BANGKOK, Thailand -- The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency's belief in
lying Vietnamese spies, "ghosts," "slicky boys" and "marketplace mush"
contributed to America losing its Vietnam War in 1975, according to
James Parker, the last CIA officer to evacuate Vietnam.
When asked in an interview about CIA-run Vietnamese spies who
fabricated information for the CIA's reports during the war, Mr.
Parker, 73, replied: "Ah, the lying spy syndrome."
When the CIA operates in any country, "it's hard to recruit spies,
to find them, develop them, recruit them to steal secrets, dispatch
them, and then debrief them on their return," he said.
"To the uninitiated, it's tougher than it looks. And here's another
thought: when that guy or gal you've recruited to be a spy comes back
in with the secret information you sent him to get, it's only at this
point where the whole process gives a return on our country's
investment of time, money [and] risk.
"You, and your agent, are only of value to the intel community when
you finally, finally write up the intel report. The process can take
years sometimes, progressing from one case officer's development to
another," he said.
Mr. Parker, now based in Las Vegas, Nevada, worked at the CIA for
32 years, starting in 1970.
He became a CIA paramilitary case officer in 1971 fighting
alongside ethnic Hmong guerrillas and Thailand's forces against Lao
and North Vietnamese communists inside Laos until 1973.
In 1974, he became a CIA intelligence officer in U.S.-backed South
Vietnam handling Vietnamese agents in the Mekong River Delta and
liaising with South Vietnam's military until the U.S. lost its wars in
Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam in April 1975.
He was the last CIA officer to evacuate Vietnam, escaping on May 1,
1975, two days after the U.S. abandoned its embassy in Saigon.
Mr. Parker recalled how, in South Vietnam during the war, "you find
a new guy through your own spade work or maybe by referral from the
U.S. military or South Vietnamese police, and you go on to assess and
vet him and recruit him and train him and send him out. And then
sometimes he just disappears, losing his nerve when it comes down to
actually doing what he has been tasked to do.
"What's the life of a productive spy? Five years maybe, sometimes
longer, but not often. They lose their edge -- their interest in
having their lives disrupted and endangered -- or they lose their
access. Or after two or three [CIA] case officer handlers, the
personal attachment can become weak and the [Vietnamese] guy maybe
just doesn't gee-haw [get along] with the new case officer."
Mr. Parker said, "It's a tough business under any conditions. In
Vietnam, this difficult business had to be done under combat
conditions, where to be found out, meant sure death for the spy."
The continuous revolving door of experienced CIA case officers
departing Vietnam, and introducing their fresh replacements into the
complicated war, also created difficulties.
The CIA's American "case officers turned over every couple of years
as their tours expired, and the new guy was often taken advantage of
by the existing [Vietnamese] agents.
"For example, if these [Vietnamese] agents were what is known as
'principle' agents, they sent out other Vietnamese contacts as their
intel gatherers. These sub-agents were hard to keep up with...as does
accountability and chain of acquisition of their information.
"And, perhaps most common, these hard to verify sub-agents were
often ghosts, as in not really there," Mr. Parker said.
As the war dragged on, some of the CIA's Vietnamese spies became
"We're talking [about] the end of the war here where [Vietnamese]
'principle agents' had come to know pretty much what the CIA generally
was looking for. So the good scammers would just stay in place for
years -- up until the end really -- feeding marketplace mush to the
CIA case officers.
"And for years, if 'principle agents' who had worked for the CIA
were found out to be phony, or if they hyped low-level info into
something that sounded sexy [and] were found out and terminated in one
province -- since they knew the business, these slicky boys would
often just move to another province and make indirect contact with
Americans there with a whole new invented network of sub-sources and
sell their fabricated newspaper-inspired stuff, or general ground
truths, to an unsuspecting new CIA guy as 'intelligence'," he said.
"All that new local [Vietnamese] intel entrepreneur had to do was
mix in a little truth, and he would look like he had potential.
"Some of the [Vietnamese] agents identified as 'fabricators' were
not necessarily criminal and deceitful in their work, but had, along
the way, lost their access or their agents were killed or just didn't
come back from missions.
"But [they] continued to pretend that they had sub-agents, when in
fact the 'principle agent' was just making up what the [CIA] case
officer wanted to hear."
Among the CIA's American staff, problems arose because their own
bosses demanded more and more information.
"You gotta remember that there was pressure on us CIA case officers
to produce intels," he said, referring to intelligence reports.
"So the emphasis, certainly from say 1968 to 1972, was to believe
your [Vietnamese] agent over reasonable doubt sometimes, and keep him
on -- to provide the necessary number of reports you need for
promotion, or to keep the [CIA] base you were operating from, up to
As a result, CIA case officers experienced a "lot of resistance to
cleaning your stable of [Vietnamese] assets, or vetting them anew
after a year or so in which they had produced five or ten reports a
month to you."
Lessons needed to be learned from the CIA's lack of spying
expertise in Vietnam, he said.
"This lack of intelligence, on the plans and intentions of the
communist in South Vietnam, is something the CIA must bear responsible
Failures by the White House, State Department, Pentagon, U.S.
Embassy and the CIA's Saigon Station are also to blame for deadly
mistakes during the war, Mr. Parker said in the interview.
In 1963, "when [President John] Kennedy was assassinated, [Defense
Secretary Robert] McNamara and his power of persuasion rose to be the
alpha animal when it came to U.S. policies in Southeast Asia, and he
didn't have a fucking clue," Mr. Parker said.
"Wrong-headed McNamara was the primal idiot. [Gen. William]
Westmoreland his minion.
"The North won the war because we were led from the Pentagon by
[McNamara], a complete wacko idiot who didn't listen to [President
Dwight] Eisenhower about fighting the expansion of communism in
Southeast Asia by denying Laos to the North Vietnamese."
As a result, North Vietnamese created a valuable Ho Chi Minh Trail
through Laos and Cambodia to move troops and weapons into South
"The war was over with Tet [North Vietnam's lunar New Year military
offensive] in 1968 when [President Lyndon] Johnson lost his will to
fight. He fired Westmoreland and McNamara, and sent in [Gen.
Creighton] Abrams, but the war was over when he [Johnson] said he
wasn't going to run for president in the fall of '68.
"Most of the fighting and dying was yet to be done before the U.S.
military pulled out in 1973, but our commitment to win was over when
Tet accomplished its mission of getting Johnson to give up."
The U.S. wars resulted in the deaths -- on all sides -- of more than one million Vietnamese, and between 200,000 to one million people
in Laos, plus at least 600,000 Cambodians and more than 58,000
Americans, according to various researchers.
"U.S. intelligence interest -- when I first got there -- was on political wrangling in Saigon, and only the barest of interest in what was happening in the field.
"That's why my [CIA] reporting from the [Mekong River] Delta in 1974 got such little attention."
Describing Saigon's doomed U.S. Embassy's State Department staff
during the final four months, Mr. Parker said: "In Saigon, all that was left of the Americans were place-keepers who, for the most part, had only a distant relationship with the ARVN (South Vietnam's army)."
Those Americans had never been shot at, did not have friends die in
their arms, and had no close contact with any Vietnamese except mostly
girlfriends and maids, he said.
The CIA's Saigon Station was also fooled by propaganda.
In 1975, "the CIA leadership in Saigon...sincerely did believe what
was obviously a Soviet disinformation ploy that the fix was in, and
the North Vietnamese only planned to move to the northern gates of
Saigon, and that they would allow the capital and the Delta to remain
free," he said.
"Hard to believe that our people bought into this, but that's what
I have surmised.
"Certainly I was told by [Frank] Snepp, the [CIA's] head analyst in
Saigon, that...they knew what was happening out here, and that the
North Vietnamese would not take Saigon. Period."
Mr. Parker described Mr. Snepp as a condescending, pedantic elitist
who during 1974-1975 spouted trivia about North Vietnamese
personalities and Saigon intrigue which did not reflect the war-torn
'"There will be many future generations of CIA case officers in the
Delta,' was Snepp's famous closing line to us" -- weeks before the war
In April 1975, Mr. Parker reluctantly told his Vietnamese employees
that South Vietnam would not collapse, even though he knew North
Vietnam's military was about to seize Saigon.
"I remember being pelted with questions about the future when I
closed down the CIA compound in My Tho [South Vietnam]. I looked each
employee in the compound directly in the eye and told them that they
were safe, that the CIA information was that there would be a
"I gave them this line because I didn't want to be mobbed," by
employees desperate to escape.
"There was also danger from the South Vietnamese who might think
about kidnapping my sorry ass and holding me as ransom for their safe
exit, or in shooting me for leading them down the primrose path in our
war fighting," he said.
After the U.S.-Vietnam War, Mr. Parker returned to headquarters in
In 1976, he became a staff espionage officer doing "CIA Directorate
of Operations work as a spy recruiter and handler...around the world"
-- starting with two years based in Africa.
He retired in 1992 but on Sept. 11, 2001, returned to the CIA as a
contractor to "teach tradecraft to new hires" and work inside
Cambodia, Afghanistan and elsewhere before retiring again in 2011.
Mr. Parker received the CIA's Intelligence Medal of Merit, a
Certificate of Distinction, and two Certificates of Exceptional
He authored several books about his CIA experiences in Southeast
Asia, including his newest published in 2016 titled, "The Vietnam War:
The 706-page book details his proudest CIA successes during the war
and, what he says, are reasons the U.S. failed.
By Richard S. Ehrlich
Wednesday, 12 July 2017, 4:06 pm
Richard S. Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based journalist from San Francisco,
California, reporting news from Asia since 1978 and winner of Columbia
University's Foreign Correspondent's Award. He is a co-author of three
non-fiction books about Thailand, including "'Hello My Big Big Honey!'
His websites are https://asia-correspondent.tumblr.com http://www.flickr.com/photos/animists