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American Intelligence Play In The Cuban Missile Crisis History Essay

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016


The Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 brought the world close to a nuclear confrontation among the United States, Cuba and the Soviet Union. The Cuban missile crisis was triggered by the Soviet deployment to Cuba of medium-range and intermediate-range ballistic nuclear-armed missiles with nuclear warheads. The Cuban missile crisis was the result of a variety of things: the Cuban Revolution, the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion, US anti-communism, insecurity of the Soviet Union, and Cuba’s fear of invasion. From the starting of the crisis, American Intelligence monitored the island’s development and able to collect and analyze information, but miscalculated or assessed the Soviet Union’s intentions and motivation for placing missiles in Cuba. American Intelligence through human intelligence gathering methods, aerial photoreconnaissance and signal interceptions were able to not only discover Soviet missiles in Cuba, but thwart the possibility of a nuclear war. This intelligence provided the U.S with a great deal of information about their enemies’ military units, missiles, weapons and strength. The events of the Cuban Missile Crisis revealed the sophistication of the U.S. intelligence community, especially in its ability to collect and analyze information. Human intelligence (HUMIT) bring the inside information about Cuba from Refugees, and Soviet Colonel Oleg Penkovsky provided important secrets to U.S. Government. Photographic intelligence (PHOTINT) played an exceedingly important part (the U-2 reconnaissance spy plane) to take internal terrestrial images of the Island. Signals intelligence (SIGINT) used to block communication between Soviet Union and Cubans during the crisis.

Cuban Missiles Crisis Background

Fidel Castro came to power after Cuban Revolution, in starting, U.S. Supported Castro, but when he embraced communism, the U.S. attempted to overthrow Castro’s rule in Cuba and used American trained and armed Cuban exiles (La Brigada) in April 1961 in the Bay of Pigs invasion but failed. After failed invasion of the Bay of Pigs, it was evident to the Castro that U.S. would second attack, and caused him to make concessions to the Soviet Union to defend Cuba. Consequently, Soviet Premier Nakita S. Khrushchev eagerly extended an offer of assistance to the desperate Castro and saw an opportunity to gain a strategic foothold in America’s backyard. Castro allowed Soviet Union to place military bases on the island of Cuba, in exchange for protection against any U.S. invasion attempts. After Castro approval, Khrushchev quickly and secretly built ballistic missile installations in Cuba in summer 1962. In fact, Khrushchev has read U.S. weakness in the Bay of Pigs fiasco, and blustered publicly that he might retaliate by driving the U.S. out of West Berlin. When U.S revealed ballistic missiles presence in Cuba, it elevated tension between the U.S. and Soviet Union. When missiles installation was discovered by U.S., President John F. Kennedy ordered a naval quarantine ( blockade) of Cuba and threatened to invade, as a result, Soviet Union pledged to withdraw from Cuba if the U.S. did not invade and finally Cuban Missiles Crisis was resolved.

American Intelligence Role in Pre-Cuban Missile Crisis

The Cuban missile crisis started in a series of American intelligence blunders that started under Dwight Eisenhower administration and continued into the John F Kennedy administration. The American intelligence devised Operation Mongoose plot aimed to expel the powerful Castro and his regime. The Operation Mongoose plot included “economic and political destabilization, propaganda, manipulation, sabotage, and assignation plots.” [Bohning, 2005, page 1]. During the Cold war, Cuban refugees provided the inaccurate inside information about Cuba and Castro and able to convince the America’s Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) to initiate the covert Bay of Pigs operation on April 17th, 1961 to overthrown Castro communist regime. Cuban exiles, trained by CIA staged a botched invasion at Cuba’s Bay of Pigs, but CIA planned the Bay of Pigs invasion ended in complete failure due to miscalculations by the CIA and a lack of resources and support from the American military. U.S. intelligence misunderstood the nature of Fidel Castro’s insurgency and miscalculated the likelihood of his victory. Mongoose Operation (Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba is a part of this operation) is also partially responsible to initiate the Cuban Missiles Crisis as Cuban intelligence was able to discovered that American are planning to overthrow Castro through Operation Mongoose. Castro was worried about Cuba safety, On the other side, Soviet was also worried to lose a valuable alley in Cuba, and had the intention to compensate for Soviet inferiority in ICBMs (intercontinental ballistic missile) and like to reply American with a nuclear version of tit-for-tat as noted by Khrushchev’s advisor Fyodor Burlatsky: “Khrushchev and Soviet Defense Minister R. Malinovsky … were strolling along the Black Sea coast. Malinovsky pointed out to sea and said that on the other shore in Turkey there was an American nuclear missile base. In a matter of six or seven minutes missiles launched from that base could devastate major centres in the Ukraine and southern Russia. … Khrushchev asked Malinovsky why the Soviet Union should not have the right to do the same as America. Why, for example, should it not deploy missiles in Cuba?” [Burlatsky 1991, page 171]. However, from American perspective, installing nuclear-armed Jupiter intermediate range ballistic missiles (IRBM’s) in Turkey secured NATO’s southern flank, helped cement relations with Turkey, and enhanced their nuclear deterrent, but Soviet viewed these missiles very differently. Nevertheless, U.S. covert attempts to depose the Cuban regime seemed to provoke Cuban and Soviet defences and directly led to the deployment of the Soviet ballistic missiles in Cuba.

It is true that American intelligence played a role in causing the Cuban Missile Crisis, and to certain extent failed to estimate that Soviet leadership would deploy strategic missiles in Cuba. Furthermore, no CIA agents in Cuba or Soviet Union were able to provide solid evidence of the Soviet missile deployment. Some information was received from other Western intelligence organization, CIA agents on island and refugees, but little attention has been given to the discovery of the missiles. “The US military intelligence agencies (with some support from allies) tracked the Soviet arms shipping to Cuba. Satellite photographic reconnaissance was not directed against Cuba in 1962” [Garthoff 1998, Page 20]. A U-2 spy-plane, on August 29th on reconnaissance over Cuba brought back evidence that SA-2 surface-to-air (SAM) missiles has been installed around San Cristobal , but Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin advised President Kennedy’s closest advisors, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy that the installations were entirely defensive in nature. American intelligence (COMOR-The interagency Committee on Overhead Reconnaissance ) decided to send another U-2 spy-plane to take closer look, but bad weather delayed the fight until October 14th. In July 1962, SlGlNT collectors listened to the radio messages to and from the Soviet vessels on their way to Cuba. These messages provided some information about Soviet vessels calling on Cuban ports were making false port declarations and declaring less than the known cargo-carrying capacity (Carrying heavy military weapons) , but no real consideration is given due to insufficient evident. On September 19th, 1962 American estimators issued Special National Intelligence Estimate (SNIE 85-3-62) on ‘The Military Buildup in Cuba’ but failed to estimate what Soviet Union would do? due to insufficient evidence, Soviet intentions, and the past behaviour. In fact, Soviet intelligence performed better in pre-crisis period, they were able to transport nearly 50,000 Soviet troops, 100 tactical nuclear weapons and 60 nuclear warheads for the surface-to-surface missiles in Cuba via covert action.

American Intelligence Role during Cuban Missile Crisis

For the United States, the crisis began on October 15, 1962 when photographs from a U-2 reconnaissance aircraft revealed several SS-4 nuclear missiles in Cuba. Early morning of October 16th, President John Kennedy was informed of the missile installations. Kennedy immediately convened his Executive Committee (EX-COMM), a group of his twelve most important advisors (Secretary of State Dean Rusk, CIA Director John McCone, Secretary of Defence Robert S. McNamara, National Security Adviser McGeorge Bundy, Secretary of the Treasury Douglas Dillon, Presidential Counsel Ted Sorenson, Undersecretary of State George Ball, Deputy Undersecretary of State U. Alexis Johnson, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Maxwell Taylor, Assistant Secretary of State for Latin America Edward Martin, Adviser on Russian Affairs Llewellyn Thompson, Deputy Secretary of Defense Roswell Gilpatric, and Assistant Secretary of Defense Paul Nitze.) to handle the unfolding crisis.

During the first and second week of the crisis, “US intelligence was able to accurately identify the location, operational status of the missile deployment, provision of MiG-21 fighters, SA-2 antiaircraft missile systems, 11-28 light bombers, missile torpedo boats, and coastal defence cruise missiles, and the numbers of these systems. Furthermore, low level reconnaissance permitted identification of additional military forces, in particular four Soviet augmented ground force regiments, each with 31 tanks, and with six to eight Luna rocket artillery launchers” [Garthoff 1998, Page 28]. It can be seen that PHOTOINT or aerial reconnaissance really played a vital role in Cuban Missile Crisis. Photoreconnaissance Intelligence had been done incredible job by providing credible evidence of offensive missiles in Cuba and helped policy makers and their advisors to make decision based on solid photographic evidence. ‘As McCone indicated, aerial photography was ‘our best means of establishing hard [firm] intelligence’ [Garthoff 1998, Page 45, bid. p.375].

HUMIT is also used in the form of interviewing or interrogating unverified refugees from Cuba on American soil, and reports provided from agent on Island, but it was not sufficient due to mass of other invalid reports during or before crisis period. Colonel Oleg Penkovsky, a Soviet Military Intelligence officer jointly run by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and British intelligence (MI-6), suggested that the Soviet attempt to put missiles into Cuba, this information was not given the credibility until it was subsequently confirmed through aerial reconnaissance. He supplied 111 exposed rolls of film, 99 percent of which were legible. An estimated 10,000 pages or more of intelligence reports were produced from his information, which included the top secret operating manuals for the SS-4 and SS-5 missiles. Information in Penkovsky provided documents was compared with the U-2 photography, and analysts were able to identify positively the specific missiles being placed in Cuba and to determine on a daily basis the stage of construction of each missile site. “This information was critical in enabling the President to know how much time he had to determine and apply a policy of diplomatic and military pressure against Khrushchev before having to take direct military action”[Absher, page 7, MacAuliffe]. Colonel Oleg Penkovsky role in the Cuban missile crisis has been portrayed as of pre-eminent importance to the outcome, and described best Humint source during crisis.

It is true that SIGINT provided no warning of the presence of Soviet nuclear-armed intermediate and medium-range ballistic missiles in Cuba prior to their discovery by U-2 reconnaissance aircraft. The Oxford was officially known as a Technical Research Ship (TRS) proved to be the largest producer of SIGINT during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Its collected communications provided a great quantity of information which, when combined with the photographs from the U2 overflights, provided a very good picture of what was happening in Cuba. SIGINT also helped during the midst of the crisis, to intercept and triangulate messages and sent to the Command Centre for interpretation, then used by US government to make further decision and predict future actions of the Soviet Union and Cuba. Another type of intelligence is used. The SOSUS (underwater sound surveillance system) plus patrol aircraft was first extensively and successfully used during the Cuban Missile Crisis and proved to be an important aspect of U.S intelligence in detecting any possible Soviet submarine (specially Soviet Foxtrot class submarine) attack. [Friedman, Page 26]

‪After analyzing all the evidence from different sources of the intelligence, guarded and intense policy debate within the Executive Committee group members, Kennedy concluded to impose a naval quarantine around Cuba. On October 22, Kennedy publicly announced the discovery of the ballistic missile installations and his decision to quarantine (blockade) the island to prevent Soviet ships from carrying further missile equipment to the island. He also proclaimed that any nuclear missile launched from Cuba would be regarded as an attack on the United States by the Soviet Union and demanded that the Soviets remove all of their offensive weapons from Cuba.

Later, on the 26th EX-COMM heard from Khrushchev that Soviets agreed to remove the ballistic missiles from Cuba, if the U.S. would guarantee not to invade Cuba. On October 27th, tension is increased when a U-2 was shot down over Cuba and Khrushchev demanded the removal of U.S. missiles in Turkey in exchange for Soviet missiles in Cuba. But Attorney General Robert Kennedy suggested ignoring the second letter and contacted Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin to tell him of the U.S. agreement with the first. Finally, on October 28th, Khrushchev announced that he would dismantle the installations and return the missiles to the Soviet Union. Further negotiations were held to implement the October 28 agreement and continued in November. Again American intelligence helped to provide evidence to the American government that the Soviets turned their ships back, a fact first learned from SIGINT from radio messages, and soon dismantled and withdrew the missiles. The U.S. Navy also played a pivotal role in this crisis, demonstrating the critical importance of naval forces to the national defence. U.S. Navy surface and submarine units moved into place to attack any ship crossing the declared line in the quarantine operation.

A week of intensive face-off and direct communications between President Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev finally made possible to put out from crisis. The American government and the Communist Bloc both considered the crisis over. Happy ending !


In sum, “Espionage is the art of war.” (Sun-Tzu). Performance of US intelligence in the Cuban Missile Crisis was generally good, in some respect outstanding, albeit with a few shortcomings. Moreover, use of U-2 aircraft over the interior of Cuba on October 14, 1962 to take photograph, Cuban refugee interrogation, and manuals for the SS-4 and SS-5 missiles which were provided by Penkovsky’s espionage gave the U.S. excellent intelligence coverage of the status of missile site construction and readiness. Finally, intelligence really helped US to resolve the crisis smoothly.

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