As is perhaps appropriate for an organization known for spying and secrecy, the Central Intelligence Agency doesn't enjoy the most sterling reputation in the world. Whether Americans fear that a CIA agent is aware of their most intimate secrets or disapprove of the organization's historic activities elsewhere in the world, they don't find it an easy institution to trust.
And since the CIA is as aware of that reputation as anyone, recent decades have seen them take steps to declassify their historic operations in the interest of becoming more publicly accountable. And while some of the things they've kept under wraps are no surprise, others make for pretty stunning revelations.
More important than it seems
Although it may be hard to imagine what was so important about two men sitting awkwardly in an office, it would have given so much of the U.S.'s intelligence-gathering strategy away if this photo had fallen into Soviet hands.
As Gregory W. Pedlow and Donald E. Welie'nbach wrote in a historical report for the CIA, that's because it would have proved that the Air Force was helping the organization use U-2 planes to spy on Soviet operations. The man on the left was a CIA officer named Richard Bissell, while the other man was General Osmond Ritland of the U.S. Air Force.
Edwin H. Land's secret job
Although it was hardly a secret that Edwin H. Land invented the polarizing filter and the instant camera for Polaroid, what the CIA did keep under wraps was how he used his expertise to help them develop cameras capable of aerial surveillance.
According to Gregory W. Pedlow and Donald E. Welie'nbach, MIT President James R. Killian recruited Land as head of a technical study group called Project Three that drafted overhead reconnaissance plans for the CIA.
The Bomber Gap wasn't real
As grainy and hard to make out as this photo is, it proved valuable enough to earn the nickname "the million-dollar photo." That's because it came at a time when the "bomber gap" between the United States and the Soviet Union was a hot-button issue after the Air Force estimated that the U.S.S.R. had over 100 long-range bombers at their disposal.
But as Gerald K. Haines wrote in a monograph covering the history of the National Reconnaissance Office, this photo proved that the number was severely over-reported and the spending the Air Force was asking for would not be required.
During the 1960s, the CIA conducted serious research into the feasibility of training dolphins and birds to carry out covert operations. While the organization's declassified documents don't explicitly mention whether the animals would include sabotages in their intended reconnaissance missions, it's hard to get a different impression from this illustration.
However, the CIA's intentions for these dolphins and birds would turn out not to matter because the difficulty of transferring control from trainers to field agents was just one of the technical issues preventing this project from succeeding.
The CIA's hands weren't clean during the "dirty war"
After a coup in 1976, the governing Argentine military engaged in a seven-year campaign known as the "dirty war" that claimed the lives of between 10,000 and 30,000 political opponents and other civilians.
Although this coup didn't explicitly happen at the behest of the CIA, its documents from the period make it clear that the U.S. government justified the Argentine military's formation of other right-wing militia groups and their illegal strategies to eliminate left-wing enemies.
During the 1960s, the CIA researched the possibility of introducing uncrewed aerial vehicles to gather spy images above the airspaces of other nations. Although the government was already seeing success with U-2 planes in this capacity, those missions proved risky due to the potential for detection and losing the pilot.
This futuristic-looking vehicle, the Aquiline, was supposed to solve these problems by gathering data without a pilot inside. And while the project was never completed, it did break some ground for later UAVs.
The SAMOS era
According to a Washington Post article from 1987, the Satellite and Missile Observation System was a space-based reconnaissance project championed by the Air Force in the early 1960s. Although SAMOS was competing with a similar CIA project at the time, the organization nonetheless helped keep it under wraps.
However, a historical report by Robert Perry noted that the camera resolution achievable by SAMOS was considered insufficient for the nation's intelligence needs, and the project was essentially doomed by May of 1963.
Quietly fixing a secret blunder
On April 26, 1972, the U.S. Navy undertook its deepest salvage mission in history up to that point thanks to its then-state-of-the-art submersible called the Trieste II.
Although the rescued cargo was simply described as a "data package" from the Scripps Institute of Oceanography at the time, the CIA has since revealed that it was a film capsule dropped by the spy satellite HEXAGON after a malfunction over the Pacific Ocean in 1971.
Three men and something hard to explain
This photo depicts three Air Force officials inspecting a film capsule recovered from Discoverer-13, a reconnaissance satellite developed by the CIA as part of a multi-launch project spanning years that was code-named CORONA.
But while the film capsules jettisoned by these satellites contained usable photos, they didn't stay secret from the rest of the world for long. According to a 1987 Washington Post article, the following satellite in this series would be the first in history to have a capsule snatched from mid-air.
More happened on D-Day than it seemed
While Allied forces geared up to storm the beaches of Normandy in 1944, the Office of Strategic Services (the CIA's predecessor) developed a plan of "political warfare" against Germany.
Code-named Overlord, this plan involved coordinating propaganda and sabotage campaigns to undermine German morale, foster and support resistance movements in occupied countries at the time, and convince neutral nations to favor Allied countries.
Behind the scenes of the Bay of Pigs incident
Although the Bay Of Pigs Invasion now lives in infamy as a U.S.-backed attempt to overthrow Fidel Castro's regime in Cuba, the military blunder was considered top secret when the fallout became apparent in 1961.
Independent histories have uncovered most of the embarrassing facts about the invasion attempt in the decades since, but the CIA kept its own documents about it under wraps for decades. One of those documents suggested that the internal power struggle behind the incident and its early internal investigations were too embarrassing to release to the public.
How does one solve a problem like AGENA?
According to the National Reconnaissance Office, this machinery was part of the AGENA spacecraft that carried the CIA's surveillance equipment in the CORONA program's earliest satellites. But while that would make its very existence top secret, there was another reason to keep it under wraps.
As a CIA document outlined, AGENA was not a terribly reliable propulsion system as it experienced power failures in over half of the flights it was used in. In fact, six of the CORONA launches between 1959 and 1961 didn't even make it into orbit.
A short-lived break in the Cold War
According to the National Park Service, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev visited the United States to address the Berlin Crisis — which saw Khrushchev threaten to cut off access to Berlin if Western nations didn't recognize East Germany — by meeting President Eisenhower at Camp David, Maryland.
But while this was all public knowledge, the secret behind this photo was that after talks there stalled, Eisenhower brought Khrushchev to his farm in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. As this photo expresses, the two were relaxed enough in this environment to reach an agreement about Berlin.
The May Day Parade had a secret audience
Every May 9, a military parade is held in Russia to both celebrate the nation's World War II victory and demonstrate the might of the country's most impressive-looking weapons.
But as James E. David wrote for the National Reconnaissance Office, the Soviet public wasn't the only one watching these parades closely. Whether by aerial photography, satellites, or agents taking photos up close, these parades also gave the CIA a good look at what the Soviet military was capable of.
There are some things even the CIA doesn't know
During the mid-2010s, the CIA declassified a collection of photos and documents the agency had gathered over the years related to UFOs.
Anyone looking for confirmation of the existence of extraterrestrial life will be disappointed, as information about these UFOs is sparse. But it nonetheless goes to show that there are some things that even America's top intelligence organizations can't explain.
The man in charge of an ominous project
Although some aspects of the CIA's infamous mind control experiments remain classified, the organization's declassification of an entry from the Intellipedia wiki suggests that the information presented there is accurate.
And what it reveals is that CIA chemist Dr. Sidney Gottlieb ran a series of experiments that involved U.S. citizens from various walks of life. The experiments involved dosing subjects with LSD and other substances without their knowledge or consent for the purpose of studying possible mind control techniques. The experiment proved a failure on every conceivable level and potentially caused the falling death of Dr. Frank Olson.
Not something they ever wanted to see
Although it's unclear when exactly this photo was taken, the National Reconnaissance Office's caption describing "fears of growing Soviet nuclear capability" makes the context for the surprisingly high-resolution image clear.
Whether the photo was taken by a U-2 or a spy satellite, it clearly depicts a Soviet nuclear weapons test due to the telltale mushroom cloud.
Before it shocked the world
In an overview of their declassified documents on the landmark Soviet satellite Sputnik, the CIA made it clear that they were far less surprised by its 1957 launch than the American public.
Indeed, this photo proves that their agents found the small satellite's booster rocket module shortly before Sputnik's launch and three-month orbit.
An eerie photo of something relatively mundane
Within the CIA's collection of UFO photos is this image of a man standing next to a towering, somewhat fluid object. But while the grainy quality of the image makes it bizarre to behold, the man likely knew what he was looking at.
That's because this seems to be a weather balloon. So, in this case, it's not that the CIA couldn't identify what this was. Instead, the question concerned where it came from.
A familiar face
Among the National Reconnaissance Office's collection of declassified images that concern the CIA's CORONA satellite system is one depicting President Kennedy examining a suspended film capsule.
According to the NRO, this was specifically from the Discoverer-13 spy satellite, which meant that Kennedy wouldn't have been able to deny knowledge of the surveillance program if the photo had leaked in his lifetime.
Eisenhower's flag fascination
This photo from the National Reconnaissance Office's collection of declassified images shows that President Kennedy's direct inspection of a film capsule from Discoverer-13 wasn't unprecedented.
Indeed, his predecessor was apparently just as interested in the capabilities of the CORONA program satellites as he was. As for why he's examining an American flag, Space.com explained it was flown into space as part of the satellite's payload.
It may not look like a big secret, but it was
Considering how important spy satellite networks like the CIA's CORONA program were to their global surveillance efforts, it stands to reason that even the most mundane instruments involved in its operation would be classified.
That's how this "tuna" film cutter and splicer ended up as part of the National Reconnaissance Office's collection of declassified images. After all, the film it was splicing contained footage the government didn't want to admit the existence of at the time.
A space-faring secret
This diagram outlines not only who was responsible for the various parts of a spy satellite launch but also how the payload system in that satellite worked.
It shows that the Air Force was responsible for the THORAD booster system that launched the satellites beyond the Earth's atmosphere. And according to one CIA document, an early problem with their AGENA spacecraft that kept it from launching properly was a tendency to separate from THORAD boosters like this one prematurely.
A secret that got harder and harder to keep
According to the U.S. Office of the Historian, high-altitude U-2 spy planes like this were a closely guarded secret during the Eisenhower administration.
But while they provided the American government with insight into the Soviet Union's military capabilities and only left a few hints of their existence at first, they wouldn't be such a well-kept secret after May 1960.
A pilot who landed rough
Although Francis Gary Powers's status as a pilot of one of America's U-2 spy planes was a top secret designation, that changed after a Soviet surface-to-air missile shot down his plane on May 1, 1960.
According to the U.S. Office of the Historian, it only took ten days after the Soviets apprehended Powers before President Eisenhower was forced to admit the existence of the nation's spy plane program. Powers was convicted of spying and sentenced to ten years in prison (seven of which at hard labor) but only needed to serve two before he was traded back to the Americans in a prisoner exchange.
That's how they had to make them back then
Considering some of the materials the CIA has kept under wraps over the years, one could understandably assume the device shown here is some type of super weapon.
However, the truth is that this device (code-named LANYARD) is just a large and elaborate camera. But since it was the kind of camera that belonged on spy satellites, the CIA had to keep its existence a secret.
More important than it looks
Compared to the more explosive photos the CIA has declassified over the years, this mid-20th-century photo of the RAND Corporation's headquarters in Santa Monica, California, seems almost quaint.
However, Mental Floss outlined that the CIA had good reason to keep the government's relationship with RAND close to the chest, as the technology think tank consulted on everything from aviation to missile defense systems. And their role in developing the CIA's CORONA spy satellite system would have been top secret.
Blurry but clear enough to stay under wraps
Although it's unclear what exactly this photo depicts, the fact that it exists at all was ground-breaking and top secret enough that the National Reconnaissance Office explained it wasn't declassified until 1995.
Why? Because this is the first photo taken by a reconnaissance satellite, which likely means that it came from one of the CORONA program's Discoverer modules.
What the presidents saw
Although multiple presidents saw value in inspecting the return capsules of the CORONA program's spy satellites after they fell back to Earth, they were a little too large to display on their own.
Thus, those working on the satellites also created these special dollies to make them easier to transport while protecting the valuable film reels inside.
They how precious these reels were
Since the film that spy satellites gathered constituted the entire point of launching them, the technicians behind the CIA's CORONA initiative had to ensure the reels could survive the trip back to Earth.
These photos reveal the hazards that came up during testing before the CIA's partners landed on a space-ready version. And, of course, these photos would only inspire questions about what caused this damage if they were made public too early.