The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

CIA’s secrets revealed: a million-dollar check, Area 51

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The tinfoil-hat crowd is plenty excited by the newly declassified report from the CIA tracing the history of the U-2 program, because the document provides the first instance that the government has publicly acknowledged Area 51 — the super-mysterious tract of land said to be where the government held all the little green men it captured.

But there’s another nugget in the 322-page history, which was obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by National Security Archive senior fellow Jeffrey Richelson, that the Loop finds fascinating.

Sure, it’s a little geekier than the stuff of the X Files, but we were struck by the totally unorthodox method of funding used to finance the U-2 project. Back in 1955, the CIA was about to sign a contract with Lockheed for $22.5 million to build 20 planes. But the company was a little short on cash to get started (hard to imagine that these days).

So what’s a spy agency to do? Officials simply mailed a check for $1,256,000 to the home of the chief engineer of Lockheed’s plant in Burbank, Calif.  Apparently this kind of “unvouchered funding” was perfectly legal, since the CIA director was the only government employee who could spend federal bucks without a voucher.

But rarely does the public get the details of such covert deals — and, by the way, what the heck does one do when a check arrives in one’s mailbox for the today’s-equivalent of nearly $11 million (Take it to the local bank? Cash it and ask for twenties?).

Who knows if such things still happen. If they told us, they’d have to… well, you know how it goes. But the report details one aspect of the U-2 project that’s certain not to be duplicated in today’s defense projects: Lockheed came in under budget.