Army Intel Officer Tracks Down Spymaster Who Beat Him

A U.S. Army intel officer returns to Vietnam, chasing the enemy spymaster who beat him, hoping to learn more about why America lost the war.
A truckload of Vietnamese soldiers loyal to then-Premier Ky moves through a Danang street, May 15, 1966. An airlift brought some 2,500 troops to take control of radio station, city hall and other strategic areas.
FE_Vietnam_01 Source: AP

The black Mercedes weaves through the swarms of motorbikes in Danang City, Vietnam. At the wheel is a former Viet Cong guerrilla fighter with a combat ribbon on the lapel of his suit jacket. He takes me along the harbor, once a major port for U.S. Navy ships, then past the site of the former U.S. military command, now occupied by the towering regional headquarters of the Vietnamese Communist Party. Beside him is my minder from the Foreign Ministry in Hanoi, a worldly young man named Duc. I’m in the back seat, next to another former VC fighter, who is regaling me with a tale of ambushing U.S. Marines just north of the city in 1969. Smiling, he raises a trouser leg to show me a bullet wound. I ask him the name of his unit. When he tells me, I nod in recognition.

A half-century ago, I was a U.S. Army intelligence operative here, controlling a network of Vietnamese spies, tracking the movement of enemy forces. I have come back to speak with my former nemesis—the man who ran agents against me, then retired decades later as deputy commander of North Vietnamese military intelligence—Major General Tran Tien Cung.

Just as he had during the war, Cung was proving to be elusive. In their customary fashion, the Vietnamese had frustrated my efforts: Negotiations fell apart again and again. Now, almost 50 years after trying to catch him, I was suddenly getting a chance to meet him face-to-face—to compare notes from our secret side of the war.

As the streets narrow, we pass by the old American air base, once a major staging ground for U.S. Phantom jets taking off for secret bombing raids in Laos. Finally, the driver inches the car into a secluded lane and stops. Serious-looking men appear and open my door, and I step out into the brutal Vietnamese heat. “Wait here,” one says. He confers with my man from Hanoi. It’s possible, Duc whispers to me, that the general, struggling with the aftereffects of a stroke, will not be able see me after all.

I sag against the car, wipe the sweat from my forehead. Once again, I fear I will miss him, that he will die, taking the secrets of how he eluded the world’s most advanced intelligence services to the grave.

‘Fucked Up Beyond All Repair’

In December 1968, I arrived in Danang as an intelligence case officer, fresh from a year of intense Vietnamese language study and six months at the Army’s school for spies at Fort Holabird in Baltimore. The tradecraft we learned there—servicing dead drops, assessing potential recruits and dodging the Soviet-bloc secret police—was designed more for scenarios out of a John le Carré thriller than recruiting Vietnamese peddlers to track Communist units. But once I arrived in Danang, I quickly learned that one of those key techniques—maintaining my cover—could be far more difficult, and have far higher stakes, than posing as a civilian in Cold War Berlin.

The challenges of real-war

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