Ted Sorensen on the Bay of Pigs and Faulty Intelligence

Question: What role should intelligence play in a president’s decision?

Ted Sorensen: Well intelligence in both senses of the word should play a major role in presidential decision making, provided that Intelligence with a capital “I” coming from the intelligence agencies of the United States is reliable, and careful, and is accurately conveyed and interpreted by the President when he receives that intelligence. It helps to have intelligence in the other sense of the word in the Oval Office. John F. Kennedy was an extremely intelligent president, and kicked himself that he relied on mistaken intelligence without questioning further and without having his brother Bobby and me in the room to question further those who sold him on the Bay of Pigs invasion on the basis of one false premise after another. There was no uprising in Cuba when the exiles landed. How could there be? Most of Castro’s opponents were either in Miami or jail. There was no opportunity for the exiles to fall back into the Escambray Mountains when their invasion failed. How could they? That was miles and miles away from the landing point. How could there be secrecy as to the U.S. role in that invasion which they had promised him when they had their own public relations office in New York, and the Cuban exiles in Florida were leaking to the New York Times and others all the information about the plans that excited them; in fact exaggerating their leaks so that Castro thought it was gonna be an even bigger invasion, and had an even bigger army there to meet them.

Question: How can a president vet intelligence?

Ted Sorensen: I’ve always thought that the CIA’s motto ought to be “Often Wrong, But Never in Doubt”. Getting assurances from the CIA means very little until you review the underlying national intelligence estimates. And a president ought to have people in charge of CIA who are professionals; who are scrupulously honest; who will not try to be policymakers and politicians and tell the president what they think he wants to hear; but who will tell him the facts – good and bad – to enable the president to make the decisions, not the CIA. After a while you found out, just as a . . . People who watch television news, they soon find out that they’re not getting the straight facts from FOX News, so they turn after awhile to those news channels that deliver the facts. They find out after a while they’re not getting the facts from certain magazines and newspapers; after a while they discontinue reading those magazines and newspapers. The same is true in government. If you find that your intelligence services are simply trying to butter up the ___________ and give him soothing reports on successes that turn out to be failures, then giving him optimistic predictions on actions that turn out to be disasters changed the people at the top. After the Bay of Pigs, Kennedy not only changed the people at the top of the CIA; he changed the procedures by which intelligence . . . decisions were made. And the next crisis in Cuba, the Cuban Missile Crisis, had a result totally different from those early mistakes at the Bay of Pigs.

 

 

 

John F. Kennedy publicly admitted his mistake in ordering the Bay of Pigs invasion, and his popularity sky-rocketed. Why are today’s politicians so loathe to admit their mistakes?

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