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Master of the Surveillance Image

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Dino Brugioni probably knows more about analyzing spy photographs than perhaps anyone alive. One of the founding officers of the CIA's National Photographic Interpretation Center (NPIC), which got its start in 1955, Brugioni brought his skills to bear on numerous international crises during his three and a half decades with the CIA. The downing of Gary Powers' U-2 spyplane in 1960, the Cuban missile crisis in 1962, the Yom Kippur War in 1973—Brugioni played a significant, behind-the-scenes role in each of these historic events. Here, listen in as he shares memories from his many decades of watching from on high.

NOVA: What was your role in the Cuban missile crisis?

Brugioni: Well, I was chief of the information branch [of the NPIC]. My job was to provide all the collateral support to the photo interpreters. It was my responsibility, for example, to create what we called a briefing board. It was 20 by 22 inches, and there were two copies made, one for the Director of the CIA and one for the Secretary of Defense. I also prepared what were called briefing notes. On a little card I would have pertinent details about the length of the mission, how much photography we got, and any pertinent information that related to the photography from other sources.

NOVA: Weren't you one of the people who reported to the high powers that the Soviets were setting up missile bases in Cuba?

Brugioni: We had a report from an agent in Cuba that there was a trapezoidal area in Cuba in which the Cubans were being moved out and the Russians moved in. Naturally, we wanted to look and see what was happening there, so a U-2 mission was flown over the area. This was on October 14, 1962. The film was processed on the 15th in Washington, and we got the photographs that afternoon (see the Cuba image in Spy Photos).

The scan team were people who were very familiar with the whole area. What drew their eye was that certain objects didn't belong. This is ranch country, and here they were seeing 100-foot tents and 65-foot objects. These weren't manure spreaders or other things you would associate with a ranch.

The photographs were passed to a backup team of missile people. They started looking at the photography, and preliminary measurements were coming up with 65 feet. The photo interpreter in charge called me. I had a looseleaf binder that had all kinds of information on Soviet missiles. It had photographs taken in the streets of Moscow, it had material from Penkovsky. [Editor's note: Colonel Oleg Penkovsky, a high-ranking Soviet intelligence officer, gave vital Russian military secrets to the West for 16 months in 1961 and 1962 before he was unmasked and executed.]

Now, 65 feet was just too long for the SS-3 [a medium-range ballistic missile, or MRBM]; the SS-3 was about 52 feet [less the nose cone]. So when he told me he was coming up with 65 feet, I opened the book to a photograph of a missile in the streets of Moscow, and he said, "That's it. That's what I'm seeing." But we wanted to be sure, so we had the thing measured again on a machine, and it still came up 65 feet. [Editor's note: This is the length of the SS-4 MRBM minus the nose cone.]

All together there were two large tents, each 100 feet long, and eight objects each 65 feet long. Those were the missiles. Scattered about the area were erectors and launchers as well as a large tent area. This was all new since the last time we had seen the area, which was about a month before.

NOVA: So you were expert at seeing things that hadn't been there before.

Brugioni: When you're scanning the photography, you become very familiar with an area. For example, if I view photography of Virginia day in and day out, I become very familiar with Virginia. I know all the towns and cities, and I'm also watching the countryside for any new activity. When you find something that's new, the first thing you do is get the photography of that area from previous missions and compare it and confirm that there wasn't anything there the last time you saw that area.

“When Kennedy was shown the photographs of Cuban missile sites, he turned his head, looked at Lundahl, and said, ‘Are you sure?’”

NOVA: On October 15, 1962, you and your colleagues reported to your chief that these were in fact missiles. Could you describe that?

Brugioni: When we were convinced that these were missiles, we called up our boss, Arthur Lundahl, the director of the NPIC. He looked at them and said, "Let's get all the measurements down pat." When I showed him the photograph of the SS-4 in the streets of Moscow, he said, "That sure looks like it, but let's be sure. Let's remeasure everything. Not only that, keep looking." And as we looked, we found a second missile site in Cuba.

The next morning I prepared the briefing notes. I told him when we had last seen this area, the size and shape of these missiles, and the fact that they equated to what we had seen in Moscow. We also knew that Penkovsky had indicated that this missile could be deployed in the field.

NOVA: What was President Kennedy's reaction when he first saw the pictures?

Brugioni: Well, according to Mr. Lundahl, when Kennedy was shown the photographs, he turned his head, looked at Lundahl, and said, "Are you sure?" And Mr. Lundahl said, "I'm as sure of this, Mr. President, as we can be sure of anything in the photo interpretation field. And you must admit that we have not led you astray on anything that we have reported to you previously." And the President said "Okay."

Bobby Kennedy looked at some of these photographs, too, and he later described the scene, saying that it looked like somebody was digging a basement. But he didn't look at the totality of the photograph. All of the stuff that was going on was alien to this ranch country—the sizes, the shapes, the tone, everything was different and didn't belong in Cuba.

NOVA: Do you think that those are the most famous surveillance pictures ever taken? I remember as a kid being glued to the television set watching Kennedy and seeing those pictures.

Brugioni: As one fellow said, we knew it was going to hit the fan. I knew when I was creating the briefing board that it would be seen by the President, and the President would react to what we had presented to him.

NOVA: Is it true that surveillance photos also helped belie the missile gap—Kennedy's fear that the Soviets had many more intercontinental ballistic missiles, or ICBMs, than we did?

Brugioni: Yes. That was the second most important thing we did, I think. In 1960, when President Kennedy was running for election, he had two points—there was the missile gap and the Cuba problem. Now, when we launched our first satellite in August of '60, the Air Force estimated that there were from 100 to 250 ICBM sites in the Soviet Union. After successive missions in 1960, we could say they were not there. The missile estimate that was made in 1961 indicated that there were only 15 to 25 missile sites in all of the Soviet Union. There were, in fact, only 12.

President Kennedy never admitted that he was wrong about the missile gap. He had Robert McNamara go out and say, "Because we have some new information, the missile gap doesn't exist." But the fact that this was a national issue that we had solved by our efforts—that made me quite proud, too.

Target practice

NOVA: Is it hard to do what you do? You make it seem easy.

Brugioni: It really is easy. I would draw a 25-mile circle around whatever we were looking at. Keep in mind that most of the areas that we were photographing—in the Soviet Union, China, the Middle East, and so forth—if you draw a 25-mile circle, in many cases man is born, raised, and dies within that circle. So we looked at that circle real carefully.

Take the Shenandoah Valley, for example. Let's assume I've never been there. I can look at an aerial photograph, and the first thing I'd say is, "Those people are meat eaters." I can look in the fields and see cattle. I can probably see hog pens. Might even see some turkey farms.

If I want to find out where a person would be born, I look for a building with a parking lot, and in some cases it might even have a Red Cross symbol or something to indicate it's the hospital. I can distinguish a hospital from a school fairly easily. When I get to a grade school, there is playground equipment. I can take it further—high school, college, and so forth. I would also watch all the rail lines and the spurs that lead into the factories, and I'd see what's going into the factories and what's coming out.

I've never been in your house, but if you give me an aerial photograph, I'll draw you a diagram of that house. The first thing I would do is look for vents on your roof. One of the vents will be your bathroom, another vent will be your kitchen. Where your stack is, that's usually your living and dining room, and then I go negative. The rest of the house is bedrooms. That's because man builds to a pattern, and rules and regulations.

“Finding missile sites in the Soviet Union wasn't that hard.”

NOVA: You were looking mainly for large installations in your work, of course.

Brugioni: Yes. When you're searching, your eye will be drawn to installations. Now, the Soviets had a penchant for what we call horizontal security. Their strategic installations would have as many as four or five fences, and that's very visible from above.

So say we're searching in Central Asia with satellite photography, and you look down and see two big black blobs. Of course, your eyes are immediately drawn to these shapes because they don't conform with anything in the area. Not only that, there's a lot of activity there. There are power lines, there are roads leading into these installations. You would put that image under what we call a microstereoscope, and you would enlarge it.

Say it was an MRBM site. It would have the five fences and, if you look closely, there are automatic weapon positions all around for protection of the site. While the Soviets might have done a good thing in keeping people from entering this thing by putting up that many fences, that just helped the photo interpreters. So finding missile sites in the Soviet Union wasn't that hard.

Now, for an ICBM, keep in mind you have a 100-foot missile. You can't just go up to a crossroads and turn it. It's a priceless piece of equipment, so the roads are first-class. And you notice wide radius turns, and then the road ends. So while you're searching you see these nice roads, and you just follow them and see where they lead you, and they lead you to a missile silo.

Using the U-2

NOVA: Did you ever see a U-2?

Brugioni: Yes. The cockpit was cramped, and to sit there for 10 or 12 hours was quite a feat. When they first started out, the pilots had a catheter to relieve themselves. There was no provision for defecating. The pilots were offered diapers, but they turned them down and came up with their own system—a high-protein, low-bulk meal. The day before a mission they would only eat steak and no vegetables of any kind. The day they flew, they would have breakfast—eggs, bacon, coffee.

The whole mission would be backed up to when you got the pilot up, got him to go to the bathroom, eat, get suited up. The whole thing started early. With Cuba, for example, we wanted the airplane over the target at 7:30 in the morning, before the land heats up and clouds build up. The best time to get cloud-free photography in any tropic area is early in the morning.

NOVA: A U-2 mission could also be dangerous, of course.

Brugioni: Well, Powers showed us that the mission could be very dangerous. Any time you flew over enemy territory, two things could happen. The first thing is that you only had one engine that could flame out. Secondly, of course, you were flying into the defenses of your opposition. And in Gary Powers' case, he flew into the defenses of the Soviet Union—the SA-2 [surface-to-air missile]. The SA-2 exploded behind him, but it had enough shrapnel to down the airplane.

The U-2 is very fragile. Kelly Johnson [the Lockheed aerospace engineer who designed the U-2] compared it to an egg. In fact, when we were starting the U-2 program, the U-2 was taking off, and a Canadian F-86 pilot didn't know what the heck it was, so he flew in front of it, and the plane collapsed and we lost our first pilot. After that, when a U-2 was taking off, the whole area was cleared.

NOVA: After Powers was shot down, the Soviets released a photo of what they claimed was the wreckage of the U-2. But you knew it wasn't.

Brugioni: I was in Damage Control, so I was getting all of the photography and documents and so forth. I looked at it, and I said, "That's not the U-2." I knew it wasn't because I could see rivets, and the U-2 is flush-riveted. So I gave it to Lundahl. He got in touch with Kelly Johnson, and then Johnson went on the air and said, "This is not my aircraft."

That put the Soviets in a bad position, so they had to show the wreckage. They displayed it in Moscow. There was a Life Magazine photographer there, and we instructed him on what to do. He took a picture of the plane's camera and recording equipment, and when those photographs came in, we said, "They've got the evidence, and they're going to charge him as a spy." So he was charged. Powers was given ten years but he got out with less than that because of the trade of a Russian spy for him.

“My attitude was, ‘Man, if we can get peace in the Middle East and we can sacrifice one damn camera to do so, let's do it.’”

NOVA: Did you ever share U-2 photos with other countries?

Brugioni: Yes. During the Yom Kippur War in 1973, for example, the Israelis and the Egyptians were shooting at each other, so the idea was to get a truce, to get some peace talks going. We proposed, "Why not have a truce and have the U-2 monitor the truce?" We wanted the Israelis and the Egyptians to back off so that they couldn't shoot at each other. We would fly down the Suez Canal, then turn around and come over the Israelis. When this was proposed, the Egyptians said, "We know you people. You guys will favor the Israelis."

When the mission came back, I said, "Why don't we give them both the film? We will look at the film, we'll tell them if there are any violations, then we'll let them look at it." When I proposed it, an official said, "Oh God no, we can't give them that because they will know our camera capabilities." My attitude was, "Man, if we can get peace in the Middle East and we can sacrifice one damn camera to do so, let's do it."

Well, that started a program in which the Israelis had confidence in us, and the Egyptians had confidence in us. They both had trained photo interpreters, and they could see that we were telling the truth about what was happening there. That led to the Begin-Sadat agreements. So that shows you what photography can do.

Spying from space

NOVA: If we've got these spy planes like the U-2 back in the '60s taking great photographs, why do you need satellites?

Brugioni: Well, the very first satellite mission that we flew captured a million square miles of Soviet territory. That was as much as 24 U-2 missions had captured in the Soviet Union over four years. So in one day, we got more film than all of the U-2 missions put together. One day.

NOVA: That satellite was Corona?

Brugioni: Yes. The first Corona mission was launched in August of 1960 from Vandenberg Air Force Base [in California]. It was launched into a polar orbit, passed over the Soviet Union, and the capsule was recovered near Hawaii. The capsule, with one roll of film in it, was ejected and grabbed. In that one roll of film, we had one million square miles of the Soviet Union.

NOVA: What do you mean, it was grabbed?

Brugioni: Once the Corona satellite had finished photographing the Soviet Union and came over Alaska, it was given a command, and it ejected a capsule with the film in it. The film was contained in what we called a bucket, and it had a parachute. A transport plane would fly up and meet it. The plane was carrying a long trailing wire that would collapse the chute, and it had a large winch that would reel in the load.

NOVA: This thing actually worked?

Brugioni: It worked. I'll always remember when they were first talking about it, an engineer had a fishing rod and reel, and he had his wife's snood.

NOVA: Excuse me, what's a snood?

Brugioni: A snood? Years ago the women used to have their hair in a bun, and they had a net that would go over the bun when they went to bed, or sometimes they would even wear the snood at formal affairs.

And the man said, "This is the way we're going to do it. See, that snood is going to collapse the parachute, and then we're going to reel it in." [Richard] Bissell [head of covert operations for the CIA] looked at him and said, "What do you think our chance of success will be on the first go?" The engineer said, "About a thousand to one." Bissell said "Go." This was the kind of faith Bissell had in his engineers.

NOVA: Did you personally see any of the pictures from Corona?

Brugioni: Oh, sure, right from the beginning.

NOVA: How were these pictures?

Brugioni: Well, they weren't as good as the U-2. I mean, we were resolving about 30 feet, 30 to 50 feet. We could see installations, but we couldn't see objects. Also, clouds were a problem. We would turn the camera on each time it came over the Soviet Union, and then turn it off after each pass. We didn't know what the weather was like, so in the early missions about 50 percent of the film was useless because of cloud cover.

NOVA: It must have been a long time between the time the satellite took the picture and the time you got it on your desk, right?

Brugioni: Not long. They would capture it and take the film to Hawaii. They would then fly it from Hawaii to Eastman Kodak—that would take about two days. Eastman Kodak would process that one roll of film in a day, then it was jetted down to us. You're talking about maybe six, seven days.

“We took a great deal of interest in really sticking it to CIA operatives that our information was a lot better than theirs.”

NOVA: It's different with today's satellites, of course.

Brugioni: Oh gosh yes. Today the satellite takes the picture and transmits it to another satellite, which transmits it down. It's near real-time.

Keep in mind, though, that in those days satellite photography was only a week old, and it was A-1 information. The covert service would bring in a report. The information was a year old, or six months old, or even a month old, and we'd say, "We've got something better. We have something that's only a week old, and ours is A-1 information. Ours is the truth. We don't know about this report you're giving us. How do you rate it?" And it was rated like B-3 or F-6. We'd say, "Heck, we don't know if that's true or not. Our information is the truth."

See, a lot of the early people in the CIA were from wealthy families. They were all Easterners, and many had attended Harvard and Yale. They kind of looked down at us. Here was Dino Brugioni and Lou Franceschini and Paul Slovak and so forth. "Those guys, they're a bunch of technicians, they're not really spies." So we took a great deal of interest in really sticking it to them that our information was a lot better than theirs. It was competition between the overt and the covert men.

NOVA: Were you overt or covert?

Brugioni: We were overt.

NOVA: So we have satellites taking pictures, U-2's flying. What do you need an unmanned aerial vehicle [UAV] for?

Brugioni: Well, the UAV is good in a tactical situation, there is no doubt about it. You have a vehicle that can hover over a predesignated area, watching that area around the clock. You can use photography during the daytime, and you can use infrared and radar at night. Anybody who moves in that area is asking for trouble.

The enemy soon learns the capabilities of your system. I'm sure that the people in Afghanistan now, when they know that there is an operation underway, they're going to move and hide and so forth. We did the same thing: Whenever a Soviet satellite came over and we were dealing with the SR-71 [the successor surveillance aircraft to the U-2], we knew that the satellite would come over us at 1:00, so by 12:00 we made sure we pushed the SR-71's into the hangar, so the Soviets could never see the research and development work that was going on at the ranch.

NOVA: Hoverability is good because the nature of war has changed, is that right?

Brugioni: Oh, yes. That information we had was a week old, and some of the systems now it maybe takes two or three hours. With UAV's, it's current. You're seeing the battlefield situation, and in the case of the Predator [an unmanned reconaissance plane currently used over Afghanistan and elsewhere], if you see some action you think is worthy of being fired at, you can fire at it.

Back to top


Dino Brugioni, 41, sits at his desk at the National Photographic Interpretation Center in 1963.


Colonel Oleg Penkovsky at the moment a Soviet court sentenced him to die by firing squad for supplying the West with details about Soviet missiles.

San Cristobal

Shot by a U-2 spy plane over San Cristobal, Cuba on October 25, 1962, and examined within days by Dino Brugioni and other CIA officials, this image (shown in detail here) helped spark the Cuban missile crisis.

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Kennedy and McNamara

President Kennedy confers with Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara at the White House on October 29, 1962, in the midst of the Cuban missile crisis.

Kruschev and Kennedy

Kennedy's release of spy photos showing nuclear missile activity in Cuba helped pressure Soviet leader Nikita Kruschev to withdraw the missiles.

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U-2 in flight

Besides photographs, the U-2 could collect radar, infrared, and electro-optic imagery from altitudes reaching above 70,000 feet.

Pilots entering U-2 cockpit

"The pilots were offered diapers, but they turned them down," Brugioni says of U-2 pilots, here shown entering the plane's tight cockpit.

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Gary Powers

Grasping a model of the U-2 spy plane, Francis Gary Powers testifies before the Senate Armed Services Committee after his release by the Soviet Union.


Nicknamed "Blackbird," the SR-71, the successor to the U-2, served the U.S. military from 1966 to 1990.

Enlarge this image


In one day, the Corona satellite photographed more Soviet territory than 28 U-2 missions had over the course of four years.

Richard Bissell

Richard Bissell, chief of covert operations for the CIA, approved the "reel and snood" method of retrieving Corona's film.

Brugioni today

At an October 2002 conference in Havana to mark the 40th anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis, Dino Brugioni holds a book of aerial photos of missile sites in Cuba that he had analyzed for the CIA 40 years before.

Spies That Fly Web Site Content
Spy Photos

Spy Photos
Surveillance photographs of Kosovo, Iraq, and other hotspots.

Master of the Surveillance Image

Master of the Surveillance Image
Meet former CIA photo analyst Dino Brugioni.

Time Line of UAVs

Time Line of UAVs
Explore the history of unmanned aerial vehicles.

Imaging With Radar

Imaging With Radar
What can synthetic aperture radar "see"?

Interview conducted by Larry Klein, producer of "Spies That Fly," and edited by Peter Tyson, editor in chief of NOVA online.

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