Stealing secrets from the ether: missile and satellite telemetry interception during the Cold War


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21 January 2015
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Atop a mountain in northeast Iran there sit several buildings and some satellite dishes. What they are doing is not clear, but the Iranians have improved the site and added equipment over the past 15 years, indicating that it is active and probably serves as a post for Iran to intercept signals from American and other satellites. That site is notable for another reason: it used to be a CIA facility known as TACKSMAN. TACKSMAN was established in the late 1950s by the CIA to monitor Soviet missile launches from their Baikonur launch facility in Kazakhstan, the same location where Sputnik and Yuri Gagarin launched into space. It was an important Cold War missile telemetry interception cite. CIA officials sometimes had a knack for applying winking codenames to their projects, and this facility was a classic case, because “tacksman” is a Scottish term for somebody who paid rent to his landlord, usually a clan chief. The United States certainly paid the Shah of Iran for the use of land at his hunting palace, in return for the opportunity to hunt Soviet missiles and rockets.

Now information has come to light on the origin of the TACKSMAN facility as well as other Cold War era projects to gather the faint signals of Soviet missiles and spacecraft as they rose above distant horizons. Throughout the Cold War, the United States operated numerous ground stations around the world as well as aircraft and satellites for collecting these signals, then referred to as telemetry. New information was recently declassified in a two-part official history of American telemetry intelligence collection over 50 years. Combined with other declassified information on American collection systems, it is now possible to put more pieces of the puzzle together and understand this obscure aspect of Cold War intelligence gathering

How the CIA "borrow" a Soviet Rocket stage for few hours...

I broke that story back in 1996 when I wrote about it for Spaceflight magazine. Later I tried to get in contact with one of the Mexican intelligence agents who was involved in the operation, but he was writing a book on it and would not talk to me. There was an article in the MIT magazine about the operation a couple of years ago.

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