Sunday, January 1, 2012

For Jan. 5 discussion: After decades of secrecy, spy program becomes public

Photo: Fred Marra, left, listens as Bob Zarba describes the camera operation of the Hexagon KH-9 secret spy satellite in Danbury, Conn. They have been meeting here for 18 years, whiling away a few hours nattering about golf and politics, ailments and grandchildren. But, until recently, they were forbidden to speak about the greatest achievement of their professional lives. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

You've seen groups like them a hundred times: old guys huddled around the table at Burger King, nursing coffee and talking to each other in hushed tones. Maybe they quieted down when you sat down in the next booth.

Were they yakking about politics, or about how badly the local high school football team played last night? Maybe. Or maybe they're remembering all those secret spy satellites they built back in the '70s?

Associated Press reporter Helen O'Neill found a group of men who did the latter. After more than three decades, they told her about their formerly-classified work. O'Neill writes:
It was dubbed "Big Bird" and it was considered the most successful space spy satellite program of the Cold War era. From 1971 to 1986 a total of 20 satellites were launched, each containing 60 miles of film and sophisticated cameras that orbited the earth snapping vast, panoramic photographs of the Soviet Union, China and other potential foes. The film was shot back through the earth's atmosphere in buckets that parachuted over the Pacific Ocean, where C-130 Air Force planes snagged them with grappling hooks.
The scale, ambition and sheer ingenuity of Hexagon KH-9 was breathtaking. The fact that 19 out of 20 launches were successful (the final mission blew up because the booster rockets failed) is astonishing.
So too is the human tale of the 45-year-old secret that many took to their graves.
The writing in this piece is strong, although there are some spots where it could have been better (I'll share my opinions in class; you can do so as well, or post them here). I'd also like you to consider these questions: What makes this story newsworthy? If you were looking for a story like this, where would you go? O'Neill includes some detailed descriptions - what do they add to the story? Which ones did you like the most, and why?


  1. The very first comment by on the article does a good job describing why this is in fact news:

    "Whether or not this is technically news, I'd far rather have this on the front page than some Kardashian crap. Good story."

    Other comments portray similar views on the piece. This is relevant and is considered news because it has a human interest aspect. People care about things that are or were secret and stories like this will get read. I think the author did an excellent job speaking with both people who worked in the secret plant and a wife of someone who had to deal with all of the secrets.

    As a journalist I have usually been told to avoid detailed descriptions of the interview, but I think they add depth in this case.

    I also enjoyed that the story did go in depth but was not too long. Some in-depth pieces are simply not read because of their daunting length.

  2. This story is considered newsworthy because has such a strong human interest pull to it. The lead nails it by attracting the reader with pure curiosity to know 'The Secret'.

    The details about the wives and family life really attracted my attention. Some people may not be as interested in the spy world, but most people have a family and can relate to that aspect of the story. I also liked the part that talked about their daily normal lives today, this reminds that readers that these are real people and that this very same secret situation could be occurring today.

    This story was just long enough to give me the information I was looking for but not too long to lose my attention.

  3. This was a GREAT article. I love war and espionage... the CIA/FBI. All of it. That aside, everything in that article flowed and came together to the very last two sentences, "What a secret. And what a legacy."

    I think that the sheer enormity of purpose and impact that this had on our country during the Cold War, though no one knew of it, is enough to make this newsworthy. So many from that generation are dying and a million secrets and stories along side them. Having access now to this information is huge for our generation to appreciate those that did such hard work before us.

    The descriptions were interesting because they play on our society's love for espionage secrecy. "The mushroom tank" draws the reader in because of the drama and the emphasis put on a life of secrecy just makes everybody hungry to know more.

  4. The first paragraph does a great job pulling you in and leaving you wanting to know more. "For more than a decade they toiled in the strange, boxy-looking building on the hill above the municipal airport, the building with no windows (except in the cafeteria), the building filled with secrets." As soon as I read it I instantly needed to know more about "the secrets."

    This story is newsworthy because of the amount of people that it impacts. Even if you weren't alive during the Cold War you can relate to this story. Imagine your father or grandfather being part of something for decades and never being able to speak about it. It is crucial for people to be aware that many things go on around the world that may never be openly spoken about.

    It makes me wonder how many secret operations such as this one are going on today...perhaps in a nearby location. It is important to remember that their secrecy was to protect the American people. I agree with Alex, the story was just the right length.

  5. I think that this article is newsworthy because it impacts many people and is just an interesting piece in general. It makes you question what is really going on behind closed doors and what we aren't being told. As I was reading this story I couldn't help but picture my dad, an engineer for over twenty years, working on some kind of government secret.

    I really enjoyed the personal details that O'Neill added to this story. It gave the piece emotion and depth that it wouldn't have had otherwise. The details give you great visuals of these then young men working on such a high level project and their families that were constantly kept in the dark.

    It was an interesting and overall good story that put a smile on my face.

  6. I enjoyed this article from the start because it hooked me right at the beginning by leading me into this huge secret I had no idea about. It wasn't a boring lead with facts being listed one right after the other. Instead, the facts were unbiased and received by the reader in a timely fashion. Not only was the information fascinating pertaining to the secret spy satellites in the Cold War, but it was relevant since Hexagon was just exposed in September.

    "And though they worked long hours under intense deadlines, sometimes missing family holidays and anniversaries, they could tell no one — not even their wives and children — what they did."

    It's miraculous to me that the old men involved in the creation of the satellites were sworn to secrecy for so long for the greater good of the United States. Not being able to tell even your wife of the hard work and effort put into the mission seems like a terrible sacrifice. it's hard to believe the men were more loyal to their job than their family.

    This article makes me wonder about other secret organizations and projects happening around the United States and other countries, but I thought the ending of this piece was perfect. Simple and beautiful but right down to the point, "What a secret. And what a legacy." It ties all the information about the satellites, people, and lies together in something to be proud of.

  7. I found this article very fascinating. I am currently reading about the effects of the Cold War in my International Relations class, so I decided to look at this article, and I'm glad I did.

    I admired the vocabulary used in this piece, especially the word, "toiled" used in the beginning. I haven't seen that word used in an article before, and it is very captivating. I also liked how Al Gayheart described building satelittes as "white-hot excitement." That phrase definitely painted a picture in my head, and I could imagine what the atmosphere must have been like.

    This story was definitely newsworthy, because it dealt with secrets of the Cold War. The Cold War was an important historical event. I don't know how I would react if many years later, my husband told me that he worked on a secret governmental operation and couldn't tell me what it was about until now.

  8. This story is very newsworthy because it appeals to all generations of Americans. From the workers who kept the secret for years to high school students just learning about the Cold War, it definitely has an appealing nature that makes it a worthy article to read. I think this piece was written successfully because of all the different sources that were pulled, from the numerous interviews of the people involved to public government documents and historical events.

    The story is definitely considered news because it affects so many people, since a majority of the American population lived through the Cold War. It also has a human interest appeal just by using the word "secret," as people are immediately drawn to a mystery. I thought the strongest part of the piece was the opening because it talked about how long this secret was kept, which made the reader want to keep reading and find out the details of this secret that protected our nation.

  9. I found this article intriguing. I mean, who couldn't? War and espionage are always fascinating subjects to read about. That, in itself, made this article newsworthy to me. It could be the reason the headline is lacking information. I would assume that most people's eyes are caught by the sensory words "Cold War" and "secret."

    The author does a good job of telling a story while introducing new information by adding history and great quotes. She also does a good job of gathering multiple sources from witnesses, family, and experts on the subject.

    She uses a lot of adjectives, which I find odd for an Associated Press story, but seeing that the article is featured on Yahoo! I can understand. Yahoo! stories are often laced with descriptions which are the mark of the website's brand and make the stories fun to read.

    I do not care for her repeated use of dashes to set off independent clauses and think that if she used more appositives to do this, the piece would have still flowed and not seemed as chopped up. It would also have made the more important stuff -- which dashes are meant for -- read with more emphasis.

    I really like the last quote she used. It tied the mood of the story together well which leaves younger readers with a sense of mystery while hopefully offering older readers a sense of nostalgia.

  10. The detailed imagery O'Neill used made the article really captivating for me. The contrast at the beginning between the men wearing "protective white jumpsuits" in the "air shower chambers" in the past and their current meetings simply drinking coffee at the mall was especially striking.

    I also thought her use of quotes to introduce background information was great. By having Ed Newton begin with, "Ah, Hexagon," it gives the reader of sense of diving into his own memory about the job instead of stating impersonal facts.

    Overall, the article was very successful because she really brought out the experiences of old men and their families, and it felt like hearing a story from an old relative.

  11. What makes this article news worthy? Everything. A mission that "successfully launched 19 out of 20 satellites that took picture of other countries that were considered the enemies" is non other than amazing. And the fact that this went on for so long without anyone finding out is incredible. I can't get over the fact that over 1,000 people worked on this operation and not one outsider new about it for 45 years.

    The O'Neill wrote the article really gave it a homey feel that grabbed my attention and help me through the entire article. It was a style of writing Journalists need to use more often. People like reading things that have a lot of description in it. It allows the reader to engage in the story and visualize what was actually going on in the 40 some years of secrecy.

    "They wore protective white jumpsuits, and had to walk through air-shower chambers before entering the sanitized "cleanroom" where the equipment was stored."

    "They spoke in code."

    "Few knew the true identity of "the customer" they met in a smoke-filled, wood-paneled conference room where the phone lines were scrambled. When they traveled, they sometimes used false names."

    These four sentences set the mood perfectly and paint a clear picture for the reader. These sentences grab the readers attention and make them read in awe.

    I enjoyed this piece very much and it's something I will share with my family. This is a story worthy of the newspapers and TV channels, this is what people want to hear.

  12. Hard to say, really, what makes this news, beyond the fact that this story is only just now known. Because, really, at best, this information and the story of these guys building a spy satellite affects those who lived in that time period and can relate to the aura of the Cold War, and, more specifically, it affects those who were involved in the project. Really, though, this is more history than news.

    That doesn't mean I think it's not relevant or important to our time--if anything, it let's us know that if something like that was going on back then, it must also be going on right now, something incredibly complex and secret that may only be revealed decades later. What I liked best about the story was the way its characters were fully realized. We never get into the personal lives of these people--never really learn about how their childhood was, what their early dreams were, etc--but I could still see these guys very clearly. Just normal men doing something for their country, something that ultimately had a huge impact on their lives. The little details about each man added a human element to the story.

  13. I was disappointed in this story. I thought it was a really interesting topic and the introduction sparked my interest even more. I thought it should have been a little longer with more information in it.

  14. I enjoyed how the author painted a picture in our minds of the old men meeting over coffee at Burger King. I appreciated the graphic, situational text where I could easily relate to the situation he was describing.

  15. Although this story is based on something that happened years ago, I still found it newsworthy because it was an interesting read and brought out new information that many people did not know about the Cold War.

    I love how the author started the story, with a bit of mystery and detail, wondering what the secret could be. I also loved that most of the interview was included in the article because it allows the readers to get an understanding of the impact this mission had on the engineers lives and families.