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Posted at 7:10 PM ET, 07/ 6/2010

Nixon-CIA spy ploy in Vietnam backfired, new records show

By Jeff Stein

President Richard M. Nixon and his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, deliberately “leaked” word to North Vietnam that U.S. forces planned to invade Cambodia, in a failed attempt to intimidate Hanoi into retreat, declassified U.S. documents reveal.

Nixon and Kissinger also used a CIA double agent in Laos to concoct a false “leak” of U.S. plans to mine North Vietnam’s major port, Haiphong, in 1972, according to a separate set of documents, which were discovered in a new volume of Foreign Relations of the United States, the State Department's official history of the era.

But that ploy also failed to undermine North Vietnam’s resolve.

“In both of these cases the action was a covert psychological warfare ploy that was taken at the direction of the president and Kissinger and not on the initiative of the CIA," says Merle Pribbenow, a retired CIA expert on Vietnam who discovered the overlooked documents in State Department records.

The documents have never been written about, Pribbenow said.

“In both cases, the information was provided clandestinely by double agents who fed the information to North Vietnamese officials, claiming that they had obtained the information surreptitiously or fortuitously,” Pribbenow added.

"The idea was to make the North Vietnamese believe that they had obtained advance knowledge of a planned U.S. operation in order to frighten them into pulling their forces back, but in both cases the Nixon administration then went ahead and carried out the action,” Pribbenow said.

"The end result was that, not only were the North Vietnamese not frightened out of doing what Nixon wanted to scare them out of doing, Nixon unintentionally gave them advance warning of what the U.S. was about to do.”

The ploy, in short, ended up foiling Nixon’s main goal for invading Cambodia: to annihilate Hanoi’s command post for staging attacks on South Vietnam.

“I have to say that when I read these documents I was absolutely appalled,” said Pribbenow, who spent 27 years in the CIA as a Vietnamese language and operations officer. “I have never been a big fan of psychological warfare and covert propaganda, as I think it is mostly just a waste of time and money, but in this case it could have cost us more than just time and money.”

Pribbenow and other Vietnam scholars said was impossible to say with certitude whether the disinformation attempts resulted in increased U.S. casualties.

“No U.S. aircraft were lost on 9 May 1972, when the mining of Haiphong Harbor occurred, so there certainly were no U.S. casualties from that warning,” Pribbenow said.

But in regard to Cambodia, the picture is muddier, said Pribbenow and historian John Prados, author of several books on the Vietnam War and the CIA.

Tipping Hanoi about American plans to invade Cambodia “might have” caused additional U.S. casualties, Prados said. Casualties “increased significantly” during the two months preceding the April 29, 1970 invasion, he noted, and “spiked” in May.

The Nixon-Kissinger ploy probably foiled any chance to destroy North Vietnam’s command post in Cambodia -- known by its acronym COSVN, the Central Office for the War in Vietnam -- which Nixon repeatedly cited as his goal for the invasion.

“If they were being explicit about invading Cambodia, it would have allowed them to move COSVN and to prepare the battlefield for the invasion,” Prados said in an interview.

“The effort to intimidate Hanoi ahead of the invasion of Cambodia would certainly have helped the North Vietnamese prepare for it more successfully than if it had been more of a surprise,” agreed Gareth Porter, author of “Peace Denied: United States, Vietnam and the Paris Agreement,” among other histories of the war.

Pribbenow added a further damning detail. After analyzing a Vietnamese-language account of the operation, he said that the Nixon-Kissinger ploy probably prompted the communists to move COSVN only hours before a “massive B-52 strike.”

“There is no explanation of why that particular time was chosen to leave,” he added, “but it is quite possible that the decision to move was either caused or at least influenced by the Nixon-directed warning.”

“It looks like a couple of classic cases of the left hand not knowing what the right hand is doing,” Pribbenow said.

“In the Cambodian case, when the order to pass the [false] information was given, no one had any plan to send U.S. troops into Cambodia -- the plan was only to use South Vietnamese troops in selected areas -- and not against COSVN.

"And indeed," Pribbenow continued, "CIA Director Richard Helms suggested 10 days before the Cambodian invasion that to improve the [disinformation agent’s] ‘credibility,’ the U.S. should consider sending ‘selected’ U.S. troops up to points near the Cambodian border to make it appear as if the story was true. “

“Nixon did not make the decision to send U.S. troops into Cambodia until several days later,” Pribbenow added, “but apparently forgot to tell the agency to call off the operation, with the result that we ended up unintentionally giving the North Vietnamese advance warning of the upcoming attack on COSVN.”

Sowing dissent in Hanoi

The documents also reveal a CIA operation that employed a double agent in North Vietnam’s ruling circles to plant false information about a nonexistent antiwar faction in Hanoi’s politburo.

“I was especially fascinated by the stuff on trying to convince North Vietnamese that the U.S. was in touch with a dissident faction,” said Porter.

“I’m not so sure that one played so well, simply because of the [Hanoi’s] consensus on prosecuting the war strategy, at least in broad outlines. They wouldn't have believed that that there were Central Committee guys ready to give in to the U.S. “

Porter called the CIA’s plan “the usual self-delusions at work -- all familiar territory by now.”

Indeed, a memo from George A. Carver, then-CIA Director Helms’s special assistant for Vietnam, reported that things hadn’t gone so well with that operation.

“Our project to convince the Hanoi leadership that the U.S. government is in clandestine communication with a high-level dissident faction within North Vietnam hit a snag when our double agent … muffed his lines in a 22 May session with the North Vietnamese intelligence officer with whom he has been in contact,” Carver wrote to Richard T. White, a National Security Council staffer at the time.

”Unfortunately, at the point in the conversation, where the agent was to allude to information about American contact with dissidents allegedly provided by the agent’s notional ‘American friend’ (the purported source of the earlier data on mining), the agent strayed from his prepared script and the North Vietnamese did not pick up the point or pursue it.”

Carver pleaded that double agent operations were “tricky.”

”As you recognize, structuring this kind of disinformation in a manner that whets the target’s appetite and remains plausible is a tricky proposition, which cannot be rushed, and which is always subject to the vagaries of chance and human nature,” he told White.

“We will keep you advised of progress as it occurs.”

Neither Kissinger nor White could not be reached for comment.

By Jeff Stein  | July 6, 2010; 7:10 PM ET
Categories:  Foreign policy, Intelligence, Military  
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Read the book "Matterhorn" by Karl Marlantes if you want to know what was going on while Nixon and Kissinger were making their decisions about this war.

Posted by: cms1 | July 6, 2010 7:51 PM | Report abuse

During the many years of that sensless war, many people on both sides lost their lives while the US Administration tried to coverup the atrocities. For years they claimed we never invaded Cambodia and Laos. But now we find out that Nixon and Kissinger were telling the truth to the enemy and lying to the American people. That is just plain sad. These Masters of War, and all the current ones, will get their due.

Posted by: DanB7 | July 6, 2010 8:16 PM | Report abuse

History repeats itself in Obama's current iteration of senseless, endless expanding wars. And so it goes.

Posted by: horace1 | July 6, 2010 9:39 PM | Report abuse

I think there's a nugget here that you don't follow up on, but would be worth a more serious examination:

“In both of these cases the action was a covert psychological warfare ploy that was taken at the direction of the president and Kissinger and not on the initiative of the CIA," says Merle Pribbenow, a retired CIA expert on Vietnam who discovered the overlooked documents in State Department records."

Can Merle Pribbenow give us some examples of CIA operations that weren't "taken at the direction of the president?"

I suppose he means this was an example of where the White House inserted it's own tactical judgment rather than outline the strategic goals and leave it to CIA to employ its own tactical judgment. But it raises a question that should be clear to everyone: How much independent initiative does CIA or any other intelligence branch have absent strategic authorization from the White House? I think the answer -- except when operations go badly -- is "none." Does anyone seriously think otherwise?

Posted by: hippolito | July 7, 2010 6:37 AM | Report abuse

Nixon and Kissinger committed treason. They provided the enemy with material "aid and comfort".

Posted by: aahpat | July 7, 2010 9:21 AM | Report abuse

I guess Tricky Dick wasn't as tricky as he thought he was.

Posted by: anti-elitist | July 7, 2010 10:36 AM | Report abuse

I wonder if it was Kissinger who made that brilliant plan for the IDF to attack the Freedom Flotilla. Ha ha!

Posted by: trailingbegonia | July 8, 2010 10:43 PM | Report abuse

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