NATO fear of Russian assault may be overblown; the West has a history of getting it wrong. But then again, so do the Russians. (Part 2)

The first part of this essay focused on the US’ failure to establish a truly accurate picture of Soviet / Russian capability in the immediate period following the end of the Second World War; this second part looks at a time when the US failed to get an accurate picture of the Soviet threat (a function of capability and intent). The consequences were almost disastrous – but there were also positives that came from it.

The Cuban Missile Crisis – Assessing Soviet Threat

The Cuban Missile Crisis was ‘the epochal military confrontation of the cold war’[1]; identifying Soviet intent and capability was crucial.  Prior to the 13 days of the main crisis (16th-28th October 1962), The Office for National Estimates (ONE) issued a Special National Intelligence Estimate (SNIE) stating that the placement of medium / intermediate range ballistic missiles (M/IRBMs) in Cuba would be ‘incompatible with Soviet practice to date and with Soviet policy as we presently estimate it’[2] – a prediction that was, as it turned out, a ‘failure of the highest magnitude.’[3]   This estimate was exacerbated by Anchoring bias; following the crisis the Stennis Committee specifically criticised this ‘predisposition… to the philosophical conviction that it would be incompatible with Soviet policy.’[4]

However, the placing of missiles in Cuba was not something that the Soviets were likely to do.  The ONE’s conclusion was rational[5]; it is ‘difficult to say what would have been the correct estimate.’[6]  Predicting Black Swans such as Cuba – outliers with an extreme impact that in retrospect should have been predicted, but at the time were justifiably unexpected[7] – is difficult.

The period also demonstrates the HUMINT challenges faced by the CIA.  Cultural bias (arguably sheer racism) saw CIA agents ‘distrust[ing] émigrés, as well as their own agents of Cuban origin’ and dismissing Cuban President Osvaldo Dorticós’ public (i.e. Open Source (OSINT)) references to ‘weapons that we wish we did not need and that we do not want to use’ as ‘typical Cuban braggadocio.’[8]  This, again enhanced by Anchoring bias, saw swathes of evidence from Cuban intelligence sources that did not align with CIA expectations ignored.  This also provides an example of the counter-intelligence battle, as these biases were further exploited by classic Russian maskirovka activity.[9]

In the end fusion, coordination, and synthesis of all-source resources confirmed the presence of missiles; the importance of collaboration – a principle of US intelligence[10] – was made clear.  Two credible reports from refugees[11] ‘dovetailed’, triggering clear direction for Image Intelligence (IMINT) collection: ‘Search the area delineated for possible surface missile construction, with particular attention to SS-4 Shyster.’[12]  U-2 flights acquired photographs that were analysed and compared to documents provided by a Soviet HUMINT source, Col Oleg Penkovsky, before dissemination rapid dissemination to President Kennedy.[13]  No evidence of nuclear capability was ever identified, but it was recommended – influenced by Prudent Overestimation bias – that ‘one must assume that nuclear warheads could be available in Cuba.’[14]  In this case the bias was helpful; they were.

Conventional Soviet capabilities on the island were never accurately ascertained, hence it is fortunate that they were less crucial.  The US’ 1963 consolidated retrospective estimate was 22,000 Soviet troops in Cuba; the true figure was closer to 42,000.  CIA Task Force W in Cuba at the time had a more accurate ‘feel’ for 45,000-50,000, but without supporting evidence policy-makers ignored it.  In this instance instinct – ‘system one’ thinking, ‘thin-slicing’, fingerspitzengefühl – should have been given more weight.[15]  Regardless, the non-conventional capability assessment was complete.

However, the Soviet intent was still unknown.  A number of theories for the placement of missiles in Cuba were identified[16], but more importantly the CIA initially struggled to ascertain how Khrushchev would react to the US course of action.  Friction from organisational, cultural, and personal bias between President Kennedy and the Joint Chiefs (themselves biased by the Bay of Pigs and Munich respectively[17]), made accurate, objective intelligence vital.  To compound the challenge there was a paucity of information about the current Soviet intent – Kennedy confessed to being ‘mystified’ by Khrushchev and unable ‘understand to [his] viewpoint.’[18]  His brother was blunter; ‘we had been deceived by Khrushchev.’[19]

The subsequent SNIE was wrong; it considered it ‘unlikely’ that that the USSR was ‘installing these missiles primarily in order to use them in bargaining for US concessions elsewhere’[20], but it was the promise to remove US Jupiter missiles in Turkey that eventually persuaded the Soviets to remove their missiles.  Assessments of the Soviet reaction to a blockade were more accurate.  SNIE 11-19-62 predicted that the USSR would ‘concentrate on political exploitation, especially in the UN’, and would ‘not resort to major force in the area of Cuba or forceful retaliation elsewhere’; furthermore a blockade would not ‘bring down the Cuban regime.’[21]  These predictions all materialised.

There were significant intelligence failures during the Crisis – notably the failure to predict the presence of missiles – but also successes.  CIA Director John McCone demonstrated his ability as an analyst through the “honeymoon cables.”[22]  Fusion of all-source information, clear direction and collection eventually identified the missiles.  The US utilised shrewd intelligence dissemination in the UN.[23]  The analysts’ war game of the blockade was accurate.  And, arguably most importantly, the establishment of a hotline offered both sides the opportunity to clarify their intent in the future.


Part 3 will look at the events surrounding Ex ABLE ARCHER.



[1] Betts (1987), p. 109.

[2] ONE (1962), p. 93.

[3] Blight and Welch (1998), p. 4.

[4] Heuer (1999), pp. 116-119, 150-152; Tversky and Kahneman (1974), pp. 1128-1130; Schwenk (1986), pp. 300-302; Dobbs (2008), loc 2642; Preparadness Investigating Subcommittee (1963), p. 2.

[5] See Knorr (1964), pp. 460-462.

[6] Garthoff (1998), p. 21.

[7] Taleb (2010), loc 343.

[8] Quoted in Dobbs (2008), loc 1761.

[9] Amuchastegui (1998), pp. 101, 116; Fischer (1998), p. 161; Lehman (1962), p. 99; Bennett and Waltz (2007), pp. 103-105.

[10] US Army (2013), p. II-1.

[11] CIA (1962a) and CIA (1962b).

[12] Lehman (1962), p. 101.

[13] Weiner (2007), p. 197.

[14] Guided Missile and Astronautics Intelligence Committee, et al. (1962), p. 187.

[15] Garthoff (1998), pp. 28-29, fn 28; Gladwell (2005); Kahneman (2003).

[16] See CIA (1962c).

[17] See their discussions at DOD (1962).

[18] Quoted in Dobbs (2008), loc 200; and Weiner (2007), p. 199.  On ‘certainty effect’, a bias affecting the USSR, see Kahneman and Tversky (1979), p. 269.

[19] Kennedy and Schlesinger (2011), p. 27.

[20] CIA (1962d), p. 198. See Heuer (1999), pp. 152-156 on ‘expression of uncertainty’ bias.

[21] CIA (1962e), p. 216-217.

[22] Weiner (2007), p. 204.

[23] Witness the clash between Stevenson and Zorin, Educational Video Group (2009).

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