In 1963, director of the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency John McCone wrote a memo to Secretary of State Dean Rusk stating that the CIA had obtained “good reproductions” of Soviet satellite imagery.
The memo, recently disclosed, is the subject of a brief article by Steven Aftergood at Secrecy News. The “puzzling” memo “appears to suggest a previously unrecognized capability of the CIA,” Aftergood wrote:
It could mean that the U.S. was somehow intercepting the Soviet images (which seems improbable), or that it was replicating the images through U.S. overflights, or else that it was simply modeling the images based on the presumed capabilities of the Soviet satellites and their orbital parameters.
“At a guess, perhaps the ‘reproductions’ were simulations based on the technical state of the art at the time … and estimates of the camera aperture,” former CIA analyst Allen Thomson told Aftergood. “That would have been easy enough to do and useful as an aid to orient consumers to what might be in the imagery. Or it could just have meant looking at the ground tracks to see what the satellites overflew.”
To be clear, that means that during the 1960s, the CIA in effect “spied” on America — all in order to understand what the Soviets were seeing with their own spy gear.