CIA’s HTAutomat project interpreted photos of U-2 spy planes

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In August 1956, any number of things could have drawn you to the northeast corner of Fifth and K NW streets. Here you would have found Children’s Supermart, a 40,000 square foot discount store and precursor to Toys R Us.

You could have bought a new car from Steuart Motors, a large Ford dealership with a showroom on this lot. You might have had business elsewhere in the Steuart Building, a commercial space owned by the family who, in addition to operating the concession, was active in oil, insurance and real estate.

Or maybe you were an armed courier, tasked with driving a Chevrolet Suburban on a twice-daily run from the Steuart Building to various city government offices, delivering information vital to our nation’s security.

Something very interesting was happening in the Steuart building.

“There’s a backstory to what happened above that toy store and the car dealership that took up the rest of the first floor,” Jack O’Connor of Kingstowne in Fairfax County wrote after Answer Man’s recent column about the birth of Toys R Us.

O’Connor said that from mid-1956 to December 1962, the upper floors of the Steuart Building were the clandestine location of the CIA’s Photographic Intelligence Division, or PID. “The entrance to the PID facility was at 1014 Fifth St., around the corner from the toy store,” he wrote.

When the Iron Curtain closed, it became very risky for US agents to look directly at things like enemy airfields, shipyards, weapons factories, missile bases, and nuclear power plants.

But what if you could put those eyes in the sky in the form of cameras?

In the summer of 1956, the US Air Force had already tried something called Project Genetrix. They were balloons launched from bases in Europe and Turkey, and designed to hover over Russia and China while taking pictures. The project was not a success. Nearly 500 high-altitude balloons were launched. Fewer than 50 have been recovered, and only a fraction of these have yielded usable photos. (They provided something else: paranoia. Ghostly balloons may have inspired UFO reports.)

But something new and exciting was on the horizon, and on September 26, 1955, Arthur C. Lundahl had his first glimpse of it. Lundahl, a trained geologist who had served in the Navy during World War II as a photo interpreter, was head of the CIA’s new Photographic Intelligence Division. What Lundahl saw on a trip to a secret Lockheed base in the desert was an aircraft capable of flying 3,400 miles while taking pictures at an altitude of 70,000 feet. It was the U-2.

The plane – codenamed Project Aquatone – was a technological marvel. But it created a challenge for those in the field: how to interpret the literal miles of film that would soon begin to roll through his cameras?

And that’s where the Steuart Building came in. As a declassified CIA history of the project puts it: “Here, on the upper floors of a dingy building just three blocks from the Gospel Mission, the operation was far removed from the savvy intellectuals who might, without proper authorization, come uncomfortably close to guessing what so many people were busy around the clock.”

(Of course, it didn’t help that before the department moved in, a sign outside the office said it was “leased to the CIA.”)

Lundahl organized and supervised the operation: selection and training of photo-interpreters, sourcing of equipment, development of a workflow, dissemination of results. He also chose the company’s codename: Project Automat, later changed to HTAutomat or HTA.

Why design Automat? Lundahl envisioned a 24/7 business, like the automated restaurants pioneered by a company called Horn & Hardart. It was to be the intelligence community’s automaton, “with its doors never securely shut and with clients coming in and out, day and night,” according to a CIA history.

The first U-2 mission over hostile territory took place on July 4, 1956, with the spindly aircraft flying over Leningrad – St. Petersburg – and taking pictures of a shipyard there. After the U-2 landed at its base near Wiesbaden, Germany, the film was removed and flown to Eastman Kodak in Rochester, NY, for processing. Its ultimate destination was the Steuart Building, where interpreters pored over the images, using tools to discern the size and orientation of various structures. In September 1957, they received a new tool: the first electronic computer used by the CIA. The ALWAC III-E occupied a corner room on the sixth floor.

In the first two months of its existence, HTAutomat generated 1,300 impressions from recognition photos and 33,000 pages of text. Lundahl, according to a story by HTAutomat, quickly earned “a reputation as one of the intelligence community’s most dynamic informants” who “regularly left his audience virtually spellbound.”

It could also leave them unstable. On October 16, 1962, Lundahl went to see John F Kennedy at the White House, 11 blocks from the Steuart Building. With him were enlargements of photos taken two days earlier. While flying over Cuba, a U-2’s camera had captured what looked like Soviet missiles. They were.

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