Document Deep Dive: What Did Analysts Find in the Recon Photographs From the Cuban Missile Crisis?

Dino Brugioni explains how he and other CIA photo analysts located Soviet missiles just 90 miles away from the United States

At his home outside of Fredericksburg, Virginia, Dino Brugioni, a sharp 91 year old, gives me a lesson in photo interpretation. On his kitchen table are some of the most consequential reconnaissance photographs from the 13 tense days of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Brugioni was charged with preparing annotated briefing boards for the president during the events that played out 50 years ago this week. As a founding officer of the CIA’s National Photographic Interpretation Center, secretly headquartered in downtown D.C. on the floors above a car dealership, Brugioni and his fellow photo analysts carefully scanned the black-and-white landscapes taken by U-2 spy planes 70,000 feet above Cuba. They pinpointed any missiles, launch pads and other equipment found on the ground.

“When you look at the photography, you are looking for anything that is alien to that environment,” says Brugioni.

At the peak of the crisis, Brugioni and other photo interpreters were reviewing 30 to 40 rolls of film per day. They were familiar with Cuba’s sugarcane fields, ranch land, railroads and baseball diamonds, so Soviet tents and missile trailers stood out. Analysts were also trained to spot certain “signatures,” or man-made patterns in the earth indicative of missile sites.

The National Air and Space Museum has in its collection hundreds of reconnaissance photographs from the Cuban Missile Crisis, many donated by Brugioni himself. The following images are some of the most incriminating. Click on the yellow tabs on the photographs to see how Brugioni and his colleagues gathered intelligence about the nuclear buildup in Cuba.


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