We made a promise, and then broke it Vietnamese commandos being denied their due.

June 30, 1996|By Jeff Stein

ALMOST 30 YEARS have passed since I was a spy trainee at the U.S. Army's Intelligence School at Fort Holabird, but I can still recall the instructor's solemn lecture on how to manage our contracts with secret agents.

"The promise you make to your agent is your bond. It's your word," the instructor declared. The gist of it was that honoring contracts with agents was not only good management, but the agent handler's solemn duty. In the nether-world of spies, the handshake of the agent handler was a contract by the U.S. government, albeit a secret one. Indeed, many contracts were ++ even put into writing (with the United States holding the only copy, of course). The worse thing you could do was abandon a deserving agent who had risked his life for you.

Well, silly me! It turns out that the U.S. spymasters began dropping the names of our South Vietnamese agents from the employment rolls after they'd disappeared during commando missions into North Vietnam in the 1960s. Their families were told they were dead and their salaries stopped -- even if confirmation was lacking or we knew they were alive.

Now some of these men have come back from the grave, so to speak, popping up in the United States after surviving years of prison and "re-education" in North Vietnam. You'd think that the Pentagon and CIA would be overjoyed to find their brothers-in-arms alive. But no. Even though all the men want is their back pay and promised benefits, U.S. securocrats, in an astounding display of crass ingratitude, won't hand them over, on the lawyerly basis that clandestine contracts are unenforceable.

This is taking "plausible denial" a step way too far. It's one thing for the CIA or Pentagon to deny a secret agent's connection with us during a war; or in the midst of a delicate diplomatic situation. It's another thing entirely to deny him (or her) back pay when they've escaped years of prison and torture. The CIA will reap a rush of foreign agent applicants with that policy, for sure.

On the face of it, it's an ironic, if not laughable, idea that honor exists among spies. And to tell the truth, a lot of the promises made by case officers (as they're called in the trade) are never delivered because they're unrealistic.

A common promise, for example, is that a spy will be extracted from danger and resettled if he (or she) comes under suspicion. Fat chance: In the former Soviet Union and other communist states, a suspected spy was almost always rolled up and executed before the Americans had any inkling of trouble. The Russian agents sold out by CIA turncoat Aldrich Ames, for example, never heard the KGB's footsteps coming. Similarly, in places like Iran, Iraq, and Syria, a suspected spy is a dead man walking -- unless they want to hold him for a swap with one of theirs that we've picked up.

Just as resettlement is often moot, so too, are the bank accounts and college educations that case officers routinely promise their agents will await their spouses and children in the event they're captured. Totalitarian governments that dispense justice with midnight arrests and firing squads are not in the habit of allowing a condemned spy's family to emigrate. The clandestine "exfiltration" of an arrested spy's family from a police state may be a promise the CIA will make, but find impossible to carry out.

So what is a realistic promise to a secret agent? Simple: They live, we give. If an agent survives a communist death camp and has the pluck to show up on our shores, he gets paid.

That doesn't seem so difficult an idea, yet it's one that the Justice Department, carrying over dirty water from the CIA and the Pentagon, has denied to the wretched Vietnamese souls who had the temerity to outlive the communists and show up in the Land of the Free.

Free, indeed. The back pay the United States solemnly promised to pay these men and their families, however, comes to about $40,000 each. That's less than the average Army general spends warming up his military jet for a weekend of golf.

Recently, two Vietnam vets in the U.S. Senate, John Kerry, Democrat of Massachusetts, and John McCain, Republican of Arizona, wrote a quick amendment to the military funding bill pay the men.

These Vietnamese lost their country -- and by all appearance, their one-time American friends.

Jeff Stein is the author of "A Murder in Wartime: The Untold Spy Story that Changed the Course of the Vietnam War."

Pub Date: 6/30/96

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