Be Careful What You Wish For

May 29, 2014– Back when the Vietnam War was just over, and America had beat a desperate and ignominious retreat from Saigon, the CIA wanted to dissuade its disillusioned officers from commenting publicly about the disaster. Higher-ups learned that the agency’s chief analyst at the Saigon station–a fellow by the name of Frank Snepp–was intent on telling the story. The CIA’s chief at the time, Bill Colby, met with Snepp, trying to head him off at the pass. Colby told Snepp not to do it (tell the story), that the ship of state leaks only from the top (read the story of what lengths the agency went to against Snepp in my book The Family Jewels). Snepp went ahead, the U.S. government sued him and won, and sat back fat and happy that it had completed a fortress of secrecy that would prevent future whistleblowers.

The security services went back to their bad old ways, which of course brought us the Edward Snowden leaks. The present-day leadership of the U.S. intelligence community, in the person of Fearful Leader James Clapper, reacted by telling Congress that our own intelligence officers are a national security threat and by issuing a fresh directive prohibiting employees from all but preapproved contacts with the media.

At the time I commented in this space (“America’s Spooks Terrified,” April 25, 2014) that General Clapper stood on dangerous ground with this order since the most common source of leaks is from officials acting in their official capacities.

It took just a few weeks–and here we are. I’m barely back from Berlin, where I was out of touch with the news, when I learn that the name of the CIA station chief in Afghanistan has been leaked. Who’s the culprit? President Barack Obama! Obama visited the Afghan capital and held a meeting with the constellation of senior U.S. officials there. White House press hacks dutifully put out a release listing those in attendance, including the CIA person. The information circulated as an email to six thousand addresses on the White House media list. A reporter acting for the press pool then asked if the White House had meant to include the spook on their list. (Apparently no one among the White House, CIA, or ODNI crew noticed any of this until the press brought it to their attention.) Embarrassed officials rushed out a revised release sans name, and Obama has ordered an investigation of how this happened.

That part’s easy: when everything is secret, nothing is secret. I’ve written this before–as has just about everyone who has seriously examined the world of classified information, but the secrecy freaks out there seem incapable of taking the message aboard. To keep secure those things that really need to be secret you need to restrict the classified information to a small enough list of items that the boffins–just to use a British term–can keep the pile of secrets in mind. When everything is in the pile the boffins can’t keep track and the secrets dribble out.

Bottom line: President Barack Obama was an authorized official (in Fearful Leader Clapper’s meaning of the term) in authorized contact with the media and conveying an authorized administration message, but still a secret escaped. Clapper’s order failed in precisely the way anticipated. No doubt someone’s head will roll for this, but not the true culprits, for they are the secrecy mavens.

Drone Memos and Obama Transparency

May 21, 2014– There are several directions to take the news that the Obama administration is deciding to release the Justice Department legal memos that were used to legitimize the extrajudicial killing of an American citizen, in this case Anwar al-Awlaki. I don’t have time to follow all the tracks so, at least for now, I’ll confine myself to the issue of what this tells us about openness in this administration.

Barack Obama entered office with a promise to run the most open and transparent presidency in American history. There were some good moves at first–President Obama rode over opposition to the release of an earlier generation of Office of Legal Counsel papers–the ones that justified Bush era torture–and he ordered government agencies to improve public access, FOIA response and the like. The declassification initiatives, at least, are honored in their breach.

The Justice Department drone war memos–for that is what they are–are only returning to the news here. The administration had denied them previously–to the Congress, which has oversight authority and thus a full right to look at them. In each situation where it faced a dilemma over sensitive information like the drone memos, Obama chose to have some official make an informal statement making claims as to information or policy, rather than to expose actual documents to the light of day.

Only when John O. Brennan was up for confirmation as CIA director in 2013, and these specific OLC memos were made a condition for congressional approval, did the wind change. Then the administration took the road of crafting a different document, one summarizing the OLC memos–and making that one public by means of a deliberate leak to a news organization (there are the same people who are now saying that contacts with news media must have official approval). When Congress stuck to its guns, President Obama reluctantly allowed that legislators could view the real documents, but behind closed doors.

The New York Times and others filed Freedom of Information lawsuits seeking the same documents. The American Civil Liberties Union filed a matching lawsuit. That case recently came to decision, and the court ruled that the Obama administration is required to release the material. In fact the judge issued specific instructions on which parts of the documents need to be released in full. The question became whether Attorney General Eric Holder’s Justice Department will pursue an appeal of the judgment.

The complicating factor, as it happens, is another nomination. This time the actual author of the OLC drone war memos, David J. Barron, is up for a seat on the First Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals, and senators have threatened to block the nomination unless the administration releases the documents. Guess what? News is that Holder will not appeal. Instead, administration officials are asking for more time to skew the memos by deleting information, and they want to file a more limited appeal for certain sections they would like to keep secret. Thus even when a court rules them out of bounds and a political factor is driving the response, the administration still wants to get its way by playing on the margins and with the timing.

Open administration? Like the Senate torture report, like the FISA court opinions, like the drone memos previously, Mr. Obama’s administration seems never to have met a piece of information it does not deem worthy of keeping secret. If you look at the annual reports of the interagency board that monitors classified information, you’ll also see that the number of things designated secret is rising sharply. The whole system is broken. That’s what needs to be fixed. The CIA is not playing straight on secrecy, the Justice Department is complicit, the White House fails to enforce its own directives. Let’s stop talking about Obama transparency.

Catching Up with Robert Litt

May 21, 2014– Remember spook superlawyer Robert S. Litt? He’s featured here several times. Litt was the one who told Fearful Leader Clapper that it was an adequate explanation of his lie about NSA dragnet eavesdropping to say he was “thinking about” something else. There’s plenty more. I haven’t got time at the moment, and I also hoped to post something about the imminent Justice Department release–under court order–of the drone war legal memos–but I couldn’t let the Robert Litt news pass without comment.

Representing General James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, Litt attended the House Rules Committee markup session on new legislation that supposedly will restrict the National Security Agency eavesdropping. Litt was instrumental in leading the legislators to weaken their bill, substituting a vague definition for what requires court approval. The House had already left it up to the administration to define the broad category limits–probably the equivalent of giving your teenager the car keys without thinking about it–but that wasn’t enough for the spy mavens. They preferred a definition which enables them to nominate categories and thus obtain broad swathes of data anyway. The result is so obviously flawed that a number of backers of this bill have withdrawn their support.

Here’s the question: Did the director of national intelligence cynically manipulate the bill in order to ensure its defeat, did he–represented by Mr. Litt–engineer a happy solution that leaves the NSA virtually unfettered, or were General Clapper’s objectives both of these things?

CIA vs the Senate Torture Report–Round 1 1/2

May 15, 2014–You read it here first (again). In earlier coverage of how the CIA would handle the investigative report on its torture and rendition programs that was done by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence (SSCI), we predicted the agency would drag its heels on its declassification review. Actually it’s wasn’t at all hard to predict. Secrecy is a passion for the CIA. But at least give them points for how cleverly they play the system. Listen to this one–

Watching this whole travesty unfold, the American Civil Liberties Union quite logically filed a Freedom of Information Act request asking for release of the Senate intelligence committee report and Langley’s original response to it. They filed with the Justice Department, probably to try and avoid some of the CIA’s delaying tactics. That was in November of last year. Recognizing that the department would simply sit on a simple FOIA request, the ACLU went straight to court and made it a lawsuit. The suit aims at CIA. Not long afterwards it became known that CIA and the intelligence committee were fighting each other over who had betrayed whom–that’s the CIA spying on the SSCI versus senators’ purloined document argument. The ACLU promptly decided to incorporate that document, the “Panetta Report,” in its FOIA lawsuit, and did so on January 27 of this year.

In the meantime the court was compelling the Justice to get through the preliminary steps of this action. The CIA claimed jurisdiction, or not, and Justice said it lacked jurisdiction–this was a “congressional document.” A few days before the ACLU action, government lawyers agreed to a schedule for deciding whether these reports are the kinds of “records” the CIA can declassify. (The agency, too, wants this to be a “congressional” document, so it can toss the matter back to the SSCI, which is reluctant to declassify unilaterally, and originally asked CIA to review. If this sounds like a pinball in motion–it is.) Under the schedule, that was supposed to happen at the end of this month, pushed back a week upon inclusion of the Panetta Report.

As it happens, on April 3 the Senate committee, disgusted with the CIA’s delays, itself voted to release its report, but took the low road of sending it to Barack Obama for review–and the president kicked it back to Langley.

Lo and behold, on behalf of the CIA, the Justice Department today filed a motion to delay action on the FOIA request because the current version of the SSCI summary report has been amended based upon the objections the CIA made to the Senate committee and their joint conversations of how to handle the disputed issues in the report. Because the underlying document sought in the FOIA has been revised, the declassification process should be halted.

Got that? Congress asked the spy mavens to review its report. Langley dragged its feet and eventually came up with a refutation. Congress and CIA debated how to handle Langley’s objections. Responsibly, the senators considered what the CIA had to say, made some changes, inserted more text in other places to bolster its case. Now the CIA relies on the SSCI’s response to justify its attempt to avoid declassifying the report. Just for good measure, the CIA and White House have been swift to assert a necessity for third parties–other agencies, to include the Director of National Intelligence (Fearful Clapper, who never saw a program not worth lying about, or a fact not a dangerous national security leak) and, presumably, the State Department–to also certify the document. I can tell you, “equity,” the notion of third-party interest in documents, is among the problems most damaging to U.S. declassification efforts today. Langley is lining up its pins for an attempt at long-term stalling. Clever, huh?


The Secrecy Bug

May 13, 2014–Today is a day for Glenn Greenwald. Greenwald’s book on the Snowden affair is great and should compel our attention. Snowden himself and Laura Poitras had their day a couple of weeks ago when they were given the Ron Ridenhour Award for truthtelling. I don’t want to do anything to take away from them. But the deeper realization hits you when you ask, what kind of system is it when the public has to depend upon outraged/disaffected/guilt-ridden employees of the state to find out the truth behind the innocuous rhetoric.

Equally to the point, you can be certain the spy agencies are bending every effort to put even more secrecy measures in place, so (supposedly) preventing “another” Snowden, or Manning, or Thomas Drake, or what have you. Agency employees will have to jump through more hoops than ever in order to reach the public. That was the point of a couple of recent posts here, ones that dealt with Fearful Leader Clapper’s secrecy directives–lightning bolts from Olympus designed to put every minion on notice against saying anything to anyone. In The Family Jewels I devoted a full chapter (“Plugging the Dike,” ch. 8) to showing how the CIA had built what I called a “fortress of secrecy” to muzzle its own people, snaring them in an endless miasma of “reviews” in order to clear the words they would like to say.

The CIA jumps up to insist that, no, all its interventions are strictly for the purpose of protecting classified information, real secrets of national security importance. (How that squares with forcing an author to delete “urinal” where it appeared in his book–one of the examples in that chapter–mystifies me.) Greenwald and Snowden have produced more examples, of course, but here I want to draw attention to my colleague Malcolm Byrne at the National Security Archive. At the Archive Malcolm has gotten declassified the paperwork surrounding one specific CIA memoir and assembled the documents to show the fortress of secrecy in practice.

Iran is the subject, specifically the CIA-sponsored coup that overthrew the legal government of Iran in 1953 and led to so much heartache for so many decades of the Iranian revolution. CIA officer Kermit Roosevelt was a principal organizer of the 1953 operation, and his book Countercoup: The Struggle for the Control of Iran is the focus here.

Malcolm Byrne shows the agency’s Publications Review Board (PRB) worked Roosevelt relentlessly, while attempting to enforce absurd boundaries for secrecy. A CIA deputy director said he’d not permit anything to be published which showed that the CIA worked abroad. Even the Review Board–and the agency’s top lawyers–figured they couldn’t get away with that much. They tried to sidetrack the project by raising questions regarding whether the Shah of Iran approved. “Kim” Roosevelt–who had that area of the world hot-wired–not only had the Shah’s approval but the book had been suggested to him by one of the potentate’s associates. Roosevelt had also talked it over with George Herbert Walker Bush, at that time the director of the CIA, so he thought he had the bases covered. Instead the PRB came down on him hard. Roosevelt made major changes. The CIA’s general counsel felt the deputy director’s ukase unenforceable, whereupon the PRB came back with 156 specific objections, and claimed the number could be higher. Roosevelt made more changes, maybe not so many as CIA wanted but enough for one official to brag to another that they’d succeeded in converting Kim Roosevelt’s coup memoir into a work of fiction.

The end result had the CIA requiring the author to assert that the coup was suggested by British Petroleum (then known as the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company) rather than the British Secret Service. Langley no doubt thought that was a security interest worth protecting. When BP found out they threatened to sue. The publisher pulled the entire print run of the book to pulp it and reprinted with references to–wait for it–British intelligence. The CIA, happily prosecuting Phil Agee and Frank Snepp, did nothing.

Bottom line? Secrecy is a disease. Not infectious, it’s spread by a bug. Those smitten succumb to the delusion that any kind of action can be hidden so long as the secrecy is preserved. Is that not exactly what happened to NSA with Prism? Officials who have the disease stop paying attention to what is the “right” thing, and focus on the attainable or the desirable, no matter the cost. Damage to national security results from the decisions they make and the projects they pursue–like the Iranian coup, like the NSA dragnet. The damage is not from the compromise of secrecy. The drone of that bug’s wings is really a swan song for the secrecy mavens.

America’s Terrified Spooks (2)

May 9, 2014–So here we are again, back at the Family Jewels crisis. In the last episode (“American Spooks Terrified,” April 25, 2014) we had our Fearful Leader, General James Clapper, issuing orders that require intelligence community personnel to get top bosses’ approval before any contact with the media, and to report contacts, even inadvertent ones, up the chain of command. I remarked on this as confirming the concerns Clapper and other intelligence directors expressed at threat assessment hearings earlier this year that their own employees rank as a national security threat. Today we have additional evidence, if any were needed, of Fearful Leader’s secrecy hysteria. If I were an intelligence agency employee I would be very worried.

The latest blow to civility, rationality, even First Amendment rights, comes in the form of Office of Director of National Intelligence Instruction 80.04, issued on April 8. The order requires ODNI personnel to obtain prior approval for “all official and non-official information intended for public release.” The Clapper directive describes this as “pre-publication review.” His directive complements the March order, which covered all intelligence officers. The goal is to prevent unauthorized disclosures. Note, however, that it does not apply to secret documents but to the very vague category information. That means, in effect, every item of information, secret or not, and every means of transmission of information–indeed the order itself lists “forums, panels, round tables, and question and answer sessions.”

Chilling? You bet. As with the March directive on media contacts the effect will be to obtain–as the security types no doubt think of it–“information dominance.” Ensure that everything out there is on-message from ODNI’s standpoint. Enforceable? Probably not. The attempt to regulate every single contact, and every means of exchange, between the public and an agency officer is bound to lead to a host of problems, bureaucratic, legal, and practical.

The CIA at least has a mechanism for this, something called the Publications Review Board. To enforce the Clapper rules the ODNI will need a similar entity. More to the point, this is not a value-neutral procedure. The people who run this thing will have irresistible temptations to demand and enforce a certain ideological conformity. In The Family Jewels there is a chapter which shows at considerable length how the CIA’s board is compromised in exactly this way.

It is an index of both the intelligence community’s hysteria and the intellectual bankruptcy of this “review” process that the CIA, which published an interview with the chairman of its Publications Review Board last month–no doubt with the criticisms of Family Jewels in mind–chose not even to endow this person with a name. –The Intelligence Identities Protection Act gives the CIA the authority to shield the identity of a covert officer on active assignment or recently returned. It has no such authority to withhold the identity of an administrative officer at headquarters, acting in an official capacity, in fact as part of a spin doctor operation. You can see how broken this mechanism has become.

The CIA directive governing pre-publication review at least has the merit of some specificity regarding what is covered. Clapper’s order for “information” can pertain to anything–ideas can require ODNI review because they can embody information. Plus the review process–ODNI or CIA–can get in the way of legitimate complaint procedures. The CIA directive has language discussing whistleblower documents created to be given to the Inspector General or the congressional oversight committees. The order says these are personal when first created (and safe from review) but at some point become subject to PRB action. Thus terrain on which to fight over the status of whistleblowers’ complaints is written right into the regulations. Edward Snowden’s material would not have survived “publication” review.

In the be-careful-what-you-wish-for category, General Clapper’s directive potentially punishes/criminalizes the time-honored Washington practice of obtaining policy action by leaking. The order requires ODNI officers to cite public information which proves that what they want to say is not secret–and it prohibits them from citing leaks as such sources. Think about that for a minute. In the intelligence manipulation that preceded the Bush invasion of Iraq, there was a moment in the scare-mongering when administration officials leaked some aluminum tubes information and then the vice-president, the deputy secretary of defense, and the national security adviser all used identical language about “mushroom clouds” to refer to the leaked data. General Clapper’s directive, not so conveniently for government, would make that kind of maneuver impossible.

Every review of government secrecy in living memory concludes that we classify too much information. By making everything secret, nothing becomes secret. The ODNI directive creates precisely that kind of situation. We should be moving in the direction of reducing secrecy, not increasing the problem. General Clapper wants to create a secrecy overload.

The legal and constitutional problems with this kind of secrecy have been discussed in this space before. I’ll not revisit them, except to quote the anonymous CIA chairman’s statement: “We are aware that people have first amendment rights.” That’s a good thing. Unfortunately the reality of what the spooks are doing indicates they either don’t know or don’t care.


Dien Bien Phu: “The Fruit are Ripe”

May 8, 2014–French shortwave radio in Tonkin broadcast the phrase “The Fruit are Ripe” at 1:05 PM of May 8, 1954 (1:05 AM on the American east coast). The message was an “open code,” of the same sort the British had sent over the BBC in World War II to alert various Resistance networks on the continent. The French military commander in Tonkin, Major General Rene Cogny, had agreed to send this message when he was certain of the fall of the entrenched camp at Dien Bien Phu. French army units in Laos had been warned, in messages dropped to them by scout planes, to listen for the open code message.

The Tonkin radio was actually late–the French at Dien Bien Phu had stopped shooting around 5:30 in the afternoon of the 7th. Like much else about this decisive battle, the reasons for the discrepancy remain obscure. Perhaps Cogny was reluctant to acknowledge final defeat. Or again, there had been a last-minute plan for a sally of the fittest remaining French troops and maybe the Tonkin command, hoping that action had taken place, was trying to make time for the desperate sortie.

“The Fruit are Ripe” began a sort of delicate dance with many movements. One was among the French units in Laos, alerted to be on the watch for from Dien Bien Phu. Seventy-eight men made it to join either the Franco-Laotian regulars and commandos, or the Hmong partisans strung in an arc along the Laotian side of the border. Remarkably, one survivor had also walked out of another French entrenched camp, Na San, when that had been abandoned in the summer of 1953.

Another dance movement was the Viet Minh pursuit. General Giap wanted to regroup his main forces closer to Hanoi for a final offensive–but he also wished to follow up into Laos. He ordered Viet Minh who had not been at the battle–and some who were–into northern Laos. That meant a race between the French perched in their arc and the Viet Minh pursuers.

It was an irony of Dien Bien Phu that the worst French wounded became the luckiest survivors. With but a handful of doctors and medical personnel, and almost no drugs, the Viet Minh were in no position to treat French wounded. Meanwhile French medical staff, led by the redoubtable Doctor Paul Grauwin, shared their drug supplies with the Viets and helped their wounded. Together with the Viet Minh’s chief surgeon, General Giap decided to make a deal. In exchange for French medicines and medical assistance, they would re-open the airfield at Dien Bien Phu. The French air force could fly in medical supplies and evacuate the wounded. Some 858 seriously wounded soldiers left the entrenched camp that way.

In yet another United States connection to Dien Bien Phu, many of those French wounded would immediately be evacuated to France by the U.S. Air Force. It happened this way: There had been a secret U.S. airlift of paratroops and French Navy pilots called Project “Blue Star”–you can read all about it in Operation Vulture. Blue Star had used huge C-124 transport planes–the C-5As of that day–to deliver the French troops to what is now Da Nang. The Blue Star planes were still there when the smaller French Dakotas began to lift out the wounded from Dien Bien Phu. President Dwight D. Eisenhower approved a French appeal to carry the wounded home aboard the big American planes.

Thus ended the epic siege in the Vietnamese uplands.

The End at Dien Bien Phu

May 7, 2014–At 10:20 AM on May 7, 1954 (10:20 PM of May 6 on the U.S. east coast), the Frenchman leading all forces in Laos asked the general commanding the north of Indochina to give him immediate notice if there were a “grave event” concerning Dien Bien Phu. The Laotian commander, Colonel Boucher de Crevecoeur, was clearly thinking that he should warn the troops sent to effect an overland rescue of the entrenched camp that they should get out of the way. Tonkin theater commander Major General Rene Cogny advised De Crevecoeur a few hours later that if the threatened event occurred he would have French radios broadcast the phrase “The fruit are ripe.”

In gaming there are only a few boardgames which deal with the Franco-Vietnamese war, and even fewer that concern Dien Bien Phu itself. The ones that do uniformly confirm the French did not have a chance at that battle, indicating the dubious strategy of selecting that high mountain valley for the scene of a major encounter.

That was true of my game as well. Around the time I first wrote my book on Dien Bien Phu, Operation Vulture , I also designed a boardgame on the battle. For those familiar with the gaming of that era, it was a “mini-monster” design with a main board depicting the valley center and French strongpoints, plus a strategic board of the region surrounding Dien Bien Phu. The strategic/tactical split followed the concept of the Avalon Hill Roman era siege game Alesia. Using the strategic board forces could maneuver to the battle, the French in Laos could try and rescue the camp, and the French air force could attempt to reduce the scale of Viet Minh supply. French forces were modeled in companies, with breakdowns to platoons; the Viet Minh were at the battalion-level, with breakdowns to companies. It was a highly detailed boardgame and showed very well the dynamics of the strongpoint battle. Viet Minh forces sustained tremendous losses, but the French could not win.

What the generals learn–or do not learn– from history could fill books. Politicians too. Let’s just hope we’re not seeing this lesson repeated today.

NSA Dragnet Nightmare: Consider the Turkish Scenario

May 6, 2014–Not a lot of time today but I did want to put something out to chew on. The truth is that we need to proceed very carefully about how we reform the National Security Agency. An ill-considered effort can easily result in an eavesdropping regime even more sinister than the one that already exists. As always the devil is in the details.

When President Obama made his reform speech back in January, he issued a directive to the NSA and Justice Department to rein in their activities while attempting to preserve their capabilities. They appear to have succeeded. Last week there were indications the spooks like the reform regime even better, because in leaving the metadata content with the corporations along with the other data the companies already have, a new-system court order will actually afford NSA access to a wider range of the content its analysts want to get.

NSA “reform” is still a work in progress. But this got me to thinking about what is happening in Turkey, where the current political scandal bears a certain functional similarity to what is happening here. Superficially, of course, the shoe is on the other foot. That is, hackers, sharp political observers, and individuals unknown have in effect done the NSA trick and recorded the phone conversations and other insider info from the country’s prime minister, Recep Erdogan, his family, government ministers’ Turkey’s spy chief, and others. With great embarrassment to the Erdogan government, conversations have been replayed on YouTube exposing corruption, malfeasance, and other chicanery. The government’s response of closing certain newspapers and the internet has proven largely unsuccessful. Political opponents are demanding an investigation of the graft.

This kind of Family Jewels crisis is similar to the Snowden leaks in the United States. Like the Obama administration the Erdogan government promises new law to deal with the abuses. But in Turkey much of the new law actually frees the hand of the security services–the law aims to broaden the authority for government wiretaps (in the name of uncovering the source of the leaks) while also making government agents immune from criminal prosecution. Thus does an uncomfortable political scandal lead to the opposite of reform. Let us take care that America avoids the path taken in Turkey.

No Salvation for the French at Dien Bien Phu

May 4, 2014–On this night sixty years ago, French commando units maintained position in Laos, in an arc to the south and southwest of Dien Bien Phu. These troops represented the leading edge of an overland relief attempt that French leaders cobbled together in a desperate effort to save their garrison at Dien Bien Phu. Captain Henri Loustau, chief of one of these commandos, kept a radio watch. At night his men could see the horizon lit by the flashes of explosions inside the mountain valley, and on the radio Loustau could hear the businesslike transmissions in which French officers in the entrenched camp reported the destruction of their strongpoints and the loss of their men.

Loustau’s commandos lacked the strength to fight their way into the fortress from the outside. And he represented the tip of a spear that was rather weak overall. You can read the full story of the desperate French rescue mission in the book Operation Vulture . In Laos the Expeditionary Corps had put together four battalions of troops for the main force. Loustau’s commandos were the equivalent of another battalion, hurriedly assembled and thrown into the fray late in April. There was also “Operation Desperado,” in which a couple of thousand Hmong partisans who were fighting for the French, pitched in to help the relief mission.

In the original French contingency plan the spearhead troops were supposed to be reinforced once they reached near to Dien Bien Phu with a fresh and battle-worthy paratroop force. But when the time came the paras had been sent into the entrenched camp itself. There were no men to join Loustau, and no planes to carry them if there had been. The Hmong partisans were bringing up the rear–they had gotten a late start because the French Expeditionary Corps had been reluctant to approve their participation. The battalions of regular troops in Laos had not been strong enough to get closer than the Nam Ou river valley, still nearly three dozen miles from the embattled entrenched camp. Villagers along the wayside told the French that a Viet Minh force three times their size was expected soon. The French decided to hold their positions and wait.

A certain number of survivors escaped the hell of Dien Bien Phu and made it far enough to join up with either the Hmong partisans or the French-Vietnamese commando groups. But these were individuals, there were no organized units, no break out, no salvation. General Giap and his Viet Minh revolutionaries were poised on the verge of complete victory.