Thirty-six years after President Kennedy revealed to the nation the unfolding Cuban missile crisis, which brought the world to the brink of nuclear war, the National Security Agency has -- hesitantly and for the first time -- acknowledged the behind-the-scenes spying it did in the months before the showdown.
The CIA has long been credited with alerting Kennedy to the buildup of Soviet missiles on Cuba, a militarization that reached a standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union in late October 1962.
The Fort Meade-based NSA, meanwhile, has for decades watched silently, unwilling or unable to acknowledge the crucial role it played before and during that crisis -- until now.
Declassified top secret documents -- obtained upon request by The Sun and being made public for the first time today -- lay bare NSA's long-buried Cold War secret eavesdropping on the blossoming courtship between Cuba and the Soviet Union.
"That's one secret we were able to keep," said Tom Johnson, a 34-year NSA employee and now its historian, who oversaw the declassification of the documents. "We think it's time now to tell the story."
As early as 1960, just months after Fidel Castro became Cuba's dictator, NSA spies on U.S. Navy ships, in planes and atground stations were intercepting radio and telephone messages indicating military support for Cuba from the Soviet Union.
NSA caught Cuban dock workers discussing the delivery of tanks. It caught conversations of Cuban pilots being trained at Czechoslovakian airfields. It intercepted signals from Soviet ships making secret cargo deliveries.
Aboard those ships, the United States would learn later, were the components of missiles and missile-firing stations, which were slowly being installed in the island's hills.
Finally, with enough evidence from NSA and other spies, a CIA U-2 plane flew over Cuba to snap pictures of those missile sites, giving Kennedy the first solid evidence of what, until then, had been fearful speculation.
Two days later, Oct. 22, 1962, Kennedy's somber face interrupted the 7 p.m. television programs to tell an anxious nation of a brewing conflict that, over the next two weeks, would dominate the news and fill Americans with fear.
"Surveillance of the Soviet military buildup on the island of Cuba," he said, revealed "unmistakable evidence" of nuclear missiles capable of destroying U.S. cities.
Acknowledging that it was the source of that surveillance is uncomfortable for an agency that still craves the dark but, with the Cold War over, is being pushed more and more into the light. An executive order signed by President Clinton three years ago requires the agency to declassify all documents 25 years or older.
But even the release of stale documents creates fear that NSA will be tipping off its enemies.
"It's very controversial here," historian Johnson said. "I do have mixed feelings. Should we ever talk? Are we alerting the enemy?
"However, if it's judiciously done, the revelation of our historical background is so significant that I think you have to do it. But you really have to be careful."
That caution is apparent in the quality of the documents being released, said Jeffrey Richelson, an author and intelligence analyst with the National Security Archives, who is "not terribly impressed" with the depth of the documents NSA is releasing.
"It's very low-grade stuff," he said. "It's always good for them to start down the road and start declassifying stuff. But it's not a first-rate contribution."
One significant aspect of the released documents is that they've remained secret for so long.
In "Thirteen Days," Robert F. Kennedy's memoir of the Cuban Missile Crisis, there's not one mention of NSA.
"The Missiles of October," written in 1992 by Robert Smith Thompson, relies heavily on declassified government documents but contains just one mention of NSA.
And last year's book, "The Kennedy Tapes," by Harvard professors Ernest R. May and Philip Zelikow, transcribes word-for-word the White House conversations tape-recorded during those 13 days -- but contains not one mention of NSA.
Instead, many notations in the book, during key moments of the crisis, state that portions of the tape -- two seconds here, 22 seconds there -- were "excised as classified information."
"Nearly all of the little bits that are left out, that are not declassified, are NSA things," May said in an interview.
May offered a more critical view of NSA's long silence: He alleges that it didn't have much to say.
"They didn't do much before the crisis," he said. "They didn't provide anything that gave an alert."
But former NSA employee Albert I. Murphy disagrees. He said NSA for months had been intercepting critical information about Soviet cargo ships delivering specious goods to Cuba, and it played a key role during the 13 days of the crisis.
Murphy was based at a remote listening site on the moors of northern England in 1962. He said NSA's most significant role was at the height of the crisis, on Oct. 24.
A blockade of all ships was or- dered by Kennedy, but an armada of Soviet ships was steaming right toward it -- the proverbial who-blinks-first scenario between Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev.
"We were monitoring their communications and getting all of it," Murphy said. "We were tracking them on the wall -- a huge map we were using. We were living with it from minute to minute. We had no idea what was going to happen."
He said the turning point came when they intercepted a message from Soviet officials to the ships with the order "polyus," Russian for "pole."
"That word meant don't cross the line, stop," he said.
Murphy said he flashed a high priority "Z" message back to Fort Meade "that told them that, in fact, Khrushchev was backing down."
Murphy, who tried to write a book about his experience but was "shot down" by NSA lawyers, said he's glad he can at least tell such stories to his 26 grandchildren.
"Those final few days, those final few hours, it was very exciting," he said.
"But we had to keep quiet."
Pub Date: 10/21/98