During the height of the Cold War, the United States government was in the midst of another battle that the general public was unaware of. This secret war, of sorts, was not with any foreign government, terrorist group, or domestic paramilitary group. It was at war with itself.
A declassified document, dated March 26, 1965, outlines the internal “turf war” between the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) over the Corona program.
This program was a series of strategic reconnaissance satellites produced and operated by the CIA Directorate of Science & Technology. The Corona satellites’ main mission was to provide photographic surveillance of the Soviet Union, the People’s Republic of China, and other global military hot spots.
The Battle Between CIA and Air Force
Since the satellites did not use any type of signal to transmit the photographs back to the ground, the CIA needed substantial help from the Air Force to perform the mid-air recovery of the exposed film capsules; known as film buckets. It was this partnership that created tension between the two agencies.
The memo documents a meeting between NRO and CIA officials to settle claims being made by both agencies. The NRO was claiming that the CIA was being too secretive with information that the Air Force needed to properly perform satellite launches and film bucket recoveries. The CIA, on the other hand, claimed that the newly formed NRO was making “a clear-cut effort to run [the] CIA out of the satellite business.”
Even though the memo was written by the Deputy Director of Central Intelligence, Marshall S. Carter, it appears to give a fairly unbiased account of the meeting.
The McMillian NRO Meeting
The Deputy Director indicates, in the memo, that he has the support of Deputy Secretary of Defense Cyrus Vance and the issue should be laid to rest as quickly as possible. During his meeting with NRO Director Brockway McMillan, Carter did not deny withholding information from the NRO; however, he claimed that the information that was being withheld was not needed for a successful launch of the satellites or recovery of the film buckets.
The information in question was telemetry and calibration data vital to the satellite’s operation once deployed. The telemetry data allowed for remote measurement and reporting of systems information. This information solely concerned the payload and had nothing to do with the launch itself, according to Carter.
Though McMillan stated there is a need for this information to be available to his staff, he does not give any specific reasons why. Or, at the very least, if specifics were given, Carter did not document them in the memo.
During the meeting, the NRO Director did admit to providing inaccurate and misleading data to the CIA, but never confessed to making any attempt to push the CIA out of the “satellite business.” McMillan did confess to his adamant intentions about getting the telemetry information.
He was so adamant, in fact, that he was prepared to hold a satellite hostage to get it. In the memo, the NRO Director suggested that if the issue was not resolved that he may be forced to delay the launch of a satellite that was set to take place later that day.
Though Carter does not specifically state it, it is somewhat inferred that McMillan did not go through with that threat due to the fact that the launch would not only impact the CIA, but other agencies as well. According to Carter, the meeting did become tense and heated with insults and accusations being made; nevertheless, McMillan left the meeting without the telemetry data.
The last line of the memo sums up the relationship between the CIA and the NRO during the Cold War perfectly. Carter states, “You may be rest assured, while we have clearly won this skirmish, the battle will continue on . . .”Originally published on TopSecretWriters.com