Intelligence in Public Literature


Blind Over Cuba: The Photo Gap and the Missile Crisis

David M. Barrett and Max Holland

Texas A&M University Press

The Fourteenth Day: JFK and the Aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis

David Coleman

W.W. Norton & Company

Reviewed by Thomas Coffey

Peacefully disarming your enemy is not what it’s cracked up to be, judging by the two latest histories of the Cuban Missile Crisis.  Despite averting a worldwide apocalypse in the course of getting the Soviet Union to dismantle medium range missiles capable of carrying nuclear warheads, the cool headed and indispensable JFK still had a lot of damage control on his hands.  Authors Max Holland and David Barrett recount how the Kennedy administration juggled explaining to Republican opponents in Congress why a U-2 over-flight discovered the missile sites just in the nick of time while preventing its prophetic Director of Central Intelligence from telling the true story behind this “near intelligence failure of the first magnitude.”  David Coleman reminds the reader that these recriminations distracted from Kennedy’s main tasks of negotiating a disarmament deal with a chastened but still dangerous Nikita Khrushchev, and figuring out how to monitor it given the resistance of the temperamental Fidel Castro.

All interesting material in stories well told.  The sourcing in both books includes a healthy dose of primary documents. And there are lessons to be gleaned from the narratives. Yet there’s something picked over about the topic of the missile crisis, and these attempts at finding something new to say approach overkill, turning the two stories into book-length journal articles.

For who by now does not know Director of Central Intelligence John McCone held lots of cards when it came to deflecting blame for the “photo gap”—the six week hiatus from intrusive aerial reconnaissance of the Cuban mainland that prevented US photo-interpreters from discovering the missile sites until October 15, days before some of them would become operational.  As Blind over Cuba explains, after the discovery of SA-2 antiaircraft missile batteries in late August, the CIA Director John McCone became convinced Khrushchev planned to install nuclear missiles in Cuba. “Those batteries aren’t there to protect the cane workers.”  He wanted the pace of U-2 over-flights drastically accelerated.  And then off he went on his honeymoon.  However, at a meeting on 10 September, National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy and Secretary of State Dean Rusk ordered, over the outranked Deputy CIA Director Carter, the U-2’s flight plans and frequency of missions severely restricted to avoid the downing of these aircraft.  Both officials were jumpy after the Soviets had complained about one stray over-flight and the Chinese had just shot down a U-2. They also were not convinced the sophisticated anti-aircraft missiles were anything more than the typical military hardware the Soviets extended to its satellites.

Upon returning from his honeymoon, the lone major voice of McCone protested mightily for a restoration of sweeping over-flights.  What he got was a curtailed flight over western Cuba, where the SA-2s were first spotted, but it was enough: the pictures taken clearly showed nuclear missile sites under construction near San Cristobal. Attorney General Robert Kennedy’s coined phrase of Thirteen Days of superpower confrontation and policy deliberations was about to begin.

After JFK got Khrushchev to back down, mostly Republican lawmakers wanted the Kennedy administration to explain its perceived slowness in discovering the missiles.  And the player who would deflect enough attention from the near disastrous over-flight policy order was none-other than Director McCone.

Through countless testimonials on Capitol Hill, McCone unsuccessfully did his best to have it both ways of being seen as a team player for Kennedy while acknowledging his grand foresight on the missile issue. He obscured the story just enough so that the lawmakers failed to get all the way to the bottom of the photo gap caused not by bureaucratic infighting or bad weather but by Bundy and Rusk’s move to restrict the U-2 over-flights.  However, the CIA Director could not help himself, coming across as an I-told-you-so maverick in predicting the missile installations, something the President had problems tolerating.

The story has its moments in Holland and Barrett’s telling.  Unfortunately, the authors treat the failure to discover the photo gap as something resembling a cold case.  The authors focus on McCone’s internal assessment of missile crisis coverage, a CIA IG investigation, an intelligence community review board report, and Congressional hearings.  This overreliance on reports and prepared testimony makes the narrative sound like one, including quoting a whole paragraph from a Senate report just to make the case a group of legislators must have signed off on its findings.  And how interesting can reports and congressional hearings be that never really got to the bottom of the matter.  Partisan behavior by the Chairman of the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board (PFIAB) and democratic political operative, Clark Gifford, along with INR Chief Roger Hilsman’s attempts to blame the CIA for the photo gap can only hold the readers’ attention for so long.

The authors also felt the need to scan books and research into the missile crisis for references to the photo gap.  This commendable scholarship review yields the supposedly startling finding that many books did not mention the photo gap in any depth.  But why would experts expend any more time than they have to on an intelligence failure that did not happen, no matter how much of a near thing it was.  And aren’t intelligence calls by their nature very near things when the enemy is attempting to achieve surprise, as Khrushchev was hoping to present Kennedy with an undetected fait accompli.

Arguably blame for any near failure resides not with collection but with the intelligence community missing the intent of the Khrushchev and Castro to undertake a sweeping military build-up of Cuba, culminating in the installation of nuclear missile batteries—McCone disagreed with his community’s reassuring judgment on the small chance of nuclear missile installments and limited extent of the military buildup.  White House advisor Ted Sorensen and Robert Kennedy noted how the administration was too willing to accept the community’s conclusions about the defensive nature of Cuba’s weaponry.  And the community’s analysis no doubt played a big role in Bundy and Rusk’s decision to restrict the U-2 over-flights; the cost and probability of a shoot-down outweighed the benefit of spotting an unlikely nuclear missile launcher.  When Khrushchev agreed to remove the missiles and nuclear warheads, Kennedy found himself under pressure to extract more concessions aimed at reversing the now in plain sight massive Cuban military buildup.

The 14th Day does a nice job of cataloguing the weaponry Kennedy wanted to open up to scrutiny, and the means available to monitor their withdrawal.  Besides the medium range missiles, the Kennedy administration wanted other means of delivering a nuclear weapons out of Cuba, especially long range IL-28 bombers, as well as MIGs, cruise missiles, and Luna artillery launchers used for battlefield nuclear weapons.  The presence of 41,000 crack Soviet soldiers was also a concern.  To monitor Cuba’s disarmament, Kennedy faced strong opposition from Castro to any on-site inspections.  The Cuban leader threatened to shoot down over-flights from the US or UN—however, the Soviets, who were less inclined to shoot, appeared to control the SA-2s capable of downing U-2s while the Cubans controlled anti-aircraft batteries aimed at over-flights that were closer to the ground.  With all this difficult-to-monitor hardware in-country, Kennedy had to decide what disarmament deal he could live with, one that would not press his luck with Khrushchev.  As McCone told Kennedy and Eisenhower, “we are always going to have a ‘missiles in Cuba’ problem.”

Not only did Kennedy’s luck hold with Khrushchev, securing a deal about three weeks after the crisis ended, but the President benefitted from the Soviet Leader’s alarm at the combative behavior of Castro.  After the Cuban Leader raised the specter of a first strike by the Soviets against the United States at the height of the crisis, Khrushchev had seen enough of the die-hard Castro in action.  He agreed to withdraw not only the medium range missiles and nuclear warheads, but also, on his own initiative, the tactical nuclear weapons.  Out went the long range bombers and some Soviet troops as well.  Kennedy got a good deal of what he wanted without even giving a strict pledge not to invade Cuba, the stated rationale for the installation of the missiles in the first place.

Coleman provides a thorough overview of the atmosphere Kennedy operated under, whether dealing with an aggressive press that he illegally spied on, a directionless State Department, or a condescending and trigger-happy military. But, instead of amplifying, the excessive coverage of these elements actually distracts from the main story of disarmament.  The book also would have benefitted from more coverage of Khrushchev and Castro, who is practically absent from the story.

These books provide some lessons on coordinating intelligence collection and policy, warning, and policymaker support.

Developing an intelligence collection plan… The Kennedy administration sought a more rigorous policy for collection in the immediate aftermath of the crisis.  As the President said to fellow Excom officials, “we can’t have this thing every morning whether we are planning to fly planes or not.” Securing greater certainty on collection depended on the administration coming to agreement on what weapons Cuba hosted, which ones had to go, what ones would be nice to have out of Cuba, and what weapons were not worth the risk of blowing a disarmament deal.  Under this framework, high and low altitude flights would swamp the island, and then undertaken more selectively.  For example, once aerial surveillance of Soviet ships revealed the Kremlin was acting in good faith in dismantling the nuclear missile installations, Kennedy stopped monitoring compliance on these weapons and went on to get a better intelligence handle on other objectionable weapon systems in Cuba.

…While recognizing collection gray areas. Having policy officials make decisions to narrow the list of weapons to be dismantled and, by doing so, lower the risk of a shoot-down is simpler than it sounds. For in making this list, officials sometimes need intelligence on the status of the weapons system.  There’s a continuous feedback loop. The IL-28 bomber, for example, was a particular concern, and officials hoped Khrushchev would take their hints about sending them out of Cuba, piece by piece.  But over-flights of these bases showed the planes were still being assembled, forcing Kennedy to decide whether to press for the removal of these bombers—and thus monitor Soviet compliance—or let the matter drop.  The last thing Kennedy wanted was to upset Khrushchev and risk intelligence collection by having him handover the SA2 missile sites to the trigger happy Cubans.

Analysis that hinges on US policy. Giving US policy lots of influence in intelligence analysis can mislead the reader.  At its worst, this mindset can make analysis appear more actionable than it is, giving US policy officials a false sense of comfort. Analysts were convinced the Cuban military build-up was defensive and would stay that way as long as Moscow understood Washington’s vehement opposition to an offensive one. All US officials had to do was warn Moscow about installing nuclear missiles in Cuba to convince the Soviet leadership not to do it. Analysts overstated US clout when a multitude of other factors influenced Khrushchev, such as his desire to redress the strategic balance while protecting Cuba, his expectation that he could pull a fast one by installing the missiles quickly, and that once operational Kennedy would live with it as Khrushchev lived with missiles in Turkey.

Another pitfall of ascribing substantial influence to US policy is analysts sometimes wrongly assume they know what US policy is or can anticipate what it will be when US officials have not even made a decision. Board of Estimates Chairperson Sherman Kent and the analysts later bragged about correctly calling the no-compromise position the Kennedy administration adopted on the missile deployments, but brushed off missing Khrushchev’s Cuban gamble.  Kent may have blown even this call, not knowing of Kennedy’s decision to pull US Jupiter missiles out of Turkey as part of a more concessionary bargain.

The intelligence community’s failure to predict the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan also assumed Moscow was aware of and cared about how US support to Afghan resistance could make an occupation under consideration untenable.  Mercifully, analysts during the missile crisis did not take refuge, like those during the Afghanistan invasion, in the cheeky fallback “the analysts were right all along. It was the Soviets who got it wrong.” No, they covered their tracks the more conventional way: by having the Office of Research and Reports publish fifteen months after the crisis the paper Khrushchev’s Miscalculated Risk.

Confirming policymaker views. The policymaking and intelligence communities agreed the Soviets would not do anything so stupid as to put nuclear missiles in Cuba.  The one big exception was Director McCone, who had a hunch the sighting of SA-2s meant the Soviets were hiding something and would use the surface-to-air missiles to shoot down US surveillance aircraft—Khrushchev actually believed he could camouflage the missile sites and instead intended to fire the SA-2s on US planes involved in any bombing raid.  Right for the wrong reason is how many experts described McCone’s foresight.  Kent asked the drafters of a key Estimate whether they agreed with McCone; none did and no notation of this alternative view went down on paper.  Policy officials applied no pressure on the intelligence community to give the matter another look since they agreed with it.  Only through McCone’s steadfastness and access to the President did that crucial U-2 flight over western Cuba take place.  Most crucial intelligence calls lack such high-level contrarians, however, making it imperative that policy officials see a minority view either in the body of an analytical piece or separately in an alternative analysis-like publication.

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All statements of fact, opinion, or analysis expressed in this journal are those of the authors. Nothing in any of the articles should be construed as asserting or implying US government endorsement of their factual statements and interpretations. Articles by non-US government employees are copyrighted.

Posted: Oct 24, 2013 01:09 PM
Last Updated: Oct 24, 2013 01:09 PM