During the late 1940s and into the 1950s, U.S. and British intelligence were able to make use of a project that originated during World War II, known as Venona in the United States and Bride in Great Britain. These joint operations targeted encoded Soviet communications to and from the West, and beginning in 1948 a very few of these messages began to be deciphered by the West. These efforts led to the unmasking of numerous Soviet spies and operatives, including the notorious Cambridge Five who had infiltrated the highest levels of British intelligence and the atomic spies Klaus Fuchs in Britain and Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in America.
Aerial reconnaissance became very important to the Western powers early on in the Cold War, particularly along the periphery of the communist bloc. Reconnaissance flights searched for electronic intelligence (ELINT) on radar sites, missile tests, and various other activities. The Soviets focused more on naval platforms for espionage, establishing an entire fleet of so-called spy trawlers that they deployed within a few miles of their adversaries' coastlines.
In the 1950s, numerous ground stations were built worldwide to monitor communist bloc communications (signals intelligence, or SIGINT), and aerial reconnaissance (using existing aircraft such as converted cargo planes) was stepped up, which led to several deadly clashes with Soviet air forces. A U.S. project that enjoyed great success for a time was the advanced U-2 spy plane, developed by Lockheed under the code name of Aquatone and first used in June 1956. The U-2 was able to fly directly over the Soviet Union and other communist nations at some 68,000 feet, beyond the range of most antiaircraft weapons or fighter aircraft of the time. The U-2 was equipped with advanced photoreconnaissance capabilities as well as collection devices for atmospheric nuclear debris. Aquatone flights over the Soviet Union came to a dramatic halt on 1 May 1960 when a U-2 piloted by Francis Gary Powers was shot down deep inside Soviet territory. However, the venerable spy plane stayed in service into the twenty-first century over various parts of the world, most famously during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962 and during the Persian Gulf War and its aftermath.
The 1960s saw the creation of the next generation of aerial espionage platforms: Earth-orbiting satellites. The first American reconnaissance satellites ( corona Program) went into operation in August 1960. corona photographs showed that the much-feared missile gap between America and the Soviet Union was grossly inaccurate; in fact, corona's camera systems in the first-generation Keyhole satellites proved that the United States had a decisive edge in numbers of missiles. Although the Soviets also deployed reconnaissance satellites beginning in the early 1960s, continued improvements in the Keyhole system are believed to have provided a decisive edge in satellite capabilities to the United States throughout the Cold War.
The onset of satellites did not eliminate the role of more traditional aerial platforms, however. In May 1967, the advanced American spy plane code-named oxcart, better known as the Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, went into operation for the CIA over North Vietnam. Capable of flying at tremendous speeds (up to Mach 3.6 or 2,400 mph) and heights (up to 92,000 feet), oxcart was used extensively throughout the world. Over the next thirty years, more than 1,000 surface-to-air missiles were fired at the SR-71 without a single hit.
In the mid-1960s, the little-known and highly secretive National Security Agency (NSA) took over control of U.S. ground stations around the Soviet periphery and greatly expanded their numbers, most significantly in northern Iran. These assets became the main source of information on Soviet missile tests in Kazakhstan but were lost following the Iranian Revolution of 1979. At about the same time that the NSA was building more observation posts, it was developing (along with the U.S. Navy) its own fleet of spy trawlers similar to the Soviet models.
Beginning with President Dwight D. Eisenhower's administration, U.S. Navy submarines were deployed deep in Soviet waters to collect information, sometimes even venturing into Russian ports. One such operation, code-named ivy bells, placed a pod of recording equipment on a Soviet undersea communications cable and collected vast quantities of valuable intelligence before an American spy exposed the operation in 1981.
The 1970s witnessed perhaps the last great innovations of intelligence collection during the Cold War. The first was the development of geosynchronous orbital satellites under the code-name rhyolite. The first rhyolite platform was put into orbit in June 1970. The advantage that rhyolite provided was constant, around-the-clock coverage of the desired target. Perhaps most significant, however, was the December 1976 deployment of the KH-11 geosynchronous satellite. Marking a revolution in photoreconnaissance technology, the KH-11 (unlike all previous spy satellites) could transmit images back Earth as it was collecting them, or in real time.
Brent M. Geary
Andrew, Christopher, and David Dilks, eds. The Missing Dimension: Governments and Intelligence Communities in the Twentieth Century. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984.; Haynes, John Earl, and Harvey Klehr. Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America. New York: Yale University Press, 1999.; Richelson, Jeffrey T. A Century of Spies: Intelligence in the Twentieth Century. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.