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IMINT in the Cuban Missile Crisis

Updated on October 3, 2011

Throughout history, different intelligence platforms were crucial to a number of situations. In regards to the Cuban Missile Crisis, Imagery Intelligence (IMINT) rose to the occasion. The first photos of Soviet offensive missiles shown to President Kennedy weren’t entirely convincing. Politics play a factor in most everything that could turn out badly for someone. This situation was no different. One must keep in mind that shortly before this event, the Bay of Pigs fiasco had transpired and cost the U.S. Intelligence Community its credibility when it went awry. On top of that, the USIC has previously published two National Intelligence Estimates reporting that Russia would not entertain the idea of supplying Cuba with offensive weapons, particularly missiles, and that Russia would not create a strategic base in Cuba as the U.S. was not perceived by the Soviets as a large enough threat to warrant such action (Kennedy 1971, 23).

Knowing how things played out during the Cuban Missile Crisis, it wouldn’t take much convincing for me to accept that I’m actually looking at missile sites. On top of that, I’m pretty familiar with overhead imagery. With today’s technology and it’s availability to the common person, it’s pretty easy to see what we’re looking at. While President Kennedy had served in the Navy, (famously on Patrol Boat 109) he likely didn’t have the access or need to analyze similar photographs. In fact, a majority of the people how were present for the initial briefing didn’t see anything out of the ordinary when shown these photographs.


The images that were shown to President Kennedy were taken by a U-2 spy plane. The U-2 had a large convex lens that could pick up anything larger than 2.5 ft from an altitude of 70,000 ft. This camera was located along the bottom of the fuselage allowing it to photograph as wide an area as possible while making only one pass. Because of this, the angles of some photographs are very disorienting; one of the pictures looks as if a photographer put their head between their legs and hung out the back of a CH-46 (that’s the twin-blade helicopter).

Now, I’ll have to admit the cool little labels do make it more official looking and easier to see things. But think about this. If the labels weren’t there, what would you think you were looking at? John F. Kennedy is quoted by his brother Robert as thinking that parts of the missile site looked like a “football field.” This was the third factor that detracted from the credibility of the first photos. These high level decision makers didn’t know what they were looking at. Robert Kennedy talks about the CIA’s formal presentation of the imagery saying, “I for one had to take their word for it. I examined the pictures carefully, and what I saw appeared to be no more than the clearing of a field for a farm or the basement of a house.” Robert Kennedy went on to state, “I was relieved to hear later that this was the same reaction of virtually everyone at the meeting, including President Kennedy” (Kennedy 1971, 20). Eventually, IMINT proved important as it substantiated the intentions of Soviet Chairman Khrushchev.

To the layperson, the specs and dots are nothing remarkable; however, thanks to the eagle eyes of today’s professional imagery analysts, it allows those making executive and command decisions to better understand the situation and significance of seemingly unrelated information from other sources. Other intelligence sources leading up to the Cuban Missile Crisis included approximately 1,000 reports from HUMINT sources that had reached Miami from Cuban locals who had noticed the increased Soviet presence and general change in daily activity.

Some HUMINT derived from questionable sources was able to confirm at least some of the missile sites shown in the photographs which did grant them a little more credence. “One from a former employee at the Hilton Hotel in Havana, who believed a missile installation was being constructed near San Cristobal, and another from someone who overheard Premier Fidel Castro’s pilot talking in a boastful and intoxicated way one evening about the nuclear missiles that were going to be furnished Cuba by Russia” (Kennedy 1971, 23-24). These reports had been initially dismissed as spurious. This was in part due to the American ethnocentrism that couldn’t comprehend Russians being capable and audacious to do such a thing. Also it was partially due to the fact that Russians were well versed in maskirovka or deceptive operations and the analysts at the time believed that this was part of another deceptive operation.

One will also notice that the labels include what I like to call “disclaimers” that analysts use when they aren’t sure of something and want to have room to back pedal later. Words such as “probable” are used in pointing to the erector/launcher equipment. More vague and ambiguous terms are used to point out “construction”, “tent areas”, and “equipment”. The only thing that is clearly and definitively identified as having anything to do with Mid-range Ballistic Missiles is the “Missile Trailers” which in the image are barely as thick as the line pointing at them and could be easily covered by the thin North orientation arrow. If I were told that it was just an eighteen-wheeler, I would have accepted it as such. If you can, imagine being the one that decides whether or not an entire nation goes to war and all you have to look at are some fuzzy lines and dots which in your relatively intelligent mind look like nothing remarkable. Imagine further that you are being told these dots and lines are bad things by someone who got it wrong the last time during the Bay of Pigs. Keep in mind that the military was the primary information source for President Kennedy and he had come to perceive them more or less as trigger-happy warmongers. Really, what would you do in this situation? While the imagery may have been accurate, it really would have been up the analyst doing the presentation to convey how sure they were about the intelligence it had to show.


Kennedy, R. F. (1971). Thirteen Days. London: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.


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    • Lance Crowe profile imageAUTHOR

      Lance Crowe 

      8 years ago

      Lotus thanks for posting; glad You like it! I have to point out HUMINT reports, the least technologically dependent platform, were actually discounted as false and spurious. Intel is just a peek at the opposition's cards at the end of the day it's a plethora of politics and a little luck that make the day. Hmm that sounds like another hub...

    • Green Lotus profile image


      8 years ago from Atlanta, GA

      It's amazing that Kennedy was able to pull us out of this crisis, technology being what it was back in the 60's. I guess it says a lot about "intelligence" referring to the more common definition of the word. Well done, Lance and the photos are a superb historical reference.


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