Science at the CIA
The Wizards of Langley: Inside the CIA's Directorate of Science and Technology, by Jeffrey T. Richelson. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 2001, 386 pp.
Melvin A. Goodman
The science and technology (S&T) achievements of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) have been responsible for many of the agency's key accomplishments in the field of intelligence analysis. Intelligence gleaned from technical systems, including reconnaissance aircraft and satellites, has enabled the verification and monitoring of major arms control agreements, which have been central to strategic stability between the nuclear powers. The same systems that have monitored strategic systems in Russia and China have also tracked terrorist training camps in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and Syria.
These S&T programs should limit the possibility of surprise attack against the United States and allow the Pentagon to gauge the actual strategic threat and procure the most appropriate weaponry. Technical intelligence on the limits of Soviet strategic programs, for example, led to arms control agreements in the 1970s and 1980s and allowed the Air Force to reduce its fighter-interceptor force. Today, the verification capabilities of the intelligence community are good enough to monitor a comprehensive freeze on weapons testing, which would allow mutual strategic force reduction and forestall the decision to deploy a national missile defense.
Until now, there has been no book or manuscript that detailed the CIA's contribution to the S&T accomplishments of the intelligence community on behalf of U.S. national security interests. Jeffrey T. Richelson's The Wizards of Langley amply fills this void, providing a sterling account of the evolution of the Directorate of Science and Technology and the importance of scientific espionage at the CIA.
The exploitation of S&T in pursuit of secret intelligence had become a significant component of CIA activities by 1961. Richelson documents the agency's accomplishments, including the U-2 reconnaissance aircraft and the Corona photographic reconnaissance satellite. Although initially skeptical of such programs, President Eisenhower and CIA Director Allen Dulles became staunch fans when intelligence collection from the U-2 missions demonstrated that no strategic bomber gap existed. Intelligence collection from satellites eventually convinced policymakers that there was no "missile gap" in the 1960s and no "window of vulnerability" in the 1980s.
The agency's incompetent handling of the Bay of Pigs in 1961, however, angered President Kennedy and led to the firing of Richard Bissell, the chief of the directorate that managed the invasion. Bissell had also led the agency's successful efforts to develop aerial and satellite reconnaissance vehicles to monitor the Soviet strategic challenge. Although Kennedy attempted to separate himself as much as possible from the CIA in the wake of the Cuban fiasco, MIT President James Killian, Polaroid founder Edwin Land, and other scientists convinced him that the military could not manage these programs and that all S&T should be centralized in a new CIA directorate. A relatively young research scientist, Albert Wheelon of TRW, was recruited by Killian and Land to head the new directorate. Wheelon, in turn, recruited and created a university-quality scientific laboratory that conducted high-level research in military and intelligence fields as well as major areas of medicine.
Richelson records the efforts of CIA scientists to pioneer data mining and retrieval systems, including language translation machines and microwave technology that enhanced the speed of computers. In addition to breakthrough work in the areas of space reconnaissance and spy satellites, agency scientists developed methodologies for determining the activity level of Soviet atomic sites and even a new technique for detecting breast cancer. CIA scientists also developed a system for projecting "ghost aircraft" on enemy radar. The agency's development of face recognition technology could make an important contribution to a successful homeland defense policy in the fight against terrorism.
Unfortunately, CIA scientists and technicians also played a central role in CIA efforts to assassinate Fidel Castro and Patrice Lumumba. Agency technicians designed exotic murder weapons, such as exploding seashells and .22 caliber cigarette pistols. The CIA developed toxin pills that were delivered to Mafia hit men, who acted as middlemen in several assassination plots against Castro. The agency failed to clean house at the S&T directorate until the media gained knowledge of the numerous drug efforts at the agency, which eventually led to the death of an unwitting Army biochemist in the 1950s. Various experiments in the field of parapsychology made the CIA a laughingstock. High-ranking officials such as Richard Helms actually believed that psychic powers could be harnessed for the "remote viewing" of Soviet military installations and other targets.
Richelson's book describes the agency's ability to exploit S&T for espionage tradecraft, including state-of-the-art tools to enhance the efforts of clandestine officers by disguising agents' voices and altering physical appearances. One ill-fated scheme, known as "Acoustic Kitty," involved wiring a cat with transmitting equipment so that it could function as a mobile listening post. Unfortunately, the cat did not survive its one and only mission, when it had an ugly encounter with a taxicab in Paris.
On balance, the S&T directorate assembled the strongest technical team in the history of the intelligence community, and its achievements were extraordinary. Intelligence gleaned from these surveillance systems enabled policymakers to make momentous decisions in the field of arms control and disarmament. The work of the directorate made sure that the Soviet Union never procured a strategic weapons system that had not been monitored by the CIA in its deployment, testing, or even developmental stage.
The CIA used the intelligence collected from these systems to win major bureaucratic battles at the highest levels. In the 1970s, agency analysts used satellite intelligence to enable President Nixon to enter arms control agreements, often over the resistance of the uniformed military and high-level policymakers. The agency, for example, convinced skeptics within the Nixon administration that the Soviet surface-to-air missile system could not do the work of an antiballistic missile system, which paved the way for the 1972 ABM Treaty. Similarly, the agency maintained that the Soviet SS-9 missile did not house multiple independently targeted reentry vehicles, which paved the way for the SALT I Treaty that same year. Unlike its military counterparts, CIA analysts initially recognized that the Soviet Backfire bomber did not have intercontinental range and that Soviet strategic missiles were not as accurate as the Air Force contended.
If the CIA had access to such a large amount of sensitive intelligence information, why then did it fail to predict the decline and fall of the Soviet Union? Richelson, unfortunately, does not address this point, which requires an understanding of the politicization of intelligence that took place under Director William Casey and his deputy, Robert Gates. They influenced the CIA's estimates of Soviet military strength in order to justify increased U.S. defense spending and to buttress the Reagan administration's case for missile defense. For example, although Gates claimed that the Soviet Union had spent more than $150 billion on its own missile defense program, satellite photography demonstrated that this money was for air defense. The CIA exaggerated the flight range of the Backfire bomber (which justified counting it as a strategic intercontinental bomber) and the accuracy of the SS-19 ICBM (which contributed to the myth of a "window of vulnerability"). By ignoring sensitive satellite photography, the CIA thus failed in its role as honest broker between intelligence and policy.
The book's other major shortcoming is the failure to track the decline of S&T at the CIA, where the directorates of intelligence and operations failed to understand the importance and significance of the scientific discoveries and, in the case of former Deputy Director of Intelligence Ray Cline, resented the high-level attention that the S&T directorate received from CIA leaders and the Washington policy community. When William Colby and Casey were directors of central intelligence in the 1970s and 1980s, the S&T directorate began to lose a great deal of its high-level backing, which permitted its in-house critics to raid the directorate's best offices and personnel. Richelson should consider another book that tracks and analyzes the decline of the S&T directorate and its impact on U.S. strategic intelligence in general.
The weakening of the agency's scientific base led to significant intelligence failures, particularly the failure to monitor the testing of India's nuclear weapons program in 1998, the bombing of a Sudanese pharmaceutical plant in 1998, and the bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999. The Indian test failure and CIA Director George Tenet's spurious testimony that the agency could not ratify the comprehensive test ban treaty led directly to the Clinton administration's failure to gain Senate ratification of the treaty. Tenet has particularly shortchanged S&T at the agency, and his recent appointment of a nonscientist to the post of deputy director for S&T has demoralized scientists and technicians in the intelligence community.
The CIA's neglect of its scientific base and the military's control of all technical collection systems are responsible for the intelligence community's current inability to stay up to date in the area of intercepting signals and communications intelligence. The ability of rogue states and even terrorist organizations to conduct high-speed transmission of messages, using sophisticated circuitry, has compromised the technical collection capabilities of the intelligence community. This weakness and the inability of the intelligence community to analyze everything it collects contributed to the inability of the CIA to anticipate the September 2001 terrorist attacks.
It is particularly unfortunate that the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, which is responsible for oversight of the CIA, has never tried to examine the decline of S&T at the agency and the impact of the decline on the scientific base of the intelligence community. It should study the efforts of Killian, Land, and Wheelon to apply the art of science to the craft of intelligence as well as the actions of directors who virtually ended original research and scientific application. The agency's recent creation of In-Q-Tel to be a cherry picker of scientific research in Silicon Valley has apparently convinced the oversight committee that the CIA is still in the scientific game. Nothing could be further from the truth.
Melvin A. Goodman (firstname.lastname@example.org) is professor of international security at the National War College, senior fellow at the Center for International Policy, and author of The Phantom Defense: America's Pursuit of the Star Wars Illusion (Praeger, 2001) and The Wars of Eduard Shevardnadze (Brassey's, 2001). He was a senior Soviet analyst at the CIA from 1966 to 1986.