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Mind-Sets and Missiles: a First Hand Account of the Cuban Missile Crisis


Mind-Sets and Missiles: a First Hand Account of the Cuban Missile Crisis - Cover

Authored by Mr. Kenneth Michael Absher.

August 2009

121 Pages

Brief Synopsis

This chronology provides details and analysis of the intelligence failures and successes of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and suggests the applicability of lessons learned to the collection, analysis, and use of intelligence in strategic decisionmaking. The author describes how the crisis unfolded using the author’s personal recollection, declassified documents, and many memoirs written by senior CIA officers and others who were participants. Lessons learned include the need to avoid having our political, analytical and intelligence collection mind-sets prevent us from acquiring and accurately analyzing intelligence about our adversaries true plans and intentions. When our national security is at stake, we should not hesitate to undertake risky intelligence collection operations including espionage, to penetrate our adversary’s deceptions. We must also understand that our adversaries may not believe the gravity of our policy warnings or allow their own agendas to be influenced by diplomatic pressure.

Summary

This Letort Paper provides a detailed chronology and analysis of the intelligence failures and successes of the Cuban Missile Crisis, and suggests the applicability of lessons learned to the collection, analysis, and use of intelligence in strategic decisionmaking. The author was assigned to Sherman Kent’s Office of National Estimates (ONE) after completing his Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Junior Officer Training Program in June 1962. He was one of two analysts for Latin America in Kent’s ONE. He was a participant in the drafting of every National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) and Special National Intelligence Estimate (SNIE) on Cuba and the Soviet military build-up from June 1962 to February 1963. This paper describes how the crisis unfolded using the author’s personal recollection, declassified documents, and many memoirs written by senior CIA officers and others who were participants. Lessons learned include the need to avoid having our political, analytical and intelligence collection mind-sets prevent us from acquiring and accurately analyzing intelligence about our adversaries true plans and intentions. When our national security is at stake, we should not hesitate to undertake risky intelligence collection operations including espionage, to penetrate our adversary’s deceptions. We must also understand that our adversaries may not believe the gravity of our policy warnings or allow their own agendas to be influenced by diplomatic pressure. When Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev decided secretly to place offensive missiles in Cuba, he clearly did not believe President John Kennedy would use military action to enforce U.S. policy warnings against such a deployment.

Lacking hard intelligence to the contrary, the American Intelligence Community (IC) also issued a failed SNIE on September 19, 1962, stating Khrushchev would not place offensive missiles in Cuba. The Soviets had never before placed such missiles outside the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and the Warsaw Pact and the IC believed that Khrushchev certainly would not run the risk of a U.S. military response to such a provocation. Thanks to the leadership of the Director of Central Intelligence and the President, the United States overcame a political mind-set against scheduling U-2 flights directly over Cuba where they risked being shot down by Soviet surface-to-air missiles. Intelligence from an espionage agent was used by the historic U-2 flight to photograph the SS-4 medium range missiles being installed in western Cuba. An analysis of this and subsequent U-2 photography utilizing the operational manuals of the Soviet offensive missiles provided clandestinely enabled the IC to tell the President how much time he had prior to each missile site becoming operational. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev finally agreed to withdraw the missiles, bombers, and nuclear weapons after being convinced that the United States was preparing to launch a massive bombing and invasion of Cuba. The author concluded that such U.S. military operations were within 48-72 hours of being launched when Khrushchev publicly said the missiles would be withdrawn. There was a last minute understanding that Jupiter missiles would probably be withdrawn later from Turkey if Soviet missiles were first withdrawn from Cuba. But imminent U.S. military action was what convinced Khrushchev that the missiles had to be withdrawn.


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