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Faces of Defense Intelligence: John T. Hughes

By Greg Elder

The Faces of Defense Intelligence series is intended to highlight the accomplishments of former military and civilian intelligence personnel who exemplified the Defense Intelligence Agency creed Excellence in Defense of the Nation.

To be forewarned is to be forearmed, and all intelligence analysts are, first and foremost, warning analysts; they are key enablers in assisting decision-makers in identifying and mitigating threats. However, the clandestine nature of intelligence often limits visibility into the role analysts play in the decision-making process. Such was not the case for “Jumping Jack” John Hughes, a DIA analyst who was not only instrumental during the Cuban Missile Crisis, but was called on to provide an intelligence report after the crisis to a national television audience. Later, as it became clear what a seminal event the Cuban Missile Crisis was and how important Hughes’ role was in averting a nuclear disaster, Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger awarded him a second Department of Defense Distinguished Civilian Service Award in 1975. This award was followed by others for operational support in Vietnam, estimates of Soviet support to Nicaragua, and high level interaction with seniors across the government regarding Soviet military capabilities.

A cartographer by training and junior officer in the Army, Hughes was transferred to the Pentagon in 1953 to begin work as a photo-intelligence officer; he found his niche and was enthralled by a sense of discovery not uncommon to intelligence analysts. In 1957 he retired his military commission to become a civilian analyst with Army Intelligence, and then moved to the newly established DIA in 1961. Hughes joined the agency as a special assistant to DIA Director Lt. Gen. Joseph Carroll and stayed at DIA until his retirement as the deputy director for intelligence and external affairs in 1984.

During Hughes’ first months on the job, tensions between the U.S. and Soviet Union escalated and Soviet military support to Cuba was a critical concern. As a photo-analyst, he saw imagery of Cuba taken from U-2 flights, which included the likely new deployments of SA-2 SAM systems, and worked closely with the National Photographic Interpretation Center (NPIC) to develop collection requirements. A U-2 flight photographed a convoy of medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs) Oct. 14, 1962. Within hours, NPIC’s deputy director reached out to Hughes, who went directly to Carroll’s home with the intelligence - so started the Cuban Missile Crisis. The next morning Carroll and Hughes briefed Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who tasked an immediate and unprecedented increase of intelligence collection against Cuba.

Hughes arrived at NPIC early each morning, reviewing the new intelligence and collection requirements, and then briefing McNamara and the Joint Staff with Carroll. In the next few days, NPIC identified the first of 42 Soviet IL-28/BEAGLE bombers being uncrated in Cuba and longer range and newer SS-5 IRBMs being deployed. Hughes briefed the Joint Staff Oct. 22 that two MRBM sites were already operational, and another four would be operational within seven days; on the 27th he reported that five of the six were operational. War appeared imminent as an Executive Committee presented President Kennedy with alternatives. The next day however, the Soviet Union responded positively to a negotiated settlement to withdraw the missiles, and eventually the bombers, from Cuba.

Hughes continued his work with the NPIC to validate that the Soviets were living up to the agreement. On Nov. 2 intelligence revealed the beginning of the missile disassembly efforts, and the bombers were crated for return to the Soviet Union by Nov. 27. However, facing political criticism for being weak and having to defend his administration’s position that the missiles were no longer in Cuba, President John Kennedy called on DIA to provide a nationally televised briefing about the state of Soviet offensive capability in Cuba. Hughes was selected as the presenter. At 34 years old, he provided a twenty-eight minute, captivating presentation using a makeshift pointer he crafted from two fishing poles just minutes before going on TV. The presentation did much to allay public fears and won the praise of the president.

Hughes continued his superb analytic support efforts throughout the Vietnam conflict, particularly in enabling DIA’s support to combat operations. Notably, he was promoted to the deputy director for intelligence collection and played vital imagery analytic roles in the Son Tay Raid, an effort to free American prisoners of war, and in the Mayaguez raid to free crewmen being held by the Cambodian Khmer Rouge.

For the remainder of his career, Hughes became one of the preeminent Soviet military capabilities analysts, addressing the USSR’s expansion in both capability and support abroad. He was awarded the Distinguished Federal Civilian Service Award in 1981 for “[H]is innovative accomplishments in intelligence collection management and brilliant presentations to United States and Allied leaders that have had significant, positive impact on intelligence support to our military forces overseas and to the viability of NATO preparedness.”

Hughes was called on to use his renowned briefing skills in 1982 to convey to Congress and the American public the significant role the Soviet Union was playing in building up Nicaragua’s military and supporting revolutionary activities throughout Latin America. A year later Hughes became the first member of the intelligence community to provide a top secret, code word briefing on the House floor before Congress, where he assessed the state of Soviet military capability. This briefing proved instrumental in debates on President Ronald Reagan’s proposed defense budget. His presentation, which he also gave to numerous policymakers across the government, was supplemented by DIA’s unclassified Soviet Military Power series, which he assisted in producing.

Hughes eventually succumbed to Parkinson’s disease and diabetes, but not before making one last contribution. In 1992, he co-authored an insider perspective on the Cuban Missile Crisis, “The San Cristobal Trapezoid.” Shortly after its publication, Hughes attended an anniversary of the crisis at CIA and received a standing ovation from members of the intelligence community. Today, DIA remembers Hughes and also applauds his contributions to defense intelligence, and his excellence in defense of the nation.