American Intelligence and the Cuban Missile Crisis

With Fidel Castro’s encouragement, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was in the process of positioning 42 medium and intermediate range ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads that could have destroyed nearly every major American city.

By Brian Latell l November 1, 2012

Cuban Missile Crisis

The Missile Crisis 50 years ago could easily have devolved into a nuclear holocaust with millions of lives lost had it not been for the dead-on strategic warning American intelligence provided President Kennedy. I know of no other example of work by intelligence collectors and analysts that was as crucial to averting horrendous calamity.

Just before noon on October 16, with a carefully-chosen team of hawk and dove advisers arrayed before him in the White House Cabinet Room, the president was told by a senior CIA briefer the precise nature of the threat posed by a Soviet missile installation under construction in Cuba. Standing before a blow-up of a photo taken two days earlier by a high-flying U-2 reconnaissance aircraft, the officer pointed to what he said was “a medium range ballistic missile launch site . . . in west-central Cuba.” There were “at least eight canvas-covered missile trailers” 67 feet long and 9 feet wide. “These are the launchers here,” he continued.

The judgment was unambiguous. There was no hesitation, no qualifying language such as a “probably” or “possibly” that would have indicated uncertainty. The experts had no doubt at all about what the photos showed, even though some of the others present that morning had no idea what they were seeing other than the early stages of some kind of construction activity.

With Fidel Castro’s encouragement, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was in the process of positioning 42 medium and intermediate range ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads that could have destroyed nearly every major American city. But the intelligence warning was also timely, because the missiles were not yet operational. Kennedy next asked “Is this ready to be fired?” The answer was “No,” and as a result the president and his executive committee had days to deliberate the best possible response to the threat. It is now known that had they made a hasty decision that morning to attack the missiles and related military installations, as some of the hawks present urged, the result would likely have been war between the superpowers.

Through the history of the modern American intelligence community since the late 1940s, there are few other examples of such unqualified warnings of a looming strategic threat. To be actionable, strategic warning must be timely and unambiguous. Pearl Harbor and the Al Qaeda 9/11 attacks are the worst examples of failures to provide such warning. The recent terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya is a tragic, though much smaller scale example too of how daunting the challenges are today for intelligence collectors.

But in October 1962 there was a remarkable convergence of reliable intelligence data from a human and technical sources. The U-2, developed by the CIA in the late 1950s and still being flown productively for intelligence purposes, was essential to the success, as were the skilled photo interpreters who knew exactly what a Soviet long-range missile site looked like from the air.

The Corona satellite reconnaissance system, the world’s first, was also developed by the CIA. On missions over the Soviet Union it had sent back images of missile bases like the ones under development in Cuba, some of them operational, others under construction. Washington analysts were therefore able to compare what they were seeing in western Cuba with Soviet emplacements.

The Russian superspy Oleg Penkovsky, handled jointly by American and British intelligence, provided invaluable documentary assistance. He gave his handlers blueprints and specifications of the missiles and missile sites. With all this hard data, analysts easily were able to identify the early stages of construction in Cuba as long-range missile sites they recognized in the Soviet Union.

And there were a few Cubans, spies and refugees, who witnessed the movement of missiles on long flat-bed trailers in Cuba and informed American intelligence. One of them, an arrival in mid-September in Miami who was interviewed at the Opa Locka debriefing center, told of having seen covered trailers, 65 to 70 feet long being towed in the outskirts of Havana. “I believe (they) were carrying large missiles.” Another Cuban independently reported much the same. He saw eight Soviet flatbed-type trailers . . . “seven of which were carrying what looked like huge tubes.”

These reports were sufficiently detailed and alarming that the U-2 flight of October 14th that photographed the first of the missile sites was authorized. In this extraordinary case, as in others, the combination of human and technical sources made all the difference in constructing an iron-clad conclusion.

There were intelligence failures too during the Missile Crisis, some of them potentially calamitous. In September, analysts concluded in a national intelligence estimate that Khrushchev would not be so reckless as to install long range missiles in Cuba. The size of the Soviet military force in Cuba was greatly underestimated. Kennedy and his advisers never knew that nearly a hundred tactical nuclear weapons were in Cuba by late October, and that Castro was lobbying fervidly to keep them. Soviet submarines carried nuclear torpedoes, and that was unknown in Washington too.

Still, as bad as they were, these intelligence failures pale in comparison to the extraordinary importance of the strategic warning Kennedy received on that first of the thirteen-day Missile Crisis.

Brian Latell, Ph.D., is a distinguished Cuba analyst and a Senior Research Associate at the Institute for Cuban and Cuban American Studies at the University of Miami. He has informed American and foreign presidents, cabinet members, and legislators about Cuba and Fidel Castro in a number of capacities. He served in the early 1990s as National Intelligence Officer for Latin America at the Central Intelligence Agency and taught at Georgetown University for a quarter century. Dr. Latell has written, lectured, and consulted extensively. He is the author of the book, After Fidel: The Inside Story of Castro’s Regime and Cuba’s Next Leader. His new book, Castro’s Secrets: The CIA and Cuba’s Intelligence Machine, was published in April 2012 by Palgrave-Macmillan. Dr. Latell is a contributor to

SFPPR News & Analysis.