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Robert "Bob" Wallace

Robert (Bob) Wallace was interviewed on September 4, 2014 by Leslie McCartney and Karen Brewster at the Captain Cook Hotel in Anchorage Alaska. Bob was one of the keynote speakers at the conference "A Cold War, 2014 Alaska Conference and Nike Veterans Reunion" held in Anchorage, Alaska on September 4 and 5, 2014. In this interview, Bob discusses his 32-year career with the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) from operations officer to Director of the Office of Technical Service where all the gadgets, disguises, false documents, special weapons and covert-communications devices are developed, manufactured and issued to operations officers. He also discusses the shooting down of a Korean airliner by the Russians, the change in technology over his career, coming to Alaska to cold-weather test equipment, and CIA and intellegence activities during the Cold War.

Digital Asset Information

Archive #: Oral History 2014-18-03

Project: Cold War in Alaska
Date of Interview: Sep 4, 2014
Narrator(s): Robert Wallace
Interviewer(s): Leslie McCartney, Karen Brewster
Videographer: Karen Brewster
Transcriber: Sue Beck
Location of Interview:
Funding Partners:
Alaska Historical Commission, Alaska Humanities Forum, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers
Alternate Transcripts
There is no alternate transcript for this interview.
There is no slideshow for this person.

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Working for the CIA in the Alaska region

Responsibilities of the CIA and FBI

Collecting information and cold weather testing of technology in Alaska

Shoot-down of a Korean airliner by the Russians

Working for the CIA and job secrecy

Establishing an identity

CIA offices in Alaska

Role of Alaskans

The U-2 program

Strategic importance of Alaska

Importance of Alaska in the Cold War

Alaskan issues worked on

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LESLIE McCARTNEY: So today is September 4, 2014, and we’re with Mr. Bob Wallace. Thank you very much, Bob, for allowing us to interview you today. And I’m Leslie McCartney and with me is Karen Brewster.

And, Bob, we just wanted to start off a little bit -- maybe you could just tell us a little bit about yourself. Where you were born, education, how you came to be part of the CIA?

BOB WALLACE: I’m a native Kansan. I grew up in Kansas, in central Kansas not too far from where your former late Governor Wally Hickel grew up, so in -- in one sense I -- I -- I feel like there’s already a Kansas connection here.

I went the University of Kansas for my graduate work after doing undergraduate work at Ottawa University, also in Kansas.

Drafted in 1968, and so I spent a -- a year in Vietnam with a long-range reconnaissance patrol ranger unit in Vietnam.

I had gotten a Master’s degree at the University of Kansas before I was drafted, and in 1970 after I was discharged from the Army, at that point when you’re twenty-six years old and just married, you need a job.

And so I looked at a whole variety of possible options or -- or sent applications to a lot of different places for -- for jobs, and the CIA was the one that responded to me.

So after a series of interviews with Central Intelligence Agency and actually a fairly long period of time as they were doing the necessary security checks and all of that, I was offered a job there in 1971.

So from 1971 until 2003, I was a CIA officer. First, an operations officer for about twenty-five years, and then I spent the last seven years of my career with the Directorate of Science and Technology.

Finishing my career as the Director of the Office of Technical Service.

Just to put this in context, the Office of Technical Service is the place in CIA where all the gadgets and disguises and false documents and special weapons and covert-communications devices are developed and made, manufactured, and then issued to the operations officers.

So for the first twenty-five years of my life, I was on the receiving end of what the Office of Technical Service provided. For the last seven years, I was on the end of providing that. So -- so a fascinating and -- and delightful career.


KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah. For the laypeople, all those gadgets and things, that’s the fun part of what we all think of as the CIA.

BOB WALLACE: Yeah. It is really -- again, for those people of my generation, it was the Q, the James Bond Q department of CIA.

LESLIE McCARTNEY: Right. And so in your time there, Bob, had many changes occurred in -- especially in technology? I mean, that’s -- in twenty-five years technology changes, so what changed?

BOB WALLACE: The technology revolution from the Cold War to current times -- and since we're doing this in 2014, we are really in the digital world, a world that largely didn’t exist when I originally joined the CIA. And a world that was only emerging as the Cold War ended in 1989.

I often think that the year 1959 is a key year for espionage technology, because that was the year that a scientist by the name of Kilby developed and patented the integrated circuit.

And the integrate -- the importance of the integrated circuit is underlined by the fact that Jack Kilby was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2000 for that -- that particular technology.

And once the integrated circuit was available, virtually every piece of espionage equipment, communications, listening devices, eavesdropping sensors -- all -- all -- all forms, all of the technologies that are now associated with espionage were radically changed.

LESLIE McCARTNEY: Interesting. So, you had mentioned a little earlier that you were based in Seattle? Is that correct?

BOB WALLACE: Yeah, during my operational days, at times when I was in operations officer, one of my assignments was to the CIA office at that time located in the Seattle.

1981 to 1985 were the years that I was there, so it was still during the Cold War.

And the Seattle office, one of a number of domestic offices the CIA has maintained over the years, part of its responsibility was for the Alaskan -- Alaska region.

So while assigned to Seattle, I had an opportunity to visit Alaska on a number of things, a number of times that -- in support of, again, a variety of -- of CIA requirements and missions.

LESLIE McCARTNEY: And are you free to talk about any of those at this point? BOB WALLACE: Sure. LESLIE McCARTNEY: Okay.

BOB WALLACE: Sure. The CIA’s domestic offices, US -- the US’s offices are responsible -- were responsible at the time for talking with Americans, who by virtue of their business or -- or scientific or commercial work would have access to foreign information that otherwise wouldn’t be accessible to the -- to the government.

This was a result of private contracts or -- or private associations or scientific research that was being done.

And at the time in the early 80s, among a couple of issues that were particularly important for our national security was Arctic issues.

So it was a time when the Arctic -- we had developed, both the Russians -- well, the Soviets -- and the Americans had their nuclear submarine fleets were able now to operate under Arctic ice, so Arctic weather, oceanography, ice conditions, all -- all of those things were of substantial interest to the intelligence community.

Another piece that was of interest at the time was the ability to move oil across Siberia. In -- in fact it -- it was gas -- that the Soviets were developing their gas fields, their Siberian gas fields, and they were -- they were starting to build pipelines across Siberia.

Well, from an intelligence standpoint one of the issues is how -- how do you do that? What are the problems that they’re going to encounter? What are the costs associated with that?

What are the likely issues that will arise? Engineering, technical issues?

Well, the -- we had in Alaska at that time -- the Alaskan pipeline was four or five years old. So that was one of the places in the world where there was actually hard data available for these kinds of questions.

So -- so providing that kind of assistance to the CIA’s analytical people became a matter of great interest.

Commercially on the -- on the economic side we had questions about Russian or Soviet, Japanese fishing fleets and fishing activities operating in -- in the oceans and/or in fact encroaching on -- on US fisheries.

So again, these -- all of these issues became grist if you will, depending on the time and the particular policies that were under consideration.

Information that Americans could provide that supported the -- the CIA’s analytical programs.

KAREN BREWSTER: I was wondering about if there were spies? If you -- like the fishing you mentioned, was there a concern that the Russians -- Soviets were sending people over, you know, posing as fishermen and were spying on the US?

BOB WALLACE: There -- there -- there certainly was a continuing concern. There is continuing concern about spying in the United States.

This is a responsibility of the FBI. Not the -- the counterintelligence in the United States is the responsibility of the FBI, so in -- in that instance, those kinds of questions, the FBI’s special agents would handle that work.

In Seattle and Alaska, throughout the United States, the CIA and the FBI, contrary to sometimes the public perception, at the policy level, at the working level, at the -- at the office level, we each knew what our responsibilities were.

Once in a while there would be information that overlapped, and we -- we made a real effort to trade that information or to exchange that information properly within regulations at the local level.

So -- so I was acquainted with and had the opportunity to work with some very fine FBI agents, special agents in both Anchorage and Fairbanks.

KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah, I didn’t realize there was that distinction. As you say, us in the public don’t quite understand what the two agencies do.

BOB WALLACE: I said I worked for the CIA for thirty-three years, almost thirty-three years, and frequently when I would be visiting with -- my mother would be with me, she would introduce me as, “Well, this is Bob, my son who works for the FBI.” Okay.

LESLIE McCARTNEY: Very funny. BOB WALLACE: That’s -- that’s fine.

KAREN BREWSTER: So along those lines were there CIA officers stationed in the Soviet Union trying to collect information?

BOB WALLACE: The CIA has -- has officers posted around -- around the world.

Their specific postings is a matter that's usually classified, but if one wants to read any of the public press, certainly the CIA had -- had officers in all of the major areas of the world that were of interest to us, yes.

KAREN BREWSTER: I would have assumed during the Cold War, when we were very conscious of what was happening in the Soviet Union, we must have had people secretly stationed there?

BOB WALLACE: You -- you ask an interesting question because there is a diplomatic protocol, written or unwritten I’m not sure.

Countries don’t officially assign spies to other countries. Right? So. But the Soviet -- the Russians, for example -- they had cultural organizations in the United States.

They had their diplomats. They had trade missions. They had journalists. You know.

And all of those functions were, as you have read and seen in a number of press reports, stacked with intelligence officers.

Sometimes the CIA would kind of scratch their head and say, “How -- how can the Russians -- how can the Soviets have so many spies here and we can have so few there?”

LESLIE McCARTNEY: So were you involved in any of the Nike missile sites then?

BOB WALLACE: Yeah. This again in terms of the national security matters in Alaska, the military had their functions. The FBI had their functions. CIA had its functions.

And other -- other than the required coordination, I -- we didn’t have any direct participation with those kinds of defensive military programs.

So, sure we knew the Nike sites were here, we were aware of the DEW-line, we were aware of other types of defensive military installations around Alaska.

We had limited involvement with them.

KAREN BREWSTER: You were here to collect information?

BOB WALLACE: We were on the collection side, yes, not -- not on the defensive side. That’s correct.

KAREN BREWSTER: And did you find coming to Alaska that you were able to collect some useful information that helped with Cold War issues?

BOB WALLACE: Yeah. I had to justify my trips up here. I had to -- Management, they always wanted to know, "Now, you’re not wasting government money. You're not wasting taxpayer funds, are you, by going up to Alaska?"

So -- so in fact we were able to acquire a substantial amount of information.

It was very useful to -- to the agency, both in terms of specific information about what was occurring, as well as providing information to the analytical people about understanding, I mentioned the pipelines -- the pipeline.

And another area that was of particular value was supporting the test and evaluation of spy equipment, technical equipment that we had developed that we would plan to deploy in harsh regions.

So for example, the -- in the late 1970s the Soviet government and the American government agreed that both needed new embassies. And so the Soviets constructed a new embassy in Washington, we were constructing a new embassy in Moscow.

A few years into that construction, we became aware that -- or became suspicious that the Russians, the Soviets, were putting into some of the beams and the columns of the embassy capabilities to do eavesdropping, in the broadest sense of the term, of conversations or communications that would go on when the embassy was occupied.

But we were not quite sure how to prove that. And so a system called a tomographic system, tomographic technology.

A system using that was developed and I came to Seatt -- came to Fairbanks, I believe it was in the winter of either ’70 or ’90 -- excuse me, of ’83 or ’84.

And so we tested that particular technology and that particular system against a variety of structures in Fairbanks in -- in very cold harsh weather.

I like to say we didn’t find any bugs in any of the buildings in Fairbanks, but in fact when the technology was proven and deployed to Moscow, we found that the embassy superstructure, the beams, the columns -- the concrete beams and columns were just riddled with a variety of devices, some of -- some of which we understood exactly what it was designed to do, others we never did understand what it was.

But the United States government as a result of that determined that we had to tear down a substantial portion of the embassy that had been constructed.

And then make all the material in the United States, ship it to Russia,, and thereby putting a lot of Russian contractors, I guess, out of business but they should have known better in the first place.


KAREN BREWSTER: But you tested it in Fairbanks because it was comparable climate conditions to Moscow?

BOB WALLACE: Yes. We were looking for -- for its performance in climatic conditions. That’s right, in harsh climatic conditions.

KAREN BREWSTER: And now were there other things that you did cold weather testing on?

BOB WALLACE: Yeah. Yes. In fact the testing of systems goes back at least until the late 1950s when some of our officers were here testing sensor equipment that eventually went on the Cobra Ball programs,

Cobra Ball airplanes that would fly along the coast of the Soviet Union and collect a variety of signals from either communications or from some of their testing programs.

LESLIE McCARTNEY: So we were interviewing a gentleman last night that used to work on radar, so would you have tried to create new radar systems? Was that part of this, too? Or --

BOB WALLACE: That would have primarily been done or probably exclusively been done by the military, by either the Air Force -- in most cases probably the Air Force, maybe a little bit from the Army.

And then the Navy would’ve had some of its own programs in the ocean, ocean -- ocean-based programs.

So it’s -- it’s kind of important to understand in terms of American intelligence, US intelligence, that each of the various agencies have their particular responsibilities, and while there’s supposed to be good coordination -- and -- and usually there is good coordination, many of those programs, most of those programs are compartmented.

So -- so the CIA may not know or would not know of a Navy program, unless there was some area of potential conflict or coordination that would be necessary.

LESLIE McCARTNEY: Right. You had mentioned the nuclear subs, so any type of sonar or radar to detect those would probably fall under the Navy?

BOB WALLACE: Would -- would in most cases have fallen under the Navy. That's -- that is correct.

KAREN BREWSTER: So you were doing things in the 80s. Did you have any involvement with that friendship flight when we flew over to Russia for the first time sort of after the Cold War?

BOB WALLACE: I did -- I did not. I believe that occurred after I had departed Seattle.

KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah. I think it was '89. LESLIE McCARTNEY: '89. BOB WALLACE: Yes. And so no, I would not have had any involvement in that.

One of the areas that we did during the time I was there, the shoot-down of the Korean airliner occurred, I believe it was -- or was that '83? In that time.

And so, I was working out of Seattle then. And there were -- there were questions because the airliner had stopped in Anchorage before making its onward flight, intended flight to Seoul.

It -- we were very active in trying to understand if there was anything that went on on the ground here or was part -- was part of the operation here that could have been -- that could have been relevant to that shoot-down.

LESLIE McCARTNEY: And what did you find? Or are you free to talk about that?

BOB WALLACE: Well, I think collectively the -- the intelligence community fairly quickly, because of both knowledge of the electronics on the airplane, the avionics on the airplane, and the communications intercepts, that again other agencies rather than CIA were involved with real definitively of what happened and -- and why -- why it happened.

And fortunately, the incident, as serious as it was, didn’t blow up into a full-blown international crisis.

And in that instance, I think American intelligence performed exceptionally well, because a variety of our intelligence organizations brought together the information very quickly.

And I think it allowed our policy officials to determine that this was not a provocative act on the part of the Soviets.

It was a most regrettable and tragic error and reflected perhaps some problems with Soviet command and control in their air defense program.

But it -- it wasn’t an act that was aimed to provoke the United States or a trigger to start a wider conflict.

KAREN BREWSTER: Working for the CIA, did you feel the pressures of the Cold War and this imminent threat from the Soviet Union and that you had to do something to help resolve it?

BOB WALLACE: I think we were always conscious of the importance of what we were trying to do. Maybe it’s personality or maybe it's just you get used to stuff.

I -- I -- I can’t say that I was -- felt great pressure.

I actually -- I -- I felt great anticipation.

Almost as one of those days -- times when every day you would go to work and you’d say, "Well, you know, I might be able to develop some information, or I might have a source, or maybe just something that is really valuable, that’s really useful to the country." And that was -- I got a great deal of satisfaction out of doing that.

You know, you open the newspaper or hear on the radio a story, and you say, "Yeah, you know? I know something about that. Yeah, I was able to contribute to that a little bit."

It was invigorating more than pressure, I would say.

KAREN BREWSTER: And were you -- I assume most of what you were doing you were not able to share with other people at the time you were doing it, so was that difficult?

BOB WALLACE: Well, you shared internally. You know, with your -- with your colleagues. No, I -- I never found that too difficult.

I was fortunately -- I was married, am married, to a wonderful lady who tolerated that easily.

KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah, I say if you met someone at a party could you say I work for the CIA? Or you had a cover you --?

BOB WALLACE: Yeah, there are actually two answers to that -- that question. For part of my career, I could say -- I could say I work for the CIA.

For part of my career, I was undercover so it kind of depended on the circumstances I was in at the time.

I suppose my favorite story on that, if I may, and it actually involves Alaska because it was on one of the flights back from Anchorage down to Seattle.

I was sitting by a very nice lady who, at the time I guess I was in my late -- late thirties. And so, this was a real old lady. She was probably fifty-five.

I can say that now, given -- given my current age.

And she was like my mother. The kind of person you just don’t want to sit by on an airplane, because she wanted to talk.

So anyway, I was -- I was engaging her, and so she was very interested in what I was doing.

Well, you know, a stranger, so I just kinda -- I said I worked for the VA. And she said, “Oh,” she said, “Well, that’s -- that’s interesting.” You know, “What do you do -- what do you do for the VA?” Now, I don’t want -- I -- so I said, “I’m just in a kind of an administrative job.”

And she said, “Well, you know, what kind of administrative job?”

And I said “Oh, you know, it has to do with we’re putting in some new computers and I’m just one of the IT guys in that.”

She said, “You’re just the person I want to talk to! My son’s having an awful time with the VA, and they’re blaming it all on their computer glitches!"

I said, you know. Oh man, you know, this was one of those things when why didn’t I just tell her I was with the CIA, and if I said anything else, you know, I’d have to throw you out of the airplane or something.

LESLIE McCARTNEY: That’s very funny. KAREN BREWSTER: That’s good.

BOB WALLACE: Anyway, the -- the answer to your -- your question is, I was -- in most cases, I was able to say, when it was useful, that I worked for the CIA.

When it wasn’t useful, I did something else.

KAREN BREWSTER: But you didn’t have to make something up on the fly? You had a prearranged story, like, I work for the VA? You knew what to answer?

BOB WALLACE: Well, we had always thought about that, and in the case of the Veterans Administration, I want to be careful since this is going on --

There was no authorization for me to say that. I had, in fact, I just made that up. KAREN BREWSTER: That one you made up.

BOB WALLACE: And I apologize to the VA for doing it. Formally apologize today for doing that. In -- in other instances, yes, there were -- there were official covers assigned to us that not only did we have the cover story we also had cover backing, so you could give the name of an organization and a phone number and --

LESLIE McCARTNEY: And you would have the -- if you needed documents?

BOB WALLACE: If we needed -- if we needed documents, those would be provided.

Interesting, you know, in terms of the world of spying and technology, that was during a period of time when documents established your bona fides.

Today, a document doesn’t establish your bona fides at all. Your -- it's -- it’s established by your presence or lack of presence or what information is about you in -- in the digital media. Internet and other places.

So today if I show you a document, say, this is who I am, the first thing you’re going -- the first thing the recipient is going to do is put that information, you know, in their iPhone or in their laptop and say, you know, is this -- does this person really exist?

So today you have to have not only a physical presence, you have to have a digital presence to be credible.

LESLIE McCARTNEY: And because I’m not American, when we got our green cards, it also has all our biometric information embedded within the cards now. BOB WALLACE: That’s correct.

LESLIE McCARTNEY: So all they have to do now is swipe a card to match up with you.

BOB WALLACE: Yeah. So now if you want to turn that to the other perspective, turn that lens around. If you’re talking about doing a clandestine operation in an alias and a -- in a different identity, think about the complications that are now associated with establishing that and maintaining it.

KAREN BREWSTER: So how many people -- how many officers were there that came up to Alaska during the different time? Like, when you were you here in the 80s, were you the only one coming here?

BOB WALLACE: Yeah. I was -- yeah. Essentially I was the only one coming here. Unless there would be reason to bring an expert or a specialist in -- in some other area. Yep. Yes.

KAREN BREWSTER: So in other time periods it was the same? Do you know?

BOB WALLACE: Well, there was -- there was a time period early in the Cold War when the CIA had an official -- or had a office in an Alaska. It was -- it was a very small office. I don’t think -- it was never larger than four -- four people.

And that was established shortly after the Second World War ended, after the CIA was formed in 1947.

And this -- this was a period of time before there was any satellites, before there were U-2 flights over the Soviet Union.

In fact, the Soviet Union became -- after the Second World War with the descending of the Iron Curtain, a virtually closed society.

And one of the dramatic statements that was made in a presidential review of security, national security, in 1954 was the statement: "We were blind." Or we are blind, I’m sorry. The statement is "We are blind."

So the CIA at the time was trying to develop programs that would allow for some type of infiltration of agents into the Soviet Union, or would there be some kind of a mechanism that in remote areas of the Soviet Union you would have assets, sources, who could report to you.

Again, one has to recall the technology at the time. This was when an international phone call, right, if you could make it, you know, was forty dollars a minute or whatever they -- they -- But in most cases you simply -- you simply couldn’t make it.

So the CIA established an office in -- in Alaska, really with the idea of -- Is there a way that we can infiltrate agents into eastern Siberia, into that part of the Soviet Union, to report back to us?

Or is there a way that we can establish communications with people, potential agents, that live there and have them report to us?

Over the course of the initial years of that, the real story is we never found a way to do it. And -- but then we were able to -- the Americans -- the CIA flew the U-2 in 1956.

And once we were able to begin overflights of target areas, and principally we're talking about military target areas in the Soviet Union, the need for those kinds of possible infiltration operations went away.

Essentially, technology had solved an intelligence problem. And that’s great.

And in fact that’s sort of the history of technology in the last half of the twentieth century for intelligence. Technology began to solve a series of problems that before you had to use human agents to do.

Now human agents remain important in certain other areas, but in things like photography of strategic facilities in the Soviet Union, you didn’t need an agent to do it anymore. Now you could use a -- a satellite.

LESLIE McCARTNEY: I was going to ask you about the U-2 planes, so that was -- Where was the office then in Alaska? Fairbanks? Or Anchorage?

BOB WALLACE: It was -- the specific location of the offices, the CIA continues to be very careful about releasing that -- that kind of information.

But yes, it was in the Anchorage area.

KAREN BREWSTER: At the time. BOB WALLACE: Yes. LESLIE McCARTNEY: Very interesting.

BOB WALLACE: I mean, where else would you put it? Wasilla? It didn’t exist, right? Palmer? Barrow?

KAREN BREWSTER: Well, I know during certain time periods, the use of local residents along the northwestern and western coast of Alaska, because it was the closest to Siberia --

BOB WALLACE: Yes. That’s right.

KAREN BREWSTER: -- was discussed, and there were people used for that purpose.

I don’t know if that was the CIA or that was FBI doing that and how successful that was?

BOB WALLACE: Yeah. There was a recent story within the last week about, I believe this was a naval -- Office of Naval Intelligence -- ONI and the FBI establishing some kind of a stay-behind capability in Alaska.

Again, this would have been a domestic -- this would have been --

The CIA’s focus of its office in Alaska was how do you get people in and out of the foreign territory?

So this would have been probably something that was done for contingency in case there was a Soviet invasion or a hostile invasion of the United States, and CIA would not and was not to my knowledge involved in any of that.

KAREN BREWSTER: So the CIA didn’t look to local people for assistance because you were focused on the other side?

BOB WALLACE: The CIA looked for local people of assistance to allow us to get assets into the other side, but not for assistance to do things in the United States.

KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah. So were the residents of Diomede Island ever utilized since they had connections with the people on -- their relatives on the other side?

BOB WALLACE: I don’t think so. To my -- not to my knowledge that wasn’t the case. There -- there were situation -- one one of the things that we did look at was whether -- we’re talking again in a time before we could overfly the Soviet Union.

Well, we couldn’t put our military aircraft to fly over the Soviet Union because they’d be susceptible to being shot down, right?

But there was a question about could you fly civilian aircraft over targets in the Soviet Union?

And this was looked at with some seriousness with respect to possibly could any of the Alaskan bush pilots operate over Soviet territory?

Well, again technology in this case didn’t help us because of the lack of range of some of those -- of that aircraft and the risk to civilians, to American civilians, should something happen.

For example, if a small plane went down in eastern Siberia, how would you get the pilot out?

LESLIE McCARTNEY: In our preparation for this, in reading -- we were reading that there were rumors that there were Russians spies on the other islands at times during the Cold War. Would your office been involved in knowing that or tracking that?

BOB WALLACE: If -- if you were talking about Russians spies, again, on American territory; that’s the responsibility of FBI. Yeah.

That is the responsibility of the FBI, and any information that we might incidentally have developed along that line would have been immediately passed to the local FBI, and CIA people -- no -- not involved.

KAREN BREWSTER: You remember we talked about the U-2 planes, so can you give us a little bit of the history of that? That was CIA or those were military initiated flights?

BOB WALLACE: The U-2 program was -- The idea of overflying the Soviet Union at a high-altitude, at an altitude above where Russian anti-aircraft defenses could reach, began being discussed in the early 1950s.

And there were -- the issues involved with it were the proper structure, aircraft structure, and also the cameras that would be necessary to take the photography to -- to achieve that.

And two people were particularly important in that development. Three people were really important in the development of the U-2.

One was James Killian, who was the president’s science advisor and president of MIT; Edward Land of Polaroid and people who were developing the camera; and an aircraft designer named Kelly Johnson of Lockheed Skunk Works in California.

And Kelly Johnson came up with the concept of a rocket-powered glider, for lack of a better term.

I mean, essentially that’s a -- a jet glider. And he had -- he had a design for this aircraft that he had talked to a variety of folks about, CIA and the Air Force.

The Air Force had an alternative design of an aircraft that they preferred.

The matter came to -- before the National Security Council and President Eisenhower in late 1954, and Eisenhower said, “Well, I want the CIA to develop that aircraft because -- for a variety of reasons.

One, I want it to be a civilian aircraft. And secondly, the CIA had certain authority to do contracts that the military did not.

So the project was assigned to the CIA. Alan Dulles was the director of CIA, and he had a special assistant by the name of Richard Bissell, who he put in charge of the project.

So it was Bissell, Kelly Johnson and -- were just kind of the project team for that. And the contract itself, I’m told was a one-page contract: Build a -- build an airplane capable of flying at 70,000 feet with certain endurance and --

LESLIE McCARTNEY: And take photographs.

BOB WALLACE: -- and send us the bill. That sort of thing.

And that’s exactly what Kelly Johnson did. They built and tested the first U-2 aircraft in something under twelve months.

And the first, then, operational flight was done on January -- on July 4, 1956. July 4th, Independence Day. Probably wasn’t just randomly selected.

And that was an incredible success. They had photographs of Soviet airfields and Soviet missile sites that had never been before been seen.

And really what the U-2 flights did in the four years that they operated before we had satellites, was confirm that there was no missile or bomber gap -- or no bomber or missile advantage that the Soviets had over the United States.

In fact, it really allowed us to to downgrade the Soviet strategic capability that some had suspected.

Interestingly, the issue never went away. It was an issue in the 1960 presidential campaign: bomber gap, missile gap.

And so sensitive was our overhead photography -- photographic capability, that this information wasn’t known to John Kennedy until very late in the campaign, because Eisenhower said we’re not going to -- we’re not going to use this intelligence as a political campaign matter.

So, kind of fascinating piece of how our national leadership thought about protecting a secret.

LESLIE McCARTNEY: Right. But wasn’t it the U-2's that actually flew over Cuba when the missles --?

BOB WALLACE: Yes. Yes. Now we're going to go forward a couple of years. LESLIE McCARTNEY: Right.

BOB WALLACE: In May of 1960, a U-2 piloted by Francis Gary Powers was shot down by the Soviets. Okay?

When that shoot-down occurred, we then did not fly -- did not operate any U-2 flights over the Soviet Union after that.

We maintained the fleet of U-2s and we overflew a lot of other target areas, including Cuba two years later in 1962.

In fact, the U-2 is still operational. Various iterations of the U-2 over the past fifty years -- sixty years -- fifty years have continued to improve the airframe itself, and it has continued to be --

LESLIE McCARTNEY: So satellites didn’t actually replace them at all?

BOB WALLACE: Well, satellites -- satellites did -- the U-2s could do a different kind of mission than satellites could do.

A simple example is when you put a satellite up, it’s in a certain orbit, right? And so it can photograph things that are below it -- below its orbit.

You can put a U-2 up and if you want to photograph something five hundred miles to the left, well, you know, say -- just give the pilot the command: "Turn left. Fly five hundred miles, and we’ll take that photo." That's a flexibility that satellites don’t have.

KAREN BREWSTER: And now, the flights over the Soviet Union with the U-2, were they all based out of Alaska or only some of them?

BOB WALLACE: Oh, I don’t think any of them were based out of Alaska.

KAREN BREWSTER: Well, I think some flew out of Eielson Air Force Base, didn’t they?

BOB WALLACE: Perhaps they did. Perhaps they did. I -- KAREN BREWSTER: Maybe they were stopping here?

BOB WALLACE: I -- I don’t -- I should not be definitive on that. I don’t know whether they were -- which, if any, were launched out of Alaska.

KAREN BREWSTER: Yeah, and I should correct myself. I also don’t know if they were launched from here or did they stop here for refueling? I don’t know, but I am fairly sure there were at least some seen at Eielson Air Force Base or seen by -- people on the ground around Alaska have seen them fly over.

BOB WALLACE: Okay. I do not want to in any way be definitive on that. I simply don’t know. I have not done that kind of research.

KAREN BREWSTER: Okay. ‘Cause I was wondering about this -- the strategic importance of Alaska. We hear a lot both of the Cold War and now -- about the strategic importance militarily of Alaska.

In terms of the intelligence work, what are your thoughts on that?

BOB WALLACE: I think it is a question that one answers by saying how broad a view do you take of intelligence. If you take the view of intelligence as agent operations, human spy operations, then the focus becomes real narrow.

If you take the perspective of intelligence is every element related to national security, which then becomes defensive, it becomes counterintelligence, it becomes positive intelligence, it becomes photography, it becomes sensors, it -- it involves every -- every aspect of intelligence gathering.

Then Alaska, like many other regions of the United States, plays a very, very important role. Alaska’s unique role is its location, its geographic location.

And to the degree that -- primarily talking about the USSR because that, you know, that’s where Siberia is.

That’s the job. To the degree that the Soviets or the Russians used the eastern Siberia as a point for some of their military activities, then the importance of Alaska just increases dramatically.

The 1950s were important, because if the Soviets were going to strategically attack the United States with nuclear weapons, they probably would have to do it through Alaska or over Alaska. It was logical for them to do it, because that was the shortest route.

And at the time, it would have been very, very hard -- like, you simply -- they didn’t have the reach on their aircraft to fly from interior Soviet airbases into the continental United States.

Some people have asked the question: well, how about a Soviet invasion of Alaska? And I said, "Well, the tsar sold Russia -- sold Alaska for seven million dollars for a reason, didn’t he."

KAREN BREWSTER: They didn't want to come back?

BOB WALLACE: Perhaps if they had been aware of the Prudhoe Bay and -- LESLIE McCARTNEY: Resources.

BOB WALLACE: -- other oil resources in Alaska in the 1940s and 50s, they would’ve been more interested.

KAREN BREWSTER: And I’m sure the importance of Alaska has changed through time. During the Cold War, we were all so focused on the Soviet Union. Nowadays that has been less of our focus. Our focus has shifted to other parts of the world.

BOB WALLACE: Yeah. Indeed it has. The degree to which Alaska becomes that strategic outpost for US security from a military standpoint has to be or is heavily related to the US–Russian Soviet relations.

I keep spinning back between the term Russian and Soviet and just in terms of history demarcation, usually we talk about the Soviet Union until 1989, some until 1991, but after 1991 it becomes Russia because of the breakup of the Soviet Union in those years.

And today in 2014 there are some people are suggesting we are now having a second Cold War. We will see how that spins out in time.

LESLIE McCARTNEY: With the problems in the Ukraine?

BOB WALLACE: Well, problem with Ukraine, the Crimea, the whole question about the Baltics. You know, are there designs on the Baltics? There are -- there are some of the former or the eastern European countries that now have leadership that seem to want to realign with Russia more than with the West.

So it’s a dynamic -- as international relations is always a dynamic area.

I never believe that intelligence is likely to -- to be said -- well, it’s obsolete. We don’t need anymore.

KAREN BREWSTER: Well, I would think some of the work that you do in intelligence is guided by the geopolitics of the world at the time, in terms of where the emphasis is and where they need more information versus someplace else?

BOB WALLACE: Yes. Some argue that in fact our intelligence is too often too heavily driven by whatever the issue of the day might be. So it’s the question when you have an event like 9/11 and the CIA is suddenly -- Well, where are all your Pashtun speakers?

You know, why don’t you have more people speaking Dari? Hey, you know, nobody cared until yesterday.

And that’s -- but that’s just part of the business of this, you know.

You have -- you have the day-to-day political dynamics and then you have the long-term issues, and somehow your intelligence organization has to be able to balance both of those.

KAREN BREWSTER: And you sort of have to be able to predict maybe what’s coming up ahead? Sometimes you guess right and sometimes not?

BOB WALLACE: Yeah. I heard a gentleman who was a futurist speak a couple of months ago, and I thought it was a profound statement.

He said, you know, "I’m a futurist. And people say, well, what’s going to happen in the future? And I have the correct answer. It’s going to be different."

LESLIE McCARTNEY: Is there anything else that you want to contribute about the importance of Alaska in the Cold War in intelligence, before we let you go for lunch?

BOB WALLACE: I don’t know the degree to which it might be important, but I will say that whenever my experience has been the American intelligence organizations, and I’ll speak specifically about the CIA, they have had matters arise that folks in Alaska contribute to.

We have just had the wonderful fortune to engage wonderfully patriotic and helpful people.

And on that score, I think on behalf of the American national security community, we just say thank you.

KAREN BREWSTER: Well, I was sort of going to ask that. Were Alaskans receptive to helping when you came and were asking questions and wanting to collect information?

BOB WALLACE: Yeah. Alaskans were receptive and, in fairness, across America people are receptive if -- when you, you know, outline, “This is the problem, and this is how you can help, and this is why it’s important for you to help.”

And, yeah, it's -- I have just enjoyed -- not only enjoyed, but just been gratified by that kind of response that I received as an intelligence officer throughout my career.

KAREN BREWSTER: And, I don’t know if you can talk about, are there any examples of cases here in Alaska that you came and worked on and people helped you and you solved something you were trying to figure out? Or can you give us a specific? Maybe you can’t?

BOB WALLACE: Well, I referred to two earlier. One was the insight that was given to us relative to the issues related to establishing a pipeline across --

This was incredibly valuable to the folks who were using that information.

In fact, the gentleman who was the director of the office doing that analysis at the time, I saw him two months ago at one of the retiree functions, and he made a point to come over to me and say, "Just wanted to tell you again, you know, how valuable our interaction was with the Alaska people on that program.” So that’s one.

The other that I mentioned was the tomographic system that enabled us to identify with great certainty what was in the embassy building in Russia.

So those are two good examples.

KAREN BREWSTER: And you mentioned fisheries. I didn’t know if there were fishermen here helped you get information about they’d seen Soviet boats in their territory or something like that?

BOB WALLACE: Yeah. The fishing question was more an economic question about how the -- what was happening with the fishing stocks.

What kind of ships were being seen, and trawlers were being seen in the fishing areas. Yes.

LESLIE McCARTNEY: And probably geographic location, too, ‘cause you had mentioned about perhaps Japanese fish coming into American waters.

BOB WALLACE: Yeah, the -- and this -- in the fishing world, you know, there are international fleets, and so it doesn’t really matter in a lot of ways what is -- who the poachers are.

You know, you want to know who they are, and if they're foreign poachers, well, that’s a matter of national economic security.

KAREN BREWSTER: Well, we appreciate your time today. Thank you very much.

LESLIE McCARTNEY: We truly do. We look forward to hearing your talk tomorrow, too.

BOB WALLACE: It was fun to do it. There’s a couple of things maybe you’ll hear repeated.

And I hope there’ll be a piece of information or two that is new. Mostly, I hope it’s entertaining.

LESLIE McCARTNEY: Thank you very much. Thank you.

BOB WALLACE: You’re welcome.