An Unpaid Debt From the War In Vietnam

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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.

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).

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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.

Robert McNamara took over the covert operation in January 1964. Between January 1964 and October 1967 the Pentagon ordered another 240 agents into North Vietnam. All were declared killed in action. But, like Ngung, these commandos were taken prisoner. Most would serve at hard labor in isolation for 15 or more years, until the last agent at hard labor was released in 1987.

Why were these agents declared dead? The answer was found in documents declassified in December 1992. Col. Donald Blackburn, the MACSOG commander during 1965-66, reportedly had tired of paying the wives and relatives as stipulated in the agents' contracts for services. He directed the families be paid death benefits and the agents written off as dead.

Between 1961 and '68, at least 456 agents were lost inside North Vietnam. All these agents were declared dead - apparently to save money. Ironically, these commandos were often sent to locate and recover downed US airmen. Two commandos found and rescued two American POWs in South Vietnam. Later the commandos were denied immigration until the Defense Department intervened in 1995 and persuaded a reluctant Immigration and Naturalization Service to reverse itself.

At least 88 former South Vietnamese commandos remain in Vietnam, too impoverished to buy the documents that INS requires. At least 93 of the widows or other family survivors have been located. The first 20 applicants were rejected by INS.

One ray of sunlight is the Kerry-McCain amendment to the 1997 Defense Department budget. Approved on June 19, it provides a $20 million fund in overdue compensation. Each commando may receive $2,000 for each year incarcerated up to a maximum of $40,000 per individual. Tragically, the amendment deliberately excluded one-third of all potential claimants, the parents, and siblings of deceased commandos, more than 150 of whom were not married at the time of their death after capture. Senators John Kerry and John McCain can correct this inequity by adding the parents or siblings as claimants without having to ask for any additional funding.

On June 5, the financial history of MACSOG, 80 boxes containing about 3,000 pages each, began to be opened to public scrutiny at the National Archives in Suitland, Md. The first documents declassified included a list of the 110 agents inside North Vietnam as of January 1966. Col. Ho's report to SOG identified by an asterisk the first 28 men to be written off per Col Blackburn's wishes.

Back from the dead

Americans reported missing in action were kept in that status until reliable information was received that a person was alive or dead. That did not apply to our Vietnamese contract agents. The Vietnamese were expendable. Someone, somewhere, probably hoped they would all die. Instead, they came back from the dead.

In April 1995 the agents, through their attorney John Mattes, asked the US Court of Federal Claims in Washington to pay the agents the money due them from date of capture until date of release, in accordance with their contract to spy for the US. The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence held hearings on the issue last week and agreed to pay $40,000 to each of the commandos or their survivors.

In 1973 we closed the door on the unanswered questions about the fate of our own servicemen last reported alive. Now that we found our living agents, we have a moral responsibility to break with the failures of the past.

* Sedgwick Tourison is a retired intelligence officer and author of "Secret Army, Secret War: Washington's Tragic Spy Operation In North Vietnam," Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Md.

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