Back when I still had hope, twenty years ago, I once wrote about a very secretive government agency, the National Reconnaissance Office, for a daily newspaper in the heartland. The NRO operated our spy satellites and I'd discovered (I was not the first) that its head had graduated from the same school I had, Lehigh University in Bethlehem. I'll get to this in a minute.
On Christmas Day the AP published a story on declassification of HEXAGON, one of the NRO's old spy satellite programs. The piece created the impression that it was still a big secret.
However, even by the time I stumbled across it, 1991, it wasn't, really. HEXAGON, along with the spy satellite agency, was an open secret. And while it may not have been known to average Americans it had been written about for years by a number of DC journalists and authors who delved intelligence matters.
That was over twenty years ago.
"For more than a decade they toiled in the strange, boxy-looking building on the hill above the municipal airport, the building with no windows (except in the cafeteria), the building filled with secrets.
"They wore protective white jumpsuits, and had to walk through air-shower chambers before entering the sanitized 'cleanroom' where the equipment was stored.
"They spoke in code.
"Few knew the true identity of 'the customer' they met in a smoke-filled, wood-paneled conference room where the phone lines were scrambled. When they traveled, they sometimes used false names.
"At one point in the 1970s there were more than 1,000 people in the Danbury area working on The Secret ..."
"The Secret" was the "Big Bird" spy satellite, its optics made by Perkin-Elmer in Danbury, also called the Hexagon KH-9.
The AP story informs HEXAGON was declassified in September. And for its piece it digs up a bunch of the old pensioners who worked at Perkin-Elmer, delivering its custom-ordered mirrors, lenses and machinery for the government's spy birds.
The news agency and the old folks labor to inject some gee-whiz character into the narrative.
However, now it's just odd and quaint. Twenty years has been a very long time.
In passing e-mail today, Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists' Secrecy blog, remarked it "seems excessive."
In the intervening period the country has seen radical change. The old threats are gone. And all of the people involved in the matter are either retired and nearing the end or passed on.
Even Lehigh University, the engineering and science school in Bethlehem that trained the National Reconnaissance Office chief who was the subject of my old news piece is no longer the home of "the Engineers."
Now, it's the school of the "Mountain Hawks," a lame change, made because it currently enrolls more liberal arts majors than those working toward technical degrees.
The Associated Press interviews the spouses and offspring of some of the satellite workers long since departed. And it seems a bit cruel that they all had to wait until just a couple months ago to find it was OK to be told what their loved ones worked on.
"He was a Cold War warrior doing something incredibly important for our nation," one son says of his father to the news agency.
"To know that this was more than just a company selling widgets ... that he was negotiating contracts for our country's freedom and security," a departed engineer's wife adds at the piece's conclusion.
However, even back then it wasn't really a secret, anymore. If you wanted to know you just had to do a little digging.
In 1991, for the Morning Call newspaper, I tried to interview Martin Faga, then the head of the National Reconnaissance Office, although not identified as such anywhere in the government record. His press officer/secretary successfully fended off the effort.
The Call was also interested in getting some background on the man from his alma mater. None of the engineering people I called at Lehigh were interested in admitting much. Even though I was nice in the newspaper they were clearly annoyed anyone would inquire about such important and allegedly still "secret" things.
Quick: Name the U.S. intelligence organization so ultra-secret the majority of Americans have never heard of it more than three decades after its creation -- an organization so critical to national security that it commands a bigger budget than the CIA.
Of course you're stumped. Top secrets are supposed to be that way.
And, odds are, you've never heard of Martin C. Faga, a Bethlehem native and Lehigh University graduate, who supervises the Pentagon's clandestine National Reconnaissance Office (NRO), which runs America's most covert satellite and aerial spying programs.
Lacking any formally identified office, its letterhead classified, it is one of the last intelligence organizations that the government declines to acknowledge in any way -- a status similar to that of the National Security Agency (puckishly referred to as the No Such Agency) in the mid-1970s.
Created as a joint Air Force-CIA effort to run spy satellites for the intelligence community and the military, the NRO was originally envisioned as an unclassified operation. But operating from offices on the fourth floor of the Pentagon in Arlington, Va., it quickly be came the holiest of secrets during the Kennedy administration, when Cold War tensions with its target, the Soviet Union, escalated precipitously.
[When] the Challenger blew up in the mid-1980s, derailing the civilian space program, it took with it the secret agency's ability to lift 15-ton photo-intelligence birds at a time when close surveillance of the Soviet Union was of highest priority in the Reagan administration.
During his tenure as head of the NRO, Faga has had to grapple with the task of restoring the NRO's capability to orbit heavy spy payloads independent of the Space Shuttle.
Because of political decisions made when the NRO was led by Hans Michael Mark, under secretary of the Air Force under Jimmy Carter, the clandestine organization had hitched its wagon firmly to NASA. Left without a means to reliably orbit key equipment, the NRO moved to restore its autonomy under Edward Aldridge (NRO chief during the Reagan years) and, later, Faga, by redesigning the retired giant Titan ICBM as its primary workhorse and expanding launch facilities at Vandenberg, Calif., and Cape Canaveral, Fla., so spy satellites could be efficiently launched from either coast.
That effort has been continually plagued with problems. Titans failed catastrophically in the aftermath of the Challenger disaster, destroying themselves and two Keyhole satellites, a HEXAGON in 1985 and a more-advanced model, known as a KENNAN, the following year.
[In 1991], the number of journalists and authors aware of NRO operations in anything more than a general sense can be counted on the fingers of one hand: William Burrows, a New York University journalism professor and author of "Deep Black"; Vince Kiernan, a military space reporter for Space News; Weiner, and Jeffrey Richelson, an investigator who has published a number of carefully researched books on the U.S. intelligence community.
Richelson, Weiner, Kiernan and FAS scientist [John Pike, now director of GlobalSecurity.Org, a national security affairs public information site for which I am a Senior Fellow] all named Faga as head of the NRO during interviews in preparation for this story.
During attempts to interview Faga for this article, his public information officer, Air Force Capt. Marty Hauser, requested a list of questions that might be asked of the assistant secretary.
After the questions were reviewed by Faga's office, Hauser said that Faga would not be able to address two general queries concerning surveillance of Iraq's clandestine nuclear efforts and the classification of current and future "technical collection" programs.
However, Hauser said that Faga would be willing to speak about the path that led to his career in intelligence. Later calls to his office elicited no response.
At Lehigh University, the assistant secretary studied electrical engineering and physics. Enrolled in the Air Force's ROTC program and active in Bethlehem's Trinity Episcopal Church, he is remembered by professors at the university as reserved, an extremely organized student who "knew his stuff," according to LU Dean John Karakash.
After graduating from Lehigh in 1964 with a master's degree in electrical engineering, following a bachelor of science degree in 1963, Faga entered the Air Force as a second lieutenant. He was assigned to the Air Force's Systems Command, a huge organization which oversees the research and development of military space technologies.
While there, Faga worked on laser and infrared applications in reconnaissance.
(The NRO also operates from within Systems Command as the Office of Space Systems at Los Angeles Air Force Base, Calif.)
From 1968-'69, Faga was employed as a technical representative for Perkin-Elmer Corp., a manufacturer of scientific instrumentation.
Perkin-Elmer's optical division, a highly classified installation in Danbury, Conn., developed the HEXAGON spy satellite's 6-foot reflector-equipped Cassegrain-focus telescope in the early '70s. Hughes, a defense contractor, now owns and runs the division.
Today, at Lehigh University, Faga is listed as part of its engineering advisory council. Along with a rather avuncular and jolly-looking portrait.
"Mr. Faga has served on the Commission for the Protection and Reduction of Government Secrecy," it reads.
But Faga's contribution to any reduction in secrecy or increase in transparency regarding now historical matters would appear indiscernible to all but a few.
Reading about HEXAGON again only underlines the passage of years and hardening of the national arteries. The secrets -- if and when they are eventually told -- are just curious old tales of now-antiquated technical triumphs and past glories in a country that no longer exists.
This post was originally published at Dick Destiny blog.