Books in San Antonio

April 16, 2014–A quick comment on the San Antonio Book Festival, from which I’ve just returned. It was a great show, held at the central branch of the San Antonio Public Library. There seems to be a developing trend for these kinds of events for books–I know there’s a national one, ones in the northeast–and the one in San Antonio forms part of a larger Texas movement, with the major festival held in Austin annually. This was the second year for the San Antonio daughter event. By every account the festival marked a considerable advance over what had been judged a very successful event last year.

Anyway the San Antonio Book Festival was very well done, with event venues both inside and outside the library building, and everything from cooking to romance fiction to poetry and literary criticism. Ninety-two authors turned out for sixty-six events through a packed day. I spoke as part of a panel on domestic spying, “Spies Like Us: The NSA, Big Brother and Democracy.” It was chaired by Callie Enlow, editor of the San Antonio Current newspaper, and also featured Heidi Boghosian, director of the National Lawyers Guild. The audience was great and had some very good questions. C-Span 2 taped this panel session. The tape will air on the C-Span 2 show “Book News” at 4:15 PM on Saturday, April 19; and again at 3:15 AM on the Sunday morning.

A fine time was had by all. I salute San Antonio Public Library Foundation for its support of this very worthy event.

Boss Spook from The Nam

April 8, 2014–Tom Polgar is not a household name. He’s probably not as well known as his daughter Susan, an international Chess grandmaster whose involvement a few years back in maneuverings among the pooh bahs of the United States Chess Federation became somewhat controversial. But the father’s role was far more consequential. Polgar, a senior official of the CIA, passed away two weeks ago. To the extent people remember him at all, it will be because of Frank Snepp, a subordinate when Polgar served as the agency’s last station chief in Saigon, whose searing account of the collapse of South Vietnam and the U.S. withdrawal, Decent Interval, was not very kind to Mr. Polgar.

Born in southern Hungary, Tom Polgar’s family moved to the U.S. when he was sixteen. As Hungarian Jews they fled the anti-Semitism taking root there as well as in Germany. There were claims later that he had helped others fell as well. Polgar always retained his Hungarian accent. Drafted into the U.S. Army in 1942, his languages (German, Spanish, Greek and some French) made him exceptional and Polgar was recruited into the OSS. Dropped behind German lines near the end of World War II, Polgar made his way to Berlin and ended up working in Germany for the OSS and its successors right through CIA, spending nearly a decade on this frontline of the Cold War. After that it was Vienna, another Cold War cockpit. Polgar’s detractors–Frank Snepp was never the only one–dubbed him “Rasputin.”

In the mid-60s he went into CIA’s Latin America Division, first at headquarters and then as station chief in Argentina. It was from there, in 1972, that Polgar was sent to Vietnam. He had no experience in Southeast Asia–but he was fluent in Hungarian and Hungary was among the member nations of the international commission that was supposed to supervise implementation of the Paris accords under which a ceasefire was instituted and the U.S. withdrew from South Vietnam. Polgar kept up his liaison with the Hungarians, and there are conflicting accounts of its impact once Saigon stood on the point of collapse in early 1975. Some maintain that myopic Hungarian optimism induced Polgar to delay the withdrawal of CIA agents and destruction of its files at Saigon station. Others argue Polgar was too close to Henry Kissinger at the White House. In any case the collapse of South Vietnam was a disaster for the agency.

Tom Polgar next went to Mexico City as station chief there, and eventually returned to CIA headquarters where he led the human resources office. He retired in 1981. When the Iran-Contra Affair began with the shootdown of a plane transporting supplies to Nicaraguan contra rebels on behalf of “private benefactors” working for the Reagan National Security Council (NSC), Tom Polgar came out of the shadows to comment in the Miami Herald, saying “I think the CIA is telling the truth that it was not involved in the flight.” Of course William J. Casey, the CIA director of that time, was involved–up to his ears–in what became the next great agency embarrassment, with some elements working directly to the Casey-NSC network, and others kept in the dark. Senator Warren Rudman of the joint committee of Congress that investigated Iran-Contra, believing they needed an insider to understand the agency, hired Tom Polgar as an investigator. Polgar was deeply troubled by the agency’s work in that affair, Rudman believed, and his work led directly to the discovery of irregularities and of a critical missing CIA cable.

The jury remains out on Tom Polgar’s exploits, but perhaps now we will hear more about them.

Senate Torture Report Update

April 5, 2014–Predictably the Senate intelligence committee has voted to release its report–or at least the executive summary thereof. But Congress is still doing the administration favors. Rather than simply put out the document, the legislators are referring it to the White House, where President Obama’s minions can delay the report even more and John Brennan’s CIA will have yet another shot at spiking it, making their case to the president that it should not see the light of day. The Senate should simply release the investigative report of its intelligence committee on its own authority.

I want to comment on the executive’s use of secrecy rules in connection with this scandal. In his March 21 message to CIA employees, Director John Brennan wrote, “I expect the Committee will submit at least some portion of the report to the CIA for classification review,” and adverted the agency would conduct that review “expeditiously.”

Where I work that promise would be taken as a joke. The National Security Archive deals with the CIA on the release of secret documents on a regular basis–and we almost never get a decision on a document in less than two years. Most CIA declassification decisions take longer than that. The notorious Family Jewels, the document at the heart of the 1975 controversy that you’ve read a lot about in this space, was released after a seventeen year fight–and then agency PR flaks took credit for the opening as if it had been their idea and not the result of a Freedom of Information Act request.

Moreover, it’s also necessary to ask what the CIA has been doing with the Senate torture report all along. The intelligence committee handed over that report in December 2012, not just for the CIA’s comments but for its declassification review. The CIA’s comments–significantly delayed beyond the sixty days in which they were to be rendered–went to the Senate intelligence committee last June. There followed a process during which the investigators and the CIA reviewed the report and revisions were made, and that process should have proceeded in tandem with the declassification. Instead Mr. Brennan’s message puts that work in the future–“the entire CIA leadership team is committed to addressing any outstanding questions or requests from SSCI members so that the Committee can complete its work and finalize the report.” Thus for the best part of a year the CIA has done nothing about declassifying the Senate report, hiding behind the excuse that the investigators’ work is not yet “final.”

How to account for this immobilisme? In a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations on March 11 Director Brennan declared, “We also owe it to the women and men who basically did their duty in executing this program to try and make sure that any historical record of it is a balanced and accurate one.” In other words the CIA is holding hostage the Senate report until the investigators agree with the agency’s spin on the events.

The CIA is welcome to put out whatever study it wants on the black prisons and torture to accommodate its faithful officers. Or it can declassify–and release– its response document to the Senate report. But the Senate investigative report is not CIA paper and the investigators’ narrative and conclusions are not properly subject to CIA control.

As has been said in this space before, this is not about national security. Nowhere in the regulations that govern secrecy and declassification does it say that documents can be kept secret to ensure that an account is “balanced and accurate.” In fact, Section 1.7 of Executive Order 13562–the secrecy regulation that is in force today–explicitly provides that no information can be kept classified to “conceal violations of law, inefficiency, or administrative error,” or to “prevent embarrassment to any person, organization, or agency.”

That is precisely what we have here. I have said before, and I repeat here, that the Senate torture report–in its entirety– should be immediately declassified and made available to the public.



April Fools at Dien Bien Phu

April 1, 2014–Sixty years on one can look back at the Dien Bien Phu crisis and see that that April Fools’ Day was destined to become one of the most significant of the entire siege. April 1, 1954 became the day that many strands of the events came together. It was a day when the French decline accelerated and its chances in the struggle darkened perceptibly.

Let’s start with the battlefield. In the high mountain valley that is Dien Bien Phu, General Vo Nguyen Giap had launched what the Viet Minh would call the second stage of their offensive. This was where the Viets, who had already captured the outlying French positions, attacked the central strongpoints right in the valley. Giap hurled his battalions at the low hills which shielded the interior of the French entrenched camp, part of strongpoints “Dominique” and “Eliane.” The fight for Eliane-2 was particularly fierce. This phase of the siege has come to be known as the “Battle of the Five Hills.” The Viet Minh captured several important positions including, for a time, the peak of Eliane-2 itself. Just the previous day desperate counterattacks had ejected the Viet Minh from the center of that position and pinned them down at its edge. The redoubtable Major Marcel Bigeard was in the thick of it. Battle raged at Dien Bien Phu and the fight for the hills would go on for days longer, but on April Fools’ Day the combat was at its fiercest.

The parachute supply drops upon which the French camp relied were being curtailed by monsoon rain, worse every day. The French command calculated on April Fools’ Day that deliveries had reached a “catastrophic” level–averaging only 60 tons over the past four days, only a fraction of the amount necessary for a robust defense.

The French Expeditionary Corps, led by General Henri Navarre, conducted the campaign through its theater command for Tonkin–northern Vietnam–under General Rene Cogny and located at Hanoi. As the siege intensified Navarre and Cogny became increasingly adversarial, each blaming the other for the predicament they were in. The Expeditionary Corps had a forward command post at Hanoi, where Navarre had arrived the previous day, only for Cogny to refuse to meet him. The commander-in-chief summoned Cogny later and the two had a furious shouting match at headquarters. On April Fools’ Day General Cogny received a letter Navarre had written before leaving Saigon. The C-in-C could easily have brought the directive with him, but chose to send it by routine courier instead. The explosion between the two generals soured their relations, which never recovered, to the detriment of desperate French soldiers at the entrenched camp.

France had sent the chief of its armed services staff, General Paul Ely, on a mission to Washington to appeal for more help for Dien Bien Phu. While Ely was in Washington his American counterpart, Admiral Arthur Radford had suggested that a U.S. air strike by B-29 heavy bombers, soon to be dubbed Operation Vulture, could break up Giap’s siege force and destroy his supplies. Ely needed to consult with Navarre about an outside intervention of such proportions. He sent aide Colonel Raymond Brohon to speak to Navarre personally. On April Fools’ Day Brohon arrived at Saigon only to discover Navarre was not there. The consultations were delayed while Brohon traveled onwards to Hanoi.

Back in Washington, Admiral Radford had made his offer without any of the other chiefs of the U.S. armed services knowing of it. Redford summoned them, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to a meeting to present his proposal. That, too, had taken place the previous day. Some of the Chiefs opposed him. Their negative views, expressed in writing, began to land on his desk on April Fools’ Day too.

The admiral had not acted in isolation. In fact the Operation Vulture project was backed by President Dwight D. Eisenhower and his secretary of state John Foster Dulles. A couple of days before Mr. Dulles had given a speech at the Overseas Press Club linking Indochina with an American threat of “massive retaliation.” At lunch on April Fools’ Day President Eisenhower entertained some top correspondents and told them he might soon have to make a decision to send planes from American aircraft carriers off the Indochina coast to bomb the Viet Minh at Dien Bien Phu. Soon afterwards Secretary Dulles phoned the president to report he was setting up a meeting with the congressional Gang of Eight to inform them of the Operation Vulture project. Meanwhile the Navy’s top officer, Admiral Robert B. Carney, cancelled a long-planned visit to his forces scattered across the Pacific–and he ordered the fleet in the Gulf of Tonkin to extend its cruise there.

Dulles and Radford were going to meet with the congressional leaders, who were certainly going to have questions. Among their principal concerns would be what allies the United States would  have for its intervention in Indochina. Washington’s most important ally in this regard was Great Britain. A few hours before his Overseas Press Club speech, Dulles and Eisenhower had met with the British ambassador to ask for London’s support. On April Fools’ Day the British foreign minister replied that “we fell it would be unrealistic not to face the possibility that the conditions for a favorable solution in Indochina may no longer exist.” Thus London, too, had been involved in this April Fools’ circus.

Dien Bien Phu would fight on for weeks longer. And the proponents of a U.S. intervention would play more cards before the game was up. Read the whole story in Operation Vulture.

Reflections on Dien Bien Phu

March 13, 2014–Sixty years ago today the Viet Minh opened their siege of Dien Bien Phu. A revolutionary movement, mostly communists but with some nationalists too, the Viet Minh were fighting for their independence from France, which had held the three states of Indochina as a French colony since the nineteenth century. The siege of Dien Bien Phu, a French entrenched camp in the northern Vietnamese mountains would go on for nearly two months, the biggest battle of the Franco-Vietnamese war, and it would mark the end of the era of French dominance in Vietnam.

I was just a kid then and had no idea of these events, much less that they would impact my life. But fast forward a decade and more and America’s Vietnam war forced everyone of my generation to take a position, to deal with a conflict that had embroiled the United States. For me that meant trying to understand how and where the Vietnam war came from and that meant starting with the French. My first serious book project–never completed–was to fashion a history of the French war in Vietnam. I chose a college I knew would afford me access to new sources on French Indochina. I learned a lot about the epochal battle of Dien Bien Phu. One of my earliest boardgame projects similarly modeled the French war. A later game, also never published, specifically centered on the battle. America had a large and mostly hidden role in the events surrounding Dien Bien Phu and I made that the subject of my second book, which I have brought back and completely updated for this occasion.

As this anniversary unfolds I shall post occasional pieces on the events of that time and some of their consequences. One of the items in my “Downloadable” section, “The Working Class Hero,” concerns one of the French military heroes of Dien Bien Phu, Marcel Bigeard, who went on to controversy in the Algerian war and ultimately rose to become chief of staff of the French army. There may be more of these pieces as well. The French honor their fallen and mark the tragic end of their Indochina adventure. Americans largely ignore “Operation Vulture” and our almost-war of that time. The Vietnamese celebrate their independence and venerate their own heroes. At a certain level Dien Bien Phu represents a last stand of the imperial powers on the road to the end of colonialism. The lessons of that time still need to be appreciated.

Remembering Roger Hilsman

March 9, 2014– Roger A. Hilsman has passed away. He passed at home, in Ithaca, two weeks ago. Hilsman was a controversial figure during the Kennedy administration. He is remembered mostly for his involvement in President John F. Kennedy’s Vietnam war decisions, but there was more to Hilsman than that. From World War II through the Johnson administration Roger Hilsman was in some interesting places at key moments. I haven’t much time today but I wanted to post at least a little bit on him.

Historians of the Vietnam war are divided over Hilsman’s role in the South Vietnamese military coup that, with United States support, overthrew the government of Ngo Dinh Diem on November 1, 1963. According to some, Hilsman and a “cabal” of other U.S. policymakers, actually engineered that American support. Others think differently, that the policy was Jack Kennedy’s and that Hilsman served merely as a loyal acolyte. (At the National Security Archive website last November, I posted an “electronic briefing book” which examines the evidence for Hilsman’s role much more closely than is possible here.) Whatever his role actually was, I can testify that Hilsman was certainly a Kennedy acolyte–I studied with him as an undergraduate student at Columbia, where he taught from 1964 to 1990, participated with him in various functions as a graduate, and we renewed our acquaintance assorted times, most recently I believe in 2005 when we were together at a Canadian forum on intelligence issues. In any case, the stories Hilsman told and the views he expressed left no doubt he was close to the Kennedy clan. It happens that Jack Kennedy’s brother Bobby numbered among those who insisted Hilsman was one of that Vietnam policy cabal. Bobby had a clear interest in moving responsibility for the Diem coup away from his brother, the president. Roger Hilsman was loyal enough to take the rap while preserving the friendship, though he squirmed under the charge. In 1967, when Bobby was positioning himself for a run for the presidency, Hilsman was among RFK’s foreign policy advisers.

Another Vietnam issue where Hilsman had a hand was in the strategic hamlet program, one of the counterinsurgency initiatives that repeatedly failed in that war. This reflected his own experiences. In the Big War, Hilsman had fought in Burma with Merrill’s Marauders, transferred to the OSS and worked to create partisan bands behind Japanese lines, the Kachin Rangers. He retained a lifelong interest in guerrilla warfare. When Kennedy came to the presidency and sought to spark U.S. government action on counterinsurgency, Hilsman edited a book excerpting writings  on the subject, one well-received at the Kennedy White House.

Hilsman’s proudest moment came in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. At that time he headed the State Department’s intelligence unit and helped interpret the evidence on Soviet missiles in Cuba for President Kennedy and Secretary of State Dean Rusk. He also served as an intermediary in the important backchannel contacts between KGB Colonel Alekandr Fomin and ABC TV correspondent John A. Scali, which began to show a path away from war. In class and in conversations Hilsman would regale his audiences with vignettes from that intense period. Asked about the Cold War for an epic television series that Turner Cable did back around the millennium, Hilsman reflected that “there’s no war that’s inevitable.” He’d be remembered more kindly, perhaps, if he had applied that same analysis to Vietnam.

The Working Class General


February 7, 2014– In connection with publication of my new book on the battle of Dien Bien Phu I’m adding a new article to the “Downloadable” list on the website. This piece focuses on one character in that story, the French officer Marcel Bigeard, who led a parachute battalion in Indochina. Of working class origins, he was colorful enough to feature in the movie The Lost Command, played by actor Anthony Quinn and modeled on the character “Pierre Raspeguy” in the Jean Larteguy novels The Centurions and The Praetorians. In the Algerian war Bigeard’s role became controversial in the Battle of Algiers and afterwards, with charges that he had had prisoners tortured, a subject that reverberates in America today as a result of CIA actions during the 9/11 era. Bigeard also fought in World War II, ending his military career as chief of staff of the French army, after which he entered politics and became a deputy in the French National Assembly. Marcel Bigeard is a fascinating character, worth more attention than I could afford to give him in Operation Vulture.

Korea 1968 Hot Document

January 27, 2014– The Electronic Briefing Book that we posted on the National Security Archive website a few days ago (EBB-453), which dealt with North Korea’s seizure of the U.S. spy ship Pueblo in January 1968 attracted a great deal of attention from South Korean media, fascinated that nuclear weapons might have featured in an American response to the crisis. The actual story is not quite what media mavens have seemed to appreciate: Nuclear weapons were mentioned as part of a planning paper prepared for the Joint Chiefs of Staff in May 1968–some months after the crisis–as part of a contingency plan for what to do if hostilities broke out on the Korean peninsula. So that readers can judge for themselves I am posting the paper here as a “hot document.”