The Spy Who Was Left Out In the Cold
When Saigon Fell, CIA Agent Frank Snepp's Battle Had Just Begun
By Vernon Loeb
His story of betrayal and redemption spans a quarter-century and fills two books. And it's clear Snepp still hasn't found what he's after. This is a man broken first by the chaotic evacuation of South Vietnam, and broken yet again by the landmark free speech battle he fought--and lost--against his former employer, the Central Intelligence Agency.
"I've opened two Pandora's boxes and the demons have climbed out pell-mell all over each other--and it's a terrible feeling," says Snepp, 56. "Because there's no controlling the moment they will come ricocheting back at you."
Snepp's first book, "Decent Interval," published in 1977, was a best-selling account of how the CIA and the State Department bungled the evacuation of Saigon and abandoned thousands of loyal South Vietnamese. His new book, "Irreparable Harm," published in July, describes Snepp's legal maneuvering, trial and ultimate appeal to the Supreme Court after the CIA and the Justice Department sued him for writing "Decent Interval" without first handing it over to CIA censors.
For a time after he finished "Irreparable Harm" last year, Snepp thought his search was over. But then the book tour started this summer and triggered flashbacks of being back on the embassy roof, watching desperate Vietnamese, as he writes in "Irreparable Harm," "jammed in the streets below, gazing skyward for the help that would never come."
After his first book came out, Snepp became the leading authority on the siege and fall of Saigon, widely quoted and credited by historians with writing an invaluable insider's account of the final chaotic months of the Vietnam War.
But Snepp felt so wounded by his legal defeat, so paralyzed emotionally, that he couldn't approach the story again for 20 years. He was able to start putting events into perspective only after his father, dying of cancer, implored him two years ago to finally explain his own actions and motives.
At that point, Snepp recalled, "I had to finish this book--it became a real obsession. It was the only thing I had to do in my life."
'Irreparable Harm and Loss'
If only the CIA had allowed Snepp to write a full-blown white paper on the agency's hasty retreat from Saigon, he might be working for the agency to this day.
But when he couldn't interest his superiors in institutional expiation, Snepp resigned and wrote "Decent Interval" as his personal atonement for the South Vietnamese left behind by American policymakers, who delayed evacuating the city in the vain hope "that the Saigon government could be held together long enough for a face-saving negotiated settlement."
So he writes in the prologue to "Irreparable Harm."
Beyond the multitudes abandoned, Snepp had his own personal need to atone. In an episode right out of "Miss Saigon," a Vietnamese woman named Mai Ly called Snepp at the embassy as Saigon fell, looking for safe passage out of the country. They'd been involved at one point, and Mai Ly had borne Snepp a son. But Snepp told her to call back--he was busy writing an intelligence report--and then missed her return call. A friend later found Mai Ly and the boy, dead in a blood-soaked bed.
So coming clean after Vietnam became Snepp's first obsession, even though he couldn't bring himself to deal with the Mai Ly tragedy in "Decent Interval." He finally recounts her story in "Irreparable Harm" and now calls his failure to do so in his first book a "horrible act of cowardice."
Snepp's most fateful decision in writing "Decent Interval," however, came when he decided to bypass CIA censors. All CIA employees are required to sign lifetime secrecy pacts in which they agree to submit all written works dealing with intelligence for publication to a board for review.
Snepp believed at first that he was bound by an agreement he signed just prior to his resignation that said pre-publication approval applied only to classified material. And since he didn't plan to divulge classified information, he believed the CIA had no right to censor his book, even after he discovered that the original secrecy agreement he had signed applied to anything he would write about intelligence, classified or unclassified.
The CIA and the Justice Department took a starkly different view. Without ever alleging that Snepp had divulged secret information, they sued him in 1978 to defend the agency's right to censor its employees. The government's requested remedy: Snepp should turn over all "ill-gotten gains" earned from writing the book.
This is the story Snepp recounts in "Irreparable Harm," beginning with his 1978 trial before Oren R. Lewis, a conservative, 75-year-old federal judge sitting in Alexandria. On the first day of the trial, Lewis told Snepp's lawyers, "I am certain you're already en route to Richmond. I won't disappoint you."
Richmond is home to the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
Lewis was true to his word, ruling that Snepp's book, "absent CIA pre-publication review, has caused the United States irreparable harm and loss." He ordered Snepp to turn over all earnings from "Decent Interval" to the government.
Snepp won a partial victory on appeal before the 4th Circuit, prompting the Justice Department to offer him a deal: a fine of up to $60,000, as long as Snepp forswore a Supreme Court appeal. Snepp said he would fight on.
The Supreme Court took his case and--in an exceedingly rare maneuver--ruled in favor of the CIA in 1980 without seeking any additional briefs or oral argument.
The high court restored the government's right to seize all of Snepp's profits. It upheld the CIA's right to pre-publication review of anything Snepp would ever write that was remotely related to intelligence. And, like Lewis, it found that "Decent Interval" had "caused the United States irreparable harm and loss."
There is, to this day, scant evidence of that. Indeed, if there was anyone "irreparably harmed" by United States v. Snepp, it was Snepp himself, as he argues convincingly in his new book.
The case left Snepp broke--the government has now seized almost $200,000 in royalties from "Decent Interval"--and, for a time, unemployable in the field of journalism, where Snepp thought his writing and reporting skills suited him best.
"When the Supreme Court says you've 'irreparably damaged' national security, it makes people nervous," says Snepp, who finally landed steady work with ABC News in 1987 and now works as a producer for "Extra," a syndicated TV newsmagazine owned by Time Warner.
He lives in Marina del Rey, Calif., in an apartment that barely looks lived in. Two marriages have ended in divorce and produced no children. "I've been living a sort of pilgrim life," he says. "I leave no fingerprints."
But he has no regrets about publishing "Decent Interval" without first giving it to CIA censors: "I'm absolutely convinced, given the context of the times, that they would have torn 'Decent Interval' to shreds under any pretext."
Nor does he second-guess his Supreme Court appeal, even though it cost him the $200,000 in lost royalties and produced a ruling the CIA has used to enforce pre-publication review on a whole generation of former employees. He himself submitted "Irreparable Harm" to pre-publication review.
"A lot of lawyers have said, 'You should have taken the deal, you dummy, and it wouldn't have hurt the First Amendment,' " Snepp says. "But there was too much emotion attached to all of this, too much vitriol; the agency had called me too many names. And if I'd settled for money, that would have made the agency very happy--they would have said, 'He was in it for the money all along.' "
One of the book's most poignant themes involves Snepp's relationship with his father, whose financial contribution ultimately enabled his son to finish "Irreparable Harm." Like so much else in Snepp's life, his relationship with his father--never close to begin with--ended in the controversy over "Decent Interval."
The breakdown came after a bruising congressional hearing when Snepp, returning home to visit his family in North Carolina, publicly lashed out at then-Sen. Robert Morgan (D-N.C.). Snepp's father soon came to believe that his son's indiscretion had cost him a nomination to federal judgeship, which he'd coveted all his life.
They hadn't spoken for 10 years when Snepp's sister called him in January 1997 and said their father could die at any time. Snepp recounts in his new book what his father said when he walked into his hospital room: "I forgive you and you forgive me. Now let's get on with things."
So it was that Snepp finally achieved some measure of closure, at least in this one relationship. As for the rest of his life, Snepp now admits: "I don't know how to get there."
He had hoped writing "Irreparable Harm" would put everything, finally, into perspective. But it hasn't. "All it did was reinvigorate the demons," he said. "I understand them now, but it didn't make them go away."
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company