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Irreparable Harm
A Firsthand Account of How One Agent Took On the CIA in an Epic Battle Over Secrecy and Free Speech

By Frank Snepp
Random. 464 pp. $26.95

  Chapter One

Chapter One: Ghosts

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So, HOW do you crawl out of a country standing up!"

Offering this judgment with a finality that defied argument, Bill Johnson shoved himself away from the ship's rail and turned his back on the reporter with whom he'd been sharing confidences. His eyes glittered like splintered mica under the flop-brimmed fishing hat he'd worn throughout the evacuation. He'd just run out of rationalizations for the debacle we'd been through. But maybe this last one said it all.

Gazing beyond him at the mist-shrouded bleakness of the South China Sea, I marveled at his capacity to rationalize at all. I felt dazed, disembodied, incapable of much more than self-recrimination. But he, a twenty- year veteran of the espionage wars, seemed to have lost none of his typical sangfroid. Perhaps it was experience that made the difference. Or perhaps simply Vietnam. Vietnam had always been an old man's war and a young man's tragedy. The old men had rationalized their way in and had almost as deftly rationalized their way out, and the young men had been left to bury the bodies and ideals and bear the shame of America's first lost cause without the soothing panaceas of high policy, so often classified "top-secret," beyond their ken.

I moved away from Johnson and forced my unsteady sea legs toward the afterdeck of the USS Denver. Below, on the helipad itself, another group of evacuees, all Vietnamese, were doing penance, Buddhists and Catholics ranged side by side, mourning loved ones dead and abandoned. A strong breeze riffled the women's áo dàis and the red and yellow banner of the lost republic draped over a makeshift altar. I was glad not to be among them, not to have to look into their eyes. The memories were enough.

Memories —already wheeling through the imagination like unsettled ghosts ... Mr. Han, the translator, screaming over his CIA radio for help ... Loc, the Nung guard, plucking at my sleeve, begging me not to forget him ... Mai Ly, phoning just hours before the collapse, threatening to kill herself and her child if I didn't find them a way out ...

I stared at the Denver's wake, trying vainly to put Mai Ly behind me. She'd phoned too late, I kept telling myself. What could she have expected so late? But there was no consolation in that. The first time she'd called, I'd been chained to my typewriter, hammering out another piece of analysis which I was foolish enough to hope would nudge the ambassador toward the choppers. So I'd told her, "Call back in an hour. I'll be glad to help." But in an hour, I'd been down in the ambassador's office, trying to sell him on the analysis, and she'd left a message, "I would have expected better of you," and then had bundled up the baby boy she'd let me believe was my own and had retreated to that dingy room off Tu Do, and there had made good her promise.

Mother and child: they might have been sleeping when a friend found them hours later except for the blood on the pallet and my misplaced priorities that day. But no more than the ambassador or any of the others I was now so ready to condemn had I troubled to remember that far more than American prestige was at stake those last moments before midnight.

But I remembered now, too late, and the memories plucked at the mind's eye like conscience's own scavengers. Which is why I'd barely slept the past two nights since my own chopper flight out, despite a bone-numbing weariness and a melancholy that already weighed like a sentence of guilt.

As the days passed and the evacuation fleet closed on Subic Bay in the Philippines, the weather cleared, and the Americans on the upper decks took to sprawling in the incandescent May sun like Caribbean vacationers. Below, in the ship's bowels where the Vietnamese were now quarantined, an old man died of heat prostration, a baby was born, and the stench gave appalling measure to the despair and humiliation arrayed on every inch of metal planking.

Sometime midjourney, from Admiral Steele's flagship, came word that my old boss, Tom Polgar, would shortly give a press conference to damp down unhelpful speculation about the way the pullout had been handled. As the reporters among us choppered over for the show, the teletypes in the Denver's signals room beat out preemptive communiqués from Washington, absolving Secretary of State Kissinger of any wrongdoing, quoting him as saying that the North Vietnamese had been committed to a negotiated political settlement up until the last two days of the war and had shifted plans so abruptly as to make an orderly evacuation impossible.

I read these dispatches with a rage that was to become chronic. Kissinger knew as well as the rest of us that our intelligence told a different story, and that it was his own blind stubbornness, not any change in Hanoi's strategy, that accounted for the delay in the evacuation and thus the chaos in the end.

When Polgar opened his own dog and pony show, I expected him to set the record straight. It was his moral duty to do so, for without some acknowledgment of failure, there would never be any incentive in Washington to make amends, no pressure for anyone to mount rescue missions or attempt diplomatic initiatives to ease the plight of those we'd abandoned.

But to my chagrin, this resilient little man whom I had served so long merely replayed Kissinger's line, imputing unpredictability to Hanoi and imperfections to our intelligence to explain his own and others' miscalculations. And when an opportunity arose for some self-serving scapegoating, he couldn't resist singling out Ambassador Martin himself, claiming that the old man's inflexibility, his refusal to sacrifice the Thieu regime, had doomed the prospects for a last-minute political fix.

During this peroration, the accused himself wandered in, munching an apple. He said nothing in his own defense, but later pulled several reporters aside and repaid Polgar's slights by suggesting that it was the CIA station chief himself who had precipitated the breakdown of order and discipline in the embassy by spiriting his own wife and household belongings out of Saigon prematurely.

Absurd though this allegation was, State Department officials on board quickly took up the refrain, and before long brickbats were flying fast and furious between them and Polgar's apologists. I listened and fumed but said nothing, confident that back home in official Washington somebody would insist on getting the facts and the lessons right.

When the task force docked in Subic Bay on May 5, most of my CIA colleagues were hustled off to the United States for badly needed R&R; But not I. Believing naively that more intelligence might make a difference, I volunteered to fly to Bangkok to interrogate some "sensitive sources" who had just come out of Vietnam.

En route, I stopped off in Hong Kong to replace the wardrobe I'd lost during the evacuation, and there encountered the New Yorker correspondent Robert Shaplen, who had likewise been witness to the fall. He was in the process of wrapping up a story on it all and asked if I would confirm some details for him. I consented, since the hulking, bushy-browed Shaplen had long been viewed as a "friendly" by the Agency and had often been the beneficiary of official secrets-laden briefings by me.

Out at his Repulse Bay apartment, he softened me up with two martinis and some flattery, claiming that my tips to him during the final offensive had kept him from being wholly misled by Polgar and the ambassador. He was so grateful, he said, he wanted to credit me publicly, and despite my demurrals, did so (though with a typographical error) in the May 19, 1975, issue of The New Yorker. "Where Martin was more misguided," he wrote, "was in persistently believing that a political settlement was possible, though he had in fact been told for weeks by his military analysts, particularly by Mr. Frank Sneff, a civilian expert well qualified to judge, that the situation was deteriorating very rapidly."

Despite the misspelling, this delicately hedged homage to one who was supposed to be invisible did not endear me to colleagues back home, and though weeks would pass before I'd begin feeling their ire, the start of my long, slow descent into official disrepute can surely be traced to Shaplen's generosity.

As I rose to say good-bye, Shaplen draped an arm around my shoulder and, surprising me again, urged me good-naturedly not to let the story of Saigon's defeat become journalism's preserve alone. There was a book in it for somebody, he said, and given my knowledge of Vietnam and Martin's embassy, what better candidate to write it than I? He'd even supply a preface, he added jocularly.

I looked at him in amazement. A book? Impossible, I told him. Too many reputations at stake. Besides, the Agency always performs its own postmortems, or suffers them, after a foul-up. Witness the Taylor Report after the Bay of Pigs, and the autopsy on Tet '68. There'd be one on this debacle too, no question. A book would be superfluous.

When I reached Bangkok a day later, I'd all but forgotten his suggestion. Would that I could have forgotten the assignment, too. Protestors were raging through the streets in search of fresh pretexts for their resurgent anti-Americanism, and within days of my arrival an American merchant vessel, the Mayaguez, was commandeered off the coast of neighboring, newly "liberated" Cambodia by Khmer marauders and the White House had decided to send in the Marines just to show we still had some of our old spunk left. Suddenly, CIA and military colleagues from Vietnam were crowding into Bangkok on their way to staging areas up-country, and for one eerily incongruous moment, American might with flags flying mustered off to war again.

By the time the smoke had cleared, however, this plucky show of force had degenerated into a cruel parody of yesterday's humiliations. Forty-one servicemen had died to save thirty-one crewmen and one tin tub, and the War Powers Act, designed to limit our involvement in such improvisatory hostilities, had been made a mockery again, the president having deployed the troops without fully alerting Congress as required by the law.

To the north of us, meanwhile, another sequel to recent tragedy was being played out around the now irrelevant Laotian capital of Vientiane. Pathet Lao forces had already invested the city, and the few remaining U.S. embassy staffers there were now hunkered down in barricaded compounds awaiting their own inevitable evacuation. Outside the city, beyond any succor, the hapless Meo tribesmen who had once made up the CIA's thirty-thousand-man secret army were already threading their way south toward Thai sanctuaries to escape Communist reprisals. Only a third would make it.

To some of my CIA brethren in Bangkok, the paucity of white faces among the past weeks' casualties seemed to offer consolation. But I knew, as many of them still did not, that the Mayaguez losses weren't the only ones to be accounted for. In addition to a CIA officer and several consular officials who had been captured up-country in Vietnam weeks before, two U.S. Marines had been killed in the final bombardment of Saigon, their bodies shamefully abandoned at the airfield, and another CIA veteran, an Agency retiree who'd returned to Saigon belatedly to help evacuate Vietnamese friends, had missed the last chopper out. Now, reports had it, Hanoi's secret police had him under hostile interrogation and were forcing him to finger those he had meant to save.

Given all this and the lingering trauma of my own departure from Saigon, the last thing I needed was to be dragged back through the charnel house. But in the course of the Bangkok assignment, my interview schedule was rapidly expanded to include the debriefing of more and more late arrivals from the war zone—journalists, stragglers, boat people—and with each new source's revelations, I was forced to relive the horrors of the evacuation as few other CIA officers had.

One of my interlocutors, an American journalist who'd just come out of Vietnam on a Red Cross flight, told me of a former Radio Saigon announcer who had been tortured and mutilated, her tongue cut out by her North Vietnamese "liberators," and then allowed to drown in her own blood. Another source recounted summary executions of defectors, CIA collaborators, and cadre of the once feared Phoenix counterterror program. And still another recalled how Communist troops had sought out a CIA billet in Saigon and systematically slaughtered the Vietnamese maids and houseboys who had gathered there in anticipation of last-minute deliverance.

These and other outrages I duly reported in hopes that someone along the chain of command might be shamed into taking ameliorative action, diplomatic or otherwise. But by mid-June, my harping upon betrayed commitments had become an unwelcome dissonance. One morning, by urgent telex from CIA headquarters, I was ordered home.

In my last two and a half years in Indochina, I'd had only five days of leave and few Sundays off, and I badly needed to decompress. But my monthlong odyssey back through the Mideast and Europe didn't do it. My traveling companion, an itinerant CIA secretary, promptly grew weary of my angst, the casual romance she'd anticipated descending quickly into a kind of joyless sexuality which I clung to with the desperation of a drowning man.

Nor was there any comfort in the prospect of heading home. The only real home I knew was the Agency, and the disillusionment I'd suffered these past few months was only a foretaste of worse to come. For this was the Season of the Reckoning, the summer of 1975, and scandal and exposé were now swirling about the Agency like predators on a blood scent. The savaging had begun the previous winter when the press, emboldened by Watergate, had homed in on rumors of CIA kill plots and illegal domestic spying, and since then White House and congressional investigators had joined in the carnage.

During the long months of Saigon's demise I'd been too preoccupied to be able to dwell on any of these indelicacies. But now, with unaccustomed leisure on my hands, I had time to contemplate as never before the overwrought headlines, the tales of murderous excess and lawlessness, and the intimations of perjury by one of my idols, former CIA director Richard Helms, who, it was reported, had deliberately lied to Congress about CIA complicity in the overthrow of Chile's Salvador Allende years before.

Initially, I tried to convince myself it was all spiteful gossip, but the more I read en route the more insistent the truth became, for many of the most serious charges had recently been confirmed by a vice presidential panel, the Rockefeller Commission, appointed (ironically) to dispel them: not only had the Agency, together with the FBI, illicitly spied on thousands of Americans at home, many of them Vietnam War protestors; it had also ripped open and read the mail of countless citizens and exposed still others surreptitiously to deadly drug experiments.

Beyond all this, there was the ghastly prospect, now being avidly explored by congressional muckrakers, that the CIA had systematically tried to rub out foreign leaders like Fidel Castro. Three years before, then CIA director Helms had assured all of us by official circular that the Agency never assassinates anybody. Admittedly, I'd seen that rule bent in Vietnam. But Vietnam had been a special case, a hot war. All rules were bent there. But now it appeared they'd been bent elsewhere too, with no war to provide excuses. And if that were so, then Helms had lied to us, and the Agency might well be the rogue elephant some congressmen thought it to be.

That prospect was more terrifying than anything else. The rogue elephant can't be forgiven its excesses, and God knows I wanted to be forgiven, to be able to wrap myself in presidential rationales. But if the leash had snapped and the beast was on the rampage, then there were no rationales, no forgiveness. And perhaps no end to it either. The CIA's current director, William Colby, had recently admitted publicly that neither Nixon nor Ford had ever been told of the "family jewels," a ticklist of the Agency's most egregious transgressions compiled by the director's own staff two years before. Two presidents—not told! If not, then what else had gone unreported? Maybe much more, and that could mean that the beast had not merely kicked the traces, but blinded the master as well.

No, I couldn't believe it. I wouldn't. Congress was the culprit, not the CIA. Weren't these investigations ostensibly being conducted "behind closed doors"? And yet, just look at the leaks. Could anyone be trusted who permitted such leaks? I took refuge in the most convenient and craven answer.

There was no refuge, though, from my other torments, the demons out of memory that hounded me home. For time and distance only invigorated them, their images, even their pained cries of reproach soon invading my consciousness and conscience and finally my dreams, thus banishing sleep, so that by the time I touched down stateside, I was not only bitter and confused but exhausted, nearing nervous collapse. And still, hard as I tried, I could not rid myself of Mai Ly or Han or Loc, the Nung guard....

Or Le. No, least of all, her. She'd been "U.N. quality," that one, the best interpreter I'd ever taken with me into Saigon's dungeons, her femininity itself an asset in the interrogations, for who could resist unburdening himself to her? The irony was that she'd been more the revolutionary than most of the prisoners we'd grilled. She'd detested the Americans as interlopers and had embraced us only as the lesser of two evils. I'd once tried to fix her loyalties by offering to help her set up a pig farm so she'd have some life outside the interrogation center. She'd politely rebuffed me and gone her own way. By the time the enemy was at the gates this past April, I'd lost track of her, and only later, in Bangkok, had I discovered that those responsible for getting her out had botched it. So she was back there still, with the inmates she'd interrogated. Only they were the jailkeeps now and she the inmate, and God knows how bad off, for they wouldn't forget the role she'd played.

Forgive me.

And Tan—what of Tan? There was no forgetting him either, even though I'd tried and was now exhausted trying, and wished to the pit of my soul he'd never crossed over after the Viet Cong medics had let his wife die in childbirth. They'd been short of medicine as usual, and he'd watched her die in agony; and then, broken and defeated, he had walked out of the jungle and into our arms and had let slip every secret he knew. I'd slapped a defector's label on him and one night had taken him out on the town to an American hangout to try to build rapport. We'd sat at a corner table watching fat, sweating round-eyes wrestle Vietnamese girls around the dance floor, and after a while he'd turned to me, his face ashen, and murmured, "We're going to lose. I've made the wrong choice." A chill had knifed through me, and I'd wanted to send him off into the night, back to his own. But it was too late. He was in. We had him, a certified defector. He could never go back.

Unless we abandoned him—which we did, along with nearly every other defector we'd exploited and turned into a pariah.

Tan must be dead now. An easy death, I hope.

Forgive me.

© Copyright 1999 Frank Snepp

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