Irreparable Harm: A Firsthand Account of How One Agent Took on the CIA in an Epic Battle Over Free Speech

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"A well written, candid, modern version of Kafka's The Trial."—James Bamford, New York Times

"Must reading for every law student in America. . . . Snepp took a courageous stand and paid for it. He, and the Constitution, deserved ...
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"A well written, candid, modern version of Kafka's The Trial."—James Bamford, New York Times

"Must reading for every law student in America. . . . Snepp took a courageous stand and paid for it. He, and the Constitution, deserved better."—Seymour Hersh, Los Angeles Times

"A hypnotizing and heart-breaking account [of] a constitutional train wreck."—Jeffrey Toobin, author of A Vast Conspiracy

"A powerfully written and richly biographical account."—David Garrow, Washington Monthly

"The First Amendment to the Constitution protects our right to say what we think, however unwelcome the message may be. And the 'central meaning of the First Amendment,' as the Supreme Court has put it, is the right to criticize government and its officials. So we believe. But the story of Frank Snepp mocks our belief. . . . A shocking revelation of how the law can be twisted in a country that prides itself on 'Equal Justice Under Law.'"—Anthony Lewis (from the Foreword)

"A reminder that cannot be repeated often enough of how government agencies hide their . . . malevolence and frequent Keystone Kop stupidities behind the tattered curtain of need-for-secrecy."—Washington Post

Author Biography: Frank Snepp spent eight years in the CIA, five of them in Vietnam as interrogator, agent debriefer, and chief CIA strategy analyst in the Saigon embassy. A constitutional scholar and freelance writer, he currently works as an investigative reporter and producer for cable television. For more information on Frank Snepp, view his web site at

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Editorial Reviews

James Bamford
...Snepp's well-written, candid, modern version of Kafka's Trial....The C.I.A. may have won in court, but the public certainly lost. With valuable resources wasted on authors instead of spies, security was weakened rather than strengthened....By exposing the failed exit from Saigon, which left so many loyal Vietnamese to be tortured, executed or imprisoned, [Snepp] offered a cautious warning to all Government officials. Think twice about a cover-up: a budding author may be standing under the cloak next to you. —The New York Times Book Review
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Written with deep indignation, Snepp's engaging memoir presents a compelling case study of how claims of national security arguably stifle expression that in no way endangers national security but instead might merely embarrass the government. A CIA operative in Vietnam from 1969 to 1975, Snepp grew frustrated by his superiors' lack of concern for the thousands of South Vietnamese who assisted the U.S. throughout the war and whom he believes were abandoned by the U.S. after the North's victory. Upon his return to the U.S., Snepp found himself at odds with the agency he had so loyally served, ultimately quitting to write Decent Interval (Random House, 1977). While the CIA did not stop publication of the book, it ultimately sued Snepp for violating a contract that required him to clear all publications with the agency. After lower courts ruled in favor of the CIA, Snepp appealed to the Supreme Court. The justices denied Snepp an oral argument and affirmed the government's asserted need for broad discretion to censor former CIA employees' publications. The amazing point, Snepp writes, is that his book contained no state secrets. Snepp's level-headed account is only slightly marred by awkward forays into Raymond Chandleresque monologue ("In time, [my two lovers] were sharing everything I had to offer but my heart. That I reserved for my only true mistress, the book that was to cleanse me"). Occasional howlers aside, the revealing mea culpas scattered throughout the text humanize Snepp, enhancing what is at once a moving personal narrative and a disturbing examination of how claims of national security can have a sledgehammer effect on arguments about free speech, overwhelming all competing claims. (July) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
This is the follow-up to Snepp's groundbreaking work of two decades ago, Decent Interval: An Insider's Account of Saigon's Indecent End. Snepp, a former CIA official, was sued by the Federal government for publishing Decent Interval without CIA permission, even though it contained no classified information. Although Snepp spends quite a bit of time on the political and emotional background of the first book, his new book will be better remembered for the recounting of his trial. Snepp describes the duplicity of the CIA's procedures with sustained--and deserved--contempt. Even though he was represented by the ACLU and defense attorney Alan Dershowitz, Snepp received a harsh restraining order that, along with severe monetary penalties, prohibited him from additional writing. The strength of the tale, however, lies in the personal insights that Snepp brings to both First Amendment law and judicial politics. Recommended for larger academic collections and those specializing in contemporary American history.--Steve Anderson, Gordon Feinblatt Rothman Hoffberger & Hollander, Towson, MD Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Snepp spent eight years in the CIA, five of them in Vietnam as an interrogator, agent debriefer, and chief CIA strategy analyst in the Saigon embassy. He resigned from his post in protest of the CIA's refusal to help the agency's Vietnamese allies at the end of the war. Publication of his expos<'e>, , launched a campaign of retaliation by the CIA. This work chronicles Snepp's battles with the American legal system as he became the target of the US government's efforts to silence him. Snepp currently works as an investigative reporter and producer for cable television. This 2001 edition contains a new foreword. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
James Bamford
...Snepp's well-written, candid, modern version of Kafka's Trial....The C.I.A. may have won in court, but the public certainly lost. With valuable resources wasted on authors instead of spies, security was weakened rather than strengthened....By exposing the failed exit from Saigon, which left so many loyal Vietnamese to be tortured, executed or imprisoned, [Snepp] offered a cautious warning to all Government officials. Think twice about a cover-up: a budding author may be standing under the cloak next to you.
The New York Times Book Review
Kirkus Reviews
Secrecy versus accountability becomes a clash between good and evil, but it's not always clear which side wears the white hats. Ex-CIA agent Snepp (Decent Interval, 1977) provides a pebble's-eye view of being run over by a large truck. Stationed in Saigon at the close of the Vietnam War, Snepp observed the chaotic last-minute American evacuation in which large numbers of Vietnamese allies were abandoned to face an unpleasant fate. Nevertheless, his request for an internal review of what went wrong was ignored within the CIA. That Snepp was so naive he actually expected an inquiry that would embarrass senior officials could be initiated by a relatively junior officer is hard to believe, but at least as portrayed in this book, the image of those left behind burned brightly in his mind. What follows is an extremely detailed account of Snepp's efforts to get the story out and the legal actions taken by the government to punish him for going public. One suspects a lack of objectivity here, and for Snepp, those representing the government do seem to have an amazing absence of integrity. He disarms the reader's suspicions through self-flagellation, however, reserving his harshest criticism for himself in a manner that somehow gives one confidence in the self-confessed professional liar's veracity. Even though his claim to our sympathy isn't overwhelming, the lack of a happy ending is disconcerting. The combination of legal persecution and Snepp's own bungling produced a governmental victory so complete that his legacy actually increased governmental restrictions on information, tilting even further the scales of justice away from free speech and open government and toward secrecy as a strategyto cover up bureaucratic incompetence. With friends like Snepp, governmental accountability and the First Amendment need no enemies. Paying public penance can be self-indulgent, but there are lessons to be learned here, albeit not pleasant ones. (Author tour)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780700610914
  • Publisher: University Press of Kansas
  • Publication date: 5/28/2001
  • Edition description: REPRINT
  • Pages: 394
  • Product dimensions: 5.99 (w) x 9.24 (h) x 0.85 (d)

Read an Excerpt

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 sang-froid. 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 lostrepublic 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
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