‘Brotherhood’ Takes Deep Dive Into America’s U-2 Spy Program
The American U-2 spy plane began its missions in the 1950s, giving the U.S. its first detailed look at military projects in the Soviet Union. But who are the central players behind the project?
The new book “A Brotherhood of Spies: The U-2 and the CIA’s Secret War” takes a look at the four men who took the plane off the ground.
Author Monte Reel, who writes for Bloomberg Businessweek, joins us in discussion.
Below, an excerpt from “A Brotherhood of Spies.”
MAY 3, 1960
NEW YORK CITY
It’s a warm spring day, and about five thousand people – an average crowd for a Tuesday afternoon – swarm across the sidewalks and intersections of Times Square. Near Forty-Second Street, they shoulder past hot dog stands, pause in front of a window display of Stetson hats, and ignore the chattering street vendors with their cheap knives, transistor radios, and miracle powders. A mounted policeman nudges his horse onto Broadway, where the traffic pulses in fits and starts. The sun is bright yellow and still high enough to reach down between the skyscrapers. The clock hands on the “Bond Clothes” sign above Broadway say it’s not quite 2:15 p.m.
Electric advertisements beg for attention, flashing from nearly every building, and their collective message is consistent: the future is right here, right now. The big TWA sign above the square has a newly installed feature – ”Jets;’ spelled out in bright red neon. The word hasn’t been part of the American vocabulary for long, but it’s already inescapable, sometimes used as a noun, sometimes a verb, sometimes an adjective, and always jazzing up everything it touches with the silvery sheen of modernity. Just over a year ago, a Pan Am 707 made the first coast-to-coast commercial jet flight, and airlines have been tripping over themselves to inaugurate new routes ever since. “Jets to Africa!” flashes a sign over Broadway. “Jet Your Way to Tel Aviv!”
Speed is the new seduction, and New Yorkers confront it everywhere they turn. In the Willoughbys camera store, there’s a sale on Polaroid Speedliner instant cameras, which can spit out prints in less than a minute. At the new Daitch Shopwell grocery store on First Avenue, executives have unveiled a scale model of the “automated supermarket” of the future, with aisles that move on electric-powered conveyor belts, shuttling shoppers past the shelves. At the Horn & Hardart Automat, on Broadway near Forty-Seventh Street, hundreds of shrink-wrapped lunches sit behind a wall of coin-operated windows: drop thirty-five cents into a slot, slide open a window, and pull out today’s special – a corned beef and pickle sandwich, ready to eat.
Near the subway stations, the latest front pages are papered to the sides of the newsstands, giving pedestrians an eyeful of headlines as they shuffle past: Senator John F. Kennedy is the predicted winner of today’s Democratic primaries in Indiana, Ohio, and the District of Columbia. President Eisenhower, with less than a year left in his second term, is scheduled to tour an army base to inspect America’s new “Davy Crockett launcher;’ a contraption that can fire miniaturized nuclear warheads from the back of a jeep. In sports, the Yankees could jump into first place if they beat the Detroit Tigers.
The clock above Times Square flips to 2:15, and in an instant everything stops.
ON THE OBSERVATION DECK of 30 Rockefeller Plaza, seventy stories above the jostle and throb of the streets, a Chrysler V-8 engine mounted on a platform of riveted steel has just revved to life. The engine powers a high-decibel horn, which has begun spinning on its base. It sends an ear-shattering wail over the city, a tone that rises and falls in pitch. Within seconds, 721 smaller-gauge horns – affixed to streetlamps, to rooftops, to traffic lights – join in to create a warbling chorus, flooding the city in rolling waves of stereophonic alarm.
About ten miles north in Claremont Park, a young girl on a wood plank swing had been leaning back and kicking her saddle shoes toward the clear blue sky, but when the sirens reach her, she jumps off the swing and abandons the playground. At the Bronx Zoo, an animal handler pushes hard on the hindquarters of an elephant, trying to force it into an indoor shelter. Inside Yankee Stadium, left-hander Whitey Ford is walking off the pitcher’s mound, disappearing into the dugout with the rest of his teammates. The stadium’s ushers begin ordering spectators out of the sunny bleacher sections, and most of the 10,255 fans in the park huddle together in the dim concourses.
The sirens drone on. At the First National Bank branch on lower Broadway, a manager raises his voice above the din: “Wrap it up!” The tellers slam the lids on their cash trays and hurry them into the vault. Inside the Waldorf Astoria hotel on Park Avenue, the oak-paneled bar-a designated fallout shelter, according to a sign by the door-fills up with about a hundred men, many of whom take the opportunity to order martinis and highballs. Several women also enter and try to get drinks, but they are politely turned away, because ladies are never served at the Waldorf bar. Downtown, on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, trading stops.
Drivers pull their cars to the curb and abandon them. Hundreds of people stream off paralyzed city buses, and in Times Square a human tide pours down the subway stairwells, out of sight.
A civil defense policeman monitors it all, and when Times Square is empty of people, he checks his stopwatch: the sirens have been wailing for exactly one minute and forty-nine seconds.
THEY’D BEEN WARNED THIS WAS COMING. Operation Alert 1960 had been billed as the biggest civil defense drill in America’s his tory. From New York to Los Angeles, millions of Americans have been instructed to duck for cover as if the country’s greatest fear has come true: a fleet of Soviet long-range bombers has penetrated America’s airspace, and those jets are about to drop nuclear warheads on the country’s biggest cities.
Earlier this year, CONELRAD – a government program that stands for Control of Electromagnetic Radiation – launched an educational drive to teach Americans how to distinguish between the different civil defense sirens. The agency produced an audio play that dramatized a nuclear emergency, distributing it as a vinyl record to households from coast to coast. The recording depicted a prudent family-the Smiths taking shelter in their basement, which they’d stocked with food, water, flashlights, and a radio.
Now, during the nationwide drill, CONELRAD has commandeered America’s airwaves. The country’s 566 television stations have gone dark, and all of its 4,335 radio stations have either stopped transmitting or joined the CONELRAD broadcast, which repeats an urgent message to take shelter.
As the drill unfolds, local civil defense officials in lookout points across New York monitor the citizens’ response. They estimate that had Soviet jets actually attacked the city, some 3,935,940 New York ers, despite their best efforts, would have been killed instantly. Another 1,405,000 would later die from radiation exposure.
The total population of the city is about 7,700,000.
THE CITY REMAINS QUIET AND ODDLY STILL, with the exception of a park next to City Hall, where hundreds of people have united in an act of open defiance, refusing to listen to the officials who urge them to take shelter.
Most of them are college students from campuses across the city. One young man sitting next to a tree ignores a policeman’s orders, choosing to strum the chords to “We Shall Overcome” on an acoustic guitar. Another student hands out a flyer that says, “Peace is the only defense against nuclear war:’ Several more carry signs: “Civil Defense Is Futile!” and “Remember, There Will Be No Survivors!” A young man holds a placard over his head that reads, “After Two Weeks in a Shelter, Then What! No Food-No Water-Hot Dust and Death:’
A member of the city’s auxiliary police – a middle-aged man with a stony expression and grand ambitions – stands on a park bench and announces, “I now place you all under arrest for not obeying the law!” But he’s overmatched; there are hundreds of protesters and only two police paddy wagons. ‘‘Are we Americans or not?” someone shouts at him.
A sense of empowerment seems to spread among the protesters, forcing the police to shift to a more laissez-faire approach. The scene settles into a relaxed, almost celebratory, vibe. Author Norman Mailer walks among the students, signing autographs. The sirens fall silent, and the participants linger in a pleasant afterglow, telling reporters that they’re satisfied with the turnout.
The atmosphere would be different – darker, no doubt – if they had the slightest inkling that a genuine crisis is slowly coming to a head in Washington, D.C. For the president of the United States and his closest advisers, Operation Alert is about to veer wildly off script.
THE MEMBERS OF THE NATIONAL SECURITY COUNCIL were told to ignore the civil defense siren; their signal to take cover would come in the form of a telephone call. To preserve the element of surprise, the call wouldn’t coincide with the nationwide drill, but could happen anytime up to three days after the national exercise.
At about seven o’clock on the morning of May 5, the telephone rings inside the Georgetown house of CIA director Allen Dulles. He’s instructed to drive downtown and board one of several helicopters that will carry the council to a newly built secret complex about fifty miles outside Washington. He makes it out the door in good time, but his
Cadillac breaks down shortly after he pulls onto Q Street; luckily, he’s only about a hundred yards from his house, and he’s able to find another ride. Meanwhile, the secretary of defense, Thomas Gates, gets a lift from his wife, who’s still dressed in her nightgown as she navigates the morning traffic. When he rushes toward the helicopter pad minutes before takeoff, Gates realizes that he has forgotten his identification documents. He pleads with the marines standing guard; they keep him waiting for a few tense minutes but eventually let him through. Meanwhile, President Eisenhower strolls across the White House lawn to his private helicopter, which whisks him and two aides away at about 7:35 a.m.
The helicopters fly west of the city, across the Potomac, into Virginia. They eventually set down atop the rugged spine of the Blue Ridge Mountains, where a bunker has been hidden within a rocky outcrop. The sprawling underground lair is code-named High Point. But among the select circle of authorities aware of its existence, it goes by another name: the Hideout.
A little more than six years before, the Bureau of Mines determined that the rock inside this mountain was “exceptionally hard and tight;’ and encouragingly shock resistant. The government decided to expand an old, abandoned mine shaft inside the mountain into a top secret, multiroom tactical center. Beside those rooms, workers created subterranean water pools, which served two purposes: they were emergency reservoirs for drinking water, and they also cooled the air that was circulated to the bunker’s two enormous mainframe computers. The roofs were reinforced with twenty-one thousand iron bolts, which were drilled as far as ten feet into the rock to prevent collapse in the event of a nuclear strike. Radiation and chemical contamination detectors were installed near the entrances. Construction was completed in 1959.
Now, a year later, the Hideout employs a full-time staff of technicians, computer engineers, firefighters, doctors and nurses, secretaries, and security guards. Each of them is sworn to secrecy. Three dormitory rooms are available for men and one for women. Only the president, cabinet secretaries, and Supreme Court justices are allotted private bedrooms. There is enough food on-site to feed hundreds of people for a full month.
After scrambling out of their helicopters, Eisenhower and the rest of his team walk toward a check-in station near the “blast gate” – a safety feature built to protect the entrances from any flying debris shaken loose by bombs. Once inside, they file past the chemical-biological radiation sensors and the decontamination chamber, but they don’t stop; it hasn’t been activated for the drill.
The Hideout isn’t fancy, but neither is it rustic. The main “War Room’’ is outfitted with an Iconorama display system, which can chart the positions of aircraft and missiles on a large screen, and there’s also a closed circuit TV system, several 16 mm projectors, computer monitors, radiotelephones, and a Teletype machine for secure intergovernmental communications.
The president and his Security Council have decided to hold an official meeting in the Hideout; they knew they’d all be together for the drill anyway, so they figured they might as well get something done. Dulles summarizes the first item on the agenda: days before, on May 1, an American U-2 spy jet disappeared after it took off for a high-altitude flight across the entire length of the Soviet Union. The disappearance had been a source of mild worry for Eisenhower and Dulles, but they assume that a crash killed the pilot and destroyed the plane, leaving the Soviets no irrefutable evidence to prove to the world that the CIA had been spying on them from above.
To protect the secrecy of the U-2 program, they’ve come up with a cover story: NASA lost a high-altitude weather plane, which was monitoring atmospheric conditions in Turkey; the pilot apparently lost consciousness during the flight, and the plane drifted into Soviet territory, where it crashed.
Now, inside the bunker during the civil defense drill, Dulles is handed a Teletype message from the Soviet Union. It says that Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet leader, is delivering a speech to his governing council and it is being broadcast to the Soviet public. The report includes few details about the content of the speech, and Dulles moves on, shifting everyone’s attention toward the latest political upheavals in the Congo.
After the meeting adjourns and some of the helicopters begin shuttling people back to Washington, Dulles and Eisenhower linger in the bunker. Soon, more messages arrive with additional details of Khrushchev’s speech. The reports indicate that the Soviet premier is full of righteous indignation, and he’s telling a frenzied crowd that his troops have shot down an American military plane flying deep inside Soviet territory. By breaching Soviet airspace, he suggests, the United States is trying to provoke a full-scale nuclear war. “Just think, what would be the reaction of the United States if a Soviet plane flew over New York, or Detroit?” Khrushchev has asked the crowd. “This would mean the beginning of another war. Why then do you not think that we may reply with the same measures should a foreign plane appear over our country? We think that there is no doubt in anybody’s mind that we have the ability to retaliate:’
The news coming over the wire is troubling, but the CIA’s explanation involving the weather plane and the passed-out pilot might still hold. If the Soviets did, in fact, shoot down the plane from a high altitude, then the destruction would likely have been total, wiping out any evidence that could contradict the cover story. They decide to stick by it, and the White House schedules a press conference that afternoon to release more details about the innocent science project that drifted off course.
That decision will turn out to be a mistake. In two days, Khrushchev will reveal that the spy pilot has been captured alive, and he’ll show pictures suggesting that many of the plane’s components also survived intact. Forced into a corner, Eisenhower will become the first U.S. president to openly acknowledge that the country does, in fact, spy on other nations. He’ll also be the first to publicly admit that he has lied to the American people.
Compared with almost all of the other developed nations of the world, the United States was a relative newcomer to the world of institutionalized spying. the American public had never before been con fronted with the ethical contradictions inherent in espionage. The U-2 incident pushed those moral conundrums onto front pages and television screens, exposing the CIA-an agency that in 1960 many people could still legitimately claim to have never heard of-to international notoriety.
The U-2 drama is now a central chapter in the Cold War, but many of the behind-the-scenes details did not fully emerge for nearly six decades. The story is an unlikely adventure, driven by four men who together reinvented American espionage and, in the process, were themselves transformed by the secrets that they carried.
THE u-2 WAS THE FIRST LARGE-SCALE technological development project the CIA ever undertook. It redefined both the nature and the scale of the agency, setting it on a course that it would follow into the twenty-first century, when technology and espionage would become inseparable. The plane brought in huge hauls of visual data, spurring the development of new computational and analytical technologies just to process it all. More than forty years after the U-2 debuted, former CIA director George Tenet said of the program, “It constituted nothing less than a revolution in intelligence:’ Not only was it the single most significant leap forward in the agency’s history, he said, but it was possibly the greatest achievement of any intelligence service, anywhere in the world, at any point in history. “Our U-2 revolutionaries got it right;’ he said. “They were brilliant. They were willing to think big, and think different, and take risks:’
Those risks had unintended consequences for the four men at the center of this story. Drawn together into the unfamiliar and disorienting territory of espionage, they were tested in ways they couldn’t have predicted. Edwin Land was a brilliant scientist whose inventions had already made him one of the richest men in America; his faith in empirical truth was his bedrock, but the moral ambiguities of intelligence gathering put his ideals to the test. Clarence “Kelly” Johnson was a fiery engineer who, as much as anyone else, had ushered America into the jet age, but his evolution from an aircraft designer to an unofficial CIA operative drove him to sleep with a loaded automatic pistol at his bedside. Richard Bissell was a bookish bureaucrat with an eye for detail and a respect for the power of technology; the U-2 gave him a ticket into the darkest corners of the international spy world, and it led him to push the limits of espionage to deadly extremes. Finally, there was the pilot of the downed U-2, Francis Gary Powers, a soft-spoken coal miner’s son with a taste for adventure; his recruitment into the CIA tore his life apart and forced him to face a troubling question: Could any individual-or any nation, for that matter-remain truly uncorrupted by deception?
“Even now at times it doesn’t seem real,” Powers said years after his plane went down. “You know, it seems more like something I’ve read in a book.”