An Unpaid Debt From the War In Vietnam
Le Van Ngung is the third name from the bottom on an innocuous 29-year-old secret report. Prepared by finance officer US Navy Lt. John D. Fussell, the report notified South Vietnamese Army Col. Tran Van Ho that as of June 1, 1967, Mr. Ngung was to be reported killed in action. Ngung was one of 13 Vietnamese covert commandos that Lt. Fussell listed as having been killed in action between June 1966 and April 1967. Fussell's report advised Col. Ho to pay death gratuities to the agents' relatives as soon as practical.Skip to next paragraph
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There is only one problem. Le Van Ngung was not dead. In fact, all 13 Vietnamese operatives on Lt. Fussell's list were alive, locked in isolation-confinement in special prisons deep inside North Vietnam and in a conspiracy of silence that would continue for nearly three decades.
Lt. Fussell based Ngung's report of death on a classified report dated three months earlier. The office that reported Ngung's death to Lt. Fussell, the same office that concurred in paying the death gratuity, was headed by Col. Robert C. Kingston. Col. Kingston's office was responsible for American-directed covert operations into North Vietnam. Kingston's operations were directed by Col. John K. Singlaub, the commander of the Military Assistance Command Studies and Observations Group (MACSOG).
According to the late former CIA director William Colby, in the fall of 1960 the CIA proposed sending teams of armed agents into North Vietnam. In the spring of 1961 the first agent went to North Vietnam by boat, a lone spy known as ARES. The following month a team of four armed agents nicknamed CASTOR, parachuted in.
Before heading to North Vietnam, the agents signed powers-of-attorney that led them and their relatives to believe that their pay would continue until they returned or end if they died. If they did not die, it would go to their next-of-kin or be escrowed until they returned.
Some 200 agents went in
By the end of 1962, nine teams of agents had parachuted into North Vietnam and several lone spies had gone ashore from large wooden junks disguised as North Vietnamese fishing boats. By the end of 1963 the CIA had sent roughly 200 agents to North Vietnam. None of them returned.
The CIA officers in Saigon learned that most of their agents were caught. Remember agent ARES? He was in reality a double-agent. Remember CASTOR? The North Vietnamese were waiting for them on the ground.
Why? In part because a high-ranking officer inside the South Vietnamese operation carrying out Mr. Colby's grand plan was another North Vietnamese agent.
In September 1995 the Socialist Republic of Vietnam placed that former agent, the mole of moles, on national television. He was former South Vietnamese Army Lt. Col. Do Van Tien. From 1961 to '63, then-Capt. Tien was the deputy chief of the South Vietnamese Army's operation with the CIA. Capt. Tien also was the officer in control of ARES.
In January 1962 the South Vietnamese, with American money, began quietly paying death gratuities to a small number of the CIA's covert operatives who had not returned. According to the Pentagon's recently declassified records, the CIA officials who would have authorized these payments were evidently aware the men had been taken prisoner. That did not matter; all were declared dead and their families were told that they had died.