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On the morning of Sunday, October 14, , Juanita Moody exited the headquarters of the National Security Agency, at Fort Meade, Maryland, and walked the short distance to her car, parked in one of the front-row spaces reserved for top leadership. Moody had just learned that the U. Air Force was sending a U-2 spy plane over Cuba to take high-altitude photographs of military installations across the island. Moody was worried for the pilot—twice already in the past two years a U-2 spy plane had been shot out of the sky, once over the Soviet Union and once over China.
She was also worried for the country. Tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union were worsening by the day. President John F. Kennedy, American military leaders and the intelligence community believed that the Soviet military was up to something in Cuba. Exactly what, no one could say. What unfolded over the next two weeks was arguably the most dangerous period in the history of civilization. At best, the story of American intelligence activities before and during the crisis is far from complete.
Of medium height, with lightly curled brown hair and a round face, Moody was not a spy in the secret agent sense. Her only brief turn in the spotlight came more than a decade after the Cuban Missile Crisis, when she found herself caught up in the domestic surveillance scandals that engulfed Washington after Watergate. But who was this woman? Her father, Joseph, was a railroad worker turned cotton-and-soybean farmer, and her mother, Mary Elizabeth, a homemaker.
The family lived in the hamlet of Morven, North Carolina, in a rented house with no bathroom, no electricity and no running water. Moody was a leader from an early age. There was also a sense that Juanita was special. This article is a selection from the March issue of Smithsonian magazine. Juanita borrowed money and enrolled, but then came the war.
It was spring The painstaking nature of code breaking in those days, when teams of analysts sifted through piles of intercepted texts and tabulated and computed possible interpretations using pencil and paper, made a deep impression on Moody. But it worked, helping the Americans decode secret messages sent to Berlin from the German ambassador in Tokyo. It was the first of many times in her long career that Moody, who would herself become a familiar face at Bletchley Park and at the IBM campus in New York, helped advance intelligence work by pushing for an ambitious and innovative use of new technologies.
Although he himself had earned a PhD, he told her that she was making a big mistake. This is just the beginning. In , she was promoted to chief of the Yugoslavia section. Analysis was the purview of the brains at CIA. During the s, Moody took on several new leadership roles at the NSA—chief of European satellites, chief of Russian manual systems, chief of Russian and East European high-grade manual systems. She also fretted over technical inefficiencies. Where she excelled was not high-level mathematics or engineering but the application of new technologies to distill huge amounts of data and make it available to decision makers as quickly as possible.
She was an advocate for using big data long before the concept had taken hold, and she pushed the agency to adopt the latest tools—Teletype, Flexowriter, early IBM computers, an intranet precursor and a searchable database called Solis. As a leader, she was impolitic by her own measure, occasionally calling meetings to order by whacking a hockey stick on the table. When she judged the lag time to be substantial, she said so. When it came to being a woman in a male-dominated world, Moody had a simple outlook.
She credited the men in her family for bringing her up not to question her own worth. At the same time, she was convinced that on more than one occasion she had been passed over for a promotion because she was a woman. She was also aware of harassment.
Moody chose not to do or say anything. Life away from Washington was about cocktails, lawn games, music, tracking turkeys—anything but national security. Officials from Washington, friends from around the globe, military generals, even the occasional MI6 agent were guests.
On the way home the night of her promotion, she stopped at a store and bought maps of Africa and South America. The surprise attack, carried out by Cuban exiles trained and led by the CIA, was in disarray almost from the start, and the blundering operation set in motion a rapid escalation between the United States and the Soviet Union that led directly to the Cuban Missile Crisis. Before the Bay of Pigs, Castro had been lukewarm about Soviet overtures and support. When the superpower next door tried to oust him, he changed his mind. Now it was strengthened with the introduction of a microwave system across the whole island.
The technology provided a high level of secrecy because land-based microwave antennas relay information in a chain, and the only way to intercept a message was to be close to an antenna. The NSA responded by establishing new intercept facilities in Florida and flying surveillance aircraft around Cuba. Sigint revealed increased maritime traffic from Soviet naval bases to Cuba.
Cargo manifests intercepted from Soviet ships docking in Cuba were sometimes blank. Through intercepted conversations, the NSA learned of clandestine unloading at night, as well as the delivery of Soviet tanks.
Around this same time, intercepted communications in Europe contained Spanish-language chatter at air bases in Czechoslovakia: The Soviets were training Cuban pilots. By the fall of , the Soviets had backed out of a bilateral moratorium on nuclear-weapons testing; in late October, they detonated a megaton hydrogen bomb in the Arctic Sea, producing a blast equivalent to 3, Hiroshima bombs. They stepped into a small conference room, where Tordella closed the door and drew the blinds.
She was unfazed. It was all in the sigint. Impressed by her expertise, alarmed by what she had to say, and perhaps concerned that no one was providing the White House with this level of detail about an aggressive military buildup in Cuba, Lansdale asked Moody to write up her findings.
Over the next few months, Moody repeatedly, and unsuccessfully, pleaded with Tordella to release her updated report. Moody persisted. And if we do Tordella relented. It was the first such NSA report distributed to the wider intelligence community, and it quickly made the rounds. He wanted to congratulate her, he said.
By springtime, it was clear that the Cubans had established an air defense system similar to one in the Soviet Union and manned, at least in part, by native Russian speakers. MIG fighter jets were soon buzzing U. The CIA, meanwhile, was hearing from spies and double agents about missiles, but what kind of missiles was still unknown. This was two months before the apex of the crisis. But McCone was closest to guessing the nature of the threat. The CIA director grew convinced that the Soviets had placed surface-to-air missiles on the island to keep prying eyes away. Now what the hell is it?
The Americans stopped conducting U-2 reconnaissance flights over Cuba in early September out of concern that the planes might be shot down. Poor weather and bureaucratic holdups delayed the first mission. That same morning, Moody sat in her convertible at Fort Meade, staring at the sky. Because of the danger, the pilot spent only a few short minutes in Cuban airspace before landing in Florida. The next day, a group of intelligence experts huddled over tables in the Steuart Building in downtown Washington, D. Examining one set of photographs, an analyst named Vince Direnzo paused when he saw what appeared to be six unusually long objects obscured by a covering, possibly canvas.
He determined that these objects were much larger than Soviet surface-to-air missiles the Americans already knew were in Cuba. Direnzo checked photographs of the same site taken during flyover missions weeks earlier and saw that the objects had been placed there in the intervening time. In the archives he compared the images with photographs of May Day celebrations in Moscow, when the Soviets paraded military equipment through Red Square.
He became convinced that the objects spotted in Cuba were SS-4 medium-range ballistic missiles, weapons that could carry nuclear paylo and had a range of more than 1, miles—capable of striking a large portion of the continental United States. Further photographic evidence from other sites revealed missiles with a range of 2, miles. Direnzo and his colleagues spent hours checking and rechecking their measurements and looking for ways they might be wrong. The hope was the line-in-the-sea strategy would demonstrate force and readiness to attack while providing both sides with breathing room, so they could begin inching away from the ledge.
Gordon Blake, the NSA director, established an around-the-clock team to churn out sigint summaries twice a day as well as immediate updates as needed. Moody was put in charge of this effort; she spent many nights sleeping on a cot in her office. Late one night, Blake himself stopped by and asked how he could lend a hand. Moody gave him a list of names. She wonders if you can come in. They need you. Of paramount concern was figuring out how Soviet ships would respond to the quarantine.
One critical intercepted correspondence, from the Soviet naval station at Odessa, informed all Soviet ships that their orders would now come directly from Moscow. But whether this meant Moscow was planning a coordinated challenge to the blockade, or a standdown, no one knew.
Yet it was also crucial that American officials feel confident in that assessment. This close to the ledge, there was simply no room for miscalculation. Nobody understood that better than Moody. Although the intelligence about the ship redirecting its course came in the middle of the night, Moody felt the higher-ups needed to know about it right away. She made an urgent call to Adlai Stevenson, the U. When State Department officials refused to put her through, she dialed the for his hotel room directly.
The intelligence provided the first positive s of a peaceful exit from the standoff, but it was hardly over. At one point, Navy destroyers and the aircraft carrier USS Randolph tried to force a nuclear-armed Soviet submarine just outside the quarantine zone to the surface by detonating underwater explosives, nearly provoking all-out war. In Washington, the plan had been to strike back in the event that a U-2 was downed, but Kennedy ultimately decided to refrain.
Finally, on the morning of October 28, after the United States secretly offered to remove its nuclear missile bases in Turkey and Italy, Khrushchev agreed to dismantle the missile sites in Cuba. A few weeks later, in a letter of thanks addressed to the NSA director, the commander of the U. Atlantic Fleet, Adm. The United States would not have learned what it did, when it did, about offensive nuclear weapons in Cuba without Moody, a civilian woman in a male and military-dominated agency.
Moody would go on to lead management training courses within the agency, and she helped establish a permanent position for an NSA liaison in the White House Situation Room. The deaths of U-2 pilots had troubled her deeply, and she worked to improve the system for warning pilots when enemy aircraft made threatening course corrections.
Within the agency, she reached legendary status. One of her Fort Meade colleagues told me that a gaggle of young staffers, nearly all of them men, could frequently be seen trailing Moody down the halls, scribbling notes while she spoke. Moody displayed extraordinary executive talent. Moody must be given credit for a ificant share in that success. At the banquet dinner, Moody, dressed in a pink gown, sat next to Henry Kissinger, then the U. She brought her parents from North Carolina, as well as her sister Dare. Yet the broader American public, at that point unaware even of the existence of the National Security Agency, had no idea who she was.
That changed in , when a bipartisan congressional investigation launched in the wake of Watergate found that the NSA had intercepted conversations that included U. An outcry ensued.Lady want nsa Dennison
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