A Firsthand Account of How One Agent Took On the CIA In an Epic Battle Over Secrecy and Free Speech
By Frank Snepp
Random House. 391 pp. $26.95
Reviewed by Leslie H. Whitten Jr.
People who lap up complex legal cases may like this book, although Dickens's Bleak House it isn't. Readers who have been ground slowly and exceeding small by the justice system will love it, although it pales beside Kafka's The Trial. Relishers of unspeakably painful government ironies will go for it, although it is definitely no Catch-22, in that it is humorless.
CIA-haters and true believers in government conspiracies, Vietnamorati, particularly those obsessed with the war's final days, and First Amendment enthusiasts will applaud it. This is to say that to get through it you need to have specialized tastes. Perhaps luckily for Frank Snepp, the wronged, self-indulgent author, America is full of specialists. As for most other book readers, the legal skirmishing, the testimony that could be summarized in a paragraph, the thick unleavened judicial opinions may induce sleep.
Snepp was a young CIA agent when Saigon fell in April 1975. At that time, the United States left behind thousands of Vietnamese who had worked openly or clandestinely for us and who naively believed we would save them. Many, it is no longer disputed, were tortured, murdered, imprisoned and "re-educated" forcefully when, with better American planning, they might have been evacuated along with our own military and civilian personnel.
A remorseful Snepp first tried to get the CIA to do a detailed report honestly assigning blame. When he could not, he wrote a book called Decent Interval, which quickly became a brash bestseller. In it, he accused the White House, Henry Kissinger, CIA directors -- almost everyone in the loop -- of failing the Vietnamese loyalists. The CIA's chiefs plotted revenge.
They insisted that President Carter's Justice Department sue Snepp for his royalties and force him to clear with the CIA anything he wrote even vaguely relating to his employment there. The relentlessness of the CIA's pursuit of the case, even if one takes a skeptical view of Snepp's accusations, makes special prosecutor Kenneth Starr look like Madame Butterfly.
The spy agency snooped into Snepp's personal life in defiance of laws blocking CIA domestic investigations, pressured witnesses, turned friends against him, and suppressed evidence, all the while ignoring higher CIA and State Department officials who had violated secrecy rules far more recklessly than Snepp. It all worked wonderfully. Ultimately a split Supreme Court upheld the government, outraging most of the nation's press, the American Civil Liberties Union, and, if quietly, many CIA officials, who were dismayed by what their agency was doing to one of its own.
At its best, this chronicle of a whistle-blower whistled down by a most suspect policeman is a reminder that cannot be repeated often enough of how government agencies hide their occasional malevolence and frequent Keystone Kop stupidities behind the tattered curtain of need-for-secrecy. For, as far as one can ascertain, the old standards still apply. For example, will we ever be told fully why, with agents falling all over each other in Belgrade, the CIA did not know or did not warn the U.S. military where the now-smashed Chinese Embassy was? Will one prominent American head roll for this?
Lest anyone think Snepp's case is unique, and in the interest of reviewer disclosure, I was followed by the CIA for three weeks in 1972 in a vain attempt to identify leakers to my then-boss, Jack Anderson. Among other indignities, my wife and I were tracked into an art gallery (the CIA spelled its name wrong), my son was followed on a beer run, and Jack's home was spied on until his children, armed with camera, flushed the spies out. Yet, to be fair, it was a Snepp villain, CIA director Admiral Stansfield Turner who, under the Freedom of Information Act, released to me CIA records showing that this spying was "at the direction of" one of his predecessors, "Mr. Richard Helms."
Returning to Snepp, he is not a sympathetic hero. At times his compulsiveness, his inconsistency, his untidy personal life, his melodramatic writing (though it sometimes rises to real drama), and his self-importance come close to making the reader sympathize with the windbags and sneaks who brought him down. The book's brief biography says that since the Court's ruling he has worked as a professor, a prize-winning TV reporter, and a script writer. He still must clear much of his writing with the CIA, including this book. Indeed, in the final paragraph, Snepp tells us that the CIA passed Irreparable Harm, making "no security objection" to its publication. Go figure.
Leslie H. Whitten Jr., an investigative reporter for many years, is the author of 10 novels, the most recent of which, "Moses," will be published in the fall.