Amy B. Zegart: The Cuban Missile Crisis as Intelligence Failure

Roundup: Talking About History

Amy B. Zegart is a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and the author, most recently, of Eyes on Spies: Congress and the United States Intelligence Community.

The cuban missile crisis marks its 50th anniversary this year as the most studied event of the nuclear age. Scholars and policymakers alike have been dissecting virtually every aspect of that terrifying nuclear showdown. Digging through documents in Soviet and American archives, and attending conferences from Havana to Harvard, generations of researchers have labored to distill what happened in 1962 — all with an eye toward improving U.S. foreign policy.
Yet after half a century, we have learned the wrong intelligence lessons from the crisis. In some sense, this result should not be surprising. Typically, learning is envisioned as a straight-line trajectory where time only makes things better. But time often makes things worse. Organizations (and individuals) frequently forget what they should remember and remember what they should forget.
One of the most widely accepted lessons of that frightening time — that the discovery of Soviet missiles in Cuba constituted a stunning American intelligence success — needs to be challenged. An equally stunning intelligence-warning failure has been downplayed in Cuban missile crisis scholarship since the 1960s. Shifting the analytic lens from intelligence success to failure, moreover, reveals surprising and important organizational deficiencies at work. Ever since Graham Allison penned Essence of Decision in 1971, a great deal of research has focused on the pitfalls of individual perception and cognition as well as organizational weaknesses in the policymaking process. Surprisingly little work, however, has examined the crucial role of organizational weaknesses in intelligence analysis. Many of these same problems still afflict U.S. intelligence agencies today...

comments powered by Disqus