Cuban Missile Crisis: How the Soviets Almost Got Away With It

Speaking to the vast amount of analysis and reflection that has been made on the Cuban Missile Crisis, President John F. Kennedy’s National Security Advisor, McGeorge Bundy, observed, “Forests have been felled to print the reflections and conclusion of participants, observers, and scholars.”[1] However, far less has been written about John C. McCone, Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), and the seemingly flawed intelligence in the lead up to the Crisis. On the morning of October 16, 1962, Kennedy and several of his top advisors met to discuss photos that a U-2 plane captured just two day earlier while flying over the island of Cuba. These photos revealed Soviet launch pads that presumably would be used for launching Medium and Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles (MRBMs and IRBMs) capable of carrying nuclear warheads. This sobering revelation of an extensive military buildup had begun months prior, so why was the president just learning of it? What was going on with US intelligence? The CIA had been gathering information on Cuba through agents and informants, as well as through a plethora of reports coming in from Cuban exiles and citizens. With such an emphasis placed on intelligence, how could so many clues simply slip by? While it is tempting to blame the CIA for its failed intelligence to “discover” this information prior, the CIA had many reports concluding a Soviet arms buildup on the island was underway months before the situation culminated in a crisis. McCone had been warning officials for months prior to the October discovery and then shockingly went on a month long vacation in Southern France in September. The poor use of known intelligence, restricted use of U-2 planes, a distracted Kennedy administration, and a general conservative culture within the intelligence community is to blame for the delayed reports of IRBM and MRBM launch pad sites during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

There is an overabundance of historical narratives written about the Cuban Missile Crisis, each offering its own conclusions. However, the role of the CIA has only been mentioned in passing.[2] Nonetheless, there are some useful conclusions that must be considered. Historian Raymond Garthoff claims that perhaps the CIA’s biggest downfall in the Cuban Missile Crisis was its failure to anticipate the Soviet Union placing offensive missiles in Cuba.[3] Reporter and historian Michael Dobbs believes there was too much intelligence coming in for the CIA to make any accurate conclusions from it. Much of it was contradicting or too outlandish to be credible. With so many reports coming in from CIA agency networks (AMTORRID and COBRA), the CIA was simply overwhelmed.[4] One of the most referenced books on the Cuban Missile Crisis, Graham Allison and Philip Zelikow’s Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis, marvels at “… how extraordinary it was that the Soviet missiles were discovered at all. Their discovery was possible only because of the special organizational capacities, routines, and procedures of the U.S. intelligence community.” While Essence of Decision explains the procedures of the way intelligence was collected and used, it fails to consider the possibility of a flawed intelligence community. Like Dobbs, Allison and Zelikow claim too much intelligence (only marginally important and much of it false) was the reason why the missiles were not discovered sooner.[5]

There were four main sources from which the intelligence community was able to gain knowledge about Soviet arms buildup in Cuba. U-2 surveillance, monitoring ships and the goods they were carrying into Cuban harbors, intelligence gathered from CIA agents and spy networks, and information provided by Cuban refugees. If historians are claiming there was too much intelligence, an obvious question arises. If a system is designed to gather intelligence and resources allocated to meet its needs, why was there not a better system to sort the abundance of intelligence? Clearly, the system was defective. Perhaps even with such a flawed system, McCone’s insistence that the Soviets were placing offensive weapons in Cuba might have had a significant impact on top administration officials had McCone not been absent from Washington. Even so, historian Christopher M. Heist claims, “McCone’s ‘crusade’ during the summer and fall of 1962 was a primary reason for the early discovery of the missiles.”[6] With the release of declassified CIA documents and a great deal of historical research accomplished, it is time to re-examine the CIA’s role in the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Fidel Castro’s revolutionary forces took power in 1959, nationalizing many American businesses. He sanctioned a socialist form of government, which soon turned to an endorsement of Soviet Communism. In turn, this troubled President Dwight D. Eisenhower. Eisenhower, who is known for his use of clandestine military actions to solve hostile situations, initiated planning for the covert operation of the Bay of Pigs. When Kennedy became president in 1961, he continued the U.S. policy of medaling in Cuba and followed through with the Eisenhower administration’s Bay of Pigs invasion. The CIA trained Cuban exiles to launch an invasion on the southern part of the island. Anti-Castro civilians on the island would then rally around the invaders to overthrow the Cuban government. However, the CIA failed to recognize that most of the civilians who had strong feelings against the Castro regime had already fled Cuba. The Bay of Pigs was a disaster and an enormous embarrassment for the United States, the Kennedy administration, and the CIA. Arguably this may have sparked the idea that the Soviet Union needed to protect its communist friends in the Caribbean by placing missiles on the island.

Following the Bay of Pigs, the Kennedy administration established Operation MONGOOSE headed by Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy. The mission, in essence, was a covert CIA operation intended to rid Cuba of both Castro and communism. It included assassination attempts of Castro, such as a fungus-infected wetsuit and a poisoned cigar. Arguably, one of the greatest assets Operation MONGOOSE had for McCone was its intelligence component. The operation included the use of U-2 planes that could track shipments into Cuba on Soviet ships. The planes took pictures of shipments, and used a computerized “crate-ology” system to determine undisclosed crates on board. While this state-of-the-art technology successfully identified some Soviet cargo on board, it failed to identify the Soviet MRBMs and IRBMs below deck.[7] Aside from the photoreconnaissance technology, the operation also relied on first-person accounts (both from intelligent agents in Cuba and from refugees). While Operation MONGOOSE never successfully eliminated Castro, it caused him to become extraordinarily cautious about Cuba’s contentious relationship with the United States and probably led to his increased demand for Soviet aid to defend Cuba.

Another direct result of the failed Bay of Pigs invasion was the firing of CIA director Allen Dulles, who had been the director under Eisenhower. McCone, who has been described as a “hawkish Republican,” was appointed as the new director.[8] Despite the seemingly conflicting political association between McCone and the president, the two families had become close during the illness and death of McCone’s first wife Ethel.[9] Both the Kennedy family and McCone were devout Catholics, which only helped to solidify their relationship. Robert Kennedy and McCone would later have a falling out. However, following the death of Ethel, the Kennedy’s and McCone were able to develop a strong personal relationship.[10]  Once he became Director of Central Intelligence (DCI), McCone set to task on updating the agency and making it more efficient. He made widespread changes, including the elimination of an intercom system that frequently interrupted the director, replaced some of Dulles’ division chiefs and deputies, and lobbied the Pentagon for more support in the use of intelligence planes.[11] He was one of the first members of the intelligence community to predict and discover the missiles. Having come from the Atomic Energy Commission, McCone had a great deal of knowledge in the importance of nuclear weapons and was frequently outspoken about their use.[12] There is no evidence that McCone ever withheld information from the president. Moreover, he worked incredibly hard to remove the restrictions that had been placed on U-2 missions in the preceding months, which had been suspended largely for political reasons.

President Kennedy was highly political, and 1962 was a mid-term election year. Two years earlier, he had strongly criticized the Eisenhower administration for not doing enough to challenge the Soviet threat. Now he now was facing the same criticism from Republicans (brought about largely by his decision not to send U.S. forces into Cuba after the Bay of Pigs). He was genuinely concerned about the mid-term elections. Presidential historian Richard Reeves suggests that Kennedy’s focus on politics greatly hindered his ability to concentrate on Cuba and that the Soviets were able to sneak in missiles because the president was distracted with politics. Reeves claims that Kennedy was mostly concerned with Republican Senator Kenneth Keating, who was suggesting that Kennedy was too soft on the Soviets. In response, Kennedy started his September 13 news conference in a strongly worded warning:

“I would like to take this opportunity to set the matter in perspective…. It is Mr. Castro and his supporters who are in trouble. So it is not surprising that in a frantic effort to bolster his regime he should try to arouse the Cuban people by charges of an imminent American invasion…. I will repeat the conclusion that I reported last week: that these new shipments do not constitute a threat to any other part of this hemisphere…. We shall neither initiate nor allow aggression in this hemisphere…. I have indicated that if Cuba should possess a capacity to carry out offensive actions against the United States, that the United States would act.” [13]


Senator Keating stood on the Senate floor and accused the Soviet Union of sneaking thousands of troops and torpedo boats into Cuba. The president was sure that the CIA had leaked the information, and he remarked, “Those CIA bastards… I’m going to get those bastards if it’s the last thing I do.”[14]

Time magazine was publishing classified CIA and State Department documents on Cuba. Other newspapers were reporting similar stories. On September 3, 1962, The New York Daily News headlines included, “REDS CONFIRM BUILDUP IN CUBA.” The article reported that the USSR had given Cuba Surface-to-Air-Missiles (SAMs) and suggested that missile bases might be under construction.[15] In a press conference on August 29, reporters asked questions about the presence of Soviet troops and military equipment in Cuba. Kennedy denied Keating’s earlier accusations of the presence of Soviet troops and explained that the Soviet Union and Cuba were working on “an expanded advisory and technical mission.”[16] Despite public denials of Soviet military and weapons in Cuba, the Kennedy administration was aware of increased Soviet activity on the island.

Notwithstanding reports of military equipment being shipped into Cuba, the intelligence community frequently came to the same conclusion: any Soviet buildup of weapons in Cuba would be unlikely or inconsistent with what the Soviet Union had done prior. On August 10, McCone met with Secretary of State Dean Rusk and reported that there was an unexpected importation of distinctive electronic material used in MRBMs  into Cuba.[17] Ten days later, the CIA acknowledged,

“It appears that between 4000 and 6000 Soviet/Bloc personnel have arrived in Cuba since 1 July. Many are known to be technicians, some are suspected to be military units, as such, being included…. Unloading of ships takes place under maximum security, with the Cuba population excluded from the port areas. Large equipment is noticeable; large crates have been observed which could contain airplane fuselages or missile components.”[18]


In a Special National Intelligence Estimate titled “The Military Buildup in Cuba” written on September 19, it was noted that the Soviet Union was supplying arms to Cuba in order to secure the Cuban regime from another U.S. invasion, or a U.S. backed coup d’etat against Castro. However, providing MRBMs and IRBMs in Cuba would be “incompatible” with previous USSR practice:

“The USSR could derive considerable military advantage from the establishment of Soviet medium and intermediate range ballistic missiles in Cuba, or from the establishment of a Soviet submarine base there. As between the two, the establishment of a submarine base would be the more likely. Either development, however, would be incompatible with Soviet practice to date and with Soviet policy as we presently estimate it. It would indicate a far greater willingness to increase the level of risk in US-Soviet relations than the USSR has displayed thus far, and consequently would have important policy implications with respect to other areas [Berlin] and other problems in East-West relations.” [19]


Had the intelligence community and the Kennedy administration believed that the Soviets were, in fact, placing offensive missiles in Cuba, there undoubtedly would have been a greater demand for increased intelligence. In turn, the missiles would most likely have been discovered earlier.

Garthoff argues that perhaps the reports, “should have concluded that the Soviet leaders probably would not place nuclear missiles in Cuba. At the same time, however, it would have given more weight and attention to the possibility that they would do so.”[20] One obvious flaw in this argument comes to mind that McCone must also have recognized. Simply because hitherto, the Soviet Union had not done something did not mean that they could or would not try something new. Unfortunately, the rationale reasoning that the Soviet Union would not place offensive weapons in Cuba was a direct result of the very conservative culture within the intelligence community.

When President Harry Truman founded the CIA and the National Security Council (NSC), it was expected that there would be a cozy cooperation between the two agencies. The CIA would gather intelligence and provide analysis, while the NSC would make decisions based on that analysis.[21] Truman also established the Office of National Estimates (ONE) to be a semi-independent component of the CIA. ONE would provide estimates by asking questions on intent and “probable development.”[22] What was unique about ONE, different from other federal intelligence agencies, is that it was comprised of the highest-ranking civil servants, men who were free from most political duties, free from the burden of annual budgets, free from questioning before Congressional committee’s, and had no administrative duties. Their responsibility has been described as, “brood[ing] about the world’s problems and to project their views about how these problems are likely to affect American national security interests.”[23] ONE also created the National Intelligence Estimates (NIE) and the Special National Intelligence Estimates (SNIE). The Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) was created a year before the crisis under the Department of Defense. The National Security Agency (NSA), which dealt largely with communication intelligence, and the Bureau of Intelligence and Research were created under the Department of State.[24] With so many intelligence agencies working mostly independently of each other, one can understand how information might have been processed in a chaotic, inefficient manner – inherent of many bureaucratic establishments.

Those who use gathered intelligence are often political figures (such as the NSC and the president). However, analysts make conclusions based on what they are given, rather than on what they think might be politically beneficial.[25] President Kennedy’s political influences combined with his remarkable quest for knowledge led him to rely less on the NSC than his predecessors.[26] Rather than using the NSC as a means of consultation and advising, Kennedy used them as a way to communicate already-determined decisions made in smaller groups within his political inner circle.[27]

As previously established, the nature of the intelligence community was very conservative. CIA historian Scott D. Breckenridge describes a conservative intelligence community as controlling the imagination and “limiting the liberties to be taken with what is known.”[28] Consistently, the intelligence community claimed that simply because the Soviet Union had never placed missiles outside of the Soviet bloc before, it was not likely that they would do it now. There was hard, known evidence to which the intelligence community did not pay heed. The culture of the CIA (with the exception of McCone) focused on what was most likely to happen, thus limiting the possibility of other scenarios (notably, the possibility of Soviet offensive weapons in Cuba).  Princeton University Professor Klaus Knorr describes a situation where anticipations do not apply to known facts as “philosophical predisposition”[29] This certainly describes the intelligence agency during the months the Soviet Union was deploying missiles in Cuba. Prior to the deployment of missiles in Cuba, the Soviet Union had never sent missiles outside of the Soviet bloc. While the intelligence community did not think that the Soviets would deploy missiles to Cuba, information gathered from AMTORRID and other sources contradicted U.S. assumptions.

On August 20, McCone reported definite presence of SAMs in Cuba. To many in Washington, it did not come as a big surprise. Nine days later it was reported in the New York Times that large shipments of Soviet military equipment to Cuba had been underway since late July.[30] The State Department believed that the SA-2’s were solely for defensive purposes; McCone thought otherwise. He met with Kennedy the following day and told him that he thought the SAMs could only be cover up of larger offensive weapons. He reiterated his concerns in a letter to Kennedy stating, “The only construction I can put on the missiles going into Cuba is that the Russians are preparing to introduce offensive missiles. I question the value of SAMs except as the means of making possible the introduction of offensive missiles.”[31] On August 25, McCone recommended to Deputy Director of Intelligence General Marshall S. Carter that he urge the administration to allow more U-2 flights to inspect the progress of the SAM sites. With that, McCone left Washington to marry his second wife, Theiline Pigott, in Seattle on August 29. Following their wedding, they left for the French Riviera for a month-long honeymoon.[32]

It is very surprising that someone who was so worried and convinced that the Soviets were building offensive missiles in Cuba and protecting them with SAM missiles left for a month-long vacation out of the country. One can only have sympathy for McCone having lost his first wife and eager to marry his second. Doubtless, he loved Theiline and was anxious to spend time with her away from Washington. However, in the context of such an intense prelude to the Cuban Missile Crisis, one would think he would feel obligated to stay in Washington, especially as the development of the SAM sites and rumors of missiles in Cuba increased (CIA reports, which McCone presumably read, also showed this). Carter would convey McCone’s wishes at various meetings while he was gone. Perhaps McCone felt confident that Carter would lobby for increased use of the U-2’s.

McGeorge Bundy, National Security Advisor, later gave some insight as to why McCone left for his lengthy honeymoon at such an important time. Bundy calls McCone an “exceptional” member of the Kennedy administration because of his early feelings that the Soviets were planning something:

“…. [McCone’s] anxiety did not arise from bureaucratic wariness in his agency; his professionals did not agree with him, and I never knew McCone to try to bend their assessments to match his own opinions. He pressed his case as an individual, not as a representative of the agency, but he pressed it energetically.”[33]


In fact, while Bundy was in Paris (and McCone on his honeymoon), McCone called upon Bundy to join him for a walk where he again stressed his argument that he believed the Soviets were placing missiles in Cuba. He also pressed for an increase in surveillance (U-2’s).[34] McCone was well-known for getting things done in a forceful manner. He had to have known that a face-to-face dialogue would have procured more support in the use of U-2’s. Regardless, McCone’s absence from Washington definitely had an impact on intelligence gathering.

On October 27, 1960, President Eisenhower authorized the first U-2 mission over the island of Cuba. The use of the U-2 was controversial. In essence, it was a spy plane, and when flown over another country, it would violate that country’s sovereignty. In an October 8 memorandum for the Director of Intelligence, Sherman Kent, Chairman of the Board of National Estimates noted, “The Soviets and Cubans would make every effort to shoot down any reconnaissance vehicle that came over Cuba…. Having international law on their side, they would hope to achieve a UN condemnation of the United States for acts threatening peace.”[35] More concerning, however, was the top secret technology on board. If a plane were to be shot down, would the technology fall into the hands of an adversary? These were all questions being contemplated by top intelligence advisors. The U-2 technology required fair weather to operate, and the CIA monthly forecast determined when U-2 planes would fly. As the Soviets began their arms buildup in Cuba, it was decided that two missions per month would fly over Cuba. U-2s would not fly unless overcast was predicted to be less than 25 percent.[36] Unfortunately for the United States, hurricane season was nearing, and the weather over Cuba was particularly cloudy during the late summer and early fall of 1962. In fact, two of four planned U-2 flights over Cuba in September were cancelled because of poor weather.[37]

Weeks before the missiles were discovered in Cuba, the U.S. Air Force had taken over reconnaissance flight missions. While Garthoff claims that it had no impact, one can only doubt that had McCone been in charge of them, they might have occurred more frequently.[38] U-2 photography of August 29 confirmed the existence of SAM’s and guided missile boats. According to photograph interpreters, the photos disclosed the existence of tanks, self-propelled guns, the arrival of more troops, and validated predictions that SAMs would be ready in the near future.[39] Despite the availability of such technology and an acknowledgment of Soviet military expansion in Cuba, restrictions were placed on the use of U-2 missions. Consequently, this decision hindered the intelligence community’s ability to find Soviet missiles in Cuba sooner. Reflecting back on the months before October 14, McCone later explained, “In planning for any U-2 operation over well-defended, denied territory, we were always aware of criticism that attended the U-2 incident over the USSR in May of 1960. The two incidents involving the straying of a U-2 over Sakhalin on August 30 and the loss of a Chinese Nationalist U-2 over the China mainland on September 8 served to sharpen the already existing apprehension.”[40]

The two incidents involving top-secret, sensitive U.S. technology occurring within just days of each other caused alarm for Rusk. As previously established, U-2 missions were very controversial because they violated other countries’ sovereignty. It was a diplomatic tribulation with which Rusk would have to deal. Furthermore, the Bay of Pigs made the United States appear as an aggressive nation towards Cuba. There were real diplomatic repercussions that resulted in U-2 flights over the island. On September 10, the Secretary of State called for a meeting regarding scheduled U-2 missions in Cuba. Carter, acting director of the CIA in McCone’s absence, urged the flights to continue as scheduled.

Several historians and McCone himself have mentioned the tension that existed between the Director of Central Intelligence and the Air Force. While both scholars and McCone are silent on why this friction existed, one can speculate on the reasons. McCone may have been seen as an outsider. He was a strong Republican in a Democratic administration. He had also only been Director of Central Intelligence since November 1961. Perhaps some were weary to trust a man of such little experience as DCI. However, it is most likely that the stain of the Bay of Pigs still resonated within the administration. The CIA had let the president down, so why would they trust the head of that agency on allegations of offensive Soviet weapons in Cuba? The diplomatic pressures of the Department of State undoubtedly influenced Rusk’s decision to restrict U-2 missions. Even while this tension existed between the DCI and other administration officials, McCone still had a great deal of influence within the intelligence community.

The U-2 flights over Cuba would have covered areas where intelligence planes had not flown in over a month. Carter argued for a long flight around the edge of Cuba and overhead. A compromise was made that allowed for four flights: two over international water and two speedy flights over Cuba. Unfortunately for Carter and McCone, the agreement was not written down. The compromise made on September 10 would not fully be carried out because Rusk delayed the overhead flights by proposing they be sponsored by the Organization of American States (OAS). Carter again lobbied for more intelligence flights on September 20; Rusk was opposed. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara pushed for the control of the U-2’s to be transferred over to the Strategic Air Command (SAC). He argued that if a plane were to be shot down, it would be less embarrassing if it were under the command of the Air Force than the CIA. Carter was strongly opposed; however, SAC won out. Had McCone been present at these essential meetings deciding the fait of U.S. intelligence in Cuba, the CIA may have been more successful in procuring more intelligence flights over the island. When McCone returned, he was able to obtain approval for more flights over the periphery of Cuba, which discovered costal defense installations.[41]

With a conservative culture within the intelligence community, it is easy to see why such incidents would have slowed or even halted U-2 flights. In an October 5 meeting with Carter and Lansdale, the Director of Central Intelligence stated that the restriction on U-2 planes had positioned the U.S. intelligence community in such a rut, that it was unable to confirm or investigate the presence of offensive capabilities in Cuba.[42] McCone was concerned about the infrequent U-2 missions and most importantly, that no U-2 flights had been conducted over the center or western part of the island for a month. After much insistence from McCone, the Joint Chiefs of Staff decided on October 9 to allow U-2 planes to fly south to north and over the western section of Cuba.[43]

The CIA had been gathering a plethora of details on Soviet ships coming into Cuban harbors carrying Soviet weaponry, tanks, and troops in the months prior to the discover of MRBMs and IRBMs in Cuba. Human intelligence (HUMINT) played a significant roll in this discovery. However, HUMINT must provide new information that is reliable in order for it to be used.[44]  Foreign diplomats and Cuban exiles were reporting increased military activity on the island. When Cuban refugees reported said information, it was most commonly at an intelligence headquarters located at an airport in Miami call Opa-Locka. Opa-Locka became an interrogation center for refugees in February 1962. It would take information from one refugee and compare the results to another’s. There were thousands of refugees interrogated. In May, Opa-Locka established a system that would identify specific locations in Cuba, which would be then recommended for aerial surveillance. In August, another system was established to create a card file on specific Cuban locations. Such a card was established on San Cristobal (one of the first missile sites to be completed) on October 1.[45]

Some of the reports from Opa-Locka were false. While Allison and Zelikow claim that refugees intentionally gave false information, they fail to substantiate evidence to their claim.[46] Interestingly, neither other historians, nor the CIA have made this claim. One refugee reported, “After about every third truck there was a long flatbed pulled by a tractor-like vehicle. On each vehicle there was a round object as tall as a palm tree and covered by a tarpaulin…” The CIA periodically opened mail correspondences, which revealed that between the last few days of July and the beginning of August, over a dozen ships had docked in Havana.[47] An eyewitness reported “large intercontinental rockets more than 20 meters long” being unloaded from a Soviet ship. The CIA determined “it is more likely that source observed [SAM] missiles being offloaded.” It is now known that these were R-12 rockets. Eight of these were unloaded in the Mariel on board Soviet freighter Poltava.[48] One report processed at Opa-Locka indicated that there was an increase in Soviet cargo ships to Cuba riding high (suggestion a light, hulking cargo such as MRBMs and ICBMs), which were unloaded under the guise of nighttime darkness.[49]

Despite the seemingly obvious conclusions of the reports, the CIA did not investigate further into what was actually happening in Cuba. The agency noted that there were so many reports coming in, they could not possibly look into everything being reported. AMTORRID agents in Cuba would write their observations in a secret code or use “secret techniques” in the form of a letter. They would then mail that letter to a destination outside of the United States. The mail would arrive at designated CIA drop-offs where the agency would then forward the mail to the CIA headquarters. There, agents would decipher and read the reports.[50] What did not happen, and perhaps should have happened, was a file-creation system for different types of categories of reports. Then, reports from agents should have been compared with reports from Opa-Locka and correlations made. AMTORRID and COBRA agents had reported the presence of military equipment in Cuba long before the Soviets began to place SAMs and missiles in Cuba.[51] The CIA suggests that it was flooded with information that proved to be unreliable. Interestingly, Cuban ambassador to the United Nations Carlos Lechuga notes that the Soviets had been supplying Cubans with light weapons, artillery mortars, tanks, self-propelled cannons, and other supplies before 1962.[52] Lechuga, being part of the Cuban government, would have no reason to be deceptive in his claim. Therefore, it is perhaps likely that the reports the CIA gathered from AMTORRID agents believed to have been false and unreliable may actually have been true.

Shortly after Castro’s takeover in 1959, a novel written by Graham Greene describes a vacuum cleaner salesman who was paid a great deal of money by a British government intelligence agency for the “secret” sketch of a “rocket launching pad” supposedly in Cuba. The sketch turned out to be a drawing of the inside of a vacuum cleaner.[53] While this was a book of fiction, it does give us insight as to how some in the agency may have been feeling. After all, the agency had received 882 reports in September alone of internal activities in Cuba.[54] Nonetheless, an increase in intelligence should have provoked some concern and should inevitably have increased the need to re-examine how information was being sorted and used.

One seemingly obvious flaw with the CIA’s claim that a flood of information, much of it false, prevented the intelligence community from gathering useful information is that the agency had a defective system of sorting intelligence. Priority National Intelligence Objectives (PNIOs) was the main system the intelligence community used to sort gathered information. There were initially three levels of information, with a fourth added in the early 1960s. Soviet foreign policy and military were at the top of these priorities. Later, in 1966, PNIOs was considered ineffective.[55] This very broad system of categorizing information only moved all Soviet-related intelligence to the top of the list. What was then done with that information? Even though historians and the CIA agency itself have hidden behind the convenient scapegoat that too much information, most of which was unreliable, explains the failed intelligence leading up to the Cuban Missile Crisis, the CIA received enough information which should have caused alarm.

On September 9, aboard the Soviet Omsk docked in the Calsilda with 6 R-12 rockets, a member of AMTORRID overheard Castro’s personal pilot, Claudio Morinas, claim that Cuba had, “many mobile ramps for intermediate-range rockets… [Americans] don’t know what’s awaiting them.”[56] While at the United Nations, the Castro stated that Cuba had, “weapons that we did not need and that we do not want to use.”[57] Cuban officials reported to British journalists that there were “missiles on Cuban territory whose range is good enough to hit the United States and not only Florida.”[58] Even the Cuban newspaper Revolution headlined on September 12, “ROCKETS WILL BLAST THE UNITED STATES IF THEY INVADE CUBA.”[59] A very tactical element of deception is to provide “false” information to one’s enemy. Perhaps the CIA believed that the Cuban government was purposefully deceiving the CIA by exclaiming statements involving a Soviet arms buildup in Cuba. However, the agency does not mention this in any of its declassified documents. Therefore, it is likely that the agency could not handle the information that it was given, some of it clearly true. Furthermore, the system established to sort and forward relevant information was flawed.

On October 14, a U-2 flew over the western part of Cuba. One day later, the photos were interpreted and yielded a spine-chilling conclusion. The missions discovered two disclosed arches in the Sierra del Romario Mountains that contained Soviet MRBMs and spotted a military encampment nearby with 15 smaller tents and 75 vehicles (significantly, six canvass covered trailers of 80 feet-the size to transport Soviet SS-3). The photographs also revealed another nearby site with eight trailers, four special vehicles that could be used to erect a missile, 20 small tents, 10 large trucks, 16 small trucks, and 12 unidentified pieces of large equipment.[60] President Kennedy was notified on the morning of October 16 and took immediate action.

While the crisis remarkably ended without the United States, Cuba, or the Soviet Union firing a single nuclear weapon at each other, it was one of the most dangerous periods in known history. The CIA continued to provide information to the president and members on his crisis advisory board, the Executive Committee (EXCOM), so they could make educated decisions on the volatile situation in Cuba. They still failed to give an accurate account of total Soviet military capability on the island. For example, the CIA believed that there were only 6,000-8,000 Soviet troops on the island.[61] The military planned an invasion based on that number. In 1988, it was discovered that 42,000 Soviet troops had been stationed on the island. The CIA was not able to find any nuclear weapons and believed that the Soviets did not have any in Cuba. Also in 1988, it was discovered that 60 nuclear warheads for IRBMs and MRBMs, 100 tactical nukes, 80 nuclear warheads for cruise missile launchers, and 12 for the Luna rockets had been on the island. Perhaps more thorough intelligence gathering prior to the crisis would have been able to more accurately determine what was on the island of Cuba. While the matter of CIA intelligence during the Crisis is a matter for another paper, it should be understood that a faulty intelligence system that nearly left offensive weapons undetected in Cuba is also responsible for inaccurate intelligence during the throughout the Crisis.

Lechuga later reflected on the surprise that the Soviet and Cuban governments were able to deliver.

“During the first phase of the operation there were no leaks; it was impressive how thousands of men, equipment, missiles, planes and torpedo boats were sent from Soviet ports to Cuba to their final destinations, without the intelligence services of the United States and its allies learning of the true dimensions and nature of the huge maneuver. The first troops arrived in August 1962, and the missiles in September, but it wasn’t until mid-October that the U-2s photographed the missile installations, by which time some of them were already operational.”[62]


In February of the following year, the president’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board also reflected on the job of the CIA. In this report, known as the Killian Report, they recognized the CIA’s “high performance” the agency was able to achieve under such critical circumstances. However, the report admits a problem of maintaining high performance in between the crisis. The Killian Report also noted that the CIA should have been more efficient in “obtaining adequate and timely intelligence as to the nature and scope of the Soviet military build-up as it developed over a period of months, and exploiting the available intelligence as a basis for estimating Soviet and Cuban plans and intentions.”  The report also acknowledged that the CIA failed to gather information with a sense of urgency, and that that might have “stimulated a greater effort” had that been done.[63] The Killian report went on to criticize the CIA’s inability to properly use agents and their information to determine intentions. It recognized that the inclement weather was a factor in poor use of U-2s but acknowledged that between September 8-16, missions were wrongfully suspended.[64]

Just weeks following the Killian Report, McCone wrote a candid response to the criticisms of the report. McCone was very defensive toward his earlier position on U-2 restrictions. He especially did not want to see them restricted anymore than they had already been. He also reiterated his personal belief that he thought that the Soviets were placing offensive weapons in Cuba all along. McCone expressed anger at the State Department for its failure to estimate what the other “fellow” would do or not do. McCone believed there was too much intelligence coming in. He noted that in just two years, there were over 3,500 agents reporting missile in Cuba, of which very few were accurate.[65]

Without much difficulty, one could blame the CIA for it’s inadequate ability to “discover” offensive missiles in Cuba before the situation became critical. While the CIA had many reports of a Soviet arms buildup on the island, they were unable to successfully distinguish incoming reports of missiles as being either true or false. Furthermore, the agency’s failure in organizing and comparing similar intelligence reports demonstrates nothing less than a faulty intelligence system. McCone’s absence also did not help levy any push for more reconnaissance missions over Cuba. The tensions he had with the conservation culture of the intelligence community also prevented an increase in reconnaissance missions. President Kennedy’s political agenda surely distracted him from intelligence reports and Soviet intentions in Cuba during the election campaigns of 1962. However, the restricted use of U-2 planes greatly hindered US intelligence to detect SAM sights on the western portion of the island until they had already been operational. There is no single person or agency solely at fault. Nevertheless, the CIA, which is responsible for gathering intelligence for the United States to look after it best interests, failed to detect offensive missiles in Cuba until the Crisis had nearly reached its pinnacle.


Allison, Graham T., and Philip Zelikow. Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis. (New York: Longman Publishing), 1999.

Blight, James G. and David A. Welch, editors. Intelligence and the Cuban Missile Crisis. (Portland: London Publishing), 1998.

Breckenridge, Scott D. The CIA and the U.S. Intelligence System. (Boulder: Westview Press), 1986.

Bundy, McGeorge. Danger and Survival: Choices About the Bomb in the First Fifty Years. (New York: Random House), 1988.

Clark, Robert M. Intelligence Analysis: A Target-Centric Approach. (Washington: CQ Press), 2004.

Cooper, Chester L. “The CIA and Decision Making.” Foreign Affairs. 50:2. (January 1972), 223-236.

Dobbs, Michael. One Minute to Midnight: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War. (New York: Random House, Inc.), 2009.

Douglas, James W. JFK and the Unspeakable: Why He Died and Why it Matters. (New York: Touchstone Publishing), 2008.

Fursenko, Aleksandr and Timothy Naftali. “One Hell of a Gamble:” Khrushchev, Castro, and Kennedy, 1958-1964, The Secret History of the Cuban Missile Crisis. (New York: W. W. Norton and Company), 1997.

Heist, Christopher M. “John McCone and the Cuban Missile Crisis: August 1- November 3, 1962.” M.A. thesis., Liberty University, 2010.

Lechuga, Carlos. Cuba and the Missile Crisis: The Dramatic Inside Story by Carlos Lechuga, Cuba’s UN Ambassador. (New York: Ocean Press), 2001.

May, Ernest R. and Philip D. Zelikow. The Kennedy Tapes: Inside the White House During the Cuban Missile Crisis. (Cambridge: Belknap of Harvard University), 1997.

McAuliffe, Mary S., editor. CIA History Staff. CIA Documents on the Cuban Missile Crisis: 1962 (Washington: Ross & Perry, Inc.), 2001.

Murphey, David E. Battleground Berlin: CIA vs KGB in the Cold War. (New Haven: Yale University Publishing), 1997.

O’Neal, Michael. “Reds Confirm Sending Arms, Troops to Cuba,” New York Daily News. September 3, 1962.

Reeves, Richard. President Kennedy: Profiles of Power. (New York: Touchstone Publishing), 1993.

Stern, Sheldon. The Week the World Stood Still: Inside the Secret Cuban Missile Crisis. (Stanford: Stanford University Press), 2005.

Topping, Seymore. “Moscow Discloses Shipments to Cuba Will Double in ’62,” New York Times. August 29, 1962.

Vincent,E. Duke. The Camelot Conspiracy: A Novel of the Kennedy’s, Castro, and the CIA. (New York: Derby Publishing), 2011.



[1] McGeorge Bundy. Danger and Survival: Choices about the Bomb in the First Fifty Years.  (New York: Random House Publishing, 1988), 391.

[2] The CIA’s role in intelligence gathering during the Cuban Missile Crisis only appears briefly in one of the most revered, analytical works on the crisis, Allison Graham and Philip Zelikow. Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis. (New York: Longman Publishing, 1999). 219-224. Michael Dobbs briefly mentions it in Michal Dobbs. One Minute to Midnight: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Castro on the Brink of Nuclear War. (New York: Vintage Books, 2009), 120-123. Surprisingly, there have been no

solid historical works analyzing the successes and failures of the intelligence community.

[3] Raymond Garthoff in James G. Blight and David A. Welch, eds. Intelligence and the Cuban Missile Crisis. (Portland: Frank Cass Publishers, 1998), 24.

[4] Michael Dobbs. One Minute to Midnight: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and Cast on the Brink of Nuclear War. (New York: Vintage Books, 2008), 122-123.

[5]  Graham T. Allison and Philip Zelikow. Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis. (New York: Longman Publishing, 1999), 224.

[6] Christopher M. Heist, “John McCone and the Cuban Missile Crisis: August 1- November 3, 1962” (M.A. thesis, Liberty University, 2010).

[7] Dobbs, 139.

[8] Dobbs. 123.

[9] Heist, 12.

[10] Aleksandr Fursenko and Timothy Naftali. “One Hell of a Gamble”: Khrushchev, Castro, and Kennedy, 1958-1964, The Secret History of the Cuban Missile Crisis. (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 1997), 145.  

[11] Fursenko and Naftali, 12.

[12] Heist 10.

[13] Richard Reeves. President Kennedy: Profiles of Power. (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1993), 352.

[14] Reeves, 345

[15] Michael O’Neil, “Reds Confirm Sending Arms, Troops to Cuba,” New York Daily News, September 3, 1962.

[16] Reeves, 344.

[17] Mary S. McAuliffe, editor. CIA Documents on the Cuban Missile Crisis, 1962. (Washington: Ross and Perry, 2001), 13.

[18] McAuliffe, 19-20.

[19] McAuliffe 92-93.

[20] Garthoff in Intelligence, 21.

[21] Chester L. Cooper, “The CIA and Decision-Making,” Foreign Affairs 50 (1972): 223.

[22] Ibid, 224.

[23] Ibid, 225.

[24] McAuliffe, 19.

[25] Scott D. Breckenridge. The CIA and the U.S. Intelligence System. (Boulder: Westview Press, 1986), 145.

[26] President Kennedy was known as a “reading president,” as he would keep himself up-to-date on a variety of international news. Cooper, 227.

[27] Cooper, 227.

[28] Breckenridge, 145.

[29] Robert M. Clark. Intelligence Analysis: A Target-Centric Approach. (Washington: CQ Press, 2004), 117.

[30]  Seymour Topping, “Moscow Discloses Shipments to Cuba Will Double in ’62,” New York Times, August 29, 1962.

[31] McAuliffe, 339.

[32] Heist, 24.

[33] McGeorge Bundy. 419.

[34] Ibid, 419-420.

[35] McAuliffe, 120.

[36] Ibid, 130.

[37] Ibid, 135.

[38] Garthoff in Intelligence, 24.

[39] McAuliffe, 35-37.

[40] Ibid, 128.

[41] Allison and Zelikow, 336-337.

[42] Ibid, 115.

[43] Ibid, 16-17.

[44] Breckenridge, 149.

[45] Allison and Zelikow, 220-221.

[46] Ibid, 224.

[47] Reeves, 339.

[48] Dobbs, 123.

[49] Breckenridge, 23.

[50] Allison and Zelikow, 220.

[51] McAuliffe, 99.

[52] Carlos Lechuga, Cuba and the Missile Crisis. (New York: Ocean Press, 2001), 10.

[53] Dobbs, 122.

[54] McAuliffe, 100.

[55] Ibid, 56.

[56] Dobbs, 79.

[57] Ibid, 80.

[58] Ibid, 79.

[59] Ibid, 79.

[60] McAuliffe, 140.

[61] Dobbs, 352.

[62] Lechuga, 33.

[63] McAuliffe, 363.

[64] Ibid, 364.

[65] Ibid, 374.

About brentgstewart

I am a 20th century historian with a focus on political history. My primary work has focussed on the personal life of Franklin D. Roosevelt.
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