CIA operations in Southeast Asia

An air-to-air left front view of a YF-12 aircraft.

Lockheed A-12

CIA involvement in Southeast Asia lasted for nearly two decades, from the mid-1950s through 1973. Though the U. S. government and many of its entities were blamed for America’s ultimate failure in Southeast Asia, the Agency performed credibly, often conducting operations outside of its sphere of responsibility.

In the mid-1950s, CIA operatives began training police forces and paramilitary units for the government of South Vietnam. Simultaneously, the Agency began organizing, recruiting, training, and equipping a number of Meo tribesmen in Laos for conventional and unconventional warfare against the communists. This force of Meo tribesmen would, by 1962, be known as L’ARMÉE CLANDESTINE (the Secret Army). The army, which grew to some 30,000 Laotian fighters and 17,000 mercenaries from Thailand, fought communist Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese soldiers who were attempting to overthrow the government of Laos. This conflict was known as the “Secret War in Laos.”

Large-scale involvement on the part of the CIA in both Laos and Vietnam began in 1962. By 1965, the Agency was conducting a myriad of intelligence-gathering operations, as well as all manner of covert-action projects aimed at combating the communists in North Vietnam and guerrillas operating in South Vietnam. Many of the operations involved the deployment of CIA officers who worked directly with U. S. and allied ground forces in the field and CIA pilots who flew transport and intelligence-gathering missions. In the Encyclopedia of American Intelligence and Espionage, G. J. A. O’Toole quotes former CIA officer Harry Rositzke as saying, “The CIA became an all-purpose instrument of action like the OFFICE OF STRATEGIC SERVICES during the war with Germany and Japan.”

Though covert action was a primary responsibility of the CIA during the conflict in Southeast Asia, the Agency also provided U. S. government consumers of intelligence, chief among them the armed forces, with substantive FINISHED INTELLIGENCE. CIA-gathered and analyzed intelligence provided American military leaders with an accurate pictures of the enemy’s actual strength. This intelligence, however, conflicted with enemy-strength figures estimated by the U. S. Army. For instance, in 1967, the Army estimated that some 270,000 enemy soldiers were operating in the field. CIA estimates were twice that number.

In January 1968, Vietcong and North Vietnamese forces launched coordinated attacks on virtually all of South Vietnam’s major cities and provincial capitals, as well as U. S. military installations and fire bases throughout the country. The attacks, known as the Tet offensive, forced the Army to revise its enemy-strength figures. The CIA continued providing substantive finished intelligence, but the Agency became increasingly “pessimistic” about the eventual outcome of the war.

When the Paris Peace Accords of 1973 ended America’s involvement in Vietnam, the number of CIA operatives was dramatically reduced. In neighboring Laos, l’Armée Clandestine was also disbanded.

In his book CIA and the Vietnam Policymakers: Three Episodes 1962-1968, CIA historian Harold P. Ford made the following conclusions as to the Agency’s efforts during the war:

From the early 1950’s onward, CIA’s assessments in the main proved more accurate than those of any other US Government entity, and CIA’s analytic record on Vietnam compares favorably with its endeavors in the counterinsurgency field. CIA officers fairly consistently insisted their analyses showed that military force alone would not win the war; that our South Vietnamese creation, the GVN, was not proving adequate to the political-military task; that we should not underestimate the enemy’s covert presence throughout South Vietnamese society; that we should not underestimate the enemy’s staying power; that US bombing efforts were not appreciably slowing the enemy’s progress in the South; that the enemy would try to match US escalation rather than meaningfully negotiate; and that ill-founded official claims of great progress distorted reality to the detriment of policy objectives. CIA’s record of candor is all the more remarkable because CIA officers often had to brave pressures from senior political and military officers to “get on the team” and to support the war effort with more optimistic findings and estimates.

Operation PHOENIX

Operation PHOENIX was a controversial special project in the Vietnam War wherein Vietcong leaders were identified by U. S. intelligence officers to be targeted by U. S. forces. The project was directed by future DIRECTOR OF CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE (DCI) WILLIAM EGAN COLBY.


BLACKSHIELD was the code name for high-altitude air reconnaissance operations conducted by CIA pilots flying A-12 BLACKBIRDs out of Kadena Air Base, Okinawa, from May 1967 to June 1968. In what was considered to be the highlight of the A-12 aircraft’s history, BLACKSHIELD pilots flew numerous sorties over Vietnam and North Korea.

The A-12s were replaced by SR-71 BLACKBIRDs, flown by Air Force pilots. But photographic intelligence (PHOTINT) gleaned from SR-71 missions continued to be forwarded to the Agency.

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