In mid-October 1962, a nondescript office building in a not-so-great neighborhood of Washington suddenly became very, very busy and very, very important. The future of the world depended on what happened inside 501 K St. NW.
Photos of Soviet missiles in Cuba analyzed in a downtown DC office building
These are the words of a person who worked in the Steuart Building, the upper floors of which were leased in 1956 to the Central Intelligence Agency for its Photographic Intelligence Division, later named the National Center for Photographic Interpretation. Even now, 60 years later, the man has requested that his name not be used due to the nature of his work. We will call it “Bob.”
Last week in this space, Answer Man described how the CIA moved into the Steuart building to process the avalanche of photos taken by the high-flying U-2 spy plane. Images of Soviet airfields, factories, missile bases, submarine enclosures and the like were analyzed under the direction of Arthur C. Lundahl.
The agency’s photo unit previously occupied space on the Mall, in one of several “temporary” federal buildings erected during World War II. The Steuart Building was different in that it was a private building, housing such mundane tenants as a car dealership, insurance agency, and toy store.
“He was really hiding in plain sight,” said Jack O’Connorretired CIA intelligence officer and author of “NPIC: Seeing Secrets and Growing Leaders: A Cultural History of the National Center for Photographic Interpretation.”
The Soviet nuclear missiles photographed on the island of Cuba on October 14, 1962 were also in full view – or within view from the plane -. Two days later, after the images were reviewed and compared to what was known of Russia’s nuclear arsenal, Lundahl traveled to the White House with the information boards he was famous for. These visual aids convinced the President John F Kennedy that it was time to act.
“Bob” said the missiles weren’t a complete surprise. Previously, large crates had been photographed on the deck of a Soviet ship en route to Cuba.
“At the time, they didn’t know what they were,” said “Bob,” who served in a supporting role and was not a stills performer. “It piqued their interest, to keep an eye on it. This is when the term “crate-ology” was coined. This started the search effort to find out what was in these size crates.
Everyone at NPIC was mobilized. Two 12-hour shifts were instituted, with the latest intelligence being delivered to the White House and the US military.
Among those who received this information was an intelligence officer from the General Staff of the Navy named Michael Kirkland, who was aboard a Navy helicopter carrier in the Caribbean. “CIA photo intelligence was one of our primary sources of information,” he wrote to Answer Man.
Kirkland’s ship was implicated in what happened next: Kennedy ordered US Navy ships to establish a blockade – he used the less provocative term “quarantine” – around Cuba, preventing ships Soviets to enter. (Kirkland, of Chevy Chase, Md., later went to work for the CIA at NPIC.)
The world was suspended. The situation was defused when the Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev agreed to withdraw the missiles in exchange for assurances that the United States would not invade Cuba. Although it was not made public at the time, Kennedy also agreed to withdraw US missiles from Turkey.
Among “Bob’s” memories of the episode is Robert F Kennedy reaction on learning of the existence 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 shared by Lundahl.
After touring the Steuart Building – and allegedly stepping over a drunk in the vestibule – Bobby Kennedy asked Lundahl, “What the hell are you doing? (Some say he used a saltier phrase.)
The Steuart building had to provide good cover for the work that took place inside. Lundahl felt that if he bristled with armed guards, he would betray the game.
O’Connor said employees don’t take their badges home after their shift. They gave them back to Mrs Stallings, a woman who sat at a desk in the lobby and picked them up the next day. The new employees were amazed that after only a few days of work, she could pick out their badges as they approached.
O’Connor said, “Essentially she knew everyone who should or shouldn’t have been there.”
Ms Stallings was also known for doing the New York Times crossword puzzle in ink.
Across Fifth Street from the Steuart Building was Market town center, a former brick market. “Bob” remembers a lunch stand inside – manned by a man named Sign Where sid – who 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 SE streets. It was safer than their previous one but not nearly as interesting.
Say, did you work in a secret building in Washington? Answer Man would love to hear about it. Write to [email protected], but please don’t endanger national security, of course.