I spent thirty-five years working with the nation’s most secret information. I was an employee of the National Security Agency (NSA), but my assignments for temporary duty to other agencies and government staffs exposed me to a variety of restricted data. In the various jobs I held, I was cleared not only for the three standard categories of classified information—confidential, secret, and top secret—but also for codeword and eventually compartmented data, the most closely held information in the government.
One result is that I knew a great deal about what was going on in the world. In later life, after I retired from the government and no longer held clearances, I began to occasionally have trouble remembering which of my memoires were of classified information and which were of open source (unclassified) data.
The issue came up recently during my discussions with George Veith (he goes by Jay) about his new book, Drawn Swords in a Distant Land: South Vietnam’s Shattered Dreams (Encounter Books, 2021). I read the book and did a question-and-answer piece with Jay for the Washington Independent Review of Books—I’ll post the URL for that article as soon as it’s published. During our give and take, Jay was taken aback that I was so nonchalant about one of the major revelations in the book. It was about a set of events I had known about from classified sources for decades. I had actually forgotten that the source of my knowledge was secret material.
The story turned out to be more personal and complex. Jay had learned the information in question from a South Vietnamese officer living in the U.S. since the fall of Vietnam in 1975. I recognized the name of the officer and realized I had known him. He had been the chief of one of South Vietnam’s intelligence units. One of my jobs back in those days was to keep friendly South Vietnamese officials informed. I had passed on to the officer highly classified information he needed to know to do his job. It was the same information that many years later that officer revealed to Jay. It turned out that, ultimately, I was the source of one of the major surprises in Jay’s new book.
I can’t see how the public exposure of informati0n from more than forty years ago can do any damage in today’s world. The reason the data was classified was the sources and methods that led to our discovering it. Until 2016, much of the story of my work in Vietnam was still classified. It was declassified at my behest so that I could write about it. So surely Jay’s disclosure does no damage.
And yet the story of Jay’s discovery of information that I was the source of more than forty years ago is disquieting. What other surprises lay ahead?