DIA faced difficult transitional years in the early 1970s. Sweeping labor cuts between 1968 and 1975 reduced the Agency’s workforce by 31%, a situation that led to sharp mission reductions and broad organizational restructuring.
Problems created by labor reductions were compounded by major advances in collection technology, which geometrically increased the amount of raw data that analysts were required to process. To try to overcome these problems, the Department of Defense embarked on a series of reorganizations involving DIA that would last throughout the decade.
In 1970, DoD created the role of assistant secretary of defense (intelligence) to supervise defense intelligence programs and provide the principal point for coordination with the director of Central Intelligence, as well as other intelligence officials outside DoD.
President Richard Nixon also reorganized the national Intelligence Community and designated DIA’s director as the program manager for a newly established General Defense Intelligence Program, a budget and management program that coordinated defense intelligence.
In 1972, DIA also started putting more emphasis on exploiting technology for intelligence analysis and processing. It began developing networked computerized intelligence databases and modernizing the National Military Intelligence Center in the Pentagon.
Despite the U.S. drawdown in Southeast Asia in the early 1970s, collecting, processing and disseminating military intelligence on the region remained one of DIA’s central responsibilities.
In 1970, DIA coordinated intelligence collection and analysis in support of the Son Tay prison camp raid to rescue American prisoners of war. The raid did not succeed in rescuing any prisoners, but it did demonstrate DIA’s ability to supply timely, cogent tactical intelligence support to combat forces.
In January 1973, the Agency managed the creation of the Defense Attaché Office in Saigon, and was responsible for furnishing employees to the DAO’s intelligence branch.
Nearly all of the 87 intelligence analysts that deployed to DAO Saigon in the early and mid-1970s were from DIA. Five of the Agency’s employees, Celeste Brown, Vivienne Clark, Dorothy Curtiss, Joan Pray, and Doris Watkins, were killed evacuating Vietnamese orphans when their transport plane crashed during Operation BABYLIFT in 1975.
Other global challenges continued to proliferate in the 1970s. Civil wars in Jordan and Nigeria, the emergence of the Palestine Liberation Organization, and massive shipyard riots in Gdansk, Poland, required the Agency’s attention.
A civil war in Angola expanded into a proxy war between Eastern and Western bloc nations, which required DIA to provide policymakers with constantly updated information on Soviet intentions in southern Africa.
DIA’s knowledge of Soviet military capabilities became particularly important when the USSR threatened to intervene in the Yom Kippur War in the Middle East, the closest the world had come to a war between the superpowers since the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Perhaps the Agency’s most important mission during this period was evaluating the Soviet Union’s strategic nuclear and conventional capabilities. In the 1970s, the Soviets achieved rough parity with U.S. nuclear forces, but questions remained about the exact capabilities of these forces and the Soviet Union’s intentions with them.
DIA’s analysts made a variety of major discoveries that aided U.S. understanding of Soviet forces. The Agency also contributed a great deal of key analysis that revised many conclusions in the ever-important National Intelligence Estimates. Finally, DIA also managed many of the collection and analysis tasks associated with monitoring the anti-ballistic missile and Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty agreements.
Although the Agency had struggled much in the 1960s, these contributions netted DIA a sterling reputation and greater influence in intelligence debates.
The other major factor in improving the Agency’s products and reputation in the 1970s was a series of internal reorganizations that streamlined the intelligence production cycle and sped up support for the secretary of defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the military services.
In 1979, President Jimmy Carter issued Executive Order 12036, which restructured the Intelligence Community and better outlined DIA’s national and departmental responsibilities.
Nevertheless, DIA’s intelligence requirements continued to expand, a situation that sometimes led to failures, despite the analysts’ best efforts.
For example, at the end of the decade, DIA personnel and the rest of the Intelligence Community failed to predict the fall Iran’s Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
In other areas, however, the Agency had more success, passing timely intelligence to decision makers on the expansion of state-sponsored terrorism in the Middle East and Africa, the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia, the China-Vietnam border war, and the Sandinista takeover of Nicaragua.
Its ability to provide this intelligence, alongside ongoing intelligence demands against Soviet targets, demonstrated that the Agency had turned a corner by decade’s end.