Why Challenger Disaster Helped Prevent Nuclear Showdown With Soviets

Challenger Space Shuttle
Challenger Space Shuttle

by Trowbridge H. Ford


On August 11, 1984, Jane’s Defence Weekly, a new magazine printed by the authoritative Jane’s Fighting Ships, published high quality photographs of the Nikolaiev 444 shipyard in the Crimea’s Sevastopol, one on the weekly’s cover and three more on the inside, showing the Soviet aircraft carrier Lenoid Brezhnev under construction. Then many newspapers, including The New York Times and The Washington Post, reprinted them. When US Navy Captain Captain T. Fritz of its Naval Intelligence Support Center (NISC) noticed them while reading his paper over breakfast, he immediately called the FBI to report that they were ones missing from its facility at Suitland, Maryland.

The photographs had been taken by the National Reconnaisance Office’s new KH (Keyhole) -11 satellite, the first to suppy digital imaging of targets, and developed by the National Security Agency’s Program 1010 aka Kennan. KH-11 used systems developed by the Manned Orbiting Laboratory, the previous Keyhole project, and were later the basis of the Hubble Space Telescope. In keeping with the National Security Decision Directive 84 – what the Willard Group, appointed by President Carter, had proposed to stop leaks resulting from Watergate, and in the assassination of CIA covert operatives, and President Reagan had adopted – the FBI was contacted to see that if no criminal laws had been broken by the leak, at least the leaker could be weeded out of the government.

When the Bureau’s agents contacted Jane’s editors about the leak, they simply handed over the photographs which had had secret classifications snipped from their tops and bottoms. Once a fingerprint was identified as that of Samuel Loring Morison, son of the famous Harvard historian who had written, with Henry Steele Commanger the standard survey of American history, and who was working at the NISC, “Morison was arrested as he was about to board a plane on his way to vacation in England,” Angus Mackenzie has written in Secrets: The CIA’s War at Home. “He was charged with theft and espionage.” (p.136)

When Morison’s trial finally occurred in October 1985, it was most baffling, as Mackenzie has recounted. The charge of espionage seemed most unjustified since a real spy, William Kampiles, had already been convicted of selling the operating manuels for KH-11, so it could be assumed that the photo in Jane’s Defence Weekly had told Moscow nothing new about the photo reconnaissance obiter, but the prosecution begged to differ, contending that knowing nothing new about a highly covert program was in itself potentially harmful to the United States.Then the defense finally found an expert who would testify on behalf of Morison, Professor Jeffrey T. Richelson, but his testimony about how easy it was for even the average person to spot a KH-11 in the sky was quashed by the trial judge because it was based upon a top-secret report, and Richelson had signed a secrecy contract not to release such information.

Morrison’s defence team compromised his case further by admitting to the court why it had not called him to the stand to defend his own actions while other defence witnesses had undermined his case. While CIA Deputy Director of Science and Technology Richard E. Hineman admitted that other photographs from KH-11 satellites had been published, he confirmed that the ones Morrison had seen to the printing of would confirm of Moscow that the satellite was still working – a vital piece of information since others launched were not for various reasons, and all satellites had a limited life-span. Furthermore, when Mark Lynch, head of Morrison’s lawyers, was asked why he did not take the stand, one of them volunteered: “Have you ever met Morrison? (Quoted from ibid., 140.), a most unnecessary admission which was bound to influence the jury.

The jury found that he had potentially damaged America’s security – especially since he had done so for money – and he was sentenced to two years in prison.

While Mackinzie was understandably upset about the verdict, he never got round to explaining why Morison ended up spending so little time in jail, only eight months. The reason seems to be that the Reagan administration decided to make Morison’s disclosure a positive bit of disinformation as the planned showdown with Moscow by the US Navy was finally taking shape – what an Anglo-American conspiracy hoped to trigger with the assassination of Sweden’s statsminister Olof Palme, sink Soviet nuclear submarines aka boomers while they went on station in response to the surprise, and then clear out all the naval facilities on the Kola Peninsula by American and NATO air and army operations. Where Morison, either deliberately or ignorantly, fitted into all this is determined by just considering what Moscow had learned from all its spies at the time.

Since Kampiles had given the Soviets all the capabilities of the KH-11, they could at least take all the necessary countermeasures while it was passing overhead, if not even arrange to blow it up. Then the John A. Walker Jr. spy ring had resulted in Soviet attack submarines being almost as difficult to spot as American ones – what enraged Navy Secretary John Lehman, Jr. so much that he called publicly for Walker to be drawn and quartered instead of given a life sentence, with eligibility for parole after merely 10 years in prison. Then Ronald W. Pelton, another NISC employee, had told the Soviets about the tapping of their land lines in Sea of Okhotsk to their naval base at Petropavlovsk (Operation Ivy Bells). (For more about this, see Sherry Sontag and Christopher Drew, Blind Man’s Bluff: The Story of American Submarine Espionage, p. 351ff.)

For good measure, the Reagan administration allowed failed Agency agent Edward Lee Howard to escape to the USSR – hoping that the Soviets would think that he was another Kim Philby when it came to Agency operational methods in Moscow – and Jonathan Pollard, another NISC employee, was sentenced to life in prison for supplying Shamir’s anti-American government in Israel with satellite and signal intelligence regarding the structure of US deterrent forces in case there was some kind of Cold War showdown – what Tel Aviv exchanged with Moscow for the release of more Soviets Jews who wanted to immigrate to the Holy Land. (For more on Agency deceptions regarding Howard’s defection, see Mark Riebling, Wedge: The Secret War between FBI and CIA, p. 355ff.)

Of course, this information would hardly help Moscow for what Washington and London had planned, as it was a question of the Soviets spotting Lehman’s attack submarines as they sought out the Soviet boomers and their own attack subs, stopping communications to the West by double agents involved in Operation Courtship, and from bugging other lines of communication, and stemming the planned attack over the Finnmark region of Norway with some kind of defense in depth. Defector Vitaly Yurchenko was even programmed by Moscow into the whole deception operation by telling tales on various agents, especially Pelton and Howard, when he came over, and then being allowed to escape back to Moscow by the CIA with the most important double agent, Valeri Martynov, in his entourage. It was the most important, complicated deception operation in the history of the Cold War, and who would ultimately triumph was not known until the very end.

While we now know that the spying for the Soviets by the CIA’s Rick Ames and the Bureau’s Robert Hanssen saved everyone’s skin, as I have described in many articles, the role of Morison in the process has not been told. His conviction was to reassure Moscow that any KH-11satellite which showed up over the Black Sea naval base at Sevastopol was just another photo reconnaissance one – what the Soviets would neutralize one way or another. Little did they realize that any new ones would also contain an airborne laser accelerator, feigning to be just a Magnum satellite – what could stop any ICBM being fueled and launched in any attempted first strike, and possibly cause earthquakes in the unstable area if necessary. As it circled over the area 15 times a day, it might make a devastating earthquake there in relatively little time at all.

The Red Banner Fleet submarine base at Balaklava – the site of the famous charge by the British Light Brigade in the Crimean War – was hewed out of a mountain in an area noted for its earthquakes. In nearby Yalta, the site of the famous agreement between the Allies in WWII, had experienced devastating earthquakes in 1927, and more were expected.

The underground submarine pens and their connecting canals to the Black Sea were thought to be so inpregnable to atomic attacks that the Chinese had modeled a similar facility in its remote mountains of Sichuan after the devastating earthquake at Tangshan in 1976 had destroyed its original atomic research facilities – what the Soviets, it seems, had caused in order to get the Red Chinese back in line. Moscow did not appreciate that continuous laser attacks around Balaklava could cause a complete collapse, one so severe that it might swallow up the whole north coast of the Black Sea in a tsumani.

As with so many conspiracies – what usually results in so many cock-ups – the best laid plans were destroyed by a foul-up. When the space shuttle took the laser accelerator aloft on August 28, 1985 (No. 7 in the Kennan program), it failed to be launched because of a premature engine shutdown. NASA did a rush job to prepare another space shuttle, Challenger, for a replacement mission on January 28, 1986 but, as we all know, it ended in tragedy with the space craft separating from the booster rockets almost immediately, and plunging into the Atlantic, off the Kennedy Space Center. While the Reagan administration made much of the loss of life, especially woman astronaut and school teacher Christa McAuliffe, Washington was more concerned about the lost laser satellite.

Instead of the White House scrubbing the planned non-nuclear end to the Cold War with Moscow, it pushed ahead with reckless abandaon despite the fact that it had lost its most crucial element in any surprise showdown with the Soviets. The CIA’s Rod Carlson had tried to recruite Sweden’s leading Soviet Stig Bergling in the hope that he would be the fall guy for Palme’s assassin by fleeing to the USSR while on prison release to get married, the Agency’s resident in the Stockholm Embassy Jennone Walker got the Swedish security service Säpo to bug the Soviet Embassy telephones and KGB residence in the hope that Bergling would call to arrange his escape – what would confirm Moscow’s being behind the assassination – and Britain’s SOD George Younger was on hand when NATO’s Anchor Express Exercise commenced in Norway, so that he could direct it against the Kola Peninsula when America’s carrier battle fleet, Task Force Eagle, arrived off Narvik.

Fortunately, the whole conspiracy went a cropper when Bergling declined to flee, Altantic Fleet Commander Admiral Carl Trost’s task force never arrived because he refused to follow Navy Secretary Lehman’s direct orders twice, and Anchor Express Exercise immediately got caught in devastating but expected avalanches which killed 17 Norwegian engineers. It was all just as well, though, as KGB Chief Viktor Chebrikov had announced on the morning of Palme’s assassination that it had uncovered the plot, and taken appropriate counter measures.

The collapse of the submarine base at Balaklava would have deprived Moscow of its second-strike, underwater ballistic missiles which were threatening southern Europe in any showdown. To make up for the laser satellite, lost on the Challenger mission, Lehman’s navy still tried twice to provoke a surface response by Moscow while his attack submarines were still trying in vain to sink Soviet boomers in the White and Black Seas, as Greg Vistica has vaguely noted in Fall from Honor: The Men Who Sank the U. S. Navy: “The intellignce-gathering ship Caron and the Aegis cruiser Yorktown sailed to within six nautical miles of the Crimean coast. On another mission, the two ships operated nine miles from the Black Sea fleet headquarters at Sevastopol.” (p. 214)

If Washington and London had succeeded in triggering the showdown with the boomers by conventional weapons – what they attempted on two occasions – the result would have been devastating to us all, as the Soviets had 82 nuclear-armed SS-23 intermediate-range missiles in East Germany and Western Russia which the vaunted Western intelligence knew nothing about, and would have fired them if a shooting war broke out. (For more on this, see Mark Urban, UK Eyes Alpha: The Inside Story of British Intelligence, p. 290.)

Little wonder that when the scope of the whole cock-up began to emerge, and the political atmosphere between Reagan and Gorbachev began to change dramatically at the Reykjavik meeting in October 1986, Morison was released early from prison. It was a far different matter with the Walker gang and Pelton, however. Admiral William Studeman, the director of the Naval Intelligence Service, wrote a convenient affidavit for the trial of one of the former in California in late September 1986, claiming gratuituously and falsely that Pelton’s spying had presented the Soviets with war-winning possibilities in any showdown with the West. It was the spying by Ames and Hanssen which presented the Soviets with such possibilities, explaining why they have been locked up forever.

Studeman was the driving force in Navy ranks behind the whole confrontation that Secretary Lehman sought, directing the attack submarines in the latest Ivy Bells Operation, having Chief of Naval Operations James Watkins coordinate the planned attacks with the British MOD, and seeing that Admiral Frank Kelso’s Sixth Fleet in the Black Sea tried to make up for the absence of the KH-11 (No. 7) satellite. (For more sanitzed details about the whole fiasco, see Vistica, p. 213ff.)

Of course, while America lost the satellite on Challenger, it had the capability to make more, and once the problems with launching the heavily loaded space shuttles safely were solved, it sent two more KH-11s into orbit in 1987 and 1988, and a more advanced one, called LACROSSE, into space on an orbit which flew over the Middle East all the way to North Korea, as this was the area of concern with the USSR and the Soviet bloc going down the drain. China was now the hot target, especially after its leadership intensified and institutionalized its repression of dissent after the forceful clearing of Tiananman Square on June 4, 1989. The new Bush administration was most interested, though, in keeping on talking terms with Beijing, “constructive engagement”, because of what it had planned for Iraq, and the now independent oil-producing nations of Central Asia.

Despite the Chinese crackdown, Washington wanted to persuade the Chinese leadership to ease up on the protesters, especially on the Uighur, Muslims, in Xinjiang province where vast new deposits of oil were discovered, and worked to persuade Congress not to invoke sanctions on Beijing but to maintain China’s most favored nation status in trade as bargaining chips. In return, China’s Foreign Minister Qain did not block Washington’s UN approach to punishing Saddam for his invasion of Kuwait.

And by this time, Admiral Studeman had managed to become NSA’s director, and was interested in what KH-12 satellites could really do rather than make them simply survivable in the event of a Soviet attack – what the previous director General William Odom was obsessed with. Studeman was able to work easily behind the back of his nominal superior, DCI Judge William Webster, who had been selected to clean up the Agency’s image after the Iran-Contra scandal.

While the world was occupied with the West’s growing confrontation with Saddam Hussein, Washington apparently pulled a surprise on the troublesome Iranians, causing an earthquake in its northwest along the Iraqi border around the towns of Rudbar and Manjil on June 20, 1990 – reminiscent to what the Russians had done 14 years earlier in North China. The 7.7 quake on the Richter scale killed or injured 370,000 people, and forced Tehran to concentrate on helping its beleaguered citizens rather than offering any possible assistance to the cornered Iraqi leader. The mullahs had been looking for settling scores with Washington ever since one of its ships shot down an Iranian airliner in 1988.

The satellite’s laser had taken advantage of the sandy terrain, and the shoddy construction of the area’s buildings, causing a series of rapid earthquakes to occur in the middle of the night – when the most devastation would happen – along the line where the Arabian and Eurasian plates collided. It was the largest eathquake in that part of the Caspain region in 1,200 years. Given the presence of extensive qanat systems in the area for the collection of water, it was easy to heat up from overhead the passageways to underground collection chambers until the sand collapsed, causing the resulting goo to shift, and everything based upon it too.

While Washington’s role in the tragedy escaped completely unnoticed, even the Iranians to start with, Richelson published an article, “The Spies in Space, in Air and Space, which raised all kinds of questions about its possible role – what NSA tried to quash by classifying the article ‘SECRET’, and Representative Geroge Brown tried to make light of by bringing up the matter in the House on November 26, 1991. By this time, Richelson had become a leading authority on America’s satellite capability, having written many books on the subject, especially The Wizards of Langley: Inside the CIA’s Directorate of Science and Technology which showed that it was involved in much more than just trying to find “The Manchurian Candidate”.

Richelson, after having explained the role various KEYHOLE satellites had played in some confrontations and wars, declared: “And still others become the catalyst for further collection efforts and eventually for action political, diplomatic, or military.” While he did not indicate what ones had been involved in military follow-ups, he did give this operational scope to them: “Satellities search for signs of new nuclear reactors or missile deployment in countries that buy arms and nuclear technology from China, including Algeria, Iran, Palestine, Saudia Arabia and Syria.”

While the earthquake had the desired effect upon the Iranians when it came to Saddam’s problems, it made Tehran, it seems, more interested in having nuclear weapons to protect inself from more such surprises. In 1991, China signed a contract with Iran to supply it with a 20 Mega Watt research reactor, much like what the Soviets had supplied Yugoslavia’s Marhal Tito, and were increasingly causing the West with concerns regarding Belgrade. Then in September 1992, the two countries agreed to China supplying it with two 300 MW pressurized water reactors within ten years. While the Clinton administration apparently put enough pressure on China to cancel both deals, no one could be absolutely sure, as subsequent developments would show.

It did not take a space scientist to figure out that this country was the apex of the alleged axis of evil, and that Washington may well have considered action against its increasing threats – what the Chinese, unlike the Iraqis who laid fiber optics cables to protect the security of their messages, still using micro wave communications had made crystal clear.

Richelson concluded his article by surprisingly discounting the effectiveness of digital-imaging reconnaissance vehicles in countries which had very cloudly weather, very secretive regimes, and took effective countermeasures against their intrusions, making one wonder why the NSA was going for broke with the new LACROSSE program when China was the only regime which presented these problems.

The answer was supplied, it seems, by an obscure Chinese chemist Zhonghoa Shou working for the Hangzhou Quality Control Institute, and investigating the effects of climate change on its fishing industry when the deadly Iranian earthquake struck. Shou had predicted it 18 hours before it happened. He based his prediction upon the unexpected cloud which developed from the eventual epicenter, and the consequent fracturing of the surface which developed from it. It seemed as if some huge area was being stressed by external forces, causing the cloud to steadily appear, and as the process intensified, the geoeruption commenced, ultimately resulting in the devastating earthquake.

The only problem left to be explained was the source of the external forces, as the area was not known for having volcanoes either.

To head off Shou’s claims from becoming widely known, he was allowed to come to California in May 1993, and while he was studying the history and evidence of its earthquakes, the Clinton administration became involved in its own program of earthquake-making. By this time Studeman had taken over the actual running of the CIA, having become its Deputy Director. He apparently made the arrangements for the test quake in Australia’s Great Victoria Desert in 1993 from the US Henry E. Holt naval base on the North Cape – what American Secretary of Defense William Cohen did for real in Turkey on August 17, 1999.

It was the severest punishment, coming at 3:01 a.m., of its right-wing regime for having complicated the bombing campaign against Serbia for its actions against Kosovo by leaking details of NATO’s operations President Milosevic – what ultimately resulted in the destruction of the Chinese Embassy there when it was determined to have been complicit in the operation.

Cohen had done everything he could to deflect suspicion from Washington for having caused the Izmit disaster – another area noted for its easily collapsable qanat sytem – by announcing that it was something one could expect from unknown terrorists.

In August 2000, after the NSA had launched its latest LACROSSE satellite from Vandenberg Air Base – neither National Reconnaissance Office nor the Air Force discussing its 66-foot nose cone and its orbit in any way – the NRO did issue a shoulder patch to commenorate all its orbiters in a most menacing way. It was entitled – “National Reconnaissance Office – We Own the Night”, and underneath it were the four vehicles transversing the globe and going along a line from Turkey into Russia, and another across the Middle East towards China – striking back with deadly boomerangs. A boomerang is an Australian native instrument which recoils on its user with deadly consequences – a most telling depiction of what the Americans had been up to in Down Under’s desert and beyond.

It was a most dangerous admission to make, as we shall see.


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Trowbridge Ford (1929 - 2021) was the son of William Wallace Ford, the father of the US Army's Grasshoppers. He attended Phillips Exeter Academy, and Columbia University where he received a Ph.D. in political science after a stint in the Army's Counter Intelligence Corps as a draftee during the Korean War, and after being discharged, worked as the sports editor and a reporter for the now-defunct Raleigh Times. Thought academia was the thing for him.  He was quite satisfied teaching all kinds of courses about European and American politics while writing his dissertation about an under-appreciated British politician, Henry Brougham, who became the Lord Chancellor of the famous Reform Government (1830-34). At the same time, Trowbridge became most interested in the role that A. V. Dicey, a famous Oxford legal professor, played in settling the Irish question - another figure that historians didn't think did much about.   It was while he was doing research on the dissertation at the British Museum in London that President Kennedy was assassinated, and it slowly led him to take a dimmer view of academic life, especially when joined by campus protests over the growing Vietnam War.  He was fired by two institutions of higher learning because of his protests against the war. When the Vietnam War finally ended, he got involved in researching the Dallas assassination, and his first serious efforts about it appeared in Tom Valentine's The National Exchange in 1978 - what Fletcher Prouty thought was quite good, just urging him to go higher in the Agency and the political world for the main culprits. He slowly started doing this, ultimately deciding to retire early in 1986, planning on finishing his Brougham biography while living in Portugal. While he did this, he had made too many enemies with the White House not to be punished - first by attempts to establish that he maliciously tried to destroy Richard Nixon during Watergate by libeling him, and when he died, DCI George Tenet tried to have me killed by poisoning - what would make his death look like a suicide or a natural one. As a result of this, once he had finally determined the cause, he moved to Sweden to not only save his skin but also investigate and write about assassinations, covert operations, 'false flag' deceptions, preventive wars, weapons development, and their use, etc.  He passed away in 2021.