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

Placeholder while article actions load

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

You could have bought a new car from Steuart Motors, a large Ford dealership with a showroom on that lot. He may have had business elsewhere in the Steuart Building, a commercial space owned by the family that, in addition to operating the dealership, operated in oil, insurance, and real estate.

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

Something very interesting was happening in the Steuart Building.

“There’s a backstory about 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 after Answer Man’s recent column about the birth of Toys R Us.

O’Connor said that from mid-1956 through 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 was slammed shut, it became very risky for US agents to set their sights directly on 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?

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

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

The plane, codenamed Project Aquatone, was a technological marvel. But it did create a challenge for those on the ground: How to literally interpret the miles of film that would soon start pouring through their cameras?

And that’s where the Steuart building came into play. As a declassified CIA story on the project put it: “Here, on the upper floors of a dilapidated building situated just three blocks from the Gospel Mission, the operation was far removed from informed intellectuals who might, however, the benefit of proper clearance, they come uncomfortably close to guessing what keeps so many people busy 24 hours a day.”

(Of course, it didn’t help that before the apartment moved, a sign outside the office stated that it was “Leased to CIA.”)

Lundahl organized and supervised the operation: selection and training of photo interpreters, procurement of equipment, development of a workflow, and distribution of findings. He also chose the code name for the effort: Project Automat, later modified to HTAutomat or HTA.

Why Automatic Project? Lundahl envisioned a 24/7 effort like the automated restaurants started by a company called Horn & Hardart. It was to be the Automat of the intelligence community, “with its doors never locked and customers coming in and out, day and night,” according to a CIA file.

The first U-2 mission over hostile territory took place on July 4, 1956, the slim plane flew over Leningrad, St. Petersburg, and took photos of a shipyard there. After U-2 landed at its base near Wiesbaden, Germany, the film was removed and shipped to Eastman Kodak in Rochester, New York for processing. Their final 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 filled a corner room on the sixth floor.

In the first two months of its existence, HTAutomat generated 1,300 impressions of reconnaissance photos and 33,000 pages of text. Lundahl, according to an HTAutomat track record, quickly gained “a reputation as one of the most dynamic informants in the intelligence community” who “regularly left his audience virtually mesmerized.”

It could also make them restless. 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. As he flew over Cuba, a U-2 camera captured what appeared to be Soviet missiles. They were.

Leave a Comment