THE CUBAN MISSILE crisis marks its 50th anniversary this year as the most studied event of the nuclear age. Scholars and policymakers alike have been dissecting virtually every aspect of that terrifying nuclear showdown. Digging through documents in Soviet and American archives, and attending conferences from Havana to Harvard, generations of researchers have labored to distill what happened in 1962--all with an eye toward improving U.S. foreign policy.
Yet after half a century, we have learned the wrong intelligence lessons from the crisis. In some sense, this result should not be surprising. Typically, learning is envisioned as a straight-line trajectory where time only makes things better. But time often makes things worse. Organizations (and individuals) frequently forget what they should remember and remember what they should forget.
One of the most widely accepted lessons of that frightening time--that the discovery of Soviet missiles in Cuba constituted a stunning American intelligence success--needs to be challenged. An equally stunning intelligence-warning failure has been downplayed in Cuban missile crisis scholarship since the 1960s. Shifting the analytic lens from intelligence success to failure, moreover, reveals surprising and important organizational deficiencies at work. Ever since Graham Allison penned Essence of Decision in 1971, a great deal of research has focused on the pitfalls of individual perception and cognition as well as organizational weaknesses in the policymaking process. Surprisingly little work, however, has examined the crucial role of organizational weaknesses in intelligence analysis. Many of these same problems still afflict U.S. intelligence agencies today.
The pre-crisis estimates of 1962
THE EMPIRICAL RECORD of U.S. intelligence assessments leading up to the crisis is rich. We now know that between January and October 1962, when Soviet nuclear missile sites were ultimately discovered, the CIA'S estimates office produced four National Intelligence Estimates (NIES) and Special National Intelligence Estimates (SNIES) about Castro's communist regime, its relationship with the Soviet Bloc, its activities in spreading communism throughout Latin America, and potential threats to the United States.
These were not just any intelligence reports. NIES and SNIES were--and still are--the gold standard of intelligence products, the most authoritative, pooled judgments of intelligence professionals from agencies across the U.S. government. Sherman Kent, the legendary godfather of CIA analysis who ran the CIA'S estimates office at the time, described the process as an "estimating machine," where intelligence units in the State Department, military services, and CIA would research and write initial materials; a special CIA estimates staff would write a draft report; an interagency committee would conduct "a painstaking" review; and a "full-dress" version of the estimate would go down "an assembly line of eight or more stations" before being approved for dissemination. (1)
The four pre-crisis estimates of 1962 reveal that U.S. intelligence officials were gravely worried about the political fallout of a hostile communist regime so close to American shores and the possibility of communist dominoes in Latin America. But they were not especially worried about risk of a military threat from Cuba or its Soviet patron. The first estimate, released January 17, 1962 (SNIE 80-62), was a big-think piece that assessed threats to the United States from the Caribbean region over the next 2.0 years. Although the estimate considered it "very likely" that communism across the region would "grow in size" during the coming decade, it concluded that "the establishment of ... Soviet bases is unlikely for some time to come" because "their military and psychological value, in Soviet eyes, would probably not be great enough to override the risks involved" (emphasis mine). The time horizon is important, suggesting confidence that Khrushchev would be unwilling to risk establishing a Cuban base for at least several years. Indeed, the estimate later noted that its judgment about Soviet bases "might not extend over the entire period under review." Considering that the review period stretched 20 years into the future, this is quite a statement; the intelligence community's long-term estimate anticipated no short-or even medium-term crisis brewing.
The second estimate was issued March 21, 1962. (NIE 85-62), and had a narrower time horizon and scope: analyzing "the situation in Cuba and the relationships of the Castro regime with both the Soviet Bloc and Latin American Republics" over the coming year. Again, the estimate discounts heavily the possibility that the Soviet Union would defend Cuba or establish offensive military capabilities there. The estimate notes that despite Castro's vigorous efforts to secure a security guarantee, the Soviet Bloc "has avoided any explicit military commitment to defend Cuba." Later, the assessment uses much stronger estimative language, stating that, "the USSR would almost certainly not intervene directly with its own forces" were Castro's regime overthrown by internal or external forces and that although the Soviets would respond to an overthrow with strong political action, the USSR "would almost certainly never intend to hazard its own safety for the sake of Cuba" (all emphases mine). These terms are not just thrown around. Carefully chosen and reviewed in the estimates process, they are meant to convey a high degree of certainty. In fact, Khrushchev made the decision to deploy nuclear missiles to Cuba about ten weeks later, between May and June of 1962. Massive numbers of Soviet troops were roaming about the island by fall (although total numbers were not known for the next 25 years), and nuclear missiles began arriving in early September.
The third estimate was disseminated on August 1, 1962 (NIE 85-2-62), just a couple of weeks after intelligence began indicating a major Soviet arms buildup in Cuba. Although the estimate notes that Soviet bloc "military advisors and instructors" were believed to be in Cuba, along with "Bloc-supplied arms and equipment," the estimate once again notes that the Soviet Union "has avoided any formal commitment to protect and defend the regime in all contingencies." The assessment further states, "We believe it unlikely that the Bloc will provide Cuba with the capability to undertake major independent military operations" or that "the Bloc will station in Cuba Bloc combat units of any description, at least for the period of this estimate."
The fourth and crucial estimate before the crisis was released September 19, 1962. (SNIE 85-3-61). This time, however, the situation was vastly changed Starting in mid-July, a stream of intelligence reporting from both technical and human sources began indicating a massive arms buildup. This reporting increased dramatically in August and September, and the estimate's heading reflected these developments. Whereas the March and …