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North Vietnam - 1960 to 1972

The US Army Studies and Observation Group (SOG) oversaw one of the longest-running covert paramilitary operations in US history. And in an operation codenamed Plan 34-Alpha, CIA-trained units conducted cross-border missions to disrupt enemy activities, rescue downed U.S. pilots, train agents and conduct psychological operations designed to undermine morale in Laos, Cambodia and North Vietnam.

Nearly all of these missions were unsuccessful; virtually all the Vietnamese commandos sent into North Vietnam were killed or captured. The story of the agents and black teams inserted into North Vietnam is offered as an object lesson in what happens when eagerness to please trumps objective self-analysis, when the urge to preserve a can-do self-image delays the recognition of a failed - indeed, archaic - operational technique. To tell the story of covert penetrations of North Vietnam without tracing the influence on them of earlier such efforts in other locales would obscure their significance as a paradigm of the CIA approach to HUMINT collection against closed and hostile societies.

As chief of station [COS] in Saigon, William Colby began in 1960 a flurry of experimental programs, all of them shaped by the recommendations of officers in the field. These led to at least one signal success - the tribal Village defense program called the Citizens Irregular Defense Groups - and to failures, the most costly of which was probably the black entry program against North Vietnam.

Colby reached back to the Second World War for a precedent, for if he had looked to the more recent past, he would have found nothing but failed operations against the Soviet Union, China, and North Korea. True, the earliest correspondence about infiltrating intelligence and guerrilla operatives into North Vietnam makes no reference to this experience, which began in Europe during World War II. Colby's participation in OSS operations in Europe might have provided a cautionary note as the Saigon Station looked for ways to penetrate communist-controlled North Vietnam. Colby had jumped twice, once into occupied France and once into Norway, which was still in German hands in early 1945. The French mission featured a wild mixture of mishaps and serendipity. Dropped squarely into a town some 25 miles from the pre-arranged site, Colby's team escaped the occupying Germans only with the help of French civilians awakened by parachutists landing in their gardens. Serendipity took over after two nights of exhausted stumbling through the countryside toward the drop zone. Coming upon a farmhouse unaccountably still lit at two in the morning, Colby took a chance, and sent a French-speaking subordinate to the door. In a coincidence worthy of a John Buchan novel, the occupants turned out to be the very maquis cell that had waited in vain for the airdrop.

Despite the derring-do mystique that still surrounds OSS activity in both Europe and Southeast Asia, it is clear that black entry operations in Europe at least made only a peripheral contribution to the main war effort. Before the DRV operations were even considered, independent minded observers had been pointing out the universal failure of efforts to establish black resident teams in Leninist states. In 1959, at a conference of his FE Division counterparts, Peter Sichel had derided the practice as a "complete waste of time. We may as well just shoot them."

But Colby had been looking for ways to retum the emphasis to the South Vietnamese insurgency and its sponsors in Hanoi. "One of the questions came up very soon, why don't we do to them what they do to us, in North Vietnam. And we went back to our World War II experience of dropping people in by parachute and things like that. ..""

Kennedy administration's June 1961 mandate was to put the Pentagon in charge of most unconventional warfare. When complete, the process would transfer to Defense the entire program of air- and seaborne team operations against the DRV, as well as most of the unconventional warfare activity in South Vietnam.

CIA launched some 36 operations, persevering for almost three years, despite heavy losses, for results that barely qualified as negligible. CIA had to do something to respond, first to the original Kennedy mandate in the spring of 1961, and then to pressures that increased in proportion to the decline of South Vietnamese fortunes in 1963. The Agency persisted into January 1964 with black entry operations against the DRV. At that point, it had inserted 28 resident teams by air or sea, and eight singleton agents, some by sea and others overland. Of these, the station thought five - four air-dropped teams and one believed to have recruited his own team - worthy of transfer to MACSOG. The intelligence and covert action achievements of these five had been insignificant.

Colby looked at the endless quarreling between State and Defense over the appropriate targets for an expanded program and concluded that CIA would be better off if it merely supported team operations while it continued to run covert psychological warfare. On 1 February 1964, the management of irregular warfare operations against the DRV moved from CIA to the Department of Defense. To run them, MACV created the Special Operations Group MACSOG). Despite the perceived inadequacy of the CIA effort, the military wanted to continue running any teams still on the ground, and it took over five CIA-supported teams the station thought had evaded capture. In fact, all five were under DRV control, and the military was in effect starting from scratch.

Despite cordial relationships with CIA at the working level, the military rightly sensed an Agency reluctance either to invest people in an advisory capacity or to leave the psywar element even nominally under MACV direction. As of early June 1964, Bill Colby was proposing to "withdraw the CIA complement from joint operations with [MACSOG] against North Vietnam." The military side would be left entirely to MACV, while the Agency ran a "unilateral ... political and psychological program." The difference between the CIA's program and the one undertaken by the military was essentially one of scale. the insertion of agent teams under MACSOG auspices proceeded under much the same kind of inconstant mission guidance that had governed the CIA effort, and sabotage and resistance briefly gave way again to intelligence reporting in 1965.

The inexperience of MACSOG's military contingent and the uncritical attachment of station officers to the operational status quo militated against a rigorous evaluation of techniques and operational resources. The official records and the tales told by survivors suggest a wide range of causes to suspect that these teams might be doubled. Hanoi's painstaking deception operations and the lust for results In Washington and Saigon combined to perpetuate the familiar operational routine.

Suspicious behavior by various teams prompted one MACSOG commander, Col. John Singlaub, to commission a thorough review of the entire stable's operational security. The files were not voluminous: four years after assuming control under the SWITCHBACK rubric, MACSOG had radio contact with just seven penetrations. Singlaub's study, done in April 1968, gave a clean bill of health only to Team EASY, but a subsequent joint review by MACV intelligence and CIA concluded that it, too, was bad.

For two years, from February 1970 to April 1972, CIA staged "Commando Raider" hit-and-run operations from Laos against military targets in the DRV. Except for their use of air rather than sea transportation, they resembled the raids conducted by Team VULCAN in 1962. They inflicted somewhat more damage, and with fewer casualties, but costs remained dauntingly high. And the strategic effect of the Laos-based program, like that of Saigon's teams, was scarcely perceptible. The main difference lay in management's reaction to meager results: in the spring of 1972, after months of working-level grumbling made its way to the 7th floor, DCI Richard Helms told Kissinger that CIA saw no point in continuing.

The training regime implicitly assumed an operating climate in which a population awaited liberation from foreign occupation or from the exactions of a puppet regime like Vichy. It obscured the fact that the subjects of these communist governments, at least those with experience of European colonialism, did not all necessarily yearn for liberation by US-sponsored regimes. The American impulse was to believe that the entire country was groaning under what it saw as a despotic, exploitative elite. The North Vietnamese peasant was assumed to be ready to seize any opportunity to cooperate with the anti-communist Vietnamese of the South. In fact, whenever local peasants came upon indications of a foreign presence, their immediate and only impulse was to report to the authorities.

An institutional indifference to CI in FE Division was, to be sure, encouraged by mutual dislike and distrust between Bill Colby and James J. Angleton. As chief of the CI Staff, Angleton suspected that, in the late 1950s and 1960s, the DRV was penetrating and playing back Saigon Station's operations against it.

The station could be expected to have devoted serious efforts to identifying the causes of a series of failures seen by late 1963 as nearly without exception. One academic study of the program, based largely on interviews conducted with captured agents after their release by Hanoi, makes repeated references to poorly selected drop zones, attributing them to the planners' reliance on old and unreliable French maps. One feature of their performance, notable from the beginning, was their almost universal failure to come up on the air for weeks after insertion. Despite its standard injunction to make contact immediately, the station invariably accepted the excuses offered in tardy first reports. By July 1963, it was treating the phenomenon as routine when it reported a team as having come up after the "usual initial one month silence." Risky at best, this passive stance turned into simple credulousness as one instance followed another.

Delayed initial contact had become almost the rule, and by 1963 there was ample reason to take this as a sign that the reporting team had been captured. In July, Hanoi confirmed that this had, in fact, been the fate of Team PEGASUS; its members were tried and sentenced to prison terms. But neither the team's silence nor subsequent news of its capture led the station to examine the reasons for its failure, or to explore the possibility that its silence had represented enemy control. Instead, it continued with the new round of insertions.

The RVN tolerated its casualties, not all of whom were merely expendable members of despised ethnic Hmong and Thai minorities. This willingness, it seems, served to legitimize for CIA the exposure of dozens of Vietnamese agents to a degree of risk that no Agency manager would ever have contemplated imposing on his own people. This interpretation is necessarily speculative. But nothing else explains the Agency's apparent sense of detachment from the fate of the agent personnel. That sense may have been encouraged by the sometimes almost adversarial tone of the relationship with them, something provoked by their generally low quality and frequently uncertain motivation.

Whatever the considerations that led to its application in North Vietnam, no sign has been found that they conducted a serious search for an alternative. Indeed, there may have existed no such alternative, using either human or technical means. There are things that, in a given place at a given time, are simply impossible. Skepticism was uncongenial to both Colby and Richardson. Both of them displayed more interest in a display of vigorous action than in resolving indications of trouble even with the few teams still maintaining radio contact. Headquarters, moreover, abdicated its oversight role, making Just one half-hearted effort to evaluate the integrity and productivity of the effort. There, too, workaday pressures on a small staff inhibited a hard look at the program. But so did the comfort of knowing that ''this is the way we do things."

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Page last modified: 22-11-2013 00:03:16 ZULU