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52 years later, Gary Powers gets a medal

COMMENTARY | July 02, 2012

The posthumous Silver Star ceremony evokes memories of the cold war for military affairs reporter George Wilson. U-2 pilot Powers was shot down high over Russia on a mission that a CIA chieftain later said never should have been undertaken in the first place.

By George C. Wilson

The Air Force last month belatedly awarded the late U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers the Silver Star, the military’s third highest medal, for his bravery after being blown out of the sky over Russia in 1960 while his plane was photographing military installations.
What no one during the June 15 ceremony at the Pentagon bothered to mention was that Richard M. Bissell, Jr., the CIA director of the whole U-2 spying program, disclosed in his little-read memoirs that the Powers mission had been compromised long before takeoff and never should have been flown.
Here is what Bissell wrote on page 126 and 127 of his 1996 memoir entitled Reflections of a Cold Warrior:
“By the time the mission was given the go-ahead on May 1 [1960], security had been compromised. After Powers’ unsuccessful flight, the foreign minister of Afghanistan met with a representative of the U. S. embassy in Kabul to protest the violation of Afghan air space. He explained that he had received details of the flight from the Soviets. The embassy representative recorded that the only detail the foreign minister provided was that Powers, during his four days in Peshawar, had been ‘entertained socially by his Pakistani officer opposite numbers, who knew all about his mission….’”
Bissell -- a good soldier for the CIA even after President Kennedy fired him for planning the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba of April 17, 1961 -- does not name “the embassy representative” in his memoir nor reveal any other details about how the Powers spying flight was compromised. Surely, after all this time, the CIA should be forced to tell the American people what its  once secret files say about how the Powers spying mission was compromised.
What Bissell does write in his memoir is how dumb the CIA was to approve the Powers fateful flight so close to the summit meeting planned between President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in Paris in that same month of May 1960. This is how Bissell wrote about that lost opportunity for disarmament agreements on page 127 of his Reflections memoir:
“As events transpired and history has documented, the Soviets shot down Francis Gary Powers and the Paris summit ended in disarray. An important opportunity for an early détente had been lost. There is now no doubt we [the CIA] should have been more sensitive about planning a flight so close to the summit date. As Eisenhower explains in his memoirs, he approved every flight with the fullest understanding of the ‘stern diplomatic consequences’ the United States would face if there was ever a successful downing of a U-2 over Soviet territory.”
Lest I be misunderstood, I have no quarrel with the Air Force awarding Captain Gary Powers the Silver Star on behalf of President Obama even though it was so long after he died in a helicopter crash in 1977, and more than 50 years after the spying flight. If the service believes what Gen Norton A, Schwartz, Air Force Chief of Staff, said about Powers in presenting the Silver Star to his family on June 15, 2012, so be it.
“For nearly 107 days” after his capture, Schwartz said at the award ceremony, “Captain Powers was interrogated and harassed by numerous Soviet secret police interrogation teams. And while he was not being otherwise brutalized, he was held in solitary confinement. And although weakened by lack of food and denial of sleep and mental of constant interrogation, Captain Powers refused all attempts to glean from him sensitive information that would have proven harmful to the defense and the security of the United States.”
As a reporter for Aviation Week & Space Technology Magazine who interviewed Bissell extensively about the U-2 shootdown after the United States and Soviet Union agreed to exchange Powers for Soviet super spy Rudolph Abel in February 1962, I admired Powers’s determination to warn other U-2 pilots that the Soviets had improved their anti-aircraft missiles so they could reach the high flying U-2 spy plane at its assigned altitude. 
Powers had no way of knowing while imprisoned in Moscow that Eisenhower had cancelled further U-2 spying flights in favor of satellite reconnaissance. Powers wanted to warn other U-2 pilots that they had suddenly become vulnerable to Soviet missile attacks. “I had been shot down,” Powers wrote in his own memoir, Operation Overflight, and “I had been at my assigned altitude. Some way I had to get word back to the agency that Russia did have a rocket capable of reaching us.
“In some way,” he wrote on page 157 of Operation Overflight, Powers would “have to get over in the trial” attended by the world’s press in 1960 and presumably monitored by the CIA “that I had been hit at ‘maximum altitude, 68,000 feet,’ hoping the CIA would realize by ‘maximum altitude’ I was flying exactly where I was supposed to when the explosion occurred. For me to say [at the trial] I was flying at my ‘assigned altitude’ would imply the plane could fly higher, which was true.” Powers wanted to warn pilots of future U-2 spying missions that the Soviets had improved their anti-aircraft missiles so they could blow U-2s out of the sky, just like he had been, if the CIA stuck to the altitude where the planes usually flew.
“If I could get that message across, the trial, for all its propaganda value, would have served one positive purpose: it could be the means for saving the lives of other pilots,” Powers wrote in Overflight. At the time Powers was locked up in Lubyanka Prison in Moscow and assumed he would be shot after the trial. He was not thinking of saving his own neck but those of fellow U-2 pilots.
The circus trial began on August 17, 1960. One of the many questions the Soviet prosecutor asked Powers was “at what altitude was your plane when it was struck by the rocket? Powers answered: “It was at the maximum altitude, at about 68,000 feet.” Powers figured CIA monitors of his testimony would know he was higher than that when hit by the Soviet missile because that was his assigned altitude.  “If the agency hadn’t gotten the message by now,” he wrote in his Overflight memoir, “they never would.” Powers had done all he could think of to warn fellow U-2 pilots that they were no longer safe if they stuck to their assigned altitude.


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