Secrecy News

In 1963, CIA Said It Had Copies of Soviet Spysat Images

In a newly disclosed memorandum from 1963, the Director of Central Intelligence advised the Secretary of State that the CIA had “good reproductions” of Soviet satellite imagery.

This puzzling remark appears to suggest a previously unrecognized capability of the CIA.

The declassified memo summarizes a July 3, 1963 telephone conversation between DCI John McCone and Secretary of State Dean Rusk. It was discovered by researchers David M. Barrett and Eric P. Swanson.

According to the memo, McCone said that the U.S. had “for some time tried to determine whether the Soviets were actually photographing and the extent they were from satellites.” The DCI said “it has been determined they have been and we have good reproductions of what they are getting.” The DCI was to brief the President on the subject the following week.

In an article discussing the memo in the journal Intelligence & National Security, Barrett and Swanson wrote that they found “no references in the intelligence literature to the United States having had the capability to see what the Soviet satellites were seeing, much less any treatment of how the CIA obtained the ‘good reproductions’.”

Assuming the McCone statement is accurate, it would seem to imply one of a few possibilities. It could mean that the US was somehow intercepting the Soviet images (which seems improbable), or that it was replicating the images through US overflights, or else that it was simply modeling the images based on the presumed capabilities of the Soviet satellites and their orbital parameters.

Prof. Barrett added that the fact that the matter was to be briefed to the President indicated that it was of more than ordinary significance. He also noted that the 1963 memo was located in State Department records at the National Archives, and was not released by CIA.

The import of the memo remains uncertain.

Reproductions of Soviet satellite imagery were “not anything I ever came across some ten years later,” said former CIA analyst Allen Thomson, “and I was in a decent position to see such (Office of Weapons Intelligence).”

“At a guess, perhaps the ‘reproductions’ were simulations based on the technical state of the art at the time (film) and estimates of the camera aperture. That would have been easy enough to do and useful as an aid to orient consumers to what might be in the imagery. Or it could just have meant looking at the ground tracks to see what the satellites overflew,” Mr. Thomson said.

Dino Brugioni, who was a pioneering figure in U.S. imagery intelligence and a CIA official at the time of the McCone memo, passed away in September with little public notice.