• Dino Brugioni
  • John Hughes
  • Sherman Kent
  • “We had gone to the brink, as we had vowed we would, but when we arrived at that point, instead of unsheathing our swords and striking, we stepped back and pondered the stupidity that had gotten us into such a position. With a sigh of relief, we determined that in the new era, we would never again permit our international policy to be so simplistic and jingoistic; that our national leaders would think long and cautiously before making warlike policy statements. Safeguards had to be established to prevent future crisis situations from rapid deterioration into nuclear confrontations.” (p. vii)

Lesson: Safeguards are needed to prevent future crises from escalating to nuclear war.


  • “I trace the crisis back to President Eisenhower’s concern for good intelligence and his interest in aerial reconnaissance. Without the U-2 there may have been no crisis—only an accomplished fact…I was privileged to be a part of a group of dedicated individuals at the National Photographic Interpretation Center who furnished the information derived from the analysis of aerial photography to the policymakers, information that played a major role in resolving the crisis.” (p. viii-ix)

Lesson: The Cuban missile crisis demonstrated the value of photo intelligence. Without aerial reconnaissance President Kennedy might not have found out about the Soviet missiles in Cuba before they became operational.


  • “A strong argument can also be made that the research and analysis elements of the intelligence community were not structured to handle events of the magnitude of the Cuban missile crisis. There were three groups of analysts at work within the intelligence community on separate but related problems. One group, concerned with Latin American affairs, was essentially focusing on the Cuban problem, the shipment of military equipment to Cuba, and its political repercussions in Latin America. The second group concentrated on the Soviet-Berlin problem, the Soviet threat to conclude a treaty with East Germany and to drive the Allied occupation forces from West Berlin. The third group dealt solely with Soviet strategic capabilities and created an estimate each year that dwelt solely on this subject. The preoccupation of each analysis group with its own problem, and the lack of coordination and interface between the groups, went largely unrecognized. There was a failure to realize that the problems were interrelated—that the solution of the Berlin problem might be related to developments in Cuba or that the Soviets might attempt to place missiles in Cuba to realign the balance of power.” (p. 98-99)

Lesson: The crisis uncovered coordination problems between different intelligence groups working on separate but interrelated issues. Prior to the crisis analysts failed to connect the dots between Berlin, the Cuban problem, and Soviet strategic capabilities.


  • “[After the crisis] The president, now fully aware of the capabilities of aerial photography, engaged in a long discussion with Mr. Lundahl on one occasion—inquiring about the capabilities of aerial reconnaissance to monitor a disarmament agreement with the Soviets. In commenting on the problems of monitoring adherence to an arms agreement, Kennedy expressed the opinion that the camera would probably turn out to be our best inspector…Lundahl explained the tremendous advances being made in satellite photography and advised that in the future, satellite reconnaissance would be applicable to monitoring disarmament agreements.” (p. 549)

Lesson: The successful application of U-2 photographic intelligence during the Cuban crisis raised the possibility of future use of aerial reconnaissance capabilities and satellite photography, to monitor disarmament agreements.


  • Probably the most important lesson learned in the Cuban missile crisis was to keep all lines of communication—political, military, and diplomatic—open at all times. Whether direct or indirect, maintaining communications was indispensable to resolving the crisis. It became dangerously apparent that there had to be a better method of communicating between governments than the antiquated Department of State and Foreign Ministry methods of encoding, transmitting, and translating diplomatic messages.” (p. 564)

Lesson: Keeping all lines of communication open at all times is vital for resolving a crisis.


  • The most difficult task for the intelligence analyst is to determine the intent or will of the opposition. Sherman Kent, director of the Office of National Estimates, was well aware of this fact in the preparation of national estimates… History is replete with examples of inaccurate conclusions drawn in advance of the facts. Once an advance conclusion is accepted, there is a tendency to reject information that conflicts with it… Special National Intelligence Estimate (SNIE) No. 85-2-62, titled “The Military Buildup in Cuba,” was approved by the United States Intelligence Board without objections and issued on September 19. The estimate indicated that: “We believe that the military buildup which began in July does not reflect a radically new Soviet policy towards Cuba… Without changing the essentially defensive character of the military buildup in Cuba…the Soviets have enhanced Cuban military capabilities…” McCone would later explain: “The majority opinion in the intelligence community, as well as State and Defense, was that this [the placement of offensive missiles in Cuba] would be so out of character with the Soviets that they would not do so. They had never placed an offensive missile in any satellite area. I pointed out that Cuba was the only piece of real estate that they had indirect control of where a missile could reach Washington or New York and not reach Moscow. So the situation was somewhat different.” But McCone’s telephone calls did not prevent the estimate’s being signed by General Carter, issued on September 19, and sent to the president.” (p. 144-147)

Lesson: Intelligence analysts should consider information that conflicts with the majority view, to avoid drawing inaccurate conclusions, as in the September 19, 1962 national intelligence estimate, which failed to warn of Soviet intentions to place offensive nuclear weapons in Cuba.

Dino A. Brugioni, Eyeball to Eyeball: The Inside Story of the Cuban Missile Crisis (New York: Random House, 1990).


  • The President needed absolute confirmation of the presence and numbers of MRBMs and any other offensive weapons that the Soviets had in place in Cuba. He needed time to marshal US ground, sea, and air forces and to consider the options for their use should military action be required. He also needed time to decide how best to confront Khrushchev with the evidence, and he had to plan how to implement the US response. Secrecy was essential. More documentary evidence was required.” (p. 60)

Lesson: Absolute secrecy was essential to give the President time to obtain definitive proof about the missiles in Cuba and consider all possible courses of action.

John T. Hughes with A. Denis Clift, “The San Cristobal Trapezoid”, Studies in Intelligence, 36: 5, 1992, p. 55-71.


  • “My central thought is that no intelligence mechanism imaginable can be anything like one hundred percent sure of predicting correctly the actions of a foreign government in a situation such as this one was. If similar situations develop in the future and if their course must be estimated from the same sort of evidentiary base, these situations too are bound to be susceptible to the same sort of misjudgment.” (p. 112)

Lesson: Intelligence has its limits: it cannot correctly predict with one hundred percent certainty the potential actions of adversaries in complex situations.


  • “In our business we are likely to be faced by the problem of a plethora of raw intelligence…being handled along the line by a group of people who divide the labor. Obviously the individuals of this group are not identical in talent or anything else, and each brings to the task his own character, personality, and outlook on life. There is no way of being sure that as they read and evaluate they all maintain the same standards of criticism or use common criteria of value and relevance…it could have been that half a dozen such readers were inclined to believe that the Soviets would put strategic weapons into Cuba and another half-dozen inclined to believe the opposite. In some measure the subsequent use of a given document depends upon who handles it first and gives it an evaluation. It could be that a valuable piece of information falls into disrepute because its early readers did not believe its story. The obverse is also possible—that an incorrect story should gain great currency because of being wholly believed by wishful critics. It is a melancholy fact of life that neither case is a great rarity, that man will often blind himself to truth by going for the comforting hypothesis, by eschewing the painful.” (p. 114)

Lesson: Intelligence analysis is subject to human error, misjudgment and bias; how information is interpreted often depends on who evaluates a given document first.


  • How could we have misjudged? The short answer is that, lacking the direct evidence, we went to the next best thing, namely information which might indicate the true course of developments. We looked hard at the fact of the Soviet military buildup in Cuba for indications of its probable final scale and nature. We concluded that the military supplies piling into Cuba indicated a Soviet intent to give Castro a formidable defensive capability…even in hindsight it is extremely difficult for many of us to follow their inner logic or blame ourselves for not having thought in parallel with them.” (p. 115)

Lesson: Intelligence has its limits in the absence of direct evidence.


  • “It is tempting to hope that some research and systematic reinterrogation of recent defectors, together with new requirements served on our own intelligence services, might turn up new insights into the Soviet process of decisionmaking. The odds are pretty strongly against it; and yet the—to use—incredible wrongness of the Soviet decision to put the missiles into Cuba all but compels an attempt to find out. Any light that can be thrown on that particular decision might lessen the chances of our misestimating the Soviets in a future case.” (p. 119)

Lesson: We must study an adversary’s decision-making process and learn from their past decisions to be in a better position to assess their future moves.

Sherman Kent, “A Crucial Estimate Relived,” Studies in Intelligence, 36:5, 1992, p. 111-119.