- Historic Sites
The Time Of The Angel
The U-2, Cuba, and the CIA
October 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 6
The first U-2 flight over Russia took place on July 4, 1956. By the second or third mission the Russians had picked up the plane on their radar, which was more sophisticated than U.S. analysts had thought, but the Soviets had no weapon capable of bringing down the high-flying intruder. For four years the Angels crisscrossed the Russian skies, until May 1, 1960, when a U-2 piloted by Francis Gary Powers was shot down over Russia by a SAM—a surface-to-air missile. The Powers incident brought a storm of protest from Russia, and resulted in a cessation of overflights. But in those four years the spy planes had gathered an enormous amount of information. First they had proved that a “bomber gap” did not exist; the Russians were not ahead of the U.S. in long-range bomber capacity. Later, they proved that the much-feared “missile gap” did not exist either.
But the ultimate employment of the U-2 was not to occur for two more years, during the administration of John Kennedy. In the summer of 1962 it became evident that Russia was sending massive arms shipments to Cuba. The U.S. intelligence community had a worldwide ship-watching network, and as Russian vessels passed through choke points like the Bosporus, U.S. military attachés in Istanbul simply stood on the shore, observed the ships, and photographed them. Many of the ships had large crates on their decks, and these were a dead giveaway, for back at Automat Lundahl’s interpreters had developed a new skill they called “cratology”—which was the science of deducing the identity of objects concealed inside crates. For years CIA agents had been observing the kinds of packages the Russians used to wrap their military equipment. During May Day festivals in Moscow, when the Soviets traditionally paraded their new weapons, agents observed and photographed missiles, tanks, planes, and other hardware. Now when photographs of the Russian deck cargo arrived in Washington, Lundahl’s photogrammetry experts needed only a single known dimension—such as, say, the height of a deckhand—to measure accurately everything else in view. By August some seventy-five Soviet or Sovietchartered ships had reached Cuba or were en route, and the cratologists had determined that they were transporting missilecarrying PT boats, cruise missiles, MIG fighters, and other sophisticated weapons.
Along with this evidence, the CIA was also gathering a great deal of “humint” on the Cuba buildup—too much of it, in fact. At the time, refugees were pouring out of Cuba and into Miami. The new arrivals were taken to Task Force W, a CIA debriefing station established at Opa-Locka, Florida. There they were interrogated by Spanish-speaking analysts; those who seemed to have useful information were held for further questioning. The refugees were full of gossip, rumors, hysteria, and a generalized hatred of the Castro regime that caused them to see apocalypse around every corner. They flooded the system with reports of SAMs and nuclear missiles. Again and again these reports proved false. (Indeed, by January of 1962, months before the arms shipments began, the CIA had received 211 refugee reports of missiles in Cuba.) Confronted with so much bad information, so much “background noise,” the CIA’s intelligence analysts became skeptical about all refugee reports.
Intelligence from agents in Cuba would have been more reliable, but such intelligence was in short supply in 1962. Following the Bay of Pigs, Castro had declared a “war on traitors,” rounding up thousands of Cubans with doubtful loyalties; among them were most of the CIA’s Cuban spies. With those informants lost, analysts had no way of corroborating the refugee reports.
Harder information was needed—the kind that could be provided only by the U-2. A mission was flown, and when the film was inspected on August 29, Lundahl’s interpreters saw something new, and sinister—the familiar Star of David pattern of a Russian SAM site. Indeed, in ensuing days they found eight such sites under construction. The key question was: were the SAMs simply part of an antiaircraft defense system, or did their presence have more menacing implications? Could they be there to protect other missiles—nuclear missiles?
The discovery of the SAMs caused consternation in the White House, but on September 4 Khrushchev sent a message via Russian ambassador Dobrynin to Robert Kennedy, for relay to the President. The message said, in effect, that Khrushchev had no intention of creating any problems for Kennedy during 1962, an election year. In response, Kennedy issued a public warning that if offensive missiles were introduced into Cuba, “the gravest issues would arise.” A few days later, the Kremlin made another mollifying statement indicating that there was no plan for installing missiles in Cuba.