As the last generation of spies dies off, their secrets are just now coming to light. I have been waiting more than 30 years for these declassified files to be released. They confirm what I have written and what I tried to write about before the information was redacted by the censors at the CIA. There’s a general impression that modern technology makes human spies obsolete and that the lessons they learned in the old days of the Cold War are irrelevant ancient history. Bad idea to believe that, I think.
As I write this, it is a Friday evening in Florida. The mess Hurricane Eta left behind caused more than power outages and piles of fallen branches in my backyard. Eta’s trail of rain clouds blocked my view of the sky for the first Space Force launch of a top-secret spy satellite called NROL-1. It was the first to be launched with solid fuel booster rockets, making spy satellites cheaper, safer, and more easily replaceable.
The National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) is to aerial espionage what the National Security Agency (NSA) is to telephone eavesdropping. In the old days, our spy satellites carried a film pack as big as a Volkswagen car. The camera lens was a super-sharp f500. The photographs were so clear that you could distinguish the two-inch shoulder insignia of an officer walking across the Kremlin yard from a hundred miles up.
The new Space Force satellites make the old Talent Keyhole (TK) satellites seem like kid stuff. They can “hear” the electronic emanations from a microwave telephone tower in Siberia, record the telemetry of a missile test-fired by Kim Jong-un, and within seconds predict where it will land thousands of miles away. They can measure an eighth-of-an-inch bulge on the surface of the ocean caused by the path of a submarine hundreds of feet under the sea.
Most importantly, the new generation of spies in the sky can store everything they see and hear in digital form so that our ground-based computers can sort through the digital data and alert us to the slightest changes. Digging a deep hole too wide for a well? It gets marked as a possible missile silo. Video recordings played back at high speed can reveal a pattern of truck traffic bringing uranium ore to yet another undisclosed Iranian processing site.
These wonderful spy machines of the NSA and the NRO have one huge flaw: they produce far too much information for any human being to absorb. One former NSA official told me, “Any agency that produces 40 tons of documents every day does not have time to understand them.”
A Defense Department analyst said that he received so many photographs and other data from the NRO that he could spend every minute of every bleary-eyed day briefly glancing at each secret screen for a few seconds without learning anything at all. Too much to see, no time to think.