Richard M. Bissell, Jr.
Richard Mervin Bissell, Jr. was an American Central Intelligence Agency officer responsible for major projects such as the U-2 spy plane and the Bay of Pigs Invasion.
Born: September 18, 1909
Died: February 7, 1994
Books: Reflections of a Cold Warrior: From Yalta to the Bay of Pigs
Education: Groton School, Yale University
Recently, with the revelation of Big Bird, I was drawn back to Bob Hilbert’s talk on CORONA and the work of James Baker on the U2 cameras. I added to my collection the U2 book, Skunk Works and a series of books on ITEK and the CIA, otherwise known as CORONA. I could probably spend the rest of the year writing blog posts that spin off this topic, and perhaps I will do a few, but today’s post is to bring your attention to Richard Bissell.
One hardly knows where to begin, other than to conclude that this is a man who saved the world for real, and then fell on the sword, otherwise known as the Bay of Pigs, to protect a president (Kennedy). While he is not the main character in Skunk Works or ITEK and the CIA, he appears in both as THE MAN. I Googled “Richard Bissell” and I thought to myself, I better write this. Other than the results of the obligatory (and useful) multiple references to Wikipedia, I found that the Truman Library (noted above) has a transcript of an oral history recorded with Richard in 1971, and has access to the recording itself.
For those of us who are engineers, here is someone who would be the ideal boss. He had interesting, imperative projects (“please save the world, and hurry”), an infinite budget, literally (“bring the receipts for things over one million dollars”), and no schedule (as in, “simply finish before someone vaporizes the entire planet”). Face it--we love no schedule. Bissell didn’t meddle, he didn’t micromanage, and whatever you needed he would get you one. Simple example of the projects he had: they built a U2 in Burbank in 6-8 months (an entire U2, from scratch!), and an airbase was needed somewhere less public, so he built one… in the Mojave Desert.
So, if you are in need to something to read this summer, I would highly recommend reading Skunk Works and ITEK and the CIA back to back. I’ll try to read Bissell’s book in the meantime, which I just discovered and will order in about an hour and let you know if you need to follow with that.
For those of you that are not from the reconnaissance community, here is a link to the talk that I have started to offer around the country on the CORONA system. It is based on an original true story developed by my former boss and mentor, Bob Hilbert, who passed away somewhat unexpectedly nearly 3 years back. As I note in the talk, this is a program that defines perseverance. The first 13 attempts failed--literally blowing up on the launch pad. One of my favorite stories: they finally get it to go up and come down, and then they deploy the C-130 pickup plane—but in the wrong direction. If you want to add to the astonishment, recall that they didn’t even have color TV yet!
If you want a disturbing story about the failure of group integrity, try reading about the post-Bissell era and the story of why ITEK no longer exists (for all practical purposes), and what Perkin Elmer does near the end of the book ITEK and the CIA. Here you have our heroes, the engineers, taking a stand. No, they will not say they are going to supply a lens with a 120 degree field of view, because they can’t. (Can you say “CANCELLED”?) The engineers at Perkin Elmer, many of whom I know personally, were more clever and never answered that question. The poor leader put on the spot in the last meeting at ITEK really makes you think; was there a better answer to the question other than “NO”?