National Security

Failing History

Why hasn’t the CIA learned anything from the Cuban missile crisis?

In September 1962, CIA Director John McCone was honeymooning in Europe but couldn't take his eyes off Cuba. Convinced the Soviets were secretly deploying nuclear missiles 90 miles from Florida, McCone repeatedly cabled Washington with his concerns. Nobody believed him. McCone was operating on a hunch, without solid evidence. When the CIA issued a Special National Intelligence Estimate about the Soviet arms buildup in Cuba on September 19, it disregarded the director's views entirely. That estimate, like the previous three, concluded the Soviets would not dare put nuclear missiles in Cuba. A month later, U2 spy planes snapped photographs that confirmed McCone's worst fears and ushered in the most dangerous 13 days in history.

As the Cuban missile crisis turns 50 this month, it stands alone as the most studied event of the nuclear age. Academics have written so much about that eyeball-to-eyeball moment that there are articles about why we should stop writing articles about it. But there is at least one key lesson that still has not been learned. Generations of scholars and practitioners have insisted on calling the crisis an intelligence success when there is much more to be learned by calling it a failure.

The success narrative says the CIA discovered Soviet missiles before they became operational, enabling President Kennedy to seize the initiative and save the day. But that's the end of the story. The beginning is just as important and more often forgotten: The CIA failed to anticipate the presence of Soviet missiles despite widespread knowledge that Soviet arms shipments were escalating dramatically that summer. All four intelligence estimates on Cuba published in 1962 had a reassuring quality, highlighting evidence that the Soviets sought to defend the island with conventional arms, not deploy nuclear missiles there. Instead of inoculating the Kennedy administration against the horrors of a possible Soviet missile surprise, the intelligence estimates made the surprise even more sudden and shocking.

It is comforting to think that we avoided nuclear Armageddon through artful diplomacy, steely nerves, and timely intelligence. But the truth is we got lucky. During the height of the crisis, a previously scheduled test simulating a missile attack from Cuba was mistakenly identified as a real incoming strike, giving the North American Air Defense Command just minutes to determine what to do. In a 2002 missile crisis anniversary conference (yes, there are these things), scholars learned for the first time that one Soviet submarine captain actually did order preparations to launch a nuclear-tipped torpedo off the U.S. coast on October 27. Were it not for a man named Vasili Arkhipov, who convinced the captain to wait for further instructions from Moscow even as they were being bombarded by U.S. Navy depth charges and running out of air, events could easily have taken a tragic turn. Other terrifying examples abound, showing just how close the edge of disaster really was.

Calling something a success or failure is not just an exercise in tweedy semantics. It shifts the focus from "what went right" to "what went so wrong." And what went wrong 50 years ago is still going wrong today; two lingering questions from 1962 suggest the silent but deadly effects of organizational pathologies in intelligence.

1.                  Why did analysts miss the signals of Khrushchev's true intentions?

Sherman Kent, who led the CIA's estimating shop during the crisis, argued that intelligence estimates missed the mark mostly because Khrushchev was nutty. "There is no blinking the fact that we came down on the wrong side," he admitted in 1964. But Kent added, "no estimating process can be expected to divine exactly when the enemy is about to make a dramatically wrong decision." In other words, let's blame Khrushchev and hope for more predictable adversaries in the future.

The more important and overlooked lesson here is that the structure of the U.S. intelligence system made a tough job nearly impossible. Although the CIA was created in 1947 to prevent another Pearl Harbor, the agency has never really been central. Intelligence agencies in the State, War, Navy, and Justice departments hobbled the CIA from its earliest days to protect their own turf. As a result, in 1962 intelligence reporting and analysis about Cuba was handled by half a dozen agencies with different missions, specialties, incentives, security clearance levels, access to information, and no common boss with the power to knock bureaucratic heads together short of the president. In this bureaucratic jungle, signals of Khrushchev's true intentions -- and there were several -- got dispersed and isolated instead of consolidated and amplified to sound the alarm.

Sound familiar? Before 9/11, this same fragmentation kept U.S. intelligence agencies from seizing 23 different opportunities to disrupt the terrorist plot. In each instance, someone in an intelligence agency noticed something important -- a string of jihadist flight school students in Arizona, a suspicious extremist at a Minnesota flight school, two suspected al Qaeda operatives with U.S. visas in their passports. These and other signals were not drowned out by all the noise. They were found, an incredible feat. And then, just as incredibly, each signal got lost in the bureaucratic sprawl.

2.                  Why, despite new evidence of a dramatically escalating Soviet buildup, did intelligence analysts continue to draw the same old conclusions?

In August and September 1962, intelligence showed a dramatic uptick in Soviet personnel and weapons deployments to Cuba. Nevertheless, the September 19 intelligence estimate concluded nothing had changed. The Soviets were ramping up all right, but to defend Cuba.

Sherman Kent took a lot of heat for that estimate. Nearly all of it centered on "mirror imaging," the tendency for analysts to assume an enemy will behave as they would. For psychologists, cognitive limits in the Cuban missile crisis have been the gift that keeps on giving. But I am convinced that organizational pressures were also at work and offer new, important lessons for today.

The thing to know about National Intelligence Estimates is that they are collective products. No single person or agency writes them. Instead, estimates require intense negotiation among many agencies to reach consensus, causing the entire process to tilt toward consistency. Once a judgment is made, changing it later becomes more difficult. Why? Because consistency is what policymakers expect. They don't need to be convinced the world looks the same today as it did last month. They do need to be convinced the world looks different. Consistency is a given, but inconsistency needs to be explained, justified, and defended. Changing a judgment means convincing every agency in the process that what it said or assessed or agreed to the last time should be modified or discarded this time. Generating interagency consensus on a new estimate that says "We have changed our collective minds" is invariably harder than producing a report that says "Once again, we agree with what we wrote last time."

This tilt toward consistency helps explain not only the September 19, 1962, Cuba estimate, but the now infamous 2002 Iraq WMD estimate. Both estimates reinforced earlier judgments even though the available intelligence had changed significantly over time. In Cuba, intelligence was accumulating fast, while in Iraq intelligence had been drying up for years. Yet in both cases, the past had a firm grip on the present. The Cuba estimate did nothing with more information and the Iraq estimate made more out of nothing, doubling down on prior judgments and evidence that Saddam had a hidden WMD program before. Both estimates also downplayed internal disagreements -- in the Cuba case, by not taking the CIA director's hypothesis seriously, and in the Iraq case, by relegating State and Energy Department dissents to footnotes. In the end, both estimates were dead wrong. Invisible pressures toward consistency and consensus help explain why.

The Cuban missile crisis may be over, but it is not past. Learning lessons from history starts with calling a failure a failure.

AFP/Getty Images

National Security

Torture Creep

Why are more Americans accepting Bush-era policies than ever before?

A quarter of all Americans are willing to use nuclear weapons to kill terrorists. No joke. This was among many surprising findings in a new national poll that YouGov recently ran for me on hot-button intelligence issues. (The poll, conducted between Aug. 24 and 30, 2012, surveyed 1,000 people and has a margin of error of +/- 4 percentage points).

To be honest, I threw in the nuclear bomb question on a lark, not expecting to find much. Boy, was I wrong. Aside from learning that 25 percent of Americans would stop the next terrorist plot with a several-hundred-kiloton atomic bomb, the poll numbers suggest that Americans have become more hawkish on counterterrorism policy since Barack Obama became president.

Consider this: In an October 2007 Rasmussen poll, 27 percent of Americans surveyed said the United States should torture prisoners captured in the fight against terrorism, while 53 percent said it should not. In my YouGov poll, 41 percent said they would be willing to use torture -- a gain of 14 points -- while 34 percent would not, a decline of 19 points.

Sure, the devil is in the details. Poll responses are highly susceptible to question wording. So I had the pollsters ask some of the exact same questions in the exact same way that appeared in a January 2005 USA Today/CNN/Gallup poll, the most detailed pre-Obama poll on interrogation techniques that I could find. It turns out that Americans don't just like the general idea of torture more now. They like specific torture techniques more too.

Respondents in 2012 are more pro-waterboarding, pro-threatening prisoners with dogs, pro-religious humiliation, and pro-forcing-prisoners-to-remain-naked-and-chained-in-uncomfortable-positions-in-cold-rooms. In 2005, 18 percent said they believed the naked chaining approach was OK, while 79 percent thought it was wrong. In 2012, 30 percent of Americans thought this technique was right, an increase of 12 points, while just 51 percent thought it was wrong, a drop of 28 points. In 2005, only 16 percent approved of waterboarding suspected terrorists, while an overwhelming majority (82 percent) thought it was wrong to strap people on boards and force their heads underwater to simulate drowning. Now, 25 percent of Americans believe in waterboarding terrorists, and only 55 percent think it's wrong. The only specific interrogation technique that is less popular now than in 2005, strangely enough, is prolonged sleep deprivation.

Support for assassinating terrorists has also grown, though not as much as for torturing them. In part this is because assassinations have always been quite popular. In that same 2005 poll, 65 percent were willing to assassinate known terrorists. Today, 69 percent are. Perhaps more interestingly, the percentage of Americans who say they are unwilling to assassinate known terrorists has declined dramatically, from 33 percent in 2005 to just 12 percent today. The public's enthusiasm for assassinations extends to foreign leaders who harbor them. In both the 2005 and 2012 polls, more than a third of respondents (37 percent and 36 percent, respectively) were willing to kill foreign leaders who "harbor terrorists," even though it's not at all clear what "harboring terrorists" really means (is it harboring when a government is too weak or inept to combat terrorists inside its borders?). Keep in mind that there is also this little detail called the law, which has banned assassinating heads of state since 1976, when Congress discovered the CIA had been secretly concocting plans to kill Fidel Castro and other Third World leaders using poison, hit men, and even exploding seashells.

So why exactly have Americans become more supportive of torturing and assassinating terrorists under Obama than they were under President George W. Bush? Many reasons, I suspect. But three possibilities seem most likely. First, it's always easier to support controversial policies after the controversy fades. Maybe respondents feel more comfortable supporting torture and assassination when Christopher Hitchens isn't waterboarding himself, Abu Ghraib photos aren't plastered all over the Internet, and Saturday Night Live isn't doing those Lynndie England skits. Or as Harvard Kennedy School of Government professor Matt Baum put it more eloquently, "It is possible that support for these policies hit a low point after the Abu Ghraib scandal and has more recently rebounded to its prior equilibrium."

Second, there may be an "only Nixon can go to China" logic at work. Because Republicans have a general reputation for being tough on national security and Democrats have (or at least used to have) a general reputation for being weak on national security, Americans are more likely to think assassinations and harsh interrogation practices are justified if a Democratic president uses them. Conversely, they are more likely to trust diplomacy when the president conducting it is a Rambo-minded Republican. But this logic does not quite fit the facts. Although it is true that Obama has continued and even expanded many contentious Bush-era counterterrorism policies -- military commissions, indefinite detentions, and the targeted-killing-by-drone program -- harsh interrogation policies are not among them. On Jan. 22, 2009, two days after his inauguration, Obama signed an executive order that made waterboarding and any other interrogation methods not listed in Army Field Manual 2-22.3 illegal.

This leaves option three: media effects -- specifically, the influence of spy movies and TV shows. This sounds silly, I know, but the data say otherwise. As I noted in my last column, spy-themed entertainment has skyrocketed over the past decade or so. And there is plenty of anecdotal evidence suggesting that the boundary between fake spies and the real world is blurring in some disconcerting ways, from CIA directors pondering Hollywood hypotheticals in their confirmation hearings to Twitter users thanking Jack Bauer when Osama bin Laden was killed.

Now, this new poll is the first hard data suggesting that spy fiction might be influencing public opinion about real intelligence issues. The YouGov poll results reveal that Americans who say they frequently watch spy-themed television shows or movies are significantly more likely than infrequent watchers to approve of assassinating terrorists, torturing terrorists, and using every torture technique pollsters asked about except threatening terrorist detainees with dogs. (Spytainment fans, however, are not more likely to support dropping nuclear bombs on terrorists or assassinating foreign leaders than anyone else.) Here are just a few examples of the statistically significant results:

  • 84 percent of frequent spy TV watchers are willing to assassinate terrorists vs. 70 percent of infrequent watchers
  • 38 percent of frequent spy TV watchers believe waterboarding is right vs. 28 percent of infrequent watchers
  • 60 percent of frequent spy TV watchers think transferring a terrorist to a country known for using torture is right vs. 45 percent of infrequent watchers
  • 34 percent of spy-movie goers say that chaining naked terrorist detainees in uncomfortable positions is right vs. 27 percent of non-movie goers
  • 53 percent of spy-movie goers support transferring terrorists to a country known for using torture vs. 41 percent of non-movie goers.

Of course, these results do not prove that spy-themed entertainment is causing anything. It could be that James Bond and Jason Bourne fans are just naturally more hawkish than the average Joe and are drawn to spytainment because of beliefs they already have. But I have my doubts. Entertainment can and has shifted popular culture and attitudes on other subjects. When L.A. Law was a hit television show in the late 1980s, law school applications hit record levels. The Navy still talks about the movie Top Gun as one of its best recruiting tools. More recently, prosecutors have been bemoaning "the CSI effect" -- how the popular television show has led jurors to expect fancy forensic evidence in court and to assume the government's case is weak without it. Before the 9/11 attacks, torture was almost always depicted in television and movies as something that bad guys did. That's not true anymore. The Bush administration may be over, but Bush-era terrorist torture and assassination policies are growing more popular.