<<

. 17
( 118 .)



>>

players in Operation Mongoose. Rusk was particularly unsettled by
several recent incidents. On August 50, a U-2 had accidentally overflown
Russia's Sakhalin Island, generating a harsh Soviet protest, and a few
days later another CIA U-2, based in Taiwan and flown by a Chinese
Nationalist, was lost over mainland China.
At the meeting, Rusk mentioned the incidents and then looked across
the table at CIA deputy director Pat Carter. "Pat, don't you ever let me
up?" he asked jokingly. "How do you expect me to negotiate on Berlin
with all these incidents?" But Robert Kennedy saw no humor. "What's
the matter, Dean, no guts?" he snapped. Eventually Rusk and Carter
compromised on a reduced flight schedule. But Carter expressed his
concern. "I want to put you people on notice," he said, "that it remains
our intention to fly right up over those SAMs to see what is there." There


92
was no response, positive or negative. As the meeting broke up and the
officials began heading for the doors, Carter quietly grumbled, "There
they all go again and no decisions."
The next day, October 10, NSA reported that the Cuban air defense
system seemed to be complete. The Cubans had just begun passing
radar tracking from radar stations to higher headquarters and to
defensive fighter bases using Soviet procedures. Their system, with
Russians in advisory positions at every point, was now ready for
business.


From the very first, NSA had performed superbly in tracking the
Cuban arms buildup, shipload by shipload, pallet by pallet. But without
the ability to break high-level Soviet or Cuban cipher systems, the
codebreakers could not answer the most important question: Were all the
weapons being delivered defensive, or were any offensive, such as
ballistic missiles? Even unencrypted Cuban communications frequently
frustrated NSA's abilities. "Communications security has been very well
maintained through a system of cover words and/or callsigns," one NSA
report noted. Instead, NSA depended mostly on commercial ship
transmissions, unencrypted Cuban chatter, and direction finding. Thus
it was neither the NSA nor the CIA that would discover the first hard
evidence of medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs) in Cuba. Instead it
was the high-resolution "eyes" of an Air Force U-2. Nevertheless, Admiral
Thomas H. Moorer, who would later become Chief of Naval Operations,
told Congress that "electronic intelligence led to the photographic
intelligence that gave indisputable evidence of the Soviet missiles in
Cuba."
On Thursday, October 18, a U-2's high-altitude reconnaissance
photography revealed that the Soviet and Cuban construction teams
were making rapid progress. In August, only the initial construction of
one missile site was observed. But new photography revealed two
confirmed MRBM sites and one probable. Two other sites, possibly for
the more powerful intermediate-range missiles, were also confirmed.
On the Oxford, it was nail-biting time. NSA intercepts picked up
frequent Cuban references to "the Oxford spy ship." According to Parish,
"They would send vessels out and get in their path. Some low flyers
would come over”low-flying aircraft. They would come on, circle them
with their guns trained on them."
"We were all listening for Russian communications, Cuban and
Russian," said Oxford intercept operator Aubrey Brown. "The Cubans
didn't take too kindly to the idea of us sitting out there and doing this. So
there was a game of harassment that they played”they would send these
gunboats out and you could see the crew going to general quarters, you


93
could see the guns being trained on the ship. They take an attack
position and then run a fake attack on the ship. The people on the boats
were standing behind the guns."
"Jesus Christ," yelled one senior intercept operator. "It's war! Havana
harbor just went crypto." Until then, the routine broadcasts to ships
entering Havana harbor had been in the clear. Suddenly the broadcast
became gibberish. After a short while and further analysis, however, it
was determined that the nervous intercept operator had put the intercept
tape in his machine backwards. As tensions increased, McCone brought
up with President Kennedy the issue of the Oxford's safety. The CIA
director was eventually given permission to move it farther away, to
about twenty miles.
Back in the Elint section of the ship, the technicians would hear
screeching as the Cuban fire-control radar locked on them; then, MiGs
would be launched. At the same time, the U.S. listeners were
eavesdropping on what the boats and the MiGs were saying.
The arrival of NSA civilians on the ship was wrapped in mystery. "You
kind of know things are getting a little more agitated because over in Key
West you would pick up a couple of guys from NSA who will come out
and do three weeks of special duty," said Brown. "And they've got some
kind of assignment that no one will talk about. They come in with special
recorders and they put them in the racks and they do their stuff and
they leave."
Because NSA was unable to break the Soviet cipher system, one of the
special missions involved sending someone to the Oxford with special
equipment to try to capture the radiation emitted from Soviet crypto
machines. These signals”known in NSA as Tempest emissions”
contained deciphered information and thus would be extremely valuable.
But to collect those signals, the ship had to get very close to the Russian
station. "We took the ship in pretty close. We usually stayed out eight
miles, but this time we went in to around four miles," said Brown. "There
was a Russian communications station there that was in communication
with Moscow, and they were trying to pick up the Tempest radiation from
this crypto device. If they could get the Tempest radiation, they [the NSA]
had the key to the universe then."
The intercept operators were also looking for sharp "noise spikes,"
which could offer clues as to rotor settings on older crypto machines.
"The codebreakers were having a tough time with this code," said Max
Buscher, a Sigint operator on the Oxford during the crisis. "They thought
that if we got in close, if the encrypting device was electromechanical, we
might pick up some noise spikes; that would be a clue as to how the
machine was stepping with its rotors. We monitored that twenty-four
hours a day."



94
At NSA headquarters, the Cuba Watch team was trying to piece
together the military order of battle in Cuba. "We had constructed a
Cuban air defense system," said Parish. "We really had not identified the
SAM communications and so on." Along the rim of the Atlantic Ocean,
NSA's listening posts and elephant cages were put on special alert. As
Navy ships began leaving port to get into position to enforce a blockade,
it was critical to know the location, speed, and cargo of Soviet ships now
crossing the Atlantic en route to Cuba.
Even more important was any indication of Soviet submarines. In the
blockhouses at the center of the massive antennas, intercept operators
scanned the frequency spectrum hoping for a hit. Once a signal was
captured, listening posts on both sides of the Atlantic would immediately
transmit the information to the net control center at Cheltenham,
Maryland. There, technicians would triangulate the exact positions of the
ships and subs and pass the information on to analysts in NSA. It was
feared that once a blockade was announced, the Russians might attempt
to smuggle nuclear warheads or other weapons to Cuba under the
American ships patrolling the restricted area. On a wall-size plotting
board in the Merchant Shipping Section, small magnetic ships would be
moved as the positions were reported by Cheltenham. Photographs would
then be taken of the board for inclusion in the next morning's
intelligence report, which would be sent to the White House.
In late September, four Soviet submarines had slipped into the
Atlantic from the Barents Sea. The F-class attack subs were the top of
the line, capable of launching nuclear-tipped torpedoes. NSA had been
keeping track of the movements of an oil-resupply vessel, the Terek,
which was suspected of providing support to the subs; wherever the
Terek went, the Soviet submarines were thought to be close by. By
October the Terek and the submarines were halfway across the Atlantic,
an unusual move by a navy that usually keeps its submarines close to
home. American intelligence feared that the four were the vanguard for a
Soviet submarine facility in Cuba. Another vessel of great interest to
NSA, traveling in the general vicinity of the Terek, was the electronic
eavesdropping ship Shkval, which was also suspected of supporting the
subs while at the same time collecting intelligence on U.S. ships in the
area.
On Sunday, October 21, the Oxford made a grim discovery. "I was at
work and all of a sudden there were people running all over the place,"
said intercept operator Aubrey Brown. "They're distraught, they're
preoccupied, and they're trying to send out Flash messages and
everything's going crazy." (Seldom used, Flash messages have the highest
priority; the designation is reserved for dire war-related messages.) Most
of the activity was coming from behind the cipher-locked door to the aft
Elint space. Inside the darkened room, crammed with receivers, six-foot-


95
tall 3M tape recorders, and an assortment of eerie green screens,
technicians hovered around the flickering scope of the WLR-l X-band
receiver.
They had just picked up the screeching sounds from a troubling new
radar system in Cuba, and they wanted to be sure it was what they
suspected. Again and again they measured the width of the pulses”the
size of the spikes on the scope. Holding on to stopwatches that dangled
from their necks, they clicked them on and off to time the interval
between the woop sounds, giving them the radar's scan rate. Once they
were sure of the signal's makeup, they checked the NSA's highly
classified TEXTA (Technical Extracts of Traffic Analysis) Manual and
confirmed its identity.
"One of our T Branchers [Elint operators] intercepted one of the
radars going on line for the first time," said Max Buscher. "And they
could tell by the parameters that it was a radar associated with an
offensive missile system. This was flashed to NSA. Six hours later, a jet
helicopter came down and lowered a rope and they wanted the tape”
they didn't just take our word for it, the NSA wanted the tape."
Early the next day, October 22, NSA had more bad news: at least five
Soviet missile regiments would soon become operational in Cuba. Each
regiment would have eight missile launchers and sixteen missiles. Thus,
Cuba would have the potential to launch a first salvo of forty missiles,
and a refire capability of another forty.
Later that morning, at a National Security Council meeting, McCone
discussed the Terek and other up-to-the-minute intelligence on Soviet
shipping. The Poltava, he said, was due to arrive in Cuba in about five
days, and its cargo was so arranged as to make it clear that long
cylinders were on board.
At 1:00 P.M. the Strategic Air Command began to initiate "quietly and
gradually" a partial airborne alert and the dispersal of bombers to air
bases around the country. At the same time, the Navy began to quietly
evacuate dependents, by ship and air, from the American base at
Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. Within nine hours, all 2,810 people had been
safely removed.
That evening at seven, President Kennedy addressed the nation,
announcing that "unmistakable evidence" had established the presence
of Soviet MRBM and ICBM sites and nuclear-capable bombers in Cuba.
He then said that he was ordering imposed on Cuba a "strict quarantine
on all offensive military equipment." Finally, he warned the Soviet
government that the United States will "regard any nuclear missile
launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as
an attack by the Soviet Union on the United States, requiring a full
retaliatory response against the Soviet Union."


96
As the president spoke, U.S. military forces in much of the world were
put on alert. Polaris nuclear submarines sailed to preassigned stations at
sea. Twenty-two interceptor aircraft went airborne in the event of military
action from Cuba. "I had the first watch when Kennedy made his
speech," said Hal Parish. "I was briefed to expect the possibility of a very
high level of flight activity over Cuba that evening”to expect almost
anything. I was briefed on lots of airplanes. Not a thing flew that evening.
We didn't launch anything." He added, "It was a very frightening and
scary experience. The only time in the thirty years I worked for the
government when I was scared about the world situation, and I was
really scared."
On the Oxford, in the eye of the hurricane, many of the crew were
stunned. "I was thinking, Jesus Christ, we're going to blow up the world
here," said acting operations officer Keith Taylor who was down in the
Sigint spaces. "After the president's announcement there was shock on
the ship," said intercept operator Aubrey Brown. "What the hell was
going to happen. Next time they come out they will put a torpedo up our
ass."
Also worried about the Oxford was John McCone, who ordered the
ship pulled back. "Right after the announcement they moved us out to
twelve miles," said Brown. "We were then moved out to a twenty-five-mile
track offshore." Still worried, officials instructed the Oxford to do its
eavesdropping safely off Fort Lauderdale.
But much of the mission's work could not be done from that distance.
"You could run some of the operations from Fort Lauderdale but not the
bulk of it," said Brown. "You could do all the Morse code stuff but the
Elint you couldn't do. . . . The next day they decided to send us back to
Cuba." Brown added, "You could get some microwave sitting off Havana
depending on where it is coming from and where it is going."
Within hours of Kennedy's address, intercepts began flowing into
NSA. At 10:12 P.M., an NSA listening post intercepted a Flash
precedence message sent from the Soviet eavesdropping trawler Shkval,
near the submarine patrol, to the cargo vessel Alantika. The Shkval then
sent another message to the Alantika for retransmission to Murmansk,
the home port of the submarines. Although they were unable to read the
encrypted message, the U.S. intercept operators noted the significance of
the Flash precedence in the report they quickly transmitted to Fort
Meade. "This type of precedence rarely observed," said the intercept
report. "Significance unknown." The network of listening posts was able
to pinpoint the Shkval a few hundred miles south of Bermuda; the
Alantika was about 150 miles off the U.S. East Coast, near Philadelphia.
In the early morning hours of October 23, other Soviet ships likewise
began calling for instructions. The Soviet cargo vessel Kura, just off



97
Havana harbor, relayed an urgent message to Moscow through another
Soviet vessel, the Nikolaj Burdenko, which was approaching the U.S.
Virgin Islands. The Russian passenger ship Nikolaevsk, approaching the
eastern end of Cuba, sent Moscow a worried message: U.S. war vessel Nr.
889 was following her on a parallel course. Throughout the Caribbean
and the North Atlantic, whenever a Soviet ship sent a weather request,
indicating its position, an NSA listening post picked it up and noted its
location.
At NSA, as the world awaited Moscow's response to the U.S.
ultimatum, a report was issued indicating that the Soviets were taking
ever greater control of the skies over Cuba. Sixty-three MiG pilots took to
the air in a single day, and of that number more than half spoke Russian
or spoke Spanish with a heavy Slavic accent. Around the world, NSA
listening posts were ordered to install armed patrols around their
facilities. Even in tiny Cape Chiniak, on Kodiak Island in Alaska, the
threat was taken seriously. Communications Technician Pete Azzole was
watching the messages rattle in the Communications Center when his
eyes grew wide: "A Flash precedence message began revealing itself line
by line," he recalled. "My eyes were fixed on the canary yellow paper,
watching each character come to life." The more the message revealed,

<<

. 17
( 118 .)



>>