August 29, 2018
Diving deep into the Cold War, Bloomberg News projects and investigations reporter Monte Reel’s thrilling narrative A Brotherhood of Spies explores the masterminds behind the creation of the U-2 spy plane, while addressing how science and technology transformed espionage that’s currently used today.
I spoke with Reel about Brotherhood, his third book, and how the U-2 plane changed the spying landscape for America.
What motivated you to write A Brotherhood of Spies?
When I first started researching the U-2 plane I had no plan to write a book, but the story of the characters, Edwin Land, Richard Bissell, Kelly Johnson, and Gary Powers were the hook.
None of them started out in the spy world, but they were all drawn into the U-2 project and their lives were each thoroughly transformed by it.
The U-2 project itself changed the scale and the nature of the CIA, and ultimately it turned it into a much larger intelligence agency with a much broader scope.
Learn more about A Brotherhood of Spies
Did you apply your Bloomberg News skills to writing the book?
I write mostly long-form narrative features, so the things that I’m encouraged to do at Bloomberg — expressing ideas clearly, in a way that hopefully engages readers — translates almost directly into writing a book. For example, how I write a chapter of a book isn’t a whole lot different than how I would write an article for Businessweek.
How did the Army-McCarthy hearings intensify the Cold War?
During the Red Scare, a byproduct was a real suspicion toward scientists. People like Joseph McCarthy and others who were sensitive to communism looked at the scientists of America and saw them as threats.
This fits into the book because Edwin Land, who worked on the U-2 plane, was a close friend and colleague to many of those who were being discredited. There was tension between science and the government.
In this story, both parties have to work together, which was very problematic from the start.
Hear Monte Reel read from A Brotherhood of Spies:
Who was Joseph Alsop?
Joseph Alsop, a journalist, was probably the most vocal proponent of the “missile gap” and the “bomber gap” ideas, which suggested that America was falling behind the Soviet Union in the arms race. The bomber gap, for example, was the concept that the Soviets were producing more long range bombers than the U.S. was, and that these planes could easily reach our shores to deliver nuclear bombs.
Alsop wrote one of the most popular and powerful political columns in the country, which was syndicated in more than 200 newspapers. He was also a childhood friend of Richard Bissell, who became the head of the U-2 program. As it turned out, the U-2 program is what exposed the bomber gap and missile gap as being, essentially, fictions.
What was unconventional about the U-2 spy program?
Pretty much everything. Before the U-2, the U.S. relied on humans to go into the Soviet Union and gather information. Unfortunately for the U.S., they weren’t getting a lot out of it.
The U-2 was an effort that was designed by the Eisenhower Administration to use technology for espionage. The characters in this book came up with the idea of putting a camera in the sky higher than missiles could reach and basically collecting the sort of information that humans on the ground were not getting. It introduced technology into spying in a transformational way, caused a major reboot of the CIA, and eventually led to spin-off programs, such as the spy satellite program.
What was significant about Eisenhower lying to the U.S.?
When the U-2 was shot down in 1960, initially the White House told the public that the U-2 was actually a weather plane taking atmospheric readings and the pilot must have passed out and floated into Soviet territory.
But when the Soviets surprised the U.S. by saying they’d captured the pilot of the plane, Eisenhower had to backtrack and admit the lie. This was the first time that a U.S. president had to acknowledge that he’d lied to the American people, and it was also the first time a president had to explain that the U.S. spied on other countries.
The reaction in the American press was very interesting in the way it was handled. There was a lot of hand-wringing, and some newspaper editorials argued that the U.S.’s reputation of occupying the moral high ground in international affairs might be damaged by the incident. One concrete result of the controversy was that a planned summit between Eisenhower and Khrushchev essentially collapsed after all of this.
Learn more about A Brotherhood of Spies
Who was Francis Gary Powers?
The U-2 plane was a piece of technology designed to spy, but of course you needed a human to fly it. Powers was one of the best Air Force pilots at the time, which led to the CIA recruiting him. When he started, he had no idea what he was getting into.
Eventually he became the top pilot for the U-2 and was flying more missions than anyone else over the Soviet Union. It was something that really changed his life. He was a newlywed at the time and his secrecy with the U.S. government essentially destroyed his marriage.
Why was Edwin Land so important?
The U.S. government turned to Edwin Land for ideas on how to use technology for espionage. At this time, he was very famous as one of the most successful inventors in America. He created instant photography, the Polaroid Corporation, and more.
Land was a household name and was a driving force of the team that came up with the technological innovations for cameras, lenses, and even the aerodynamic components.
For the U.S. government, Land was considered an all-purpose genius. During World War II he created all sorts of things — new sights for tanks, and even Polaroid goggles for dogs that were guarding beaches in Europe. At the end of the day, he was considered a super scientist and was the father of the U-2.
What should readers take away from Brotherhood?
I hope that they see this as an origin story that shows how the CIA became the agency it is today.
Beyond that I want them to get lost in the story. More than anything, this is a story of individuals and this is a drama on how these big events affected the people who were at the heart of it all.
Learn more: A Brotherhood of Spies
Read more: Monte Reel’s stories on Bloomberg.com