pilot in World War II and after the war he went to the Pacific to help out in the photographing of some of the first American tests of atomic weapons under sea, because after the attacks on Japan that ended the Second World War, we knew we had this incredibly destructive weapon but we really weren`t sure what impact it would have being fired off in different ways.
So, the United States set off some bombs, one of them under water out in the South Pacific near a set of islands, and he was there to take photographs of it and he describes to this day a scene that, and it changed his life in a way because of the ripple effect of that, had a huge influence on the course of modern American history.
He watched from his plane as this bomb went off under the surface and these huge ships that the United States has assembled out there, destroyers and other big German and Japanese vessels, came up out of the water like beach balls when this atomic blast went off under the water and he watched that, and he said to himself we can never have another war if we`re going to have these weapons in play and we`ve got to come up with a way of understanding what kinds of weapons our enemies have.
And so, Leghorn set out to develop a doctrine which became known as the Doctrine of Strategic Intelligence which is interesting because up until that time when you thought about intelligence gathering for military forces it was tactical reconnaissance. You wanted to know what your opponent was doing, what the forces look like across the battlefield or cross the horizon. You were preparing for the next battle.
Dick Leghorn`s contribution was to say we need to know in peacetime what kind of forces our opponents have because it`s only in the confidence of knowing what the threat is and the extent of the threat that, one, we can prepare to defend against it; and two, and this struck an important chord for Eisenhower later, we can avoid excessive defense expenditures.
Eisenhower was terribly concerned about what he called the creation of a garrison state in America, namely the investment of so much money in defense because we didn`t know what the threats were and we had to plan to counter everything that the entire wealth of the United States would end up being spent on defense and that it would, in effect, weaken the country and do terrible damage to our economy.
So, Dick`s contribution was, one, to come up with this doctrine, and then two, to have this smart idea in the late 1940s that aviation was reaching a point where we could develop an aircraft that could fly at this ridiculous altitude of 70,000 feet and go into Soviet airspace for hours and thousands of kilometers and come out with pictures that would tell us what their forces look like.
LAMB: You spent a lot of time in your book talking about people and you mentioned some of them but I want to go over them and have you just tell us a little bit about each one.
LAMB: And before I do that you say at some point in your book that what happened then probably couldn`t happen now with the interlocking of, I mean Dick Leghorn went on to create the Itek Corporation.
LAMB: Got involved in actually supplying camera?
TAUBMAN: Camera for the first spy satellite, right. What happened in that era, which I think would be very hard to replicate today, there was a kind of confluence of factors. You basically had a president in Eisenhower who was committed to innovation and military technologies who had the enlightened attitude, as I said, of bringing top flight scientists into a kind of leading role in the White House.
You had in the Oval Office a man who understood both the strengths and limitations of the Pentagon as the man who had led allied forces in World War II in Europe, a man who had been a five-star general. It took a lot of nerve. I`m not sure current presidents would have the nerve to basically say to the Air Force, we`re going to build an airplane.
The CIA is going to do it and the CIA is going to operate it, and then later to say to the Pentagon we`re going to build spy satellites and the CIA is going to do it and, you know, you`re not going to be the lead agency for that.
So, you had a president who had this kind of openness to innovation. You had an academic community and a scientific community which was reeling to some extent from the McCarthy witch hunts and particularly the banishment of Robert Oppenheimer, the head of the Manhattan Project that created the atomic bomb who had lost his security clearance.
These were things that were very unpopular in the academic and scientific community, but people decided they would put their patriotism ahead of their concerns about this and they would devote themselves to the national interest in a way that I think ended with the Vietnam War and has been very hard to rebuild since then.
LAMB: The other half of this story is the satellite thing, which we`ll get to, the reconnaissance satellite. We`ll get to it in a second. Before I ask about these people, I want to ask about yourself. Where`s your home originally?
TAUBMAN: I grew up in New York City, live there now.
LAMB: What was the family like then?
TAUBMAN: My father was a journalist. We are a long-time "New York Times" family. My father signed on in 1929 at "The New York Times" and went on to have a career that spanned 45 years, became a drama critic, and then the music critic and then later the drama critic.
LAMB: What was his name?
TAUBMAN: Howard Taubman. And, then I came along a few years after he retired and I`ve been there now myself 24 years.
LAMB: Where did you go to school?
TAUBMAN: I went to high school in New York and Stanford University out on the West Coast.
LAMB: I suspected in the dedication to this book there`s also a tip that somebody else in your family works at "The New York Times." For Felicity, Michael, and Gregory?
TAUBMAN: Right. Felicity Barringer is my wife. We met at Stanford at the Stanford daily newspaper office on campus and got married more than 30 years ago and first she had a very successful career at "The Washington Post." Then, when we moved to Moscow, she joined "The Times" and she`s now covering the U.N.
LAMB: And your current job at "The Times"?
TAUBMAN: I`m the deputy editorial page editor.
LAMB: How long you been doing that?
TAUBMAN: This particular job for a little over a year and a half. I`ve been at the editorial page for more than eight years.
LAMB: Now, also in the back you say you`ve got a brother that`s writing a book in the middle of all this.
TAUBMAN: Yes, at the very same time, and in fact through a fluke. I mean it was certainly not planned. His book, which is a biography of Nikita Khrushchev is coming out at the same time as my book, and in a funny way they`re bookends.
I mean, you know, my book is about the Eisenhower administration and his book is about Nikita Khrushchev, so there is overlap. I found it fascinating the other day. I sat down to look at his book and read about the power shoot down from the perspective of the Kremlin.
LAMB: Did you coordinate?
TAUBMAN: No. You know we`ve shared information but we didn`t sort of plot any kind of coordination. It was happenstance.
LAMB: How many Taubman brothers and sisters are there?
TAUBMAN: That`s it. There are just the two of us.
LAMB: And is he older or younger?
TAUBMAN: He`s older.
LAMB: And where is he located?
TAUBMAN: He`s a professor of political science at Amherst College.
LAMB: Back to the people. You mentioned Jim Killian.
LAMB: Who was he?
TAUBMAN: Jim Killian was president of MIT and played a pivotal role in the Eisenhower administration, first as an outside consultant brought in to do a number of things including a central study called the Technological Capabilities Panel that was set up early on in the Eisenhower administration, which basically laid the groundwork for all the innovation and military and intelligence hardware that came out of the Eisenhower administration. It was kind of a landmark report.
And then after Sputnik was launched by the Soviet Union in October, 1957, Killian was brought in formally as a science adviser working out of the West Wing in the White House and was the first person to do that and he played an absolutely pivotal role, even though he wasn`t a scientist. He wasn`t trained as a scientist.
LAMB: Trevor Gardner.
TAUBMAN: Trevor Gardner came in from California. He helped work on the Manhattan Project and came into the Eisenhower administration from industry and he was a really abrasive kind of profane Welshman who was very impatient with the pace of preparations to deal with the rising Soviet threat.
And so, he kind of came into the Pentagon as an official working as an adviser to the defense secretary on technology and he basically said, grabbed everybody by the lapel and said get with it. The Soviet Union is a much bigger threat than you realize and we`ve got to start preparing for it. He was not the only one to do that but he played a catalytic role that got the ball rolling early on in the Eisenhower administration.
LAMB: When did Edwin Land invent the Polaroid Land Camera?
TAUBMAN: Back in the late `40s. He found himself involved in national security affairs. It was kind of flukey. He started out as a Harvard student, went on to develop polarizing material which was the breakthrough that led him to create the Polaroid company, and then he had this kind of inspiration to create instant photography.
And Polaroid, which was of course involved in making cameras, got involved in advising the government on various projects in World War II, including telescopic sights for tank commanders in North Africa.
And then after the war, he was drawn in increasingly as an adviser and became a kind of compatriot of Killian`s and was brought into a central role by Killian.
LAMB: Kelly Johnson.
TAUBMAN: Kelly Johnson was this marvelously ingenious aircraft designer for Lockheed, just a fascinating guy who grew up in Michigan, had a yen for flying, wanted to become an aircraft designer. He was a very kind of self assured young man.
His first encounter with Lockheed was back in the 1930s when they were designing the Electra, which was a plane that was kind of widely used in that era, and Lockheed sent the plane model back to the University of Michigan wind tunnel for testing.
And, Kelly Johnson was just a student and the head of the lab ran all these wind tunnel tests and pronounced the Electra to be air worthy, and Kelly Johnson ran his own tests and decided it wasn`t air worthy and he rather cheekily went out to Lockheed and said my boss, my professor back at the University of Michigan blew it. This plane isn`t air worthy. And so, they sent him back with the model and he figured out a new way to adjust the tail of the plane to make it air worthy.
LAMB: I read, I mean throughout your book I got some sense that you went to some of these places where these buildings used to be and all that.
LAMB: For instance, I remember you being at Lompoc.
LAMB: Where Vandenberg Air Force Base is.
TAUBMAN: Right. Right.
LAMB: And you’re finding lots of grass overgrown on the launch sites and all that.
LAMB: How many places did you go?
TAUBMAN: I went to as many places as I could go and, you know, I wanted to go to Area 51 which was otherwise known as The Ranch, where they did the testing of the plane. I couldn`t work that out but I tried to go to as many sites as I could. A lot of this stuff no longer exists. I mean, you know, this was back in the 1950s.
And so, out at Vandenberg Air Force Base it`s kind of like a ghost town where the first spy satellites were launched. It`s just this very kind of fog cloaked area at the edge of the continent. It has a kind of eerie feeling when you go out there and you see these old concrete buildings that are overgrown now and there are owls in some of them and there are rattlesnakes down in some of the launch pads but they`ve retained it. They decided to kind of keep it almost as a historical monument.
LAMB: Richard Bissell.
TAUBMAN: Richard Bissell is one of the most interesting people I encountered in working on this book. Most people know him as the originator and mastermind of the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961 which failed as you may remember to the great embarrassment of the Kennedy administration, and Bissell shortly thereafter left the CIA with a cloud over his head.
What I discovered in my research, though, he was the guy that the agency turned these projects over, first the U-2 and then the spy satellite project, and he ran them with great skill and there was a combination of factors that today, as I said in the book, you could never get away with. I mean there was very little paperwork.
He put tremendous faith in Lockheed and the other private companies that were doing the work. He knew nothing at the time he started these projects about airplanes or satellites but he was a fast learner and he understood how to run a nimble organization and he`s not received nearly the credit he should for being the man who brought these machines into being.
LAMB: Now, you also point out that, I mean I know Evan Thomas wrote a book about him.
LAMB: That there`s -- he was close to the Alsop brothers.
TAUBMAN: Yes, you know Bissell was a creature of the eastern establishment. He went to all the right schools and he handled himself in a way that was quintessentially CIA in that period. This is an era in the 50s when they were recruiting mostly from the Ivy League, from Yale and Princeton and other schools, and Bissell was a creature of that world.
He came down to Washington. He basically was the guy who directed all the convoys crossing the Atlantic during World War II to bring supplies to Europe. He did that before there were computers and things. He did it all on cards and he could tell you within a day or two about hundreds of ships and when they would be getting to port and when they would be picking up their supplies.
And then after the war he was the day-to-day manager of the Marshall Plan, which was this very generous American program to give aid to Western Europe. So, he comes out of that world of the eastern establishment and then suddenly he finds himself at the CIA and almost before he knew it, he was running these technological projects which, as I say, he knew nothing about.
LAMB: This quote, page 90, Eisenhower once told Land, the president once told Edwin Land, "Oh, I`m so grateful to you fellows who are out of town. You can`t think in Washington. You go away and think and then you tell me what you`ve been thinking. There`s no way to think if you live here."
TAUBMAN: That`s one of my favorite comments in the book. There`s one just before it I think in which he says something equivalent talking to Killian.
LAMB: I can read it.
LAMB: "You know, Jim" Eisenhower told him, "this bunch of scientists is one of the few groups that I encountered in Washington who seem to be there to help the country and not help themselves."
TAUBMAN: This was in some ways the key to what happened with Eisenhower and these projects, is that he was not a captive of Washington. He brought in all these outside scientists to basically clear the air and tell him what the, you know, the bureaucracies are telling you this.
You don`t have to believe it. There are all kinds of things that we can do as a nation in terms of technological innovation. Put your faith in science basically. This was Eisenhower, in my view, his greatest legacy to the nation as president was this kind of abiding faith in science.
And, I think it`s fair to say that the two presidents in American history who were most devoted to science were Thomas Jefferson and Dwight Eisenhower.
LAMB: Well, there`s so many more people we can talk about but I need to go before we run out of time to Corona.
LAMB: The other half of your book, not just Corona, but the whole satellite reconnaissance business. You say that there were 145 launches of Corona between what years and 1972? When did it start?
TAUBMAN: It started in 1960. Ironically enough, the first successful launch and the beginning of the spy satellite era came just as Francis Gary Powers was being convicted in Moscow of his flight. So, fortunately by coincidence of history, there was actually a very limited time between the last U-2 mission on May 1, 1960 and the first Corona flight, successful flight, which happened in August of 1960.
LAMB: What was the first year that the Soviets put a communication satellite or a satellite in orbit?
TAUBMAN: Well, they put Sputnik up in October, 1957, which was a huge trauma for the United States. I think we tend to forget the impact of that because up until that point, everyone assumed the United States was the leading scientific power in the world and then with one stroke, the Soviet Union changed the impression because they beat us into space, and the implications of that were enormous and still ripple through our national life in some ways.
LAMB: Was the 1960 launch of Corona the first ever satellite we launched?
TAUBMAN: No. We tried beginning - we had started a satellite program. We knew that the Soviet Union was interested. We had set our goal to launch an experimental scientific satellite, not a spy satellite, in 1957-58 period, and we picked the wrong rocket system.
It was a Navy system. It was an utter disaster and the Air Force - the Army, I`m sorry, which at that time with Werner von Braun who had been a Nazi rocket scientist who emigrated to the United States after the war to help us develop rocketry.
The Army working with Von Braun was prepared and able to put a satellite into orbit and we could have beaten the Soviet Union into space, but because the Eisenhower administration picked the wrong horse in effect we lost that race and there were these terrible scenes of, you know, rocket launches where the rocket would, you know, get about ten feet off the ground and then explode and crumple to the ground. It was just humiliating.
LAMB: How did Corona develop?
TAUBMAN: Corona developed, the story really goes back to the 1940s at the RAND Corporation out in Santa Monica, California.
LAMB: What does RAND stand for?
TAUBMAN: It stands for Research and Development.
LAMB: Who started it?
TAUBMAN: It was started by the Air Force. It started at Douglas Aircraft Company in the L.A. area.
LAMB: The old DCs?
TAUBMAN: Yes, and it was funded by the Air Force as a kind of innovative place to do research, and then as it became more important, it basically separated from Douglas and became an Air Force supported operation for quite some time.
And, they had a bunch of visionary guys working out there on the, you know, right a few yards from the beach basically in Santa Monica and they dreamed up the idea of putting a satellite into orbit that would take pictures of things going on on earth.
This was 1946. That`s where the story began and it was really a story of false starts and lack of imagination in Washington that it took until - from 1946 until 1960 before we finally realized this dream.
LAMB: You have a schematic in the book that shows, and I`m jumping ahead here.
LAMB: Once the satellite was launched and they had to jettison the photography.
LAMB: How did they do that?
TAUBMAN: It was a very primitive kind of mechanical system because for years they had imagined themselves putting a satellite up that would take photographs. The photographs would be scanned and then electronically transmitted back to earth.
The only trouble is this was like 20 years before we had the technology to do that, so finally after many, many kind of false starts with this system, someone came up with a smart idea. It was actually at the RAND Corporation that we`re trying to be too fancy here. The way to solve this problem is to put up a camera, feed the film into a canister, and then drop the canister down from space and have it come back to earth.
The only thing that made that difficult, and this problem was solved in 1957, was the heat of reentry, you know. Everybody is now heartbreakingly familiar with this from the shuttle disaster with the Columbia. When you return any object from space, you come in through the atmosphere at this incredible speed of 17,000 miles an hour. You hit the atmosphere and you have this intense heat which is what destroyed the Columbia.
So, in 1957, that was the first time we solved this problem of how to bring something back from space without having it burn up, and once they solved that problem with the nose cone for a missile, they realized this is the thing.
Put the film in a canister, coat it with this material that will survive reentry, and then as it comes down into the lower atmosphere, deploy some parachutes. Send some planes out, basically that operated, you know, with a kind of fishing thing at the end of it, come along and snag the parachutes as the object is descending to the surface and you`ve got your film back.
LAMB: Now, had Dick Leghorn been involved in this too?
TAUBMAN: Dick got involved in that in designing the camera for this system. This was long after, you know, he had been involved back in the tests of the atomic weapons. He kept coming in and out of the government.
At first he was not a champion of satellites and then later he became an advocate of satellites, and then he became a key person in helping to develop the technology for a camera. When you think about it trying to take a photograph of something where you can see anything meaningful from 100-200 miles out in space is quite a feat.
LAMB: Go back to 1960 again. How many launches did it take of Corona?
TAUBMAN: There were 13 launches that failed and you can - try that today. Try any new weapon system and get through 13 launches without canceling the program. It would be a miracle today. But in the late 1950s, Eisenhower was patient. He said we`ve got to have this system and Bissell was patient and the other thing, as a journalist, I`m sort of almost hesitant to say this, it was secret. Nobody knew about it.
LAMB: But you say that both Hanson Baldwin and John Finney for "The New York Times" kept - they have a nugget of it. They didn`t even know they had a nugget.
TAUBMAN: Baldwin knew about the U-2 and kept it secret.
LAMB: But I mean in both cases...
TAUBMAN: But John Finney, who I later came to work for in the Washington Bureau of "The Times" was covering the Pentagon in those days in the late `50s and he was very close to the secret of Corona, because Corona operated under a cover story and the cover story was that the United States was doing biomedical experiments in space. There was nothing about spy satellites. It was a deep secret at that point.
LAMB: While we`re on that point there was a story that you came up with where Hanson Baldwin was asked by the government and other reporters who knew the secret stuff to withhold it and "The New York Times" withheld it.
TAUBMAN: He withheld it then. I was involved in my own experiences with things like this later when I joined "The Times." There are occasions when journalists learn things, especially what`s known as sources and methods in intelligence satellites, the equipment we use, the way we gather intelligence, and if you stumble or learn about something that`s particularly sensitive, the government will sometimes come to news organizations.
They`ve done it with us. They`ve done it with me. They`ve done it with "The Washington Post" and they`ll say please don`t publish that and, on occasion, we will agree with that to protect the security of the country.
LAMB: By the way before I forget your kids, how old are they?
TAUBMAN: They`re college age. One is following his parents at Stanford and the other one is a freshman at Princeton.
LAMB: Either one of them going to be a byline Taubman?
TAUBMAN: Neither one has showed zero interest in journalism. I think it was too much having both parents in the business.
LAMB: Back to the satellite thing, when did we go from photographic reconnaissance to live television reconnaissance?
TAUBMAN: 1976. Jimmy Carter was the first person to benefit from this. The day he was inaugurated we had in operation for the first time what`s known as an electro-optical satellite system which is the kind of system that they first dreamed of at the RAND Corporation and couldn`t perfect in the `50s.
It was a monumental undertaking. It was every bit as ambitious as putting a man on the moon, and the day of Carter`s inaugural in 1977, a satellite passed over Washington, took pictures, transmitted them electronically down and either that day or the next day President Carter was presented with these photographs of him at his inaugural.
LAMB: Well, again we always run out of time when there`s a lot of material in the book and we skipped a lot of stuff, but this thing called the Future Imagery Architecture, most expensive spy project in history, $4 billion, is that a year?
TAUBMAN: No. That`s for the whole project but I gather it`s in some difficulty.
TAUBMAN: This is the system that`s supposed to be the successor to the big satellites that began operating in the mid 1970s, which are miraculous machines but they...
TAUBMAN: Yes, KH-11 CRYSTAL-KENNAN. They came under different designations.
LAMB: A billion dollars apiece?
TAUBMAN: Those were a billion apiece and we decided in the late `90s, mid to late `90s that we needed more flexibility. We needed to have more satellites so they had to be smaller and less expensive and that`s what future imagery architecture is all about, but I gather that cost overruns are developing. It`s coming online more slowly than expected.
LAMB: How many satellites do we have up there right now, these billion dollar satellites, do you know?
TAUBMAN: There are probably - that`s still a secret, but the assumption is that there are usually two to four at any given time. Some of them are photographic imagery satellites and others are what are known as radar satellites that take images through radar.
LAMB: But after you take us through all this you get back to the final point and it`s that with all this fancy technology we forgot about the human contact.
TAUBMAN: And we paid a price for it on September 11th. You can make a direct connection between the development of these marvelous machines and the vulnerability of the United States on September 11, 2001, and the connection sad to say is that we spent so much on these machines and we devoted so much attention to them that we neglected the development of the kinds of case officers, spies out in the world, who might have been able to alert us to the kinds of things that were coming.
Satellites are good for a lot of things but they can`t tell you when there are 19 hijackers entering the United States planning to hijack four planes and attack New York and Washington.
LAMB: What are the big lessons that you learned in this book?
TAUBMAN: The biggest lesson I think I learned, which is applicable today, is that you have to have very special circumstances to create these breakthroughs in technology, and we need them again today to combat terrorism.
We need today to replicate what happened in the Eisenhower administration where we brought to bear the best minds in the country and we spared no resources basically and we had the patience to fail before we could perfect these systems.
And in fact, not long after 9/11 the CIA brought back to Langley the very men who had created the systems I write out in my book, those who were still alive and brought them back to talk to them for two days and ask them how can we replicate the environment that existed in the Eisenhower administration. We must do that.
LAMB: I`m sorry, we`re out of time, and this is the cover of the book. It`s called "Secret Empire: Eisenhower, The CIA, and The Hidden Story of America`s Space Espionage" by the deputy editorial page editor of "The New York Times" Philip Taubman. Thank you very much.
TAUBMAN: My pleasure.
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