- Historic Sites
The Time Of The Angel
The U-2, Cuba, and the CIA
October 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 6
By October 4, the accumulated evidence was so suggestive that the Committee on Overhead Reconnaissance decided to authorize a U-2 flight over the San Cristóbal area, in spite of the considerable risks involved. But instead of launching a spy plane immediately, the intelligence community now got involved in a time-consuming bureaucratic squabble over which agency should run the operation, the CIA or the Air Force. In case the plane was shot down—and that was a strong possibility—the difference would be by no means academic. If the pilot was a CIA man he could be treated as a spy, even shot. But under what is known in the spy trade as the “theory of plausible denial,” the U.S. could disavow any connection with the mission. While such a disavowal would be a transparent fiction, it would have a certain diplomatic utility. On the other hand, if the pilot was an Air Force officer the overflight could be construed as an act of war.
For these reasons, sensitive missions such as the one now planned were customarily flown by CIA pilots. In this case, however, with actual armed conflict now a clear possibility, the Air Force lobbied for the right to fly the mission, and eventually won out. The pilot would, however, fly a CIA plane, for the agency’s U-2s were souped-up models carrying electronic countermeasures against SAMs.
More time was lost because of cloud cover over Cuba, but finally, on October 14, Mission G3101 Victor was launched. Major Richard Heyser, the pilot, was a 35-year-old Floridian. An experienced flier, he was an old friend of Francis Gary Powers, and he was skilled in a variety of maneuvers designed for evading SAMs. Just in case he was shot down he carried plenty of Air Force identification to ensure that he was not treated as a spy. He did not carry cyanide pills or other suicide devices. If captured and interrogated, he would divulge no more information than necessary, but he was not expected to remain silent in the face of torture.
About 8 A.M. on the fourteenth, Heyser approached Cuba from the south across the Isle of Pines. He passed over Cuba in six minutes, while the camera behind him in the fuselage, its lens rotating from position to position, took 928 photographs. No SAMs were fired at him. His work done, Heyser flew back to the U.S. and landed in Florida.
The film was rushed to Lundahl’s Automat operation in the Washington slums, and the next morning, in a high-ceilinged room painted battleship gray, a team of photo-interpreters went to work. Late that afternoon Lundahl got a call from one of his men. “We want you to come and look at something.”
When Lundahl reached the room, the interpreters said nothing about what they had found, for it was customary in this business to let each man draw his own conclusions. Lundahl went to the light table, where he adjusted the twin stereoscopic eyepieces to suit his vision. There on the film he saw an area of palm trees and jungle vegetation slashed by the track marks of heavy equipment. In a clearing he saw empty missile transporters, blast deflectors, cherry-picker cranes, wires and cables strung along the ground. Most significantly, he saw rectangular tents designed to cover something very long and narrow, and some special vans like those the Russians used to transport nuclear warheads.
After examining the film carefully for five minutes, Lundahl turned to the interpreters and said, “OK, I know what you guys are thinking, and you’re right. These are medium-range ballistic missiles. I don’t want anyone to leave this room. Call your wives, break up your car pools. Do it casually. But stay in this room.”
It was 5:30 P.M. Lundahl picked up a secure “gray phone” and called the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia. McCone was out of town attending a funeral, and Lundahl got Ray Cline, the agency’s deputy director for intelligence. “Ray,” he said, “sorry to break up your day, but we’re looking at MRBMs going into Cuba, and even out here in the boondocks we know what that means.”
Cline was dumbfounded. “Are you sure? You aren’t imagining it?”
“I hope you’re holding the ceiling on.”
“I’ve got everybody buttoned up in the room.”
“Don’t go off half-cocked.” Cline said. “Go back and do your homework again.” After telling Lundahl to recheck the film, Cline faced an awkward couple of hours. The CIA was hosting its counterparts from England, Canada, and Australia at a Commonwealth intelligence conference in Washington, and Cline was expected to appear at a cocktail party that evening. He bluffed his way through the party, got home by eight, and talked once more to Lundahl, who confirmed the existence of the MRBMs. Lundahl had found two sites containing SS-4 missiles. Known to U.S. analysts as “Sandals,” they had a range of 1,020 nautical miles—which put them within striking distance of Washington D.C.