Spy Machines reviews


Nova Examines ‘Spy Machines’

October 13, 1987

Technology grows more complicated, even as its purpose stays the same. Hot-air balloons over Antietam and Manassas give way to the KH-11, a satellite that can take a picture from 570 miles in space and have the photograph in the White House in hours. Nova looks at one way governments gather information. The episode, ‘Spy Machines, is well done.

The program tonight begins with a reminder of the Cuban missile crisis. Twenty-five years ago this month, a Discoverer satellite took pictures of what appeared to be a missile site outside Havana. Nova shows some of the pictures. The site has a characteristic shape: a configuration like a six-pointed Star of David.

With the pictures as evidence, President Kennedy acted. Meanwhile, other pictures from other sources – the high-flying U-2, for one – allowed his Administration to judge Soviet strength. The program notes that even though spy machines and modern weapons share much of the same technology, spy machines may help keep the peace. The factual information they supply can prevent one military establishment from bluffing another.

Nova gives us a retrospective on how spy-machine technology has been applied. Radar, for example, helped win the Battle of Britain. Not long after that, other technologies helped crack the Japanese military code. The problem, however, was that the information this provided was not evaluated and acted on. One consequence was Pearl Harbor.

The program – produced by Lew Allison – examines today’s technology and hints at what comes tomorrow. A satellite photograph taken from space can now show the same detail as a photograph taken 100 feet from the ground. Digital computer technology can then construct a geometric model and turn the photograph into a three-dimensional image.

Obviously, the technology is relevant to questions of arms control. Technology, Nova indicates, has not yet solved problems of verification, although it may offer some reassurance. A new satellite, the KH-12, reportedly will be able to even take pictures in the dark. Spy Machines represents what we expect of Nova.  It deals with a substantial topic.

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Eyes in the Sky

October 13, 1987 | David Bianulli

It begins leisurely, with a look at the cumbersome balloons (and easy targets) that were introduced during the Civil War as the first wartime instance of aerial reconnaissance. But before Spy Machines installment of PBS’s Nova is through, it’s soaring as high as the orbital satellites it discusses.

After putting the subject of high-flying spying in its historical context, and political context, Spy Machines blasts off – to the U-2 “incident” of 1960 the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 to events as recent as the nuclear reactor explosion at Chernobyl and the loss of the space shuttle Challenger – and beyond.

Some of the information in Spy Machines isn’t just hot off the presses – it’s hot AND off the presses. It talks about the National Reconnaissance Office, which is so secret that ‘”its very existence is denied” by the government – and then details some of the spy satellites reportedly utilized or in the design stages by this “unofficial” entity.

This Nova doesn’t just rely on hearsay. It interviews former CIA officials, unearths archival newsreels; British technical journals and other corroborating information, and finally, through computer animation and by broadcasting existing examples of satellite-relayed computer photography, shows what these ‘unconfirmed’ machines are, and what they can do.

The results are astounding. There’s a pleasant little aerial topographical tour of Los Angeles presented in a research film called “L.A.: The Movie,” which is remarkable only after it’s explained that the seemingly three-dimensional low-flying ‘tour’ was generation from information by a single picture from a relatively unimpressive spy satellite.

Right after that, Nova discusses a much more sophisticated satellite, the KH-11, which ‘reportedly’ can see objects as small as 12 inches from an orbiting distance of 500 miles. The government won’t confirm that the satellite exists, but the scientists in this documentary are much more candid. They talk about how sparingly the last working KH-11 is being employed, and even talk about the theoretical capabilities of the on-the-drawing-board KH-12.

The section on the Cuban missile crisis suggests that, thanks to aerial reconnaissance, both sides knew exactly what was going on, and more merely Cuba.

It’s as though the two sides were playing poker with all the cards on the table. The game’s just as much fun that way, but only if you have the winning hand.

Surprisingly, the spy machines that this discusses were not acknowledged publicly until Jimmy Carter’s administration. This episode of Nova offers the most comprehensive and fascinating glimpses at these usually secret missions – before, during and after the ‘60s.

It’s unbelievable what they spy machines can see – but when they’re scrutinized in Spy Machines, they’re no less impressive. Here’s looking at you, KH -11.

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NOVA Views Spying Mechanics

Jerry Buck

Naitons have been spying on each other from the sky ever since Abraham Lincoln decided hot air balloons would help the Army of the Potomac advance on Richmond.

It really heated up in World War II. But it wasn’t until 1954, with construction of the first U-2 spy plane, that technology began to turn aerial surveillance into a sophisticated science.

The public television program NOVA takes an inside look at all this secret intelligence, from balloons to satellites, in Spy Machines. The hour, a joint project of KCET Los Angeles and WGBH Boston, will be shown Tuesday, Oct 13.

Through interviews with former CIA officials, scientists and government experts, the documentary examines how espionage technology has shaped the history and politics of the 20th century.

“It started with two different ideas from two different people,” said senior producer Blaine Baggett. “I was going to do a show about espionage and Paula Apsell, the executive producer of NOVA, wanted to do a piece on verification. Both ideas are related so we decided to do the show for the NOVA series.

Verification is a hot topic in arms negotiations – how to prove a country is complying with an agreement.

Baggett, an executive producer at KCET, is also preparing a four-part series for next year called Secret Intelligence.

“All these developments can be used for peace, such as verifying treaties, or they can be used for war, such as guiding a cruise missile to a target,” he said. “You have these two goals constantly battering up against once another.”

“And despite the satellites you still need the spy planes, like the U-2 and the SR-71. Those planes can get to a spot very quickly. You may not have a satellite passing over a hot spot when you need it.”

It was a spy plane that provided photographic proof that the Soviet Union was building a missile base in Cuba. President Kennedy demanded that the missiles be withdrawn and the Soviets complied. The U-2 again confirmed that the missile bases had been torn down.

But when U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers was shot down over the Soviet Union in 1960 it wrecked President Eisenhower’s summit meeting with Nikita Khrushchev and was blamed for spoiling hope for international arms control.

The aerial spying is run by the National Reconnaissance Office at the Pentagon, a joint operation of the Air Force, the Central Intelligence Agency, and the National Security Agency.

Baggett said the United States has a number of satellites, many of which are secret. Some photograph the Earth, others listen to radio and microwave transmissions.

“The big thing that’s coming is computer enhancement of images,” he said. “You can take a photo from the commercial Landsat satellite, slave it to a computer, and turn an area into a three-dimensional image. Landsat can show objects down to a small house.

“But the spy satellites have capabilities of showing objects only 6 inches wide. Think of what you could do with that is you could make a three-dimensional picture and look at it from all sides.”

Three-dimensional images are already used by commercial airlines to simulate landing conditions for pilot training. They can also show a bomber pilot the terrain all the way to Red Square.

Other kinds of spy machines, for interception of signals, figured prominently in both world wars.

“Supposedly one of the reasons we entered World War I was interception of the Zimmerman telegram,” said Baggett. “The telegram was about German submarine warfare and Mexico. President Wilson mentioned two telegrams in his speech asking Congress to declare war.”

In World War II, American cryptoanalysts broke the Japanese code, and the British obtained a German code machine.

Since joining KCET two years ago, Baggett has assembled a staff for national public affairs and will put out 20 hours of television this year. He is the American producer for a joint venture with British Broadcasting Co, “An Ocean Apart.” He is also doing a series on “Underwater Archaeology” which will look into the conflict over bringing up objects for research or for exploitation.

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