Cuban Missile Crisis
Michael Douglas Smith
The crucial lesson of the
Cuban analytic experience is that simply being aware of mental traps is not
CIA’s Board of National Estimates (ONE) was criticized for
the conclusion its members reached in Special National Intelligence Estimate
(SNIE) 85-3-62, published on 19 September 1962, that the Soviets were unlikely
to introduce strategic offensive weapons into Cuba. 1 In 1964 Sherman Kent, ONE’s chief
from 1952 to 1967, penned a defense of the analytic reasoning and process that
produced the flawed judgment. 2
article is interesting because he highlighted many of the pitfalls new analysts
in the Intelligence Community are now taught to avoid. 3 His defense also
indicates that he had most of today’s preferred techniques in mind when the
estimate was written. Here I will review the analytic tradecraft Kent set forth
in his article, examine the pitfalls the estimate’s drafters fell prey to, and
conclude with ideas on what Kent’s essay can still teach analysts. 4
In 2005, the Kent School
published a paper looking at common analytic errors identified in CIA critiques
of events considered “intelligence failures.” 5 The paper judged that analysts were
- having a restrictive mind-set;
- engaging in mirror imaging and using a rational actor
- engaging in group think;
- employing status-quo thinking;
- exhibiting the paradox of experience;
- being fooled by denial and deception activities; and
- not offering alternative scenarios.
A close examination of Kent’s article shows that the
drafters and authorizers of the SNIE did not commit all of these errors and
that institutional analytic practices of the period obscured some of the
techniques they were accused of omitting.
On one point there is no ambiguity, the estimate
incorrectly concluded that the Soviets would not place strategic weapons
We believe that the USSR values its position in Cuba
primarily for the political advantages to be derived from it, and consequently
that the main purpose of the present military buildup in Cuba is to strengthen
the Communist regime there against what the Cubans and the Soviets conceive to
be a danger that the US may attempt by one means or another to overthrow it.…
At the same time, they evidently recognize that the development of an offensive
military base in Cuba might
military intervention and thus defeat their present purpose. 6
In hindsight, we know Soviet leaders did worry about a US invasion, but Nikita Khrushchev calculated
that the presence of operational intermediate-range nuclear weapons in Cuba would prevent the United States
from acting after the presence of the missiles had become known to US leaders.
Thus a key assumption of the drafters was off kilter: Moscow
saw a way around the possibility of “provoking US military intervention” that
apparently was not considered by the analysts.
This judgment was accompanied by the opinion that
could derive considerable military advantage from the establishment of Soviet
medium and intermediate range ballistic missiles in Cuba, or from the establishment of
a Soviet submarine base there. As between these two, the establishment of a
submarine base would be the more likely. Either development, however, would be
incompatible with Soviet practice to date and with Soviet policy as we
Here we have an alternative hypothesis to the central
judgment, but one that is dismissed as a transgression of previous Soviet
practice and likely to produce a US
did not want.
acknowledged that “even in the best minds curious derelictions occur,” but he
specifically rejected the idea that the analysts went “for the comforting
hypothesis, by eschewing the painful.” 7. He noted that the CIA
inspector general’s postmortem of the DI’s performance in the crisis identified
a mere eight reports out of hundreds coming in on activities in Cuba that
“indicated the possible presence of strategic missiles” and that “none of these
was available before the crucial estimate was put to bed.”
further argued that photographs available before the SNIE appeared did not
provide evidence of missile emplacement and “over and over again it made fools
of ground observers by proving their reports inaccurate or wrong.” And he
specifically absolved the analysts of “neglect[ing] or wishful misevaluation of
evidence because it does not support a preconceived hypothesis.”
In current DI parlance, Kent would have written that his
analysts did not fall prey to a rigid mind-set and thus reject a high-impact
hypothesis or exhibit an anchoring bias in evaluating information from human
intelligence or other sources. Critics, however, have argued that mindset was a
problem because analysts did raise the right question but dismissed what turned
out to be the right answer because of a scarcity of confirming evidence.
explained how the error occurred: lacking direct evidence before the U-2
photographs of October, the analysts tried to discern “indicators” that pointed
to an explanation of what the Soviets were up to. This led them to conclude the
buildup was defensive.
Before reaching this judgment, the analysts considered how
Moscow might view the idea of using Cuba as a
strategic base and applied historical actions to reach their conclusion. This
led the analysts to believe the Soviets would be as cautious in 1962 as they
had been during earlier Cold War crises and to believe that US outrage at the creation of a communist regime
in Cuba was known to Moscow.
speculated that hindsight suggested the Soviets may have believed US resolve had weakened after the Bay of Pigs,
erection of the Berlin Wall, and the growth of Communist power in Laos; that they saw the strategic value of
offensive weapons as outweighing the risks; or that they miscalculated and
underestimated the consequences of a resolute US reaction. 8
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Even in hindsight it is extremely difficult for many of us
to follow their inner logic or to blame ourselves for not having thought in
parallel with them.
We ask analysts today to avoid a similar misstep by
understanding that historical precedent isn’t an infallible guide and to use an
analytic tool, such as analysis of competing hypotheses, to see if there is a
break in the historical pattern or if a break is of such high impact that the
possibility should be conveyed to policymakers.
Today’s analysts have the benefit of more cases in which a
foreign leader has acted on a logic alien to that of a “rational” US policymaker.
This has sensitized them to the danger of expecting leaders in other countries
to act like us (mirror imaging) or calculate the workings of a situation as a US policymaker
quote also shows the power of an undocumented assumption—that the Soviets
understood how angry Americans were over the Castro revolution. There is no
indication in Kent’s
article that this assumption was ever challenged or subjected to validation. Today
we also ask analysts to identify their assumptions just so they can be examined
explicitly. And when it seems appropriate analytical papers will list the
assumptions or alternative view laid out using different assumptions.
would have been skeptical of the current practice of providing more than one
avenue for a policymaker to consider. He argued in the article that a lack of
evidence was not an excuse for simply saying this or that may happen, or that
the worst case is going to transpire. This, he contended, was of little use to
policymakers, and in the instance of presenting the worst case, ran the danger
of leading policymakers to stop listening because the analysts “cry wolf” too
He also expressed reservations about a common technique used
today, the creation of a “red team.” Just tasking a group to try to mimic enemy
responses to a situation, argued Kent, did not mean that it would do
so successfully. He dismissed the general utility of such efforts and noted
that in the case of missiles in Cuba,
CIA experts were consulted “as usual.” That they failed “to work out the
propositions of an aberrant faction of the [Soviet] leadership,” was not a
asserted, because “no estimating process can be expected to divine exactly when
the enemy is about to make a dramatically wrong decision. We were not brought
up to underestimate our enemies.” He then added:
We could not believe that Khrushchev could make such a
This opinion is an example of the fallacy of the “rational
actor model,” although Kent
decried the related mirror-imaging pitfall, when he wrote “that objectivity of
judgment about the other man’s probable behavior is the crux of the
Then Kent stated, “this…suggests that
perhaps we do not know some things about Soviet foreign policy decisionmaking
that we should.” Kent
was oblivious to the possibility that it wasn’t the Soviet decisionmaking
process that was opaque and misleading for agency analysts, but the limitations
of experts to recognize a radical change in their field.
This we call the “paradox of expertise.” Forty years after
made the argument, intelligence analysts are expected to warn, if they
can, before an opponent makes a major decision, including a decision that might
lead to unusual or unprecedented behavior. There have been too many instances
since the Cuban Missile Crisis of leaders choosing paths that wouldn’t seem
“rational” to US decisionmakers to do otherwise.
My examination of Kent’s defense leads to two
- The analytical process in 1962 pressured analysts to “make
- The analytic practices of the era had many of the
techniques in use today but omitted several current checks and balances
specifically designed to avoid analytic pitfalls.
words on the uselessness of providing multiple scenarios or worst-case analysis
imply that his was then conventional wisdom. They also undoubtedly reflected
the desire of most policymakers of the period for such definitive judgments.
Since at least the mid-1990s,
however, senior policymakers have increasingly been requiring intelligence
analysts to identify and explain plausible scenarios in the estimates they
prepare. These are to include those we now label “high impact, low probability”
outcomes. On occasion, the outcome may be truly identifiable and a “single
outcome prediction” justified, but most of the time the complexity of world
affairs precludes such certainty.
Despite acknowledging the pitfall of mirror imaging and
the need to “cast yourself in his [the enemy’s] image and see the world through
his eyes,” Kent and his colleagues do not appear to have examined their model
of a Soviet decision maker, which was essentially a Russian-speaking Western
rational actor who made choices with an understanding of US public opinion and
pressures on our policymakers.
An “assumption check” would have
raised the question of just how well Moscow
actually understood US
unhappiness with Castro and might have led to Washington’s explicit statement of that
feeling to the Soviets. Whether that would have changed the thinking about
Khrushchev is debatable, but it could have alerted the analysts to the need to
qualify their prediction by presenting this assumption openly in the estimate.
There is no suggestion in Kent’s article that Soviet denial
and deception activities played any role in misdirecting the analysis. The
crucial lesson, therefore, is that simply being aware of our mental traps is
not enough. To reduce the potential for analytic errors, some form of analytic
structuring technique must be used to overcome cognitive traps. 10
1. “The Military Buildup in Cuba,” SNIE 85-3-62. 19 September 1962. Now declassified and available in
several places, including Foreign
Relations of the United States, 1961-1962, Volume X, Cuba, 1961-1962. A portion of the estimate and many
other documents related to the crisis can be found in CIA Documents on the
Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962 (Washington, DC: CIA History Staff, 1992)
2. Kent, Sherman. “A Crucial Estimate Relieved.” Studies in Intelligence 36, no. 5 (Spring, 1964): 111–19. Originally
Secret, now declassified and available on cia.gov. Unless noted otherwise, all
quotes by Kent
are from this article.
3. One element of the Career Analyst Program, a required four-month long training program for new analysts, is a theme addressing the history, mission, and values of CIA and the profession of intelligence analysis. Analysts are required to present briefings to classmates on a variety
of historical events that have had a major impact on how the Directorate of
Intelligence does its work. The Cuban Missile Crisis is one of those events.
4. For another take on this subject, see Peter Clement, “The Cuban Missile Crisis,” in Fifty Years of Informing Policy (Washington,
DC: Directorate of Intelligence,
5. A few intelligence officers do not hold that the SNIE was an “intelligence failure.” A future head of the Directorate of Intelligence, Russell Jack Smith, agreed with Kent that the Cuban missile crisis
was not a failure of analysis. See Smith’s, The Unknown CIA (Washington,
DC: Pergamon-Brassey’s International Defense Publishers, 1989), 155.
6. Cited by Kent.
7.Kent may have been alluding to the well-documented dissent of the Director of
Central Intelligence, John McCone. The DCI believed the Soviets would take the risk of installing
offensive missiles in Cuba
and said so to a special NSC group on 10 August. He maintained this position
despite the opposition of Kent
and the Director of Intelligence Ray Cline and the failure of initial
photographs to show the weapons. An Agency history of McCone’s directorship
highlights this difference of opinion. Published memoirs by some participants
also claim McCone wasn’t convincing in his arguments, and one scholarly study
goes so far as to assert that the DCI’s “discrepant judgment holds no
interesting general lesson for intelligence assessment and hardly seems worth
the attention it has received.” See “What Can Intelligence Tell Us About the
Cuban Missile Crisis, and What Can the Cuban Missile Crisis Tell Us about
Intelligence?” in James G. Blight and David A. Welch (eds.), Intelligence
and the Cuban Missile Crisis. London:
Frank Cass, 1998, 6.
8. Khrushchev actually viewed the United States as aggressive, not weak, and he was very concerned about losing Cuba to a US invasion. He did see the strategic value of the missiles, but this
appears to have been a secondary motivation. See John Lewis Gaddis, We Now
Know. Rethinking Cold War History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997),
9. Ibid, 262–63. The point here is that this was a
crucial assumption underpinning the judgments. Today, policymakers want to know
foundational assumptions in order
to better evaluate IC assessments.
10. McCone and the IC were criticized after the crisis in classified
postmortems and newspapers. In November 1962, the President’s Foreign
Intelligence Advisory Board (PFIAB) tasked the DCI for an all-source,
community-wide examination of collection and analysis relating to the crisis.
The result, which characterized IC efforts as on the whole positive, infuriated
the board. One member termed McCone’s praise for CIA’s performance a “snow
job.” The PFIAB report of 4 February 1963 gave the IC poor marks for its
performance before the 14 October 1962 imagery revealed the offensive missiles.
The IC’s work after that was given high marks. The Board’s report is in CIA
Documents on the Cuban Missile Crisis.
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