Supporting the Spooks

Supporting the Spooks

© David Burton 2016

Keyhole Satellite

     I’ve long since retired from an engineering career that spanned nearly half a century. Much of that career involved the development of specialized equipment that was used by various American intelligence agencies. At the time, some of that equipment was very highly classified. During that period of time, I was never able to discuss my involvement with the intelligence community outside of my work environment. Much of the work was highly compartmentalized and I could not at that time identify who some of these customers were.

     During the years between 1960 and 2000, much of my work involved image collection systems using photographic film, meaning the imagery obtained was not immediately available – the film had to be developed and duplicated before the imagery could be analyzed. Today, film cameras have been replaced by video cameras, meaning that the imagery is instantaneously available and image enhancement can also be performed almost instantaneously. As a result, these days the president can watch real time satellite imagery of the killing of Osama bin Laden.


     During the last 50 years of the 20th century the united States flew numerous aircraft and satellite spy systems around the world. The products of these flights were innumerable miles of photographic film. One such system was the KH-9 or Keyhole satellite system.

     KH-9 satellites, also known as Big Bird or Keyhole-9 satellites, were a series of photographic reconnaissance satellites launched by the United States between 1971 and 1986. The photographic films from the cameras were housed in recoverable re-entry pods and after re-entry, the pods were parachuted toward earth. The method of recovering a pod was to send an airplane up over the Pacific with a bunch of hooks trailing behind it and grabbing the parachute and pod and cranking them into the recovery aircraft. Four of these camera pods were carried on most missions. The best ground resolution achieved by the main cameras was reported to be better than 24-inches at altitudes ranging from 90 to 200 miles. According to declassified documents, each KH-9 satellite mission lasted about 124 days. (Ref. 1)

     The KH-9 program was highly classified and the program was not declassified until September 2011.

     The KH-9 project was a response to the shooting down in 1960 of a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) U-2 spy plane reconnaissance mission over Soviet Union airspace that was piloted by Francis Gary Powers. The KH-9 spy satellites went operational in the early 1970s and the program continued through the mid-1980s, after which electro-optic cameras replaced the film based cameras on the spy satellites. In total, some 20 KH-9 satellites were reported to have been launched.[1]

     It was reported that President Eisenhower, sometimes noted for having little tolerance for failures, showed extreme patience with the early spy satellite systems. The initial attempts to catch the film packages as they were parachuted back to earth were all unsuccessful, but Eisenhower never gave up and was ultimately rewarded with pictures captured by the low-orbiting satellites after the initial series of failures.

     A partial but excellent description of some facets of these film camera spy satellite programs and Eastman Kodak’s involvement in them is contained in Reference 2. Besides Kodak, other organizations participating in the program were Lockheed, PerkinElmer Inc., Itek, the National Photographic Interpretation Center in Washington, D.C., federal intelligence and defense mapping agencies, and Westover Air Force Base.

     President Eisenhower deeply valued the strategic benefits of the U-2’s airborne reconnaissance during the tense Cold War times. He subsequently moved to replace the U-2 flights with imagery gathered from space and from aircraft that “couldn’t be shot down”. The KH-9 Keyhole satellite and the SR-71 Blackbird supersonic spy plane were two of the results.

     The shooting down of unauthorized spy planes over a country was justified under international law. Taking pictures from a satellite was another matter. The Soviet Union resolved this dilemma when it launched sputnik. Since Sputnik passed over several countries, including the United States, the precedent was established that satellites could pass unhindered over all countries, and that included spy satellites.

     In addition to film imagery obtained from space, other reconnaissance and intelligence imagery was obtained with aircraft such as the venerable high altitude U-2, the now-famous SR-71 Blackbird supersonic reconnaissance airplane designed and built for the CIA by Lockheed Aircraft’s Skunk Works and other more conventional reconnaissance aircraft.

     The SR-71 was a truly remarkable airplane. It was capable of supersonic speeds in excess of 2,000 miles per hour. The original Blackbird was designated the A-12 and made its first flight on April 30, 1962. The single-seat A-12 soon evolved into the larger SR-71, which added a second seat for a Reconnaissance Systems Officer and carried more fuel than the A-12. The SR-71's first flight was on December 22, 1964. To reduce the chances of radar detection, it’s radar cross section was reduced to the point that the more-than 100-foot long Blackbird would appear on Soviet radar as bigger than a bird but smaller than a man. In 1963, the Blackbird achieved a sustained speed above Mach 3 at an astounding altitude of 78,000 feet. At that speed and altitude, even the best air defense systems of the time had no hope of catching the Blackbird. Even today, the Blackbird was and remains the world’s fastest and highest-flying manned aircraft. On its retirement flight from Los Angeles to Washington in 1990, to its final resting place in the Smithsonian Air & Space collection, the plane flew coast to coast in 67 minutes.[3]

     The film imagery from these intelligence gathering resources was invaluable – and it was somewhat fragile. The original negative films were irreplaceable.

The Linear Microdensitometer and the Split Field Viewer

     My introduction to the world of photographic imagery intelligence and the CIA came when I was tasked with program managing two programs – the first being the development of an instrument called the Split Field Viewer (SFV) and the second being the development of another instrument called the Linear Microdensitometer (LMD). Initially, I was not told who the customer was, the reason being that, although I held a top-secret clearance, that was not adequate and I needed to be cleared and “read into” these “special access” programs. Eventually, I was cleared and officially told that the customer was the CIA.

     Working on the LMD and SFV programs required me to visit CIA offices in the Washington DC area and the eventual home of these instruments, the National Photographic Imagery Center (NPIC), which was located in building 213 in the Washington Navy Yard in Southeast Washington D.C.

     Shortly before leaving office in January 1961, President Dwight D. Eisenhower authorized the creation of the National Photographic Interpretation Center, combining Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Army, Navy, and Air Force assets to solve national intelligence problems. NPIC was a component of the CIA's Directorate of Science and Technology (DDS&T) and its primary function was imagery analysis.

     On January 1, 1963, NPIC moved into a new home – Building 213 in the Washington Navy Yard. Most people in the building worked for the CIA – the people who typed letters, drove courier trucks, ran the computers and library searches, and produced he graphics. But the photo interpreters came from the CIA, DIA, Army, Navy, Air Force, and other organizations. An Air Force interpreter who studied photos of Soviet silos might ride the elevator with a CIA interpreter who pored over photos of Chinese nuclear facilities and a Navy representative whose safe was filled with the latest photography of Soviet submarines. NPIC produced imagery interpretation reports, briefing boards, videotapes for national-level consumers, and provided support for the military. NPIC employed some 1,200 image interpreters and archivists.[4]

     The LMD and SFV programs required that my personal association with the CIA, as well as that of the company for which I was working was not supposed to be divulged. Consequently, whenever I signed in to any of the CIA sites, I listed my employer as “self-employed”. Similarly, CIA personnel who visited my company, listed their employer as “self-employed”. That charade ended when one CIA visitor signed into our visitor’s log book and listed the CIA as his employer.

     Another piece of information that was not to be disclosed was the fact that the CIA and NPIC operated out of Building 213 in the Washington Navy Yard. That all ended when a national television program set up its cameras just outside the building’s main gate, identified it as the location of NPIC and asked those passing through the gate if they worked for the CIA.

     Was this disclosure really necessary, except as a means of titillating TV viewers and gaining more revenue for the TV network? Since when is disclosing the site of highly classified national intelligence sites in the best interests of this nation? When does identifying workers for our security agencies become justified, particularly if it may put lives in danger? In other very democratic nations, exposing state secrets and classified information is a crime. National security in those countries tops “the public’s right to know.” At one time, the media could be trusted to not release information which might injure this country and aid our potential enemies. It seems that journalistic integrity and patriotism have become victims of the rush to publish, to titillate, and to make an extra buck or two.

     The LMD was an exceptional state-of-the-art instrument that was developed to aid photographic analysis of reconnaissance imagery and as a quality control aid to ensure that the films and their processing were providing the highest quality imagery. The LMD provided the highest resolution possible at that time. Resolution is the ability to discern minute distances on the film - in the case of the LMD on the order of forty millionths of an inch. The LMD could also determine extremely small differences in shades of grey in the imagery.

     The SFV was intended as a quality control instrument to check the copying of imagery from the original film product to duplicate film. The original film was treated with unimaginable care. Analyses of the imagery was made from duplicates, not the original, in order to prevent damaging the invaluable original. The SVF was designed to compare the quality of the duplicate with the quality of the original. This was done by providing an analyst with an image in which one side of the image came from the original and the other side of the image came from the duplicate. The analyst could then visually compare the quality of the two images, side-by-side. While intended solely for this quality control function, the instrument was found to be so useful and easy to use, that it was frequently used for photo interpretation and intelligence gathering.

     In addition to providing the highest quality imagery in terms of spatial resolution and density resolution (measurement of differences in shades of grey), the instruments had to transport a variety of different sized reels of film and position the film under the viewing optics with exquisite precision. Transporting of the film was critical. Many of the films were extremely thin and no stretching could be tolerated because that would cause errors in measuring the size of objects and distances in the imagery. Touching of the film with bare fingers was an absolute no-no. Obviously, even miniscule scratching of the film was not permitted. The film transport and positioning systems on these instruments was therefore state-of-the-art and included highly innovative designs to guarantee the needed performance and protection of the film. If a roll of film was damaged, even slightly, one did not just go back to the photo studio and take the pictures over again.

     One unique feature of the LMD and the SFV was the film hold-down and cooling system employed. In order to examine the imagery, the film had to be held flat on the glass plate under the film. At extremely high magnification and in very dark area of the imagery, illumination had to be brought up to very high levels – so high in fact that the film could actually be damaged or it could burn. To address these two problems, air was blown onto the top of the film, to both hold it flat and to cool it.

     To test or check instruments such as the LMD and the SVF, test patterns - usually a series of very tiny black and white bars on film - were used. During one test of the SFV, it was noticed that the test pattern was changing color from black and white to all brown – the test pattern was burning up. It turned out that the air hold-down had not been turned on. The government contract monitor that was present when this happened was almost brought to tears since the test pattern that was destroyed was his favorite, one-of-a-kind and almost irreplaceable.


     Another instrument developed for the CIA was what I would call an “air sniffer”. This was a relatively small device that was designed to capture air samples that could be analyzed to determine if nuclear or atomic development was in progress and to identify the nature of the nuclear program. The device consisted of an air pump, a number of chambers and a set of valves to open and close off the chambers individually. The idea was to place the sniffer where air samples from a suspected site could be collected. One chamber at a time could be opened, sample air pumped in and then the chamber would be closed off. This would be repeated for several days until all the chambers were filled. The sniffer would then be retrieved and brought back to a laboratory for analysis.

     One interesting aspect of this program, involved my very first personal computer, a Radio Shack TRS-80 desktop computer, antediluvian by today’s PC standards. The valves being used in the sniffer were not designed for the sniffer application and it was decided that they should be tested to make sure that they met the needs of the program. To do this, I wrote a computer program on my PC that would command each valve to open, close and seal each chamber multiple times. The pressure in the chamber was monitored to determine if there was any leakage. I brought my PC into work, connected it to the electronics controlling the sniffer, and let it run. Voila - all went well and the valves were found to work just fine and my very brief stint as a computer programmer turned out well. These days, I just buy my computer programs.

     The Radio Shack TRS-80 computer was one of the first desktop PC’s on the market. It had a total of 64 kilobytes of memory, of which only 48 kilobytes were useable - the other 16 kilobytes were needed to accommodate the BASIC programming software. Today, we buy PC’s with gigabytes of memory, not kilobytes, and at a fraction of the cost of the original memory. If you wanted your computer to do anything in those days, you wrote your own program – using the BASIC computer language. Also, initially, removeable memory was an audio tape recorder. My, how times have changed!


     As the Cold War raged throughout the second half of the twentieth century, American civilian and military intelligence organizations worked day and night to gather information on Soviet nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities, Soviet intentions, Soviet submarine technology, and much, much more. One facet of these efforts involved the use of submarines to acquire the desired information. One book that describes some these efforts is Blind Man’s Bluff: The Untold Story of American Submarine Espionage (authored by Sontag, Drew and Drew, published by PublicAffairs, 1960). During this span of time, in extremely dangerous missions and under the cover of security classifications higher than top-secret, American submarines conducted numerous covert spy missions around the world, including some within the territorial waters of the Soviet Union, inside well-defended Soviet naval bases and shipyards, and even within tens of feet of Soviet submarines and warships. Their mission: stay hidden, gather information about Soviet intensions, and the abilities of the Soviets to wage war against the U.S. on and under the oceans of the world.

     My involvement with these spy missions concerned two pieces of equipment, the EH-109 film processor and the Periscope Optical Test Equipment (POTE), which the companies for which I worked developed for the Navy and which we supported with training, maintenance, and spare parts. Occasionally, I was required to visit the sub bases to meet with the users and to go on board these underwater vessels – an unpleasant task for me in one respect, since I am somewhat claustrophobic.

     In one case I had to go onboard a submarine under overhaul in the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard in New Hampshire, shortly after several workers were killed in a fire aboard a submarine undergoing overhaul at the Brooklyn Naval Shipyard. The submarine I was visiting was an older boat, meaning it was very cramped. I’m a fairly large individual, over 6 feet tall and, at that time, I weighted over 200 pounds. I managed to squeeze down the hatch and narrow stairs to the submarine’s interior where I was immediately enveloped in smoke from the welding being performed – it was apparent to me that in the event of a fire breaking out, I would likely suffer the same fate as the Brooklyn Naval Shipyard workers. Fortunately, no emergency evacuation was required, but I did sweat a lot during the visit.

The EH-109 Film Processor

     During the last 50 years of the 20th century, much of the submarine spying was done with 35-millimeter film cameras that took pictures through the Submarine’s periscopes – sometimes with the periscope raised above the surface of the water, and sometimes underwater. For example, underwater photography was needed when picture-taking of the underside of ships and submarines was needed, perhaps to determine the characteristics of the propellers on a new submarine.

     Originally, the film was brought back to base to be developed and analyzed, but this posed serious problems. If, for whatever reason, the pictures did not contain the desired information, the very dangerous and time-consuming mission might have to be repeated. It was much more desirable to have the film developed on-board the submarine, so that another set of imagery could immediately be obtained. The Eh-109 film processor met this need.

     The EH-109 film processor unit was a compact, self-threading, film processor that was specifically designed to automatically process B&W (black-and-white) film strips from the 35-mm cameras that attached to the submarines’ periscopes. The processor was portable and small – about the size of a bread box – and could be set up in the cramped mess room space of the submarine, and stored away when not in use. To process the film, the operator filled the EH-109 with the developing and fixing chemicals, started the unit and then inserted the film leader in one end of the processor. The completely processed and dried film came out the other end of the EH-109 in a few minutes. Within a few minutes and without leaving the site where the pictures were taken, it could be determined if more clandestine picture-taking was necessary.

Periscope Optical Test Equipment

     Periscopes on submarines in the second half of the twentieth century were 30 or 40 foot long tubes filled with numerous glass lenses, filters and prisms. They were expensive and not especially easy to install and remove from the submarine. Good image quality was essential, both for the submarine commander who needed to see through the periscope and for the intelligence analyst who had to interpret the film imagery obtained through the scope. How to know if the periscope met these stringent requirements? Subjectively, this was determined by the submarine commander who looked through the periscope and declared it O.K. to go or unacceptable. Unacceptable meant removal from the submarine and replacement with a periscope that met the commander’s approval. The removed periscope would then be taken to a facility for quantitative testing and, if needed, repair. Sometimes the rejected periscope was found to meet specifications – remember the commander’s determination was highly subjective, not quantitative. Perhaps he had a bad day at the office and took out his frustrations on the periscope. In any case, objectively and quantitatively testing a periscope in situ, i.e., on the submarine, would eliminate the unneeded, expensive and time consuming removal of “good” periscopes. POTE was a piece of portable test equipment that was developed to meet this requirement.

     “The Periscope Optical Test Equipment (POTE) {was} designed for use with submarine periscopes. The POTE concept provides for a measurement of a specific parameter - rather than a comprehensive analysis - to determine if the periscope optical performance is satisfactory. The system design incorporated custom optics (reflecting the photographic use of submarine periscopes) in conjunction with a microcomputer-based image processor. Special fixturing was designed to allow for rapid installation and alignment aboard a submarine. . .” (Ref. 5) Some of the “special fixturing” included an approximately 50-foot long cable to run between the image projector fastened to the top window of the periscope outside the submarine and the imaging camera attached to the periscope eyepiece inside the submarine, a fabric bag for hoisting the image projector and cable to the top of the sail (conning tower), and adapters to mate the image projector to different periscope types.


     Working on programs for the CIA presented occasionally interesting challenges. One day, I received a phone call from our CIA program monitor – he needed a favor. Another contractor, not far away, had gone bankrupt before it completed the equipment which it was building. The CIA had to immediately remove the unfinished equipment from the bankrupt contractor in order to keep secret the equipment and the relationship between the contractor and the CIA. The monitor was asking if he could bring the equipment to our classified facility for temporary storage. Of course, I immediately agreed.

     At another time, we were building a very small device to clandestinely store intelligence information that a person could carry out of a foreign country. The device had to be delivered shortly after the beginning of the new year. The machinist responsible for making the components of the device and assembling them into the finished product was having a tough time – he simply didn’t have the manual dexterity and finesse to make and assemble the very tiny parts. I finally had to step in and ask the machine shop foreman, who had the skills and finesse of a fine Swiss watchmaker, to come in over the Christmas holiday to finish the work. He did and the project was completed on time - but several people in my department chewed me out for having the foreman work day-and-night over the Christmas holiday.

     When people think of the CIA, they immediately conjure up an image of CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. In all the years I dealt with the CIA, I never once set foot in the CIA headquarters. My dealings with the CIA took place in facilities and offices scattered throughout the Washington D.C. area. Some CIA offices were located in commercial buildings, with access requiring prior notification and the passing of security clearances. One CIA monitor was referred to as “the man behind the green door” because the door to the CIA offices in the commercial building in which his office was located was green.

     So, the next time you’re in an office building in the Washington area, you may inadvertently be in the same building as a secret CIA Office. The person on the elevator next to you may be a CIA “spook”. One never knows!


     Anti-Tank Guided Missiles – ATGMs – pose a deadly threat to tanks and their crews. During the Arab-Israeli 1973 Yom Kippur War, Israel’s IDF learned the hard way about the lethality of ATGMs. After tank battles with the Egyptians and Syrians, many wires from Soviet-made wire-guided ATGMs were found strewn among the disabled and destroyed Israeli tanks. For a description of the ATGM threats and the means of defeating them, see Reference 6.

     The typical ATGM requires a person to sight on the tank target, launch the missile, and keep his sight centered on the tank until the missile impacts the target. I had the opportunity to work on developing a system to counter the ATGM threat. The system used an electro-optic sensor to detect the ATGM launch and track the missile. Signals from the sensor allowed countermeasures to be activated or deployed at the right time and in the proper direction. To develop the sensor and the integrated system to counter these ATGM systems, it was necessary to 1) determine the electro-optical signature of the launch and the missile flight, and 2) test that ability of the system to detect the launch, track the anti-tank missile, and defeat the threat. These data collection and testing operations had to be carried out during live-fire tests of the ATGM systems.

     The ATGMs used in these tests were both domestic and foreign. In the case of foreign ATGMs, they were bought, stolen, captured or transferred by friendly governments/parties.

     This data collection and system effectiveness testing/verification was done at a number of live-fire test ranges in Alabama, New Mexico and Arizona. Data collection involved setting up the detection/tracking sensor downrange of the ATGM launch, in the vicinity of where a tank target would be located in a real attack, and recording the signals during the launch and flight. Since the sensor and recording equipment were “in or near the line of fire”, operation of the equipment had to be done remotely in case the missile went off course and hit the equipment. This resulted in some interesting situations.

     At a test range in Alabama, we were nearing the end of the day’s testing when we were called on the radio and told that a tornado threat was imminent and we were ordered to clear the range. Doing so, required a half hour or so to tear down all our equipment, load it into our van and drive in from our test location. During this span of time, every few minutes we were told to “hurry up” and clear the range. When we finally drove off the test range, we found out that a tornado had touched down a few miles away, killing some local residents.

     At the same test range in Alabama, we normally set up our sensor on one side of a road that paralleled the line-of-flight of the anti-tank missile. Recording equipment and video cameras were set up on the other side of the road, further away from the line-of-flight of the missile. Cables ran across the road from the sensors to the recording equipment and we put up signs warning vehicles not to drive over the cables. Prior to one test, a tank drove down the road, ignored our warning signs and drove over our cables, destroying them. After much cursing, we spent the next several hours repairing the damaged cables.

     On another occasion, the missile did not fly down the correct trajectory and crossed over the road, directly toward our recording equipment. Watching on monitors back behind the launch point, we could see the missile coming right at our equipment until, at the very last possible moment, it veered back toward the target point.

     In one set of tests in New Mexico, we had trouble turning on our equipment remotely, so I decided that we had to turn on the equipment from a bunker adjacent to our equipment and directly under the flight path of the ATGM. The technician who was at the field test with me was afraid to operate the equipment from the bunker, so I ended up in the bunker, wearing a flak jacket and combat helmet, while a foreign ATGM whizzed a few feet over my head.

     In a series of signature collection tests against a foreign cannon-launched ATGM in Arizona, it was necessary to station our rented vehicle, which was loaded with recording equipment, at the data collection site which was about 10 feet directly under the flight path of the ATGM. We joked about how we would explain it to the car rental company if the missile were to hit our rented vehicle. A week after these tests, we found out that a missile had gone off course a few days after we left the tests and had exploded exactly where our vehicle would have been if we were there for that particular test.

     In another situation, the vehicle did not survive. The situation came about when the company I was working at prepared a highly-classified proposal to address the potential threat of an enemy stealth aircraft similar to the American F-117. Because of the high security classification, the proposal team operated behind locked doors and because of the rush nature of the proposal, we worked continuously, day and night, for 3 solid days – no sleep. Finally, around noon on the fourth day, the proposal was finished and flown to its destination on a chartered flight. I had borrowed my daughter’s car at the beginning of the proposal effort and, as I drove home after 3 days without sleep I fell asleep at the wheel about ˝ mile from home. The car was totaled, I received a minor scratch on a finger, and, by the grace of God, no one else was injured and no other property damaged.


     Helping our intelligence agencies to obtain information on potential enemies and their weapon systems was extremely interesting, sometimes exciting and always rewarding. I had the opportunity to meet a number of dedicated individuals who were devoted to helping to protect our country and to ensuring that our military and our leaders had the best up-to-date information with which to assess threats to America and to develop means to counter those threats. Although I am long since retired, I know that programs similar to those on which I worked continue. There are many individuals who today are working to gather and analyze the intelligence so vital to our safety but who are unable to tell us of their ongoing work. We need to be ever thankful of their efforts and pray for their continued success. In the field of national security, ignorance is definitely not bliss!


  1. The Encyclopedia of US Spacecraft , Bill Yenne, Exeter Books (A Bison Book), New York. ISBN 0-671-07580-2, Accessed 7 December 2016.
  2. Undercover: Covert photographic operations center existed at Kodak plant, Mike Dickinson,
    Rochester Business Journal, 23 November 2012.
  3. Creating The Blackbird, Lockheed Martin, Accessed 7 December 2016.
  4. National Photographic Interpretation Center, JFKCountercoup, Accessed 9 December 2016.
  5. Periscope Optical Test Equipment (POTE) , Frederick C. Allard ; J. Robert Ball ; Lester D. Olin,
    Proc. SPIE 0193, Optical Systems in Engineering I, 246; doi:10.1117/12.957897, 29 November 21979.
  6. Defeating ATGMs, Burt Keirstead, Journal of Electronic Defense; Vol. 39, No. 12, Pages 80-84, December 2016.

  22 December 2016 {Article 276; Suggestions?_03}    
Go back to the top of the page