Eye spy: Optics, photonics, and espionage

01 March 2024
By William G. Schulz
A U2 spy plane with fictitious NASA markings was part of a CIA cover story that the plane was being used for weather research. Photo credit: Heritage Space/Heritage Images via Getty Images

Los Angeles news anchor Jess Marlow choked back emotion as he told KNBC viewers on 1 August 1977 that two of his TV station colleagues had perished that day in a fatal helicopter crash. Gone were engineer/cameraman George Spears and pilot Francis Gary Powers, who had survived crashes before but whose work flying aerial photography reconnaissance missions—most famously for the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)—had come to a tragic end in a field near Encino.

For decades, even after his death at age 47, Powers’ name sat under a cloud of suspicion following the forced downing of his U2 spy plane over the Soviet Union on 1 May 1960. As pilot  for the CIA’s daring Operation GRAND SLAM—carrying advanced, top-secret aerial camera  technology—some thought Powers should have evaded capture by swallowing his suicide capsule. Others wondered, had the young US Air Force officer broken under intense KGB interrogation (i.e., torture) and revealed too much about the CIA, the U2, or the record-high-altitude mission to document Soviet military infrastructure?

With time and the end of the Cold War, history has thoroughly exonerated Powers. He was a hero. His story of bravery and patriotism under extreme duress in the hands of the enemy is recounted in an exhibit of U2 artifacts at the CIA Museum, which snakes through the main corridors at Agency headquarters in Langley, Virginia. The museum is situated so that Agency employees must walk through it as they go about their day. It is a means to instill in them the CIA’s 76-year history and legacy, and to showcase both successes and failures in the secret world of intelligence gathering—including the many technology tools of the trade.

“And, the U2 is still flying,” notes Robert, the museum’s director who gave Photonics Focus an exclusive tour of the museum with the agreement that only first names of sources would be used. The US has long been the (much copied) leader in developing advanced technology for spycraft and much of that work has been for the CIA.

Andy,  a former CIA deputy director of science and technology, notes that the U2 carried the first high-altitude aerial photography systems, which were designed for the mission starting in the 1940s by Harvard University astronomer and telescope maker James G. Baker along with Richard S. Perkin, of the Perkin-Elmer company, and based on an aerial framing camera built for the Air Force. He says the agency maintains close ties with many experts from academia, industry, the US National Laboratories, and other government agencies to develop or adapt the technology it needs.

In fact, Andy says, as a graduate student in biology and forensic chemistry in the 1970s, his research adviser (he won’t name him or the university) was working with the CIA and helped recruit him to become a CIA case officer.

For the U2 program, the cameras needed to be lightweight and provide ground resolution to within about 10 feet, from an altitude greater than 68,000 feet. It was a monumental task, far exceeding the capabilities of any existing aerial photography system.

Through steady trial and error, though, Baker, Perkin, and other experts eventually devised a workhorse panoramic imaging system for the U2 with an 18-inch × 18-inch camera format, and a 36-inch, f/10.0 aspheric lens that made exposures on two different film strips at left and right angles from the plane. A third, vertical exposure served as a reference to unite the images in a viewer once they were developed. Experts say the photography systems used today in the U2 are an evolution of the earlier designs.

Robert says that the CIA’s photographic analysts at the time were known to gripe about the tedious alignment of images for viewing with DynaZoom stereoscopes.

The DynaZoom stereoscope was needed to view images taken by cameras aboard U2 spy planes. Photo credit: CIA

Regardless, “photography is critical to the work of the CIA,” says Andy, who worked at the agency for 27 years. “As an officer, you need it to corroborate the information an agent is telling you. Pictures don’t lie,” Andy says. For the CIA, he notes, its personnel are “officers” who use “agents”—foreign nationals, for example—to spy for them. Agents are not employees of the agency, and CIA officers are not spies—rather, spy handlers.

Over the years, for use by its agents, the CIA and other intelligence agencies have developed myriad cameras for photographing documents or other source material, and they have also used off-the-shelf technology.

“Miniaturization was a game-changer,” Andy says. He notes the Minox subminiature camera, which first became widely available in Europe in the late 1940s. It has long been a favorite for espionage because of its macro-focusing capabilities, and, due to its slim 80-mm × 27-mm × 16-mm profile, can easily be concealed in the palm of a hand. An 18-inch chain that came with the camera measured out the perfect distance for taking pictures of, say, documents on a desk, with the camera’s 15-mm f/3.5 lens. Paired with binoculars, the Minox could become a telephoto zoom lens.

Off-the-shelf technology like the Minox and other commercial cameras the agency has used over the years have the great advantage of deniability. The Minox and others like it could just as easily have been a gift from a generous uncle—not necessarily spy gear from Uncle Sam.

But spy cameras got a lot smaller than the Minox. Andy demonstrated the microdot camera, which resembles a tiny gear, perhaps from a wind-up toy. There is no lens: By popping open a tiny lid at the end of a tiny tube, an asset can expose the film inside. Then, with additional little tools (not disclosed, but think manicure) and maybe a glass of water, the image could be floated off the emulsion and placed beneath an incision in typing paper—below the period at the end of a sentence.

Asked if technology at the CIA is often mission-specific, like the staple scene in every James Bond film when Q outfits 007 with exploding pens and cars that become submarines underwater, Andy draws a long smile and says, “Absolutely.”

And has the ubiquity of cellphone cameras eliminated the need for spy cameras, because, well, almost everybody has one? Andy shakes his head no. “Smaller is always better,” he says, noting that when cameras can be concealed in other objects commonly carried in a pocket or purse—key fobs, pens, lipstick cases—the spy has an advantage. Case in point: The CIA demands that any visitor to Langley turn off their cellphone and place it in a secure locker before entering the compound.

“Gathering intelligence is always shaped and constrained by any available technology,” says Andrew Hammond, a curator at the Spy Museum in Washington, DC. The museum’s collection, for example, includes a camera that was literally attached to pigeons flying over the battlefields of Western Europe during the First World War. “There were problems because, you know, pigeons can change their mind, change direction, and do other things. They’re not programmable.”

Minox cameras come with a chain that measures the perfect distance for photographing documents on a desk. Photo credit: CIA

With the invention of the airplane, it became possible to travel in one direction and take photographs systematically of an area or region. “Whenever there is an advanced technology, not long afterwards people are thinking “Okay, how can this be applied to gathering intelligence?’” Hammond says.

For sure, Lockheed’s famous spy plane, the SR-71 Blackbird, flew even higher than the U2—it was nearly touching space. Its range, speed, and altitude delivered even better pictures for a time.

And then came satellites. CORONA was the CIA’s first spy satellite, and the program was kicked into high gear after Powers’ capture and imprisonment. It became a series of spy satellites with differing camera configurations that also continued to advance resolution. Still, to actually get the pictures, CORONA had to drop its film canisters that were in turn picked up by airplanes and brought to secure facilities for developing and analysis.

Because of the challenges of such operations, in the early 1960s, the US considered a Manned Orbital Laboratory—a reconnaissance mission run by astronauts in space. Despite a lot of enthusiasm, the risk, expense, and complexity of such a mission couldn’t be justified at a time when quickly developing satellite technology was promising ever-better eyes peering down at Earth.

Asked if technology will ever replace the need for human intelligence—the person in the room—Hammond is skeptical. “The argument is that human intelligence will never be obsolete. And I think that’s probably true. But during the Cold War, and inside the Soviet Union, it was very difficult to do human intelligence operations. So increasingly, the United States and the West generally relied on technology to circumvent that.”

Film from the CORONA spy satellite had to be dropped for retrieval by an airplane. Photo credit: CIA

Instead of going away, however, he says human intelligence gathering is always going to be conditioned by the technology available, what it can do, and then knowing what are the remaining gaps in intelligence—the things not discoverable through either people or technology?

SPIE Fellow and Past President Joe Houston, a long-time technology consultant for the CIA—including on marquee projects like the U2, CORONA, Project Azorian—and many others, says it all comes down to electrons, photons, and phonons.

“If you look at espionage as being a sensory type of contact sport, these three disciplines intertwine, and they’re extremely powerful when used together,” he says. “And of course, my favorite example is listening to a laser beam.”

Using a laser beam and the concept of interference, a person could measure the vibrations (from people talking in a room, for example) that are coming off a nearby object, perhaps a picture on the wall or a window. By knowing the wavelength of the laser light, the interference in the beam bouncing off a target object—perhaps the hull of a submarine—now becomes an information carrier. The laser photons, having been generated by electrons, can now become phonons converted to audible signals in a headset or earbuds, and the conversation in the submarine can be decoded.

“So, all these things turned out to be a signal-to-noise ratio thing,” Houston says. “And the reason I talk photons, phonons, and electrons, is because everybody understands signal-to-noise ratios. The most covert systems that I know of are those systems—either image communications or electronic communications—that are hidden in the skirts of strong signals in a location that you know, but no one else knows. And that’s what you look for in espionage—how to add something to a signal, putting an image into an optical fiber, for example, polarizing it, and holding it there until you need to extract the image and carry information out from some facility for analysis.”

Asked if he ever found classified technology work difficult or frustrating (because of being classified), Houston says, “No, I found it challenging, but it wasn’t difficult at all. I was having so much fun building stuff and getting involved in making better optics. You know, the goal in my mind was to make optics perfect. I mean, absolutely perfect.”

For most of human history, the best image a spy could gather was maybe drawing a sketch, Hammond notes. “But now, with photography and optics, it gets different. And then, with every subsequent development in terms of lens technology, in terms of film…maybe we can capture it in color? Maybe we can detect heat through the photographs?” Each step touches off another series of problems to solve, to adapt the technologies to new and existing platforms.

It’s not difficult to imagine the frontiers of optics and photonics that would be ripe with potential for the intelligence community: flat optics, metasurfaces, invisibility cloaking, single-photon imaging, and quantum sensing are a few obvious choices.

Houston sees the technology–espionage relationship, however, through the lens of problems to be analyzed and solved, and what best suits those goals. He describes an example scenario in which people can be seen coming and going from a building where an adversary may or may not be manufacturing a dangerous weapon. An intelligence officer needs to figure it out, and the clock is ticking.

“How do we find out what they’re doing in there? If they’re producing something, there might be tailings from the manufacturing process,” Houston says. “Those can be flushed out of the building into a local river. So, let’s do some multispectral analysis of the river…. We look at each problem individually and decide what level of [technology] sophistication is needed. You start with that.”

William G. Schulz is the Managing Editor of Photonics Focus.

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