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It Takes More than Photos to get a 'Smoking Gun'

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If you're old enough, the pictures of Soviet ICBM missiles presented to the United Nations during the Cuban missile crisis left an indelible mark in your cortex.

US Ambassador to the United Nations, Adlai Stevenson, placed a series of photos on an easel to answer Soviet charges that the US had no proof that the Soviets had placed missiles in the island state and that the Soviets were just helping Cuba develop.

Stevenson told the Soviets that, "we do have the evidence. We have it, and it is clear and it is incontrovertible." And it was. The first pictures were of an area north of the village of Candelaria, southwest of Havana. The first photograph was taken in late August 1962 and it simply showed undeveloped countryside. The next picture showed a few tents and vehicles and several new roads. The next picture, taken 24 hours later, revealed tents for up to 500 men and seven ICBM missile trailers. But the jackpot wasn't hit until mid-October when a U-2 aircraft photographed the area of San Cristobal.

"In only six minutes, US Air Force Maj. Richard Heyser snapped 928 photographs that yielded the first confirmation of offensive missiles in Cuba," according to "Soviet Deception in the Cuban Missile Crisis," an April 2007 article by James Hansen, who served in both CIA and DIA.

The Soviets had lied about the presence of missiles just 90 miles from the US mainland and they had been caught at it. This was probably the first time that Americans were exposed publicly to the art and science of what intelligence types call change detection. But it turns out that what has become one of the touchstones of the fabulous capabilities of spies in the skies -- also known as high-flying planes such as the U-2 and satellites -- was not quite as seminal as it seemed at the time.

Many argued that the pictures were proof of the superiority of what became known during the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks (SALT) as "national technical means."

But, at an April 28 conference held at Georgetown University to celebrate the donation to the university of a lot of personal papers and recently declassified files from former CIA Director Richard Helms, that conventional wisdom was dealt a death blow.

Bud Wheelon, the CIA's first deputy director for science and technology, said that the agency knew about the missiles from other, more prosaic sources beforehand. In fact, human sources in Cuba had obtained detailed information about the Cuban bombers and missiles, Wheelon told me this week.

The first solid information was obtained Sept. 17, he said, from agents on the ground. Using that and other information, the US flew the U-2 and other planes over Cuba to get confirmation and to provide the world with undeniable proof that did not compromise intelligence sources and methods. After all, the Cubans and Soviets knew about the U-2s and other planes because they shot at them. We understand that at least one senior intelligence official -- long since retired -- was secretly awarded one of the CIA's highest honors for the spying done on the ground in Cuba. Senior intelligence officials, including Wheelon and CIA Director John McCone, knew about the intelligence from the agent and believed it. But the intelligence community did not.

A National Intelligence Estimate dated Sept. 19, 1962 concluded the Soviets were unlikely to try and install missiles in Cuba.

"The USSR could derive considerable military advantage from the establishment of Soviet medium and intermediate range ballistic missiles in Cuba, or from the establishment of a Soviet submarine base there. As between these two, the establishment of a submarine base would be the more likely. Either development, however, would be incompatible with Soviet practice to date and with Soviet policy as we presently estimate it," the estimate concluded.

Not the first time they goofed. And it won't be the last. But that is the nature of intelligence. It is the analysis of uncertain information and yields insights that are often wrong. But remember that the U-2 was built. Remember that agent working in Cuba.

And remember those 928 photographs. The process wasn't perfect. But war was averted.

-- Colin Clark

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