Intelligence factors in the Cuban Missile Crisis and the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
In comparing and contrasting the Cuban Missile Crisis and the terrorist attacks on 9/11, account must be taken of the fact that these two incidents were played out in very different political milieus and against the background of different demands on the Intelligence community in the United States. By this is meant that the possible lack of intelligence that many critics see as one of the causes of the events of 9/11 was founded on a complex array of political and international issues and prerogatives that faced the United States at various times.
A number of studies indicate that the nature of the intelligence requirements were very different in the Cuban Missile Crisis due to the overall international political situation at that time. Examining this, various authors attest to the fact that the cold war environment was much more clear-cut and that the intentions of the opposing groups were more obvious. This led to a specific form of intelligence gathering and analysis which was therefore more focused and directed during the Cuban incident than was to later be the case with regard to the 9/11 situation. The intelligence factors surrounding the 9/11 attacks were less obvious with no definite and easily discernable enemy to observe. These are important issues that should be taken into account when comparing the intelligence aspects of these two periods.
Intelligence gathering and analysis during the Cuban Missile Crisis was largely determined by aerial surveillance and photography. Therefore, the technological approach to intelligence was the paramount way of obtaining data with regard to this crisis. "In 1962 it was easy enough to show photographs of missile sites -- fairly unambiguous and with only one purpose -- and make a decisive point. " ( Robbins J.S. 2003) However the threat that was posed by the contemporary terrorism is more nuanced and presents different and possibly more complex problems for the Intelligence community. " ... For example, how do you show a convincing photograph of anthrax spores, especially taken from a satellite?" ( Robbins J.S. 2003)
The above references, among others, clearly indicate that the production of photographic evidence was a key intelligence factor in dealing with the Cuban Missile Crisis. After the photographic evidence of the Russian missiles was produced there was a change in the Russian response to the situation.
"The indisputable evidence literally silenced the Soviet side, until Khrushchev changed the party line from "there are no missiles" to "those are simply defensive weapons." It was a great moment in political theater." ( Robbins J.S. 2003)
There is little doubt that the intelligence situation with regard to 9/11 was much more complex than the Cuban Missile Crisis. Furthermore, the intentions of the Soviet Union and Fidel Castro were clear and did not require extensive intelligence to discern. There was also a clear-cut view of the enemy and their intentions. This aspect is reiterated and emphasized by numerous commentators.
By contrast in 1962 American officials were deeply fixated on Cuba and the Soviet Union. They saw both Fidel Castro and Nikita Khruschev as reckless, unpredictable bullies. The conventional wisdom was the Soviets were aggressive and almost superhuman, ahead of the U.S. In space technology, with a lead in nuclear delivery capacity which might tempt them in extreme cases to a first nuclear strike. ( Moritz F.A. 1997)
After the Cuban Crisis and the end of the cold war there was an attitude that persisted in the intelligence community which tended to concentrate on other political and international facets rather then any potential strike against the United States. In a sense after the cold war it was felt that there could be little real threat to the security of the United States.
... U.S. officials downplayed possible "enemy" military action in favor of more pressing realities elsewhere. They neglected, minimized, or patronized the opponent's intentions and capabilities for political, racial, cultural, or bureaucratic reasons."
( Moritz F.A. 1997)
This statement also implies a criticism of the intelligence community, in that they "downplayed" and "minimized" the intentions of the enemy and their capabilities. This possibly led to the flaws in security that resulted in the 9/11 tragedy. On the other hand critics also emphasize that that there was an essential difference between these two crises. "Yet the 1962 showdown left us ill prepared for an Osama bin Laden, because our Soviet foes 40 years ago -- though we demonized them as evil aggressors -- were rational rivals who valued life. We played nuclear poker against them but shared a common interest in the casino's survival." (Learning from the Missile Crisis)
It should also be pointed out at the outset that some commentators view a comparison between the two historical incidents as being somewhat uneven in significance. From this perspective critics see the Cuban Crisis as much more severe than anything that had occurred since as it could have led to the reality of nuclear war.
Today, we are rightly concerned that terrorists may one day obtain a small nuclear weapon. The damage it could cause would be devastating, even greater than the losses of September 11. But it would not be the nuclear annihilation of the country and a good part of the world as seemed all too possible in 1962. (Utley G. 2002)
The above quotation is not intended to downplay the severity or significance of 9/11, but rather points to the fact that, firstly, the Cuban Crisis posed a real danger of all-out nuclear war which could have destroyed the entire country; and secondly that the nature of the situation and the clarity of the intentions of the main political players provided a very different intelligence scenario than the 9/11 incident.
Comparing these two events also brings forth a wide range of often diverse and opposing points-of-view. For example, one commentator sees a similarity between the Cuban Crisis and 9/11 in the lack of foresight on the part of the United States in terms of the consequences of external policies and attitudes towards other countries. This view sees a similarity between the two events in that the " ... deep political roots ... were unwittingly nourished by our own conduct. " (Learning from the Missile Crisis) For this perspective both the Cuban Missile Crisis and the events of 9/11 are a result of " ... our failure to imagine the threat beforehand ... (which) ....caused us to ignore the few available warnings." (Learning from the Missile Crisis)
This view points to an essential aspect of what is meant by intelligence and the failure of certain types of intelligence to ascertain and predict events beforehand. In this sense, intelligence refers to a broader context and understanding of international affairs and opinions that poosibly are the background to both the 9/11 tragedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis. Intelligence was therefore flawed in terms of a deeper and more subtle comprehension of influential political and cultural factors. This view sees politics and overseas decisions in the world as underlying these events. In the estimation of some commentators, a wide ranging and inclusive intelligence system would possibly have for prevented 9/11.
The larger and more inclusive view of intelligence is also one of the central differences as well between the Cuban Crisis and 9/11. As has been mentioned the intelligence requirements needed to avert the 9/11 crisis differed in many crucial respects to the Cuban Crisis. In the 9/11 situation,
Interpreting the evidence and assessing the magnitude of the threat will require more than simple photo analysis. One will have to consider the historical patterns of Iraqi aggression, their poor record on cooperation with the U.N. In disarming, the nature and character of Saddam Hussein's regime, and other such factors to understand what such images might mean. "
( Robbins J.S. 2003)
This view of a wider more comprehensive form of intelligence gathering was also stressed by Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, who empathized that the 'total context" of a situation should be assessed in terms of the various concomitant and interrelated social, political and cultural aspects of a situation. (ibid) This again emphasizes that difference in the problems that the intelligence community faced in the 9/11 scenario, compared to the more obvious less complex intelligence needed to assess the Cuban Missile Crisis.
( Robbins J.S. 2003)
A crucial factor in the comparison of the two events in terms of intelligence is that many commentators claim that the format and the pattern of intelligence collection and analysis in the 9/11 situation still followed the pattern established for intelligence during the cold war period. From this standpoint the emphasis on high tech surveillance was a key reason for the failure of intelligence prior to 9/11. This view is concisely expressed as follows:
In the 1960's, U.S. intelligence focused on the threat of the Soviet Union, the possibility of war in Western Europe, and support for the ongoing conflict in Southeast Asia. These threats shaped the way in which information…