Newly declassified government documents prove that the United States, after sending hundreds of Vietnamese commandos into North Vietnam during the 1960s, deliberately declared them dead, lied to their wives and then buried their story under a shroud of secrecy.
Nearly 300 of those secret agents survived capture, torture and prison and are alive in the United States. They are asking the government for back pay - $2,000 a year, without interest, for their prison time - and help in getting 88 fellow commandos out of Vietnam.
The documents, stamped “secret” or “top secret,” were declassified last week after 14 months of news reports, diplomatic cables and legal documents supporting the commandos’ claims.
They show how the United States, after training the commandos and sending them into North Vietnam on sabotage missions, literally wrote the men off, scratching their names one by one from a classified payroll. One such document lists 13 of the commandos as dead. Ten of the 13 are alive today.
Other documents greatly exaggerated reports of the deaths of a commando team that was code-named Scorpion. Radio Hanoi announced - and the CIA recorded that Scorpion’s members were captured alive in June 1964. Nonetheless, the U.S. military declared them dead, paid their wives or families a death gratuity of about $4,000 and tried to forget about them.
“They didn’t want to remember us, because we represent the failure of the United States in Vietnam,” said Dang Cong Trinh, the team’s deputy commander, who was among those written off as dead. Dang, 52, lives in a small, barred-window, triple-locked house in Rosemead, Calif., east of Los Angeles.
“The man who crossed my name out probably was someone back in Washington, D.C., who gave the South Vietnam government the authority to say to my family: ‘Here’s your money; don’t bother us anymore,”’ said Dang, who survived 15 years of physical and mental torture in prison.
The financial records of the doomed covert operation to infiltrate North Vietnam - known as OPLAN 34-A, launched in 1961 by the Central Intelligence Agency and taken over in 1964 by the Joint Chiefs of Staff - were declassified at the request of a lawyer, John Mattes, who is seeking $11 million in back pay for the nearly 300 living commandos.
Justice Department, Army and CIA lawyers opposing the request for back pay have called the documents irrelevant. They argued in a federal claims court on Thursday that the request could be rejected because secret contracts for covert operations were unenforceable.
Their legal basis is an 1875 Supreme Court decision, Totten vs. United States, which denied the estate of a Union spy back pay for his Civil War espionage. The court said, “Both employer and agent must have understood that the lips of the other were to be forever sealed.”
If a contract with the commandos is unenforceable, the breach of faith is unconscionable, said Sen. John F. Kerry, D-Mass., a Vietnam veteran.
“We are nickel-and-diming people who put their lives on the line in our nation’s interest, whose existence we denied,” he said in an interview. “The notion that a bunch of bureaucrats and insensitive legal eagles are going to stand in the way of principle and morality is a disgrace.”
He said he would ask the Senate Armed Services Committee to find $11 million in the Pentagon’s budget for the back pay.
“Somewhere out there, there’s a golf course that can be sacrificed for principle,” he said.
In 1961, the CIA’s Saigon station, led by William E. Colby, began recruiting Vietnamese commandos, many of them Roman Catholics who fled the Communist North in the 1950s and knew the local dialects.
Those selected as airborne agents were schooled as saboteurs, trained in parachute drops and psychological warfare, and dropped into North Vietnam.
They never came back. In 1964, when colonels from the United States military’s Special Operations Group in Vietnam took over the program, they found more than 200 missing agents on the payroll. Some were dead, but many had been captured alive and shackled in prisons.
In December 1965, the payroll documents show, the colonels began crossing off the names of agents who were alive - “declaring so many of them dead each month until we had written them all off,” as Marine Col. John J. Windsor told the Joint Chiefs of Staff in a secret 1969 statement.
The military had a range of reasons and rationalizations, some less sensible than others, said Sedgwick Tourison, a former Defense Intelligence Agency analyst who wrote a book on the affair called “Secret Army, Secret War” (Naval Institute Press, 1995).
“One, we had fools running our covert operations” in Vietnam in the early 1960s, he said. “Two, we knew they had been captured, and they’d get their money if they ever came back, so if they were declared killed in action, it was no big deal. Three, we needed money for cross-border operations into Laos - so they killed off people to save money.”