Saturday, August 29, 2009

Vietnam War: Declassified documents show the extent of the CIA's Vietnam War

The CIA's close relationship with Ngo Dinh Nhu, chief political adviser to his brother President Ngo Dinh Diem, is demonstrated by the presence of CIA officer Paul Harwood and his spouse at the confirmation ceremony for the Nhu's daughter Le Thuy. From left: Ngo Dinh Nhu, Mrs. Paul Harwood, Le Thuy, Bishop Ngo Dinh Thu, with Nhu's son Qunh, son Trac, [CIA officer] Paul Harwood, Madam Nhu." [Source, The CIA and the House of Ngo, p. 26]

National Security Archive - The Central Intelligence Agency participated in every aspect of the wars in Indochina, political and military, according to newly declassified CIA histories. The six volumes of formerly secret histories (the Agency's belated response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request by National Security Archive senior fellow John Prados) document CIA activities in South and North Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia in unprecedented detail. The histories contain a great deal of new material and shed light on aspects of the CIA's work that were not well known or were poorly understood. The new revelations include:
  • The CIA and U.S. Embassy engaged in secret diplomatic exchanges with enemy insurgents of the National Liberation Front, at first with the approval of the South Vietnamese government, a channel which collapsed in the face of deliberate obstruction by South Vietnamese officials [Document 2 pp. 58-63].
  • As early as 1954 that Saigon leader Ngo Dinh Diem would ultimately fail to gain the support of the South Vietnamese people. Meanwhile the CIA crafted a case officer-source relationship with Diem's brother Ngo Dinh Nhu as early as 1952, a time when the French were still fighting for Indochina [Document 1, pp. 21-2, 31].
  • CIA raids into North Vietnam took place as late as 1970, and the program authorizing them was not terminated until April 1972, despite obtaining no measurable results [Document 5, pp. 349-372].
  • In 1965, a time when the South Vietnamese regime was again in conflict with the Buddhist majority, the CIA secretly funded Buddhist training programs [Document 2, p. 38].
  • CIA involvement in South Vietnamese elections goes beyond what has been previously disclosed, and matches the scope of the agency's controversial 1960s political action program in Chile [Document 2, pp. 51-58].
  • In the later period of the war, according to the CIA's own historian, Saigon leader Nguyen Van Thieu's mistrust of the United States increasingly focused on the CIA [Document 2, p. 87].
  • The CIA historian, contrary to neo-orthodox arguments regarding progress in the Vietnam war, concedes that U.S. pacification efforts failed in Vietnam—including the so-called "Phoenix" program—and traces this failure to several causes, including South Vietnamese lack of interest and investment in this key facet of the conflict [Document 3, p. xv-xvi].
  • The CIA was aware from the very early 1960s of the problems posed by Laotian drug trafficking to its Laos campaign, but not only took no action, it did not even make drug trafficking a reporting requirement until the Nixon administration declared war on drugs [Document 5, p. 535].

The CIA's Vietnam Story
By John Prados

The Central Intelligence Agency's Vietnam war history actually begins in 1950, when agency officers moved to French Indochina as part of the United States legation in Saigon. During the French war in Indochina the CIA's involvement grew to encompass a base in Hanoi but not much more, since the French did not encourage CIA activity. The French tamped down further after an incident in which CIA officers were revealed as reaching past them to open channels to Vietnamese nationalists. When the lands of Indochina—Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia—became independent "associated states" the CIA expanded its activity somewhat, and during the last year of the French war, 1953-1954, agency involvement grew considerably as the French were obliged to accept U.S. assistance with unconventional warfare activities as a condition of expanded military aid from the Eisenhower administration, and with the use of CIA proprietary aircraft of Civil Air Transport (later Air America) in Laos and at Dien Bien Phu.

Starting with the Geneva agreements of 1954 the CIA's role expanded further and began to assume the shape it would keep through the remainder of the Indochina wars. Agency stations were created in South Vietnam and Laos, an agency base remained in North Vietnam until the spring of 1955, and the CIA was represented in Cambodia until that nation broke relations with the United States in 1963 (a CIA station in Cambodia was created following U.S. intervention there in 1970). Besides its crucial importance in gathering intelligence and providing interpretations of events in Indochina, the agency was arguably as important as the U.S. embassy in political relations with the South Vietnamese government. Moreover, as the primary action agency for counterinsurgency through most of the war, it actually conducted a full-scale war in Laos and ran a variety of paramilitary programs in South Vietnam. The agency's broad span of activities reached into virtually every aspect of the Indochina war.

The newly declassified CIA histories cover much but not all of this ground. Despite their massive size—almost two thousand pages in six volumes—the histories leave out significant pieces of the story. The most notable lack is any substantial treatment of U.S. intelligence analysis on Indochina, although a complementary study by General Bruce Palmer, Jr., published in 1984, dealt with intelligence estimates in some detail and the reports themselves have since been declassified. (Note 1)

The present set of monographs nevertheless stand as the broadest recounting of CIA operational experience in the Southeast Asia conflict, a substantial achievement for their author, Thomas Ahern, a clandestine services officer who served during the war in both South Vietnam and Laos. Ahern began work on the series in the early 1990s, completed the first in 1998 and finished the last of the series in 2006.

Some discussion of the individual studies appears below. In terms of overall scope, Ahern began with South Vietnam, with a discussion of CIA's role during the high years of the war and the crisis of the final evacuation from Saigon. Published in October 1998 under the auspices of the agency's Center for the Study of Intelligence, Ahern's CIA and the Generals deals with the agency's political action programs, its role in elections, in secret negotiations, and CIA liaison with the South Vietnamese government from 1964 through the end of the war in 1975. Ahern's second monograph, CIA and the House of Ngo (June 2000), returns to the dawn of the American involvement and covers the same ground for the period of the leadership of Ngo Dinh Diem, which ended late in 1963. The third volume in the series, CIA and Rural Pacification in South Vietnam (August 2001), bridges both eras and focuses in on operational programs that attempted to gain the loyalty of Vietnam's peasantry for the Saigon government or to neutralize the parallel hierarchy of the insurgents, the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam. In February 2004 the Center for the Study of Intelligence put out Ahern's more limited monograph, Good Questions, Wrong Answers: CIA's Estimates of Arms Traffic Through Sihanoukville, Cambodia, During the Vietnam War. In this study Ahern comes closest to reviewing intelligence analysis, although most of his treatment of the subject remains redacted in the version of this document that the CIA recently declassified.

Another specialized study followed in May 2005, The Way We Do Things: Black Entry Operations into North Vietnam, in which Thomas Ahern turns his attention to CIA efforts to mount clandestine espionage and sabotage missions into the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, primarily in the period until 1963, although there is some treatment of later efforts. By far the longest of the Ahern narratives is his 2006 monograph on the CIA in Laos, Undercover Armies: CIA and Surrogate Warfare in Laos, 1961-1973, in which he deals with the full panoply of agency activity in that landlocked Southeast Asian nation.

All of these studies provide much detail, although, as noted, they are thin on some aspects of CIA's work. Aside from intelligence analysis, the CIA monographs contain little on early agency activities during the French war, on the organization and function of the agency's Saigon Station, on intelligence collection (excepting specific cases of particular operatives, and the question of collection on Sihanoukville), on its activities in Cambodia (except as just mentioned), on CIA coordination with the U.S. military, on its relations with agency proprietaries like Air America, or (except in the case of CIA missions into North Vietnam) on the specifics of CIA's cooperation with South Vietnamese police and intelligence services. Nowhere in these many pages will the reader discover a figure for the overall number of CIA officers who served in the Vietnam war or on the agency's casualties in that conflict.

A second problem is the deletion of materials which CIA censors continue to keep secret. This is a particular difficulty with Ahern's monographs on North Vietnamese operations, the Sihanoukville intelligence dispute, and the volume on Laos. The Sihanoukville study, in particular, is so heavily redacted that readers may fail to grasp the story. (Note 2) The monograph on pacification was previously declassified in 2007. A comparison between that version of Ahern's study and the one released in 2009 reveals that the bulk of materials protected by CIA censors in their earlier redaction are of purely historical interest. It can only be hoped that censors today are protecting true national security secrets.

Read the Documents

Document 1: Thomas L. Ahern, CIA and the House of Ngo: Covert Action in South Vietnam, 1954-1963,. Center for the Study of Intelligence, June 2000, 231 pp.SOURCE: FOIA

This volume covers the early years of the agency's work in Vietnam, and ends with the South Vietnamese military coup that overthrew Saigon leader Ngo Dinh Diem, of which the CIA was aware if not complicit and the Kennedy administration was involved. The CIA historian stops short of any admission that the agency was an actor in the Diem coup. Except in minor details this CIA monograph does not go much beyond what is already in the public record. (Note 3) One minor detail of interest is that, as late as the morning of the day the Diem coup actually occurred, the U.S. military command in South Vietnam advised CIA that nothing was happening in Saigon and that the agency should stop reporting that any coup was imminent [p. 207]. Among other highlights this CIA history notes that agency experts recognized as early as August 1954 that Diem would have political problems, that the CIA went beyond headquarters guidance—and effectively set policy for supporting Diem—and that its relationship with his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu began as early as 1952 [pp. 21-31]. The CIA history concludes that the "most fateful episode" in the agency's relationship with Diem came not at the time of the 1963 coup but during a Saigon political crisis in the spring of 1955 [p.75]. By October 1958, before the communist insurgency in South Vietnam had even begun, CIA had assessed that Diem's popularity was in decline [p. 127]. In fact, in its overall conclusions the CIA history argues that "the near-destruction of the Communist apparatus in the countryside, between 1955 and 1959, resulted not in the consolidation of Saigon's control, but in the creation of a political no-man's land," and further that "whatever the possibilities in 1955, it is possible that by 1963 the conflict could not be won at all, or at least by any politically sustainable level of American commitment" [p. 219].

Document 2: Thomas L. Ahern, Jr., CIA and the Generals: Covert Support to Military Government in South Vietnam, Center for the Study of Intelligence, October 1998, 243 pp. SOURCE: FOIA

This volume of the CIA history picks up where the first one leaves off, providing an overview of CIA efforts from the moment of Diem's 1963 assassination to the fall of Saigon in 1975. Roughly a third of the entire study is devoted to the two-year period after the Paris Accords of 1973 and the trauma of the evacuation of Saigon, which agency sources regard as the highlight of the work. (Note 4)

The CIA history nevertheless packs a host of important material into its condensed account of the decade that followed Diem's rule. The account shows that the CIA's relationship with Saigon leaders changed over time, depending on the agency's station chief, the U.S. ambassador, and the South Vietnamese leaders involved. In the final period from about 1969, when Nguyen Van Thieu led the Saigon government, "Thieu's mistrust of the U.S. increasingly focused on the CIA" [p. 87] in spite of numerous agency efforts to support him through political action, propaganda, and advice.

Among the highlights in this volume are material on the CIA and South Vietnamese Buddhists—whom the CIA secretly supported and trained in 1965, shortly before the Saigon government launched a campaign against them, and whom the agency did not view as communist-instigated [pp. 38, 43, 101]. The agency's involvement in South Vietnamese politics resumed in 1966 with cash subsidies to Saigon police accounts that had been drained to support loyalists for Saigon leaders and continued with substantial involvement in the South Vietnamese elections of 1967 and 1971—at far greater levels than anything previously disclosed [pp. 45, 51-58, 100-102]. Agency involvement went beyond cash to include using CIA agents to feed ideas to South Vietnamese leaders, openly providing suggestions for a political platform, supporting individual candidates, using agents to counteract charges of electoral fraud, and manipulating the South Vietnamese National Assembly to certify election results.

Besides its interventions in elections, Ahern believes that the CIA's most important political initiative was its clandestine contact with the National Front for the Liberation of South Vietnam. The CIA history provides a detailed account of a series of feelers early in 1967 and again from late that year, past the Tet offensive, and into February of 1968. Feelers culminated in offers to exchange prisoners which were first approved and then sabotaged by the Saigon government [pp. 47-50, 58-63]. The Tet offensive itself led to a proposal from an informal group of CIA Vietnam experts to present the Saigon government with a virtual ultimatum for reform, an "Operation Shock" [p. 73]. Agency officials differed on what the impact of Tet had been, however. Late 1968 negotiations between the United States and North Vietnam over a bombing halt led Saigon leaders to break off their CIA contacts for more than a month, after which Thieu began to delegate his side of the relationship to other officials [pp. 84-86]. By 1969 the CIA worried that political crisis might lead Thieu—as Ngo Dinh Nhu had once done—to denounce the CIA [87]. In 1971 a Saigon official close to Thieu suggested U.S. officials arrange briefings for him in a way calculated to pressure the United States to crack down on its Vietnam dissenters [104]. Despite some success in anticipating the North Vietnamese offensive of 1972, the agency's last station chief in South Vietnam argued that "the illusion that the war is over and we have won is shattered" [109].

Document 3: Thomas L. Ahern, Jr., CIA and Rural Pacification in South Vietnam, Center for the Study of Intelligence, August 2001 SOURCE: FOIA

This volume of the CIA's Vietnam history goes back to the beginning of agency involvement to lay out a record of its efforts in behalf of the South Vietnamese to encourage popular support for the Saigon government. The CIA historian argues that the agency's record shows the CIA "understood the insurgency little better than did the rest of the bureaucracy" [p. xiv]. In fact the Saigon station took the lead innovating pacification measures throughout the conflict, with the headquarters role essentially limited to commentary on Saigon station proposals. The major CIA initiatives through the war are profiled, including early civic action, the village defense program, the formation of mountain scouts, strategic hamlets, people's action teams, census grievance and revolutionary development programs, the intelligence coordination and exploitation program, and the late-war "Phoenix" program—all of which flowed from agency field officers or the Saigon station itself.

Pacification proved unsuccessful, in the CIA historian's view, partly because South Vietnamese authorities from the beginning were not well established in the villages—80 percent of the government bureaucracy was located in Saigon or in provincial capitals in the beginning [p. 5], and later for reasons ranging from lack of American focus to Saigon obstructionism. During the Diem period the CIA Saigon station's paramilitary chief, a key actor in all pacification activities, is quoted saying, "The Vietnamese official is the real obstacle to success" [p. 59]. In the later part of the war, which the CIA historian views as 1969 to 1975, he concludes that this period "saw the gradual decay of the CIA-sponsored pacification programs, as the Vietnamese elected not to invest in them" [p. xv-xvi]. This conclusion in the CIA's official history contradicts scholarship that argues the National Liberation Front was defeated by pacification success during this late period. (Note 5)

Document 4: Thomas L. Ahern, Jr. , The Way We Do Things: Black Entry Operations Into North Vietnam, Center for the Study of Intelligence, May 2005, 71 pp. SOURCE: FOIA

This volume of CIA history, a shorter monograph, centers specifically on agency programs to infiltrate singleton agents and reconnaissance/sabotage teams into the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. Here Ahern picks up the story from the beginning of the Diem government and focuses primarily on the period until late 1963, when CIA's primary role was ceded to the U.S. military. There is a small amount of material on later cooperation with military programs until 1968, and a bit on late war missions into North Vietnam (greater detail regarding these is actually provided in Document 5). The CIA history shows that the initiation of penetration missions came slowly due in great measure to dilatory South Vietnamese action—the Diem government and its intelligence agencies repeatedly promised cooperation and then did little to advance the program for months or years. One highlight is that Diem took the seagoing junk the CIA procured and modified for spy missions and leased it to a Japanese fishing company, while claiming success emplacing fictitious agent networks in North Vietnam. Through 1959 agreements on intelligence sharing with CIA plus U.S. support of the South Vietnamese police yielded no data at all [p. 8].

Once the CIA began mounting its own missions, the first long-term agent inserted into the North initially sent a series of 23 messages to his handlers. This represented "the longest and most prolific radio correspondence for any penetration of the program" [p. 13]. Dozens of subsequent missions and hundreds of commandos sent into North Vietnam, the CIA history makes clear, produced very little intelligence. The study documents multiple cases where assorted elements cast doubt on the continued loyalty or reliability of commando teams while the CIA's Saigon station repeatedly ignored the evidence to maintain the program still had value. An important revelation in this monograph is that the CIA station, in the wake of the Geneva accords of 1962, proposed a covert sabotage offensive against North Vietnam [p. 29-30]. This was a prelude to the OPLAN 34-A effort to coerce North Vietnam which the U.S. adopted at the beginning of 1964.

Document 5: Thomas L. Ahern, Jr., Undercover Armies: CIA and Surrogate Warfare in Laos, 1961-1973, Center for the Study of Intelligence, 2006, 593 pp. SOURCE: FOIA

Published by Mike Hitchen,
Putting principles before profits