Blind over Cuba: The Photo Gap and the Missile Crisis

Blind over Cuba: The Photo Gap and the Missile Crisis

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by Max Holland

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In the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis, questions persisted about how the potential cataclysm had been allowed to develop. A subsequent congressional investigation focused on what came to be known as the “photo gap”: five weeks during which intelligence-gathering flights over Cuba had been attenuated.

In Blind over Cuba,


In the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis, questions persisted about how the potential cataclysm had been allowed to develop. A subsequent congressional investigation focused on what came to be known as the “photo gap”: five weeks during which intelligence-gathering flights over Cuba had been attenuated.

In Blind over Cuba, David M. Barrett and Max Holland challenge the popular perception of the Kennedy administration’s handling of the Soviet Union’s surreptitious deployment of missiles in the Western Hemisphere. Rather than epitomizing it as a masterpiece of crisis management by policy makers and the administration, Barrett and Holland make the case that the affair was, in fact, a close call stemming directly from decisions made in a climate of deep distrust between key administration officials and the intelligence community.

Because of White House and State Department fears of “another U-2 incident” (the infamous 1960 Soviet downing of an American U-2 spy plane), the CIA was not permitted to send surveillance aircraft on prolonged flights over Cuban airspace for many weeks, from late August through early October. Events proved that this was precisely the time when the Soviets were secretly deploying missiles in Cuba. When Director of Central Intelligence John McCone forcefully pointed out that this decision had led to a dangerous void in intelligence collection, the president authorized one U-2 flight directly over western Cuba—thereby averting disaster, as the surveillance detected the Soviet missiles shortly before they became operational.

The Kennedy administration recognized that their failure to gather intelligence was politically explosive, and their subsequent efforts to influence the perception of events form the focus for this study. Using recently declassified documents, secondary materials, and interviews with several key participants, Barrett and Holland weave a story of intra-agency conflict, suspicion, and discord that undermined intelligence-gathering, adversely affected internal postmortems conducted after the crisis peaked, and resulted in keeping Congress and the public in the dark about what really happened.

Fifty years after the crisis that brought the superpowers to the brink, Blind over Cuba: The Photo Gap and the Missile Crisis offers a new chapter in our understanding of that pivotal event, the tensions inside the US government during the cold war, and the obstacles Congress faces when conducting an investigation of the executive branch.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"Anyone interested in the Cold War, the Kennedy Administration, intelligence, or the Congress will want a copy of this fascinating book."--Loch K. Johnson, editor, Intelligence and National Security, and author, National Security Intelligence (Polity, 2012)

Thomas Powers

"Rarely has a book focused its attention with greater precision on the single most painful question about a great historical event than Blind over Cuba does in its careful study of the role of intelligence in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. The story told by Barrett and Holland makes for a riveting book which will stand for many years to come as a classic account of slippery efforts to manipulate credit and blame. It is short, it is convincing, and there is nothing else like it."--Thomas Powers, Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist, author of The Man Who Kept the Secrets (1979), one of the most highly-regarded books ever written on US Intelligence; his most recent book is The Killing of Crazy Horse, published by Alfred Knopf in November 2010

Loch K. Johnson

"Anyone interested in the Cold War, the Kennedy Administration, intelligence, or the Congress will want a copy of this fascinating book."--Loch K. Johnson, editor of the journal Intelligence and National Security, and author of National Security Intelligence (Polity, 2012)

William J. Daugherty

"Meticulously researched and beautifully written, Barrett and Holland provide new information and insights from recently declassified documents, as well as explore the perspectives of previously ignored participants in the historic Missile Crisis. This book is an absolute must for scholars of American foreign policy, national security and intelligence, and historians. But it also deserves to enjoy an expansive audience in general readership circles, as well. Barrett and Holland have written what is no doubt the definitive account of the Cuban Crisis."--William J. Daugherty, professor emeritus of government at Armstrong Atlantic State University

Doctor - Nicholas Dujmovic
". . . magnificent scholarship . . . an important book."—Dr. Nicholas Dujmovic, CIA History Staff, Center for the Study of Intelligence
Dr. Nicholas Dujmovic

". . . magnificent scholarship . . . an important book."--Dr. Nicholas Dujmovic, CIA History Staff, Center for the Study of Intelligence
International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence - Robert D. Chapman

“The hearings, the charges, and the administration’s defenses are present in remarkable detail throughout Blind over Cuba.”—Robert D. Chapman, International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence
Choice - A. Klinghoffer

“Barrett and Holland have done excellent research, and this book, with its extensive detail and voluminous notes, should be of great value to scholars and practitioners.”—A. Klinghoffer, Choice

The Historian - Richard M. Filipink

"...the book is well written and the research is excellent...a new and important piece to our understanding of the Cuban Missile Crisis."—Richard M. Filipink, Western Illinois University

Product Details

Texas A&M University Press
Publication date:
Foreign Relations and the Presidency , #11
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Blind Over Cuba

The Photo Gap and the Missle Crisis

By David M. Barrett, Max Holland

Texas A&M University Press

Copyright © 2012 David M. Barrett and Max Holland
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60344-772-0


The Making of a "Photo Gap"

August 29 to October 14, 1962

On October 28, 1962, President Kennedy triumphed in the most fearsome and direct clash with Moscow since the 1948 Berlin airlift. Without seeming to have made any meaningful concessions, he both avoided nuclear war and forced Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev into a humiliating retreat. On November 5, the Soviets, as promised, began withdrawing the first of forty-two nuclear-tipped offensive missiles they had shipped to Cuba that September.

During and after the crisis, however, the administration harbored three secrets that would have substantially altered public and international perceptions of events. The first was Operation MONGOOSE, an ongoing effort to subvert Fidel Castro's regime that had been launched six months after the unsuccessful Bay of Pigs invasion in April 1961. Washington's hostility to Havana, of course, was hardly a secret. But the existence of a government-wide operation, overseen by Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy and including plans to assassinate Castro, was not known outside of the president's national security apparatus, and the direct plots against Castro were even more tightly held than that. Operation MONGOOSE became public knowledge in 1975 as a result of congressional investigations conducted by the so-called Church committee. Many historians since have pointed out the ways in which it helped foment the missile crisis: Castro's fears of further US intervention, it turned out, had not been wholly unfounded.

The second secret was equally sensitive: the quid pro quo that ended the acute phase of the crisis. In exchange for the prompt, very public, and verified withdrawal of the Soviet missiles, President Kennedy publicly pledged not to invade Cuba. At the same time, he privately committed to quietly dismantle the US Jupiter missile sites in Turkey the following year. No more than eight of Kennedy's advisers knew about this agreement at the time, and they went to great lengths to protect the information, such that the quid proquo remained a lively but unconfirmed rumor for nearly three decades. Not until 1989, when the former Soviet ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin publicly disclosed the secret agreement, did they stop denying its existence.

The third secret concerned why it took Washington a full month to spot the offensive missiles. This secret proved to be the most durable and hardest to unpack. The US government had been regularly sending U-2 surveillance flights over Cuba since October 1960 in advance of the Bay of Pigs invasion. However, lulled somewhat by extensive Soviet and Cuban efforts to disguise the missile deployment, the administration decided to limit those overflights for five crucial weeks in the late summer and early fall of 1962—precisely when the offensive missiles were being moved into place.

The "photo gap," as Republicans dubbed it at the time, was rightly seen by administration officials as more problematic even than the secret quid pro quo. They labored mightily to obfuscate it—and largely succeeded. Only after the declassification in 2003 of certain key primary records, including investigations held immediately after the crisis, could this aspect of the crisis be fully documented and understood.

These records alter the conventional narrative in important respects. The handling of events did not epitomize a "wonderfully coordinated and error-free 'crisis management'" between policy makers and the intelligence community, as Bundy would later have it. It was largely the opposite: a close call stemming directly from decisions made in a climate of deep distrust between key administration officials and the intelligence community. Almost every standard account of the crisis has essentially ignored the tension and rampant uncertainty between these entities and within the CIA itself, to the detriment of depicting the full complexity of what actually occurred.

The New Leader at Langley

At the time of the missile crisis, and for the first time in its short history, the CIA was led by a man whose political affiliation and ideology were widely viewed as being at direct odds with the administration he served.

As part of the reshuffling of officials after the Bay of Pigs operation, President Kennedy had appointed John McCone the acting CIA director in September 1961, subject to Senate confirmation. Liberals in the administration were appalled. For starters, McCone, a California engineer-turned-tycoon, was the embodiment of the wealthy, conservative Republican businessmen who had overwhelmingly populated Dwight D. Eisenhower's administration (although McCone had also served as Truman's undersecretary of the air force). More important, while chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission during Eisenhower's last term, he had earned a reputation as a "militant" anticommunist and "real [bureaucratic] alley fighter." Many Democrats and administration officials were specifically concerned that his stiff-necked anticommunism might distort the intelligence produced by a demoralized CIA still reeling from the Bay of Pigs failure. His relations with the scientific community, which generally supported arms control and disarmament efforts, had also been problematic, and he seemed out of sync with the Kennedy administration's dominant ethos, which, while ill-defined, was supposed to be distinct from the brinksmanship that characterized the 1950s. In fact, McCone would probably have been the leading candidate for secretary of defense had Richard Nixon won the 1960 election.

The opposition to McCone's permanent appointment badly unnerved him. When his wife suddenly died, he seriously contemplated declining the nomination. In January 1962, he asked associates at the CIA to consult with the White House about the possibility of withdrawing his name; however, administration aides assured him this was "unnecessary and undesirable" from the president's point of view. His credentials, and good ties to Eisenhower, were considered important in protecting Kennedy's right flank. It was hoped that McCone's involvement would temper the former president's criticism, which was considered very problematic given Eisenhower's popularity and reputation.

Apprehension inside the CIA was nearly as great as among liberals. The agency had enjoyed a period of enormous growth in the 1950s, the consequence of having been run by a director—Allen Dulles—who had a patron in the form of his brother, John Foster Dulles, who just happened to be the secretary of state for most of the decade. Allen Dulles's forced retirement after the Bay of Pigs marked a decided end to this privileged position and the beginning of a more uncertain future for what still was, after all, a relative newcomer vis-à-vis the State and Defense Departments.

In addition, of course, McCone was virtually a novice with regard to the craft of intelligence, his experience limited largely to being a consumer of intelligence while undersecretary of the air force and, later, chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission. Inflicting an outsider on the agency was considered even worse than saddling it with a dogmatic man known for his "slide-rule mind" and molten temper. And early on, McCone appeared imperious to staffers, overly interested in bureaucratic status symbols. On October 31, 1961—just after McCone started working at the CIA, in advance of his confirmation—Deputy Director of Support Lincoln "Red" White recorded a discussion with two staff members about "renting a Cadillac limousine for Mr. McCone," noting that he had "instructed them to put as much pressure on General Motors as they could to get this done." A few weeks later White was confronted by an unhappy McCone. The "Command Post at his home" had been furnished with fixtures "supplied by Logistics [which were] surplus and added nothing to the décor."

The Senate approved McCone's nomination on January 31, 1962, with only twelve members voting no. However, the unease over his appointment was deeper and more widespread than this number suggests; by comparison, all three of the CIA's previous directors had been unanimously confirmed. It was against this backdrop of doubt and distrust that the untested McCone faced his first real crisis late in the summer of 1962.

Cuba Heats Up

Starting in February 1962, U-2 surveillance of Cuba had followed a regular schedule of two overflights a month. The first of the two August 1962 overflights occurred on the fifth—too early, by a matter of days, to capture any telling evidence about the Soviet military build-up to come. Nonetheless, reports from other sources prompted McCone, during a Special Group Augmented (SGA) meeting on August 10, to raise the specter of offensive missiles being placed on the island.

McCone sounded the alarm again on August 21, in Secretary of State Dean Rusk's office, and yet again on August 22 and 23, while meeting with President Kennedy. The Soviet Union was "in the red [behind in terms of nuclear missiles] and knew it," he declared, arguing that Khrushchev was likely to try to redress the imbalance via Cuba. But he did little to improve his persuasiveness, and much to enhance his Manichean reputation, by going on to suggest that the United States stage a phony provocation against its base at Guantánamo, so that Washington would have a pretext for overthrowing Castro. McCone came across as "too hard-line and suspicious," as Undersecretary of State George Ball later put it, and was too cavalier about the connection between Cuba and the East-West face-off in Berlin.

Right after his August 23 meeting with the president, McCone left for the West Coast. A sixty-year-old widower, he was about to be married for the second time and planned to honeymoon on the French Riviera until late September. Kennedy's advisers would later criticize McCone for not warning the president before leaving for the Mediterranean and for being absent during what turned out to be such a critical period.

The first charge was demonstrably false, as the president well knew, and McCone had also expressly sought Kennedy's consent for his absence. But whether his physical presence in Washington would have made a marked difference during those crucial weeks in September is an open question. McCone was able to exert some influence via the so-called honeymoon cables that went between Langley and Cap Ferrat. Yet as Sherman Kent, the chairman of the CIA's Board of National Estimates, later observed, even if McCone "had been in Washington and made a federal case of his intuitive guess," he would have been opposed by "(1) the members of [the] US Intelligence Board [USIB, i.e., the intelligence community]; and (2) most presidential advisers including the four most important ones [those who were experts on the Soviet Union]—[former ambassadors Charles] Bohlen, [Llewellyn] Thompson, [George] Kennan, and [serving ambassador] Foy [Kohler]." The president would have been far more apt to trust the USIB and these esteemed Kremlinologists than a "robber-baron Republican."

On August 29, after several delays because of bad weather, the second August overflight took place. "I've got a SAM [surface-to-air missile] site," an analyst shouted minutes after the film was placed on a light table at the National Photographic Interpretation Center (NPIC), the specialized facility in Suitland, Maryland, where U-2 film was taken for processing and examination. The SAM proved to be the SA-2 model—the same type of antiaircraft missile that had forced down Francis Gary Powers's U-2 over the Soviet Union in May 1960. Analysis of the August 29 film revealed at least eight SA-2 sites in the western half of Cuba. Soon, it appeared, the CIA would not be able to overfly the island with impunity, its regimen restricted only by weather forecasts. As McCone reportedly observed after being informed about the SAMs, "They're not putting them in to protect the cane cutters. They're putting them in to blind our reconnaissance eye."

For virtually every other senior official and analyst, however, the SA-2 deployment came "as a problem to be dealt with deliberately," as one later recalled. After all, the same SAMs had been sent previously to other Soviet client states in the Third World. President Kennedy was inclined toward the view held by the overwhelming majority of senior officials in his administration: that the Soviet military aid, though unprecedented in the hemisphere, was for the purpose of ostentatiously defending Cuba while setting up the island as a model of socialist development and bridgehead for subversive activities in the region. By this reasoning, the SA-2 deployment did not signal a foreign policy crisis as much as a domestic political one. With a midterm election fast approaching, pressure to "do something" about Cuba was bound to mount and would have to be managed carefully.

On September 1, the president told the CIA's deputy director, Lt. Gen. Marshall "Pat" Carter, that he wanted the SA-2 information "nailed right back into the box" until the White House decided to make it public (which it did on September 4). He also pressed the Pentagon for an assurance from the Joint Chiefs of Staff that US military flights would not be conducted in a provocative manner. These precautions left the vexing issue of the intrusive bimonthly U-2 surveillance unaddressed, though not for long.

"Growing Danger to the Birds"

On its own initiative, the CIA's Office of Special Activities (OSA), which carried operational responsibility for the U-2 missions, made incremental changes in early September to lessen the planes' vulnerability to the SA-2s. First, the base of operations was shifted from Laughlin Air Force Base in Del Rio, Texas, to McCoy Air Force Base in Orlando, Florida. This would enable the U-2s to reach a higher altitude over Cuba and reduce pilot fatigue and the stress placed on fragile mechanical equipment, including the plane itself. The OSA also made changes to the "mission profile." Lightening the fuel load and refueling in midair (a delicate task) immediately after the U-2s left Cuban airspace would help the aircraft attain its maximum altitude during the critical minutes. Finally, the OSA adjusted the flight path of the next scheduled U-2 mission to limit the plane's exposure to western Cuba. This marked the first time since U-2 surveillance had been instituted over Cuba that an overflight did not attempt to traverse the entire island. Still, the next flight, on September 5, detected several additional SAM sites on the western part of the island, along with other signs of a military buildup.

Completely by coincidence, the "growing danger to the birds" over Cuba, as Pat Carter put it in a cable to McCone, was underscored by two distant events—bookends, in effect, to the September 5 flight. On August 30, a Strategic Air Command U-2 on an air-sampling reconnaissance mission had accidentally violated Soviet airspace for nine minutes, resulting in a public protest by Moscow. Then, on September 8, a U-2 manned by a Taiwan-based pilot was lost over mainland China. These events provided new ammunition to critics of U-2 surveillance, of which there were more than a few. One of long standing was the State Department, which for years had looked askance at U-2 missions over sovereign airspace. And suddenly the department had a powerful new ally: the White House.

On Monday, September 10, the first business day after the loss of the U-2 over China, the matter came to a head. At 10:00 A.M., national security adviser McGeorge Bundy made an "out-of-channel" request to James Reber, the chairman of the Committee on Overhead Reconnaissance (COMOR), the interagency committee charged with developing surveillance requirements for the U-2. Within thirty minutes, Bundy wanted answers to three questions:

How important is it to our intelligence objectives that we overfly Cuban soil?

How much would our intelligence suffer if we limited our reconnaissance to peripheral activity utilizing oblique photography?

Is there anyone in the planning of these missions who might want to provoke an incident?

The COMOR members found the third question so bizarre that they wondered if they were really expected to answer it. Just weeks before, the issue of U-2 reconnaissance over Cuba was regarded as so routine that the COMOR wasn't even bothering to submit specific flight plans to the Special Group for approval. Yet Bundy's pointed questions reflected resentments that had been festering in the administration, particularly at State and the White House, since the Bay of Pigs fiasco. Corresponding with the president's own jaundiced view, Bundy and Dean Rusk believed the CIA and the Pentagon had put Kennedy in an unforgivable bind in the spring of 1961. The two men, moreover, had been criticized severely after the debacle for their own passivity. They were thus hypervigilant about protecting the president from anything that could turn into a similar debacle, especially because several high-ranking military and intelligence officials had voiced their determination to force Kennedy "to atone for his restraint" during the bungled invasion.

Reber pleaded for more time to prepare his answers, and a high-level meeting was scheduled for 5:45P.M. in Bundy's office, after a previously scheduled meeting on other matters related to Cuba was to occur. Shortly before 3:00 P.M., Bundy abruptly rescinded presidential approval of the remaining September overflight. He presumably wanted to demonstrate beforehand that he was dead serious about avoiding any provocative surveillance.

To be sure, Special Group debates about U-2 overflights over "denied areas" (e.g., regions under Communist control) were nothing new—at least not since May 1960. The shootdown of Francis Gary Powers had been traumatic for the US government, both at home and abroad, and the after-effects were still tangible even years later. Indeed, when the first U-2 overflights of Cuba were inaugurated during the waning days of the Eisenhower administration, in October 1960, they were carried out despite a distinct sense of trepidation, even though the airplane then faced no known threat over Cuban airspace. Livingston T. Merchant, then the undersecretary of state for political affairs, had argued before the Special Group that "it will always be easy [to find a reason] not to run such a mission" but that the need for the best intelligence in advance of the Bay of Pigs operation outweighed any reservations about using the plane. Two years later, however, no one would be making that argument as forcefully.


Excerpted from Blind Over Cuba by David M. Barrett, Max Holland. Copyright © 2012 David M. Barrett and Max Holland. Excerpted by permission of Texas A&M University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

DAVID M. BARRETT, a professor of political science at Villanova University, is the editor of Lyndon B. Johnson’s Vietnam Papers: A Documentary Collection (Texas A&M University Press, 1997) and the author of The CIA and Congress: The Untold Story from Truman to Kennedy (University Press of Kansas, 2005).MAX HOLLAND is the editor of Washington Decoded, an independent, online monthly magazine. He also serves on the editorial board of the International Journal of Intelligence and CounterIntelligence and is a contributing editor for Wilson Quarterly and The Nation. He previously served for five years as a research fellow at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs.

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Blind over Cuba: The Photo Gap and the Missile Crisis 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 2 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Outstanding book. Two accomplished scholars who do archival research (oh so rare for political scientists) have written an exceptionally readable book that lucidly analyzes the complexities of the subject. I would highly recommend.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Very informative and readable. The original research is impressive.