Wednesday, 12 December 2012 22:38

Oswald and the U2 Program: A Second Look and Yet Another Fascinating Coincidence

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Right about the time that Lee Harvey Oswald joined the Marines, the CIA ... reached the conclusion that they needed a new plane that would far exceed [the U2]. ... it makes sense that the CIA would want to ... take the knowledge that the U2 is most likely going to get hit at some point and build a counter-intelligence mission around it. Oswald may have been a part of such a mission, reasons Mark Prior.

It was never my intention to write an article or research paper related to the assassination of President Kennedy. My interest in the subject matter arose like many in the younger generations-from Oliver Stone's JFK. I had first seen the film in the late 1990s on cable TV and just a few years ago when a friend had it on DVD. Like most of us who become more actively interested in politics and our government when we get older, I found myself drawn into the case. I wanted to know more, and picked up what many thought to be one of the better books on the JFK assassination. I started my quest with James Douglass' JFK and the Unspeakable and then followed up with John Newman's Oswald And The CIA. Since then, I've read well over a dozen books on the assassination and biographies of people connected to it. I know, only a drop in the bucket compared to serious researchers. Now maybe I never got around to the right books, but it seemed to me that few authors actually went into Oswald's real motives for traveling to the Soviet Union in 1959. Those who believe Lee was on a mission for the U.S. Government (I'm one of them) think that he was some kind of counter-intelligence “dangle.” But WHY? The motive for those who assigned him the mission was something of great interest to me. Why would a person or persons in our military/intelligence community risk even the slightest chance that Oswald, if at worst tortured, could give up what he really knew?

121611 francis gary powers 500
Gary Powers at trial with model U2

According to his testimony before the Warren Commission, Oswald's former commanding officer Lieutenant John Donovan stated that Lee at the very least knew radio call signs, logistics and strengths for all squadrons; authentication codes to enter protected airspace; and the range for all radar stations. Not much could be done about changing the range of radar or reallocating fighting capabilities, but according to Donovan all of the the radio call signs and authentication codes had to be changed after it was learned that Oswald defected. The man hours invested and money spent to make the appropriate security changes would have been extremely costly, and Oswald's handlers would have had to have know this from the outset.

Any reasonable person can acknowledge that a proper intelligence mission is mostly likely not a spur-of-the-moment decision run by a man who shows up at your Marine Corps barracks and says, “I'm from the CIA. Who wants to volunteer to go to Russia?” So again, knowing that you have some pretty meticulous planners at your disposal, I asked myself why would the CIA send anyone to the Soviet Union considering the costs? Now some think that Lee was part of a plan by hardcore cold warriors to undermine relations between the United States and the Soviet Union. That could very well be. But at the time of Oswald's defection, there would only have been a chance that the info he possessed would be capable of helping the Russians down a U2. Most assuredly, only certain CIA personnel connected to the U2 would have had access to the U2's specific transponder frequency and tracking equipment; not a Marine unit which would only need to know enough to prevent other planes from crashing into a U2 while it was taking off and landing.

So the real question is: if you are a calculating SOB who wants to subvert the effort of America and Russia to make nice, would compromising your home defenses be really worth only a small chance that you might poo-poo the meeting between Eisenhower and Khrushchev? After all, there was always the slim but possible chance that even with a downed U2 that the two leaders could push ahead and make amends. So would that narrow, short-term goal be worth compromising your country's defenses? I wasn't convinced.

I wanted to know more about the U2 program at the time of Oswald's defection. I wanted to take the assassination out of the equation and really look at what was really happening with the spy plane people thought was “untouchable.”


Interestingly enough, an extensive history of the U2 program comes from an unlikely source...the CIA itself. Available as a free download on the CIA's website [see end notes] is the book, The CIA and the U-2 Program. The book is a fascinating read, partly because of the redactions. In 1992 it was originally published for Agency personnel only, and even held a security classification of SECRET. The 1998 version was made available to the public with redactions eliminating common sense things like the names of pilots, temporary U2 bases, and names of key personnel, among other things. Any researcher of the Kennedy assassination is used to this, but I suppose that's the charm of the subject matter. Regardless, the book reveals a side of the U2 that most people never knew. Most people are aware that Gary Powers' U2 was shot down over the Soviet Union on May 1, 1960, but I don't think anyone ever gave it a thought how close the Russians had come to downing a U2 before then. Pretty darn close actually.

On Wednesday, July 4, 1956, the U2 known as Article 347 began the first overflight over the Soviet Union [1]. Before the U2 even took to the skies, project director Richard Bissell had estimated that the U2 could fly over the Soviet Union undetected for at least two years [2]. Although the Russians didn't understand what exactly was flying over them at 70,000 feet, their radar was still able to track the mystery object. The Soviets were so preoccupied with missiles, rockets and the “space race”, that they overlooked the ability to dominate the atmosphere we reside in, but they adapted quickly.

The plane thought invisible to radar was repeatedly tracked, and the Russians threw everything they could at the high flying planes. Although the U2 could be tracked, it was relatively out of harms way...for a while. When the first U2 flights began, the Soviet technology just could not account for a plane flying at such a high altitude. Surface-to-air-missiles didn't have a 70,000 foot range at the time, and the maximum altitude for their intercepting aircraft, the MIG-15 and MIG-17, topped out at only 55,000 feet [3]. However, the next generations of MIG raised the hair on the back of the necks of many U2 pilots beginning in 1957. MIG-19s and MIG-21s were capable of reaching a cruising altitude of 65,000 feet, and while 10,000 feet still sounds like a nice buffer it was most definitely not the case. The following is an excerpt from The CIA and the U-2 Program :

The Soviet technique that most concerned U2 pilots was the “snap up” or the power dive and zoom climb. In this maneuver, ground-based radar operators would direct the intercepting aircraft along the same flight path as the U2. When the MIG pilot achieved the same compass heading as the U2 flying more than 10,000 feet above him, he would put his aircraft into a shallow dive to pick up speed, apply full throttle to the engine, then pull back on the stick and zoom as high as he could. In this manner the Soviet pilot hoped to come up directly beneath the U2 so he could use his guns and missiles against the shiny U2 etched in silver against the dark blue-black of space. Using this maneuver, some MIGs were able to climb as high as the U2 but seldom got very close....U2 pilots often spotted MIGs that reached the apex of their zoom climbs and then fell away toward the Earth. The U.S. pilots' greatest fear was that one of the Migs would actually collide with a U2 during a zoom climb [4].

Lockheed and the CIA tried everything they could to get the edge back for the U2 squadron. Project Rainbow (the navy's effort to render ships invisible to radar) was even applied to no avail [5]. The added weight of the radar-absorbing material cost the nick-named “dirty birds” 1,500 feet of maximum altitude with no noticeable decrease in the Soviet ability to track the planes. In the end, the only improvement which had any positive impact in inhibiting the Russians from hitting the U2 was one of the cheapest fixes possible...a coat of paint. In late 1957 All U2s were coated with a blue-black paint that would camouflage them against the background of space [6]. But for the “untouchable” spy plane, the writing was printed very neatly on the wall.

It is at this time that the destiny of the U2 program crosses paths with Lee Harvey Oswald. In 1957 the 17 year old Marine was just coming out of boot camp right about the time that the MIGs were getting close to the U2. Several authors and researchers have cited Marines who served in Oswald's Marine Corps unit stationed at Atsugi, Japan and they recall describing the aircraft with its blue-black paint job. But before we can fully appreciate what potential role Oswald may have had in any intelligence operation, we must look at the mindset of the decision makers at the CIA. There would be a solid two years before Lee Harvey Oswald showed up at the U.S. embassy in Moscow, and a lot would happen in the interim.


The CIA knew that the U2's days were numbered from its first missions in 1956. Only a few months later, towards the end of summer, discussions began with several aviation companies about a successor aircraft to supersede the current spy plane; this endeavor was designated GUSTO [7]. In the fall of 1957, and after MIG pilots began to perpetually give U2 pilots close calls, the Agency realized that they had to move quickly and set up a committee to evaluate the proposals from several aircraft contractors. The bar was set pretty high by Clarence “Kelly” Johnson of Lockheed:

It makes no sense to just take this one or two steps ahead, because we’d be buying only a couple of years before the Russians would be able to nail us again….I want us to come up with an airplane that can rule the skies for a decade or more. [8]

The specifications proposed by Johnson were staggering: a top speed over Mach 3 with a cruising altitude of 90,000 feet. To put the speed in perspective, that's as fast as a high-powered rifle bullet. Although Lockheed took the lead, other contractors presented proposals, and the “Skunkworks” faced stiff competition from the Convair aircraft company, which was already developing a supersonic bomber for the Air Force. Lockheed nicknamed their project “Archangel” which was a play on their working title for the U2, “Angel.” Conversely, the Convair project became know as “Kingfish.” For the next 19 months numerous proposals were presented to and rejected by the evaluation committee. Once Kelly Johnson stated that this plane should “rule the skies for a decade or more,” no one wanted to settle for anything less.

The two firms submitted what would be their final designs to a selection panel with members from the Department of Defense, Air Force and CIA on August 20, 1959 [9]. The Convair Kingfish and the Lockheed A-12 (Archangel-12th version) were the two most advanced aircraft designs ever conceived. After little over a week, the committee chose the A-12 on August 29th [10]. Project GUSTO had come to an end. The new program to further develop and build the A-12 became project OXCART.

An interesting curiosity arose from OXCART. Say the phrase “A-12” to anyone with even the mildest interest in aviation and you'll probably get a blank look. But if you show them a technical drawing of the A-12 from 1959, those same people will recognize it instantly as the SR-71 Blackbird. The plane designed in the late 50s and built in the early 60s lived up to the vision of the man who created it. To this day, there is no aircraft (that we know of) that has even come close to achieving the marks which the SR-71 set in the 1960s.


Right about the time that Lee Harvey Oswald joined the Marines, the CIA was not only concerned about the vulnerability of the U2, they reached the conclusion that they needed a new plane that would far exceed it. I think it would be reasonable to believe that Bissell, Cabell and Dulles thought that it would be only a matter of time, as of 1957, when the Soviets would be able to down the U2 and then down it again. Follow that train of thought, and it makes sense that the CIA would want to milk the U2 program for everything it could. Take the knowledge that the U2 is most likely going to get hit at some point and build a counter-intelligence mission around it. There was plenty of time to develop assets for the operation while the numerous project GUSTO proposals were being evaluated, over a period of 18 months in fact. And there is circumstantial evidence to support that project GUSTO was the foundation for the possible counter-intelligence operation that Oswald may have been a part of.

When you line up the dates of GUSTO with Oswald's timeline, some incredible coincidences occur. Oswald filed for his dependency discharge from the Marine Corps on Monday, August 17, 1959. The final proposals by Convair and Lockheed were presented to the evaluation committee only three days later, on Thursday, August 20th. The committee made its choice for the new aircraft on Saturday, August 29th, and the order for the new plane was placed with Lockheed. Five days later on Thursday, September 5, Lee Oswald was detached from his unit and transferred to company headquarters until his discharge was finalized. The next day, Oswald applied for his passport which he received a week later on Thursday, September 10. Passport in hand, the Marine Corp dutifully discharged the CI operative to begin his clandestine mission.

The prospect of Oswald offering limited information about the U2 (a plane which the CIA knew to be already compromised) to the Soviets in hopes that they would accept him as a genuine defector and possibly entrust him with state secrets, thisnow seems a more plausible objective. Some authors offer evidence that there was a leak in the U2 program from the beginning. If there was any mention of that in The CIA and the U-2 Program, it was hidden behind the redactions or contained within the pages which have been removed entirely. But this author is of the opinion that since the Soviets were able to track the U2 from its first missions, suspects for those leaks would not have included Lee, as he was only 15 when the first overflights began. However, that is not to say the peripheral part of his mission would have been to root out the U2 mole. Regardless of Oswald's mission/objective/goals, the U2 was already on its way to being replaced as of August 29, 1959 when the order for the A-12 was placed with Lockheed – two months before Lee set foot in the U.S. Embassy in Moscow.

Still, the potential for a continuous and long-term yield of information filtered through Oswald as an inserted asset would be worth the short-term sacrifice of changing call signs and code names which we discussed earlier. The value of the continuous intelligence he possibly could provide surpasses the value of possibly debunking relations between the U.S. and Russia. Which is something that the rightwing Cold Warriors like Allen Dulles, Bissell, and Jim Angleton would want to do anyway. That may be my opinion, and a value judgment which may reflect differently among different researchers. But to my knowledge, I have offered here new information about the quite finite lifespan of a spy plane which, in most of the literature, was considered invincible. It turns out, that this was far from the case. Therefore, having Oswald offer up any secrets to it as a counter-intelligence ploy would not have been as costly as first imagined. Since, as noted above, when Oswald was being discharged, the order for the A-12 was being first sent to Lockheed.

I will be the first to admit that this is speculation on my part. And to quote one of my favorite authors, John Newman, “...I might be wrong, or a little wrong, or, perhaps right.” However, in the Kennedy case, coincidence is so commonplace that it is attributed to the M.O. of the CIA. Nevertheless, I encourage anyone reading this to do their own research and decide for themselves.


1) “The CIA and the U-2 Program” by Gregory Pedlow and Donald Welzenbach, 1992 (declassified 1998) p.104 (note: if links do not work, copy the link and paste it into your browser for best results.)

2) Ibid, p.148

3) Ibid, p.148

4) Ibid, p.148-149

5) Ibid, p.129

6) Ibid, p.149

7a) "Archangel: CIA's Supersonic A-12 Reconnaissance Aircraft” by David Robarge, 2007 (note: if links do not work, copy the link and paste it into your browser for best results.)

7b) Robarge, From Drawing Board to Factory Floor (note: if links do not work, copy the link and paste it into your browser for best results)

8) Ibid

9) Ibid

10) Ibid

Last modified on Saturday, 19 November 2016 19:38

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