WASHINGTON - Thirty years after the 1962 Cuban missile crisis, newly released documents from the Central Intelligence Agency's files show that election-year politics and diplomatic sensitivities influenced handling of early intelligence about stepped-up Soviet military activities in Cuba.
The documents, which date from the summer of 1962 through early 1963, were to be released today at an unusual public CIA seminar on the crisis. They add details to what is known about the failure of senior Kennedy administration officials and the agency itself to take seriously midsummer signs in Cuba of increased numbers of Soviet forces and equipment and new construction.
The documents include a series of formerly secret memos providing further evidence that then-CIA Director John McCone was alone among Kennedy's advisers who began warning in August 1962 that Communist Party leader Nikita Khrushchev was capable of putting missiles in Cuba. McCone forced Kennedy and top national-security advisers that summer to consider options, such as blockades and quarantines, for reacting to what was then only a hunch about Soviet intentions.
But McCone left on a honeymoon trip in late August, and there was no immediate followup to these early discussions. Two months later, on Oct. 14, McCone's hunch turned into reality when U-2 photos revealed construction of Soviet medium-range ballistic-missile sites near San Cristobal, Cuba.
The discovery raised the threat that Soviet nuclear warheads would be in position to reach the U.S. mainland with little warning. After secretly studying options, Kennedy on Oct. 22 publicized the discovery, declared a naval quarantine of all Soviet and communist-bloc shipping into Cuba and called on Khrushchev to remove the missiles.
In the succeeding days, the Soviets pushed work on the missiles to make them operational and accelerated construction of an air defense system to protect them against possible attack. Khrushchev, who had hoped to have the weapons installed before they were discovered, was certain he would have the upper hand once they were ready to fire.
Kennedy was determined to take action before that point was reached. By Oct. 27, termed "Black Saturday" by Kennedy aides, the crisis had reached a boiling point.
Today, as President Bush is making trust and experience in crisis-management a factor in electing a president, the CIA materials appear especially instructive. They expand previous behind-the-scenes accounts of how one of the nation's major nuclear-age crises was met by a relatively inexperienced, 45-year-old chief executive.
The documents, along with transcripts of tape-recorded White House meetings held on Oct. 27, 1962, and released by the Kennedy Presidential Library, present vivid details of a critical stage of the missile crisis. They show Kennedy vacillating as the day progressed, before choosing a final course.
Among the materials being disclosed are CIA data provided Kennedy the morning of Oct. 27, which reported the agency considered 24 Soviet medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBM) operational. The 1,000-mile-range missiles, if launched from Cuba, could reach as far as New Orleans, Nashville, and Richmond, according to a map provided Kennedy.
Photos confirmed that the missiles, which were kept separate from their launchers, had been moved to the launch site in night exercises and that cables, fueling trucks and separate guidance equipment had been put in place.
Kennedy's recorded words on Oct. 27 reflect the varied pressures he faced. At times he talked of his belief that although he wanted to avoid war, the only way he could get the missiles out would be to attack Cuba or undertake a secret trade with Khrushchev that would be politically and diplomatically damaging if disclosed.
Despite a preliminary review of U.S. options and further discussion that summer of what would be the real situation three months later, the CIA documents show that the Kennedy administration remained unprepared for what unfolded in the autumn.
McCone, even while honeymooning in France, sent cables to his headquarters in early September 1962 pushing for renewed U-2 flights over Cuba.
Kennedy quietly got McCone to change the wording of certain reports, according to the CIA documents, proof that politicizing of intelligence information - which was one focus of attention during last year's Senate confirmation hearings of CIA Director Robert Gates - was going on 30 years ago.
In an Oct. 11, 1962, memo that was once classified "Secret EYES ONLY," McCone wrote that Kennedy feared that if information about the arrival of Soviet bombers in Havana "got into the press, a new and more violent Cuban issue would be injected into the campaign and this would seriously affect his independence to act."
As a result, McCone wrote that Kennedy asked that the report "indicate a probability rather than an actuality."
McCone added that "the president further requested that all future information be suppressed." McCone got that order modified so that future intelligence about Cuba was to be given only to the president's closest advisers and top members of the intelligence community.
Orders had already been issued in September to limit internal distribution of data to prevent leaks to Republicans.
On Sept. 6, Kennedy was told that a "detailed readout" of a photo mission led CIA analysts "to suspect the presence of another kind of missile site - possibly surface-to-surface - at Banes (Cuba). The White House "put a complete freeze on this information."
On Oct. 26, as the crisis moved to its most fightening stage, Khrushchev sent Kennedy a rambling private telegram, the substance of which was that if the president pledged not to invade Cuba, the Soviet missiles would be removed.
On the morning of Oct. 27, Khrushchev broadcast another message, this time in public, saying that the Cuban missiles would be removed as part of a deal that had to include removing U.S. missiles from Turkey.
After Khrushchev announced the next day, Oct. 28, that the Cuban missiles would be removed, Kennedy's aides misled the public into believing that no deal had been made to take the U.S. missiles out of Turkey, a falsehood that was promoted for many years.