Burns/Novick's Vietnam War: Former CIA guy all concerned for "human beings"

Frank Snepp: A guy you can trust with an assassination program

One of the things that drives me quite mad about Ken Burns and Lynn Novick's 10-episode documentary, "The Vietnam War," is they've got all these nice people talking to us, but they don't tell us anything about them.

So here we are in Episode 10, the North Vietnamese Army and National Liberation Front have taken over much of the country, and they're about to enter and liberate Sài Gòn. At the US Embassy (and all the CIA "safe spots") things are falling apart. It's chaos.

All the Vietnamese that have been loyally working for their US Imperial masters are, not surprisingly, desperate to get out, and expecting the Americans to take them. And, suddenly, here's Frank Snepp, talking to us. Interestingly, he's identified as "CIA," which was largely not true of the other CIA nobs Burns/Novick had talking to us.

But what's he saying? As the Americans desperately tried to keep thousands of frightened Vietnamese from invading the Embassy grounds: "I realized what the Americans had often done in Vietnam. They had forgotten that these were human beings."

What? A CIA guy is worried that the Americans weren't treating some Vietnamese as "human beings"? In my estimation, the CIA is a death squad, being human doesn't really matter. What a weird thing to say.

Snepp was recruited to the CIA in 1968, by the Associate Dean of the School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University, Philip Mosely.

In 1969, he reported for duty in Sài Gòn, the capital of "South" Vietnam. As Wikipedia describes it, he was an "analyst and counter-intelligence officer, coordinating agent networks and interrogation of captured enemy forces as well as preparing strategic estimates regarding the enemy."

In fact, he was a cog in the wheels of the Phoenix Program, the CIA's program to "neutralize" the political infrastructure (nb. civilian infrastructure) of the National Liberation Front (NLF, known in the US as the "Viet Cong"), the southern equivalent of the Viet Minh, the nationalist group that had freed (temporarily) Viet Nam from the French in 1954. Again, according to Wikipedia, the methods involved included "infiltration, capture, counter-terrorism, interrogation, and assassination." "By 1972, Phoenix operatives had neutralized 81,740 suspected NLF operatives, informants and supporters, of whom between 26,000 and 41,000 were killed." Note that "informants" and "supporters" would include people who were not affiliated to the NLF, such as farmers who'd received land in the NLF's land redistribution programs.

(Sorry, have to do a sidenote here. Note that "counter-terrorism" is not the same as anti-terrorism. Anti-terrorism is where you try to kill/capture terrorists. Counter-terrorism is where you counter the "terror" carried out by the "enemy" with terror of your own, the object being to reduce the civilian population into a disempowered, cowering, terror-stricken mass. So you kill indiscriminately, showily, publically, the more disgusting the better. Tha's how it works.)

Back to Snepp. As Douglas Valentine, author of the absolutely essential work on the Phoenix Program, puts it, "When Frank Snepp arrived in Saigon in 1969, he was assigned the task of putting together background profiles on targets for assassination by 'plowing through documents' and conducting interrogations at the National Interrogation Center. 'I would put together a list and I would turn it over to Mr. [CIA director] Colby’s people... Then, Colby's people would go out and do the dirty work.'" That is, "neutralize them," mostly till they're dead.

The National Interrogation Center was the top interrogation centre, top of a network of regional interrogation centres all over "South" Viet Nam. The NIC was where all the really important NLF prisoners were sent.

But here's the thing. Snepp refused to leave Viet Nam when his two-year assignment was up. He stayed "in-country" until April, 1975 when the whole thing ended. He must have really enjoyed his work.

Valentine tells the story of the imprisonment, interrogation and torture of one Nguyen Van Tai.

In Decent Interval, former CIA officer Frank Snepp cites the case of Nguyen Van Tai, the Cuc Nghien Cuu [ed note: an NLF research agency] agent who organized the attack on the U.S. Embassy during Tet. Tai was captured in 1970 and, “With American help the South Vietnamese built him his own prison cell and interrogation room, both totally white, totally bare except for a table, chair, an open hole for a toilet—and ubiquitous hidden television cameras and microphones to record his every waking and sleeping moment. His jailers soon discovered one essential psychic-physical flaw in him. Like many Vietnamese, he believed his blood vessels contracted when he was exposed to frigid air. His quarters and interrogation room were thus outfitted with heavy-duty air conditioners and kept thoroughly chilled.”

In April 1975, Snepp notes, “Tai was loaded onto an airplane and thrown out at ten thousand feet over the South China Sea. At that point he had spent over four years in solitary confinement, in a snow-white cell, without ever having fully admitted who he was.” As perverse as anything done in Salem, Tai was disposed of like a bag of garbage simply because he would not confess.

Note that Decent Interval was a book written by Frank Snepp.

And here's where it gets interesting. In 2009, Snepp, by now "an award-winning investigative news producer for KNBC and ... the author of two books, Decent Interval and Irreparable Harm, wrote a column for the Los Angeles Times which on the surface bemoans the use of Phoenix Program's interrogation "techniques" (while not mentioning the Phoenix Program, of course) in Guantanamo. Buckle your seat belt.

My most challenging interrogation involved Nguyen Van Tai, the highest-ranking enemy officer we captured. A colonel in the North Vietnamese security service, he'd run assassination and terrorist operations against the French during the first Indochina war, and he employed the same brutal tactics against Americans and South Vietnamese officials in Saigon.

In 1970, he stumbled into an ambush and was handed over to South Vietnamese interrogators. According to my former CIA colleague, Merle Pribbenow, who wrote about the case for the CIA's internal journal, Studies in Intelligence, they beat him, applied electric shock, funneled water into his nose while his mouth was gagged, subjected him to Chinese water torture (continuously dripping water onto the bridge of the nose), kept him strapped to a chair for days without sustenance and hung him from the rafters by his arms for hours.

The most he gave up were false tidbits of a well-crafted cover story. Only when confronted with captured confederates who could identify him, and captured photographs showing him with Ho Chi Minh, did he confess his identity. It was good old-fashioned research and analysis, not torture, that first dented his armor.

Several months later, the CIA, now convinced of Tai's value, moved him to a windowless, snow-white cell in the National Interrogation Center. Here he was held in isolation for three years, never seeing the dawning of a new day, with the cell's overhead lights burning continuously and the air-conditioning system set on high because the CIA knew that Tai, like most Vietnamese, believed that cool air shrinks and chokes blood vessels. It was in this disorienting environment that I was introduced to him in the fall of 1972.

I immediately moved to disorient him further, changing his breakfast hour to midnight and his lunch hour to dawn because Tai had already so acclimatized himself to his brave new world that he could tell the time of day by his own body chemistry.

I approached my every session with him steeped in what we knew of his personal history. It was rumored that he had betrayed his father to curry favor with Communist Party officials, and I constantly needled him about this in hopes that anger would loosen his tongue. In addition, I employed an interrogation technique that I liken to jump-cutting film footage, rapidly shifting from one unrelated topic to another, so that he could never be sure what was coming or what he had or had not told me.

The CIA later commended me for "obtaining significant information from the prisoner by maneuvering him into a continuous dialogue and [elision in original]

After the evacuation of Saigon two years later, a CIA colleague told me that Tai had been killed by the South Vietnamese just before the Communist takeover.

As it turns out, that was wrong. Not long ago, Tai published a memoir that deals in part with our interrogation. By his account, he'd gained a last-minute reprieve from his South Vietnamese jailers by pledging to keep them safe once the victorious North Vietnamese entered Saigon.

Wow! A man thrown out of a helicopter not only survived, but wrote a memoir! That's quite an accomplishment!

Notice that Snepp wasn't involved in any of the nastier, violent stuff, he was just using cool interrogation "techniques." He "never laid a hand on him," he says.

Unfortunately, the rather indecent contrast between the story of Tai in his 1977 book, and the one, admittedly a much better "story," in the Los Angeles Times piece, renders the second pretty unbelievable. Or maybe the first. Hard to say.

Snepp's own web-site describes him thusly:

Peabody-Award winning investigative journalist and broadcaster; best-selling author; former interrogator, counter-intelligence operative and chief strategy analyst for the CIA in Vietnam; ex-CIA whistleblower; named defendant in a landmark U.S. Supreme Court ruling on free speech and national security; expert commentator on the Vietnam war, national security, and the First Amendment.

Notice that "interrogator" is listed as the first of his CIA skill-sets. Also, that he was "chief strategist" for the CIA in Vietnam. Wow! You wouldn't think that would be a major selling point.

In the Burns/Novick documentary, Snepp's commentary takes place as we watch low-level Vietnamese functionaries trying to storm the Embassy and get on one of the helicopters. So it's natural to think Snepp is talking about their humanity. Well, maybe, maybe not.

From an interview he gave to Al Jazeera America in 2015:

Even with the frenzied attempt to destroy classified material on that last day, Snepp said it wasn't enough. In 1977, Snepp published the controversial memoir Decent Interval,” revealing that sensitive documents had been left behind in the rush to leave Saigon. He said the CIA’s operatives were named in the files. Many of them were put into "re-education camps," he said, and it's impossible to know how many were killed.

(Nb: It's also impossible to know if they were killed, though, of course, it probably wouldn't surprise anyone. The people he's talking about were operatives of a foreign secret service that had killed tens of thousands of Vietnamese people. That kind of thing causes certain resentments.)

And then there's this:

Snepp had a relationship with a Vietnamese woman, who he hadn't heard from for many months before the fall. Then, in those final hours, she found him, told him that she had his child, and that if he didn't get her out she'd kill herself. Snepp says he told her that he had to do something for the ambassador and to call him in an hour. He missed her call.

"It is my fear that she killed herself and that child,” he said.

(In the précis of Decent Interval on Snepp's own web-site, he tells us this: "[S]he made good on her promise, adding two more deaths to those already weighing on my conscience." It's not clear how he could possibly have known, or why his story changes depending on the publication.)

So Snepp had some very personal reasons for regretting how the war ended. But when he talks about "human beings," is he talking about the frightened, low-level functionaries crowding around the Embassy, the agents that used to work for him, or the former "girlfriend" he hadn't seen in months, but who'd had a baby he didn't know about so she had to tell him? It seems a little unclear, eh? I'll vote for the agents.

Since writing Decent Interval, Snepp's styled himself a "CIA whistle-blower," not entirely without justification. His book alleged that American government officials, including CIA ones, in the leadup to the liberation of Sài Gòn, blew it. Some apparently managed to convince themselves that the NVA and NLF would for some reason stop at the outskirts of Sài Gòn. So planning for the "evacuation" was delayed, to the point where it ended up a fiasco.

Naturally, the CIA didn't like that Snepp had written this book, and took him to court.

But here's the thing: Snepp had given away no secrets, so they didn't try to suppress the book. Instead, they said he'd published it without their permission, and claimed all the royalties from it, and won, including at the Supreme Court. (The ruling, on Snepp's site, reads like a servile, cowardly knee bent to US "national security.")

Later, he wrote Irreparable Harm, a book which tells of his battle in the courts to preserve his right to tell what happened, especially since he gave away no secrets.

In a Washington Post review of the book, we now learn even more about mystery baby mama.

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.

"In an episode right out of 'Miss Saigon...' Indeed. Mai Ly, My Lai, weird. He was busy writing an "intelligence report" as the Embassy was about to be overrun? He wouldn't drop it to rescue his son? Wow!

So the woman that he refers to in a 2015 al-Jazeera interview as a nameless woman who "told" him her son was his, in 1999 had a name, he knew she'd borne him a son, and needed saving. And yet he didn't, a very high-ranking CIA guy in the Embassy. My BS antennae are really buzzing.

(Earlier in his Vietnam sojourn, he'd been responsible for spiriting "South" Vietnam President Nguyen Van Thieu out of the country, complete with suitcases full of gold. You'd think he could manage his baby mama.)

In a review on his own web-site, Snepp says:


The fallout has affected the way countless other First Amendment cases are decided in court and has strengthened the power of the White House and even private industry to silence critics.

But he told the Washington Post:


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.'

Well, good for him, fighting for himself, no matter what disasters it brought down on other people. Sort of like the US Government in Viet Nam, no?

And though Snepp styles himself a whistle-blower, he says there are limits. In his Los Angeles Times op-ed, he says, "The WikiLeaks people and Manning seem to be nihilists, and I don’t understand that.”

Likely because they actually did give away some secrets. As Snepp says elsewhere, "“If we don’t have genuine whistleblowers who are will­ing to stand up, we’re in real trouble." I'm guessing he's talking about his own whistle-blowing here, the limited kind, where you don't endanger "national security." Loyalty abounds! Despite that the CIA pissed him off so badly, called him so many names, and he'd fought them despite the very real costs to other whistle-blowers, he's still so wedded to "national security" he's not willing to give other whistle-blowers a pass.

Sorry, Frank. I'm not buying it. Your inability to tell the the truth, in the Nguyen Van Tai case, and the case of mystery mama, is very CIA-like. Your still being in lock-step with "national security" tells me you've not really left the "intelligence/special ops" community, at least at heart. CIA agents are professional liars, and they're very good at it.

I'd be a lot more interested in Snepp's role as an "interrogator," gatherer of assassination lists, and "strategist." I'm sure he had great regard for his prisoners' status as "human beings." It would have made quite a contribution to our understanding of the how the war in Viet Nam was conducted, and maybe even why.

And I also wonder about what was going through Burns and Novick's heads, when they left Operation Phoenix, and the roles of people like Snepp and others in it, completely out of the documentary. Phoenix killed so many civilian officials of the NLF that, once the Vietnamese had kicked the Americans out, they had very few left that could run that part of the country.

But I think I know the answer to that. No funding from the Koch Bros if they'd touched on that.

-30-

(Photo below: Snepp's Phoenix comrades/underlings, doing interrogations, no doubt with due concern for their captives' status as human beings.)

Valentine, Douglas. The Phoenix Program: America's Use of Terror in Vietnam, 1990

Snepp, Frank. Decent Interval: An Insider's Account of Saigon's Indecent End, 1977

Snepp, Frank. Tortured by the Past, LA Times, 27 Apr 2009.

Reed, Todd, and Michael Okwu. 'We played God': Saigon's chaotic fall still haunts CIA strategist, Al Jazeera America, America Tonight, April 30, 2015

Rabinowitz, Ted. Frank Snepp Chases the Truth From Saigon to Los Angeles, undated, apparently originally published in "Columbia College Today," a publication of the college's Alumni Association. Accessed on Snepp's own web-site.

Loeb, Vernon. The Spy Who Was Left Out In the Cold, Washington Post, October 12, 1999.

Snepp's Phoenix comrades/underlings, doing interrogations, no doubt with due concern for their captives' status as human beings.

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