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Denied territory: Eisenhower's policy of peacetime aerial overflight.


In the work of intelligence, heroes are undecorated and unsung, often even among their own fraternity. Their inspiration is rooted in patriotism; their reward can be little except the conviction that they are performing a unique and indispensible service for their country and the knowledge that America needs and appreciates their efforts. (1)

International tensions soared in November 1950, after Communist China's sudden and unexpected entry in the Korean War. Considering a response, U.S. President Harry Truman and British Prime Minister Clement Atlee met in early December and, among other actions, agreed upon clandestine military overflights of the USSR and the Peoples Republic of China. Their purpose: to collect intelligence on the number, location, and disposition of military forces, nuclear facilities, and, especially, long-range air forces. Beginning in 1951, the Strategic Air Command's 91st and 55th Strategic Reconnaissance Wings, and Tactical Air Command's 67th Tactical Reconnaissance Wing, among other U.S. Air Force units, became the first to engage in these Top Secret missions flown over "denied territory." International tensions hardly eased as the war dragged on, or when, in January 1953, Republican Dwight Eisenhower took the oath of office as the thirty-fourth President of the United States. Having served as Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in Europe during World War II, the new President appreciated the crucial role of photographic and signals intelligence to the success of military operations. He and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill fully supported continuing the overflight program that their predecessors had established. (2)

If President Truman and Prime Minister Atlee had set a precedent of military overflights during a Cold War "conflict," they did so under Chapter VI of the United Nations charter, which, their legal experts affirmed, also justified missions over the Soviet Union because it was an "unannounced cobelligerent." And because no American or British aerial intruder was ever shot down, that legal interpretation remained unchallenged on July 27, 1953, when all Allied overflights ended with the Korean War Armistice and formal cessation of hostilities. But one month later, in August, the USSR detonated a boosted fission weapon that delivered "a yield of four hundred kilotons," and publicly claimed that it had achieved thermonuclear capability. (3) However relieved war-weary publics in America and Europe might have been on the war's end, in Washington and London, leaders "witting" of the wartime overflight effort reevaluated the international situation.

The need for reliable intelligence of Soviet economic resources and military preparations had never been greater. Such intelligence could reduce military uncertainty through advance warning of impending atomic attack. Moreover, with it, one also could select a military or diplomatic response and do so economically without having to prepare for every possible contingency. In early 1954, President Eisenhower authorized, and a few trusted advisors established, a clandestine project in compartmented channels to acquire precisely this kind of strategic intelligence. It called for conducting in peacetime periodic, high-altitude overflights of potential foreign adversaries. The "Sensitive Intelligence" security access and control system established for this purpose, known as SENSINT, contained within it a separate WINDFALL compartment for photographic products, products shared with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). Conducted between early 1954 and the end of 1956, Department of Defense directors of SENSINT missions relied on available military reconnaissance aircraft or specially modified versions of them. Deep penetration overflights employed air-refuelable reconnaissance bombers of the Strategic Air Command, the RB--45C and RB--47E. The U.S. Air Force modified high performance reconnaissance fighter airplanes, the RF--86 and supersonic RF--100 in particular, to mount cameras and extra fuel tanks for shallow penetration missions. Finally, the service contracted for reconnaissance versions of the British Canberra bomber, which were built in America under license. These included a featherweight version, the RB-57A-1, known as "Heart Throb," and a long-winged, air-refuelable modification, the RB--57D-0. The Air Force pilots who flew SENSINT missions and the military and CIA photo-interpreters who analyzed their WINDFALL product would know only that piece of the puzzle with which they were directly associated. (4)


SENSINT set a postwar precedent for compartmented security access and control procedures that the CIA and National Security Agency (NSA) would refine in the years that followed. Because aerial overflights of denied territory in peacetime clearly violated international conventions to which the United States was a contracting party, President Eisenhower emphasized absolute secrecy. Only a few members of Congress and the Executive Branch ever were privy to the program. And during his tenure no activities associated with SENSINT or other special security compartments ever appeared for discussion in the National Security Council (NSC). Establishing compartmented control procedures, however, did not account for approval of clandestine operations. To evaluate and recommend for or against these and other intelligence operations, on March 15, 1954, the President approved NSC Directive 5412 "on covert operations." It defined them as "all activities conducted pursuant to this directive which are so planned and executed that any U.S. Government responsibility for them is not evident to unauthorized persons and that if uncovered the U.S. Government can plausibly disclaim any responsibility for them." It also established a committee to vet these operations, composed of representatives of the Secretaries of State and Defense, and the Director of Central Intelligence (DCI). As events transpired, the 5412 Committee would consist of the DCI, the Undersecretary of State, Deputy Secretary of Defense, and be chaired by the President's Special Assistant for National Security Affairs--an arrangement made formal in 1955, with the issuance of NSC 5412/1 and 5412/2. To the few with knowledge of the committee's existence, it became known as the 5412 Special Group, or simply, "the Special Group." The President approved or denied its recommendations. (5)


A few days after Eisenhower approved NSC 5412, on March 22, 1954, the first SENSINT mission took place in the Far East. Conducted by three RF--86Fs of the 15th Tactical Reconnaissance Squadron, the airplanes departed South Korea, overflew the Soviet port city of Vladivostok and vicinity to its north, and recovered in Japan. In SENSINT, theater commanders and leaders of the intelligence community witting of the program could request a specific site in the Sino-Soviet Bloc be overflown and imaged, along with ample justification to support taking such a risk. The request cycled for approval through Headquarters USAF, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and thence to the Special Group. The President made the final decision. Notification of an approved overflight passed back down the chain in the same fashion. Eisenhower sometime approved SENSINT missions in lots of two or three or more, although he tightened and limited these approvals in the years that followed.

The President and his scientific advisors knew that SENSINT military airplanes could not fly high enough to avoid improved Soviet anti-air defenses. Thus, in November 1954, he authorized CIA development of a complementary reconnaissance airplane, eventually known as the U-2. It would be capable of operating at altitudes in excess of 70,000 feet (over thirteen miles high). Identified by the cryptonym AQUATONE, this Top Secret effort was subsumed in another security access and control system called TALENT. Its imagery products also would be separated, this time into two sub-compartments called CHESS (European Theater), and CHURCHDOOR (Asian Theater). The President approved each CIA-planned U-2 mission, and the first two of them occurred on July 4 and 5, 1956, when U--2s flew over the Soviet cities of Leningrad and Moscow, respectively, among other regions of European Russia. Soviet leaders protested these flights, just as they had prior SENSINT missions, in private communications to the U.S. State Department. But a subsequent SENSINT mission over Vladivostok on December 11, conducted by three high-altitude RB-57Ds, provoked a strong, public Soviet protest. On December 18, four days after the Soviet note was delivered, President Eisenhower consulted with Secretary of State John Foster Dulles and, after considering the situation and its international ramifications, instructed his staff secretary to relay an order to Secretary of Defense Charles Wilson, USAF Chief of Staff General Nathan Twining, and the Director of Central Intelligence Allen Dulles, terminating immediately all American overflights of "Iron Curtain countries." (6)

The President's December 18 order ended the SENSINT program without the loss of a single air plane. Its AQUATONE counterpart, however, ended rather more dramatically a few years later. Reported progress and first tests of Soviet Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs), missiles that could strike the United States with nuclear warheads, moved President Eisenhower, in mid-1957, to authorize resumption of U--2 overflights. On May 1, 1960, the Soviet Union shot down one of these airplanes deep inside its territory. The resulting international furor mightily embarrassed the administration. The President, at first, offered a "plausible denial" (a weather research airplane over Turkey had strayed off course)--a cover story that collapsed after the Soviets produced the pilot and charged him with espionage. The U--2 shoot down also ended a Summit Conference almost before it began, with Soviet leaders demanding a personal apology from Eisenhower, one that would not be forthcoming. Nevertheless, Eisenhower announced publicly that the United States would not, in the future, conduct clandestine aerial overflights of the Soviet Union, a pledge that he and his successors would keep. (7)

If the U--2 incident closed a chapter on aerial overflights, it also prompted many in the media to ask why the President would "lie" publicly in the interest of national security. And it reverberated in the presidential election in November, when the Democratic Party challenger, John F. Kennedy, narrowly won the contest. On assuming office in January 1961, however, Kennedy did not release classified records involving peacetime aerial overflights, and he did not authorize the Attorney General to determine whether his Republican predecessor and other administration officials responsible for the U.S.-sponsored aerial overflight policy should be officially sanctioned or possibly even prosecuted for clearly violating the terms of international conventions. Nor did leaders of a Democratic Congress clamor for a "truth commission," in which former officials could be commanded to reveal just how and when this national policy had been forged. It was, after all, 1960-1961--a different world, a different international threat, and, most assuredly, a different caliber of American political leaders.


(1.) Excerpt from Eisenhower's remarks at the cornerstone laying ceremonies for the Central Intelligence Agency Headquarters in Langley, Virginia, 3 November 1959.

(2.) For an account of the actions taken by President Harry Truman and Prime Minister Clement Atlee, see the "Early Cold War Overflight Programs: An Introduction," in R. Cargill and Clayton D. Laurie, eds., Early Cold War Overflights, Symposium Proceedings, Vol. I: Memoirs (Washington, D.C: National Reconnaissance Office, U.S. GPO, 2003), pp. 2-3

(3.) Thomas C. Reed and Danny B. Stillman, The Nuclear Express: A Political History of the Bomb and Its Proliferation (Minneapolis, Minn.: Zenith Press, 2009), p. 36.

(4.) R. Cargill Hall, "Clandestine Victory: Eisenhower and Overhead Reconnaissance in the Cold War," in Dennis E. Showalter, ed., Forging the Shield: Eisenhower and Notional Security for the 21st Century (Chicago: Imprint Publication, 2005), pp. 126-27. Accounts of all known SENSINT missions appear in Early Cold War Overflights, Symposium Proceedings, Vol. I: Memoirs, op. cit.

(5.) "Clandestine Victory," Ibid.

(6.) "Clandestine Victory," pp. 128-33.

(7.) Actions and events in the aftermath of the U--2 shoot down and Eisenhower's dealings with a Democratic Congress about it are perhaps best told in Michael R. Beschloss, MAYDAY- The U--2 Affair: The Untold Story of the Greatest US-USSR Spy Scandal (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1987), see especially Chapters 12 and 13.

Cargill Hall is Emeritus Chief Historian of the National Reconnaissance Office. Previously he served as Chief of the Contract Histories Program in the Air Force History Support Office, as Chief of the Research Division and concurrently Deputy Director of the Air Force Historical Research Agency, and as a historian at Headquarters Military Airlift Command and Headquarters Strategic Air Command. Still earlier he served as historian at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. He is the author of Lunar Impact: A History of Project Ranger (Washington, D.C.: NASA/GPO 1977), and is the editor, among other volumes, of Case Studies in Strategic Bombardment (Washington, D.C.: Air Force History and Museums Program, 1998); with Jack Neufeld, The U.S. Air Force in Space (Washington, D.C.: Air Force History and Museums Program, 1998); and Lightning Over Bougainville: The Yamamoto Mission Reconsidered (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991). Among his most recent contributions in the open literature is "The Evolution of National Security Space Policy and Its Legal Foundations in the 20th Century," Journal of Space Law, Vol. 33, No. 1, 2007. Hall is a member of the International Academy of Astronautics and the International Institute of Space Law.
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Author:Hall, R. Cargill
Publication:Air Power History
Geographic Code:9CHIN
Date:Dec 22, 2009
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