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Spies in the skies. The high-flying world of high-tech space espionage

By Rosalie E. Dunbar / August 7, 1987



Deep Black: Space Espionage and National Security, by William E. Burrows. New York: Random House. 346 pp. $19.95 SATELLITE surveillance and other techniques that can be used for reconnaissance and to verify arms control agreements are the subject of William Burrows's wonderfully readable book.

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In it, he explains not only the technical capabilities of the equipment but also the political goals that may influence how it and the data obtained from it are used. In the process, he presents some of the tensions, goals, and infighting that are part of ``deep black'' - super, super secret - space espionage.

In this shadow world where budgets and activities are deeply hidden, pilots fly missions that are meant to ``tickle'' Soviet radar and thus test its effectiveness, engineers ponder how to defend against ``killer'' satellites, and sensitive microphones buried in the ocean floor identify specific Soviet submarines by means of the unique sound pattern each emits.

Burrows used published material as well as interviews with figures such as William E. Colby, Herbert Scoville Jr., McGeorge Bundy, Maj. Robert Behler, Richard M. Bissell Jr., and Gen. Paul D. Wagoner, to mention a few. He says he has endeavored to convey his information without giving away anything that might be considered classified.

The book focuses primarily on developments in aerial photography and satellites. But it also covers the role of submarines and surface ships and the ``listening posts'' the United States and its allies maintain around the world. These bases allow interception of radio signals and other transmissions as well as overflights into forbidden territory.

The sections on Soviet intelligence and reconnaissance operations clearly show the difference between their approach and that of the US. According to Burrows, the Soviets launch satellites much more often than the US - using 35 or more in a year. To have sufficient supplies for this purpose, they keep the devices relatively simple in design and focus more on quantity than quality.

From the beginning, the US has tended to favor fewer, but much more sophisticated, satellites. Among those currently being used by the US are some whose data can be in the hands of those who need it within 90 minutes of an observed event.

Throughout the book, Burrows reminds us that as excellent as the data may be, correct, unbiased interpretation and analysis are crucial. To one individual or department, activity at a site captured on film may have the makings of an imminent threat. To another, it may be more worthy of monitoring than of action. The author also notes the role of deception in superpower relations: One side may claim it has missiles it doesn't have, but the other side can't call the bluff for fear of giving away its intelligence capability.

In addition to being fascinating to read, Burrows's book asks some hard questions about how much leaders, policymakers, and citizens can trust each other and other nations. It is clear from what he says that integrity ranks high on his list of ideal qualities. In discussing verification, for example, he points out that the US has claimed that it is impossible to achieve the desired level of accuracy. Yet at the same time, the administration has produced a detailed list of treaty violations.

Burrows writes: ``If the administration is right about the violations, there is every indication that verification is adequate; if verification is not adequate, as they say, then there is no basis for believing that the Russians have cheated. The argument cannot be had both ways.''

It is evident from the book, however, that trying to have things ``both ways'' is not unique to this administration. And perhaps the final - and timeless - message it offers is the need for free nations to be perpetually vigilant at home and with their adversaries and friends abroad. Only in this way can they keep the delicate balance between the need to have ``black'' secrets and an open society.

Rosalie Dunbar reviews books on environmental and nuclear issues for the Monitor.