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The U2 Files

Mayday, 1960

by TRAVIS KELLY

“Who controls the past, controls the present. Who controls the present, controls the future.”

-– George Orwell

In an editorial penned on November 20 at Truthout.org,  “What Obama Is Up Against,” veteran reporter Russ Baker recounts a brief history of Pentagon/CIA skullduggery and deception against presidents from Eisenhower onward, as prologue to the dilemma that Obama now finds himself in, with Gen. Stanley McCrystal publicly demanding several thousand more troops for the war in Afghanistan — “like Vietnam without the napalm,” in the words of an Army trooper. Referring to the famous military-industrial complex speech, Baker concludes:

“Half a century after Ike’s famous admonition, conflict and intrigue remain the engine of our economy… So Barack Obama is boxed in. But so are the American people, and so, really, is democracy itself. Bringing this inconvenient truth [the covert manipulations of the Pentagon and CIA] out in the open is the essential first step toward taking back control of our government — and our future.”

It’s not inconceivable that a world at peace could be marshaled in our near future: instead of fueling a global arms race (the U.S. currently accounts for 48% of world military spending, and 70% of global arms sales), a crash investment in alternative energy resources — solar, wind, geothermal, nuclear — could meet most of our domestic needs, perhaps requiring a modest scaling back of our gluttony (25% of energy consumption, 5% of population).  More hybrids and Smart Cars, less Hummers. But there is one problem: the ravenous energy appetite of our modern military cannot be met with any of these sources, except the nuclear option in large platforms like aircraft carriers. An Abrams tank will never be powered by solar panels. Thus we have the classic autocatalytic loop: our “national security” demands a massive military establishment to secure a disproportionate share of foreign oil…. because oil is essential to fuel our massive military establishment.

According to reports released this year, the U.S. Marines alone use 800,000 gallons per day in Afghanistan. At a cost of $400 per gallon, that equates to $320 million per day – just for the Marines. In Afghanistan. God only knows what bills for the Army and Air Force amount to in the whole Mid East theater.

The Plan for a New Century American (global military hegemony), or whatever moniker it masquerades under now, is dead without Mid East oil firmly under the control of the American military-industrial complex. And it will do anything necessary to insure that position, whatever the cost to the nation’s broader interests and overt political process. It’s own bloated existence is at stake, and no organization is more ruthless at insuring its survival than the weapons crowd.

Herewith, a first step in honest accounting as we approach the 50th anniversary of what may have been the military-industrial complex’s first coup…

MAYDAY, 1960: THE U2 DISASTER

Was the downing of Gary Powers’ U2 flight sabotage, or a terribly inconvenient accident? After four years of uneventful missions, why had this flight suddenly crashed on Mayday, two weeks before an unprecedented summit scheduled in Paris between Eisenhower and Khruschev — and who exactly authorized the flight on that date? Years later, the liberal Senator from Arkansas, William Fulbright, who headed the senate hearings on the U2 affair, stated:

“I have often wondered why, in the midst of these efforts by President Eisenhower and Khruschev to come to some understanding, the U2 incident was allowed to take place. No one will ever know whether it was accidental or intentional.”

A brief recap before examining the evidence to date:

The Mayday crash ended four years of successful high-altitude photo reconnaissance overflights. With the nuclear arsenals of the superpowers posing the novel threat of global “collateral damage” in any hot war, a sense of elation had broken out in the world’s capitals after the announcement of the Paris summit — perhaps the terrible titans would arrange a solemn pledge not to bring on Armageddon and nuclear winter for the whole planet. Khruschev had toured America in September of ‘59, charming mostly warm, curious crowds with his earthy wit (which didn’t include his earlier quip about American presidential elections: “Which is better, the left boot or right boot?”) He was bitterly disappointed over being kept out of Disneyland for alleged security reasons. (Equally plausible, it was a shrewd exploitation of Khruschev’s unabashed desire to see the spectacle: "Be good, stay out of West Berlin, and you can dance with Mickey and Minnie next time." Or maybe it was due to embarrassment: the prospect of Khruschev deriding the infantilism of Americans with their life-size version of Candyland.)  He also missed Ronald Reagan, who boycotted his reception in Los Angeles.

Khruschev returned to a hero’s welcome in Moscow; Pravda, Izvestia and the whole nation lavished praise on the Premier and President Eisenhower, who was slated for a reciprocal visit after the summit. Ike had initiated the process, extending the invitation for Khruschev to visit the U.S. first — but he would never see the Soviet Union.

The Soviets had known of the overflights for years, tracking them on radar, but neither their anti-aircraft missiles nor jet interceptors could reach the U2’s maximum altitude of 70,000 feet. Worried about nuclear first strike capabilities, and the West’s intelligence blackout  against a rigidly controlled society, Eisenhower had authorized the mission conceived by Richard Bissell, but he repeatedly suspended it during periods of heightened tension, or diplomatic advances, concerned that the flights could be mistaken as the prelude to more hostile actions. Above all, he demanded plausible deniability in the event of an accident, and CIA director Allen Dulles gave it to him, an “absolutely categorical” assurance that the fragile plane, sanitized of all American identification, would break up and the American pilot would never survive to be interrogated and paraded before the world.

Relying on this ironclad assumption, Ike had the State Dept. declare that a U2 on a weather observation mission was missing, and might have strayed into the S.U., but any accusation of espionage was false. Two days later, Khruschev revealed his well-guarded ace — the pilot was alive, well and being interrogated. The Soviet press erupted in a chorus of outrage and betrayal as the Kremlin hardliners accused Khruschev of dangerous naiveté and Eisenhower of monstrous duplicity. The relapse into paranoia and acrimony was instantaneous — like a fiancé discovering her betrothed’s sordid affair days before the altar. The Soviet fears of aggression were far more touchy and justified than ours: the last time foreign aircraft penetrated their airspace — the Heinkels and Messerschmitts — 20 million had died. Adding insult to injury, the illegal penetration was perpetrated on their most sacred holiday, Mayday. Imagine the furor of a Soviet plane crashing over a July 4th parade in Omaha.

Both Ike and Khruschev went to Paris two weeks later, after Khruschev had relentlessly bellowed his indignation and demanded an apology, an assurance that the flights would be permanently suspended, and a statement that Eisenhower himself had not authorized the flight, all serving to upend another Dulles’ prognostication — that the Soviets would never publicize a crash, being too humiliated to admit that they had been impotent for four years to prevent them. Ike refused the impossible demands, although Dulles offered himself up as the scapegoat. Ike had always spurned the bad military habit of blaming subordinates for failures, and the admission that an American president was not fully in control of his defense establishment would have been disastrous for diplomacy. But this is exactly what the Soviets suspected and publicly charged — a Pentagon plot to sabotage the summit.

During the senate hearings, Dulles made a revealing statement in response to Fulbright’s assertion that Eisenhower had privately opposed the decision — why then had he taken responsibility for it? “The fact that I was going ahead on my own authority,” said Dulles, “to do something of this magnitude may not have been widely believed, even if I had asserted and stuck to it.”  Note that he says “fact,” not  “supposition” or “cover story.” When Fulbright asked him why the flight on Mayday, Dulles initiated the long tradition of CIA deception and stonewalling of congressional inquisitors: “I don’t discuss what the President says to me or I say to the President.”  But that really, was the gist of the hearings — who greenlighted the disaster?

In his memoir, Waging Peace, Eisenhower remains ambiguous, only addressing the issue of command authority in a footnote: “The State Department statement added that specific missions had not been subject to presidential authorization, which meant that I had not ordered the single flight in question. I had approved the reconnaissance of broad areas of the Soviet Union within a time period of certain weeks.”

What exactly had caused the crash? The remote possibility of a lucky near miss by a Soviet missile was conceded from the outset — the missiles couldn’t maneuver in the thin atmosphere above 50,000 feet, but a lucky strike was possible. Also flameout of the U2’s jet engine was not uncommon at this altitude. That would require the pilot to glide down to as low as 30,000 feet to restart the engine, putting it within the range of Soviet jet fighters. Powers reported an autopilot failure early in the long mission (3900 miles from Peshawar, Pakistan to Bodö, Norway), requiring him to assume arduous manual control for most of the flight. Over Sverdlovsk, he later reported a “bright orange flash” from the rear, sudden loss of control, the plane spiraling down. The U2 had been equipped with a destruct mechanism — a cyclonite charge in the camera bay directly below the cockpit, to be activated by the pilot in the event of mission failure. The pilots were told that the button had a 70-second delay, giving them time to eject, but some of them had voiced suspicions that the delay might have been closer to zero. Each had been provided a special suicide needle spiked with deadly shellfish toxin. The message from their CIA handlers: we prefer you not captured alive. Perhaps they had arranged insurance for pilots lacking the requisite seppuku spirit?

That grim prospect seems to have weighed on Powers as he struggled to remove the canopy — he never hit the ejection/destruct button. Pilots had lost limbs and been horribly maimed in power ejections, and he said he wanted to make sure the canopy frame would open. It appears, in an instinct for life, he completely opted out of the ejection/destruct sequence, which stood good odds of becoming an amputation/obliteration sequence for himself, assuming that the delay on the button had been zeroed out — perhaps the source of Dulles’ unequivocal promise that no pilot would survive, despite the fact that three U2s had crashed prior to Powers flight (none over the S.U.) and all three pilots had lived. How was Dulles so certain this time?

In 1996, former Soviet pilot Igor Mentyukov told a Russian newspaper that he had brought Powers down. Found at bus station and rushed backed to his air base on May 1, he was ordered to take off and attempt to ram the U2. Mentyukov’s’s Sukhoi Su-9 had been stripped of all weapons to extend its ceiling. Mentyukov claims he approached Powers at around 65,000 feet, overshot him, and the turbulence wrenched a wing off, sending Powers into a spiral. The U2 was basically a gossamer glider hitched to a giant jet engine, and other crashes had involved loss of control and sudden wing loss. Shortly after, according to declassified Soviet documents, a barrage of ground-based missiles were fired at the disintegrating shape on their radar: only one hit target — a Mig-19 fighter closing in. The pilot died in his parachute of injuries.

There is a problem with Mentyukov’s account. The ceiling of the Sukhoi Su-9 was 55,000 feet. Powers is adamant that whatever befell his flight occurred at 70,000 feet (he lied to his Russian interrogators that the U2’s maximum altitude was 65,000 ft. and concealed other information). So Mentyukov’s Sukhoi must have gained a phenomenal 15,000 feet in ceiling, high enough to fly over Powers, a feat unmatched by any other Soviet fighter during 23 previous U2 flights. Perhaps Mentyukov, and his plane, were exceptionally jazzed by the spirit of Mayday.

In 2000, Sergei Khruschev, the former premier’s son, offered a slightly different account: Mentyukov had missed Powers, failing even to gain visual contact, but a single SA-2 antiaircraft missile had exploded behind the U2 after Mentyukov’s unsuccessful interception attempt. Crippled, the U2 either tumbled or glided down to lower altitude before Powers bailed out.

But former USAF Col. Fletcher Prouty believes that’s not the whole story. Prouty served as Pentagon-CIA liaison officer at the time, overseeing U2 flights over Tibet and other aerial reconnaissance missions over Thailand and the eastern USSR. After the September Camp David conference punctuating Khrushchev’s ‘59 tour, Prouty’s operation, the Pakistan operation and all U2 flights had been grounded on Eisenhower’s orders. Finally, the President succumbed to Dulles’ and Bissell’s relentless pressure for a few more flights before the summit and the first in several months took off on April 9. So far, the U2 program had disproved the alleged “bomber gap” and “missile gap” ballyhooed by a coterie of hawks in Congress and the fringe media: John Birch Society founder Robert Welch had called Ike a “conscious, dedicated agent of the Communist conspiracy,” a charge echoed by crank author Cleon Skousen (Glenn Beck’s ideological hero). But Ike could not publicly cite this evidence without compromising the program. It seems Dulles was bent on a last ditch effort to find such evidence before the summit and a possible arms reduction agreement.

Prouty notes that Power’s U2 was a “dog,” having experienced numerous mechanical problems, including a forced belly landing at the U2 base in Atsugi, Japan. It was shipped back to Lockheed in California for repair, and then flown to Peshawar in time for Power’s flight. Prouty alleges that the plane had been stripped of its “top secret” Lundahl reconnaissance camera, and somehow a whole incriminating package of Power’s identification papers and personal effects, forbidden to spy pilots, were found by the Soviets — not in the wreckage, according to Prouty, but between his seat and folded parachute after Powers belly landed the plane near Sverdslosk! He cites no evidence for this conclusion, but it is interesting that the photo of the supposed U2 wreckage released by the Soviets was analyzed by the CIA and determined not to be that of a U2.

The U2 required a special hydrogen additive in its fuel to operate at maximum altitude. If the plane ran out of this additive, the engine would flame out, requiring the pilot to descend to lower altitude to restart the engine. Prouty suggests this is how the flight could have been compromised. And this is exactly what the NSA claimed happened, in a report to Dulles’s successor, John McCone, in 1962, after Powers was repatriated in an exchange for Soviet spy Rudolf Abel, based on communications intelligence it had intercepted during the flight — that the plane had slowly glided down to 30,000 or 40,000 feet before dropping to earth.

The weight of evidence suggests that something happened to Power’s plane at 70,000 feet, causing him to descend to lower altitude, where Igor Mentyukov’s unarmed fighter plane perhaps intercepted him and blew his wing off. The official story released by the senate investigation, long before Mentyukov’s testimony, concluded that a near miss from an exploding missile disabled the plane at maximum altitude.

In 1975, during the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence investigation into CIA assassination plots, University of Delaware professor James Nathan published a retrospective article in Military Affairs reviewing the evidence:

“The anomalies in the Powers case suggest that the U2 incident may have been staged. There was the timing of the trip, the unusually long route chosen to over fly the Soviet Union, his undisguised American origins… the reluctance of Congressional committees charged with the oversight of such matters to ask any searching questions, and other indications that Powers had done essentially what he had been told… All these ‘administrative failures’ indicate that even if the weird flight and strange behavior of Powers was fortuitous, the U2 presented an opportunity which may not have been unwelcomed.”

Not unwelcomed by the hawks in both defense establishments, American and Soviet, it should be noted, who vigorously opposed any move toward détente. That same year, 1975, a Norwegian fisherman and convicted Soviet spy who had covered the Bodö, Norway base, Selmar Nilsen, claimed in a TV documentary that a KGB officer in Moscow had told him that a bomb had been planted in the tail of Power’s U2. At that time, Powers responded dubiously to the story, observing that security was so tight around the Peshawar base that it “would have had to be an inside job.”

Two years later, that prospect seemed to have become more plausible in Power’s mind: according to author Jim Marrs in Crossfire, Powers confessed on a radio talk show interview his suspicion that his plane had been sabotaged on the ground, and that it must have been an inside job. If Powers harbored secrets, and was inching toward breaking his silence after 17 years, he never got the chance. On August 1, 1977, while piloting a helicopter for the KNBC news station in Los Angeles, he crashed and died. There was no fire at the crash scene; the investigators found the fuel tank and lines completely empty. How had an experienced pilot made such an error? The previous week, Powers had abandoned covering a train fire early with a nearly empty gauge, only to discover upon landing at the Van Nuys airport that 30 minutes of fuel remained. According to the investigation, the fuel gauge was repaired — but Powers was never told. Thus he may have continued hovering, convinced that he had up to a 30-minute reserve beyond his nearly empty gauge. None of the ground crew was sanctioned for this appalling oversight, and perhaps they were not at fault — researchers have noted that both Lockheed-Martin and the CIA operated out of the same airport, and security for a news chopper was not quite as tight as that around Powers’ U2 in Peshawar.

According to New York Times reporter C.L. Sulzberger, Allen Dulles was disappointed that Powers had not committed suicide, either by shellfish needle or by pushing the destruct button. It appears that the CIA may have finally arranged the long delayed coda to Power’s mission, as it was originally intended. Some may argue that there are more reliable methods for getting rid of a troublesome whistleblower than tinkering with a chopper’s gas gauge; true, but there is none cleaner. If it can be arranged, aircraft sabotage is almost routinely dismissed as accident by most official investigations and news organizations. One witness to the Power’s chopper crash told a fireman that he saw the tail rotor of the chopper fall off before the crash. The National Transportation Safety Board never bothered to verify this, nor examine the largely intact instruments to determine if they were giving false reads.

Whatever the fugitive truth behind the downing of Power’s U2, historians may justly lay the lion’s share of responsibility for the aborted summit on Allen Dulles’ grave: he assured Eisenhower that a pilot would never survive an accident or shootdown (thus preserving a thin veneer of plausible deniability) and that the Soviets would never publicize a crash, both proven disastrously wrong. Along with Richard Bissell, Dulles pushed hard for the resumption of U2 flights after the Camp David suspension, selecting the Mayday date, provocative enough without a crash. And why was the plane chosen for this extraordinarily long and sensitive mission the “dog” of the fleet, experiencing autopilot failure soon after takeoff?

Eisenhower’s junior aide William Ewald later stated about Ike that “such trust as he usually reposed in his leading lieutenants he did not repose in Allen Dulles.” For good reason, presuming Ike was not ignorant of Dulles’ near treasonous dealings with the Nazis before and during WWII: as a lawyer for the powerful Wall Street firm Sullivan and Cromwell, he had represented Fritz Thyssen’s and I.G. Farben’s interests in the ’30s, and from 1937 on he helped Prescott Bush and Averill Harriman conceal their Union Banking Corporation’s role as a Nazi money-laundering machine. As the top OSS spy in Switzerland during the war, Dulles continued to meet with Nazis, as busy serving his private clients’ interests as aiding the national war effort. Supreme Court justice Arthur Goldberg once stated that "the Dulles brothers were traitors." And author James Trento has reported that James Jesus Angleton told him how he was named CIA counterintelligence chief: by agreeing not to submit "sixty of Allen Dulles’ closest friends" to a polygraph test concerning their covert business dealings with the Nazis.

Distrustful of Dulles and the agency’s lack of oversight, Ike formed a board of consultants for outside review of intelligence operations in 1956; the PBCFIA soon reported that the CIA’s covert action branch was "operating for the most part on an autonomous and free-wheeling basis in highly critical areas… sometimes in direct conflict with normal operations being carried out by the Department of State." Dulles had long resisted such an oversight role by congress, once asserting that "in intelligence, you have to take certain things on faith."

The peculiar restraints of the Cold War, frustrating direct action and privileging clandestine and often unsupervised operations, were soon infecting the uniformed forces as well. Before the U2 incident, there had been several other cases of clear insubordination as the President strove to restrain aerial provocations that the Soviets might “misinterpret… as being designed to start a nuclear war.” In July 1958, an RB-47 reconnaissance plane had strayed over Soviet airspace in the Caspian and narrowly escaped being shot down. The same month, Air Force reconnaissance balloons that Ike had ordered suspended were again sent over Soviet airspace. When his Secretary of State John Foster Dulles professed that these were “permissible” mistakes, Ike exploded: “I am of the opinion that it was not permissible. I am getting weary of orders not being obeyed — and someone should be fired.” Later, he protested to his Defense Secretary about the “disturbing evidence of a deterioration in the processes of discipline and responsibility within the Armed Forces. The harm done by this type of thing to the conduct of our international affairs and to our national security is obvious.”

After shutting down the Korean War, Ike struggled for the rest of his terms against hawks determined to exaggerate Soviet capabilities and boost the defense budget. During the Berlin crisis in 1959, he iterated his belief that one purpose of Khruschev’s bluff was to “frighten free populations and governments into unnecessary and debilitating spending sprees,” and calmly proceeded with a planned reduction of 30,000 Army personnel. On April 16, 1953, he had signaled his independence from the military establishment that had groomed him in a speech to the American Society of Newspaper Editors:

“Every gun that is fired, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hope of its children…”

This concern culminated in the famous military-industrial complex speech. Although any suspicions he may have harbored about the U2 disaster were kept private, it surely formed a powerful subtext for that speech, having blown up the overriding goal of his administration for a peace summit and arms reduction agreement. That warning, about the “disastrous influence” of an insubordinate military establishment, presaged the virtual war that his successor would wage against the generals and spy chiefs over Cuba and Vietnam. There is one other character in the U2 affair, usually ignored or marginalized by most historians, who would play a decisive role in that battle…

In September, 1959, two weeks after Eisenhower had suspended all U2 flights, an ex-Marine who had served as a radar operator at the Atsugi U2 base defected to the Soviet Union, promising to divulge everything he knew about the surreptitious flights, including radio codes (changed after his defection), and the planes’ exact altitude while flying over the S.U., perhaps the most closely guarded secret of the whole operation, as Soviet radar was deemed highly inaccurate.  In a letter sent to his brother Robert back in Texas in 1962, he even claimed to have met, or at least seen, Gary Powers during his show trial in Moscow. In his book Operation Overflight, Powers suggested that the defector might have provided the Soviets with crucial new information that enabled the downing of his U2.

The defector’s name was Lee Harvey Oswald.

TRAVIS KELLY lives in Moab, Utah. He can be reached at: travis12@citlink.net