How objective and
useful are intelligence postmortems of the kind produced in
The press usually accords them an exalted status from the moment they are released, whether they are produced by the executive branch, Congress, or semi-independent commissions. Postmortems are regarded as a reliable account of what went wrong and why, if not an authoritative and objective one.
But should postmortems be embraced at face value? Or are they subject to personal/political/institutional pushes and tugs that can easily distort their findings?
In the aftermath of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, four separate postmortems examined the performance of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The first two were internal reviews; the third was coordinated within the intelligence community by the US Intelligence Board (USIB); and the fourth was conducted by the President’s Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board (PFIAB).
Despite the sameness of the facts at issue, the four ex post facto analyses varied dramatically. They were subject to extraneous influences that distorted their findings and
even their presentations of fact. The key conclusions depended on who wrote the postmortem, when, and
The lesson from these once-classified postmortems is that after-the-fact inquests in Washington should be viewed with the utmost caution.
The Critical Issues after October 1962
The public terms of the settlement all but guaranteed that
the missile crisis would be perceived as a sorely-needed triumph for
the Kennedy administration and the intelligence community, both of
which were still smarting from the Bay of Pigs debacle of the previous year. As Richard H. Rovere, the New Yorker’s Washington correspondent, observed in early 1963, “the handling of the October crisis was, of course, superb (an easy ex post facto judgment, based wholly upon success).”
Yet the CIA’s margin of success had actually been dangerously narrow. When all the facts were in, the missile crisis could be fairly called a “near-failure of American intelligence . . . of the first magnitude,” as the late Alexander George, a Stanford professor, put it in 1974. All the intelligence estimates prepared prior to mid-October predicted that the Soviets were not likely to implant surface-to-surface missiles (SSMs) on Cuban soil. Of equal if not greater moment, the first hard evidence of the SSMs’ deployment was not in hand until October 15, more than a month after they had arrived in Cuba and just days before the CIA would deem some of them operational. That meant Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev had come shockingly close to accomplishing his strategic fait accompli.
The “photo gap”: the CIA discovered Soviet missiles in Cuba belatedly because
the Kennedy administration attenuated U-2 coverage in September 1962.
Both these intelligence deficits—one analytical, one a matter of collection— were hinted at in newspaper stories published just after the acute phase of the crisis peaked. As a October 31 article in The New York Times put it, the first question was whether intelligence “estimates [had been] tailored to fit top policy beliefs,” or if administration officials had “reject[ed accurate] estimates as erroneous.” Meanwhile, the collection issue—which would be dubbed the “intelligence” or “photo” gap—turned on why it had taken the administration so long to detect the SSMs’ deployment. “[T]here is general mystification about how the Russians could have built so many missile sites so quickly without warning,” the Times article noted.
All four secret postmortems would address these two primary questions. There was, however, a dramatic difference in the political consequences attached to each one.