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Spies and Commandos traces the rise and demise of this secret operation--started by the CIA in 1960 and expanded by the Pentagon beginning in1964--in the first book to examine the program from both sides of the war. Kenneth Conboy and Dale Andradé interviewed CIA and military personnel and traveled in Vietnam to locate former commandos who had been captured by Hanoi, enabling them to tell the complete story of these covert activities from high-level decision making to the actual experiences of the agents.
The book vividly describes scores of dangerous missions-including raids against North Vietnamese coastal installations and the air--dropping of dozens of agents into enemy territory--as well as psychological warfare designed to make Hanoi believe the "resistance movement" was larger than it actually was. It offers a more complete operational account of the program than has ever been made available--particularly its early years--and ties known events in the war to covert operations, such as details of the "34-A Operations" that led to the Tonkin Gulf incidents in 1964. It also explains in no uncertain terms why the whole plan was doomed to failure from the start.
One of the remarkable features of the operation, claim the authors, is that its failures were so glaring. They argue that the CIA, and later the Pentagon, were unaware for years that Hanoi had compromised the commandos, even though some agents missed radio deadlines or filed suspicious reports. Operational errors were not attributable to conspiracy or counterintelligence, they contend, but simply to poor planning and lack of imagination.
Although it flourished for ten years under cover of the wider war, covert activity in Vietnam is now recognized as a disaster. Conboy and Andradé's account of that episode is a sobering tale that lends a new perspective on the war as it reclaims the lost lives of these unsung spies and commandos.
The war was not going well for France. By early 1952, the Vietnamese communists—the Viet Minh—had seized most of the northern border region with China, leaving them free to make raids into northern Vietnam's rice bowl, the fertile Red River delta. Growing disillusionment on the home front only served to compound French woes. Hoping for a quick victory, French forces maneuvered into blocking positions at Hoa Binh, a provincial center west of Hanoi, where they planned to cut a key Viet Minh supply route running east toward the delta.
The Viet Minh responded by gathering three infantry divisions totaling some twenty-five thousand troops. Surprised and overwhelmed, the French began a gradual withdrawal toward the safety of the Red River, blowing up anything usable as a parting gesture. By the second week of March, Hoa Binh was deserted.
Halfway around the world in Washington, the Truman administration looked on with concern as the French position in Indochina eroded. The loss of any country in Southeast Asia to communism would have major psychological, political, and economic consequences for American interests. Although the situation was grave, Harry Truman had few options. The United States was already supplying the bulk of France's military equipment for Indochina, and with American forces embroiled in Korea, greater involvement in a second Asian conflict was politically impossible.
But there was another option—covert operations. For the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), now five yearsold, this was an inviting opportunity to get a foot in the Indochinese door. Combining the optimism and naïveté so prominent during those early days, the CIA selected one of its young case officers, Donald Gregg, and gave him a bold assignment: train a team of Vietnamese in small-unit tactics and prepare to parachute with them into rural northern Vietnam. Fresh from paramilitary training and yet to serve in an overseas post, Gregg readily agreed. Flying to Thailand, he picked up ten Vietnamese and escorted them to the CIA compound at the U.S. Navy base in Yokosuka, Japan, for a month of basic instruction. Two things quickly became apparent. First, Gregg saw little thought being given to what he and the trainees could possibly accomplish once they were back in the Vietnamese countryside. Second, and more disturbing, Gregg found that he knew about as much about Vietnam as his trainees. All ten had been recruited in Thailand by an agent who claimed they came from the pool of fifty thousand ethnic Vietnamese who had fled there immediately after World War II. But Gregg found that in reality his Vietnamese recruits had come from an earlier emigré wave that had left Vietnam more than 150 years before. Even the CIA, with its chronic optimism, could not go forward with an operation based on such flimsy planning. "The Vietnamese were sent back to Thailand in April," Gregg recalled, "and my life expectancy increased."
It would be another two years before the CIA would again toy with the idea of launching covert paramilitary operations inside Indochina. By then, the Viet Minh army—ranging from full-time regulars to village militia—had swelled to more than 350,000. Although withdrawal now seemed just a question of time, France would still accept only equipment and money from the United States, rebuffing any attempt to send advisers from either the military or the CIA.
President Dwight D. Eisenhower did not like the course France was taking in Vietnam. During a meeting with his National Security Council (NSC) on 21 January 1954, he insisted that Indochina not be allowed to fall to communism by default and asked his advisers what steps could be taken to bolster the French position. Besides material support, he was particularly interested in prospects for a guerrilla warfare program that could carry on the fight in the wake of the likely French departure.
Responding to the president, CIA director Allen Dulles told the council he had paramilitary experts ready to go to Southeast Asia, but France was stubbornly refusing permission. Guerrilla warfare, Dulles noted, was a long-term process requiring ample preparation. While sufficient time might no longer be available, he suggested a tough quid pro quo with the French: continued provision of American military equipment in exchange for agreement to the introduction of the CIA's paramilitary personnel. Eisenhower agreed.
Eight days later, the president's top advisers reconvened. Picking up where Eisenhower left off, the CIA's Dulles introduced Edward Lansdale to those around the table and suggested he be the first to go to Vietnam. A U.S. Air Force colonel on extended duty with the CIA, Lansdale had a reputation as one of America's foremost experts on guerrilla and paramilitary operations. He had already made a mark in Southeast Asia, where, acting as a senior adviser to Filipino president Ramon Magsaysay, he had been instrumental in defeating the communist Hukbalahap rebel movement—accomplishments that had impressed Dulles and his equally influential brother, John Foster, the secretary of state. The NSC told Lansdale to pack his bags and head for Vietnam.
Before Lansdale left, however, the war in Indochina entered its final stage. A French garrison in the Dien Bien Phu valley in northwestern Vietnam, under siege since late the previous year, was fast becoming France's last stand. As the Viet Minh noose tightened around Dien Bien Phu, the National Security Council upgraded Lansdale's lone advisory slot into an entire CIA team to be known as the Saigon Military Mission (SMM). The organization would work not with the French but rather with the anticommunist and nominally independent Vietnamese government headed by Emperor Bao Dai, a Paris-approved proxy.
Before anybody from the Saigon Military Mission had a chance to set foot in Vietnam, Dien Bien Phu fell to the Viet Minh in early May. Eisenhower did not particularly like the way the French had run their Indochinese colonies, but he liked the thought of a Viet Minh regime even less. As French soldiers were led away as prisoners from Dien Bien Phu, he considered the possibility of a major guerrilla operation in northern Vietnam to be supported through Thailand. Very quickly, however, it became clear that there was no time for grandiose plans. In Geneva, an international conference was already negotiating France's withdrawal from Indochina. Fearful of a French sellout, Lansdale rushed to Saigon while the Geneva conference was still in session. Arriving on 1 June, he was ostensibly accredited as an assistant air attaché to the U.S. embassy.
There was no time to assemble additional members for his Saigon Military Mission, so Lansdale alone spent his first month forging contacts with Bao Dai's armed forces and working with its Armed Psychological Warfare Company in Hanoi. He met with less than complete success: on the company's first mission under Lansdale's tutelage, two team members defected to the communists.
On 1 July, Lansdale was joined by a deputy, Major Lucien "Lou" Conein. A paramilitary specialist in his own right, Conein thrived on just this sort of mission. Known as "Black Luigi" to his fellow operators, Conein had infiltrated into northern Vietnam nine years earlier while serving in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), the CIA's World War II predecessor. Unlike other OSS officers who had worked with the Viet Minh against the Japanese, Conein had linked up with French-led Vietnamese maquis. To Conein's advantage, several of those maquis were now senior Vietnamese military officers.
For the next three weeks, the two-man Saigon Military Mission continued to forge contacts among the Vietnamese. On 21 July, the Geneva conference concluded. According to the settlement, Vietnam faced a three-hundred-day period during which civilians were free to move about. After that, the country would be temporarily divided: all territory north of the seventeenth parallel would be turned over to the Viet Minh, while the zone south of that parallel would be governed by the pro-Western Bao Dai regime established earlier by the French. The capital of Viet Minh-controlled North Vietnam would be Hanoi, while Bao Dai's South Vietnam was to be run from Saigon. A nationwide election slated for 1956 would theoretically unite the country after two years. In addition, the number of foreign military personnel would be frozen after 11 August.
The Eisenhower administration considered the settlement in Geneva a disaster and immediately changed the Saigon Military Mission's mandate. With northern Vietnam soon to come under complete communist control, Lansdale's primary mission now became stay-behind resistance operations. For this, the CIA could turn to a precedent of sorts. Across Western Europe, the agency already had laid the groundwork for underground guerrilla networks ahead of a possible Soviet invasion. In Asia, too, the CIA had raised an elite Thai police unit to act as cadre for resistance against an expected Chinese push to the south. In neither case, however, had the stay-behind nets been put to the test.
In establishing a Vietnamese network, the Saigon Military Mission looked for help from the Dai Viet, a secretive, ultranationalist movement founded in 1939. The Dai Viet—literally Greater Vietnam—was born out of opposition to French colonial rule. This led to a brief alliance with other nationalists during World War II, including the Viet Minh. After the war the Viet Minh tricked the nationalist groups into a coalition and then turned against the noncommunists, killing or forcing most of them out of the country. The Dai Viet leadership fled to China. Returning to Vietnam in 1947, the movement toned down its anti-French rhetoric and attempted to shed its elitist image in order to broaden its appeal to the masses. It also began focusing on the threat from the Viet Minh. By 1951, the Dai Viet had begun armed opposition against the communists, forming a paramilitary civil guard in the north loosely allied with the French. By December 1953, this guard numbered some seventeen thousand.
The Geneva agreement spelled the end of the Dai Viet's northern power base, so Lansdale suspected a stay-behind scheme would appeal to them. With contacts facilitated by French intelligence, he ventured to Hanoi in July 1954 to sound them out. There he met with Minister of National Defense Phan Huy Quat, one of two senior Dai Viet officials who held cabinet positions in the Bao Dai government. Listening to the American colonel, Quat suggested he meet with another Dai Viet member and relative by marriage, Dr. Dang Van Sung.
The Dai Viet's unofficial secretary general, Sung was born into a wealthy landowning family in central Nghe An Province. Intelligent, courteous, and serious, he earned a medical degree, but instead of becoming a doctor he joined the Dai Viet in 1940 and quickly became one of its most influential leaders. Following Viet Minh attacks against the movement after World War II, he briefly went into Chinese exile, returning in 1947 to play a major role in Dai Viet newspapers and youth organizations. One of the first in the party to advocate cooperation with Emperor Bao Dai, Sung was outspoken in his opposition to the Geneva agreement, particularly its call to partition Vietnam.
Joined by Quat, Lansdale arrived at the Dai Viet headquarters in Hanoi. "Lansdale laid down his proposal for a stay-behind organization, and we ended up talking for two days," Sung recalled. "He pointed out that the Dai Viet was still a party of cadre, of intellectuals, not a party of the masses. He gave us a challenge: if we could prove we could work with the masses, he would support a network of stay-behinds in the north. I grabbed the opportunity to prove ourselves."
Lansdale returned to Saigon, where he was met by ten more CIA officers, all experts in paramilitary and clandestine intelligence operations, who had been rushed in from Japan, Korea, and Okinawa to augment the Saigon Military Mission before Geneva's 11 August deadline. This made Vietnam unique in that it had two CIA stations within a single country: one under the station chief dealing with conventional espionage, and the Saigon Military Mission under Lansdale handling paramilitary activities. While the station chief and his spies were disguised as diplomats at the embassy, Lansdale's men were given cover slots in the Pentagon's Saigon-based Military Assistance and Advisory Group (MAAG) for Indochina, which had been providing military assistance to France.
With his Saigon Military Mission up to strength, Lansdale assigned Conein to work with Sung on the details of the Dai Viet stay-behind program. Having just come off a tour in West Germany smuggling agents through the Iron Curtain, Conein had ample background in setting up spy nets. And with his detachment ostensibly assigned as MAAG supervisors for the nearly one million refugees who were expected to come south during the three-hundred-day grace period laid down in Geneva, he had a ready excuse for traveling between Hanoi and the port city of Haiphong.
The task would not be easy. Viet Minh agents already were beginning to take secret control of Hanoi. Racing against time, Sung chose Cao Xuan Tuyen, a senior Dai Viet officer and captain in the Bao Dai army, to begin recruitment. Tuyen's first agent candidate was Tran Minh Chau. A Catholic from the city of Nam Dinh, Chau had joined the Viet Minh during the closing days of World War II. Rising to the position of village chief, he led local militiamen against the French until his arrest in 1949. In prison he renounced ties to the communists and, with many fellow Catholics from Nam Dinh already gravitating toward the Dai Viet, eventually joined the sect.
For his next recruit, Tuyen settled on Nguyen Kim Xuyen. Also a Catholic from Nam Dinh, Xuyen was an established conservative and columnist for a Dai Viet newspaper. Two men for the budding stay-behind group was a good start, but Tuyen had only until the end of August to find another eighteen. He failed, ending up with only fourteen more Dai Viet recruits by month's end.
Code-named the "Binh" group, the Dai Viet—sixteen in total—assembled for Conein. According to Saigon Military Mission plans, CIA support for the Binh would be temporary, with control passed at some future date to the Bao Dai government in Saigon. These conditions were acceptable to the Dai Viet leadership, and the sixteen recruits were driven to Haiphong during early September, then secreted aboard a U.S. Navy vessel and taken to Okinawa. Subjected to a monthlong battery of physical and psychological tests, the group was reassembled in October and taken to the CIA's $28 million training complex on Saipan.
Already in its fourth year of operation, the Saipan base—given the intentionally benign title of Naval Technical Training Unit—was by then the CIA's premier training center in the Far East. Previously host to trainees from Korea, Taiwan, and Thailand, the base was designed to handle numerous compartmentalized classes of foreign students. "The facilities on Saipan were really complete, like a miniature Fort Peary," said one officer, in reference to the CIA's main training facility near Williamsburg, Virginia.
On Saipan, the Dai Viet recruits were whittled down to twelve. Those who went on with the training were assigned English and French aliases. Under the guidance of four American advisers, they were given a course in basic paramilitary and agent tradecraft. In a less-than-perfect arrangement, instruction was translated from English to French, then translated again by one of the students into Vietnamese.
Once this basic tutorial was finished, the recruits were divided in three subgroups. The first, which included Tran Minh Chau—now known as Leslie—and three others, was coached in weapons, demolitions, and sabotage. The second group, totaling five men, received an intensive espionage course. The last group of three recruits specialized in communications.
The course on Saipan was supposed to last for six months, but the CIA decided that if the Binh group stayed for the entire duration it would not have enough time to infiltrate ahead of the Viet Minh takeover in northern Vietnam. So after only four months the three subgroups were gathered together and given a final test by a CIA polygraph expert. Pretending to be a Viet Minh police officer, he subjected the agents to a mock interrogation. One agent was dropped when he was unmasked as a French informant; CIA officers were later told that he was beheaded upon his return to Saigon.
Unknown to the Binh trainees, they were not the only Vietnamese on Saipan. Back in September, a second stay-behind network was taking shape under Saigon Military Mission auspices. Called the "Hao" group, these agents were recruited from the Viet Nam Quoc Dan Dang (VNQDD), or Vietnam Nationalist Party. Established in 1927 as the Vietnamese arm of the Koumintang party in China, the VNQDD gained early prominence among nationalists after leading an anticolonial uprising in 1930. Brutally crushed by the French, its leaders were forced into Chinese exile until after World War II. Upon their return, they were decimated again, this time by the Viet Minh. Twice bloodied, the party remained a shadow of its former self through the early 1950s. Still, the group had members willing to volunteer for spy training, enabling the party leadership, with Lansdale's support, to select twenty-one members at the close of 1954 and send them to Saipan.
While the stay-behind agents trained overseas, the Saigon Military Mission busied itself with other projects. As the new communist regime made last-minute preparations before the official turnover of power in Hanoi on 11 October, Lansdale spent much of his time waging a psychological campaign designed to stir up discontent with the new rulers before they were even settled. As refugees left their homes—fleeing overwhelmingly from north to south—during the Geneva-mandated grace period following the accords, Lansdale took steps to ensure that the flow would be as heavy as possible. Using propaganda to convince people that life was better in the south, Lansdale also spread rumors that the Chinese, traditionally disliked by the Vietnamese despite their communist alliance, were planning to take an active role in governing the country, and that many Vietnamese were to be sent to China as railroad laborers. Lansdale also exploited Catholic fears of godless communism, printing leaflets claiming that "the Virgin Mary is moving south" and promising a better life with fellow Catholics in the south. Tales of Viet Minh atrocities also fueled discontent. Some were probably true, but the Saigon Military Mission made up many more.
Lansdale's biggest propaganda coup came when his men planted leaflets signed by Viet Minh officials instructing the Vietnamese on how to behave during the communist takeover of Hanoi in October, and hinted at how private property would be redistributed and the money system reformed. According to Lansdale, the campaign was a huge success. "The day following the distribution of these leaflets, refugee registration tripled," he wrote. "Two days later, Viet Minh currency was worth half the value prior to the leaflets. The Viet Minh took to the radio to denounce the leaflets; the leaflets were so authentic in appearance that even most of the rank and file Viet Minh were sure that the radio denunciations were a French trick." Even the French were fooled. They arrested one of Lansdale's Vietnamese team members while he was distributing leaflets late at night and charged him as a Viet Minh agent.
During the first week of October, Conein's northern detachment prepared to vacate Hanoi just before the Viet Minh marched in. They spent their last days conducting acts of delayed sabotage in the city. Agents sneaked into the bus depot to contaminate gas tanks and smuggled high explosives—developed by a CIA technical team to look like lumps of coal—into the fuel supplies at the city's railroad yard. Both missions had their lighter moments, remembers Conein:
The oil contaminant was delivered in canisters from Japan. When we opened them, the fumes nearly made us pass out while we were at the bus station, but we recovered long enough to fill the tanks and leave. The lumps of coal were also delivered from Japan. The idea was to plant them at railheads and wait for a bang. We were afraid that some guy would come by, steal some coal to heat his home, and get blown to hell. We later got word that some of it exploded inside locomotives.
Finishing their sabotage, Conein and his men shifted to Haiphong—which was not to be turned over to the Viet Minh until May 1955—to select secret sites to hide arms and equipment for the Binh group. Supplies began arriving from Saigon in January 1955 aboard planes belonging to Civil Air Transport, the CIA's proprietary airline, and the teams moved into action. Arms and ammunition were concealed inside building foundations; other supplies were brought to cemeteries and buried during phony funeral ceremonies orchestrated by the Saigon Military Mission. By month's end, everything had been cached.
On 8 February, the Binh agents finished their polygraph session and were returned to Saigon, where they underwent a month of political indoctrination before infiltration. According to plan, the twelve agents would be split among three locales. Leslie, given the rank of lieutenant, was placed in overall command. He and five other agents were to operate in Hanoi, three others in Haiphong, and the last three in Nam Dinh.
In early March, the twelve agents were taken to Haiphong by ship. There Conein gave them a final briefing and provided each with forged identity cards. New occupations and residences had also been arranged by the Saigon Military Mission. Most were disguised as fishermen. By month's end, each had successfully slipped into northern society. The Binh network was in place.
Infiltration of the VNQDD's Hao group was a more ambitious undertaking. Eight and a half tons of supplies—to include 14 radios, 300 carbines, 50 pistols, and 300 pounds of explosives—were quietly brought north aboard American planes and ships during February and March. The bulk was hidden in caches along the Red River. Much of the remainder was stashed in Haiphong, some of it concealed within building foundations.
Other supplies were diverted for the VNQDD network. Bui Van Ninh, a member of that party and an officer in Bao Dai's Government Information Office, was one of those solicited to help hide supplies: "A law professor who had taught at the Hanoi University and whom I had known for some time asked me to hide two radios supplied by the Americans. They were packed inside large containers. I dug a hole two meters deep at my house on Son Lam Road in Haiphong and placed one of the radios there. I took the second to a relative's house two kilometers away and put it down a hole, also two meters deep."
During April, the Hao students finished their Saipan course and were taken to Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines for a final briefing. Once finished, the agents boarded a U.S. Navy vessel and sailed straight to Haiphong. In small groups under cover of darkness, they slipped ashore and divided into four groups, one each to the cities of Ha Dong, Haiphong, Hanoi, and Son Tay.
One month later, in compliance with the Geneva Accords, the Viet Minh marched into Haiphong and the other residual French coastal sanctuaries in North Vietnam. With both agent networks in place, Conein's detachment retreated south to Saigon.
Now behind communist lines, the Binh agents put their training into practice. The heaviest burden fell on the Haiphong detachment, which set about unearthing the buried supplies. In short order, they had recovered their entire allotment of radios and weapons. Also among their supplies was a batch of explosive coal like that used by the Saigon Military Mission against the Hanoi railroad yard. One of the Haiphong agents, Bui Manh Ha, alias Bosco, then purchased a Citroen taxi and began shuttling portions of the supplies to the other Binh sites.
Trouble was brewing down in Saigon, the result of the earlier verbal pact between Lansdale and the Dai Viet leadership. Lansdale had stipulated that the stay-behind network would eventually come under the control of the central government in Saigon. The Dai Viet had agreed. At the time the pact made sense because the Bao Dai government was heavily represented by Dai Viet officials, including two cabinet ministers. But by early 1955 the government had changed considerably. The new prime minister, Ngo Dinh Diem, was a Catholic mandarin from Hue and intolerant of competition. Immediately upon gaining power, he set about purging the Dai Viet.
While Diem was seen as a threat by the Dai Viet, he was embraced by Lansdale. Just as with Magsaysay in the Philippines, Lansdale chose to place his support behind a single political figure, a charismatic personality. Very quickly, he assumed a personal stake in Diems success. As part of this close relationship, Lansdale briefed Diem on the existence of the Dai Viet agents in North Vietnam.
Hearing of this, Diem demanded a hand in administering the spy network. Dr. Dang Van Sung, the movement's secretary general, protested, arguing that the northern agents were a long-term means of promoting the Dai Viet cause, not a personal tool for the president. From Sung's perspective, Diem would misuse the spies: "They were supposed to work against the communists as underground agents. Their main task was recruitment. For this purpose we had even sent a second group of Dai Viet, chosen from northern refugees settled around Saigon, for training in Saipan. This second group included minorities, and was supposed to go north and reinforce the original network. Diem's people didn't want agents, they wanted commandos."
In the end a compromise was reached. Sung was allowed to keep control of the second group of Dai Viet agents trained in Saipan, who would be retained in Saigon as party cadre. The first group of spies, however, were to be taken over by Diem—with Sung completely excluded from the program.
Sung was replaced by General Nguyen Ngoc Le, Diem's new chief of the National Police. Le had earlier worked with the Saigon Military Mission while organizing a Vietnam Veterans League and was already acquainted with Lansdale. With General Le nominally in charge, Cao Xuan Tuyen, the Dai Viet official responsible for recruiting the agents, informed the Binh via radio of the new command arrangement in Saigon. Leslie, speaking on behalf of the other spies, pledged loyalty to Diem.
As Dr. Sung feared, the change was more than just semantics. Prompted by their new handlers, the stay-behind agents were directed to accomplish two seemingly incompatible missions. On the one hand, they were encouraged to conduct commando operations such as sabotage, actions that would invariably draw the attention of the authorities. On the other hand, they were expected to expand their spy network, a mission that could be accomplished only by drawing as little attention to themselves as possible.
The Binh spies were naturally reluctant to commit sabotage—with one exception. Using the CIA's exploding coal, Binh agents were able to plant a lump in the Haiphong railyard. Later reports from the Hanoi's official news agency claimed that the suspect anthracite was discovered by a vigilant worker before damage was done.
Slightly more effort was given to recruiting new agents. Operating under cover as a bicycle repairman, Leslie reported that he had enlisted two supporters, both Dai Viet members.
Sitting in Saigon, General Le and his American counterparts were unimpressed with the limited results to date. Worse, some CIA officers at the embassy thought they detected signs that the agents had been doubled. To test their fears, they wanted to bring one of the agents south for a debriefing. Lansdale strongly opposed this plan, fearing it would blow the agent's cover and make it impossible to get him back north, but by that time he was set to rotate home and his former Saigon Military Mission paramilitary responsibilities were being assumed by the regular CIA station. Because relations between the Saigon Military Mission and the CIA station had never been good, Lansdale's advice was ignored.
Volunteering to make the trek south was a member of the Nam Dinh subnet going by the name of André. On 6 September 1956, André stole south along the North Vietnamese panhandle and crossed the border. Once in Saigon, he was subjected to two days of polygraphing. After the CIA was satisfied that André had not been doubled, he was debriefed for nine more days, then sent back north laden with a generous supply of money for distribution to the other Binh members.
André restored the CIA's confidence in the Binh network, perhaps even blinding the agency to the reality of the situation in North Vietnam. For over a year, communist authorities had been closing in on the agent net, ever since three pieces of exploding coal were discovered during a police crackdown on illegal coal peddlers. When an investigation traced the source of the explosives to a Binh agent, North Vietnamese intelligence managed to infiltrate part of the network. Among those captured and doubled was André.
For a short time, Hanoi refrained from closing down the entire Dai Viet operation, hoping to turn it to their advantage. At least one agent in each of the three Binh locales was allowed to operate under Saigon's control through the fall of 1958. Together, they managed to recruit at least seven more subagents, including one woman.
Then, on 12 November 1958, North Vietnamese security forces snapped up all the remaining Binh operatives. Bosco, the Saipan-trained commander in Haiphong, was arrested while one of his subordinates was sending a message to Saigon in a radio set hidden inside a table. In Hanoi, Leslie, the overall commander, was seized, while a third Saipan graduate, going by the alias Philip, was captured in Nam Dinh.
On 4 April 1959, the Binh trial opened in Hanoi. Ten suspects were identified at the highly publicized spectacle. Next to the courtroom, Hanoi authorities showed off an exhibit of captured Binh equipment. On display were silenced submachine guns, explosives, small spring-loaded pistols hidden inside toothpaste tubes, and radio sets. (The CIA had not been too careful in providing plausible deniability. While the weapons were sterile, the radios were clearly marked with U.S. Army Signal Corps plates.) In their typically heavy-handed approach toward propaganda, the Hanoi authorities also included photos of one agent reading a pornographic magazine with pinups visible on the walls.
After twenty-four hours of testimony, verdicts were returned. Seven men received sentences of up to ten years in prison. Philip, the Nam Dinh agent, faced twenty years. Bosco, from Haiphong, got a life sentence. Leslie, the commander in Hanoi, was to meet a firing squad. According to Hanoi radio, a crowd of ten thousand outside the courtroom cheered the decision.
The Binh agents were unmasked, but the Hao network remained in place—barely. Starting on a bad note, the group's leader, Nguyen Tien Thanh, immediately lost contact with most of his network. As a result, many of the group's supplies were never recovered. Worse, it took months for him to get an initial response from Saigon over the radio.
According to accounts later published by Hanoi, a desperate Thanh ordered two agents "in early August"—they left the exact date unstated—to make their way to South Vietnam via the Demilitarized Zone that separated the two countries at the seventeenth parallel. Apparently Hanoi was embarrassed to reveal that this occurred in August 1963: for eight years, the VNQDD agents had operated undetected inside North Vietnam.
Both agents who tried to reach the Demilitarized Zone in 1963 panicked and returned to Haiphong after covering only half the distance. Shortly afterward, another group of VNQDD agents tried to make their way west toward the highlands along the Laos border, join a commune, and plan resistance activity. Like the first pair, however, this group also cut short its journey and returned.
It was not until 1964 that their collective luck came to an end, That year, a North Vietnamese construction crew clearing an old cemetery in Haiphong uncovered an arms cache. Hanoi launched an investigation, and ten VNQDD agents were eventually rolled up and put on trial the following year. Two members were executed, the rest given prison sentences.
Curiously, no mention was ever made of the eleven other members of the Hao network. Not until 1977 did the likely answer slip during a statement by the minister of interior at a closed conference in Hanoi. Speaking about the investigation of political subjects, the minister made reference to a stay-behind network still operational until the mid-1970s: "In 1974, [the Ministry] deployed special agents to make contact [with the stay-behinds], using the password and recognition signals to establish communication. They communicated immediately."
Two decades after the Saigon Military Mission's ambitious plan to spy on North Vietnam, it was all over. There were no more Trojan horses.
|6.||Bang and Burn||57|
|8.||Sacred Sword Patriot's League||74|
|21.||Guerrillas in Their Midst||204|
|23.||Closing the Gate||224|
|25.||Exceptions to the Rule||243|
|26.||The Quiet One||250|
|A Note on Sources||333|