NSA’s success in hiding its own existence did not excuse the army’s failure to use SIGINT. Soldiers and their commanders need to be aware of classified sources and know how to utilize them in combat.
Our American can-do attitude is partly to blame as well. U.S. military forces in Vietnam were markedly superior to the North Vietnamese army. Too often U.S. army commanders in Vietnam were so determined to go after their target that they refused to be distracted by unwelcome information. Exemplary was a general (who will remain unnamed) who disregarded my warning that he needed to encrypt his own communications with his troops because the North Vietnamese were adept at intercepting and exploiting U.S. communications. “I want them to know I’m coming,” he told me. When he arrived at his objective’s location, there was no one there. The North Vietnamese knew he was coming and escaped.
The failure to believe and act on SIGINT happened repeatedly throughout my years in Vietnam. One of the worst examples was at the very end in April 1975. I warned the U.S. ambassador, Graham Martin, that the North Vietnamese were going to attack Saigon. He didn’t believe me and didn’t implement evacuation. As a result, the 2700 South Vietnamese soldiers working with my organization were all killed or captured when Saigon fell. I escaped under fire after the North Vietnamese were already in the streets.
I’m told that these days things have changed. Intelligence people and military commanders are now so closely intertwined that it’s hard to tell one from the other, according to my sources. I hope so. But I still worry that our can-do leaders, including the commander-in-chief, are so anxious to launch their operations that they fail to heed warnings from intelligence.
I can only hope we’ve learned enough to avoid catastrophe.