Earlier this week, I was invited to talk to a roomful of intelligence analysts at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, commemorating the 50h anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis. We were joined by two intelligence veterans, Dino Brugioni and Vincent DiRenzo, who first identified the presence of Soviet medium-range missiles on Cuba, on October 15, 1962.
The photograph above shows DiRenzo, then a young CIA officer, (far right) at a light table in October 1962, examining photographs taken by one of the U-2 spy planes that flew over Cuba. It was these photographs that triggered the hair-raising "thirteen days" when the world came closer than ever before-or since-to nuclear destruction.
As I told the NGA analysts, the Cuban missile crisis marked the hour of the photo interpreter. Having examined most of the intelligence that reached President Kennedy during the crisis, I concluded that 60-70 per cent of the useful stuff was "Photint," or photo intelligence. Signals intelligence-intercepts of Soviet and Cuban communications, radar and the like-played a secondary role.
Of course, the photo interpreters did not succeed in getting everything. Because of a White House-imposed ban on U-2 flights over Cuba in September and early October, they were very late in identifying the missile sites. And they were unable to answer the president's question, "Where are the nuclear warheads?", a mystery that remained unsolved until the publication of my book, One Minute to Midnight, in 2008.
Even on the edge of nuclear apocalypse, the photo analysts managed to retain a sense of humor. This is well illustrated by the photograph below, which they used to show JFK the difference between an "occupied" missile site, and an "unoccupied" one. Rather than explaining that an unoccupied site is one that still awaits the presence of an actual missile, in the vertical position, ready to fire, they dug up imagery of an "occupied" Soviet latrine at one of the missile sites, next to an "unoccupied" one.
The president took one look at the image below, and burst out laughing. He now understood exactly what the photo interpreters were trying to tell him. Can you figure out which site is "occupied"?
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