Spy Tech

The Wizards of Langley: Inside the CIA's Directorate of Science and Technology

By Jeffrey T. Richelson. Westview Press, 416 pages, $26.00

In 1954, James R. Killian, Jr., then president of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Edwin H. Land, founder of the Polaroid Corporation, sent a letter to Central Intelligence Agency Director Allen Dulles outlining an idea they hoped would greatly strengthen the nation's Cold War spying efforts. "Quite strongly, we feel that you must always assert your first right to pioneer in scientific techniques for collecting intelligence," Land and Killian wrote. Referring to plans for a U-2 spy plane, they continued: "This present opportunity for aerial photography seems to us a fine place to start."

Killian and Land's cheerleading helped persuade President Dwight Eisenhower to devote $35 million to the U-2 program. Beginning in 1956, secret reconnaissance flights over the USSR began to yield invaluable photographic documentation of Soviet weapons systems. The U-2s were a dramatic advance--one only temporarily set back by the downing of a U.S. spy plane over Sverdlovsk in 1960. Meanwhile, throughout the 1950s Killian and Land, working through the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, pushed for the establishment of a CIA division to focus exclusively on the scientific and technical aspects of intelligence. They wanted a unit that would be insulated from the "dirty tricks" side of the agency's activities. Ray Cline and Richard Helms, the respective heads of the CIA's Directorates for Intelligence and for Plans, looked askance at the proposal; but in 1963, two years after the CIA's Bay of Pigs fiasco, a new Directorate of Science and Technology was created within the agency. Known for short as DS&T, its first deputy director was a physicist and missiles expert, Albert "Bud" Wheelon.

Wheelon, Killian, and Land are some of the scientist-heroes that flit through Jeffrey T. Richelson's Wizards of Langley, which charts the DS&T's rise as well as its subsequent decline during the 1990s--a disorienting decade for the U.S. intelligence community generally and for scientific intelligence-gathering in particular. In light of current claims that the CIA has been overly dependent on high-tech spying and has not relied enough on "human intelligence"--that is, spies doing dangerous and dirty work at the ground level--Richelson's book has much to offer. His record of the technological achievements of modern spying makes the case that, whatever one may think of arguments for more attention to traditional espionage, it would be a mistake to de-emphasize the role of science and technology.

The Wizards of Langley (Langley, Virginia, is the site of CIA headquarters) is a history of, in equal parts, heroic scientific innovation and dogged bureaucratic maneuvering. In fact, the author argues that a toughness in turf wars with the military helped the DS&T succeed. A side effect of Richelson's burrowing deep into the bureaucracy is that it makes for a slow-going academic style: One sometimes gets the impression that Richelson wouldn't dare leave out a single interagency memo--much less an acronym. A typical sentence: "On the last day of 1948, the DCI removed the Scientific Branch from ORE, reattached the Nuclear Energy Group to it, transformed the branch into the Office of Scientific Intelligence (OSI), and designated its chief the Assistant Director for Scientific Intelligence (ADSI)."

Nevertheless, the scientific triumphs of the DS&T can't be obscured by acronym-laden prose. Perhaps the most important advances came in the areas of space reconnaissance (our nation's pricey spy satellites were pioneered by the CIA after the U-2 flights were canceled), in photointerpretation, and in electronic intelligence--which involves the interception and analysis of radar signals and telemetry data from missile launches. Along the way, there were also many instances of ingenious problem-solving, as when, in 1959, analyst Charlie Reeves of the Office of Scientific Intelligence (which was later combined into the DS&T) managed to determine the activity level of Soviet atomic sites in the Ural Mountains simply by mapping the region's power-distribution network and measuring its output. This was possible, explains Richelson, because "the production of fissionable materials from a plant [is] directly proportional to the amount of power consumed."

To be sure, there were moments when the DS&T lapsed in its pursuit of useful, innovative science. Although the push for visionary insights frequently did pay off--as when Wheelon palmed an idea from Arthur C. Clarke to use satellites to intercept signals and relay them across hemispheric distances to U.S. stations on the ground--at other times the DS&T's unbounded creativity led to missteps reminiscent of classic CIA flops involving poisoned wet suits and exploding cigars.

The directorate's indulgence of the fringe science of parapsychology, discussed at length by Richelson, provides a good example. Carl Duckett, the longest-serving deputy director of the DS&T, had a soft spot for psychics who claimed the power of "remote viewing," including the supposed ability to describe strategic Soviet sites they had never actually seen. One would think that such a talent, if it truly existed, would render traditional intelligence work irrelevant. Yet Duckett's enthusiasm for psychic spying was encouraged by the credulous head of the DS&T's Office of Technical Service, John McMahon, who felt that the CIA could stop getting its intelligence in such "narrow bands" if it only found the "right receiver."

The CIA's remote-viewing initiative in the early 1970s involved a number of tests with various psychics. Richelson describes a particularly underwhelming attempt by one Pat Price to describe a Soviet site known as URDF-3:

Price also reported seeing nine other items that the evaluator noted "simply don't appear at or near URDF-3." The imagined objects included a road from the river to the target area, a 500-foot-tall antenna, an array of outdoor telephone poles, an outdoor pool, an airstrip twelve miles from URDF-3, a small village to the northwest, a city sixty miles southwest of the facility, and a three-story building (which Price claimed was the dominant building in the complex).

At least the CIA got out of the clairvoyance racket relatively early on, in 1976. That was decades before the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency curtailed its Stargate initiative, another boondoggle for psychics, in 1995. Even today, according to the Times of London, the FBI-- attempting to "think out of the box" has turned to remote-viewers to predict further terrorist attacks. (One suggestion from these savants? Be careful at stadium-size sporting events.)

Possibly even more embarrassing than remote viewing was the DS&T project known as "Acoustic Kitty." This was a failed initiative to turn a cat into a spying device with a surgically implanted microphone and a navigating antenna in its tail. "They made a monstrosity," Richelson's source told him. And adding injury to insult, the cat was run over by a taxicab shortly after being turned loose for its first test. Richelson devotes only a short passage to the Acoustic Kitty experiment, presumably because he judges it hardly representative of the DS&T's achievements in other areas. Predictably, the story was picked up by the media last fall after The Wizards of Langley came out. When asked about the poor cat in a recent interview with C-Span's Brian Lamb, Richelson sighed and replied, "I knew you were going to say that."

"How did you know?" asked Lamb.

"Because that's the first thing everybody asks me."

This illustrates a problem the CIA has grappled with in some form or another for decades now--the disjunction between the agency's truly crucial activities (which frequently go unremarked upon) and the unrelenting public and media emphasis on its more sordid misadventures. Though Richelson focuses on the CIA's exploitation of pathbreaking science and technology to achieve an edge over the Russians during the Cold War, it's impossible to leave out unsavory episodes like the MKULTRA program, which tested LSD on unwitting human subjects. Even Richelson can't help writing in a dryly humorous tone when he discusses the CIA's more bizarre activities.

In this respect, the concept of "wizardry" employed by Richelson is suggestive. Science becomes wizardry when it attains such a degree of technical sophistication that lay people can no longer distinguish it from plain magic. Faced with mindboggling accounts of CIA technologies, it's not surprising if the average reader ends up remembering Acoustic Kitty more vividly than anything else. For it's in such cases that Richelson's wizards appear most human.

A number of advances pioneered by the DS&T, Richelson notes, have come to benefit the public at large, including pacemaker technology and a new technique for detecting breast cancer. This is no small point, because it illustrates how government sponsorship of unconstrained, creative scientific investigation can have positive side effects.

That's what makes it regrettable that the DS&T is no longer the same institution. The bulk of The Wizards of Langley depicts a golden age of scientific intelligence in the United States, coinciding roughly with the Cold War; but the book ends with the story of the DS&T's recent decline and decay. In the 1990s it was partially dismantled and "outsourced" by the controversial Deputy Director Ruth David; in 1998, Director of Central Intelligence George Tenet ignored the DS&T in outlining a strategic plan for the CIA. "By the end of September 2000," writes Richelson, some employees feared that "abolition of the directorate might be no more than two weeks away." Though this did not in fact occur, Richelson leaves us with the observation that technological innovation of the sort once fostered by the CIA has now relocated to the private sector.

There's a close analogy here with the downsizing of the role of the presidential science adviser in the current administration. Not coincidentally, DS&T evangelist James Killian, the first person to hold this position, was a true mover and shaker in the Eisenhower administration. By contrast, his heir in the Bush administration, John H. Marburger, was demoted from the position of assistant to the president before he even started his job. Indeed, the parallels are uncanny in some ways. The science community has been outraged by Marburger's appointment of a nonscientist named Richard Russell, an old Republican political hand with only a bachelor's degree in biology, as one of two heads of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. A similar response greeted George Tenet's promotion of Joanne Isham, also a nonscientist, who had served in the DS&T, to the position of deputy director in 2000. One insider commented to Richelson that the move signaled that Tenet was "no longer interested in S&T."

But as The Wizards of Langley also suggests, the pendulum could well swing back. Historically, wartime has provided an impetus for the funding of scientific advance in the United States--which in turn bolsters the economy as publicly pioneered technologies filter into industry. One of DS&T's relatively recent advances, highly relevant to the current homeland-defense push, was face-recognition technology; by 1995 the technique had been adopted by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the FBI, and other government agencies.

The war on terrorism, we are told, will be a prolonged, off-and-on conflict ranging across the globe--much like the Cold War. This may well reawaken our government to the need for more funding of cutting-edge science. So far, however, it's not at all clear that President Bush's military and intelligence agencies have sought out the advice of today's Killians and Lands--those who understand that, in order to thrive and benefit the nation, science must be taken seriously and allowed to breathe.