Fifty-first Chapter in a Series Chronicling the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962
The National Security Agency
There were other sources of “hard” evidence about Soviet activity in Cuba beside the CIA’s U-2s. One of them was the National Security Agency (NSA), part of whose mission was to collect and analyze Soviet radio traffic and emissions from Soviet radars and other electronic devices.
These are examples of the intelligence that NSA was capable of collecting and disseminating.
NSA Detects Soviet Antiaircraft Radars in Cuba
On June 6, the NSA sent a SECRET electrical release to a blacked-out distribution list (first facsimile above) reporting that a May 1 airborne reconnaissance mission near Cuba had intercepted “the first ELINT [electronic] evidence of…Soviet airborne intercept radar in the Cuban area.” The release went on to report that the intercept had been expected “for some time” because Soviet fighters had been detected in Cuba.
On August 17, NSA sent out another SECRET electrical release (second facsimile above) to a blacked-out distribution list reporting that signals from a Soviet WHIFF fire control radar had been detected coming from the Havana area. The fire control radar was used to guide antiaircraft missiles to their targets. These WHIFF signals were not, in themselves, worrying because a better fire control radar, the FIRE CAN, was already “deployed quite extensively in the Havana area.”
NSA Eavesdrops on Soviet Pilots in Cuba
On August 24, 1962, NSA sent a SECRET four-page electrical release to a blacked out distribution list describing “Russian and non-Cuban voices on Cuban Revolutionary Air Force (CRAF) tactical frequencies since May 1.” (Third photograph above.)
Between May 1 and August 4, NSA recorded 95 voice transmissions on CRAF frequencies. During that period, despite “concentrated efforts” by “[Soviet] Bloc pilots and controllers to speak entirely in Spanish…on occasion they have reverted to their native tongue to convey a difficult command or request to other Bloc pilots or controllers.”
- In 56 of these 95 transmissions someone was speaking Spanish with a Slavic accent.
- In 36 transmissions a voice was speaking Russian.
Needless to say, SECXRET and top secret NSA releases did not reach the U.S. press or public.
NSA Tracks Soviet Shipping to Cuba
On August 31, 1962, NSA issued another “electrical release” to a blacked-out distribution list concerning FURTHER INFORMATION ON SOVIET/CUBAN TRADE (fourth photograph)
Of the eleven Soviet Bloc ships listed in this release, all probably bound for Cuba, seven had not declared destinations. The other four falsely listed African ports as destinations. At least one of the eleven (the Omsk) was later discovered to have been carrying medium range ballistic missiles (MRBMs) to Cuba.
The gross aggregate tonnage of ships proceeding to Cuba (what those ships could carry, not the tonnage they delivered to Cuba) listed in this electronic release suggests the huge increase in Soviet shipping to Cuba when the ANADYR deployment began in mid-July, in the 3rd quarter of 1962:
2nd quarter 1962 340,151
3rd quarter 1962 (to date) 518,196
The Overall Intelligence Picture
Overall, then, the U.S. intelligence community was receiving a good deal of information from a variety of sources about events in Cuba. Among these sources:
- High altitude photographs of ground activity in Cuba—when the U-2s were flying.
- Low altitude photographs of Soviet ships bound for Cuba taken by U.S. Navy patrol planes.
- Electronic intelligence vacuumed up by NSA’s all-hearing listening posts around the world and by ELINT air reconnaissance missions.
- And, lowest in the hierarchy of intelligence sources, those HUMINT (human intelligence) reports from Cuban refugees, defectors, and U.S. agents in Cuba
By the end of August, however, despite all these intelligence efforts, the Soviets had, by strict radio discipline and extraordinary secrecy, prevented the U.S. intelligence community from seeing exactly what all those ships had unloaded, how many troops had arrived in Cuba, and where they had been sited.
Those SAM Sites in Cuba
But at the end of August, the U.S. intelligence community learned that the Soviets were rapidly building an overlapping, inter-connected series of sites for surface-to-air missiles that would eventually ring Cuba’s entire coastline. The fire control radars to guide the deadly SA-2s to their targets were also in Cuba.
Tomorrow we look at the implications of this new discovery.
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Sources and Notes
I obtained declassified copies of these NSA electrical releases from NSA’s website (http://www.nsa.gov/public_info/declass/cuban_missile_crisis/1962.shtml ). Please note that when NSA declassified and released these releases, it blacked-out the distribution lists so we cannot tell they were sent to. The information is important if we want to trace the government units tasked with acting on this intelligence.
The ELINT reconnaissance mission described in the first NSA message discussed in this chapter was probably an RB-47 from one of the Strategic Air Command’s Strategic Reconnaissance Wings. The “R” in RB-47 means that a B-47’s bomb bay has been reconfigured to carry electronic eavesdropping equipment and the technicians who operated them.
The source of NSA’s information about Soviet shipping is described by James Bamford as a “network of giant elephant cages intercepting the vessels’ daily broadcasts and triangulating their positions…as they crossed the Atlantic. NSA was also able to detect ships loading far less cargo than their manifests called for, thus leaving a great deal of room for weapons and military supplies.” James Bamford’s Body of Secrets: Anatomy of the Ultra-Secret National Security Agency from the Cold War Through the Dawn of a New Century. New York: Doubleday, 2001, 95.