In my book One Minute to Midnight, I touch on a provocative question that relates to both the Cuban missile crisis and the run-up to the war in Iraq: Did the intelligence people tell the president what they thought he wanted to hear?
In some ways, the Cuban case was the mirror opposite of the Iraq case. In Iraq, the Bush administration were intent on showing that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction -- and lo and behold, the CIA produced the “evidence,” much of it fabricated, that helped prove the case. In Cuba, the intelligence agency helped the Kennedy administration fend off Republican charges that it was turning a blind eye to the installation of nuclear weapons on Cuba.
It was only on October 15 -- when it received incontrovertible photographic evidence of Soviet duplicity -- that the agency finally reversed its estimate that the Soviet Union was not shipping nuclear missiles to Cuba. With congressional elections looming in November, President Kennedy succeeded in keeping a tight lid on any intelligence information that conflicted with the administration’s official position.
After my book appeared in 2008, I had the opportunity to ask the then-CIA director, General Michael Hayden, about the politicization of intelligence, in both the Cuba and Iraq cases. Not surprisingly, he defended the honor of his agency. He attributed mistaken analysis not to political pressure, but to a very human tendency to pay too much attention to conventional wisdom.
Explaining his point, he noted that the Soviets had never deployed nuclear missiles outside eastern Europe, prior to 1962. Analysts erroneously assumed that this status quo would continue to prevail. In the case of Iraq, analysts were swayed by the fact that Saddam Hussein did have a vigorous WMD program up until the first Gulf War in 1991. The analysts assumed that he was still developing WMD.
I think there is some truth in this explanation, but believe that politicization was also a factor. Political interference with the intelligence community operates in subtle ways. The overwhelming majority of analysts at the working level are non-political and highly professional, but they are also attuned to the demands of their bosses. Information and analysis is selected and filtered as it passes upwards through the ranks. The desire to supply the White House with information that will help the president build a political case can generate misinformation.
It is not only the American public that is fooled in such cases, it is also the commander-in-chief and his closest advisers. As Bobby Kennedy later remarked about the deployment of Soviet nuclear missiles to Cuba, “we had been fooled by Khrushchev, but we had also fooled ourselves.”
In my last blog post, I asked how the Kremlin was able to fool the CIA about the nature of its military assistance to Cuba during the summer of 1962. U.S. intelligence estimated Soviet troop strength in Cuba at between 4,000-4,500 as late as early October 1962, when by that time around 35,000 Soviet soldiers had arrived on the island. It was not until October 15 that the CIA figured out that these soldiers were equipped with nuclear weapons capable of destroying major American cities.
One reason for the bungled CIA intelligence was that the Russians are very good at what they called maskirovka, the art of concealment. They dressed their soldiers up to look like "agricultural technicians," in conformity with the cover story. The CIA did not latch on to the fact that the "agricultural technicians" were all wearing almost identical checkered shirts-see photograph above-leading Soviet wags to call the Cuban adventure "Operation Checkered Shirt."
But another reason for the miscalculation was the CIA's tendency to "mirror image." The intelligence analysts used American standards, rather than Russians standards, as the basis for measuring Soviet troop strength. They observed the number of Soviet ships crossing the Atlantic, figured out the likely deck space, and calculated the number of likely passengers. What they failed to understand was that the Russian soldiers were crammed below decks in almost slave transport conditions, with just sixteen square feet of living space per person, barely enough to lie down.
There was one person in the CIA who correctly guessed the reason for the massive Soviet armada crossing the Atlantic-and that was the director, John McCone. Informed that the Soviets were developing a sophisticated air defense system in Cuba, McCone reasoned that they must have something very important to hide-and guessed that it was nuclear missiles. But this was an inspired deduction, not an intelligence estimate, and it did not represent the official position of the CIA.
It should also be noted that McCone was the most senior Republican to serve in the Kennedy administration. His conclusions were politically embarrassing to the president, who was acutely aware of the approach of mid-term elections. In my next post, I will address a politically sensitive question that was raised again, four decades later, during the run-up to the Iraq War.
Did the intelligence people tell the president what they thought he wanted to hear?
Fifty years ago this month, an armada of Soviet ships crossed the Atlantic, headed toward Cuba. As this August 21 New York Times report shows, the Kennedy administration dismissed claims by Cuban exiles in Miami that the ships were carrying combat troops and sophisticated military equipment. U.S. officials were initially inclined to accept the Soviet explanation that most of the personnel arriving in Cuba were "civilian technicians," with a sprinkling of "military advisers."
One of the Soviet ships was the Poltava, photographed above as it neared the end of its voyage, which turned out to be carrying a shipment of eight medium-range nuclear missiles capable of reaching Washington and New York. In order to mislead the CIA, the Soviets hid the missiles in long holds, originally designed for the lumber trade. According to Soviet accounts, there were 261 military personnel on board, but they were also kept out of sight below decks.
Transporting an army of 50,000 men, including five missile regiments, in secret half way across the world under the gaze of Uncle Sam was a huge logistical undertaking. It required a fleet of 85 ships, many of which made two or even three trips to Cuba. The final destination was kept secret even from the regimental commanders and ship captains. It was only after they passed Gibraltar, and entered the Atlantic, that they received the instruction "proceed to Cuba."
As we mark the 50th anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis, we should spare a thought for the Soviet soldiers crammed below decks in the stifling heat, with barely enough room to lie down. (Temperatures reached 120 degrees at times.) To be allowed up on deck and breathe the fresh air was a privilege, granted to soldiers on special occasions, such as their birthday, and only at night, when there was little risk of being photographed.
Needless to say, by the time they reached Cuba, they were hardly fighting fit. As I described in my book One Minute to Midnight, Soviet military statisticians estimated that three out of every four passengers got seriously seasick. The average Soviet soldier lost twenty-two pounds in weight during the voyage.
What is most remarkable about this epic expedition is that the CIA failed to understand its significance until the very last moment. I will describe why our spooks got it so wrong in a subsequent post.
I am learning new things every day tweeting the Cuban missile crisis -- even though I spent more than two years researching the subject for my book, One Minute to Midnight. In my book, I focus on the famous "13 days" when the world came closer to nuclear destruction than ever before, but this project has helped me gain a better understanding of the buildup to the crisis and the frenzied nuclear arms race that seized the world in the summer of 1962.
The months leading up to the crisis were dominated by a superpower confrontation over Berlin and an orgy of nuclear testing in the atmosphere. The photograph above shows one of the nuclear tests carried out as part of the Operation Dominic series near Johnston Island in the Pacific. The Soviet Union was carrying out similar tests in the Arctic at Novaya Zemlya, with yields of up to 50 Megatons, the largest devices ever exploded.
It came as news to me at least that Nikita Khrushchev attempted to persuade John Kennedy to install a direct Moscow-Washington hotline in July 1962 -- but was rebuffed by his American counterpart, as we reported in a tweet on July 23.
Our "Tweeting the Cuban missile crisis" project has got off to a good start. We picked up a thousand followers during our first week -- and are aiming for 50,000 by next October, the anniversary of the "Thirteen Days." Please help spread the word!
I received an excellent suggestion from a professor at the Naval War College, David Kaiser. He said we should not just tweet missile crisis events: We should put them in context by showing other major events that were on the agenda of the two superpowers. It is important to remember that this was an exceptionally busy time, with confrontations breaking out over Berlin, India/China, and nuclear testing, with a civil rights struggle heating up in the United States. JFK had a lot of other matters on his mind when Khrushchev began his military buildup in Cuba in the summer of 1962.
The photograph above shows a map that the CIA prepared for the president at the height of the crisis, showing the range of Soviet missiles on Cuba. You will note that Oxford, Mississippi, appears on the map, along with much more strategically important places such as Washington and New York.
"What did the president know and when did he know it?" was the question made famous by Watergate. During the two years I spent researching the Cuban missile crisis, I came to feel that a more appropriate question about the man waiting for that 3 a.m. phone call in the White House would be: "What didn't the president know and when didn't he know it?"
Confronted with grave national security crises, we comfort ourselves with the image of a near-omniscient commander-in-chief able to draw on the vast resources of the world's most powerful military machine. The historical record suggests a more realistic -- and human -- picture of presidents stumbling about in the semi-darkness as they attempt to master the chaotic forces of history. With rare exceptions, it is difficult for them to bend history to their will: the most they can do is avoid the obvious pitfalls. As Abraham Lincoln remarked at the height of the Civil War, "I do not control events, events control me."
In my book One Minute to Midnight, I tried to integrate the debates in the White House with a minute-by-minute account of events in the rest of the world. The disconnect was often jarring.
Cecil Stoughton, White House/John F. Kennedy Library, Boston
This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962, the nerve-wracking peak of the Cold War. To commemorate this event, Foreign Policy is launching a "Tweeting the Cuban Missile Crisis" feed in real time, chronicling the days, hours, and minutes when the world stood on the brink of nuclear destruction.
See the entire project here