A U.S. Intelligence tragedy in Vietnam


"Secret Army, Secret War: Washington's Tragic Spy Operation in North Vietnam," by Sedgwick Tourison. Illustrated. 320 pages. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press. $29.95

Sedgwick Tourison, a former top analyst for the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), has written an exhaustively researched account of a Vietnam War intelligence failure that was ineffective, sustained and brutal in its consequences.

"Secret Army, Secret War," is the story behind Washington's unsuccessful effort to use small teams of covert Vietnamese commandos to wage guerrilla warfare in North Vietnam. The operation began in 1961 when the Central Intelligence Agency began to parachute commandos into North Vietnamese territory. Despite repeated failures, the covert operation was taken over by the Pentagon in 1964 and expanded in an operation called OPLAN 34-A.

By 1968, an estimated 500 agents had been killed, captured or turned into double agents. Retired U.S. Army Gen. William C. Westmoreland, who commanded U.S. ground forces in Vietnam, has said the operation "was not worth the effort at all." Former Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara wrote in his recent book, "In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam," that the commando operation was "essentially worthless."

Mr. Tourison, who was chief of analysis for the DIA's special office for prisoners of war in the 1980s and an author of the official report of the Senate Select Committee on POW-MIA Affairs in 1993, has traced the failure of the operation and detailed the human consequences.

In convincing detail, Mr. Tourison recounts how hundreds of captured commandos remained imprisoned on espionage charges for years after the war ended. Many were not released until the 1980s. Upon release, the commandos were "largely shunned by the American and Vietnamese officials who had commanded them," Mr. Tourison writes. He adds that those same officials had led the commandos' families to believe the commandos had died even though "they knew with a moral certainty that they had been captured and were still alive."

Mr. Tourison's book is extremely well researched, relying on a recently declassified Pentagon report on the commando operation and on interviews with hundreds of former commandos and their families and with retired CIA officials who served in Vietnam. To his credit, the interviews are on the record, giving his account stronger credibility.

"Secret Army, Secret War," is intended as a serious study of an intelligence operation gone wrong, but it is not an easy read: I sometimes felt as if I was reading an academic term paper. If Mr. Tourison had told us more about the human beings recruited as commandos, he would have made his account more engaging.

Despite that flaws, Mr. Tourison's book provides an instructive case study of a deeply flawed intelligence operation at a time when fundamental questions are being raised about the role of the CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies. His book also could have implications for current U.S. immigration policy.

As Mr. Tourison explains in an epilogue, many of the commandos who were released from prison in the 1980s are currently seeking to gain entry into the United States. The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service has rejected many of the applications, apparently because it does not believe the commandos' accounts.

"Secret Army, Secret War," filled with consistent stories from dozens of former commandos, lends credence to the argument that the commandos are indeed telling the truth. Mr. Tourison deserves credit for bringing forward the facts about the lost commando army.

* Gary Cohn, a Sun reporter, recently completed, with Ginger Thompson, an exhaustive series of articles on U.S. intelligence involvement with a secret military squad that killed and tortured hundreds of people in the 1980s in Honduras. He has worked for the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Wall Street Journal and the Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader.

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