The Last Time Intelligence Was at the Center of a Presidential Election the Result Was Near-Disaster (You Do Remember the Cuban Missile Crisis, Don't You?)

James Burkee, writing in USA Today (Jan. 28, 2004):

This isn't the first time intelligence information -- or the public's lack of it -- has played a significant role in a presidential election. During the 1960 campaign, Republican Richard Nixon's Democratic challengers -- Sens. Stuart Symington of Missouri, Lyndon Johnson of Texas and John Kennedy of Massachusetts -- all campaigned on the so-called missile gap, the Soviet Union's perceived superiority in nuclear weaponry.

Bombastic Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev had capitalized on the shock value of Sputnik in 1957 by boasting that the U.S.S.R. was building missiles "like sausages." By harping on that "missile gap," Kennedy convinced many Americans that it was true: In 1960, 47% of Americans believed the Russians were ahead of the U.S. in missile and rocket production. The problem, historian Martin Walker says, was that "there was no missile gap, and Kennedy knew it."

Photographs taken by the CIA's super spy plane, the U-2, suggested that if there was such a gap, it favored the West. But President Eisenhower and Vice President Nixon could not challenge Kennedy's claims without acknowledging the existence of the U-2 and missions over Soviet territory. The Democratic challengers' strategy against Bush mirrors Kennedy's in 1960: attack from the right by saying the president has not been strong enough on homeland security and in postwar Iraq.

By manufacturing a "missile gap" and implying support for an invasion of Cuba by anti-Castro exiles, Kennedy seemed even more hawkish on defense than Nixon. The issue was decisive in a close race, which Kennedy won by fewer than 60,000 votes.

The danger of playing politics with intelligence was revealed in 1962, shortly after Kennedy took office, when the superpowers nearly came to blows over the placement of Soviet missiles in Cuba. Historian John Lewis Gaddis suggests that crisis may be traced to Kennedy's posturing during and after the election. "Khrushchev placed missiles in Cuba," Gaddis writes, "because he saw Kennedy as aggressive, not passive."

Today's Democratic challengers would do well to learn from the consequences of Kennedy's political ambition. By suggesting that President Bush lied about WMD and 9/11, the Democrats are, as was Kennedy, relatively safe: The Bush administration cannot prove the assertions incorrect without exposing U.S. intelligence.

But they play a dangerous game in running at Bush from the right, as Wesley Clark did on Jan. 10, when he asserted that "the two greatest lies" of the Bush presidency were that 9/11 could not have been prevented and that future attacks are inevitable. "If I'm president of the United States," Clark boasted, " . . . we are not going to have one of these incidents."

Someday the truth will come out, as it has about Kennedy. It may take decades, but one day historians will discover what the Bush and Clinton administrations knew and when they knew it.

In the interim, we can only hope the Democrats remember the lesson of 1960: Playing politics with intelligence is very risky business.

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