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.