New Vietnam Spy Tale Sheds Light on How the U.S. Lost the War

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A documentary about the fall of Saigon puts America's current wars in perspective. AFP/Getty

Vietnam unfurled a massive celebration on Thursday to mark the 40th anniversary of the end of its long war with the United States. Thousands of soldiers, sailors, police, firefighters and students marched through the streets of Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, brandishing flags and flowers. On the steps of Reunification Palace, once the grandiose home of South Vietnam’s U.S.-backed president, honors were bestowed on aging “heroes of the revolution.”

One of the missing heroes was Pham Chuyen, a little-known but key player in the “American war,” as the Vietnamese call it. The old Communist spy died peacefully in his bed last November at the age of 93. Pham’s death, in his ramshackle home southeast of Hanoi, passed without fanfare outside Vietnam, unlike those of some of his more illustrious comrades who managed to infiltrate the highest levels of the South Vietnamese government.  

Yet according to a four-part series published in an obscure Hanoi military journal in April, Pham was a key double agent in an operation that led to the capture or deaths of scores of CIA and U.S. military–controlled spies for nearly a decade during the war. A translation of the series was provided to Newsweek by Merle Pribbenow, a 27-year CIA veteran who has spent his post-agency years translating Vietnamese Communist materials for the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars in Washington, D.C.

Reported here for the first time outside of Vietnam, the series draws partially on two books by American experts published decades ago. But in declassifying some of its wartime documents, Hanoi sheds new light on how its intelligence service was able to neutralize virtually every spying operation mounted against it by the CIA and, later, a top-secret U.S. military outfit known by its acronym MACV-SOG, or Military Assistance Command Vietnam/Studies and Observations Group. “[From 1961 to 1970], our security forces used the spies that the CIA sent into North Vietnam to lure the CIA into sending equipment and many more commando teams into North Vietnam,” said the report in An Ninh The Gioi (World Security). “We killed or captured all of these spies and commandos.”

Many were lured into traps by Pham, a North Vietnamese exile in Saigon. The CIA recruited him in 1961 to return north and spy on his homeland. Yet not long after landing by boat at the port of Hai Phong, he was quickly captured and turned into a double agent by North Vietnam’s Public Security Bureau, a powerful and fearsome intelligence service modeled on the Soviet KGB.  

The CIA and Pentagon have previously acknowledged that nearly all their operations inside North Vietnam in the 1960s were quickly compromised. One secret program run by the U.S. military’s Saigon-based Studies and Observations Group tried to capitalize on that, according to a 1999 book, The Secret War Against Hanoi, by national security historian Richard H. Shultz Jr. The unit parachuted captured Communist troops back into North Vietnam with incriminating documents and maps sewn into their clothing, sometimes without their knowledge, counting on them to be caught. “The idea was to make the North Vietnamese think we had vast spy nets operating up there,” a former MACV-SOG operative, Wayne Tvrdik, tells Newsweek. Most of the men sent north were captured and executed.

For years, the extent of Pham’s role and even his true allegiance remained a mystery, at least to one U.S. intelligence operative involved in the operation. “Sure, I knew him,” the late Sedgwick Tourison, a former U.S. military intelligence agent in Saigon, wrote in his 1995 book, Secret Army, Secret War. “We recruited him to send him back to North Vietnam in 1961. He was still in contact with us until at least 1969, and I was never sure if he was working for us or for North Vietnam.”

But a senior former CIA operations officer in Saigon tells Newsweek that he had concluded early on that Pham—code-named “ARES”—had been turned into a double agent. “ARES was a singleton agent infiltrated into North Vietnam by the agency,” says Walter McIntosh, a former chief of Vietnam operations for the CIA. “He was taken over by MACV-SOG, which failed to detect that [he] had fallen under North Vietnamese control.” McIntosh recalls that he was so certain Pham had been doubled that he refused to assist the military unit on any more resupply missions to him. “I wrote a 12-page dispatch citing the evidence of ARES being in NVN control and what special stuff had been compromised,” he says. His warnings evidently bounced off MACV-SOG operators, who continued to believe in Pham, McIntosh says. As a result, “12 men died while [delivering] him a resupply of agent material” in North Vietnam.

According to World Security’s account, Pham’s handlers in Hanoi concocted over 300 phony intelligence reports for him to send to Saigon, including misleading map coordinates for missile sites, bridges, rail lines, factories and other top targets of U.S. warplanes. They also devised clever radio methods to dampen any suspicion in Saigon that Pham was under Communist control and transmitted fake reports on how their supposed spy was narrowly avoiding capture. Meanwhile, Pham’s regular reports that his equipment had been captured prompted MACV-SOG to send more resupply missions north, which always ended in the death or capture of their men.

One installment of Hanoi’s needling account is called “10 Years of Leading the CIA Around by the Nose,” implying that Pham was some kind of master spy. In reality, he was just a lump of clay, first in the hands of the Americans and then North Vietnam’s spy agency.

His unlikely path to espionage stardom began with his disenchantment with North Vietnam’s brand of Communism in the late 1950s. He was a disgruntled newspaper reporter and folk singer, and his public grousing soon attracted the attention of security officials. After he also was discovered carrying on an extramarital affair, he was ousted from his local Communist Party chapter. “Because of his acts of opposition,” says the new account from Hanoi, according to Pribbenow’s translation, “we had planned to prosecute him, but Chuyen fled and disappeared in July or August 1959.”

He arrived in Saigon in 1960, at a time when the CIA and U.S. military spy agencies, in concert with a top-secret intelligence unit in the South Vietnamese president’s office, were gearing up for ambitious sabotage and espionage operations against the north. Potential agents were in demand, so Pham’s arrival from North Vietnam quickly drew their attention. Facing few alternatives, he apparently couldn’t resist their recruitment pitch.

In the first week of April 1961, Pham was dispatched north, landing in a fishing hamlet on the coast about 35 miles southeast of Hanoi. A villager quickly noticed the unfamiliar boat, according to the World Security account. “The residents also occasionally saw a stranger who looked like Pham Chuyen hiding in the forested hills of La Khe Hamlet. Then one of our secret informants…reported that he had gone to the home of Chuyen’s mother.”

Engaged in conversation by the local spy, Pham dropped his guard, telling him “the truth, that he had returned to conduct operations” against North Vietnam. A few days later, the security forces rolled him up, along with his radio and other spy materials. Carefully handled by his captors, Pham was turned into a double agent.

If there’s any master spy in the story, it’s Pham’s handler, Nguyen Tai, who was immortalized by former CIA analyst Frank Snepp in his unauthorized 1977 memoir, Decent Interval. Nguyen was a top Communist spy in the Saigon area from 1966 to 1970, when his South Vietnamese and CIA agents captured him and subjected him to relentless and often brutal interrogation. Over five years, he repeatedly frustrated his agents with a cascading series of cover stories that camouflaged his true identity and the names of his fellow spies. With Communist forces closing in on Saigon in the spring of 1975, Snepp speculated, his interrogators murdered him in his cell.

But “Snepp was wrong,” Pribbenow wrote on the CIA’s website in 2007. “The prisoner survived.” Liberated by his countrymen, he “went on to other important positions” after the war’s end, “including elected member of the reunified nation of Vietnam's National Assembly,” Pribbenow wrote. And in 2002, the revolutionary government honored him with its highest title, “Hero of the People's Armed Forces.” Among his accolades: He had directed the brilliant Pham double agent operation during its first three years. Snepp says he updated his book to include Nguyen's survival in 2002.

Pribbenow says the failed torture of Nguyen should serve as a warning to CIA interrogators tasked with breaking today’s committed Muslim radicals, among other fanatics. “I am not a moralist. War is a nasty business, and one cannot fight a war without getting one's hands dirty,” he wrote in 2007. “There are limits, however, beyond which we cannot and should not go if we are to continue to call ourselves Americans.”

But Pham’s story should stand as an advisory opinion for those who say the CIA has little to show for its spying operations against the likes of China, Iran and ISIS, Pribbenow suggests. Like those “hard targets,” North Vietnam had vast internal security networks and informants on every block. It “was a nightmare for anyone trying to conduct clandestine operations of any kind,” Pribbenow says. Hanoi had “public security and ‘militia/self-defense’ organizations that extended down to the village and hamlet level.” Plus, “everyone knew everyone else, and when a stranger appeared, everyone quickly knew about it.” The same holds for China, Iran and territory held by ISIS.

If Pham had any regrets about helping the Communists he once despised kill agents from the south, where he had hoped to live, he never showed it. In fact, no one except his brothers and sisters knew about his spying life until a few days before he died, according to the account in World Security.

He died amazed that Tourison, one of the Americans he had been closest to in Saigon, still wasn’t sure which side he had been on. “That is truly incredible,” Pham wrote in a private memoir for his intelligence service. “This means that Tourison and the CIA in South Vietnam were defeated by North Vietnamese Public Security and that the United States was defeated by the Democratic Republic of Vietnam.”

Newsweek national security correspondent Jeff Stein is the author of A Murder in Wartime: The Untold Spy Story That Changed the Course of the Vietnam War (St. Martin’s Press, 1992).

Correction: A previous version of this story mistakenly referred to MACV-SOG as the Military Assistance Command Vietnam/Special Operations Group. It is the Military Assistance Command Vietnam/Studies and Observations Group.