The Gift: Foreseeing the Future (2)

Lack of knowledge among decision-makers about Vietnam during the war was one of the two factors that led to a thing I called the Cassandra Effect. Cassandra, according to Greek mythology, was a Trojan woman blessed by the gods with the ability to foretell the future and cursed that her forecasts would never be believed. That was my fate. Over and over, I warned U.S. military commanders and civilian leaders that the North Vietnamese were nearby and planning to attack. Too often I wasn’t believed, and no action was taken. It happened, most spectacularly, before the Tet Offensive and the fall of Saigon.

Ignorance of the enemy was one reason why I wasn’t believed. The other was inadequate training of military and civilian leaders.

The National Security Agency (NSA), my employer, worked hard to keep signals intelligence a secret. A target who finds out that his communications are being intercepted can easily alter his practices and stop the intercept. Success depends on the target’s unawareness.

NSA was so good at secrecy that even some of the customers of our service knew nothing of our work. Over and over again, I encountered military commanders whose training had never covered signals intelligence and who had no idea of what it meant to intercept and exploit enemy communications. Typical was the commander of the U.S. 4th Infantry Division, Major General William Peers. In 1967, we were in Pleiku Province in the western highlands, near the Laos-Cambodia border. I warned him that the North Vietnamese were preparing a highlands-wide offensive and that an attack on the Dak To Special Forces camp was imminent.

He shook his head and pointed to our camp on Engineer Hill. “So I’m supposed to believe that some kind of magic allows a bunch of shaky girbs [acronym for GI rat-bastards], distinguished more for their spit than their polish and abetted by an unknown civilian, to use a tangle of antennas and funny talk to divine the combat plans of the enemy?” He waved us away. The briefing was over.

When the enemy struck, General Peers lost a battalion. That led to the battle of Dak To, one of the bloodiest in the war. To see my New York Times article on the battle, go to

My gift for foretelling the future was useless if I wasn’t believed. Cassandra and I were siblings.

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