Volume 51, No. 3 (September 2007)

Cuban Missile Crisis: Revisiting Sherman Kent's Defense of SNIE 85-3-62

By Michael Douglas Smith

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.  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.

Kent’s article is interesting because he highlighted many of the pitfalls new analysts in the Intelligence Community are now taught to avoid. 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.

In 2005, the Kent School published a paper looking at common analytic errors identified in CIA critiques of events considered “intelligence failures.” The paper judged that analysts were guilty of

  • having a restrictive mind-set;
  • engaging in mirror imaging and using a rational actor model;
  • 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 in Cuba.

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