The Time Of The Angel


Most members of the American intelligence community accepted the Russian denials—not because of faith in the Kremlin’s honesty, but because it simply did not seem rational for the Russians to place offensive nuclear missiles in Cuba. They had never placed such missiles in Soviet-bloc countries in Europe, although they could have done so with impunity. Why would they now place them in the Caribbean, where the U.S. was sure to regard their presence as extremely provocative, and where the U.S. had total military superiority? Cuba was important to Russia; the United States had already backed one botched invasion of the country. Why provide the Americans with an excuse to launch an all-out attack?


Certainly it was plausible that the Kremlin believed it necessary to beef up Cuba’s antiaircraft defenses. The U.S. had supported the Bay of Pigs attack the previous year, and the CIA had been busily hatching bizarre schemes for doing away with Castro. The U.S. also had allowed some publicity about a forthcoming military exercise planned for the Caribbean in the fall of 1962. This operation, code-named “Philbriglex-62,” was to involve an assault by seventy-five hundred Marines, heavily supported by aircraft carriers and other vessels, on an island off the coast of Puerto Rico. According to the scenario, the Marines were to “liberate” a small country called Vieques from a dictator named Ortsac-which, of course, is Castro spelled backward. Russia was aware of this operation, and might reasonably have suspected it was a practice run for the real thing.

There were some dissenters from the generally sanguine outlook shared by most U.S. intelligence experts. Chief among these was John McCone, who had taken over from Allen Dulles as head of the CIA in the aftermath of the Bay of Pigs fiasco. McCone, who always took the dimmest possible view of Russian intent, felt that the Kremlin might indeed install offensive missiles as bargaining chips for future negotiations. McCone accounted for the fact that Russia had not given such missiles to its eastern European allies on the ground that Russia did not trust its satellites, and feared the missiles might be turned back on Moscow. Placed in Cuba, medium-range ballistic missiles could not reach back to Russia. But they could reach the United States.

The truth could best be learned through the hard data produced by more overhead reconnaissance. But now there was an obstacle to sending the Angels winging over Cuba. With SAMs now in place in Cuba, there was a strong possibility of losing a plane, and the resulting international uproar could severely limit the future use of America’s most effective spying tool. The Committee on Overhead Reconnaissance, made up of representatives from the CIA and various military intelligence branches, finally decided on a compromise course. They would send the U-2s on “sheep-dipping” missions—that is, the planes would fly off the island’s shore, briefly dipping inland to take quick photographic peeks, then hightailing it away. None would fly directly over the western end of Cuba, where the SAMs were being installed.

The sheep-dipping flights failed to turn up any new evidence, and on September 19 the U.S. Intelligence Board met in Washington to try to draw some conclusions. The board, made up of members from the CIA, the National Security Council, and the State and Defense Departments, weighed all available evidence and advised the President that it was extremely unlikely that the Russians were installing strategic nuclear missiles. Pessimistic as always, John McCone, who was honeymooning on the Riviera, cabled his dissent.

But no sooner had the board reported to the President than new information surfaced-information with disturbing overtones. For one thing, large-hatched ships were seen arriving in Cuba. Ordinarily these ships were used for transporting such bulk cargo as lumber, but the vessels approaching Cuba were riding high in the water, as if carrying light but bulky loads. Then intelligence analysts received a report that Fidel Castro’s personal pilot had drunkenly boasted that “We will fight to the death and perhaps we can win because we have everything, including atomic weapons.” On September 21, two days after the Intelligence Board meeting, a crucial report finally reached Washington: nine days earlier, a CIA agent in Havana had spotted a truck carrying what appeared to be a shrouded long-range missile. The agent managed to get onto a refugee flight to Florida, where he met with intelligence analysts. His sketches of the truck’s rear profile and other information he gave suggested that the truck was indeed carrying a large strategic missile. Corroboration for his story followed quickly, with another report that similarly laden vehicles had been seen in the area of San Cristóbal, about fifty miles southwest of Havana.

There was yet another worrisome bit of intelligence: Colonel John Wright, an analyst with the Defense Intelligence Agency, had carefully studied the earlier U-2 photos of the SAM installations. There was something peculiar about the SAM sites in the San Cristóbal area: the missiles were laid out in a pattern similar to that the Russians had used when setting up defenses for strategic missile sites in the U.S.S.R.