By Jeff Stein
July 6, 2010
President Richard M. Nixon and his national security adviser, Henry
Kissinger, deliberately "leaked" word to North Vietnam that U.S.
forces planned to invade Cambodia, in a failed attempt to intimidate
Hanoi into retreat, declassified U.S. documents reveal.
Nixon and Kissinger also used a CIA double agent in Laos to concoct a
false "leak" of U.S. plans to mine North Vietnam's major port,
Haiphong, in 1972, according to a separate set of documents, which
were discovered in a new volume of Foreign Relations of the United
States, the State Department's official history of the era.
But that ploy also failed to undermine North Vietnam's resolve.
"In both of these cases the action was a covert psychological warfare
ploy that was taken at the direction of the president and Kissinger
and not on the initiative of the CIA," says Merle Pribbenow, a
retired CIA expert on Vietnam who discovered the overlooked documents
in State Department records.
The documents have never been written about, Pribbenow said.
"In both cases, the information was provided clandestinely by double
agents who fed the information to North Vietnamese officials,
claiming that they had obtained the information surreptitiously or
fortuitously," Pribbenow added.
"The idea was to make the North Vietnamese believe that they had
obtained advance knowledge of a planned U.S. operation in order to
frighten them into pulling their forces back, but in both cases the
Nixon administration then went ahead and carried out the action,"
"The end result was that, not only were the North Vietnamese not
frightened out of doing what Nixon wanted to scare them out of doing,
Nixon unintentionally gave them advance warning of what the U.S. was
about to do."
The ploy, in short, ended up foiling Nixon's main goal for invading
Cambodia: to annihilate Hanoi's command post for staging attacks on
"I have to say that when I read these documents I was absolutely
appalled," said Pribbenow, who spent 27 years in the CIA as a
Vietnamese language and operations officer. "I have never been a big
fan of psychological warfare and covert propaganda, as I think it is
mostly just a waste of time and money, but in this case it could have
cost us more than just time and money."
Pribbenow and other Vietnam scholars said was impossible to say with
certitude whether the disinformation attempts resulted in increased
"No U.S. aircraft were lost on 9 May 1972, when the mining of
Haiphong Harbor occurred, so there certainly were no U.S. casualties
from that warning," Pribbenow said.
But in regard to Cambodia, the picture is muddier, said Pribbenow and
historian John Prados, author of several books on the Vietnam War and the CIA.
Tipping Hanoi about American plans to invade Cambodia "might have"
caused additional U.S. casualties, Prados said. Casualties "increased
significantly" during the two months preceding the April 29, 1970
invasion, he noted, and "spiked" in May.
The Nixon-Kissinger ploy probably foiled any chance to destroy North
Vietnam's command post in Cambodia -- known by its acronym COSVN, the
Central Office for the War in Vietnam -- which Nixon repeatedly cited
as his goal for the invasion.
"If they were being explicit about invading Cambodia, it would have
allowed them to move COSVN and to prepare the battlefield for the
invasion," Prados said in an interview.
"The effort to intimidate Hanoi ahead of the invasion of Cambodia
would certainly have helped the North Vietnamese prepare for it more
successfully than if it had been more of a surprise," agreed Gareth
Porter, author of "Peace Denied: United States, Vietnam and the Paris
Agreement," among other histories of the war.
Pribbenow added a further damning detail. After analyzing a
Vietnamese-language account of the operation, he said that the
Nixon-Kissinger ploy probably prompted the communists to move COSVN
only hours before a "massive B-52 strike."
"There is no explanation of why that particular time was chosen to
leave," he added, "but it is quite possible that the decision to move
was either caused or at least influenced by the Nixon-directed warning."
"It looks like a couple of classic cases of the left hand not knowing
what the right hand is doing," Pribbenow said.
"In the Cambodian case, when the order to pass the [false]
information was given, no one had any plan to send U.S. troops into
Cambodia -- the plan was only to use South Vietnamese troops in
selected areas -- and not against COSVN.
"And indeed," Pribbenow continued, "CIA Director Richard Helms
suggested 10 days before the Cambodian invasion that to improve the
[disinformation agent's] 'credibility,' the U.S. should consider
sending 'selected' U.S. troops up to points near the Cambodian border
to make it appear as if the story was true. "
"Nixon did not make the decision to send U.S. troops into Cambodia
until several days later," Pribbenow added, "but apparently forgot to
tell the agency to call off the operation, with the result that we
ended up unintentionally giving the North Vietnamese advance warning
of the upcoming attack on COSVN."
Sowing dissent in Hanoi
The documents also reveal a CIA operation that employed a double
agent in North Vietnam's ruling circles to plant false information
about a nonexistent antiwar faction in Hanoi's politburo.
"I was especially fascinated by the stuff on trying to convince North
Vietnamese that the U.S. was in touch with a dissident faction," said Porter.
"I'm not so sure that one played so well, simply because of the
[Hanoi's] consensus on prosecuting the war strategy, at least in
broad outlines. They wouldn't have believed that that there were
Central Committee guys ready to give in to the U.S. "
Porter called the CIA's plan "the usual self-delusions at work -- all
familiar territory by now."
Indeed, a memo from George A. Carver, then-CIA Director Helms's
special assistant for Vietnam, reported that things hadn't gone so
well with that operation.
"Our project to convince the Hanoi leadership that the U.S.
government is in clandestine communication with a high-level
dissident faction within North Vietnam hit a snag when our double
agent … muffed his lines in a 22 May session with the North
Vietnamese intelligence officer with whom he has been in contact,"
Carver wrote to Richard T. White, a National Security Council staffer
at the time.
"Unfortunately, at the point in the conversation, where the agent was
to allude to information about American contact with dissidents
allegedly provided by the agent's notional 'American friend' (the
purported source of the earlier data on mining), the agent strayed
from his prepared script and the North Vietnamese did not pick up the
point or pursue it."
Carver pleaded that double agent operations were "tricky."
"As you recognize, structuring this kind of disinformation in a
manner that whets the target's appetite and remains plausible is a
tricky proposition, which cannot be rushed, and which is always
subject to the vagaries of chance and human nature," he told White.
"We will keep you advised of progress as it occurs."
Neither Kissinger nor White could not be reached for comment.