Posted on April 8, 2012


1. a (1) : the ability to learn or understand or to deal with new or trying situations : reason; also : the skilled use of reason (2) : the ability to apply knowledge to manipulate one’s environment or to think abstractly as measured by objective criteria (as tests).

That’s Webster’s first definition.

But if we scroll down a bit, we read under 4. b : information concerning an enemy or possible enemy or an area; also : an agency engaged in obtaining such information.

One of the first intelligence gathering missions is in the Bible, recorded in the Book of Joshua.

“Then Joshua son of Nun secretly sent two spies from Shittim. “Go, look over the land,” he said, “especially Jericho.” So they went and entered the house of a prostitute named Rahab and stayed there.” (Joshua 2:1)

Almost caught by the rulers of Jericho, Rahab hid them on her roof and that night secreted them out of the city, letting them down with a rope from her window, for her house was part of the city wall.

Other examples from the Bible exist, but let’s leap forward to today. A new book, Castro’s Secrets: The CIA and Cuba’s Intelligence Machine, was just released. Written by Brian Latell, a former CIA analyst, the publication of the book might better be described as an “explosion,” since Latell reveals some inner workings of the Fidel Castro “intelligence machine” that presents startling new evidence on the assassination of President John F. Kennedy November 22, 1963.

Basically it appears that Castro knew Lee Harvey Oswald was going to assassinate Kennedy. I write “appears” since while Latell draws all the lines of evidence together compellingly, there are few absolutes, few “smoking guns” in intelligence analysis.

The end of any conclusion in intelligence gathering and analysis is often in the grey area, an intelligent guess made from long and deep experience, and a devotion to details and long, often grueling, wrestling with “maybes” and “could bes.”

Today, two of the great questions for intelligence are: are the Iranians capable of making and delivering nuclear weapons? And the second one is: will they use them?

The second one, ironically, may be easier to answer than the first. Yes, they will use them. They have stated publicly and loudly that they will destroy Israel for example.

And, a third question: will they risk initiating a nuclear exchange in which they themselves would be targeted by Israel and her allies in retaliation?

The historical evidence suggests yes.

A startling revelation in Latell’s book, and other new books and articles on Fidel Castro and Cuba, is that “yes,” he was ready to accept the immolation of his own island and people by U. S. attack in October, 1962 during the height of the Missile Crisis.

When the Soviet Union began sending missiles to Cuba in the weeks before the crisis erupted in October, the U. S. put its intelligence gathering into high gear. People on the ground—old fashioned spies–, air reconnaissance, from as high up as U-2s flying near the stratosphere to reconnaissance jets sweeping in under Cuban radar, and every other electronic and human means then available determined that “yes, the Russians were installing offensive missiles in Cuba.”

What to do? President Kennedy told his counterpart, Nikita Khrushchev, to remove the missiles and stop further shipments on the high seas. Or else.

The “or else” was a preemptive U. S. strike on Cuba, and, quite probably, a confrontation with the Soviets in other parts of the world.

The one deterrent that kept the Americans and the Russians from a nuclear holocaust was put on the card table. It trumped all others. Mutual deterrence. Neither of the great powers would strike first, knowing that a first strike would only trigger retaliation and both would be consumed in a nuclear conflagration.

As Khrushchev pondered, Castro, feeling the United States was about to invade Cuba, urged Khrushchev to launch a preemptive nuclear attack on the U. S.

“Go ahead, do it! We’re ready to accept the consequences,” which was, of course, the destruction of his island and her people. This was included in what is called the Armageddon letter which Castro sent to Khrushchev in late October, 1962.

Khrushchev and the Soviets eventually came to an understanding with Kennedy and the Americans, Castro was left sputtering—but his country in tact—and good and quick intelligence on the part of the American spy services was vindicated in spades.

Castro was indignant that Kennedy had cowed the Soviets into withdrawing their missiles from Cuba. He promised to get even, and assassination, as Latell describes it, was a credible option.

Here enters Lee Harvey Oswald, a disgruntled former U. S. Marine who hated his country and had embraced Soviet communism.

Oswald assassinated Kennedy on November 22, in Dallas, Texas with a few well-placed shots at Kennedy riding in an open limousine.

One of the greatest intelligence questions of modern times may never be answered: was Oswald acting alone, or in collaboration with other shooters and part of a general conspiracy?

The evidence points to a single shooter but the conspiracy theory still lives on.

In Latell’s book, he describes how a Cuban intelligence officer who later defected to the U. S. told the CIA that on the day of the assassination he was taken off his usual radio monitoring of short, secret CIA instructions to operatives in Cuba and to start listening to news from Texas.

In less than three hours, he heard the news flashing out of Dallas.

“The President has been shot!”

How did Castro’s intelligence people know to listen to news from Texas?

I’ll not give away the drama of the story here, other than to give the nod to Castro’s intelligence apparatus which, as Latell records, outwitted their American counterparts on numerous occasions during this stage of the Cold War. It is a sobering story.

On the other hand, the Israelite spies who snuck into Jericho to scout out the place and hid with Rahab the prostitute got some good intelligence, and they were able to save Rahab and her family when Jericho fell to the Israelites.

“Joshua fit the battle of Jericho,” the old spiritual soars, but Joshua had some good intel.

Published in The Tuscaloosa News, April 22, 2012