Pictures worth 1,000 spies

March 07, 1995

The technique of spying from the sky has come a long way since Thaddeus S.C. Lowe made the first aerial reconnaissance from a hot air balloon during the American Civil War. Just how far the art of snooping from above has progressed in the intervening century and a half was underscored recently when the CIA made public previously top-secret photographs taken by the nation's first generation of spy satellites between 1960, the beginning of the space surveillance era, and 1972.

Whoever said a picture is worth a thousand words couldn't possibly have imagined how enigmatic the world looks from 100 miles up -- or even from a few thousand feet. The evolution of aerial reconnaissance, which began in earnest during World War I with production of the first practical military aircraft, depended as much on developing the art of photo interpretation as on aeronautical technology.

Clever aerial sleuthing by British photo interpreters during World War II gave the Allies their first hint of the German V-1 buzz bomb and V-2 rocket. Two decades later, American PIs uncovered Russian moves to install ballistic missiles in Cuba from pictures taken by U-2 spy planes.

Yet it was the political embarrassment caused by another U-2 flight that spurred U.S. efforts to spy from space. After pilot Gary Powers was shot down over Sverdlovsk in the former Soviet Union in May of 1960, the U.S. pledged never to launch spy planes over Soviet territory again. One reason it could do so was that the first U.S. spy satellite, Corona, was already off the drawing boards. A year later, it showed the Soviets were bluffing about their missile strength, allowing President Kennedy to face down Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev during the Berlin Crisis of 1961.

Ironically, the aftermath of that crisis led to a tacit agreement between the U.S. and the Soviets not to protest each other's spy satellite activities. Both sides soon realized they were far less vulnerable to surprise attack -- a fear that had driven U.S. defense policy since Pearl Harbor -- if they could see for themselves what the other was up to. Satellite reconnaissance made it possible to verify force levels without on-site inspections, thus not only removing a major obstacle to the signing of the SALT and START nuclear arms agreements but actually helping prevent a nuclear war from breaking out as a result of miscalculation. In that sense satellite reconnaissance has been an important stabilizing influence that has helped keep the peace for more than three decades. No wonder one CIA spymaster once whimsically called the satellites' photographic harvest "pictures worth a thousand spies."

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