SECRET EMPIRE

Eisenhower, the CIA, and the Hidden Story of America's Space Espionage

By Philip Taubman

Simon & Schuster. 441 pp. $27

SPIES IN THE HIMALAYAS

Secret Missions and Perilous Climbs

By M.S. Kohli and Kenneth Conboy

Univ. of Kansas. 226 pp. $29.95

A few months ago, Abu Ali, an al Qaeda operative thought to be responsible for the bombing of the USS Cole, was speeding along a remote highway in Yemen when a missile fired by an American Predator drone ended his trip. While the Predator got most of the attention for the killing, another U.S. gee-whiz technology played a crucial, less noticed, part: An American spy satellite had intercepted one of Ali's cellphone calls and guided the Predator to its target.

Whether about Iraq, North Korea or al Qaeda, our government gets much of what it knows from spy satellites. Philip Taubman's new book, Secret Empire, tells the story of how that came to be.

In the early 1950s, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev began to brag about his country's growing number of bombers and missiles capable of striking the United States. President Eisenhower had no idea whether to believe him. The United States had stopped sending reconnaissance flights over Russia after Soviet air defenses modernized and began to threaten them. "We didn't have . . . any real information," remembers one CIA officer. "We just didn't know what was going on."

Eisenhower prepared for the worst -- the possibility that the USSR could launch a surprise attack and knock out the U.S. ability to respond. He put the United States on a war footing, and said the country might have to stay there indefinitely. Then he ordered scientists to secretly develop a surveillance system that the Soviets could neither shoot down nor -- in his attempt to keep relations from fraying further -- see.

The first result was an awkward-looking plane, the U-2, which sacrificed speed, stability and everything else in an all-out bid for altitude. The goal was to fly so high that the Soviets wouldn't even know the plane was there. It didn't work. Despite the U-2's longevity -- witness its current use over Iraq -- Soviet radar picked up the plane during its first flyover, and Eisenhower, wary of angering the Russians, limited the U-2 to just a few flights, one of which was shot down in 1960.

With the failure of the U-2 to go undetected, scientists concentrated on an idea that until then had been considered out of reach: photo satellites. As one of the researchers recalled, trying to take a detailed picture from space "was like trying to photograph the belfry in Boston's North Church from the Empire State Building." And that was only the beginning: How do you keep film stable during space travel? How do you retrieve the photos? And how do you get the darn thing up there to begin with? (At the time, U.S. rockets had a habit of exploding on the launch pad.)

The story of how scientists eventually broke through those barriers -- thus showing Eisenhower's successor, President Kennedy, that the "missile gap" was bunk -- could make for a fascinating tale. But Secret Empire isn't it. Taubman, a longtime New York Times editor and reporter, is not a lively writer. And despite his efforts, the book's characters blend into one -- an overachieving, patriotic man who loves flying.

This wouldn't have been a problem if Taubman had focused on some of the larger questions about satellites and intelligence policy (how the government, for instance, eventually came to overrely on them). But the book is mostly small-bore, resolutely sticking to a step-by-tiny-step history of the program. Frequently, the only obvious point seems to be to get it all down on paper. The result, unfortunately, is often something only a satellite buff, or perhaps a product manager, could love.

While Taubman focuses on the CIA's feats in space, M.S. Kohli and Kenneth Conboy unveil one of the agency's only slightly more earthbound achievements in Spies in the Himalayas. In October 1964, China surprised the world by testing a nuclear weapon. The United States and India freaked out and were desperate to monitor the program. But the tests occurred in the middle of China, out of reach of spy planes, and satellites weren't yet capable of intercepting the test data. Eventually, the CIA came up with a plan: Send a joint team of the best American and Indian mountain climbers to the top of the Himalayas to plant a monitoring device. Oh, and the sensor would have to be nuclear-powered. (Solar panels were still in their infancy, and gas couldn't be regularly delivered.)

Kohli, who led the Indian half of the expedition (and once made a record-setting Everest climb), and Conboy, a former Heritage Foundation analyst, aren't fabulous writers, either. But these two should line up some Hollywood agents, because the story itself is repeatedly jaw-dropping, alternating between something like a James Bond movie and Chevy Chase's "Spies Like Us."

Climbing some of the world's highest mountains is an extraordinarily difficult task, even without a nuclear-powered sensor to lug along. Despite some injuries, the team nearly made it to the top during their first try, only to be turned back by bad weather. During the retreat, they decided to save themselves extra work by leaving the monitor near the peak. Bad idea. When they returned months later, it was gone, swept away by an avalanche. It was never found. (The loss was made public in the 1970s and created a panic -- apparently unfounded -- that radiation had contaminated Calcutta's water supply.)

The crew kept trying, and failing. They once reached a peak, only to realize they had forgotten to bring along anchors to hold the monitor in place. Finally, three years after they started, they took a new device, this one gas-powered, and scaled a lower and more manageable mountain. The system worked perfectly -- intercepting data from a test -- exactly once. Then it was replaced by a satellite. With the years of excruciating labor that Kohli put into the project, that was surely not the ending he had hoped for. But his journey is certainly fun to read about. * Eric Umansky writes a column for Slate.com.

CIA operatives approach the Nanda Devi peaks to moniter Chinese missile launches.