Shortly after noon, local time, on 19 August 1960, over the North Pacific Ocean near Hawaii, a metal capsule about the size and shape of a large kitchen sink fell out of the sky from low earth orbit and drifted by parachute toward the earth. It was snagged in mid-air, on the third pass, by a C-119 “flying boxcar” transport aircraft from Hickam Air Force base in Honolulu, and then transferred to Moffett Field Naval Air Station, in Mountain View, California - where Google’s fleet of private jets now sit parked.
Any reasonable politician would have canceled the program
Inside the capsule was 3000 feet of 70mm Kodak film, recording seven orbital passes over 1,650,000 square miles of Soviet territory that was closed to all overflights at the time.
This spectacular intelligence coup was preceded by 13 failed attempts. Secrecy all too often conceals waste and failure within government programs; in this case, secrecy was essential to success. Any reasonable politician, facing the taxpayers, would have canceled the Corona orbital reconnaissance program after the eleventh or twelfth unsuccessful launch.
An enormous floodlight
The Corona program, a joint venture between the CIA, the NSA, and the Department of Defense, was coordinated by the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) and continued, under absolute secrecy, for 12 more years and 126 more missions, becoming the most productive intelligence operation of the Cold War. “It was as if an enormous floodlight had been turned on in a darkened warehouse,” observed former CIA program director Albert D. Wheelon, after the operation was declassified by order of President Clinton in 1995. “The Corona data quickly assumed the decisive role that the Enigma intercepts had played in World War II.”
The resources and expertise that were gathered to support the Corona program, operating under cover of a number of companies and institutions centered around Sunnyvale, California (including Fairchild, Lockheed, and the Stanford Industrial Park) helped produce the Silicon Valley of today. Google Earth is Corona’s direct descendant, and it is a fact as remarkable as the fall of the Berlin wall that anyone, anywhere in the world, can freely access satellite imagery whose very existence was a closely guarded secret only a generation ago.
To be watched effectively one has to be unaware
PRISM, on the contrary, has been kept in the dark. Setting aside the question of whether wholesale, indiscriminate data collection is legal - which, evidently, its proponents believed it was - the presumed reason is that for a surveillance system to be effective against bad actors, the bad actors have to be unaware that they are being watched. Unfortunately, the bad actors to be most worried about are the ones who suspect that they are being watched. The tradecraft goes way back. With the privacy of houses came eavesdropping; with the advent of written communication came secret opening of mail; with the advent of the electric telegraph came secret wiretaps; with the advent of photography came spy cameras; with the advent of orbital rocketry came spy satellites. To effectively spy on the entire Internet you need your own secret Internet - and Edward Snowden has now given us a glimpse into how this was done.