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The Life and Times of a South Vietnamese Special Police Officer:
Douglas Valentine interviews Nhuan Le
rat haus reality press, April 10-20, 2017
The Early Years
Internal Exile
Into the Central Intelligence Organization
Vietnam: 1963-1967
On the Front Lines
Nhuan Helps Presidential Candidate Nguyễn Văn Thiệu
Vietnam: Thiệu’s Stratocracy, 1968-1975
Demoted and Promoted Again
Douglas Valentine is an author, researcher, investigator, consultant, critic, and poet. Mr. Valentine’s published works include The Hotel Tacloban (1984) a highly praised account of life and death in a Japanese prisoner of war camp, The Phoenix Program (1990) which Professor Alfred J. McCoy describes as “the definitive account” of the CIA’s most secret and deadly covert operation of the Vietnam War, TDY (2000) (the letters stand for “temporary duty”) about the not-so-secret “Secret War” in Laos, The Strength of the Wolf: The Federal Bureau of Narcotics 1930-1968 (2004), The Strength of the Pack: The People, Politics and Espionage Intrigues that Shaped the DEA (2009), and The CIA As Organized Crime - How Illegal Operations Corrupt America and the World (2016). For information about Mr. Valentine, and his books and articles, please visit his web sites at and

Part 1: The Early Years
10 April 2017

The Vietnamese perspective is rarely found in English language books about the Vietnam War, especially regarding the CIA’s “liaison” relationship with South Vietnamese police and security officials. Which is why I considered myself very fortunate when I was introduced to Lê Xuân Nhuận.

Nhuận’s Wikipedia bio provides a comprehensive account of his life and accomplishments. He is a noted poet and author of three Vietnamese language books about his experiences as a “Special Police” officer. Two of the books are currently available. The first, The Police Plan (Cảnh-Sát-Hóa) (2002) tells of his service as Director Security and Counter-Intelligence in Region II from 1960 to 1973 and focuses on his corruption investigations within the provinces and capital cities in the region. Nhuận’s second memoir, Biến-Loạn Miền Trung (2012) focuses on his service as Director of Security and Counter-Intelligence in Region I from 1973 to 1975. It reveals more about his personal life, and why he protested the militarist system that doomed democracy in the Republic of Vietnam (RVN).

Captured by the North Vietnamese in 1975, Nhuận spent more than twelve years in a re-education camp and five years under house arrest before emigrating to America in 1992. And yet, despite 20 years of war and 17 years of internment, he remains an optimistic and engaging individual whose extraordinary life and accomplishments have inspired me and advanced my understanding of the war.

Nhuận also has an irreverent streak that is rare among police and military veterans in the Vietnamese exile community. Although a dedicated anti-communist, he was a maverick who opposed all the political regimes in Vietnam: what he describes as “France’s colonialism, Emperor Bảo Ðại’s feudalism, President Ngô Ðình Diệm’s dictatorship, and President Nguyễn Văn Thiệu’s stratocracy (government by military forces).”

Educated in Huế (the old capital and cultural center of Central Vietnam) where his first poems were published, Nhuận as a young man worked as a journalist for two newspapers. His interests were literary—he created the “Xây-Dựng” group composed of well-known poets and writers—but he was politically active too, and in 1949 he was jailed for writing a novel criticizing the French and Emperor Bảo Ðại.

His fated involvement with Americans began in mid-1954 while he was serving in the French-controlled Vietnamese army as a war correspondent, psychological warfare lecturer, and Chief of the Voice of the Army in Central Vietnam. At this critical juncture, which was prior to the partition of Vietnam, he met Thompson A. Grunwald, a young, enthusiastic, crew-cut American.

“Tom was the first American to come to Huế as Director of the US Information Service,” Nhuận recalled. Grunwald had an office, a library, and a room for showing propaganda films. He organized the first Vietnamese-American Association, and advised and equipped Vietnam’s Information Services. As de facto chief of the US consulate in Central Vietnam, Grunwald also had extensive contacts with most of the top government officials and military officers.

“Tom helped me organize an English course on Radio Huế,” Nhuận continued. “It was the first ever English radio program in Vietnam. He gave me a manual tape-recorder and batteries to use when I went with the commanding generals to the units to record what was said for radio broadcasts and to publish in military magazines and papers. I appeared with him in many public events.”

Nhuận left the military in 1956 and joined the Huế city police force, but he and Grunwald continued to collaborate; they showed propaganda films inside police stations and to the public, taught English to policemen and women, and sent English language lessons to listeners and students across the country. Nhuận introduced Grunwald to influential people and helped him collect information for the Thế Giới Tự Do (Free World) magazine. Grunwald in turn introduced Nhuận to the US military officers who came to his Voice of the Army readings. “Tom picked up any Americans who happened to be in Huế to participate in my English course,” Nhuận added. The USIS films were showed to the public too, on Saturday evenings, at the square next to the Huế police office.

“Tom left some years later,” Nhuận said, “and became the first Chief of Vietnam Desk at the Radio Voice of America and organized the first VOA’s English course by radio for Vietnamese listeners in Vietnam. Here in California, I met Tom again, and we had family tours and dinners together some years ago.”

The Ubiquitous American

After the partition of Vietnam, the US military assistance advisory group (MAAG) in the capital city of Sài Gòn focused on modernizing the Republic of Vietnam’s Armed Forces (RVNAF). The CIA, meanwhile, dealt with the civilian branches of government, especially the security police and intelligence services.

For example, the CIA organized and trained the Vietnamese Special Forces, the Lực Lượng Ðặc Biệt (LLDB) to conduct paramilitary intelligence operations in North Vietnam, Laos, and Kampuchea. The LLDB, notably, reported directly to the Presidential Survey Office, not the RVNAF. In their role as a “palace guard”, they “were always available for special details dreamed up by President Diệm and his brother Nhu.” Those “special” details involved “terrorism against political opponents.”[1]

“There was also a presidential intelligence service, the Office of Political and Social Research (SEPES) directed by Dr. Trần Kim Tuyến,” Nhuận recalled, “which was also a hammer used by President Ngô Ðình Diệm against his domestic political opponents.”

President Diệm and his brothers Nhu (the political boss in Southern Vietnam) and Cẩn (the boss in Central Vietnam) were obsessed with protecting the Catholic Ngô regime. To that end, they staffed the government and military with loyal members of their Cân Lao (Personalist Labor) Party, which promoted the idea that people owed allegiance to a charismatic leader rather than a party or ideology. To enforce loyalty to President Diệm, SEPES chief Tuyến created a vast intelligence network of Catholic emigres and beholden Can Lao cadres to control and influence all levels of the administration. Tuyến likewise used the Military Security Service (An-Ninh Quân-Ðội) to monitor the many unhappy military officers who were plotting coups.

To finance this ubiquitous security apparatus, and thus control the political environment in South Vietnam, Tuyến in 1958 started importing a steady supply of Laotian opium using Corsican airlines and a faction of the South Vietnamese air force. All of this was done with tacit CIA approval.

Indeed, the Americans were determined to protect the Ngô regime at any cost. To that end, the Michigan State University Group (MSUG) was sent to Sài Gòn in 1955 to manage a massive “technical assistance” program that focused on four areas: public information, public administration, finance and economics, and police and security services. Over the ensuing seven years, MSUG’s Police Administration Division would spend 15 million dollars beefing up the Government of Vietnam’s (GVN) array of internal security programs.[2]

MSUG recruited primarily from the existing French colonial police forces: the Gendarme (Hiến Binh) which operated in rural areas; and the Sûreté, composed of plainclothesmen handling investigations, customs, immigration, and revenue. MSUG combined the Sûreté with the municipal police (uniformed police in 22 autonomous cities and Sài Gòn) into a General Directorate of Police and Security Services (Tổng Nha Cảnh-Sát Công-An) within the Ministry of the Interior.

The police (Ty Cảnh-Sát) and security services (Ty Công-An) were separate commands and functioned autonomously in the provinces and cities until 1962, when they were combined into the National Police (Cảnh-Sát Quốc-Gia). As Nhuận explained, “the Tình-Báo (Intelligence), Công-An (Security or Public Safety) and Cảnh-Sát Ðặc-Biệt (Special Police) services always existed and were particularly important.”

Most MSUG police advisers were former state troopers or big city detectives, but the five men who trained and advised the plain-clothed Special Police were undercover CIA officers hidden within MSUG’s Internal Security Section. Under Raymond Babineau, this CIA team worked at Special Police headquarters inside the National Police Command headquarters at 258 Võ Tánh Street.

The Võ Tánh facility also housed the infamous National Police/Special Police Interrogation Center, which as author Graham Greene wrote in The Quiet American, “seemed to smell of urine and injustice.”

The Special Police always had a reputation for brutality. General Edward Lansdale, who managed the CIA’s nascent “covert action” programs in South Vietnam, was highly critical of Babineau’s team. In his autobiography, Lansdale recalled that in 1956, “several families appeared at my house one morning to tell me about the arrest at midnight of their men-folk, all of whom were political figures. The arrests had a strange aspect to them, having come when the city was asleep and being made by heavily armed men who were identified as `special police’.”[3]

The Americans were aware that the Ngô regime used the Special Police to suppress its domestic political opponents. But they did nothing to stop the abuses, because the Special Police produced the essential “Vietcong order of battle” (Bản Trận Liệt) that mapped out the organizational structure and membership of the burgeoning Communist-led insurgency. Suppressing communism was America’s top priority, and the Special Police were viewed as the best means to accomplish this goal. Consequently, the Special Police received the lion’s share of US technical aid, while the most promising Special Police officers were trained by CIA and FBI personnel at the International Police Academy at Georgetown University.

  1. [] Keven M. Generous, Vietnam: The Secret War (1985), p. 94.
  2. [] Warren Hinckle, Robert Scheer and Sol Stern, “University on the Make”, Ramparts, April 1966.
  3. [] Edward Geary Lansdale, In the Midst of Wars (New York: Harper & Row, 1972), p. 340.
Part 2: Internal Exile
11 April 2017

In modernizing the GVN’s police forces, MSUG sent qualified uniformed police officers to study at Michigan State for a year. Theoretically, these individuals became police chiefs upon their return to South Vietnam; in fact, any official who wanted to remain in the Ngô family’s good graces did not stray far from home.

As Nhuận explained, officials were not promoted into positions of authority unless they met the four D criteria. All civil servants and military personnel had to join the first D: Ðoàn Công-Chức Cách Mạng Quốc Gia, the National Revolutionary Civil Servants Organization. The second D (Ðạo) referred to the Catholic religion. The third D (Ðảng) referred to members of the Cần-Lao Party. And the fourth D (Ðịa-Phương) was reserved for those who were born in or related to natives of Quảng-Bình Province and Huế, the home of the Ngôs.

Nhuận, who only qualified for the first D, added that, “Those who had four Ðs obtained avuncular position in life.”

In 1957, while serving as chief of administration at the Huế police office, Nhuận was selected for training in the US, but was forced to cancel when his grandfather became seriously ill. His language skills were highly prized, however, and he continued to translate articles into Vietnamese for publication in the Bạn Dân (People’s Friends) magazine distributed nationally by the General Directorate of Police and Security.

In 1959, Nhuận again missed his chance for training in America because of his health. Meanwhile, he was growing disenchanted with the Ngô dictatorship. That same year, Diệm enacted Law 10/59, which decreed that anyone convicted of “infringements on the national security” could be sentenced to death or life imprisonment with no appeal. The repressive 10/59 Law resulted in the jailing of 50,000 political prisoners by year’s end, many of whom were not Communists.

As Diệm’s paranoia and repressive measures increased, more citizens raised their voices in opposition. Nhuận was swept up in these events.

“There were weekly gatherings at all government and army offices,” he explained, “as well as at the People’s National Revolutionary organization centers nationwide, to learn about politics and civics. Of course, the lessons were prepared and disseminated by President Diệm’s brother Nhu. As chief of the training bureau, I gave a lecture based on Nhu’s material on 3 March 1960. The audience asked many tough questions and eventually I had no choice but to denounce certain wrongdoings by certain police officers and other members of the Cân Lao Party. My most serious offense was criticizing the RVN’s first constitution for having only one House, no Supreme Court, and no separation of powers. Meanwhile the teaching material claimed that the RVN Constitution was better than the US Constitution.”

Diệm’s brother Cẩn wanted to imprison Nhuận, but Nhu disagreed. Occupied with more important matters, they placed the matter in the hands of the Director General of Police and Security, General Nguyễn Văn Là. General Là placed Nhuận under house arrest, and in August 1960 expelled him and four other offenders from Huế to Ban Mê Thuột, the capital city of Darlac Province in the wild and remote Central Highlands.

In 1960, Ban Mê Thuột was located about 150 miles northeast of Sài Gòn. Only 35 miles from the Kampuchea border, this medium-sized town was destined to become a front-line city in the burgeoning insurgency. It was a perfect place to exile a dissident like Nhuận. North Vietnamese cadres from Hà Nội, and regular army units coming down the Ho Chi Minh trails, entered South Vietnam through the thick forests and French plantations surrounding Ban Mê Thuột. It was a dangerous area, rife with disease and rebellious highland tribes known as Montagnards.

Dispersed over two-thirds of South Vietnam, the Montagnards were ethnically and linguistically distinct from the lowland Vietnamese, who referred to their highland neighbors as savages. The Montagnards, in turn, had no love for the Vietnamese. By allowing the Montagnards to manage their own affairs, the colonial French had maintained an uneasy truce. But once the dictatorial Ngô regime began resettling Catholic refugees on their ancestral lands, the Montagnards began to align with the communists.

Montagnard resistance was concentrated in Ban Mê Thuột where, in September 1958, the Special Police arrested seven of their leaders. Subsequent decrees forbid the Montagnards from owning the land they farmed. “Instruction in highland languages was banned, highland place names gave way to Vietnamese designations, and highland military personnel had to adopt Vietnamese names. A province chief in Darlac forbade the Rhade to enter Ban Mê Thuột wearing their traditional loin cloths, and required them to be dressed in shirt and trousers.”

“I was retained at the headquarters in Ban Mê Thuột,” Nhuận recalled. “At that time, the top government delegates in the regions had immense administrative power. The Director of Police and Security there, Major Nguyễn Văn Luận, recognized that I could be of service and assigned me to the Special Police group, as chief of the criminal investigation team throughout all the nearby provinces in this former “Royal Realm.”

“The Highland Directorate’s Special Police Bureau consisted of a Political Investigation Team, a Criminal Investigation Team, and a Commando Group (Biệt-Kích Cảnh-Sát Công-An) that operated throughout the region. My boss, Major Phạm Tường, was Director of the National Police in this region. I did most of the Political Team’s work: I investigated, arrested, and interrogated criminals (assassins, thieves, prostitutes, gamblers, poachers, and unlicensed woodcutters) as well as political suspects and corrupt police officers—bribers and bribe-takers. Vietnamese offenders were sent to the regular court, while Montagnard arrestees were sent to the Montagnard Traditional Tribunal (Tòa án Phong-Tục Thượng).”

Nhuận interrogated communists, Montagnards, and anyone else suspected of opposing the Ngô rergime. One of his jobs was to confront Catholics from North Vietnam, including “intellectual youths and close adjuvants to the vicars in the “House and Land” Zones (Khu Ðịa-Ðiểm Dinh Ðiền) and Dense Areas (Khu Trù-Mật), the latter being famous for their prosperity and security.”

Nhuận would summon Catholics emigres to his office and interrogate those who had been reported as speaking or acting against the government. “They all bravely pointed out the Ngô regime’s mistakes in the religious matter,” he recalled, “and affirmed that they were against any scheme or act by anyone who sought to suppress Buddhists. They felt the Bible—God’s Words—encouraged them to enlarge the Church, but only by preaching, never by violence or worldly physical baits.”

Meanwhile, having been charged with mutiny, Nhuận was being watched for “political activities” by the two men who shared his office: Captain Nguyễn Hữu Liêm (the bureau chief) and Lieutenant Nguyễn Giang (the chief of the political team). They smiled at him and he smiled at them. “And it was truly laughable,” he recalled, “one security officer being punished by the regime because of opposition to it, now acting in the name of that regime to incriminate anti-government critics like himself.”

The Counter-Insurgency

After a failed military coup in November 1960, the Ngô regime increased its attacks on Buddhist political leaders, as well as its opponents in the Ðại Việt and Quốc Dân Ðảng (VNQDÐ) parties. Many opposition leaders were jailed, forced into exile, or forced underground; some allied with the communists. The communists in turn stepped up their infiltration of all groups—including intellectuals, professors, and students—while enticing the discontented to join the National Front for the Liberation (NLF) of South Vietnam. Formed in December 1960, the NLF called for the expulsion of all Americans, who were correctly seen as enabling the people’s oppressors—the widely-hated Ngô regime.

To counter the insurgency, the CIA began arming the Montagnards through its Civilian Irregular Defense Group (CIDG) program, which was launched in 1961 in conjunction with the LLÐB in camps outside Ban Mê Thuột. The CIDG teams sought to pacify VC-controlled Montagnard villages, and then convert them into training camps for other local villages.

During this period, Major Luận became chief of Binh Dinh Province and was replaced as Director of Police and Security for the Highlands Region by Captain Phạm Tường. There was an influx of American advisers, many of whom lived in “the Bungalow,” a former hunting lodge reinforced with concrete and barbed wire. Nhuận, however, had nothing to do with them, at that time. He does not recall the names of the CIA advisors who periodically passed through town.

During this phase, resistance to the Ngô regime was steadily growing, primarily because Montagnards as well as Vietnamese were being forcibly resettled in garrison communities the Americans called Agrovilles (Dinh Ðiền).

As Nhuận recalled, “The Lands (to build houses) and Fields (to cultivate) Zones were established in deserted or unexploited areas. One hundred twenty-six zones were completed by 1960, which was good. But they were, in fact, concentration camps: the Ngôs forced into the “Lands and Fields Zones” anyone who had been classified as pro-French, pro-Bảo-Ðại, pro-VC, as well as “bad” elements from the villages.”

Compounding the problem was the fact that resettled people had to provide their labor and materials to erect them. During an investigation in Quảng-Ðức Province, Nhuận found that each inhabitant had to pay for the pictures taken for the police to make identity cards.

“There were no rural police forces at that time,” Nhuận added. “There was only one member of the village council in charge of police task in every village.”

To bolster the RVN’s notoriously corrupt and ill-equipped police forces, US technical assistance to police and security services was increased dramatically. The Americans built a tele-communications center and a national police training center; and instituted a rehabilitation system that channeled defectors into the CIA’s security and covert action programs. A national identification registration program was started as a means of identifying communists, deserters, and fugitives. ID cards were plastic-covered and issued to everyone 15 years old and over.

This investment of money and personnel gave the CIA greater control over political events in South Vietnam. Under station chief William Colby, the CIA formed South Vietnam’s Foreign Relations Council, Chamber of Commerce, and Lions’ Club to create the illusion of a strong civil base in support of the Ngô regime. Behind the scenes, however, the CIA hedged its bets, and CIA officers began secretly funneling money to Diệm’s political opponents as a way of establishing long-range penetration agents who could monitor and manipulate political developments.

Part 3: Into the Central Intelligence Organization
12 April 2017

By 1961, the insurgency was growing and the in-coming Kennedy Administration put the blame on the repressive policies of Ngô regime. The Kennedys were also upset that Diệm’s brothers Cẩn and Nhu, and their spymaster Tuyến, were smuggling opium out of Laos and using the profits to finance a vast agent network targeted against Diệm’s political opponents. Having just endured the Bay of the Pigs fiasco, the Kennedys were angry at the CIA, which had trained many of the agents and commandoes Nhu, Cẩn, and Tuyến used in their smuggling operations.

Compelled to correct the situation, the CIA created the proprietary airline, Vietnam Air Transport, and tasked it with flying CIA-trained commandos into North Vietnam via Laos and the Gulf of Tonkin. Tuyến’s opium smuggling operation, however, continued unabated, in league with Air Force Major Nguyễn Cao Kỳ’s First Transport Group, which participated in CIA-organized commando operations.

In another, more successful attempt at reform, Diệm was persuaded to create an “apolitical” Central Intelligence Organization (CIO) modeled on the CIA itself. The CIA’s station chief at the time, William Colby, in an interview with this writer, credited this move as the beginning of Phoenix program.

“The Central Intelligence Office (PhỦ Ðặc Ủy Trung ương Tình báo) was the national strategic intelligence agency for the GVN,” Nhuận explained. “It was created by Executive Decree No. 109/TTP and signed into law on May 5, 1961 by President Diệm. The CIO was directly under the President, while the National Police fell under the Minister of the Interior. The CIO was responsible for gathering and analyzing strategic and military intelligence information on North Vietnam and its branch in South Vietnam, the Viet Cong, as well as to report and advise the South Vietnamese government on national security.

“Before 1962,” Nhuận continued, “all civilian and military security organizations in Vietnam conducted secret activities to collect information in general, from military to political, from tactical to strategic. The CIO Plan was to have one common method and target. The civilian police and security services and the military agreed to conduct coordinated operations focusing on “infiltration and penetration” of the North Vietnamese apparatus in South Vietnam, including the Viet Cong. That was the collection method. The common target was the higher-level Viet Cong.”

The CIA provided the money and the equipment needed to put the CIO in business. Colonel Nguyen Van Y was named director of the CIO and provided with a building in Sài Gòn as his headquarters. Staff for the CIO’s Research and Administration branch were drawn primarily from the American-advised National Institute of Administration and Faculty of Law at Sài Gòn University. With few exceptions, military officers dominated the CIO’s Operations branch.

The CIO had three divisions. The first was the Foreign Intelligence Bureau (Cục Tình báo Quốc ngoại) which worked exclusively outside South Vietnam and had offices in foreign nations like France, the United Kingdom, Japan, Thailand, Laos, South Korea, and Kampuchea.

“Like the CIA,” Nhuận explained, “the CIO’s primary mission was collecting information outside of the country. And in doing this it required military support apart from the regular army, so the CIA formed a new military organization: the 101 Unit. I did not know much about it, except that it was something like a military CIO specializing in military strategic information and document collection.”

A second Domestic Intelligence Division (Cục Tình báo Quốc nội) was created and designed to infiltrate the North Vietnamese organization in the South, as well as its elusive headquarters, the Central Office for South Vietnam (COSVN). It worked at the strategic level—from the provincial level up to COSVN. It had departments for surveillance (Department K) and counterespionage (Department U); plus a political department to prevent coup d’etats (Department Z). Each of the four military corps zones had one Special Contact Mission under the Domestic Intelligence Division.

The third division was based at the CIA-advised National Interrogation Center (Trung tâm Thẩm vấn Quốc gia). This division was responsible for interrogating and processing prisoners.

While serving as chief of the Judicial Police Section at National Police headquarters in Ban-Mê-Thuột, Nhuận—who was recognized as an outstanding soldier and policeman with exceptional communication skills—was selected to join the CIO. His early association with Tom Grunwald and his admiration of the Americans in general were contributing factors.

“I believed that the CIA mastered everything,” Nhuận explained with an ironic sigh.

“In early 1962, there was a test to choose potential CIO personnel. Candidates were selected from the National Police, the Special Police, military intelligence, and the National Institute of Administration, etc. We were given a general test, polygraphed by a CIA specialist (who quizzed Nhuận about his opposition to the Ngô regime), and then sent for training by CIA instructors at the National Intelligence School in Sài Gòn. About one hundred students attended the first Advanced Intelligence Course.”

Nhuận was familiar with this class, which included women, but less so with members of subsequent classes. “My classmates were from diverse organizations and used aliases, and during the course we were strictly observed and not allowed to fraternize. I knew some of my classmates, including Nguyễn Văn Giang who was made chief of operations in my Special Operations Corps (SOC) team group in the Highland Region.

“The CIA instructors only appeared in their respective classes, then vanished. Colonel Nguyên Văn Y did not participate, except to come and preside over the closing ceremony. The most important person on the Vietnamese side was Lt. Colonel Trần Phước Thành, Director of the Advanced Police Training Center and later Director of Police and Security in Central Vietnam.”

Upon graduation, Nhuận was assigned to Central Highlands Region Special Operations Corps (Ðoàn Công-Tác Ðặc-Biệt) in Ban Mê Thuột. The SOC was code-named the Geographical Studying Group (Ðoàn Khảo-Cứu Ðịa-Lý) and operated undercover as the Highland National Police Judicial Police Bureau (Phòng Cảnh-Sát Tư-Pháp Nha CSQG Cao-Nguyên Trung-Phần). Nhuận was the deputy group chief in charge of personnel, liaison, and administrative support, which included translating reports and documents into English, and contacting the group’s CIA advisors. The National Police provided office supplies, weapons, and means of transportation and correspondence. The CIA paid for all the CIO’s expenses. There was a SOC team in each province, and each had its own CIA advisor.

CIO officers operated undercover, except when otherwise required, at which time they presented their credentials. As Nhuận recalled, they were friendly and cooperative in their professional interactions. They treated each other as equals, without ever mentioning their origin.

In this early stage, the SOC chiefs were usually high-ranking administrative officials without police or intelligence experience, and relied on their more experienced junior members.

“The SOC in which I participated was only one unit and not completely secret,” Nhuận noted, “because it required administrative support from the National Police. Otherwise, the SOC worked independently, while the Special Police worked with and within the National Police. The Special Police was responsible for public security; the CIO/SOC had no such responsibilities.”

Nhuận’s SOC specialized in gathering strategic intelligence through sophisticated infiltration and penetration operations. Its operations unit, for example, encouraged and helped secret agents join the VC in the jungle. But as an administrator, Nhuận was not yet involved in such highly compartmented operations and did not know who the agents were or how their secret files were handled. But he was learning the spy business and its many nuances.

The CIO and the Special Branch, for example, both attempted to penetrate domestic political parties, movements, organizations, and trade-unions. But unlike the Special Branch, the CIO also gathered information from North Vietnamese newspapers and books, and monitored Radio Hanoi and Radio NLF, as well as foreign news outlets like the BBC and the Voice of America. The CIO had a Radio Transmission Center, managed jointly with CIA-advised Taiwanese officials, to monitor news from Communist China relating to their intelligence operations in Taiwan and North Vietnam, as well as inside the RVN. The CIO worked closely with officials in Laos, Kampuchea, Thailand, Japan, South Korea, Hong Kong, and France, and placed officers inside those nations.

“The CIO had members planted inside almost all government agencies,” Nhuận said, “including the police, the army, the foreign affairs ministry and the embassies. It controlled the three most important newspapers in Sài Gòn; the general distribution company for books, magazines, and newspapers; and the telephone, telegraph, and long-distance systems. It had the cooperation of many important personages including chancellors, deans, and professors. It had branches in all provinces and big cities. “

Smaller and more sophisticated than the Special Branch, but not as corrupt as Tuyen’s “secret police”, the CIO became the nerve center of the counterinsurgency. And in this manner, Lê Xuân Nhuận became a participant at the highest level in a secret war which, to this day, remains largely undisclosed.

Part 4: Vietnam: 1963-1967
13 April 2017

The dictatorial Ngô regime collapsed in 1963, for several reasons. One contributing factor was its Strategic Hamlet program. Designed to protect the regime by relocating millions of mostly rural people, the program was mistakenly placed under the supervision of Colonel Phạm Ngọc Thảo. A Communist “sleeper” agent, Thảo built as many hamlets as fast as possible, knowing the resettled people would resent being torn from their ancestral lands and garrisoned in forts they were compelled to build. Thảo further subverted the program by having the hamlets built in communist strongholds, a move that provided the insurgents with easy access to people who increasingly hated the central government.

By blaming the army for failing to properly defend the hamlets, the regime’s security chief, Ngô Ðình Nhu, further enraged a cabal of disgruntled generals who, with the secret backing of the Kennedy White House, began plotting a revolution. The precipitating event was the so-called Buddhist Crisis.

The crisis began in May 1963, when police in Huế shot nine civilians for protesting a ban on the Buddhist flag. Buddhist monks soon joined the demonstrations and in June, the monk Thích Quảng Ðức famously immolated himself in Sài Gòn. The spectacle attracted international media attention and by August, anti-government protests had spread across the country.

Thích Quảng Ðức, 11 June 1963

The Ngô regime was determined to remain in power and on 17 September, on Nhu’s instructions, Special Forces commander Colonel Lê Quang Tung and Special Police chief Dương Văn Hiếu launched attacks on Buddhist pagodas across the country. Hundreds of people were arrested and “disappeared”.

Meanwhile, on orders from the Kennedy White House, the CIA gave the disgruntled generals permission to stage their bloody coup: the generals executed Colonel Tung on 1 November (Vietnamese time) while army Major General Mai Huu Xuân seized National Police headquarters. Xuân then led the convoy that took President Diệm and Nhu into custody and assassinated them on 2 November.

Reorganizing the Special Police and CIO

The November 1963 revolution led to a restructuring of the military and police commands. General Xuân, as noted, was named interim head of the National Police, while still undiscovered “sleeper” agent Colonel Thảo was named head of military security. Thao was instrumental in elevating Colonel Nguyễn Cao Kỳ to head the Air Force.

Kỳ was prominent among the “Young Turks” who felt that the older, French-aligned generals on the twelve-member Revolutionary Council were going to engage in corruption as usual. These Young Turks joined forces and within three months, they and their CIA backers supported General Nguyễn Khánh in a bloodless coup that ousted the military junta. Khanh and his clique then began appointing military and police officials who the Americans felt were more willing to fight the communists.

“The main aim of the coup was anti-communist,” Nhuận explained, “but those who had been pro-Ngô were replaced by those who were anti-Ngô. Those who had carried out the Ngô regime’s inhumane measures and/or misused their positions to commit crimes were punished. Dương Văn Hiếu, the Chief of the Special Police, was one of the important targets.”

The CIA did not trust Hiếu, who ran the of the “Special Action Center” in Sài Gòn. Hiếu had publicly accused the CIA of placing agents in the press corps and of running unilateral operations out the US Information Service and among private US businessmen in Vietnam (all of which was true). He also accused the CIA of spending $50 million in support of various coup plots. For these reasons the CIA considered him “arrogant”, meaning independent of its influence.[1]

Nhuận had a more balanced perspective. “Hiếu was a very good Special Police officer,” he observed. “He’d been chief of the Central Region Special Operations Corps (Ðoàn Công-Tác Ðặc-Biệt Miền Trung) from 1957-1960, and chief of the Special Police Bloc (Khối Cảnh-Sát Ðặc-Biệt) from 1960 to 1963. He had even tracked Colonel Thảo and reported on his activities. But, at the same time, his Central Region SOC did repress many nationalist dissidents. His operational area was Central Region (Miền Trung) and his sponsor was Presidential Advisor Ngô Ðình Cẩn in Huế, but his men could take actions in the Southern Region that had been under Advisor Ngô Ðình Nhu and Bishop Ngô Ðình Thục in Vĩnh Long.”

After the coup, the Central Region Special Union Central Operations Corps was disbanded and Hiếu was investigated by the twelve generals who composed the ruling Revolutionary Council. He was exiled to Con Dao and released in 1964.

“The new Special Police chief was Tống Ðình Bắc,” Nhuận recalled. “The new Director General of the National Police was Colonel Trần Thanh Bền (1963-64), followed by Colonel Phạm Văn Liễu (1964-66), and then Colonel Nguyễn Ngọc Loan (1966-68).

With the arrest of Diệm’s spy master Dr. Trần Kim Tuyến after the coup, and the disbanding of SEPES, the CIO emerged as the RVN’s only functioning foreign intelligence agency. But the CIO had only begun to recruit personnel in 1962 and was still finding its footing. The CIA, as ever, was hedging its bets. Paul W. Hodges, the CIA officer who had established the CIO, noted in March 1963 that he “had “gradually and reluctantly” come to accept that the Vietnamese were using the CIO as a device to keep the Americans away from the intelligence activities they really cared about, namely, those of the Police Special Branch.”[2]

The CIO and Special Branch, as noted earlier, did have distinct functions. “The CIO was foreign intelligence,” Nhuận explained, “while the Special Branch was counter-intelligence. But both had the same CIA advisers.”

To avoid any hint that the CIA was shaping the domestic political environment, CIO and Special Police officers, “in theory, only let their advisers know about the communists. But, in reality,” Nhuận added, “the CIA knew many things about dissidents, public figures, and the population in general. Very few CIA officers spoke Vietnamese, so they relied on interpreters, who were officially known as Deputy Advisers and had the authority to contact any Vietnamese official and talk about any issue or person of interest.”

CIA officials also gathered political intelligence by organizing parties to meet people they wanted to build relationships with. The CIA contacted, helped, and exploited all political party and religious sect leaders. They also gathered a lot of information from public sources.

“I suspected but had no evidence of Special Branch members being paid by the CIA (to spy on other Special Branch officers),” Nhuan said. “My men and women were introduced to and allowed to meet and work with our CIA advisers. Each case produced many reports; each report had to be translated, reviewed, cross-examined, and provided with additional support, etc. There were many case-officers and many administrative staff, and the CIA adviser had to work with each case-officer on each report separately. I did not have time to be present with them during those sessions.”

As the war escalated through 1964, the CIA (while spying on the spies it selected and trained for the CIO and Special Police), provided increasing amounts of support to both organizations. To penetrate the ever expanding North Vietnamese espionage networks in the South, the CIA also began assigning CIA case officers to CIO and Special Police officers at the province level. The relationship between these two burgeoning spy agencies was ill-defined and often led to competitiveness and jealousy, especially with South Vietnamese military officers, but the Americans were determined to use their superior firepower and economic resources to their full advantage.

  1. [] Hiếu was jailed for one year and released in 1964. Diệm’s youngest brother Ngô Ðình Cẩn was executed in Sài Gòn in May 1964. Cẩn’s deputy for intelligence, Phan Quang Ðông, was executed in Hue.
  2. [] Thomas Ahern, CIA and the House of Ngo, p. 164-5, citing Hodges, Memorandum to Chief of Station. “Briefing Notes for Colby’s Visit,” 15 March 1963.
Part 5: On the Front Lines
14 April 2017

Nhuận left the CIO/SOC in December 1963 to become Chief of the National Police in Quảng-Ðức Province, headquartered in Gia Nghia City in the Central Highlands. Like his previous post in Darlac, Quảng-Ðức was a mountainous province on the Kampuchea border, populated by Montagnards.

Nhuận maintained his CIO contacts, but there was less contact between the SOC and the Special Branch in the years after the 1963 revolution, as the CIA tightened its control of the CIO at the expense of the Special Police.

As a province police chief, Nhuận was now a manager. His office consisted of three bureaus: the Special Police, the uniformed police, and administration. His job was to work politically against the communists and dissidents; judicially against any criminal; and administratively to protect people by maintaining law and order. Nhuận supervised more than one hundred police officers in the province capital Gia-Nghĩa and in four districts; Ðức-Lập, Kiến-Ðức, Khiêm-Ðức, and Ðức-Xuyên.

The failure of the resettlements programs, for example, created chaos. “After the 1963 coup, almost all inhabitants of the Dinh Ðiền Zones felt that they were now liberated from the Ngô regime,” Nhuận explained. “They spontaneously left these zones to return to their native villages.”

At the same time, political groups pressured the Khanh government to release political prisoners jailed during the First Republic. Among those released were key figures of the North Vietnamese intelligence network. The coup also engendered the return of dissident South Vietnamese military leaders who had fled or been exiled, and some of these officers were now agents of North Vietnamese intelligence. These developments enabled North Vietnamese and Vietcong intelligence to regroup and resume activities.

Vietnam Premier Khanh Visits U.S. Base In South Vietnam (1964)

Another big problem concerned the CIDG program, which had been transferred from the CIA to the US Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV). Under the US military, the program stopped focusing on village defense and refocused on border surveillance. The program was expanded far too quickly, however, and the Americans soon lost control of the ever-rebellious Montagnard CIDG units.

“One of my main concerns in Quảng-Ðức in that period (1963-65),” Nhuận recalled, “was the Montagnard liberation organization FULRO (Front Unifié de Lutte de la Race Opprimée).”

By September 1964, FULRO was armed to the teeth with American weapons, and FULRO forces under Y B’ham Enuol (who had been released from prison), staged a rebellion in pursuit of independence and their own separate nation. The rebellion began in Quảng-Ðức Province.

“In the very early morning of 20 September 1964,” Nhuận recalled, “all the Mountaineer members of the CIDG station in Sarpa Camp, Ðức-Lập District, revolted. They killed all their Vietnamese LLDB officers and took their American advisors hostage. When they got to the District Office, they grabbed and roped the District Chief, an army captain, as well as other officers. This happened in the presence of the US military advisors.”

Several more CIDG camps quickly fell, and the Montagnard liberation forces began marching on Ban Mê Thuột in neighboring Darlac Province. Khanh’s government and its American advisors intervened and persuaded the Montagnards not to attack Ban Mê Thuột, but Y B’ham fled to Cambodia with several thousand followers, where he continued to agitate for reforms. Another FULRO leader, Y Bih Alio, joined the insurgency and tried to bring the Montagnards under communist control.

“Prior to the FULRO uprising,” Nhuận recalled, “it had been unclear which RVN agency was responsible to monitor the Montagnards. The National Police and Special Branch thought it was the Military Security Service’s job, because the CIDGs were armed and under US and RVN military command. But the MSS did not take responsibility because the CIDGs were “civilian” militias under the CIA.”

As always, Nhuận stepped into the breach and took control. “After the uprising, I put the CIDG camps under National Police and Special Branch surveillance. I had my CIA advisor drive me to the CIDG camp on the frontier between Vietnam and Cambodia, to let them know that the RVN Police were backed by the CIA. But I was not involved in their cross-border operations until after the local CIDG men revolted and launched the FULRO movement. At that point I sent some Mountaineer Policemen into the jungle to infiltrate the FULRO ranks. One of them succeeded in contacting Mr. Y Bham, the leader (whom I had met years before in Ban Mê Thuột). The agent became one of Y Bham’s close advisors. He knew his activities, collected information, stole certain documents, and sent it all back to me.”

Nhuận distinguished himself as Chief of Police in Quảng-Ðức Province in other ways as well. He knew that the US Military Advisory Group in Quảng-Ðức had a fleet of helicopters, so he asked the MACV chief to organize a training course for his police forces. The policemen were given chopper tours over the hills and riverways surrounding Gia-Nghĩa so they could have a more realistic notion of the area, rather than just looking at the maps. A short time later in Sài Gòn, Nhuận noted with satisfaction, that particular kind of chopper-borne operation was adopted by the Armed Forces of the RVN.

Nhuận also helped to organize a paramilitary police force, which he led into armed operations, either by itself or together with the local Regional Force (Ðịa-Phương-Quân) units. This was dangerous work and in one clash with the VC outside Gia-Nghĩa city, Lt. Colonel Ðặng Hữu Hồng, the Province Chief and Sector Commander, was shot and killed while standing ten meters from Nhuận.

The Special Branch

In 1965, General Khanh was overthrown in a bloodless coup and his successors—featuring Prime Minister Nguyễn Cao Kỳ—turned the government’s attention to fighting the flood of North Vietnamese Army (NVA) soldiers pouring into the Central Highlands. The first of tens of thousands of US combat forces arrived in South Vietnam in the autumn of 1965 to help. The “main force” war had begun in earnest.

At this critical juncture, Nhuận received his next promotion. As he recalls, “In December 1965, I was made Chief of Special Police in the Central Vietnam Highland Region. My region office was in the same building as it had been three years before in Ban Mê Thuột. Seven provinces were now under my control: Kontum, Pleiku, Phú-Bổn, Darlac, Quảng-Ðức, Tuyên-Ðức, and Lâm-Ðồng, plus the independent city of Ðà-Lạt.

“I do not remember how many people I supervised. There were many. Besides those working at the region Special Police office, there were officers under my supervision at the province, city, district, and village levels. Thomas Burke (a mid-career Foreign Intelligence officer) was my CIA adviser.”

The CIA began referring to the Special Police as the Special Branch, and a major effort was made to expand and professionalize the organization.

As the RVN’s lead agency in charge of secret intelligence and counter-intelligence operations, the Special Branch focused on the communist organization in South Vietnam. But it also had a mandate to watch every domestic political party, organization, society, alliance, movement, and intellectual force.

The Special Branch received its secret operating funds, including salaries, directly from the CIA, which also provided jeeps, motorcycles, gadgets, and facilities including interrogation centers. To ingratiate themselves, CIA advisors lavished gifts upon Special Branch officers; things like cameras, TV sets, and tape recorders. The CIA even attempted to offer a special monthly allowance to Special Branch members, but withdrew the offer when the uniformed police objected.

As American assistance increased, Vietnamese officials became “like a needy person,” Nhuận observed. “Any gift given to him or her was precious and heartily welcomed.” But the dependence was unhealthy and led to irresponsibility. “The officials saw that there were always newer and better things, so they willingly followed the corresponding instructions from their US advisors.” Even when those instructions were ill-advised.

“A proverb in the economic and financial circles applied, particularly when US suggestions were accompanied by money: He who pays, governs.”

As the centerpiece of its program to professionalize the Special Branch, the CIA in 1965 began offering courses for Special Branch personnel at the Central Intelligence School (Trường Tình-Báo Trung-ương). The CIA conducted courses for case-officers, as well as in leadership and command, and specialties like counter-intelligence and interrogation. The CIA officers who trained and advised Special Branch personnel were, theoretically, expert in everything.

According to Nhuan, “the Special Police engaged in both “tactical” or Xâm-Nhập (infiltration) intelligence operations designed to discover and watch enemy agents moving into communist organizations; as well as “strategic” Nội-Tuyến (Penetration) operations to persuade agents already inside the communist (or other targeted) ranks to defect and work for us. Tactical information was about what people could see and know; strategic intelligence uncovered and documented the enemy’s secret programs, plans, and deceptions, as well as their viewpoints, strengths and weaknesses, all of which we needed to analyze and understand.”

The Special Branch was composed of a Secret Services Section, an Interrogation Section, a Research Section, and a Support Section, among others. The chief of the Secret Services Section (SSS) was the pre-eminent officer; he managed informant networks in the hamlets and villages, as well as the recruitment and management of double agents. The SSS watched, tracked, investigated, arrested, and recruited agents, sympathizers, and informants.

To facilitate these penetration operations, the CIA in 1965 starting building an interrogation center in each of the RVN’s 44 provinces. The CIA paid local contractors to build the facilities and then donated them to the Special Branch. Many penetration operations began in a province interrogation center (PIC), after a Special Branch officer (a trained interrogator assigned as the PIC chief) had singled out relevant information and clues about and leads to potential agents.

Through the PICs, and with the help of local military forces, the CIA and Special Branch learned the identity and structure of the Viet Cong Infrastructure (VCI) in each province.

To complement the Special Branch’s intelligence function, the CIA, through its Covert Action Branch, established “unilateral” counter-terror teams in every province. Starting in 1965, these CIA-advised counter-terror teams were called Provincial Reconnaissance Units (PRU).

As Nhuan explained, “The PRUs by themselves and apart from the Special Police launched operations capturing and eliminating VC [including VCI] members and destroying VCI organizations in VC-controlled areas. The PICs, however, did not run PRU operations, although members of the PIC chief’s staff and of a Secret Services Section sometimes joined in Allied Forces operations as indicators and/or interrogators.

“The PRU and PIC each had their own separate CIA advisors,” Nhuan continued, “and each of them, when making reports, would emphasize on their own [apparently separate] value. They both were good, but intelligence and operations were, unfortunately, two separate fields and phases.”

The lack of coordination between the CIA’s Foreign Intelligence and Covert Action branches created systematic problems that affected the performance of the PICs and PRU. When it was created in mid-1967, the CIA’s Phoenix program was designed specifically to improve performance by coordinating “intelligence” and “operations”.

Another serious problem was torture in the PICs.

Nhuan acknowledged that “In the interrogation rooms in general, there sometimes were hard measures used to make arrestees confess.” He cited the example of the murder of a female VC agent, Huỳnh thị Hiền, in Bình-Ðịnh Province. Nhuan was told to investigate the crime, and accompanied the commander of the National Police in II Corps, Colonel Cao Xuân Hồng, to Hoài-Nhơn District where the murder had been committed.

As Nhuan recalled, they found the dead girl, “with soap foam bubbling from her mouth hiding most of her face. She had been tortured to death. The two Special Branch interrogators involved were immediately removed and later indicted.”

Throughout the war, the CIA was content to blame the Vietnamese. But, in fact, CIA advisers were as likely to engage in rape and murder of arrestees as the Vietnamese they advised. Indeed, CIA-employed Americans working as PIC advisors often acted as interrogators (with interpreters) and often determined which detainees were the best leads to further actions. Exploitation and development were handled by the Special Branch advisor (a higher-ranking CIA official than the PIC advisor) and his Vietnamese counterpart. CIA case officers, acting outside the Special Branch apparatus, could also go to a PIC to do the needed interrogations, and then manage the ensuing clandestine operation.

Ultimately, torture in PICs continued unabated because the CIA considered the PICs essential in helping the Secret Services Section to single out potential leads for the Special Branch chief to exploit and develop.

Part 6: Nhuan Helps Presidential Candidate Nguyễn Văn Thiệu
17 April 2017

“In 1967,” Nhuan said, “the Central Vietnam Southern Lowland Region comprised five provinces: Bình-Ðịnh, Phú-Yên, Khánh-Hòa, Ninh-Thuận, Bình-Thuận, and one independent city, Cam-Ranh. That region was merged with mine to become the II-CTZ (Corps Tactical Zone). I was made Chief of Special Branch for those twelve Provinces and two cities. The territory was about half that of the whole South Vietnam. The coastal city of Nha Trang fell within my jurisdiction and the PIC in Nha Trang City doubled as the Special Branch office in Khánh Hòa Province.”

“At that time, the military wanted to control the National Police. II-Corps Commander General Vĩnh Lộc, whose main headquarters was in Pleiku, had the region’s Special Branch office moved from Ban Mê Thuột to Pleiku. After that, although my office was in Pleiku, I often visited Nha Trang, and, of course, the Nha Trang PIC.

“The first presidential election for the Second Republic of Vietnam occurred in early September 1967. There were eleven candidates in all. The armed forces candidates were Lieutenant General Nguyễn Văn Thiệu and Major General Nguyễn Cao Kỳ, as president and vice-president, respectively.

“During the campaign, I received a secret order from Brigadier General Nguyễn Ngọc Loan (Chief of the Military Security Service and, concurrently, Director General of the National Police), to form a special plan to carry out an “internal and peaceful” overthrow of Thiệu to facilitate the election of Kỳ.

CIA Provincial Reconnaissance Unit, Quang Tri Province, 1967

“The process began a few weeks before the election, when Major Cao Văn Khanh, Director of the National Police in II-CTZ, attended a secret meeting with General Loan in Cam-Ranh City. Afterwards Major Khanh told me that General Loan had said to him, “Back at the Special Branch office in Pleiku, you have chap named Nhuận. I want you to have him compose a concrete action plan for all the Region II National Police to execute.”

The plan was to have two parts. Outwardly, all campaign efforts would aim at making Thiệu and Kỳ win the election, which Nhuận and everyone else in the National Police believed would happen. At the same time, Loan’s subordinates in the MSS were to use their influence to persuade regular military officers across the country and, in particular, unit commanders stationed in Sài Gòn, to give prominence to Premier Nguyễn Cao Kỳ’s “talent and virtue.” Loan’s subordinates in the National Police, including the Special Branch, were to do likewise, through their influence within the civil segments of society: commerce, trade-unions, markets, transportation, and especially veterans.

Per Loan’s plan, on vote-counting night, all the ranking province and city Military Security Service and National Police chiefs nationwide were to convene a special gathering at their offices, in the presence of the military unit commanders and various civic organization leaders, and pass a resolution to trust Kỳ as President and approve of Thiệu as Vice-President.

As happened during the Diệm coup four years earlier, those pledges were to be wired to the members of the Armed Forces Council (Hội-Ðồng Quân-Lực). The Armed Forces Council was, in fact, the supreme power in South Vietnam and, at the time, Kỳ, who as Prime Minister, had greater influence within it than Thiệu. The Council would then disseminate the resolution to support Kỳ to all the governmental and military establishments, and broadcast it nation-wide on all the military and civilian air-waves.

“Everything was to be prepared for a high tide of meetings on vote-counting night,” Nhuan recalled, “with the most powerful participants agreeing to back a Military and Civilian Council in Sài Gòn, at which time the general election result would be announced, compelling Thiệu to yield the presidency to Kỳ.

“Kỳ and Loan believed that this exchange of positions between the two individuals would be peaceful and successful. Although the US was not included in the scheme, they also believed that the Americans would not oppose it, because it merely involved the place arrangement among the two candidates.

“In short, Kỳ outwardly agreed to let Nguyễn Văn Thiệu register as president candidate, but inwardly he was determined to maneuver for that seat.”

To put the plan in action, Loan went to Nha-Trang and Cam-Ranh to meet his subordinates. Loan handed each MSS and NP chief $500,000 Vietnamese dollars (some more than that), which they were to use as operational funds—meaning bribes.

Nhuận did not know where the slush fund came from, though many have suspected it came from drug trafficking and other rackets.

In any event, Nhuận, the maverick, refused to go along with the plot. As he explained, “Every previous coup d’état (đảo-chánh) had been followed by a period of readjustment (chỉnh-lý) and power displays (biểu-dương lực-lượng), which led to an influx of US troops, demonstrations by students and Buddhists, and, ultimately, the Communists taking advantage and gaining ground. In other words, they were counter-productive.

“The military had abused the laws and regulations over the last four years, and the Vietnamese people had suffered enough,” Nhuan acknowledged. “But now that there was a Constitution, the election was supposed to create a legal government, restore stability, and bring about democracy. It was not designed to let powerful generals and colonels continue to compete for personal interests.

“If they wanted to fight for power among themselves, fine. But only constitutionally.”

By disobeying Kỳ and Loan, Nhuận was taking a calculated risk. The members of the Armed Forces Council were the nation’s true rulers, and they had decided that Thiệu should be president, not Kỳ. To act against them on Kỳ’s behalf would be a serious breach of political ethics. At the same time, Loan as head of the National Police, was his boss.

Ultimately, Nhuận felt he was obligated to serve the people, and had determined that Thieu was the lesser of the two evils. He approached his CIA advisor, US Air Force Colonel Brad C. Crane, and asked Crane to ask his superiors in Sài Gòn to send a representative to Pleiku to meet with him on an urgent matter. The CIA Station in Sài Gòn sent an officer who, at one time, had been Nhuận’ adviser in Ban Mê Thuột, but whose name Nhuan has forgotten. It was not Tom Burke.

Nhuận told the CIA officer that he had no personal or professional relationship with Thiệu, and thus no stake in his being elected president. But he objected on principle to the planned coup, even if it were to be bloodless. Nhuận emphasized that he was fully aware of the need for anti-communist leaders within the military and police forces, but he also understood the feelings and aspirations of the people apart from a few ambitious functionaries and officers in Sài Gòn.

“Almost no one knew about my act,” Nhuan said. “However, after I informed the CIA of Kỳ’s plot, the chief of Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Cao Văn Viên, was invited to dinner by Ambassador Bunker, Vice Ambassador William, and General Westminster. At this meeting, the Americans decided to back Thieu, based on the advice of the CIA station.

“After Thiệu was elected president, my boss, Major Cao Văn Khanh, was promoted and made deputy Director of the CIO, then promoted again and made Director General of the Customs. Khanh and I stayed in touch and one day I asked him why he ended up at Customs. He said it was better there, that he couldn’t get “anything” at the CIO, meaning personal interests.

“But what I did was for the True, the Good, the Beautiful,” Nhuan concluded. “After I gave my suggestion to the CIA about Thiệu deserving to be Number One, I was not rewarded, because I never told anyone about it. But I was free to denounce and continue to counter what was not good for South Vietnam.”

The election took place peacefully on September 3rd 1967. Neither the Military Security Service nor the National Police incited the military and the civilian circles to petition to reverse the order of the two candidates in the ticket. The joint candidates Thiệu and Kỳ won with 35% of the vote, but candidate Thiệu maintained his top position; Thieu became president with Kỳ as his vice-president.

But Kỳ was more powerful than Thiệu, and before the election, he forced Thiệu to sign a promise that if they won, Thiệu would allow him to nominate the premier and all the ministers, as well as the important military and police commanders. Kỳ had many supporters, including MACV Commander Westmoreland, and after the election, he remained President of the Armed Forces Council via a so-called “Military Commissar Association” (Quân Ủy Hội), which Thiệu had pledged to obey.”

Indeed, not until the CIA intervened on Thieu’s behalf would the actual transition of power from Kỳ to Thieu be effected.

Part 7: Vietnam: Thiệu’s Stratocracy, 1968-1975
18 April 2017

Ever the idealist, Lê Xuân Nhuận refused to participate in Nguyễn Cao Kỳ’s plot to seize power from his running mate Nguyễn Văn Thiệu. Instead, he informed the CIA, which took steps to assure that Thiệu would become the first president of the Second Republic of South Vietnam.

But Thiệu could not assert his power until he had dismantled the security apparatus Kỳ, as prime minister, had developed since 1965. And given that Kỳ’s apparatus was effectively providing security for Sài Gòn during the 1968 Tet uprising, Thiệu’s dismantling process took several months.

The critical moment occurred in early May 1968, during the second Tet Offensive, when a sniper shot and seriously wounded Kỳ’s security chief, General Loan, outside MSS headquarters. Loan’s CIA advisor, Tullius Acampora, believed that forces loyal to Thiệu, backed by Americans, were responsible.

“Not only Tully, but many others believed that General Loan was shot by friendly fire,” Major Nguyễn Mâu recalled. “At that time, all efforts were concentrated to damage Kỳ’s equilibrium. The commander of Tân Sơn Nhứt Airbase, Colonel Lưu Kim Cuong, who was very faithful to Kỳ, was also assassinated by an unknown sniper.”

Senior CIA officer Evan Parker, director of the Phoenix Program (1967-1969) and senior CIA officer John Mason, his replacement, with US and Vietnamese Phung Hoang officers.

The dismantling process culminated in early June 1968 when a rocket fired from a US Marine helicopter gunship slammed into a wall within a schoolyard in Sài Gòn. Seven high ranking Kỳ officials, all of who had been invited to that location by their American advisers, were killed, including General Loan’s brother-in-law, two precinct police chiefs (one of who was Loan’s personal aide), and the Sài Gòn mayor’s chief of staff, who was Loan’s brother-in-law.

Also killed was Nhuận’s erstwhile boss from Ban-Mê-Thuột, Nguyễn Văn Luận, then a colonel serving as director of Police and Security in Sài Gòn. As recounted in Part 1, Luận in 1960 had given Nhuận, who had been banished from Hue, a chance to prove himself as chief of the unit’s criminal investigations team.

Four days after Kỳ’s men were assassinated in Sài Gòn, Thiệu appointed Colonel Trần Văn Hai as Director General of the National Police. Hai immediately dismissed Kỳ’s remaining precinct police chiefs in Sài Gòn and named Major Mâu (cited above) as chief of the Special Branch, a position outside the regular police command reporting directly to the prime minister. Around 150 special policemen were reportedly fired or arrested during this period of transition.[1]

Thiệu named his personal secretary General Nguyễn Khắc Bình as CIO Director, and gradually replaced Kỳ’s cronies in the military and civil bureaucracy. In the process, Thiệu loyalists seized control of the gold and drug smuggling rings that were key to financing agent networks and ensuring the loyalty of warlords primarily interested in power and the four savors (tứ đỗ tường); women, opium, gambling, and alcohol.

During this period of transition, the CIA launched its infamous Phoenix program to “neutralize”, by any means, the leaders of the Viet Cong Infrastructure (VCI). When the CIA created Phoenix in June of 1967, Kỳ and Loan vehemently opposed it as infringing on South Vietnam’s national sovereignty. But the CIA implemented the program over their objections, and Thiệu, having seen the results, soon authorized the creation of Phụng Hoàng, the Vietnamese version.

Several well-informed people, including Colonel Acampora, believed the CIA used its Phoenix forces to weaken Kỳ, and that the sniping of Loan and the assassinations of Colonel Cuong and the seven high-ranking Kỳ officials in June of 1968, were Phoenix operations.

There is no dispute that with the advent of Phoenix, the already vicious counter-insurgency achieved even greater levels of violence.

Nhuận in the fall of 1967 was chief of the Special Branch in II Corps, based in Pleiku. To assuage the CIA, II Corps Commander Major General Vĩnh Lộc agreed to discuss the implementation of Phoenix/Phụng Hoàng with a CIA delegation headed by the CIA’s Region Officer in Charge, Dean Almy. Lộc designated his chief of staff, Colonel Lê Trung Tường, to represent him in the discussion, which Nhuận attended.

As Nhuận recalled, Tường strongly objected when Almy announced that the RVN military would be required to support what was essentially a Special Police operation.

Military officers like Tường felt the new task was an unnecessary drain on their resources. But the CIA always got what it wanted, and in February 1968, Thiệu replaced General Lộc with Lieutenant General Lữ Lan. Not surprisingly, Lan and his chief of staff, Colonel Tôn Thất Hùng, fully embraced Phụng Hoàng.

The Phụng Hoàng program was soon in full swing. Guided by their CIA advisors, Special Branch officers in every region, province and district furnished local Phụng Hoàng Committees with information and documents, so that military operations could be directed against targeted VC cadres. At the same time, Special Branch officers retained and did not send information and documents relating to the clues and leads they were going to exploit in their clandestine intelligence operations.

As Nhuận explained, “The Special Branch now had two contradictory jobs: to exterminate the VCI on the Phụng Hoàng side; and to protect, in order to exploit and recruit, the VCI on the intelligence side.”

Nhuận, however, fully supported Phoenix. “I was so interested in the Phụng Hoàng Plan,” he said, “that I volunteered to give lectures at the Region II Phụng Hoàng Training Center, even though I was not a member of the Phụng Hoàng Committee.”

Nhuận felt that Phụng Hoàng was needed to prepare the police to preside over counter-intelligence operations when the war ended. There would come a time when US military forces would leave and only the Special Branch would remain to act against the VCI, whose members, as part of any negotiated settlement, would come to hold elected positions within the government.

“With peace, officials would come from different social segments, including adverse elements,” Nhuận said. “And Phoenix/Phụng Hoàng really did carry out its intended purpose until 1969, when US military people took over the program, along with US advisors from US/AID’s Public Safety Division who worked with the uniformed National Police.”

Transferring responsibility from the Special Branch to the military was, in Nhuận’s opinion, the mistake that doomed Phụng Hoàng. “The military people and police chiefs who took over the program from the Special Branch professionals were not as reliable or as well versed in intelligence operations. They could be trained, but only in how to make reports, not in knowing and understanding the factual conditions in the districts and villages where the real things happened.”

Special Branch (Ngành Ðặc-Biệt)

In 1969, CIA station chief Ted Shackley issued instructions that CIA officers assigned to Phoenix should withdrew from involvement in the program. The plan, Shackley told me, “was to free up CIA resources to improve the quality of the intelligence product, to penetrate the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese supporting them, and to concentrate more against the North and Cambodia.”

The war was far from over, but the US and North Vietnam had begun secret negotiations. As part of “Vietnamization”—the transfer of responsibility from the Americans to the Vietnamese—Shackley also started distancing the CIA from the Special Branch. Under Shackley, CIA officers continued to work closely with the CIO, but focused more on unilateral operations.

The withdrawal of CIA support foretold a crisis of morale within the Special Branch. Not only did the CIA fund the organization, it insulated Special Branch officers from ambitious Sài Gòn politicians, province chiefs and military commanders who wanted to use them for selfish reasons. Some Special Branch officers had made enemies and were now exposed, including Nhuận.

In 1969 Special Branch headquarters in Region II was relocated from Pleiku to Nha Trang City on the coast, where Nhuận became deputy chief under Lieutenant-Colonel Nguyễn Văn Long, a military officer with friends in Sài Gòn who wanted to assert military control over the Special Branch. Long was not an intelligence officer, however, and Nhuận remained the CIA’s principal contact. Nhuận worked with Dean Almy until 1970, and with Almy’s replacement Bill Anderson and his staff from 1970 until 1972.

“I helped my CIA advisors by putting good members under their direct command,” Nhuận said. “I had my advisor’s Vietnamese assistant come to my office every day to take news and information from me.”

In November 1970, Prime Minister Trần Thiện Khiêm fired Lieutenant-Colonel Nguyễn Mâu, who Thiệu considered a potenetial opponent in the up-coming elections, and appointed Brigadier General Huỳnh Thới Tây as chief of the Special Branch in Sài Gòn. Colonel Long had departed under a cloud and Nhuận was once again director of the Special Branch in Region II. His immediate boss was Colonel Cao Xuân Hồng, the National Police chief in Region II. Nhuận describes Hong as “a professional civilian police officer who often sent me to meet the military people because I had been in the army. I met the military almost every day at least at the II Corps situation room.”

Nhuận focused on the propagation and statistical analysis of the Police Plan, along with his voluntary participation in Phụng Hoàng, as outlined in his book Cảnh-Sát-Hóa. Primarily, he was an expert on all facets of agent handling: from recruiting, processing, and testing an agent, to creating an operational plan which was set in motion when the agent was trusted to join the VC as an “infiltration” agent. If the agent could recruit a VC element in place, the plan was classified as “penetration” operation.

The interrogation section, located at the Province Interrogation Center (PIC), was only supposed to produce information and leads. Information was to be disseminated by the Study and Plans Section; and leads were to be handled exclusively by Special Operations (Tiểu-Ban Công-Tác Ðặc-Biệt) officers within the Secret Services Section (Ban Mật-Vụ), who were trained as case officers in infiltration (Xâm-Nhập) and penetration (Nội-Tuyến) operations.

But military officers and CIA contractor officers assigned as PIC advisors used the PICs as operational centers to recruit, train, and run agents in clandestine operations, often with poor results. Sometimes the PIC advisor would develop agents and run operation by himself.

“It was confusing and difficult to evaluate such imposed special operations,” Nhuận recalled.

The Special Branch suffered another blow when a major reorganization of the National Police in 1970 stopped Special Branch operations at the district level. The problem was lack of funds, but the Special Branch, in Nhuận’s expert opinion, should have been allowed to operate at the village and hamlet level, where the VCI organized their cells.

“The US helped the government create a more amiable, less abominable police force,” Nhuận acknowledged. But it was a castle made of sand. And with the withdrawal of US advisors and funds, and the militarization of the police, the American Dream was replaced by a harsh reality that the Republic of Vietnam was still a developing nation, devoid of democratic institutions, faced with an implacable foe.

  1. [] Richard Critchfield, The Long Charade (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1968), p. 387
Part 8: Demoted and Promoted Again
19 April 2017

Nhuận’s dismay with Thiệu climaxed during the national elections of 1971, when Thiệu resorted to the same dirty tricks Kỳ tried to use in 1967. Thiệu, however, was so successful in rigging the presidential election that the other candidates withdrew in protest. Thiệu ran unopposed and was elected, but his power grab dealt a fatal blow to South Vietnam’s nascent democracy and helped revive the insurgency. But Thiệu was unrepentant; the North was planning a spring offensive and his only concern was security; so he imposed further restrictions on the independent media and political parties.

After the election, Thieu appointed CIO chief Nguyễn Khắc Bình Bình to the post of Director General of the National Police. Brigadier General Nguyễn Văn Giàu was put in charge of Security (Phụ Tá An-Ninh), and thereafter managed (among other things) the Phụng Hoàng program, the Police Plan, and the Security Service (An-Ninh Cảnh-Lực).

Binh militarized the National Police in style and substance, and Nhuận was again demoted to deputy chief of Region II, this time under Lt-Colonel Nguyễn Hữu Hải. There were rumors that the new II Corps commander, Lieutenant General Ngô Dzu, was involved in drug trafficking and rice speculation, but there was also a rumor (apparently spread by Dzu), that the CIA officials in Bình-Ðịnh Province were involved in marijuana smuggling.

Nhuận suspected the CIA was involved in a related undercover operation leading to the seizure of two tons of marijuana. But there was nothing he could do about military or CIA involvement in drug smuggling.

CIA officer Orin DeForrest and Special Police officers

“The Special Branch had no authority over the military,” he explained. “When the North Vietnamese military delegation came to Region II, the Air Force Security Service would not allow me to approach and take pictures, even though all the North Vietnamese officers were wearing ID cards on their jackets. The military police could not interfere when a soldier did something wrong, much less the civilian policeman. And that is why I refer to the system under Thiệu as a stratocracy.”

Through these changes, Nhuận remained an uncorrupted maverick belonging to no faction or political party. “After I lost a job,” he recalled, “I always was made chief of something else the same day, leaving one post to assume another under a string of corrupted bosses. I put the utmost time and energy into my duty; I was among the rare officials who worked in “off hours,” always ready to receive reports from the provinces and make decisions in time.”

Despite his demotion, civilian and military commanders, and their CIA advisors, continued to seek Nhuận’s advice on matters in the provinces and cities in Region II. Although politically incorrect, he was indispensable. But, as ever, his independence was both a blessing and a curse.

“In September 1973, my superiors, Major General Nguyễn Khắc Bình and Brigadier General Huỳnh Thới Tây (who had replaced Lieutenant Colonel Nguyễn Mâu in November 1970 as chief of the Special Branch in Sài Gòn), raised me to region chief again, this time in Region I, headquartered in Ðà-Nẵng. They did this not merely to reward me, but also to sacrifice me.

“From the time I was banished from Huế in 1960,” Nhuận explained, “I had made it clear to everyone that I wanted to return. But now that I no longer wanted to go back to “the front line,” they sent me to Ðà Nẵng. The political situation in Region I was deteriorating and my predecessors had failed to deal with it.

“I agreed to go, but my dedication caused marital problems and my wife suggested divorce before I left. We had been married in 1955, and had five daughters and one son by then. It was difficult, but during my last tour in Ðà-Nẵng, my family stayed in Nha-Trang and I was alone. My wife died in 1997.”

In September 1973, Nhuận was appointed Director of Police Special Branch for Region I, headquartered in Ðà Nẵng. The Paris Peace Accords, which had ended the Vietnam War, had also engendered a new relationship between the police and military services. In Region 1 commander, General Ngô Quang Trưởng authorized Nhuận to coordinate all the region’s security and intelligence services, including the MSS and the army’s “G2” intelligence branch. In coordinating military and police affairs, Nhuan and his staff compiled the Order of Battle (Trận-Liệt) that was used by all security and intelligence agencies nationwide.

Nhuận was especially proud of his accomplishments in Ðà-Nẵng. “In a developing country, in wartime, and under military authority,” he said, “I alone applied the “Police Plan” and reaped the expected rewards.”

Nhuận’s allies in Ðà-Nẵng included the mayor since 1968, Colonel Nguyễn Ngọc Khôi, and Lieutenant Colonel Dương Quang Tiếp, the National Police chief in Ðà-Nẵng City. Colonel Khôi had been chief of the National Police in Region II when Nhuận was stationed in Pleiku City. Lieutenant Colonel Tiếp was influential not only within the police, but also with high-ranking military officers.

David Morales was the CIA’s region officer in charge, but Nhuận dealt with his operations chief, Mr. George, who handled CIA liaison affairs with the police and military. After George departed, Nhuận worked with Kenneth Ferguson until Ferguson was replaced in early 1975 by Mr. Watkins.

CIA interrogation center

Nhuận’s job was to suppress the VC Infrastructure, and, by his own account, he succeeded in quelling all communist activities, as well as stabilizing the chaotic political and religious situation in the six northern cities of the country. He attributes this to his “obstinate though lonely application of the Police Plan.”

Nhuận’s CIA advisers welcomed his energy and dedication, and provided him with significantly greater funds than his predecessors. His relationship to the CIA grew closer when, in 1973, the paramilitary Provincial Reconnaissance Unit (PRU) program, which was entirely funded by the CIA, was placed under Special Branch command. On his own initiative, Nhuận created a region-level Special Branch Operations Team by combining the regional PRU team with two National Police Field Force (NPFF) platoons. Nhuận personally commanded the team, which included Local Forces (Ðịa-Phương-Quân).

At Nhuận’s request, the Region 1 National Police chief, Colonel Nguyễn Xuân Lộc, allowed the region PRU chief to wear the badge of a major, and the provincial PRU chiefs to pose as captains so they could work with military officers.

“General Tây, the Special Branch chief in Sài Gòn, reproached me over development,” Nhuận confessed.

Corruption was rife and generated many intrigues. For example, after Nhuận arranged for CIA employee Trần Văn Phú to become the PRU chief in Quảng-Nam Province, the national PRU commander in Sài Gòn, Lieutenant Colonel Nguyen Van Lang, contacted Phú and demanded that he provide him with the latest AKAI stereo system.

Nhuận complained to General Tây, who sent Lang back to the army.

In another instance, Major Ðặng Văn Song, the Special Branch chief in Ðà-Nẵng, allowed two defectors to approach other VCs, ostensibly as part of an intelligence operation. “But the two defectors,” Nhuận recalled, “used the opportunity to extort people who, if they didn’t pay the required bribe, were denounced as active VCs.

“I twice ordered Song to cease using these defectors, but Song still let it continue.”

Nhuận again appealed to General Tây in Sài Gòn, and Song, like Lang, was punished. “But the VCs in the jungle used their radio program, the Voice of the Provisional Revolutionary Government of the Republic of South Vietnam, to congratulate me,” Nhuan explained. “They said I was “their” sleeper agent inside the “puppet” administration and that I had interfered to protect the people from being molested and penalized by Song. Of course, they were really just trying to get me kicked out of Region I.”

Nhuận’s war with the VC was a dangerous undertaking. “In 1975 I rented a two-story building at the corner of Quang-Trung and Phan-Chu-Trinh Streets in Ðà-Nẵng City,” he recalled. “I lived and worked upstairs; the lower story was the office of the Tracking Team I formed and aimed at the VC’s Military Coordination Committee. The Tracking Team consisted of Special Branch and MSS officers.

“Obviously, this was an important site. Everyone knew who I was, and the team chief was using a Jeep my CIA advisors had given me, and which bore a special plate reserved for foreigners. Sometimes CIA officials came the facility to meet me or join the team for dinner. One evening, the VC threw a grenade at the two uniformed traffic policemen working at that corner, injuring them. There were many crossroads with traffic policemen throughout the city, but they chose this spot to show their superiors that they did pay attention to me and my place.”

The VC also ordered a pedicab cell to watch Nhuan’s home and plant a bomb under his car. A pedicab cell had successfully pulled off a similar operation in Ðà-Lạt City, badly injuring the Special Branch chief there. “But my bodyguards and home guards were always active,” Nhuan said, “and the head of the pedicab cell, Nguyễn Một, knew that I had been good to the neighbors and did not deserve to be harmed, so he decided not to do anything to damage me.”

The VC, of course, were aware of Nhuận’s long association with the CIA. They considered collaboration an act of treason. But for Nhuận, the CIA provided him with freedom from the corruption that plagued his cash-strapped colleagues. “I didn’t have to take money,” Nhuận explained, “because General Tây provided me with VN $20,000 each month from funds provided him by his CIA partners.”

Nhuận in turn allowed his CIA friends to use several of his subordinates as co-case officers in unilateral operations the CIA ran apart from the South Vietnamese. He likewise gave the US Consulate in Ðà-Nẵng the appropriate security information needed to deal with demonstration against the US.

In exchange, the CIA responded to Nhuận’s concerns. The agency, for example, rarely, if ever, made an accommodation that diluted its authority. But it allowed Nhuận to place one policeman in each of the M’Nong teams that patrolled Ðà-Nẵng City on the CIA’s behalf. The M’Nong were not government employees and were legally prohibited from using their weapons, even if provoked.

The CIA also gave Nhuận VIP access to its private airline, Air America, and allowed him to place officers at the AA gate to check passengers and luggage, to prevent hijacking and the smuggling of contraband.

Nhuận’s even convinced his CIA partners not only to aim at VC in or near South Vietnam, but to target members of the International Commission of Control and Supervision (ICCS). The Paris Peace Agreement had established the ICCS to monitor the ceasefire and make sure both sides were abiding by the Peace Agreement and Protocols. Several Communist and non-aligned nations were members of the ICCS, including Hungary and Poland.

Nhuận’s greatest achievement was recruiting an interpreter with the Hungarian delegation assigned to Ðà-Nẵng City. Nhuận transferred this agent to his CIA advisor, Mr. George, who became the agent’s case-officer and followed him to Hungary when his tour in Vietnam ended.

A few weeks after George departed, his replacement, Mr. Ferguson, organized a dinner to congratulate Nhuận and his Secret Operations Team for their progress. “At one point,” Nhuận recalled, “Mr. Ferguson whispered in my ear that Mr. George had already contacted the agent and had built a liaison system with the Hungarian captain in Budapest.”

Nhuận is proud that he helped the CIA infiltrate secret agents into the communist party apparatus inside the governments of Hungary and Poland, an accomplishment widely recognized as having contributed to the collapse of the Eastern European Communist systems in the late 1980s.

It was an accomplishment that did not go unrecognized by his enemies.

The Fall of Ðà-Nẵng

“Three days before the fall of Ðà-Nẵng City on 29 March 1975,” Nhuận recalled, “Trần Văn Phú arranged with the captain of a military transport ship to reserve one place for me and another place for Major Ngô Phi Ðạm, chief the Special Branch Operations Service in Region 1. Unfortunately, the ship was filled to overflowing and we couldn’t board it. Next, we drove to a secret helicopter landing space over the beach, where the main pilot had agreed to pick us up, but again in vain. So we parted, each trying by himself to flee the city, where some teams of VC would begin to show up in the next morning.”

Nhuận and Phú would not see each again for nearly 20 years.

Nhuận arrived at Cam- Ranh Bay on the afternoon of 31 March and immediately contacted the National Police Command in Sài Gòn. Through channels, Major General Nguyễn Khắc Bình ordered Nhuận to go to Nha-Trang, where, he said, the National Police commander in Region II, Colonel Lê Trọng Ðàm, would provide Nhuận with air transportation to Sài Gòn. The NVA was everywhere.

Nhuận’s next call was to his wife in Nha-Trang, who burst out crying when she heard her husband’s voice. Given the circumstances, she realized they might never see each other again. “Please don’t be angry at me any longer,” she sobbed.

“I’m not angry anymore,” Nhuận replied. Full of apprehension and regret, he apologized for having allowed his ambitions to rule his life.

“Go home and be with our kids,” he said, then left the radio room, ran into the office of the private secretary of Colonel Nguyễn Xuân Lộc, and started crying. Lt.Colonel Tạ Văn Sánh, the chief of Personnel and Training, unexpectedly stepped in, and then silently stepped out.

On the night of 1 April 1975, the North Vietnamese Army entered the city of Nha-Trang.

Part 9: Capture
20 April 2017

Nhuận was captured on 17 April 1975 while hiding in the French-style villa of Mr. Tôn Thất Ðệ, owner of Nha-Trang’s “Tân Tân” ciné. Mr. Ðệ was his wife’s uncle.

“My case was a special one,” he said. “In the Vietnamese language, “to work with” is popularly understood as “to serve”. The VC who came to arrest me used a civilian car bearing a big “liberation front” flag that was rare and reserved for VIPs at that time. They carefully guided me into the car instead of tying my arms behind me and walking me along the streets as they usually did to other arrestees. Instead, they respectfully invited me to go “work with us”. The curious neighbors who witnessed my arrest inferred that I had been a high-ranking VC cadre, which caused a long tragi-comedy until after my release.

“At first I was kept alone in a villa, formerly occupied of a doctor, in front of the CIA compound at 22 Bá Ða Lộc Street. Then I was taken up to Ðà-Nẵng City, where I arrived on 26 April 1975. I was not tortured. The VC had confiscated three new Peugeot cars which they alternatively used to drive me around. Once they kept me alone in a room, while the other rooms held up to 60 arrestees each. They fed me in the “small kitchen” reserved for VIPs, and closely cared for my health.”

Nhuận, however, was of no special interest to his captors, who were primarily interested in obtaining information about his CIA advisers. There was no need for a trial—his work for the Special Police meant he was automatically guilty—and he soon began a twelve-year long journey through a series of Labor and Transformation (Lao Ðộng và Cải Tạo) camps deep in the jungles of Quang Nam Province, with periodic visits to interrogation centers in Ðà-Nẵng City and Hội-An, the capital city of Quảng Nam.

For five years, he managed not to reveal his operations against Poland and Hungary. Apparently, his captors never suspected that a mere Special Policeman could have engaged in such activities. But information from a foreign intelligence service eventually surfaced, and in October 1980, he was brought to the Kho Ðạn interrogation center in Ðà-Nẵng, and a few weeks he was taken to Hà-Nội.

“They brought me to and from Hà-Nội by airplane, which was very unusual at that time,” Nhuận said, “The other prisoners were transported by trucks, trains, or ships.

“In Hà-Nội I was kept in the Thanh Liệt detention center, which was directly run by the Interior Ministry. They used safe-houses and cover liaison methods like in the former RVN, and in my case, Premier Phạm Hùng was listening on the other end of the telephone line during the last interrogation by a very high-ranking cadre. He called me “colleague” but on the opposite side. He said I had been a talent.

“He said that the VC Central cadres had read my personal records at Special Branch headquarters and had found that over the years, my anti-communist achievements had amounted to hundreds of KIA (killed in action), thousands of CIA (captured in action), and innumerable returnees. But they could not find any records of me being duly awarded. On the contrary, they found that I had been punished on several occasions, and even exiled.

“I said that I was punished because I had been against both republics in the South.

“They said that I had tried to exterminate them, and they asked me to come back to the people.

“Then a general who was present called me a mercenary for trying to topple the socialist systems in Poland and Hungary. “Is it that your CIA bosses have crammed such illusive idea into your denationalized brain,” he asked?”

“The so-called Hungarian delegation that came to interrogate me included Russian and Polish officials. They showed me documents, including a photo of Mr. George, the CIA adviser working with me on the Hungarian captain, the first agent I had recruited. There more than the six Polish and Hungarian agents, but I had forgotten the real names of those people.”

Nhuận avoided telling other important details as well, and after five years, the CIA had had enough time to change passwords and signs required to meet agents. But like all Special Branch prisoners, he was made to denounce US war crimes. Otherwise, Nhuận remained defiant throughout his ordeal.

Indeed, he continues to defend those Americans who supported the RVN. He felt the US was totally justified in all its actions. He has no regrets.

The series of events that started with Thompson Grunwald in Huế in 1954, ended in January 1992, when Nhuận arrived in the United States as a political refugee with his wife and two unmarried daughters. Happy to be among the Americans he so greatly esteems, he started his new life by going to schools, writing memoirs, composing poetry in English, translating Vietnamese poems into English verse, and contributing his writings to US and UK magazines and anthologies.

He became an American citizen in 1997 and is a member of International PEN. His autobiographical books about his many adventures and accomplishments as a Special Police officer are available at his website.

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