The Secret History of the U-2: A just-released CIA report pulls the covers off America’s most famous spy plane — and Area 51.
On February 21, 1955, Richard M. Bissell, a senior CIA official, wrote a check on an agency account for $1.25 million and mailed it to the home of Kelly Johnson, chief engineer at the Lockheed Company’s Burbank, California, plant. According to a newly declassified CIA history of the U-2 program, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by the National Security Archive, the agency was about to sign a contract with Lockheed for $22.5 million to build 20 U-2 aircraft, but the company needed a cash infusion right away to keep the work going. Through the use of “unvouchered” funds — virtually free from any external oversight or accounting — the CIA could finance secret programs, such as the U-2. As it turned out, Lockheed produced the 20 aircraft at a total of $18,977,597 (including $1.9 million in profit), or less than $1 million per plane. In other words, the project came in under budget, a miracle in today’s defense contracting world.
A source of deep pride for the U.S. intelligence community, the U-2 program survived the May 1, 1960, shoot-down of Francis Gary Powers over the Soviet Union, and the plane went on to spy for the CIA until 1974 — and the Air Force still operates the latest version today. Nevertheless, the agency has been holding back information about the U-2 for years. At a 1998 CIA-sponsored symposium to celebrate the U-2 program, one of the conference speakers was asked to refrain from mentioning how Chinese Nationalist pilots, based in Taiwan, flew agency U-2s over and near the People’s Republic to gather intelligence on the PRC, including its nuclear programs. The speaker ignored the request, but that did not stop the CIA from maintaining that such information should remain officially classified. That position was reflected in a heavily redacted volume, The CIA and the U-2 Program, which the agency released to the public at the time of the conference.
Fifteen years later, the CIA has become considerably less reticent about revealing details of the program, as demonstrated by the newly declassified The Central Intelligence Agency and Overhead Reconnaissance: The U-2 and OXCART Program, 1954-1974, from which the 1998 volume was drawn. This report, which the National Security Archive is posting today, openly credits Chinese Nationalist pilots with numerous missions over the People’s Republic of China to gather intelligence on both military facilities and industrial areas, although details of a flight over a nuclear facility are deleted. British participation in the program is also now spared from redaction — participation that included flights over the Soviet Union. The history also notes President Dwight Eisenhower’s belief that the British role would confuse the Soviets as to who was behind the program.
And while it discusses Britain as an ally in gathering intelligence, the history reports on France as a target – specifically, the French nuclear testing facility in the Pacific, photographed by the only U-2 to operate off an aircraft carrier. India, Indonesia, and Tibet also figure in the less redacted version — the latter two as cases where the U-2 was used to support CIA covert operations in the late 1950s. Between March 28 and June 12, 1958 agency U-2 pilots flew 30 missions over Indonesia in support of the effort to oust President Sukarno, whom the Eisenhower administration found troublesome.
Back in the United States, Area 51 (a.k.a. Groom Lake), the secret facility in Nevada where the U-2 and other clandestine aircraft were tested, now makes repeated appearances in the history, including a declassified map showing where Area 51 actually is. So do other secret aircraft. The section on China discusses the STPOLLY effort (the use of P-2V planes to conduct low-altitude electronic intelligence missions), and two unmanned aircraft programs (AQUILINE and AXILLARY) are featured prominently in an appendix.
The final take-away, after 355 pages of inside history, is to wonder why the government kept all of this secret for so long. For example, what was the point of keeping secret the CIA’s assessment that British author Chris Pocock’s book, Dragon Lady, is “by far the most accurate unclassified account of the U-2 program”?