Sometime back I wrote here about my experience during the 1967 battle of Dak To in Vietnam’s western highlands. I regularly give a presentation with slides on the battle and my role in it, now that my work in Vietnam has been declassified. In 2017, the New York Times published my article describing the battle and what followed. You can read it at https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/03/opinion/vietnam-tet-offensive.html
The Dak To story stands out in my memory for two reasons. First, it was one of the bloodiest battles during the Vietnam war. More than 2,500 men from both sides were killed. Second, it was a primary example of how the intelligence I was able to offer was ignored on the battlefield. Because to do my job I had to be in the combat zone, I knew some of the kids (they were eighteen and nineteen years old) who were slaughtered. I grieve over them to this day.
I am so often asked why the intelligence I was providing wasn’t believed and wasn’t acted on. I don’t have a factual answer to that question. I can only offer surmisals.
The failure to believe and act on the intelligence I was furnishing was far more common with army commanders than with Marine officers. I know that the Marines were trained to exploit intelligence and knew very well what signals intelligence (SIGINT)—what I was offering them—consisted of and how valuable it could be on the battlefield. The army officers too often were unaware of SIGINT. They didn’t even know it existed. They were disinclined to accept information from a civilian pretending to be one of their troops delivering information from a source they had never heard of. The results, as at Dak To, were sometimes disastrous.
Part of the reason for the army’s ignorance was that the U.S. SIGINT agency, the National Security Agency (NSA), was so successful in maintaining its secrecy. Even NSA’s existence was little known. Many people had never heard of it. Back in those days, employees of NSA never mentioned where they worked. They said only that they were employed by the Department of Defense. Those of us in the know joked that NSA stood for “no such agency.”