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Don't Ask; Don't Tell

IRREPARABLE HARM: A Firsthand Account of How One Agent Took on the CIA in an Epic Battle Over Secrecy and Free Speech;\o7 By Frank Snepp; (Random House: 464 pp., $26.95)\f7

July 11, 1999|SEYMOUR M. HERSH | Seymour M. Hersh is the author of numerous books, including "'My Lai 4" and "The Dark Side of Camelot." He is a former investigative reporter for the New York Times

Frank Snepp had all the classic ingredients of a successful CIA operative. He was brilliant, manipulative and disinclined to trust others. He also had the courage and the integrity to risk his career for the truth, and in 1977 published "Decent Interval," a scathing critique of the CIA's bumbling, lying and arrogance in the last months of the Vietnam War. Snepp, who served as an intelligence analyst in Saigon, betrayed no names, no operations and no significant intelligence information. It was his finest moment.

It changed nothing. The institution issued a series of blanket denials and rode out the brief public outcry. Snepp was assailed in public not for betraying secrets but for violating a fiduciary trust. He was accused of lying about his intentions to the men in charge and falsely assuring them that he would submit the book for security review before publication. The CIA took its battle to the federal courts and won across the board. Snepp was compelled to return all profits from "Decent Interval" to the U.S. Treasury and further ordered to present all of his future writings, including fiction, to the CIA for prior review.

Now, more than 20 years after the fact, Snepp gives us "Irreparable Harm," his account of the lost battle. It's the same old Frank Snepp--self-pitying, with little charity for others, yet capable of excruciating honesty. I'm still agog over his attempted manipulation of me at the time "Decent Interval" was published, as described in his new book, but then--and now--his character defects seem trivial when contrasted to the importance of his message and the government's successful drive, with the help of the federal courts, to behead the messenger.

Snepp's main revelation in "Decent Interval" was that the CIA had betrayed thousands of its employees and collaborators in South Vietnam by failing to evacuate them before the North Vietnamese onslaught that ended the war in May 1975. The CIA's men and women in the field had been left behind, Snepp wrote, because those in charge--including the American ambassador, the CIA station chief, and Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger--had disregarded intelligence showing that the North Vietnamese would directly attack Saigon. Until the furor over his book, the American leadership had maintained that the last-minute evacuation of more than 50,000 Vietnamese was a success. But Snepp accused senior CIA officials of failing to take care of their own by helicoptering away from agency outposts without destroying sensitive documents and without arranging for the evacuation of all. Many of those left behind spent years in Communist reeducation camps.

Snepp went beyond the evacuation failure to provide a devastating account of day-to-day CIA operations during the war. He wrote of highly classified intelligence that was routinely declassified--if favorable to the official position--and made available to visiting delegations of congressmen. He also told of the one-for-one prisoner exchange that was rejected in 1971 at the agency's recommendation because the American involved, a foreign service officer named Douglas K. Ramsey, was seen as too low-level. A second trade proposal the next year involving Ramsey was rejected, Snepp wrote, because his CIA superiors feared that Ramsey had somehow learned of the earlier offer and, once released, would tell the world about it, provoking an anti-CIA backlash. Ramsey spent seven years in captivity.

Little of this would have been known without Snepp. "Decent Interval," about which I wrote a long account in the New York Times in November 1977, a few days before its official publication, was an astonishing first book--brilliantly argued and elegantly written. Saigon's last days made vivid reading.

Frank Snepp's last days as recounted in "Irreparable Harm," aren't nearly as much fun to read. For one thing, as an obsessively detailed account of what happens to a CIA whistle blower, it's bad for my business. In Snepp's version, guys like him tell their story to guys like me, get their 15 minutes of fame, a few television appearances, maybe a book contract and then slowly recede into oblivion, saying more and more and being listened to less and less. Here is Snepp's description, circa 1978, of his first meeting with ex-agent Victor Marchetti, who broke with the CIA and published a devastating expose at the height of the Vietnam War: "[T]he potbellied munchkin with the double chin and Buddy Holly glasses who greeted me was so unrelentingly pathetic that I found myself mumbling apologies for even disturbing his evening."

And yet, it was Marchetti who gave Snepp the most accurate and heartfelt description of what was to come. At the end of their first meeting, writes Snepp, Marchetti "embraced me hard. 'From now on,' he said, 'You're gonna be an outlaw, a gunslinger all by yourself. And every time you walk down the street there's gonna be somebody waitin' to take a shot at you.' "

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