The Wizards of Langley: inside CIA’s directorate of Science and Technology


 Jeffery T. Richelson is an American author, who has extensively produced literature on the process of intelligence gathering, historical technological up gradation of intelligence agencies and its impacts on national security in America. He came up with The Wizards of Langley: Inside CIA’s directorate of Science and Technology in which he highlighted a brief history of CIA directorate of Science and Technology (DS &T) under the administration of different individual and CIA’s different aerial and space reconnaissance programs.

               He gives brief historical accounts of technological genies resided inside CIA (DS &T). Richelson calls them the wizards of the Langley—the place where CIA headquarters is located— because of their technological and scientific achievements, which enabled CIA to architect an empire of international intelligence gathering.

               The primary objective of DS &T was to excavate all technological horizons to meet the challenges to United States’ national security during the height of the Cold War. The thrust of the book remained on the scientific/technological achievements of individuals (wizards) who worked inside DS & T in different dimensions, particularly under the management of Albert Wheelon (1963-1666) and Carl Duckett (1966-1976). The aerial and space reconnaissance worked under D S&T helped in terms of intelligence gathering in areas where Former Soviet Union and China were thought to be building missile sites and key nuclear installations. The programs resulted into the development of A-2 (OXCART) U-2 aircrafts and CORONA reconnaissance satellites system, which later on generated enormous data for strategic analyzed, which was collected as a resulted of eavesdrop on Soviet and Chinese missile and nuclear capabilities.

               Richelson gave explicit historical accounts of the intense interdepartmental rivalries over the management of satellite systems for reconnaissance, surveillance and intelligence gathering. Richelson also narrated different events from Cold War, which led to detection of various clandestine activities of Soviet Union, China and other states as well.

               One of the examples he cited in the book was CIA reconnaissance mission in Pakistan in early 1950s, designed to gather Soviet military buildup at Tyuratam lunch site. In this regards EARTHLING and CAPPLAIN radars were also installed inside Pakistan. U-2 flights took off from Peshawar frequently and return with sufficient photographs of the sites. Beside CIA’s reconnaissance operation from Pakistan, the U-2s took 1432 vital photos of Soviet space and missile launch sites during their early flights. Interestingly, U-2 planes in 1958 also took pictures of the construction site nuclear reactor Israel at Dimona. Similarly, U-2 planes and CORONA satellites were also used for the surveillance of Chinese nuclear sites under project name CHERRY.

               There were three different aspects of the space program of US; white for peaceful and scientific exploration of space, highly secretive black program for Intelligence gathering, reconnaissance, and surveillance (IRS), and blue was the interplay of black and white programs. CORONA satellite system was built and administered by CIA DS & T under its black program for IRS. Richelson thoroughly explained DS & T’s urgency to have a space IRS. He gave an interesting heading in the chapter—Men in Blue—to explain the secret launching of satellites by using DISCOVERER lunch series which was primarily run under the white program. CORONA was the interplay of White and Black space programs. Like CORONA, DS & T launch quality ELINT and COMNIT satellites clandestinely to get the signal assessment of Soviet Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs). In doing so, CIA took assistance from countries like Norway, Pakistan and Iran which have close borders proximities in installing vital reconnaissance and surveillance equipments inside these countries. ELINT satellites focused on Soviet space program by intercepting Soviet communications by directorate of Foreign Intelligence Staff, to testify its claims of space superiority over United States.

               Despite DS & T’ IRS program, the directorate also invented some highly lethal chemical biological agents to kill people. They built mind control agents, and Richelson gave the example of the suicide of Frank Olson on November 19, 1953, who was given a very effective chemical agent—Hallucinogen. Ten days later he jumped to his death. Similarly, CIA also assassinated the most disliked Congolese nationalist in UN. CIA injected him with a slow yet lethal biological agent, which took his life after days of injecting with a needle.

               One section of his book narrated CIA clandestine activities in Iran. The Shah of Iran was one of the close allies of United States during Cold War. CIA’s recent declassified documents revealed that it planned the military quo in 1953, which paved Reza Shah Pahlavi’s way into power. Iran also allowed CIA to install a telemetry intercept station in northeastern Iran at Kabhan, 40 miles east of Meshad in 1965 and 1966. The installed equipment had the capacity to intercept virtually all Soviet ground based tracking radar systems including the ABM radars at the Sary Shagan test range. The aim of the system was to improve CIA’s technical ability to monitor missile tests emanating from Tyuratam and antimissile activity at Sary Shagan.

               The Cuban Missile crisis in 1962 became one of the test cases of space and aerial IRS. CIA launched intensive U-2 flights over Cuba in order to get photos of the deployment of Soviet medium range ballistic missiles (MRBMs) SAMs.

               In the early 1960s, congressman pressurized President Kennedy to segregate US space program into two different sections; the establishment of NASA in 1960s for further exploration of space for peaceful purposes, and the establishment of National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) to monitor IRS satellite systems. During all the years, several satellite programs were launched by different military organization as SOMOS, GAMBIT, CIA’s CORONA, MURAL, ST/POLLY, IDEALIST, and OXCHART which were named to transfer to NRO.

               The book gives an interesting account of the Indian ambitions to build their nuclear bomb. “In October 1965, Donald Chamberlin, who monitored the development of foreign nuclear programs, responded to a request from a National Security Council staff member for information on the Indian nuclear weapons capabilities. His memo focused on the possibility of India developing nuclear weapons and on its nuclear facilities, plutonium research and nuclear power development.” Chamberlain noted, “India probably already has enough plutonium for a nuclear device,” But he concluded, “We have no firm indication that the Indian Government has decided to develop nuclear weapons.” Likewise his assessment from the data about Chinese nuclear program was “a real mystery, hard to get a handle on.”

Till 1972, CIA developed an empire of space and aerial IRS systems. A worldwide enterprise with CORONA, HEXGON/KH-9, and RHYOLITE spacecrafts hovering around the globe—U-2 patrolling the skies, and satellite sending photographs of Soviet and Chinese missiles and nuclear facilities. The worldwide enterprise enabled US to monitor 1967 Arab-Israel war. CORONA system provided intelligence on Arab forces formation on the ground.

DS &T technological achievement during the height of the Cold War were unmatchable. But it faced many ups and down just like any other institutions, There were two major incidents which changed the complexion of CIA. The huge amount of data which was generated over the year’s covert missions was stored inside a secret “Black Vault” near a highly secured place. Unfortunately, Boyce who worked inside the Black Vault together with his friend Andrew Daulton Lee, stole top secret information from the Black Vault, which were about the CIA’s IRS systems, and leaked to KGB. Similarly, 1979 turned out the very crucial year for CIA due to Islamic revolution in Iran. Islamists stormed Tehran and Shah of Iran was thrown out of power. This year marked the decline of D S&T, as very crucial telemetry (TACKSMAN II) system which was installed at Khaban to monitor the Soviet missile and space launch sites, was in danger due to Islamists in Power. TACKSMAN II was one the most highly funded system of CIA. These two accidents seriously hurt the covertness of the D S & T IRS systems.

In the 1980s the change of management in CIA also led to changes inside the directorates of CIA including DS & T. Evans Hineman took over CIA in 1980s, he felt that directorates in CIA were very compartmentalized and there is lack of coordination between DS &T and operations directorate and emphasized on a team-oriented approach. He tore apart the walls built by each directorate and tried to harmonize all the directorates in order to meet the challenges posed to American national security. Despite these structural changes CIA continued to expand its IRS systems.

historian Benjamin Fischer labeled 1989 as “the year that changed the world.” The years marked the end of communist regime and emergence of New World Order. This also brought changes inside CIA as it suffered 20 percent cutbacks in its workforce. However, the year also marked the emergence of another conflict inside Middle East—the First Gulf War. Iraq invaded Kuwait with all its military might. US forces launched operation Desert Strom against Saddam’s forces. Prior to the operation, highly advanced reconnaissance satellite systems sent thousands of photographic images of Saddam’s military formation inside Iraqi desert. Similarly, the communication, and surveillance satellites helped US air and ground forces to decimate Iraqi tanks inside the desert.

               After the end of the Cold War, the world became unipolar. Although the major competition was over, but, the technologies developed during the Cold War remained. The worldwide enterprise of IRS was not evenly focused on Soviet Union. Hence, it was decided that the communication network that was built by CIA will be used for commercial purposes. This led towards the establishment of World Wide Web (WWW)—internet. However, by the end of the book Richelson analyzed that the future wars will be information wars. He was having a view that CIA should sensed that in the 20th century information technology is a necessity.


To subdue your enemy without fighting is the supreme excellence.

—Sun Tzu

The Wizards of Langley is another continuation of Richelson work on highlighting US space and aerial IRS system during the Cold War. The work provides brief account of CIA developing its own IRS system under immense covertness and secrecy to get the photographic reconnaissance of missile and space launching sites of former Soviet Union and China. The work encompassed historical illustrations with in-depth analyses, the rationale behind the establishment of IRS system. The language he used to describe DS & T’s work is quite technical. However, it is a very good addition to the existing knowledge about the technological advancement of United States during the Cold War, and internal processes of its intelligence mechanism. Many experts believe that it was the technological influx of United States that helped her to defeat the communist regime.

               Richelson’s work briefly describes the different technological achievement of DS &T but in a manipulated way. He gave examples of use of lethal chemical and biological weapons to kill diplomats, scientist, but he didn’t mentioned the political implications of these killing by CIA. Similarly, he didn’t mentioned how CIA’ CORONA satellite remained highly secret for 30 years. The book is written is an academic way and is an addition to the existing literature about space and aerial reconnaissance, surveillance and intelligence gathering during the Cold War by CIA. In conclusion, U.S has pursued its military space program more rigorously. From CORONA to Evolutionary Air and Space Global Laser Engagement (EAGLE), the concept of space control and space full spectrum dominance is now the primary objective of US military planners, and CIA’ DS & T is playing a major role in pursuing American objectives.

Ahmad Khan is a PhD Scholar in National Defence University. He works at Strategic Vision Institute. Twitter Handle @ahmadkhan000

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