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Discovery of Soviet Missiles in Cuba

In mid-October, 1962, analysts at the Central Intelligence Agency’s National Photographic Interpretation Center spotted Soviet intermediate and medium-range ballistic missiles in Cuba after pouring over black-and-white aerial photographs captured by Air Force U-2 high altitude and U.S. Navy low altitude photo reconnaissance aircraft. NPIC analysis quickly demonstrated that the specific missiles involved, the SS-4 and SS-5 models, could reach most of the continental United States with nuclear warheads.

Under the leadership of NPIC founding director Arthur P. Lundahl, a team of imagery analysts pored over these images, quickly realizing the gravity of their discovery. Analysts Dino Brugioni, James Holmes, Vincent DiRenzo, Dick Reninger and Joseph Sullivan worked to prepare Lundahl to brief then-President John F. Kennedy the next day, Oct. 16, 1962.

The discovery of true Soviet intentions began what some historians have called the 13 most dangerous days in world history, what we now call the Cuban Missile Crisis. The discovery was also a critical milestone in the evolution of geospatial intelligence, or GEOINT, and its vital role in shaping foreign policy decision making.