Military Intelligence in Southeast Asia, 1970- 1975

by Sedgwick Tourison

Many Americans have said that military intelligence is an oxymoron. In 1966 I asked a Vietnamese Communist defector, a magazine publisher, for his comments on how the rank and file Viet Cong viewed military intelligence. The cadre laughed.

"None of us ever see the military intelligence people doing anything. They just seem to sit along the road and count trucks."

The cadre was right and he was wrong. The Vietnamese Communist intelligence service, both military and civilian, was, and still is, quite adept at disguising who is who, who is doing what, what they are doing, when are they doing it and what is the end objective of what they are doing. That is a trademark of a professional intelligence service.

In the case of the Viet Cong truck counter, he just sat out in the open and counted trucks. Another way to do the same would be to ask your friend to count the trucks for you and report that information to you. If you have enough friends and they covered a wide enough area, your little network of friends could report to you about all the trucks in a given area. The sum of their information could give a fairly reliable index of just what was happening to the unit to which all the trucks belonged, just for beginners.

Another way to get the same information is to piggyback yourself onto a group that is already collecting the information you want. The Central Intelligence Agency and the Defense Department have done that for years through relationships established with friendly foreign intelligence services. One problem with such arrangements is that you often lack the ability to ensure a uniform quality in the information you receive. Another problem is you must take into account the reality that the foreign government providing you the information often has its own foreign policy agendas and world visions quite the opposite from your own and their information may be slanted to suit their needs, not yours. This was certainly true during the Vietnam War.

Duplication. That is another word often associated with intelligence. Duplication. Report after report that seems to say the same thing and this gets to a problem faced by those who need information; when is enough, enough?

Satellite imagery seems to provide a lot of answers, but not all; satellites can not see through walls. Intercepting and decrypting a foreign nation's electronic signals also tells you a lot. Intercepted signals not only give you the information being transmitted but you can learn a lot about the level of technology being used to send, and encrypt, that information. All too often the information you may intercept and decrypt tells you about things that already happened, not things that will happen in the future. Spies can be helpful in that regard because it is people who create the plans of tomorrow. But, if your job is to recruit spies, it does not take a rocket scientist to realize that it is next to impossible to predict who will be the person that will be in a position to answer the great unknowns in the future.

When all is said and done, the information from spies, from satellites, from intercepted information, and yes, even from truck counters, may seem to be too much of the same thing, particularly when everyone reports essentially the same information. In fact, when one takes a look at much of the information collected through the more sophisticated means, much of it may duplicate what is called "open source" information, meaning information readily available to the average person on the street through from books, television, Internet, foreign newspapers, foreign magazines, professional journals, all relatively free for the asking. Plus, they are a lot less hazardous and a lot less costly than the sophisticated hi-tech equipment that seems to cost more than the national debt.

But, how reliable is the information floating around for the asking and is it true or is it false? Answering that question usually leads to inevitable duplication as different groups of information collectors are brought to bear on a problem that feeds information to a process known as intelligence analysis.

During the Vietnam War, for example, there was relatively little "open source" information exiting North Vietnam and the Communist controlled areas inside Laos and Cambodia. And, what information did exit those areas, had been carefully examined prior to publication to ensure it contained little of substantive value to a foreign intelligence service.

Thirty years ago the problems the military intelligence community faced in Southeast Asia were formidable. We did not have satellites, pilotless drones were still in the future, our communications intelligence was often limited by the terrain in Vietnam and the low power of the enemy's transmitters, computers were still in their infancy and highly sensitive programs such as the SR-71 Blackbird high altitude reconnaissance aircraft were so compartmented that few people had access to their information. Except the Russians, of course, who in 1961 shot down Francis Gary Powers AND got him, AND his U-2, and its cameras, and film. Then, that told them a lot about us at a time we were trying to find out more about them.

By 1966, based on my own personal experience and the experience of many military intelligence colleagues, a lot of information was reaching intelligence analysts concerned with Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. In fact, so much information was coming to the analysts that the challenge was to separate the wheat from the chaff, to be able to wade through mountains of information for those nuggets that would help solve the analyst's puzzle. Computers have helped us a lot with that problem.

As many of us said at the time, there was no lack of intelligence during the Vietnam War; there was an intelligence information glut, too much information and too few people who knew what it meant and how to use it. Of course, by the time an analyst learned what was happening, his or her one year tour was up and the analytical puzzle was temporarily sidetracked as a new analyst with no overlap with the departing analyst had to learn from scratch.

I mentioned earlier about duplication. To some, duplication might seem unnecessary. But, when you are challenged to solve a particular intelligence puzzle, you employ all the resources at your disposal. There is no one source of information that is so reliable and so predictable that it can be counted on to solve every puzzle, every time. Add to that such problems as disinformation and deception and it becomes obvious that some duplication is necessary. Where some in the intelligence community has had problems is in defining how much duplication is acceptable and when is enough, enough.

And so it was during the Vietnam War that military intelligence units received identical questions to answer. One of the units was a small detachment in Bangkok, Thailand, known as Detachment K of the U.S. Army's 500th Military Intelligence Group. Many of the archival operational files of Detachment K were recently opened in response to Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests and most of its operations can now be talked about, although some details in its files will not be open before the year 2001.

Detachment K's operations can be traced to its birth in Thailand shortly following the signing of the 1954 Geneva Accords. From that point until the later 1960s, Detachment K provided the Thai Army with a limited amount of intelligence training, although its primary effort at the outset was in the field of counterintelligence, looking for potential threats to, or among, our own forces based in Thailand.

Any scholar familiar with the history of Southeast Asia is well aware that Thailand was an accessible and relatively safe haven for many of the Vietnamese Communist revolutionaries who so bedeviled the French in Indochina prior to 1954. Records released by the French intelligence service for the period of the 1930s reveal that the French were able to learn, and report, information about high level activities of the Indochinese Communist Party in Thailand within days of the events taking place, a certain indication that the French had reliable agents inside the Communist party.

The Vietnamese community in Thailand grew and many within its ranks were willing to support the aims of objectives of the Vietnamese Communist party. This gave the Thai and American governments reasonable security concerns as the American military presence grew inside Thailand in the 1960s, often at Thai air bases adjacent to large communities of Vietnamese. The Thai also faced an expanding internal security problem from Thai trained in the People's Republic of China, their movement across Laos supported by a joint Pathet Lao/North Vietnamese Army special command. The aims of these Thai dissidents was to overthrow the government of the Kingdom of Thailand, or at least to make it appear that way.

The 500th Military Intelligence Group, based in Hawaii, was the U.S. Army's information collection force that covered the Pacific through field detachments in Thailand, Vietnam, the Philippines, Taiwan and Japan. These detachments worked with local friendly military forces, providing limited training to them while using the local host's natural presence and knowledge of the area to launch what are termed bilateral operations, one spinoff of the type of arrangements with friendly foreign military services that I mentioned early. The 500th Group operated in Vietnam until October 1965 when the 525th Military Intelligence Group arrived to relieve the 500th Group of the increasingly heavy demand for information to support arriving American forces.

The drawing up in Saigon in 1966 of contingency plans for a American withdrawal from Vietnam meant the need to begin to prepare to monitor the pace of Communist activities through Southeast Asia. Within Vietnam, the 525th MI Group responded with instructions to prepare for agent stay-behind operations, should a withdrawal take place. Within Thailand, however, the 500th Group's Detachment K was under little pressure to expand.

The elections of October 1968 and the moves toward Vietnamization by the Nixon administration brought concurrent moves to begin a process of moving toward normalization of relations with China. This occurred as Chinese military forces were building a road across northern Laos toward Thailand and Chinese antiaircraft and military engineer forces were deployed across the width of extreme northern Vietnam, largely north of the 19th parallel, and with some miliary advisors in South Vietnam. With Chinese training to Thai Communist dissidents creating domestic insurgency problems within Thailand, Detachment K's presence in Thailand was seen by the U.S. Army's Pacific Command as a readily available resource that could be used to assess the threats to the expanding U.S. military presence in Thailand. To compound questions about China's role and future plans and intentions, the Cultural Revolution of the mid-1960s brought anarchy to many parts of China.

By the end of the 1960s, intelligence questions being sent to Detachment K had transformed the detachment into the second largest of the group detachments, second only to Detachment N in Japan. As the decade ended, Detachment K embarked on an expanded effort to create a new series of bilateral intelligence operations with the Thai as a means of answering the many intelligence requirements from within Thailand, the Pacific Command and Washington.

For example, as one means of answering some of the unknowns about the People's Republic of China, Detachment K established early-on a joint operation in 1963 with the Thai to conduct espionage into China. The purpose of this effort was to identify Chinese units and activities that could, or were, threatening American interests in Thailand and Laos. Those who went into China were Chinese often native to the area where they were to operate. To evaluate the reliability of those who agreed to return to China, analysts could compare the information these from agents and verified by closeup photographs of military targets taken by the agents using small handheld cameras, against aerial photography of ground targets collected by American overflights of China. The detachment also worked for years attempting to identify Chinese who could legally travel to China and might prove to be lucrative agents. None were identified and this detachment operation was finally cancelled.

The Cultural Revolution led many Chinese to flee the upheaval of the mid-1960s. Many walked overland across Burma and Laos to reach a safe haven inside Thailand. When the Chinese crossed into Thailand, alert members of the Thai Border Patrol Police often met them and escorted them to debriefing centers supported by the CIA. The U.S. Army's need for information the CIA was not reporting soon led to an agreement to permit Detachment K to establish Project 5310-02-E in order to collect the accessible military information about southern China. By 1971, some refugees were recruited as agents and agreed to return to China, the objective being to collect information and attempt to recruit agents who would operate inside China. All too often, the agents who were recruited and returned to China to collect information and recruit agents brought back only information but no new agents. By 1974 this project was terminated due to a lack of prospective sources.

In the summer of 1970, the Army Attache in Vientiane, Laos, Col. Ed Duskin, asked the U.S. Army's Assistant Chief of Staff for Intelligence, Maj. Gen. Joseph A. McChristian, to dispatch a team of human intelligence experts to Laos. Concurrent with the team's dispatch that summer, the American Embassy in Bangkok asked that this team evaluate certain human intelligence activities conducted jointly with the Thai Communist Suppression Operations Command. I was a member of the survey team in question and my portion of the survey looked at interrogation operations and captured document exploitation in both countries. As a result of the three month survey, the CIA agreed that Detachment K could expand its efforts on a limited basis, both within Thailand and Laos, but under the very close monitoring of the CIA.

In March 1971, I arrived in Laos as the first Army interrogation officer and was assigned on paper as an Assistant Army Attache. My actual duties were to work with the Royal Lao Army Headquarters G-2 interrogation center at Vientiane and the G- 2 staff of Military Region 5 which had territorial responsibility for the area surrounding Vientiane. That summer, Major Henry DuRant arrived as the team chief for what was then termed the Laos Exploitation Team, Project 5310-03.

From the CIA's perspective, Laos was their turf. The CIA did not want U.S. military intelligence mucking around in their domain. Laos was, and still is, an underpopulated country. One way the CIA controlled things in 1970 was to make sure the agency identified everyone in Laos who might be of value and then politely informed military intelligence that they, the CIA, had already developed an interest in the individual. This turf battle kept nearly all U.S. military intelligence out of Laos until the Laos Exploitation Team arrived. In the mid-1960s, for example, the covert operations group based in Saigon and known as MACSOG attempted to establish its own effort out of Laos. Its officer arrived in Vientiane and was promptly put on the next plane heading out of country.

The function of the Laos Exploitation Team was to work through the Royal Lao Army to get every scrap of information available from prisoners, defectors, captured documents, and captured equipment. The CIA was trying to do the same, but lacked the trained resources to do the job as effectively as the U.S. military. Of course, if the CIA needed someone, they would recruit the individual from the U.S.military by making him an offer he could not refuse.

In the case of the Laos Exploitation Team, the CIA Station in Vientiane closely monitored our operations until satisfied that our efforts in Laos were truly supportive of the agency's mission in Laos and not designed to open a back door for military espionage.

By 1972 the Laos Exploitation Team had grown to five Americans and five local employees. The American component included an American team chief; a senior interrogation officer, me; two case officers, one Army and one Army Force; and an administrative sergeant assigned from the Thailand based group augmenting the Attache offices, Project 404.

Our local employees were interrogators, or debriefers, if you prefer, who questioned the prisoners and defectors arriving at Vientiane. Two of the interrogators were former members of the North Vietnamese Army. The remaining three civilians had the ability to interview people in Lao, Vietnamese, Black Tai and Hmong.

To explain this teams's activities within the context of the war in South Vietnam, beginning in October 1965, South Vietnam saw the beginning of a stream of North Vietnamese Army prisoners and defectors as the People's Army of Vietnam began to flood the southern battlefield. Tens of thousands of prisoners and defectors eventually came into American, Korean, Thai, and South Vietnamese hands during the conflict. In Laos, however, there was only slightly over 150 North Vietnamese prisoners or defectors reaching Vientiane between 1966 and 1974.

Each prisoner or defector was literally milked for every scrap of information the intelligence community wanted, or needed. In 1974 the North Vietnamese prisoners were repatriated. The defectors, for the most part, were released to live out the war in Laos going from job to job until the Lao Communist takeover in 1975. Then, they disappeared. As to the team's local employees, all exited Laos safely, three now in the United States and two in France.

The Laos Exploitation Team was not simply involved in collecting information, it also acted on the information it collected when the information was of tactical value to those engaged in combat, whether it be the Royal Lao Army or the CIA paramilitary officers.

For example, in the summer of 1971 a Pathet Lao defector arrived at Vientiane. The defector was the chief of quartermaster supplies for the Pathet Lao Xieng Khouang Region Headquarters, the headquarters controlling the limited Pathet Lao forces opposing General Vang Pao's forces in Military Region 2, that area of Laos containing the Plain of Jars. I say limited because the major force opposite Vang Pao was North Vietnamese, not Pathet Lao. The young officer had been caught in several indiscrete sexual affairs with female cadre and he knew that his last dalliance would send him to a military security prison. He opted to go to Vientiane instead.

The young cadre, while at the Pathet Lao's Region 2 Headquarters, had been responsible for supervising all quartermaster supplies reaching Pathet Lao forces in his region. He had traveled the supply lines from the point where supplies arrived at the port of Hai Phong in North Vietnam to the rear area supply depots along Highway 7 inside Nghe An Province to the east of Xieng Khouang Province, Laos. From there he was personally responsible for ensuring that supplies were prepositioned at certain depots set along Highway 7, mimicking and paralleling the North Vietnamese Army's own supply system to a degree. He was observant, detail oriented, and quite cooperative, having nothing else to return to.

Beginning soon after his arrival in Vientiane, information from the defector was ferried daily to an Army captain photo- interpreter working alone in a trailer adjacent to the 7/13th Air Force targeting office in Udorn, Thailand. Air Force tactical and strategic bombers were sent against each of the supply depots. The quartermaster officer also knew the location of other targets of interest involved in the movement of his supplies, including fuel depots, truck parks and major heavy weapon sites such as the PT-76, howitzer and 37mm antiaircraft units. After all, he had to provide clothing and other supplies to these units.

The first strikes against the Pathet Lao supply system in Region 2 began in July 1971 and continued until about September 1971, by which point there were no more targets. We were acutely aware that supplies can be replaced. But, an army which lacks the supplies to sustain a fight can not sustain combat. As history has demonstrated, starting in the fall of 1971 it was almost entirely a North Vietnamese Army show in Region 2.

By 1972, as we expected, the Pathet Lao had rebuilt their supply lines and restocked their depots. But, we were able to lessen their combat potential for from three to six months.

The bilateral operation in Laos became the model for other operations Detachment K was developing from Thailand. For example, Project 5310-04 was established as a result of the 1970 survey and was both to gather information on Thai insurgents and upgrade the Royal Thai Army's own intelligence collection capabilities. Another effort, Project 5310-05, worked with the Thai Army command conducting low-level intelligence operations into Cambodia from its base of operations at Arunyapathet, aimed at trying to gain as much information as possible about Khmer Rouge and Vietnamese Communist operations inside Cambodia, particularly in the northwest part of the country.

Another operation, barely off the ground by 1974, worked through the Thai and their friendly counterparts in the Lao Army in Savannakhet Province, Laos. That operation ceased in the summer of 1975 when the rightist portion of the Royal Lao Army went into reeducation.

The initial expansion of Detachment K was a stepping stone to a further expansion in February 1972 when the Pacific Command issued Plan 2/72 to prepare for a continuing military intelligence presence in Vietnam after the withdrawal of American ground forces to be mandated by the Geneva Accords. The 500th Group dispatched a survey team to Vietnam to identify the 525th Group's operations that could be continued after the Accords. In February 1973, civilian clothed members of Detachment K arrived to conclude the necessary agreements with the Armed Forces of the Republic of Vietnam to implement Plan 2/72 through a program codenamed FASTPASS.

the fates would have it, I accompanied the Detachment commander, Col. Albert Weidhas, and his chief of bilateral operations, Henry DuRant, serving as the interpreter for the agreements that permitted continuity operations with the South Vietnamese Navy's N-2, Captain Hai, and Unit 101, the South Vietnamese Army's clandestine intelligence collection unit. Within days of that agreement, Detachment K civilians and military in civilian clothes arrived at the Defense Attache Office where they became part of Col. William LeGro's DAO Intelligence Division. Returning from Saigon, we reached similar agreements in principal in Phnom Penh with the Khmer Army G-2.

Military resources through the Pacific Command were being reduced in 1972 as the Army's Pacific Command prepared to expand the 500th Group's operations as a replacement for the withdrawing 525th Group. The authority for the continuation was a perceived need for information about hostile forces that even the Joint Chiefs of Staff had expected in 1972 would soon takeover all of South Vietnam following the ceasefire in Vietnam. Thus, the function of the 500th MI Group under the project nicknamed FASTPASS was to collect and report information required to assess the situation throughout Indochina following the American withdrawal.

The preparation for the post-cease fire period occurred as the Army Pacific G-2 mandated an tight evaluation of all detachment intelligence operations, the result being that 10 percent of all operations were eliminated due to no, or marginal, productivity. Increasing pressure to continue the reduction in marginal intelligence activities led by 1974 to the end of 500th Group detachment operations in the Philippines which included eliminating a marginal operation through Cambodia targeted against North Vietnam, marginal operations such as Project 0611 from Japan into North Vietnam, and deactivation of the group's detachment on Taiwan which included activities at the Taiwan interrogation center. Another project patterned on the Laos Exploitation Team was envisioned for Cambodia, Project 5310-06, an effort that it was hoped could operate jointly with the Cambodian Army at its rudimentary interrogation center in Phnom Penh. The CIA offered to employ Detachment K's personnel but refused to approve the Army's presence in Cambodia.

This reduction in the Pacific theater was paralleled by similar reductions in Europe. For example, these reductions brought to an end to the military intelligence involvement at the Cuban interrogation center in Span and the Army's involvement in the interrogation center in Greece.

Between February 1973 and April 30, 1975, Detachment K was the U.S. Army's primary human intelligence collector throughout Southeast Asia. With the surrender of the Republic of Vietnam and increasing pressures in Laos, much of Detachment K's operations were overtaken by events that effectively ended its bilateral operations with friendly governments that ceased to exist. And, with the end of the Kingdom of Laos, as well as the republics of Vietnam and Cambodia, there was no longer a need for the operations envisioned for Detachment K.

And so, in 1977, Detachment K folded its flag, shipped its records to Fort George G. Meade, Maryland, and the detachment was disestablished. Many of its records never reached any archives, they were destroyed in a belief that the records were no longer of value or interest.

After the end of each conflict, regardless of its size, there exists a need for some mechanism to capture the oral histories of those who performed where "the rubber meets the road," so to speak. None of this happened at the end of the Vietnam War. The post- 1975 period, at least for intelligence, was one of discarding many of the wartime archives from Southeast Asia that spelled out what worked, what did not work, and why, placing the surviving operational files in corners, somewhere, that with the passage of time have become forgotten. As we move forward on a new relationship with Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, some of these files may yet prove to be of value so that we do not, once again, repeat the mistakes of the past.

Thank you. (C) Sedgwick Tourison, 1996, Crofton, Maryland. [[Presented on April 19, 1996, at the Texas Tech University's Center for the Study of the Vietnam Conflict symposium held at the Holiday Inn, Lubbock, Texas, during April 17-20.

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