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The Numbers Game

CIA analyst Sam Adams fought the intelligence establishment about its Vietnam policy like David fought Goliath

February 1997

When he's not writing books and articles on military affairs, Atlantic contributing editor Thomas Powers moonlights as a book publisher. Powers's Steerforth Press is a small operation, run out of South Royalton, Vermont, but the books it publishes deserve serious attention -- perhaps none more so than Sam Adams's War of Numbers (1994).

War of Numbers is an insider's account of the battles that went on in the U.S. intelligence community during the Vietnam War, written by a young CIA analyst who single-handedly discovered massive fraud and political maneuvering on the part of the CIA, the military, and the White House. Adams discovered, in short, that the numbers were being cooked and that U.S. troops were actually fighting a much larger army than they suspected. Outraged, Adams battled the CIA and the military bureaucracies to get the real numbers acknowledged -- and thus to save lives. Adams's efforts eventually cost him his job.

Excerpts from War of Numbers

  • Preface "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."

  • Chapter Six "'Christ, they're into the embassy!' The dignitary's face went pale, even George Allen looked surpised, and Major Balscik stuck a red pin into the capital city. . . . The rest of the afternoon was a big drain on the pin supply."

  • Appendix "What follows is a detailed account of how General Westmoreland's intelligence staff -- with White House encouragement -- falsified the Vietcong strength estimates before the communist Tet offensive."

    * * *

    War of Numbers is available directly from Steerforth Press, P.O. Box 70, South Royalton, VT, 05068 (1-800-639-7140).

  • Adams wrote an account of his experiences in a Harper's cover story in May, 1975, and after that helped CBS put together a documentary on the topic, for which the station was sued (unsuccessfully) by General Westmoreland. That suit led to the declassification of reams of formerly secret intelligence documents from the Vietnam era, and Adams in the 1980s was preparing to work through it all to write a definitive account of the numbers question. In 1988, however, he died prematurely of a heart attack. Although Adams was never able to tell his full story, he did leave behind a gripping personal account of his time at the CIA, which Thomas Powers and Steerforth Press published in 1994 as War of Numbers.

    Powers recently spoke with The Atlantic's Toby Lester about Adams and War of Numbers.

    There has been an awful lot written on the Vietnam War in the past two decades. What made you decide to publish yet another book on the topic?

    Sam Adams in War of Numbers wrote about intelligence in a way that nobody has ever done before. The level of seriousness and the richness of detail in the book are unique in the literature of studies about intelligence matters. But the book also has a charming, friendly, open quality to it; it's a very personal account. Adams writes with a remarkable level of candor and almost Boy Scout-like enthusiasm for finding out the truth, getting it right, and telling what really happened.

    War of Numbers is among a very small number of books that have to do with the actual conduct of intelligence matters during Vietnam. I'm not talking about clandestine and covert actions, sending guerrillas into remote corners of the world, or the running of the secret wars in Laos. I'm talking about understanding the war. At the top of any nation's war-making capacity there's got to be a brain -- something that understands what the policy is, what the country is trying to do, what the tools are at its disposal, and how it's going to make things work. The intelligence business is right at the heart of that.

    Our whole problem in Vietnam from beginning to end was a failure fully to understand what we were trying to do. We didn't know what the situation was really like, or what the forces really were that were opposing us. War of Numbers is about all that -- and about how we got it all wrong. There's no way you can understand how things went so badly without having some feel for the way in which policy makers on high deliberately ignored reality because they were having political trouble in Washington. That's what this book is about: the truth.

    And the truth was in the numbers?

    That's right. One of the things that the CIA did on an annual basis was to establish an "Order of Battle" for the Viet Cong. "Order of Battle" is a standard military term that merely means a listing of the units in the opposing army. It's designed to let you know how many people you're fighting. Sam, as a young analyst in the Agency, discovered that we'd been using the same figure year after year after year without changing a single digit. It was obviously imaginary. He tried to get it right, thinking that he'd been hired by the Agency in order to figure out the truth about things, and discovered that there were basically twice as many Viet Cong as we'd been estimating.

    You may recall that one of the principal arguments in the early stages of American involvement in Vietnam was about our theory of how to win a guerrilla war. One of the things that the White House argued was that American firepower and mobility allowed us to have a smaller "ratio of superiority" against guerrilla forces than was generally considered to be necessary. The conventional wisdom was that you had to outnumber the guerrillas ten-to-one. We said, "No, no, no -- we're so efficient, our weapons are so good, and we have so many helicopters that we only need to outnumber them three-to-one." When Sam discovered that there were two hundred thousand Viet Cong and not a hundred thousand it completely threw off our theory about how to win that war. The political implications were very great.

    The essence of what then happened was that top figures in the Pentagon and the White House said, "No, we're not going to allow the CIA to circulate that figure." They knew that it would leak out in ten minutes, that it would get into the New York Times, and that there'd be hell to pay. One of the most interesting things about Sam Adams's story was its whole David-and-Goliath aspect. You have to understand: Sam was a relatively low-level analyst who began to find out stuff the CIA didn't want known. Sam refused to give up on this struggle. He was absolutely devoted to making it known that we'd fudged the numbers, that we were screwing around with intelligence for political reasons.

    So Adams shook things up quite a bit?

    Absolutely, especially in the aftermath of the CBS documentary, when General Westmoreland sued the broadcast network. Sam had created a situation in which the former Secretary of State, the former Secretary of Defense, and all kinds of high White House officials had to submit to relentless grillings for day after day by hostile lawyers. Adams was absolutely, single-handedly, totally responsible for that. Westmoreland made a big mistake in suing CBS; in the course of that suit a huge number of documents were declassified. What ultimately came out of it all was an incredibly rich body of documentary evidence about American policy in Vietnam and a completely different order of understanding about the military aspects of the war. Sam really knocked a lot loose. All subsequent histories of Vietnam now have to take into account all of this information that the American military and intelligence community had hoped would be secret forever.

    What was the reaction in the CIA to Adams's crusade?

    Almost everybody in the CIA liked Sam. Even the people who were pissed at him and angry about what he did all liked him. A lot of people think he was a hero who stood up for what was right and what was true. They thought he ought to be a model for all young intelligence officers.

    A few people, though, said, "That's all well and good in the Boy Scouts, but that's not the way the world operates in Washington. Sometimes you've got to back off and be realistic. Sometimes if the Pentagon is primarily interested in some subject and you have a different opinion, you just forget it." They say that Sam lacked realism, that Sam pushed it too far, that Sam had no sense of how really to conduct the business of intelligence in the real world, where you have to compromise. They thought he was too determined to be good.

    What's the CIA like today? Is it still plagued by the ills that it suffered from during the Vietnam era? Are the sorts of shenanigans Adams describes in his book likely to happen again?

    The answer to all of those questions is essentially the same: There is no real way to take politics out of intelligence. It's a problem. The more interested the White House is in a question, the narrower the range of freedom that any analytical or intelligence agency has in trying to explain what's going on. When the White House really has its mind made up, you can't talk them out of it. If you try too hard they stop listening to you and start listening to somebody else. So the politics of intelligence is just a fact of life.

    Here's a story. Once upon a time Stravinsky wrote a new piece that had a very difficult section for the violin. He called in the world's most famous violinist and said, "I want you to perform this." The violinist was very pleased, took the score away, and studied it. He came back in a week and said, "Mr. Stravinsky, I can't do it. Nobody can do it. It's too difficult." Stravinsky said, "But you're the greatest in the world. Go back. Try again. Think about it hard. I know you can do it." The violinist again went off and studied the piece for a week, tried every way he could to play it the way it was written, and finally came back and said, "Mr. Stravinsky, it cannot be done." Stravinsky said, "You don't understand. What I want is the sound of someone trying to play this." That, essentially, is the job given to an intelligence agency. Its agents have got to try to be honest, to try to tell the government what it needs to know. If officials won't listen, they won't listen.

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    Copyright © 1997 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.