AUSTIN, Texas -- The United States, lagging behind the Soviet Union in the early days of the space race, obtained valuable information from the 1959 theft of a Soviet satellite by an elite Mexican intelligence unit, a newspaper said today.
Eduardo Diaz Silveti, who is now living Texas, told the Austin American-Statesman he pulled off the secret hijacking in Mexico City while the Soviet satellite was on a world tour.
The satellite was reportedly the backup for Luna 3, the first satellite to photograph the far side of the moon, scientists say.
Silveti, 58, who has remained silent about the incident for 28 years, said the theft was not detected by the Soviets for years and was not reported.
Federal government and NASA officials said they have no knowledge of the incident, which Silveti said he staged in December 1959. Mexican government officials also denied knowledge of the theft, the newspaper said.
The Central Intelligence Agency had no immediate comment.
But Jim Oberg, an engineer, author and expert on the Soviet space program, said he has heard of some aspects of the hijacking and thinks the information obtained was valuable to American officials.
Silveti said he arranged for the satellite to be hijacked and made available to CIA and military intelligence officials who had flown to Mexico City for the operation.
'The beauty of the operation is that the Russians did not realize they had been ripped off or even where it occurred,' Silveti said.
He said he finally went public with the secret because 'itis time the people of the United States and Mexico realize the boost the American space program got from this hijacking.'
Silveti said he agreed to meet with a reporter and share his documents in an effort to promote a book about his exploit, titled 'Hijack,' which flatteringly details the operation.
Silveti told his story to Francisco Perea, an Austin author who recently published the Spanish-language book.
Oberg said he did not know Silveti but said he had knowledge about specific aspects of an operation similar to the one in Mexico city. Oberg said it was likely the satellite would have yielded much valuable information, since so little was known about the Soviet space program.
'Remember that in '58 and '59 nobody knew nothing about the design, the booster, the propellants, the liquid fuels, nothing,' Oberg said. 'We had no idea even about the fundamental aspects of their program. To say that we were concerned was putting it lightly.'
According to Silveti, a tractor-trailer rig carrying the satellite to a train depot was diverted to a lumberyard owned by his brother-in-law.
'Everything that was removeable from the craft was removed,' Silveti recalled. 'Parts of motors, interior components, scraping from the rocket fins, liquids they thought might have been leftover fuel, anything and everything that was of any consequence was stripped and taken.'
All the equipment was made to fit in suitcases and attache cases, which agents transported one at a time to the American embassy compound, he said.
'They began at 6 p.m. and were done by 6 a.m.' Silveti said. 'The work was non-stop, and my units patrolled the grounds constantly.'
He said the area surrounding the lumberyard, which had been closed the preceding week on the pretext of conducting an internal audit, was patrolled by heavily armed Mexican and American agents.
Silveti said the Soviets were caught completely by surprise.
'When they finally discovered what happened, they did not even know which country to protest to,' he said.
Silveti, whose brother, Alberto, served as private secretary and chief of staff to President Adolfo Lopez Mateos from 1958 to 1964, said he carried out covert operations for the CIA until the mid-1960s.
In 1965, incoming president Gustavo Diaz Ordaz labeled Silveti a traitor who sold out to the CIA. Silveti, who has lived anonymously in a large Texas city for the last 10 years, said he does not plan to return to Mexico.