War of Numbers
(Steerforth Press, 1994)
CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE AGENCY employees don't normally walk off with top secret documents, stash them in a wooden box, and bury them in a neighbor's woods. I did. This book tells why. The immediate reason the documents went underground was a letter from Admiral Rufus Taylor, the agency's otherwise kindly deputy director, who intimated that the CIA would be better off without me.
"Your suggestion of a board of inquiry," he wrote, "into what you describe as past failures" would "take the time of busy people in the White House," and would "seem to be more wasteful of time and effort than may be the very conditions you deplore . . . I suggest to you," he concluded, "that if you cannot abide the decision implicit in the above, you cannot continue to consider yourself a helpful member of the intelligence team here at CIA, and should, therefore, submit your resignation."
Well, that was that: no board of inquiry. And after the damnedest set of misdeeds that U.S. intelligence had ever strung together. The letter was Admiral Taylor's last official act. On the CIA headquarters' seventh floor that afternoon, he shook hands with well-wishers congratulating him on his final day in the government. The date was 31 January 1969, a year and a day after the Vietcong Tet Offensive swept South Vietnam, causing a near political cataclysm in the United States. Admiral Taylor shortly made off for retirement in Florida.
Despite his letter I had no intention of quitting. Instead, I removed from my desk a manilla folder of classified documents, slipped the folder into that day's Wall Street Journal, walked past the guard at the agency's west-side exit, and drove home. Two years earlier I would never have dreamed of removing such documents from the CIA. Agency regulations, backed by God-knows-what federal statutes, forbade such a thing. Furthermore, it was against my habit. At the close of each day since joining the agency in March 1963 I had performed the ritual of tugging at the file drawers to make sure they were locked, pushing paper bags of classified trash down burn chutes, and even checking the floor around my desk for stray scraps of paper. Admiral Taylor's letter modified my outlook on security, and for good reason.
"Suggestions" to resign, such as the admiral's, are often followed by pink slips. And if I were fired, all the documents I'd collected about the odd goings-on around the Tet Offensive might vanish. Future boards of inquiry, if any, might have to depend on people's memories; disputes over facts would become one man's word against another's. Clearly the documentary evidence had to be preserved.
Many days and envelopes later, I began to worry that the CIA might search my house. I decided to bury the papers. Wrapping them in a plastic leaf bag, I put the bag in a wooden box -- it had once held twelve bottles of cheap Spanish wine -- nailed the box shut, and headed for my neighbor's woods. It took me an hour with pick and shovel to get the box a foot and a half underground. In hindsight, I was overreacting. My career at the agency was to last four more years. During that time I received twelve more "suggestions" to resign. They were never followed up, however, and when I finally quit the agency in May 1973, it was of my own accord. All that time the wooden box lay buried in the woods.
It stayed there during the summer of 1973 as I went from congressman to congressman trying to explain what had gone wrong with U.S. intelligence during the war. No one on the hill seemed interested. The last U.S. soldiers had left Vietnam in March of that year and apparently the rehashing of old mistakes -- no matter how serious -- was like trying to raise the dead. In August I called it quits with Congress. I decided to write a book about my years with the CIA.
Near where I lived is the small Virginia town of Purcellville, with a solid stone library built in the thirties. Its head librarian, the late Mrs. Jean Carruthers, said I could set up my typewriter in the library basement. There I started the first draft of what eventually became this book. The first draft was less than perfect. Angry at what had gone on at the CIA, I wrote it off the top of my head -- contrary to my usual practice without research or recourse to documents. Thank God for Mrs. Carruthers. With red hair, strong opinions, and a sympathetic ear, she did me the service of listening to what I had to say, and better yet, agreeing there was something to it. I talked to her a great deal. Gradually my anger began to subside.
The palaver with Mrs. Carruthers might have continued indefinitely had not a friend, John Gardiner, told an editor of Harper's magazine that there was someone in the Purcellville Library cellar with an unusual story. The editor, George Crile, tracked me down in late 1974. I wrote the article for Harper's early the next year. Recounting my career at the agency, the article appeared as the cover story of the May 1975 issue. It hit the stands a few days before the fall of Saigon, and as a result, I expected it to make a big splash. It didn't. Saigon's collapse apparently made people want to forget about Vietnam. The May issue was a poor seller.
The article had important results, however. The first was that it convinced a publisher to offer me a contract for my book. This contract changed my attitude toward writing. I discarded the first draft, and began a second, this one on the basis of solid research. With this in mind, I decided to dig up the document box. With crowbar and shovel I trudged off to my neighbor's woods, confident it would be easy to find because of three red thumbtacks I'd stuck in trees surrounding the small clearing where the box was buried.
Unfortunately, the red thumbtacks were gone. I frantically paced the woods, cursing myself for not having used better markers. After an hour's fruitless search, I returned to the spot I'd originally thought was right and stabbed the ground with the crowbar. There was a hollow thump. I looked up at a nearby tree and saw a thumbtack, only it had faded to brown. Unearthing the box, I took it to my attic. When I opened it, I almost wept. The leaf bag had sprung a leak. The papers were a mass of black slime. Hopelessly, I spread the wads of slime on the attic floor to dry.
Weeks later, more out of curiosity than anything else, I returned to the attic with a kitchen knife, stuck it into one of the now-dry wads, and twisted. The wad split in half. The writing on the paper was perfectly preserved! Only the edges were eaten away. Giving a short prayer of thanks to whomever invented margins, I spent the next four days in the attic. Like an archaeologist, I pried papers from the wads sheet by sheet. Almost 95 percent of them were legible.
The Harper's piece had a second result. It came later that summer when an investigator for the House of Representatives, Greg Rushford, appeared on my back porch and asked me, my God, was what I'd said in Harper's really true? I said yes. A short while later, the so-called Pike Committee on Intelligence (named for its chairman, Congressman Otis Pike), decided to investigate charges the article had made about the faking of U.S. estimates of Vietcong strength before Tet. I offered the committee my documents -- but with a string attached: that the CIA be permitted to review them first. No way, said the committee, jealous of its prerogatives. So I didn't turn them over, but let Rushford see them instead.
Although the committee eventually wrote a report that supported the charges made in the Harper's piece as substantially correct, I felt that their investigation was scarcely the board of inquiry I'd hoped for.* Besides myself, only one other intelligence analyst -- an obscure ex-Army lieutenant named Richard McArthur -- had testified about how U.S intelligence falsified the enemy strength estimates in 1967 and 1968. I knew that hundreds of other people had been involved in the falsification. Therefore, I decided to launch an investigation myself. I tossed out most of the first draft of my book, and picked up the telephone to make the first of what became thousands of calls.
This time I decided to do things the way I had at the agency -- methodically and with precision. Using every conceivable source of information -- documents, checkbooks, phone records, even medicine bottles, I constructed a day-by-day chronology of my ten-year career at the CIA. I made separate chronologies for specific subjects, such as the enemy strength estimate. With this basic framework complete, I had a place to put every newly acquired fact.
My initial investigation took five years to complete. There were some three hundred interviews, many of which took several weeks to prepare for. The hardest problem was finding people who would talk. Since the Pentagon refuses to give out names, the most useful device in finding contacts was Christmas-card lists. I went to such places as California (to see Joe Hovey), New York (to see George Hamscher), Florida (to see Joseph McChristian), a bowling alley in McLean, Virginia (to see George Allen), and London (to see James Meacham). Perhaps the most helpful material that I came across was a batch of 322 letters home written by James Meacham to his wife Dorothy over a twelve-month period between 1967 and 1968. The first really unexpected material I found was during an interview with Bernard Gattozzi, once a lieutenant in General Westmoreland's headquarters, now an official for the Department of Justice. By late 1980 I was in the home stretch of my book and had compiled a chronology of doings in Westmoreland's headquarters, a chronology that if typed out would have been some seven hundred pages long.
At one time I planned to call my book "To Square a Circle." That title (which my editor axed because it sounded too much like a mathematics textbook) derived from the opening line of a cable that my CIA boss, George Carver, sent to agency headquarters from Saigon right after he had caved in to the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) during the September order of battle conference at Westmoreland's headquarters in 1967: "We have squared the circle," he wrote, ". . . We now have an agreed set of figures."
Carver used the unusual phrase because of his familiarity with the life and works of Thomas Hobbes, on whom he had written a thesis at Cambridge University. Hobbes, the seventeenth century philosopher and geometrician who wrote Leviathan, had spent an inordinately long time trying to solve the geometrical problem of squaring a circle. Hobbes tried and tried, but finally concluded it couldn't be done. Thus Carver -- who was intimately familiar with Hobbes' effort -- was saying in effect, "I have achieved the mathematically impossible."
In the fall of 1980 who should pop up in my life again but George Crile, no longer an editor for Harper's but now a producer of documentaries for CBS News. "What have you been doing with yourself since I saw you last?" he asked. I told him about the interviews and showed him the order-of-battle chronology. Apparently he was impressed with what I'd turned up because in December he submitted a formal proposal for a documentary to CBS Reports, a division of CBS News. The proposal centered on the possibility of getting some of my sources to repeat their stories on camera.
CBS News gave a tentative okay early the next year and allowed Crile a small budget to see what he could do. Crile hired me on as a consultant, in part to persuade my contacts to come on camera and in part to describe my own activities in the month surrounding Tet.
The CBS front office was skeptical that we could get anyone to talk, believing that it was one thing for former intelligence officers to share their stories privately with one of their own and quite another thing to go public on national TV. At first this skepticism seemed well founded, as Crile and I received a number of refusals. Eventually seven former intelligence officers whom I had already talked to (George Allen, George Hamscher, Gains Hawkins, Joseph Hovey, James Meacham, Richard McArthur and Joseph McChristian) agreed to appear. At the last minute Bernard Gattozzi -- for reasons I fully sympathize with -- declined to come on, and I had to search out a replacement to tell his story. The replacement was Russell Cooley. Crile, together with Mike Wallace, extended the list by interviewing two others, Daniel Graham and General William Westmoreland. The resulting documentary, called "The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception," appeared on 23 January 1982, a Saturday night. It ran against the "Steve Martin Comedy Hour" and received the lowest ratings of any national program for that week. A few days later Westmoreland held a press conference in rebuttal, there was a short flurry of newspaper articles about the show, and the story of American intelligence surrounding Tet seemed headed back into obscurity.
But that May the issue was rekindled when TV Guide ran as its cover story an accusation that the documentary had "smeared" General Westmoreland. Although the story claimed to have no problems with the substance of the broadcast, it charged that CBS had made several mistakes in putting together the documentary. Whereupon, CBS shot itself in the foot by taking the article seriously and running an investigation which found that some of the charges were valid. The article apparently convinced General Westmoreland that CBS had defamed his honor, and he sued the network for $120 million. As consultant to the show, I became a named defendant in the case Westmoreland v. CBS Inc. and Mike Wallace, George Crile, Van Gordon Sauter, and Samuel Adams.
My reaction to the lawsuit was profound surprise, rapidly followed by elation. Realizing that such a suit would involve the subpoena of documents and the sworn testimony of all the parties concerned, I felt that at last I could get to the bottom of what happened. Here, paradoxically, was my long sought board of inquiry. Since the suit was too big for inhouse CBS lawyers to handle, the network hired the famous Wall Street law firm of Cravath, Swaine and Moore.
The discovery process of the lawsuit exceeded my most sanguine expectations. It was a researcher's dream. Subpoenas were issued to every conceivable government agency, dozens of archivists combed the files for relevant documents, and a number of intelligence officials were put under oath.
Once again, as a consultant, I guided the document search, wrote out the questions to be asked, and attended most of the depositions. Among the depositions I attended were those of all the living principals of the war, including then Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Head of the National Security Council Walt Rostow, CIA directors Richard Helms and William Colby, and of course General William C. Westmoreland. My role was to frame questions for the deposees. My position was virtually unique -- a midlevel CIA researcher with a rank roughly equivalent to army major, guiding what became the only major investigation of the Vietnam War. The trial ended on 18 February 1985, when General Westmoreland withdrew his suit a week before the case was scheduled to go to the jury. The lawsuit brought to light the facts of the events around Tet but it left unanswered the main subject of the book I wanted to write: Who the hell were we fighting out there?
Answers to this question were to be found at CIA headquarters in the form of captured enemy documents. Prior to my resignation, I discovered that the issue of actual enemy numbers was peripheral to the real strengths and weaknesses of the Vietcong. The main enemy strength lay not in the number of troops deployed but in other areas that U.S. intelligence had hardly considered. While other people worried about the "big issues" of the war, as riots broke out on the streets at home, and as American soldiers continued to fight in Vietnam, I read the Vietcong documents. In them I was to answer to my own satisfaction the question about who we were fighting. Perhaps the recounting of what these documents said will help others understand why America lost the war in Vietnam.
Copyright © 1994 by Anne Adams. Pages xxiii-xxx. All rights reserved.