"Were we right or were we wrong?" This was Director of Central Intelligence (DCI) George Tenet's central question in his 2004 talk to the faculty and students of his alma mater, Georgetown University.
In Vietnam the theater army component intelligence collection architecture matured by the Spring of 1968. There was a brigade level collection group for SIGINT and a battalion level reconnaissance photo exploitation unit. The theater level army clandestine HUMINT task was centrally managed by the 525th Military Intelligence Group (525 MIG).
HUMINT implies purposeful employment of human sources of information to learn things. Having a conversation with a source who is not under friendly control is not HUMINT. It is a chat.
In addition to the theater army clandestine HUMINT operation, combat arms divisions and separate brigades conducted force protection operations employing sources who were largely unvetted and untested. These activities were often conducted by the combat arms unit's counter-intelligence (CI) detachments. US Army counter-intelligence personnel in these detachments were not trained to conduct such operations and the results were of uniformly low quality and reliability. SOF activities such as the 5th Special Forces Group and "United States Military Assistance Command Vietnam Studies and Observations Group" (USMACVSOG) also operated a variety of intelligence projects of varying quality. Often, the quality was directly proportional to the availability of well qualified personnel to run them.
The major responsibility for clandestine HUMINT support to the US Army in Vietnam rested squarely on the 525th MIG. The group employed four numbered battalions to do clandestine HUMINT collection work on both unilateral and bi-lateral bases in the Areas of Responsibility (AOR) of the Vietnamese Corps Tactical Zones (CTZ) which were numbered One to Four from North to South. There was a fifth battalion in 525th MIG responsible for countrywide and out of country operations. The 525th MIG had other, non-HUMINT responsibilities in the area of "housekeeping" for staff personnel attached to major headquarters, etc.
The 3rd Combat Battalion (Provisional), 525 MIG (3rd Bn.) was responsible for an AOR which reached from the northeastern reaches of the Mekong Delta southwest of Saigon to a line about 50 miles east of Saigon and from the South China Sea to the Cambodian border inland. In reality the AOR extended into Cambodia because many of the targets addressed by the battalion's border detachments extended into Cambodia. The in-country AOR was exactly the same as that of the Vietnamese (ARVN) 3rd Corps Tactical Zone. Someone had decided to match the 525 MIG AORs to the responsibilities of the ARVN rather than to that of "United States Military Assistance Command Vietnam" (USMACV). US maneuver forces were commanded by I Field Force and II Field Force. These were army corps level headquarters. The US maneuver forces moved around a good bit throughout the country in ways not conducive to sound clandestine HUMINT practice. Effective clandestine HUMINT operations depend on stability of personnel and operating areas for success and this may have been a major factor in this decision as the ARVN CTZs never changed. In addition, the 525th MIG was responsible for advising the ARVN countrywide clandestine HUMINT activity and co-extensive boundaries of AORs was undoubtedly helpful in that task.
The 3rd Bn was organized with headquarters in Bien Hoa (near Saigon). The headquarters performed normal C2 functions and was co-located with an attached CI detachment for area support throughout 3rd CTZ. An operations section controlled the activities of subordinate detachments in the areas of source control, planning, and funding of operations. The 3rd Bn had an attached element from the 525th MIG's Aviation Detachment. This element operated half a dozen helicopters in support of the 3rd Bn's activities and was a great convenience.
The "guts" of the 3rd Bn's activities were carried out by four clandestine HUMINT Detachments each of which had an AOR consisting of one or more South Vietnamese Government (SVN) provinces. Each detachment was commanded by a captain or major who was a clandestine HUMINT qualified and often experienced officer and was manned by military case officers (COs) of various ranks junior to the commander, as well as enlisted intelligence operations clerks whose function was to support case officer activities in report writing, file keeping and other administrative and sometimes tactical duties in defense of position. The case officers were a mixed lot. Some were long service MI personnel who had done this work in Germany and Japan for many years. Some were bright young men selected out of the basic training pool for this work. They were subsequently trained at the Army Intelligence School at Ft. Holabird and language school before deployment and some were CIA "Career Trainees" (CTs) who were doing their military duty.
Each of the four Detachments was deployed in several team locations throughout its AOR. The four detachments were tasked from 525th MIG and 3rd Bn against a variety of targets. Some were general in nature, (report of all enemy activity in AOR), and some quite specific (report on the activities of enemy Line of Communications (LOC) between coordinate #### and coordinate ####). The main function of such tasking was to serve as an authorization for the expenditure of operational funds. Headquarters far away in Saigon and Bien Hoa were ill equipped to have the detailed knowledge of the situation necessary to direct operational activities at the detachment level and they had the good sense to realize that and leave detailed operational planning to detachment commanders. Successful detachment commanders understood that US Army and US Air Force activities within their AORs were their real customers. As a result detachment commanders made close and continuous liaison with both static activities (MACV Advisory Teams and USAF Forward Air Controller Teams (FAC)) and Combat Arms units temporarily located within the detachment's AOR. Tasking was sought and accepted from these directly supported activities and reports were rendered directly to them on a timely basis, normally by hand delivery. The same material was then subsequently reported electronically to higher headquarters where it contributed to the detachment's "box score" and eventually ended up at MACV J-2, PACOM and the JCS. Evaluations of the reports were sent by supported units and activities to 525th MIG in Saigon.
Detachment A, 3rd Bn 525th MIG (the Det.) was typical in its structure and operations. The Det. had teams of two to four men in six surrounded and defended Vietnamese towns in Binh Long and Phuoc Long Provinces on the Cambodian border directly north of Saigon. The Detachment headquarters was located in Song Be, the provincial capital of Phuoc Long Province (some times known as the Siberia of SVN). No detachment personnel were co-located with US combat arms units because such units lived in their own defended positions (Landing Zones and Fire Bases) outside the Vietnamese towns where there was no substantial access to indigenous inhabitants. The ability to recruit and then handle agents in this or any other situation is entirely dependent on extended access to a large group of people from whom to choose prospective sources and a continuing ability to associate with them within the protection of plausible cover. None of that existed in the "world" of the Big Army units. Consequently it was decided to "cover" Army COs as military or civilian members of the Civil Operations Revolutionary Development Support (CORDS) apparatus located at province and district (county) levels of the SVN government. This organization was all pervasive throughout SVN after 1967 and had many positions for advisory personnel in military training, agriculture, government operations, medical affairs, education, etc. throughout the country. The positions for American civilian personnel were particularly difficult to fill in the very parts of the country in which enemy presence and subsequent danger were high. These were the parts of the country that the US Army was most interested in from the point of view of the need to support combat operations and therefore there was a natural symbiosis between the needs of CORDS and the needs of 525th MIG. As a result CORDS, especially in 3rd CTZ where John Vann was in charge, was quite willing to provide cover positions for 525th MIG personnel so long as they did the cover work better than the "real" civilian and military CORDS people did. Vann remarked on many occasions that the COs under cover were the best workers that he had. The way this system worked all the 525th MIG people were under CORDS cover in Det A's operation including the detachment commander.
The enemy never successfully penetrated this cover arrangement in the three years of the existence of Det A, 3rd Bn 525th MIG. Since all Americans in these surrounded border towns were targets for assassination or elimination there was no significant increase in the risk for non-MI personnel.
The operating locations were all very dangerous places, subject to intermittent but frequent attacks by fire and weekly ground "probes." In 1968-69, there were major ground assaults on all the Det A locations. All were defeated, but in the case of Song Be, the detachment headquarters location the VC held 2/3rds of the town for seven days before the 1st Cavalry Division drove them out with heavy casualties. Det A's sources and COs in the Song Be area continued to function and report throughout this episode. All US personnel of necessity took a lot of chances, but this was war and higher headquarters understood this fact.
Most of the Det A operations involved Vietnamese and Montagnard agents. The Montagnards often had to be taught the concepts of; time, distance and number before they were useful. The detachment had some Chinese and European agents. These were rubber plantation managers. The French consulate and its "Service de Documentation et Contre-Espionage" (SDECE) office in Saigon turned over to their control a rubber company apparatus of informants which had been maintained by the French Government for thirty years. It was useful. The detachment's operations were fully documented with; operations plans, recruiting plans and contact reports in addition to the product Intelligence Information Reports (IIR). Sources were frequently tested. Singleton sources were tested directly in safe houses in situ or in the coastal cities. Many operations had to be run as principal agent networks because of the inaccessibility of primary sources deep in enemy controlled territory outside the detachment's operating locations. In these cases the principal agents were directly tested and the primary sources were usually judged on the basis of the direct combat result of the employment of their information.
When fully developed the detachment had four commissioned officers, five warrant officers and about twenty enlisted people. The detachment ran around a hundred agents at any given time.
Det A's operation earned high marks for productivity and accuracy. Anecdotal evidence of the performance of the 525th MIG throughout the country indicates that not all operations were as productive. The difference in performance seems to have been largely a function of leadership.
Col. W. Patrick Lang,is a Strategic Military & Political Intelligence Analyst. He is a retired senior officer of U.S. Military Intelligence and U.S. Army Special Forces (The Green Berets). Col. Lang served in the Department of Defense both as a serving officer and then as a member of the Defense Senior Executive Service for many years.
©Copyright - All Rights Reserved
DO NOT REPRODUCE WITHOUT WRITTEN PERMISSION BY AUTHOR.