Tuesday, November 6, 2012

CIA Declassifies Secret Spy Satellite Capsule

More than 400 people from around the Pacific Northwest attended a declassification recognition event at the Naval Undersea Museum's Jack Murdock Auditorium in Keyport, Washington, for the deep sea vehicle Trieste II I (DSV 1), Nov. 3.

The event was sponsored by the Historical Collections Division (HCD) of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in partnership with the museum and an independent publication called Quest: The History of Spaceflight Quarterly.

The information released was on a salvage operation conducted April 25, 1972 by Lt. Cmdr. Malcolm Bartels, Lt. Cmdr. Phil Stryker Jr., and Lt. Richard Taylor describing the recovery of a satellite film capsule from a depth 16,400 feet below the Pacific Ocean.

"I think it was very significant because it's just a really great story," said David Waltrop, project manager CIA HCD. "There's only been two operations dealing with underwater intelligence activities that the CIA has declassified."

This is only the second time the CIA has declassified an underwater intelligence operation.

"The other thing that's really important with this declassification is that this is the first time the CIA...has released pictures taken on the bottom of the ocean," said Waltrop. "[Richard] Taylor, he took some very amazing pictures of the satellite film bucket as it was on the bottom of the ocean and as it was coming up, and we released that along with our collection."

The event was a panel presentation to inform the public about Trieste II's recently declassified operation and focused around Waltrop's article, An Underwater Ice Station Zebra. The panel members were Lee Mathers, retired Lt. Cmdr. Beauford Myers, and retired Cmdr. Richard Taylor, the former Trieste II pilot who conducted the CIA underwater recovery mission.

In 1972, Trieste II was the Navy's most advanced deep sea submersible. According to the CIA website, the Trieste II surfaced about 350 miles of the coast of the Hawaiian islands after completing a salvage operation from 16,400 feet below the Pacific Ocean. Known, at the time, as a nondescript data package from the Scripps Institute of Oceanography, the object was actually part of a film capsule from an American photoreconnaissance satellite, codenamed Hexagon.

Before digital technology, photoreconnaissance satellites used film that ejected from the satellite and returned to Earth. The capsules, called buckets, re-entered the Earth's atmosphere descending toward the primary re-entry zone near the Hawaiian Islands. In the case of the first Hexagon mission in 1971, the parachute broke off causing the capsule to fall into the water, sinking to the ocean floor.

Taylor said they started the training program for the mission in the summer and fall of 1971 in the area of Southern California. This was where Taylor and the crew of Trieste II saw the bucket that was brought out as a practice bucket.

"That was the first time we saw what this thing was going to look like," said Taylor. "We were briefed in the program to know that we were picking up something, we had no idea that it came from a Hexagon satellite. We knew it was a satellite, a U.S. satellite, we did not know exactly what it was and what it looked like was that [practice] bucket."

"The Navy didn't know what was on the satellite, or at least we didn't know what was on the satellite," said Taylor. "We know now, I heard in September [2012] what was there. We just knew we were picking up a satellite and it was ours."

The recovery of the submerged capsule took more than five hours, a two-hour descent and three-and-a-half hours to search for the wreckage. During the ascent to the ocean's surface, the film broke apart and dissolved into the ocean. The capsule was supposed to contain images of the former Soviet Union and Eastern Europe during the Cold War.

Taylor said he and everyone else could only imagine what data the capsule contained.

For the museum staff, the declassification finally enables them to provide information regarding the purpose and mission of Trieste II to people from, and those who visit, the Pacific Northwest.

"The Navy has never really talked about why it was built or how it was used, so we've only been able to say it's a deep submergence vehicle, which is fun, but the declassification of this mission means that we have some concrete and tangible, and [it is] very exciting [what] our Trieste has done," said Mary Ryan, museum curator.

Ryan said since the release of the information on the Trieste II the museum has received a huge amount of interest to this story.

"I think any time you say a secret mission and a spy satellite it's an exciting story, it's a nice hook and it draws people's interest to want to come see it and they usually come into the museum to see other stuff that they never heard about," said Ryan. "So, it's a really great way for us to let people know more about the museum that it's here, what we have and what we do."

Waltrop said he was just glad to talk about this operation and its historical significance, calling it a testament to the Navy and the CIA.

"A lot of people, when they talk about history they say, 'Why is it important,' I think a good story has importance," said Waltrop. "It gives us a shared sense of values, a sense of community, a sense of espirit de corps. I think it shows the extent to which we will go to get the information that our country needs to keep itself safe."

For Waltrop, the declassified operation and the successful mission of the Hexagon satellite throughout the Cold War, from 1971-1984, has a long-lasting meaning today.

"[During] the bulk and height of the Cold War this satellite was operating in space, and I think that this shows well before words like, 'joint-duty, interagency collaboration, multi-intelligence,' you know, those buzz words that we currently have today in the [DoD] and the intelligence community," said Waltrop. "Long before those words became popular, you had a group of people from different organizations, different groups, unique talents coming together to undertake a very difficult, dangerous mission that was never before attempted."

The mission of the HCD is the promotion of accurate, objective understanding of the information that has helped shape major U.S. foreign policy decisions and to present historical material that gives greater understanding to the scope and context of past actions.

Trieste II is currently on display for the public at the Naval Undersea Museum.