The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In 1956, the CIA’s photo spies moved into a shabby D.C. office building

Ground crewmen prepare a CIA U-2 for a training flight at Watertown Strip, Nev. (CIA/NASA) (CIA)
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In August of 1956, any number of things might have drawn you to the northeast corner of Fifth and K streets NW. Here you would have found Children’s Supermart, a 40,000-square-foot discount store and a precursor of Toys R Us.

You could have shopped for a new car at Steuart Motors, a large Ford dealership with a showroom on that lot. You might have had business elsewhere in the Steuart Building, a commercial space owned by the family, which, in addition to operating the dealership, was active in petroleum, insurance and real estate.

Or maybe you were an armed courier, tasked with driving a Chevrolet Suburban on a twice-daily run from the Steuart Building to various government offices around the city, delivering information vital to our nation’s security.

Something very interesting was going on in the Steuart Building.

“There is a backstory about what happened above that toy store and the car dealership that occupied the rest of the first floor,” Jack O’Connor of Kingstowne in Fairfax County wrote after Answer Man’s recent column on the birth of Toys R Us.

O’Connor said that from mid-1956 through December 1962, the upper floors of the Steuart Building were the clandestine location of the CIA’s Photographic Intelligence Division, or PID. “The entrance to the PID facility was at 1014 Fifth St., around the corner from the toy store,” he wrote.

When the Iron Curtain slammed shut, it became very risky for American operatives to put their eyes directly upon such things as enemy airfields, shipyards, armaments factories, missile bases and nuclear power plants.

But what if you could put those eyes in the skies in the form of cameras?

By the summer of 1956, the U.S. Air Force had already tried something called Project Genetrix. It involved balloons launched from bases in Europe and Turkey, and designed to float over Russia and China while snapping photos. The project was not a success. Close to 500 high-altitude balloons were launched. Fewer than 50 were recovered, and only a fraction of those provided usable photos. (They did provide something else: paranoia. The ghostly balloons may have inspired reports of UFOs.)

But something new and exciting was on the horizon, and on Sept. 26, 1955, Arthur C. Lundahl got his first glimpse of it. Lundahl, a trained geologist who had served with the Navy in World War II as a photo interpreter, was the head of the CIA’s newly created Photographic Intelligence Division. What Lundahl saw on a trip to a secret Lockheed base in the desert was an airplane capable of flying 3,400 miles while snapping photos from an altitude of 70,000 feet. It was the U-2.

The plane — code-named Project Aquatone — was a technological marvel. But it created a challenge for those on the ground: How to interpret the literal miles of film that would soon start spooling through its cameras?

And that’s where the Steuart Building came in. As a declassified CIA history of the project put it: “Here, on the upper floors of a shabby edifice situated just three blocks from the Gospel Mission, the operation was far removed from knowledgeable intellectuals who might, without benefit of proper clearance, come uncomfortably close to divining what was keeping so many people busy around-the-clock.”

(Of course, it didn’t help that, before the department moved in, a sign outside the office indicated it was “Rented to CIA.”)

Lundahl organized and oversaw the operation: selecting and training photo interpreters, sourcing equipment, developing a workflow, distributing the findings. He also picked the endeavor’s code name: Project Automat, later amended to HTAutomat or HTA.

Why Project Automat? Lundahl envisaged a 24/7 endeavor, like the automated restaurants pioneered by a company called Horn & Hardart. It was to be the Automat of the intelligence community, “with its doors never tightly closed and with customers going in and out, day and night,” according to a CIA history.

The first U-2 mission over unfriendly territory took place on July 4, 1956, the spindly plane flying over Leningrad — St. Petersburg — and taking photos of a shipyard there. After the U-2 landed back at its base near Wiesbaden, Germany, the film was removed and flown to Eastman Kodak in Rochester, N.Y., for processing. Its ultimate destination was the Steuart Building, where interpreters pored over the images, using tools to discern the size and orientation of various structures. In September 1957, they received a new tool: the first electronic computer used by the CIA. The ALWAC III-E filled a corner room on the sixth floor.

In the first two months of its existence, HTAutomat generated 1,300 prints from the reconnaissance photos and 33,000 pages of text. Lundahl, according to an HTAutomat history, rapidly gained “a reputation as one of the most dynamic briefers in the Intelligence Community” who “regularly left his audience virtually spellbound.”

It could also leave them unsettled. On Oct. 16, 1962, Lundahl went to see John F. Kennedy at the White House, 11 blocks from the Steuart Building. With him were enlargements of photos taken two days earlier. While flying over Cuba, a U-2’s camera had captured what looked like Soviet missiles. They were.