The Pentagon's definition of strategic intelligence: Intelligence that is required for the formulation of strategy, policy, and military plans and operations at national and theater levels.
From World War II until the end of the Vietnam War, the CIA and NSA were meeting their missions of providing strategic intelligence. The U2 program was the most famous project that both agencies used to great effect. The program showed the true state of Russia's Air Force and provided strategic intelligence about its nuclear capabilities. Based on the photos obtained on the over-flights we determined that Russia did not have as many bombers and fighter aircraft as had been previously thought. It also revealed how they designed their missile facilities that were later identified in Cuba before they became operational.
During World War II, the CIA inserted spies into Germany to gather intelligence on the ground. They also relied on resistance groups in the occupied countries for intelligence. This was easier during World War II since many people in the US were second-generation immigrants from Europe and still spoke their parents' language. This is far more difficult for the CIA now since most of our intelligence needs are focused in the Middle East. Most people in the CIA employment do not look like people from that region and do not speak the languages. The Israeli intelligence service does a far better job of inserting spies and informants into other countries in the region.
With the end of our war in Vietnam, there was discussion of the future "brushfire wars." These were viewed as the future of real shooting wars that would be local in scope. They were typified by the various insurrections in Africa. Russia and China used the Vietnam War as a surrogate war in which they could fight against the US through their Vietnamese surrogates without any cost to themselves other than material.
The military and CIA inserted intelligence teams into North Vietnam and Laos to gather intelligence through observations and capturing prisoners for interrogation. These were not true spy operations and had limited success.
During the Cold War, the CIA and NSA began to rely heavily on electronic and photo surveillance by satellites. They also focused more on developing informants inside of Russia rather than inserting any spies into the country. These still provided information that was of a strategic value for the US. The electronic surveillance provided information about facilities and equipment that could be counted and interpreted for its strategic value. The CIA was also able to develop some informants at very high levels in Russia. These informants provided the US with important strategic insights into Russian polices and plans.
During the Cold War, Russia invaded Afghanistan to prop up the communist president. The US used this as an opportunity for a surrogate war against Russia. The CIA made contact with the many resistance groups that formed to fight the Russians. The problem was that the CIA did not know much about these groups and their various goals. The various groups wanted arms from the US to fight the Russians, but the CIA did not know how friendly these groups were towards the west. The CIA provided support for some of the larger groups that were either regional warlords or had anti-western views but were successful on the battlefield. The one pro-western fighter was Ahmad Shah Massoud. He controlled a very small part of Afghanistan and had only limited success due to lack of arms and equipment. The CIA gave him little support. This failure of the CIA to fully understand the various resistance groups by the CIA had long-term negative consequences for the US. The CIA provided arms to the group that eventually became al Qaeda. Al Qaeda assassinated Shah Massoud a few days before the attacks of Sep 11.
Embassy attacks on in Kenya and Nairobi were a big wake up call for the CIA and NSA,...
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