When something goes wrong, the intelligence community gets the blame for not knowing about it in advance. When nothing happens, the intelligence community is flogged for knowing too much. When something goes right, the intelligence community gets no credit at all, because their actions are classified. Good news eventually comes to light, however, and it’s almost always more impressive than we ever could have imagined. Here are four of the greatest, most surprising feats of the U.S. intelligence community.

1. RHYOLITE

Before the dawn of fiber optics and communications satellites, transcontinental telephone traffic was transmitted using microwave relay stations in direct line-of-sight. Powerful dishes in adjacent cities would be pointed at one another and blast information back and forth. (They’re still used today, though in a much diminished capacity.) The CIA came up with a surprising, ingenious way of intercepting signals transmitted across the Soviet Union. Its codename was RHYOLITE.

Though the communications dishes were carefully aligned, nothing is perfect, and microwave beams just outside the rim of the opposing dish would continue blasting in a straight line. Because the Earth is round, those transmissions, unimpeded, continued on their path until they reached space. The CIA and National Reconnaissance Office launched satellites into geostationary orbit at the line-of-sight of key foreign microwave transmission towers. Those errant, straight lines of data going into space would thus beam directly onto American communications satellites. Our satellite would in turn beam the data to a ground station in Australia, and then to the United States for analysis.

2. COINTELPRO-WHITE HATE

During the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 60s, the Ku Klux Klan mounted a reign of terror across the southern United States. They burned churches, burned crosses, bombed the homes of black families, committed murders, and mounted intimidation campaigns. It was domestic terrorism on a massive scale.

When J. Edgar Hoover set about dismantling the Klan, he faced one seemingly intractable problem: local politicians, judges, and law enforcement agencies in the south were often sympathetic to the terrorist organization. (In Mississippi, especially, the Klan practically operated with impunity.) The FBI thus had to find other means of shutting them down. Through COINTELPRO-WHITE HATE, a special counterintelligence program, they surprised the Klan by coming after them from the side rather than head-on, using infiltration and public exposure when a direct law enforcement route wouldn’t suffice. Slowly, the Bureau was able to loosen the Klan’s grip on government and degrade the organization. By the mid-1960s, the FBI had recruited over 2,000 informants in the Klan. It was eventually marginalized and effectively neutralized.

3. Project Azorian

In 1974, the CIA mounted a recovery operation for a sunken, nuclear armed Soviet submarine. They called it Project Azorian. To get to the vessel, the agency commissioned a ship called the Hughes Glomar Explorer (“Hughes” being billionaire businessman Howard Hughes, who provided cover for the operation, though was not involved). The ship’s official mission was the mining of manganese deposits on the ocean floor. Though the Soviets were eventually tipped off to the operation, their intelligence officers dismissed the recovery effort as hopeless. The submarine was enormous, after all, and three miles beneath the ocean surface.

It was a terrible surprise to them when they learned that the recovery arm on the Hughes Glomar Explorer was a technological marvel capable of just such an impossible feat. (The vessel and arm were so advanced, in fact, that in 2006 it was declared a historic landmark by American Society of Mechanical Engineers.) Ultimately, one-third of the submarine was recovered, and with it a trove of secret documents, two nuclear missiles, and six bodies of the crew.

The ship is also famous for what would come to be called the “Glomar response.” In response to a Freedom of Information Act request for information about the operation, the CIA famously refused to cooperate, writing, “We can neither confirm nor deny the existence of the information requested but, hypothetically, if such data were to exist, the subject matter would be classified, and could not be disclosed.”

4. Corona

Before the National Reconnaissance Office launched the Corona satellite, the United States had to rely on dangerous U-2 flights over the Soviet Union in order to gather imagery intelligence. That program went south in 1960 when American pilot Gary Powers was shot down. This was an initial coup for the Soviets; they were soon surprised, however, when we launched a reconnaissance satellite into space. This allowed us virtually unfettered access to Soviet territory and activities with no chance of pilots being downed and interrogated.

Corona’s early satellites worked like this. Cameras mounted on the spacecraft captured imagery on 70mm film. After completing a photo reconnaissance mission, the satellite would jettison its film in special reentry canisters. At 60,000 feet, the heat shield protecting the canister would drop away, and parachutes would deploy. Military aircraft bearing tow hooks would then capture the film canister mid-air. (The canisters could also land in the water; if not discovered in 48 hours, they were designed to sink to the bottom of the ocean.)

The program operated for 12 years, capturing 800,000 images from space on 2.1 million feet of film. Corona was declassified in the 1990s, with gradual releases of its reconnaissance photos. A fact sheet released by the National Reconnaissance Office lists the firsts of the surprising, innovative program:

  • 1st photo reconnaissance satellite in the world
  • 1st mid-air recovery of a vehicle returning from space
  • 1st mapping of earth from space
  • 1st stereo-optical data from space
  • 1st multiple reentry vehicles from space
  • 1st reconnaissance program to fly 100 missions
  • 1st reconnaissance satellite program to be declassified

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David Brown is a regular contributor to ClearanceJobs. He is currently at work on his next book, One Inch From Earth, which tells the story of scientists who study the outer planets of the solar system. He can be found online at https://www.dwb.io.