Dino Brugioni’s bird’s-eye view of Cuban missile crisis

October 18, 2012

Fifty years ago Monday afternoon, Dino A. Brugioni was peering through a microstereoscope at black-and-white aerial photographs of Cuba. Outside his grimy, nondescript office building at Fifth and K streets NW, it was an ideal autumn day. The leaves had begun to turn. Washington was debating the merits of the Redskins, who had tied the St. Louis Cardinals on the road the day before. And about 1,000 nautical miles south, the Soviets were readying medium-range ballistic missiles in the Sierra del Rosario, west-southwest of Havana. Washington was in range.

In the National Photographic Interpretation Center, Brugioni, his fellow photo interpreter Vincent DiRenzo and the center’s silver-haired director, Arthur C. Lundahl, absorbed the weight of the evidence before them. The room was still.

“I think I know what you guys think they are,” Lundahl said finally, referring to the small alien shapes in the photos, “and if I think they are the same thing and we both are right, we are sitting on the biggest story of our time.”

On Tuesday — 50 years and one day later — Brugioni, 90, sits at the kitchen table in his ranch-style home in Hartwood, Va., northwest of Fredericksburg. Before him, on the table, is a stack of enlarged photos, some of which he used to make three 20-by-22-inch briefing boards for President John F. Kennedy. The boards illustrated, simply and definitely, that the Soviets were positioning offensive missiles in Cuba.

And off went the Cuban missile crisis.

Outside Brugioni’s kitchen window, blue jays zip between orange-leafed trees on his grassy acreage. Fifty years ago could be yesterday.

“I had a cot next to my desk,” Brugioni says, a hint of his native Missouri in his strong voice. “And I was answering phones, but I also got down on my knees and prayed.”

Bombing missions

His journey to that moment began decades earlier at a dairy in Jefferson City, Mo., where he worked for 10 cents an hour and saved $8 to buy his first camera. His grandfather had emigrated from Italy to work in coal mines; his father followed suit but wanted his sons to pursue above-ground careers. Brugioni went to college and enlisted in the Army Air Corps when World War II started. He flew 66 bombing missions and about 15 reconnaissance missions all across Europe, lying on his stomach in a B-25 at 5,000 feet, snapping photos of enemy troops.

“Only in America could an Italian coal miner’s son be given that kind of a privilege,” he says.

After the war, Brugioni couriered for the Tennessee Valley Authority to pay his way toward an international economics degree at George Washington University. He met his wife, Theresa, while on an errand at the Library of Congress, where she worked in the photo-duplication department. The first time he saw her, she was decorating an office Christmas tree. Her legs were at eye level, as he tells it, and that was that.

Brugioni joined the intelligence community in 1948, became an expert on Soviet industrial installations and, in 1955, a founding member of what would become the National Photographic Interpretation Center, which provided the intelligence community with visual analyses of foreign military installations, among other scenes. A sign fixed to the wall of the Fifth-and-K office outlined the mission in this new age of nuclear armament and electronic innovation: “Anticipate all problems prior to their occurrence.”

Under President Dwight D. Eisenhower, using aerial photography gathered by the new U-2 aircraft, the NPIC team debunked the notion that the Soviet Union had outpaced the United States in bomber production. Brugioni and fellow interpreters divined crucial information from the abstract geometry of photos taken from high altitudes (for example, roads with wider turns indicated the transport of longer missiles).

“Everything that man does on the face of the Earth creates a pattern,” Brugioni says, sitting at his kitchen table with a visitor. “Let me give you an example. Let me try you out as a photo interpreter. You’re photographing every Russian secret installation every third day, around the clock. We’re looking at a group of buildings, and we want to know which one is the headquarters. You determine it in the winter. How?”

The amount of footsteps in the snow?

“You’re getting close,” he says. “The headquarters is the first building to be cleared of snow.”

‘A holy miracle’

When U-2s started photographing Soviet activity in Cuba, NPIC’s skill set proved to be “a holy miracle,” as intelligence pioneer Sherman Kent called the data gathered from the flights. Fifty years ago this week, interpreters were scouring photos and extracting intelligence that signaled the potential for nuclear armageddon. Every higher-ranked official up to Kennedy asked the team, “Are you sure?”

They were. Daily photo reconnaissance and interpretation — accomplished in tense, 12-hour shifts comparing thousands of feet of film — steered the crisis during its 13 dire days. The teamwork at NPIC forced and empowered U.S. officials to make crucial decisions that readied the nation for (and perhaps spared it from) catastrophe. The darkest day was Oct. 27, 1962, when negotiations between Kennedy and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev were at a boiling point, when analysts determined that the missile sites were fully operational, when the military had elevated its readiness to DEFCON 2.

Brugioni called his wife — who always left dinner out for him, who never complained about her husband’s long hours of secret work — to tell her to be ready to jump in the car and head for Missouri.

The next morning, Khrushchev agreed to dismantle the missiles in Cuba in exchange for Kennedy’s pledge to remove U.S. missiles from Turkey. The world exhaled. Brugioni retired from NPIC in 1981, wrote an account of the crisis titled “Eyeball to Eyeball” in 1990, was a CIA consultant until 1998 and published articles on the intelligence and environmental uses of aerial and spatial imagery (which, in recent years, has been used to guide the response to natural disasters and to help verify the location of Osama bin Laden’s residence).

Sometimes the problems of the world — and the solutions to them — are visible only by studying patterns from high above.

‘Insight of an artist’

Brugioni has the ability “to explain complicated technical procedures to ordinary people and to policy makers,” says Michael Dobbs, a former Washington Post reporter and author of three books on the Cold War. “The first pictures were taken at 70,000 feet and were rather obscure. They meant something to the intelligence people but not the policy maker necessarily. . . . To be a good interpreter, you need to be an expert but you also need to have flashes of insight — the insight of an artist. . . . They’d look for soccer fields and that would be the sign of a Soviet military camp, whereas a baseball diamond would be sign of a Cuban military camp. It’s more than just measuring missiles. It’s having an insight into the cultures of these countries.”

On Monday, Brugioni and DiRenzo met with hundreds of their modern-day counterparts at the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency, which bestowed the men with plaques thanking them for helping to “counteract a formidable threat to our country.” Brugioni, speaking to a spellbound audience of analysts, emphasized the humanity at the core of their work. They are watching — godlike, from high above and far away — over volatile and uncertain terrain, with lives at stake.

“I kept after the people yesterday, saying, ‘Don’t forget the troops,’ ” Brugioni says. “Every time you’re looking at that photography, ask, ‘Am I seeing something that can help the troops?’ . . . When we were working [in the ’60s], we never thought that today we could just get Google maps and look down at some of the most highly classified plants in Russia or China. It’s amazing. . . . [Analysts] go into a palace where they have all this kind of equipment and all this sophistication, and I had been there before, and I’m always concerned. . . . If there’s troops there, be concerned about them.”

The plaque sits in a box on a coffee table in the next room, near a copy of the cushioned oak rocking chair Kennedy kept in the Oval Office. Thursday night and Sunday at noon, Brugioni appears in a documentary about the crisis airing on the Military Channel. On Friday evening, at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, he will give a lecture on photography’s role in the half-century-old nuclear crisis, even as the planet chatters about a new potential crisis between Iran and Israel.

“We had said we were going to the brink,” Brugioni says of 50-year-old lessons. “That was a policy. Brinksmanship.”

He pauses.

“And we got to the brink, and we didn’t know what the hell to do.”

Outside his kitchen window, the leaves are turning. Washington is again debating the merits of the Redskins, who have swung this season between disappointment and triumph.

Everything man does on the face of the Earth creates a pattern, as Brugioni says.

In his living room sits a black-and-white photo of Dino and Theresa’s wedding. They were married 55 years and had two children, who between them had six of their own. One of Brugioni’s grandsons is an Army surgeon stationed at Tripler Army Medical Center in Honolulu. He’s expected to deploy to Afghanistan next year.

Dan Zak is a feature writer and general assignment reporter based in the Style section. He joined the Post in 2005, after stints as an editorial assistant at Entertainment Weekly and a city-desk reporter and obituary writer at The Buffalo News.
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