The Corona program was a series of American strategic reconnaissance satellites produced and operated by the Central Intelligence Agency Directorate of Science & Technology with substantial assistance from the U.S. Air Force. The Corona satellites were used for photographic surveillance of the Soviet Union (USSR), the People's Republic of China, and other areas beginning in June 1959 and ending in May 1972. The name of this program is sometimes seen as "CORONA", but its actual name "Corona" was a codeword, not an acronym.
The Corona satellites were designated KH-1, KH-2, KH-3, KH-4, KH-4A and KH-4B. KH stood for "Key Hole" or "Keyhole" (Code number 1010), with the name being an analogy to the act of spying into a person's room by peering through their door's keyhole. The incrementing number indicated changes in the surveillance instrumentation, such as the change from single-panoramic to double-panoramic cameras. The "KH" naming system was first used in 1962 with KH-4 and the earlier numbers were retroactively applied. There were 144 Corona satellites launched, of which 102 returned usable photographs.
Naturally in the atmosphere of hostility and mistrust, espionage was seen as a vital tool of the Cold War by both sides. Initially at least, the Soviet Union enjoyed some crucial advantages. Given the conspiratorial background of the Bolsheviks, and their fears of foreign attack, they had lavished far more resources on foreign intelligence in the inter-war years than the west. Under the banners of international revolution and anti-Nazism, they had recruited a number of idealistic young men during the 1930s.
Well-educated and well-connected men, which in Britain included Donald Maclean, Kim Philby and Guy Burgess, became deeply committed agents. They were to rise to important positions in government service. In America and across Europe others like them were recruited. During the war, when the Soviet Union was doing most of the fighting, the urge to help an ally in difficulty attracted more like them. By the beginning of the Cold War the USSR had elaborate and well-established networks of agents in the west. The First Chief Directorate of the KGB was able to divide its responsibilities into areas that reflected Moscow’s priorities. Department 4 concentrated on East and West Germany and Austria, symptomatic of Moscow’s obsession with the wartime enemy. North America naturally warranted its own department. The whole of Latin America, Francophone and Anglophone Africa had only three departments between them. Department 11, which spied on WPO allies, was euphemistically named ‘Liaison with Socialist Countries’. Departments 17 and 18 were later created, reflecting the rising importance of the Arab world and of south Asia.
The west initially had nothing comparable. Not only was little priority given to foreign intelligence, the USSR was a far more hostile environment in which to operate than the west. There were very few spies in the USSR, which is ironic given the vast numbers executed for spying during the purges.
In 1945 much of the wartime intelligence organisations of Britain and America were run down. When the CIA was established in 1947, it had to begin building an intelligence system from virtually nothing. In the early years of the Cold War western intelligence services were to stagger from a series of humiliations. Britain’s SIS was fooled into sending a number of agents into the east to contact nonexistent resistance groups, where they were captured. The CIA provided arms, radios and money to another such mythical group. Faith in these organisations was eroded by sensational spying scandals in the west. In America Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were controversially executed for spying on American nuclear secrets. In Britain Klaus Fuchs and Allan Nunn May were imprisoned for the same offence. Even more painful for Britain was the humiliatingly long list of senior intelligence agents exposed as Soviet spies. It seemed as if British Intelligence was being run from Moscow. Similarly highly placed spies were uncovered throughout NATO. In America a depressing list of middle-rank agents proved willing to accept Soviet money. One, Aldrich Ames, reputedly received $2.7 million for betraying 25 agents, ten of whom were shot.
Of course the west had its successes. Oleg Penkovsky provided valuable information on Soviet weapons systems during the Cuban Missile Crisis – for which he was tortured and shot. Oleg Gordievsky informed the west of near-hysteria in the Kremlin in the belief that Ronald Reagan was about to launch a pre-emptive nuclear attack. A shocked Reagan moderated his anti-Soviet rhetoric.
Occasionally vital, the role of the spy has been given an overly glamorous image. Perhaps 90 per cent of the information intelligence agencies require comes from published sources. Newspapers are a valuable intelligence source – sometimes presented by agents as from highly confidential sources. Analysis of foreign media could consider both its content and what was absent. What the state was not willing to report could indicate weaknesses or priorities. Questioning émigrés is another routine source of information. The west’s greatest advantage, however, was through its use of technology. A valuable source of information was signals intelligence. Intercepting and deciphering Soviet radio traffic became a routine task. The USSR struggled to keep up with western computer technology capable of such tasks.
Surveillance satellites would eventually allow both sides to observe each other freely. Technology also allowed them both to get reliable information from China. The PRC was extremely hostile and dangerous territory for spies. By 1967 both the USA and the USSR had intelligence gathering satellites in orbit. Henceforth it would be possible to observe the disposition, structure and movement of the opposition’s military – subject mainly to weather conditions. A surprise attack was becoming an ever more remote possibility.
Perhaps this should have supplied a greater sense of security during the Cold War. But intelligence is of little value if it is not believed. In the early 1980s no amount of negative reports from the KGB could convince the Soviet leadership that Reagan was not preparing for war. At the same time the CIA was unable to convince Reagan that the USSR was not behind all international terrorism. The Cold War, in short, engendered attitudes and assumptions that simple information could not change.