INT: And you also tape-recorded him as well?
JB: His meetings with Oleg were all tape-recorded, thanks to MI6. They did a beautiful job of taping his and the only times we didn't tape him was when I met with him outside and I didn't have a machine with me at the time, but they were not important meetings, they were just meetings for other purposes.
INT: What was the reason for tape recording? What's the idea there?
JB: The reason we tape recorded was for the sake of accuracy. [Clears throat] He was a fast talker, he had a lot to say and you couldn't take notes fast enough, even though there were four of us, you couldn't take notes fast enough to keep up with him and you might get four different versions. Whereas we had time to go over the tapes and every one of his words were eventually translated into English for distribution to MI6 and to CIA. But it was accuracy that we were after and we didn't want any shading of meaning. We had to have his exact words and his exact words are still available today.
INT: Over the course of these meetings, did you get an impression from him, of a Soviet Union that was posing a serious military threat, or were you able to cut the enemy down to size? I'm quite confused over, you know, what, as it were, the overall picture you got. Some people say that there was a view early on that the KGB, that the Soviet, that the Red Army were ten feet tall, that they were all-powerful. Other people say, well, no, he was able to tell these guys, don't worry about it, that the army isn't as big, they're not as well trained, they're not as ready, they're not as well equipped. Now try and make sense of this, 'cos these two don't seem to kind of... there's a paradox there in a sense.
JB: Well actually in Washington DC at least, the feeling was that the Soviets are about ten feet tall and Oleg was able to provide us and bring it down to a reasonable size where we understand that they were not as great as they tried to impress us in their missile strength, while they were still a serious threat, no question about it, they were strong militarily, absolutely strong militarily, but they were not as strong as our estimators had felt and he helped us bring it down to the level where they really were. They were not ten feet tall, they were about my size, six foot two.
INT: When you got into the... when you got into the Cuban Missile Crisis, did you personally think - 'cos you'd met Penkovsky, you'd heard him talk - did you personally think that there was a danger of nuclear war, or were you persuaded yourself from what he'd said to you about what Khrushchev thought, what the élite thought, what the missile strength was, did you actually in your heart of hearts think this is not going to be a problem, I am reassured by what Oleg has told me?
JB: The Cuban Missile Crisis is probably the most difficult point in the history of the United States. We were very ignorant because it was a very well planned operation there that the Soviets had, bringing all their missiles into the United States without the United States knowing anything about it, just ninety miles from our shores. And so when Oleg gave us the information about the missiles and particularly the deployment of a particular missile which its ground structure is for one type of the SS-4 missile which has a range of a thousand miles, it has a particular ground deployment, whereas the SR-5 missile had over two thousand mile range, had a different deployment and it was those photographs that, when our air force photographed the fields, we were able to show them to President Kennedy and convince him that the missiles were there for offensive purposes, even though Secretary of State Dean Rusk and Secretary of War Robert MacNamara tried to convince the President that all the Soviets were doing was helping the Cubans their defensive posture. what they really didn't know was that they were there for offensive purposes and this struck quite a cord in Kennedy's view of the Cuban Missile Crisis and what to do about it. And he knew well enough from the Berlin Crisis that he could out-bluff in a poker game Mr. Khrushchev, which he did.
INT: Did you yourself, though, Joe, think when you guys got into the Cuban Missile Crisis, when this was on you, did you think that from what Penkovsky had told you, you really didn't have much to fear, because Khrushchev was bluffing and he didn't really have the power?
JB: No, we still had something to fear, because the missiles were there. The missiles were in Cuba, there's no denying that, they were there and what Secretary MacNamara and we for that matter did not know, this came out later, just a couple of years ago from the Soviets, was that the Soviet general in charge of the missiles was told by the Kremlin that if the United States ever attacked militarily Cuba, that he was to let the missiles go and at that time there were about sixteen missiles that were ready to go and if you can imagine the sixteen cities that could be hit by Soviet missiles from Cuba, Washington DC, New York, Texas, New Orleans, Houston and other places in between, that would have done an enormous amount of damage and of course that would have resulted in a catastrophic world war with nuclear bombs going from the United States to the Soviet Union and vice versa. That might have been close to the end of the world.
INT: When you got into the Cuban Missile Crisis... I mean, it's almost like too good to be true. You get into this situation and you've got the very guy on, you know, as it were on your pay roll who, I don't mean with money, but he's there working for you, who can solve the problems that photo analysts have got, which is we can see there's something there, but is it is a this or is it a that and if it's a this, what does that mean and how long have they got? Now I want you to explain...
JB: [Interrupts] Now wait, I'm not sure I understand exactly what you're driving at.
INT: I'm driving at the situation here where I... if I'm right in my understanding of it, the U-2 photographs in Cuban Missile Crisis told the photo analysts some of the information, but they couldn't make complete sense of it without the information that had come from Penkovsky to do with the manuals. What sort of missile is it? How long does it take to get it ready? That kind of information. In other words, if I'm right, Kennedy could not have been briefed without the human intelligence source, which is Ironbark, Penkovsky, added to the photo reconnaissance work that was done by Art Lundahl and Sidney Graybeal and those guys. Have I understand that right? Is that your view of it?
JB: Yeah, yeah.
INT: So could you tell me yourself what Penkovsky's role was and his importance in the Cuban Missile Crisis?
JB: Penkovsky's role in the Cuban Missile Crisis, in addition to telling us what the Soviets were planning to do there, was to provide us with the information which is very basic as to the type of layout that the Soviets would have to have for one type of missile as against another type of missile and he gave us the specifications and the outlines of those particular missiles, the SS-4 missile, which has a range of a thousand miles, and the SR-5 missile, which has a range of over two thousand miles. And it wasn't until the U-2 planes were photographing Cuba that they photographed these very sites and when John McCone, Director of CIA, saw the sites, compared the information that Penkovsky gave us, he was convinced that these were offensive missiles and he took them to President JFK and convinced him that these were missiles. There was still a danger there, but he was also told that Khrushchev was a great bluffer and to try and work his way out of it, which he did. He had the four cards that Khrushchev didn't know about and he was able to bluff him out of it.
INT: How important do you reckon Penkovsky was for you lot during the Cuban...?
JB: it wasn't so much what I thought he was, 'cos I might have been too close to him, but... Bobby Kennedy said that the Cuban Missile Crisis, which Penkovsky helped us with, was worth all of CIA from 1947 to 1961, all the money that was spent on CIA to that time, it was worth, at least financially that's what it was worth and of course it saved our country. It kept cities from being blown up and it kept the war from going into a nuclear disaster.
INT: Now Oleg didn't know anything about this, he's back in Russia, is he?
JB: No, no, he didn't know about the U-2.
INT: OK, 'Cos I don't want our audience to think that he's sitting in a restaurant or a hotel with you somewhere and you're saying, this is going great, you know, the crisis is being solved. You never saw him presumably after the point... during the Cuban Missile Crisis, you never saw him again to say, you've done good?
JB: No, no.
INT: OK, so... before we go on then, I want to talk about something else then.
INT: This is 10964, interview with Joe Bulik continued. Joe, I wanted to ask you a question really which is... what sort of a guy was he? I mean, tell us... you know, he's a fascinating... what he did, how did it, the debt we owe to him and so on and so forth, but what sort of guy was Oleg Penkovsky?
JB: Oleg Penkovsky was a very intense individual. I would have liked to have had him for a friend. very often I will meet somebody and in the first few minutes I will dislike 'em or like 'em, one or the other. And Oleg, I liked him from the very beginning and as I got to know him over the period of time that we worked with him, in the two meetings in London and the third meeting in Paris, I got to like him better and better and better, although there's an old saying, never fall in love with your agents. Well, I never fell in love with him, because I still kept in back of my head something that might be suspicious to me and that he might have planted on us. I always kept that in the back of my head. I tried to be a professional case officer. But I liked him as a human being. He was friendly, warm and very intense, if you like intense people and I happen to like intense people.
INT: Did he have a sense of his value? Did he realize himself how very important this stuff was, do you think?
JB: At one point and it may have been at our second meeting in London, he knew how valuable he was to us, because each of his case officers a small horn, a horn of plenty, and that... he didn't say anything, he just gave it to us as gifts and we new immediately then that we knew what he meant, that he gave us information that was extremely valuable to us.
INT: And plentiful.
JB: And plentiful.