Although quite different from the torture-like secret interrogations of detainees that followed the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, there are parallels in how President Dwight D. Eisenhower handled the secret U-2 program started in 1956 to spy on the Soviet Union and other countries.
Ike’s reasoning on U-2 flights is described in a study, “The Central Intelligence Agency and Overhead Reconnaissance,” first published by the CIA in 1998. A less-redacted version went to the National Security Archives in 2005 and again in 2013.
I set out to read it against current concerns about the interrogation programs and realized it has application to President Obama’s decisions to start and stop the supposedly classified CIA use of drones in Pakistan and elsewhere.
From the time Eisenhower became president in 1953, the former general expressed dissatisfaction with strategic intelligence about the Soviet Union and the minimal reconnaissance information about the Soviet bloc in Eastern Europe.
The Russian detonation of a hydrogen bomb in August 1953, just nine months after the United States tested its first thermonuclear bomb, combined with discovery of a new Soviet intercontinental bomber, had created fear in Washington over a “bomber gap” and a future Moscow surprise attack.
For years, the United States had been seeking a high-altitude aircraft that could not be tracked or intercepted by the Soviets. By October 1954, a secret presidential panel had settled on a Lockheed design that aimed to fly above 72,000 feet, supposedly beyond Soviet radar and above the range of known Russian interceptors.
Recognizing that overflights of Russia by a armed military aircraft would be an act of war, the panel proposed flying an unarmed plane piloted by a civilian, i.e., a covert CIA operation.
From the start there was a recognition that U-2 overflights violated international law and that they ultimately would be detected.
Richard Bissell, the CIA’s program manager, said the flights needed a “story line” in case a U-2 were discovered. Operations should halt and diplomacy be proposed so that, as Bissell put it, “We should at least attempt to be prepared for the worst in a really orderly manner.”
The cover story was that the U-2 was part of a weather research program. When the planes went to a base in Britain in April 1956, the U.S. National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics issued a news release on the purported European weather mission.
Early on, Eisenhower suggested that the CIA hire foreign pilots so the U.S. role could be denied. But language and other issues ended that approach by mid-1955.
As with the interrogation program, congressional notification on the U-2 was limited. Only the top lawmakers on the Senate Armed Services Committee’s CIA subcommittee and the two ranking minority-party members of the House Appropriations Committee were briefed in February 1956, months before the first U-2s were to deploy.
No other lawmakers were briefed until May 1960, when pilot Francis Gary Powers was shot down over the Soviet Union.
Eisenhower was always concerned that secret U-2 overflights were provocative, particularly after his 1955 proposal for Open Skies, which involved exchanging with Russia maps locating each country’s military installations and permission for each to do aerial surveillance for assurance.
The Soviets turned it down, but while it was being reviewed Ike had said, “I’ll give it [the proposal] one shot. If they don’t accept it, we’ll fly the U-2.”
Congressional pressure also helped Ike overcome his concerns. Lawmakers were worried about the number of Soviet bombers and Moscow’s testing of a 900-mile-range missile. Ike even noted to the news media that Moscow might be ahead of the United States in some missile ranges.
He agreed to 10 flights over the Soviet Union to begin in July 1956. In late June, two U-2 missions were carried out over Warsaw Pact countries in Eastern Europe under an earlier authorization.
The first flight over Russia took place on July 4, 1956. The second, on July 5, involved going over Leningrad and Moscow. The resultant photos provided information on the Soviet bombers and missile and rocket engine factories.
Eisenhower, however, feared that Soviet radar had tracked the aircraft — something that would not be known for almost two days. In the interim, more flights took place before the White House learned that the earlier flights had been detected but not tracked.
When the Soviets protested the overflights in a sharp July 10 note, Eisenhower ordered them stopped.
His concerns were worries any president should have in authorizing such a covert operation.
Ike believed that “Soviet protests were one thing, any loss of confidence by our own people [that the U.S. government had violated international law] would be quite another,” according to the CIA study.
He also put himself in the other guy’s shoes, noting, according to the study, that if there were Soviet overflights of the United States “the reaction would be drastic.”
Several times between 1956 and 1960 Ike renewed and halted Soviet overflights. Each start-up was based primarily on a compelling need for intelligence on Soviet capabilities and domestic pressures because of fear that national security was endangered.
Someday we may learn what thinking processes President George W. Bush employed when he had the Justice Department repeatedly justify enhanced interrogation methods and Obama’s approval of drone strikes.
For previous Fine Print columns, go to washingtonpost.com/fedpage.