Vietnam Mishaps Revealed in Newly Declassified Papers
SCOTT SIMON, host:
A newly released history by the National Security Agency details flawed intelligence, military hoaxes and potential cover-ups that occurred during the war in Vietnam. The history spans two decades. It includes information on subversive intelligence efforts to try to stymie Viet Cong intercepts, and the NSA's own mishaps with interpreting messages.
John Prados is a historian and senior fellow at the National Security Archives at the George Washington University. He's been studying this newly released history. His most recent book is "Safe for Democracy: The Secret Wars of the CIA." He joins us in our studios. Thanks very much.
Mr. JOHN PRADOS (Senior Fellow, National Security Archive, Washington University; Author, "Safe for Democracy: The Secret War of the CIA."): My pleasure.
SIMON: Let me ask you about, I think, what have been cited as the two biggest mistakes that NSA made. The first would be that that Gulf of Tonkin attack, the second attack in August of 1964.
Mr. PRADOS: Absolutely.
SIMON: Well, tell us exactly what happened and what some people said happened.
Mr. PRADOS: At the Gulf of Tonkin, on the 2nd of August, 1964, a U.S. Navy destroyer that was on an electronic intercept mission collecting North Vietnamese material was attacked by North Vietnamese torpedo boats. The Johnson administration responded to the attack on the American destroyer by sending that ship back accompanied by another destroyer. And two nights later, declared that they had been attacked again by North Vietnam, and used that as the pretext for gaining congressional passage of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, which subsequently served as its justification for the Vietnam War. It turns out...
SIMON: But we should explain, the Tonkin Gulf resolution empowered the administration to act to defend - yes.
Mr. PRADOS: To use force in Southeast Asia. That's right. It turns out that a full examination of the intercepts that were taken from the North Vietnamese not only shows that the August 2nd attack happened, but it also shows pretty clearly that the August 4th attack did not happen.
SIMON: How do we know for sure that that second attack didn't happen?
Mr. PRADOS: The research of the NSA historian who worked on these documents uncovered the fact that there had been mistaken translations. Two different NSA intercept posts had gotten the same message, had translated it differently and said to get out at different times led people in Washington to conclude that messages that referred to the August 2nd attack actually...
SIMON: Which was the one that did occur.
Mr. PRADOS: Which was the one that did occur, actually presaged a brand new attack, and thus set them up to believe that the second attack happened. The United States government very quickly, because of the Tonkin Gulf resolution, got itself locked into a posture of assuring that the second attack had in fact happened, so that even in subsequent reviews and chronologies that were compiled for the record, the National Security Agency people continued to maintain the fiction recreating a false chronology that excluded all these other data, which has now turned up.
SIMON: Who created the fiction? Is that clear?
Mr. PRADOS: The whole fiction of the Gulf of Tonkin, I believe, was created at the Department of Defense, and then within the United States Navy. But this particular piece of the fiction, this National Security Agency effort to reinforce the fiction was created at the National Security Agency at Fort Meade, Maryland.
SIMON: Let me ask you about perhaps the biggest revelation this material, it has to do with the Tet Offensive that was launched in January of 1968. This is often seen as a turning point in the war, certainly in U.S. public opinion of the war. Despite the fact - because it's often now pointed out that militarily the U.S. actually won that battle - this history, I guess, disclosed that despite the fact you had - 10,000 NSA cryptographers and signal personnel stationed in the region, literally listening to the traffic in the Ho Chi Minh trail, they did not predict Tet Offensive.
Mr. PRADOS: For many years, National Security Agency has worn a feather in his cap saying that, in fact, they did predict the Tet Offensive, and there exists in NSA communications messages in which they talk about the North Vietnamese intention to attack in Vietnam at about that time. But their real predictions revolved around the place in Northern - South Vietnam called Khe Sanh. They did not believe in the Tet Offensive that actually occurred. And to the extent that they were thinking that Hanoi might attack throughout South Vietnam, they were off on the timing because what they predicted was an activity that might happen after Tet, not, in fact, at Tet itself.
SIMON: Did the North Vietnamese simply make a particularly brilliant effort of keeping their preparations quiet or were there things that the NSA was misinterpreting?
Mr. PRADOS: No. I think, in fact, we fell victim to deception, Hanoi's deception. The North Vietnamese gave us something to believe in. The idea that they were about to attack Khe Sanh was built into Hanoi's plans for the Tet Offensive and, in fact, we went for it and we believed it.
SIMON: You have been familiar with this material for some time...
Mr. PRADOS: That's right.
SIMON: ...as I understand it. What's your understanding now of how the NSA declassifies its own data?
Mr. PRADOS: I think that there are problems in general with U.S. declassification of information. Different agencies take different approaches. The National Security Agency has been among the least responsive in terms of declassifying information, and it's evident even in this document that we've gotten in the past few days. This document deletes a lot of material about the South Vietnamese government, which does not exist any longer, and there is no secret to protect there. It deletes a lot of material about day-to-day activities of the NSA in Vietnam, deletes a lot of material about the operational activities, especially of the NSA in Vietnam. Even within the NSA's own history, the full story isn't being let out to the public right here.
SIMON: John Prados, a historian and senior fellow at the National Security Archives at the George Washington University.
Thank you very much.
Mr. PRADOS: My pleasure.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.