In my book One Minute to Midnight, I touch on a provocative question that relates to both the Cuban missile crisis and the run-up to the war in Iraq: Did the intelligence people tell the president what they thought he wanted to hear?
In some ways, the Cuban case was the mirror opposite of the Iraq case. In Iraq, the Bush administration were intent on showing that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction—and lo and behold, the CIA produced the “evidence,” much of it fabricated, that helped prove the case. In Cuba, the intelligence agency helped the Kennedy administration fend off Republican charges that it was turning a blind eye to the installation of nuclear weapons on Cuba.
It was only on October 15—when it received incontrovertible photographic evidence of Soviet duplicity—that the agency finally reversed its estimate that the Soviet Union was not shipping nuclear missiles to Cuba. With congressional elections looming in November, President Kennedy succeeded in keeping a tight lid on any intelligence information that conflicted with the administration’s official position.
After my book appeared in 2008, I had the opportunity to ask the then-CIA director, General Michael Hayden, about the politicization of intelligence, in both the Cuba and Iraq cases. Not surprisingly, he defended the honor of his agency. He attributed mistaken analysis not to political pressure, but to a very human tendency to pay too much attention to conventional wisdom.
Explaining his point, he noted that the Soviets had never deployed nuclear missiles outside eastern Europe, prior to 1962. Analysts erroneously assumed that this status quo would continue to prevail. In the case of Iraq, analysts were swayed by the fact that Saddam Hussein did have a vigorous WMD program up until the first Gulf War in 1991. The analysts assumed that he was still developing WMD.
I think there is some truth in this explanation, but believe that politicization was also a factor. Political interference with the intelligence community operates in subtle ways. The overwhelming majority of analysts at the working level are non-political and highly professional, but they are also attuned to the demands of their bosses. Information and analysis is selected and filtered as it passes upwards through the ranks. The desire to supply the White House with information that will help the president build a political case can generate misinformation.
It is not only the American public that is fooled in such cases, it is also the commander-in-chief and his closest advisers. As Bobby Kennedy later remarked about the deployment of Soviet nuclear missiles to Cuba, “we had been fooled by Khrushchev, but we had also fooled ourselves.”
Michael Dobbs is the author of seven books, including the best-selling One Minute to Midnight. His latest book, King Richard, is about Nixon and Watergate.