Photo Interpreters Recall Cuban Missile Crisis
By Ken White
National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency
SPRINGFIELD, Va., Oct. 18, 2012 Fifty years after they discovered Soviet missiles poised to strike the United States from Cuba, two intelligence officers met with hundreds of their current-day counterparts to commemorate the anniversary of the crisis that nearly brought the world to nuclear war.
National Photographic Interpretation Center imagery kept President John F. Kennedy updated on progress made by the Soviets on their missile site in Cuba. This Oct. 25, 1962, image shows all the elements necessary to launch a missile with a 1,100 nautical mile range. Analysts could tell by the tracks in the ground leading to one of the missile shelter tents that a weapon in a high state of readiness was present. The image also demonstrated the Soviets’ extensive use of canvas to camouflage its weapons components and, therefore, its intentions. Photo courtesy of National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Dino Brugioni and Vincent DiRenzo were part of a small group from the CIA’s National Photographic Interpretation Center who worked for 13 tense days in October 1962 to avert disaster. They joined author and journalist Michael Dobbs, and two current analysts, in an Oct. 15 panel discussion at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency here.
Through reminiscences and present-day observations, the group illustrated the significance of the crisis and its continued impact on the tradecraft of imagery and geospatial analysis.
A photo interpreter, DiRenzo led the NPIC team and formed the initial conclusion about the presence of Soviet medium-range ballistic missiles in Cuba from analysis of U-2 spy plane imagery. He discussed the immediate wake of his discovery.
"Considering the severity of the identification, we figured we'd be in for a long night," DiRenzo said. He indicated that the initial assessment was not a "slam dunk," as convincing people of the true significance of the find was difficult. While DiRenzo was absolutely sure, the image did not show clearly identifiable missiles, but rather, long, canvas-covered objects that, to the layman, could be almost anything.
Charged with preparing materials on daily developments for NPIC Director Arthur C. Lundahl’s briefs to the executive committee and the White House, Brugioni was instrumental in arming President John F. Kennedy with intelligence needed to navigate this perilous moment in history.
He recalled with humor how many of his briefing boards came back from the White House marked up with blue crayon from a doodling Caroline Kennedy. On a more somber note, he also relayed the fearful mood of the time.
"Black Saturday, we had gone to [defense readiness condition] 2," Brugioni said. "Fourteen hundred bombers were loaded with nuclear weapons; 50 B-52s were in the air; eight Polaris submarines were at sea; 125 [intercontinental ballistic missiles] were ready to fire; there was tactical aviation; there was 60 Thor missiles in England, 30 Jupiter missiles in Italy, and 15 Jupiters in Turkey. That morning we met with Art Lundahl and told him that all 24 pads were operational, meaning that within four to six hours, 24 missiles could be coming at the United States.
“I remember Lundahl scratching his chin, looked at me and said, ‘I don't want to scare the hell out of them, but I want to make sure they understand the danger,’" Brugioni recalled.
The son of a career diplomat, Dobbs spent his formative years behind the Iron Curtain. He became a Cold War scholar after covering it as a foreign correspondent for the Washington Post. He drew a parallel between his work and intelligence analysis.
"I feel a kinship with intelligence analysts. We try to start with the evidence and proceed from the evidence to the conclusions,” Dobbs said. “Our goal is to tell truth to power."
Dobbs went on to laud the efforts of the team who identified the missiles, and to praise Brugioni for his efforts since the crisis to improve public understanding of photo analysis.
"Dino has done more than anyone else to explain the art and science of photo interpretation to the broader public," he said. "He's a great educator; he's very good at explaining very complicated matters to laymen."
He also discussed how his research of the crisis, with the advantage of 50 years of hindsight, affirmed both the significance the crisis and the criticality of intelligence to policymaking. He also pointed out that 60 to 70 percent of the actionable intelligence came from NPIC during the crisis.
"This was the moment of the photo interpreter," Dobbs said. "They were able to tell [the president] when the missiles would be ready to fire."
It was probably the single biggest intelligence coup of the Cold War, he added.
Art Lundahl’s son, Robert, shared his late father's connection with the president.
"Above all, my father was certainly a technologist. He was a scientist at heart; he loved technology," said the younger Lundahl. "It sounded like President Kennedy had an equal interest in technology. There was a bond there."
Beyond technology, Lundahl also shared what he believes to be the key to his father’s effectiveness as an intelligence officer: exceptional communication skills.
"He was born to brief," Lundahl said. Specifically, he noted his father’s ability to be credible, while adjusting to the knowledge level of his audience and using humor to diffuse tension.
NGA analyst Walter S. Trynock compared and contrasted the world of 1962 with today’s environment. Communication skills remain critical for analysts, he noted, but the tools for providing geospatial intelligence are markedly different, and today’s leaders are bombarded with information.
"The type of information, and the pace in which information is received by the policymaker, is constant, at all times of the day and night," Trynock said. "So the challenge is to bring out the relevancy and the 'so what' to contribute to their decision making.”
Then and now, keen analysis always has been key, Dobbs said.
"Intelligence is like a huge jigsaw puzzle, and you only find a few pieces, and there are always going to be some missing pieces, but from the pieces you do find, you try to inform policymakers about the entire jigsaw puzzle," he said.