13 Days Over Cuba: The Role of the Intelligence Community in the Cuban Missile Crisis (2023)

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13 Days Over Cuba: The Role of the Intelligence Community in the Cuban Missile Crisis (1)

Sixty years ago, intelligence professionals across multiple agencies faced one of the gravest crises of the Cold War. It was October1962, and relations between the United States and the Soviet Union, the two great post-World War II powers, were tense but relatively stable.

The previous year had seen both a failed U.S.-led invasion of Cuba at the Bay of Pigs and, just months later, a Vienna summit between President John F. Kennedy and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev. In the wake of these events, and based on Soviet policy and practice, U.S. intelligence released Special National Intelligence Estimate 85.3.62 on September 19, 1962. The estimate, focused on the question of Soviet military buildup in Cuba, assessed that Premier Khrushchev was unwilling to “increase the level of risk in U.S.-Soviet relations” by doing anything so provocative as installing nuclear weapons on the island.

13 Days Over Cuba: The Role of the Intelligence Community in the Cuban Missile Crisis (2)

Steuart Building, the first headquarters of the National Photographic Interpretation Center (NPIC) in Washington, D.C. Image from the collections of the NGA Historic Research Center.

It was in this environment that photo interpreters (PIs) of the recently established National Photographic Interpretation Center (NPIC), an NGA predecessor organization, arrived at the nondescript Steuart Building for work on Monday, October 15. Just before 10 a.m., eight cans of film from the previous day’s U-2 Mission G-3101 were delivered to the NPIC registry and made their routine journey to the seventh floor for analysis. What the PIs discovered that day turned the Intelligence Community (IC), and the world, upside-down -- evidence of Soviet offensive ballistic missiles secretly installed in Cuba with the capability of making a nuclear strike against the continental United States. It was, in the words of NPIC Director Art Lundahl, “the biggest story” of their time.

Despite the predominant mindset that the Soviets wouldn’t risk escalation in Cuba, NPIC’s discovery of offensive missiles didn’t happen by luck. For months, across multiple intelligence agencies, there were growing indications that something was happening on the island. From human intelligence sources, including Cuban refugees fleeing the regime of Fidel Castro, the Central Intelligence Agency was gathering reports of suspicious military activities and sightings of advanced weapons. The National Security Agency (NSA), meanwhile, saw a sudden influx in signals intelligence related to a potential ballistic missile deployment. Many of these indications centered on the region of San Cristóbal, which became the overflight target for Mission G-3101.

13 Days Over Cuba: The Role of the Intelligence Community in the Cuban Missile Crisis (3)

Image from the collections of the NGA Historic Research Center.

Recognizing the stunning nature of its discovery, NPIC utilized an array of sources to identify and confirm the missile sightings. This included IRONBARK sources – the codename given to technical reports and weapons manuals obtained from Soviet spy Oleg Penkovsky – as well as the “black books” assembled by NPIC missile specialist Jay Quantrill, which included photos of weapons taken by attachés in Moscow during Soviet military parades. These sources provided detailed design elements and measurements that allowed PIs to confidently identify the Soviet missiles.

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Photographs taken at Soviet military parades, such as this example of the SS-4 Sandal, aided in the identification and confirmation of missiles in Cuba. Image from the collections of the NGA Historic Research Center.

Once confirmed, Director Lundahl immediately set in motion a series of late-night phone calls and impromptu briefings across the IC and Department of Defense that would ultimately alert President Kennedy to the looming crisis on the morning of Tuesday, October 16.

The need for timely and accurate intelligence was paramount to U.S. decision-makers in determining the handling of the crisis, with every available intelligence source mined for information. Aerial reconnaissance quickly gained critical importance, providing a means to both visually verify intelligence gleaned from other disciplines and provide concrete photographic evidence of Soviet missiles that could be shared with allies and adversaries around the world, should the need arise. Given its pivotal importance, the decision was made to increase U-2 coverage of Cuba and, eventually, expand surveillance coverage by adding low-altitude flights utilizing both the U.S. Navy F-8U-1P Crusader and the U.S. Air Force RF-101C Voodoo. The resulting surge in imagery led to the discovery of multiple additional missile sites in Cuba, as well as the existence of Soviet IL-28 Beagle bombers.

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Image of the US Navy F-8U-1P Crusader (top) and the US Air Force RF-101C Voodoo (bottom) tasked with low-altitude overflights of Cuba. Image from the collections of the NGA Historic Research Center.

At the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), the almost daily imagery discoveries occurring at NPIC were used to update target folders in preparation for any necessary military action. At NSA, electronic and signals intelligence supported and expanded the influx of imagery, providing evidence of Soviet military and technical personnel arrivals in Cuba, as well as tracking the all-important question of operational status for the discovered missiles. Taken together, these multiple intelligence sources worked to answer the essential question of time -- how long did President Kennedy and his advisors have to respond to the nuclear threat.

Across the IC, agencies worked around-the-clock to provide the knowledge needed to make timely, impactful decisions. NPIC instituted 12-hour shifts, while DIA established a Cuban Situation Room from where its efforts were centrally coordinated. At NSA, the crisis response was overseen from the agency’s first-ever command center, run in large part by Juanita Moody, head of the Operations element responsible for signals intelligence in the region encompassing Cuba.

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President Kennedy signs Proclamation 3504 authorizing the naval quarantine of Cuba. Photo by Robert Knudsen, courtesy of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library / NARA.

On October 22, President Kennedy presented the details of the crisis to the American people for the first time, announcing the U.S. intention to institute a naval quarantine around Cuba in the effort to stop additional offensive weapons from entering the hemisphere. The quarantine was supported by an array of intelligence sources. PIs at NPIC analyzed photography of ships approaching the island, identifying those that likely carried weapons, while NSA utilized direction-finding nets to determine the course of Soviet ships nearing the quarantine line. NSA also utilized several listening posts –including ground-based stations, aircraft and collection ships – to record and monitor an increasing number of high-priority radio messages between Moscow and ships nearing Cuban waters.

This was followed, on October 25, by the first public, visual presentation of evidence supporting the claims of President Kennedy. Seated across from his Soviet counterpart, U.S. Ambassador Adlai Stevenson presented a series of briefing boards to the United Nations Security Council during a televised session. Utilizing a script prepared by NPIC, the presentation clearly demonstrated the secret Soviet buildup of missiles in Cuba over a two-month period, significantly damaging Soviet public relations. As author DeWitt S. Copp later reflected, “The UN could not debate away the iron reality of the aerial photographs, nor could the world.”

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U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Adlai Stevenson describing locations of missile sites in Cuba using aerial photographs during a UN Security Council meeting in New York. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, NYWT&S Collection LC-USZ62-128472.

Saturday, October 27, considered the longest day of the crisis, began with intelligence indicating that three of the four medium-range ballistic missile sites at San Cristóbal and another twoat Sagua la Grande were now operational. This was followed by news from Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara that low-altitude flights over Cuba were now taking fire, followed shortly by news of an even more disturbing incident intercepted from Radio Havana – that a U-2 pilot was shot down and killed over Cuba. NSA immediately began sorting through data, even as representatives from the Joint Chiefs of Staff rushed to NPIC to review the flight plan in question against the latest imagery. Within hours, it was confirmed that Major Rudolph Anderson’s U-2 had been brought down by the Los Angeles SA-2 missile site near Banes, Cuba.

That night, expecting the worst, final preparations were instituted across the U.S. for a war that seemed increasingly inevitable. Marine brigades began boarding ships bound for invasion staging areas, thousands of Air Force reservists were told to report to their active-duty stations and U.S. destroyers patrolled Soviet submarines in the Atlantic. At Andrews Air Force Base, transport aircraft were being readied to evacuate casualties that would result from an invasion of Cuba and military hospitals prepared to receive the wounded.

On the morning of Sunday, October 28, the Soviets alerted the U.S. embassy that a formal diplomatic letter was on its way. At 9:09 ET, a brief teletype was received from the Foreign Broadcast Information Service, stating: “Moscow Domestic Service in Russian at 1404GMT on 28 October, Broadcast a message from Khrushchev to President Kennedy stating that the USSR had decided to dismantle Soviet missiles in Cuba and return them to the Soviet Union 28 October 908a-FRR/HM.”

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Briefing image showing the removal of missiles and equipment from San Cristóbal, Cuba. Image from the collections of the NGA Historic Research Center.

Even as word began to spread around the world that the immediate crisis had been averted, the intelligence community was shifting its focus to the work of verifying the dismantling and return of the Cuban missiles to the Soviet Union. Surveillance of missile sites and Soviet ships continued for months after the thirteen crisis days of October, with interest from the press and public remaining high. In February, 1963, John Hughes, Special Assistant to the DIA director, gave a televised briefing to the nation. Closely coordinated with NPIC and utilizing declassified imagery from throughout the crisis, this presentation assured the world that the threat of nuclear missiles in Cuba was truly over.

Hughes could not make public at the time the great debt owed to the intelligence professionals of the Cuban Missile Crisis. Even today, only a handful of names are properly recognized, such as NSA’s Juanita Moody or NPIC’s photo interpreters Vince DiRenzo, Joe Sullivan, Jim Holmes and Dick Reninger.

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NPIC photo interpreters Vince DiRenzo, Joe Sullivan, Jim Holmes, and Dick Reninger identified SS-4 Soviet medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs) in San Cristóbal, Cuba. Image from the collections of the NGA Historic Research Center.

Sixty years later, as we face a renewed great power competition and threats of nuclear aggression, the Cuban Missile Crisis continues to provide lessons that speak to us today. Then, as now, the ability of the IC to deliver a multi-intelligence perspective to decision-makers, providing the advantage in timely, accurate and comprehensive information, can prove critical to resolving crises and averting war.

Suggested Reading:

Eyeball to Eyeball: The Inside Story of the Cuban Missile Crisis, Dino Brugioni.

The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House during the Cuban Missile Crisis, eds. Ernest R. May & Philip D. Zelikow.

Blue Moon over Cuba: Aerial Reconnaissance during the Cuban Missile Crisis, Capt. William B. Ecker & Kenneth V. Jack.

Last Updated: October 2022

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