Monday, June 27, 2022

Photos of Soviet missiles in Cuba were analyzed in downtown D.C. office building

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In the middle of October in 1962, a nondescript office building in a not-great part of Washington suddenly became very, very busy and very, very important. The future of the world depended on what was going on inside 501 K St. NW.

“Every time I left the house, I kissed my wife and said goodbye. She didn’t know it at the time, I figured it might have been the last time I saw her.”

Those are the words of a person who worked in the Steuart Building, the upper floors of which were rented in 1956 to the Central Intelligence Agency for its Photographic Intelligence Division, later named the National Photographic Interpretation Center. Even now, 60 years later, the man asked that his name not be used because of the nature of his work. We will call him “Bob.”

Last week in this space, Answer Man described how the CIA moved into the Steuart Building to process the avalanche of photos snapped by the highflying U-2 spy plane. Images of Soviet airfields, factories, missile bases, submarine pens and the like were analyzed under the leadership of Arthur C. Lundahl.

The agency’s photo unit had earlier occupied space on the Mall, in one of the many “temporary” federal buildings erected during World War II. The Steuart Building was different in that it was a private building, home to such mundane tenants as a car dealership, an insurance agency and a toy store.

“It really was hiding in plain sight,” said Jack O’Connor, a retired CIA intelligence officer and author of “NPIC: Seeing the Secrets and Growing the Leaders: A Cultural History of the National Photographic Interpretation Center.

Also in plain sight — or plane sight — were the Soviet nuclear missiles photographed on the island of Cuba on Oct. 14, 1962. Two days later, after the images had been scrutinized and compared with what was known about Russia’s nuclear arsenal, Lundahl traveled to the White House with the briefing boards for which he was famed. These visual aids convinced President John F. Kennedy that it was time to act.

“Bob” said the missiles were not a complete surprise. Earlier, large crates had been photographed on the deck of a Soviet vessel steaming toward Cuba.

“At the time, they didn’t know what they were,” said “Bob,” who served in a support role and was not a photographic interpreter. “That perked their interest up, to keep their eye on it. That’s when the term ‘crate-ology’ was invented. It started the research effort to find out what was in these size crates.”

Everyone in the NPIC was mobilized. Two, 12-hour shifts were instituted, with the latest intelligence delivered to the White House and the U.S. military.

Among those receiving that intel was a Marine staff intelligence officer named Michael Kirkland, who was aboard a Navy helicopter carrier in the Caribbean. “Photo intelligence from the CIA was one of our main sources of information,” he wrote to Answer Man.

Kirkland’s ship was involved in what happened next: Kennedy ordered U.S. Navy vessels to establish a blockade — he used the less provocative term “quarantine” — around Cuba, preventing Soviet ships from entering. (Kirkland, of Chevy Chase, Md., later went to work for the CIA at NPIC.)

The world hung poised. The situation was defused when Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev agreed to remove the missiles in return for assurances the U.S. wouldn’t invade Cuba. Though it was not made public at the time, Kennedy also agreed to remove U.S. missiles from Turkey.

Among “Bob’s” memories of the episode is Robert F. Kennedy’s reaction upon learning of the missiles. As attorney general, RFK was consumed by civil rights efforts. He asked if the missiles were capable of reaching Jackson, Miss. They were, and Jackson was later included on the range map Lundahl shared.

After visiting the Steuart Building — and reportedly stepping over a drunk in the vestibule — Bobby Kennedy asked Lundahl, “What are you doing in this hellhole?” (Some say he used a saltier expression.)

The Steuart Building must have provided good cover for the work that went on inside. Lundahl felt that if it bristled with armed guards, it would give the game away.

O’Connor said employees didn’t take their badges home after their shifts. They handed them over to Mrs. Stallings, a woman who sat at a desk in the lobby, and picked them up from her the next day. New employees were amazed that after just a few days on the job, she could select their badges as they approached.

Said O’Connor: “Essentially, she knew everyone who should or shouldn’t have been there.”

Mrs. Stallings also was known for doing the New York Times crossword puzzle in ink.

Across Fifth Street from the Steuart Building was Center Market City, an old brick market. “Bob” remembers a lunch stand inside — run by a man named Sig or Sid — that served wonderful pastrami sandwiches.

“I probably gained 10 pounds while I was in that building,” he said.

In 1963, NPIC moved to what was known as Building 213, a government building inside a fenced and guarded perimeter at First and M streets SE. It was more secure than their previous but nowhere near as interesting.

Say, did you work in a secret building in Washington? Answer Man would love to hear about it. Write answerman@washpost.com, but please don’t endanger national security, obviously.



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