The Cassandra Effect

I’ve written here several times about U.S. government officials ignoring warnings I gave them about the North Vietnamese, during the Vietnam war, from signals intelligence (the intercept and exploitation of the radio communications). It happened so frequently during my thirteen years in and out of Vietnam that I gave it a name: the Cassandra Effect.

Cassandra, according to Greek myth, was a Trojan woman blessed by the gods with the ability to foretell the future and cursed that no one would believe her. I found myself in Cassandra’s shoes often during the Vietnam war. American military commanders were not trained to understand the utility of signals intelligence—many had never heard of it—and dismissed my warnings.

Three spectacular examples illustrate the dilemma.

In the fall of 1967 in Vietnam’s western highlands, I alerted the U.S. 4th Infantry Division and the 173rd Airborne Brigade that the North Vietnamese B3 Front and its subordinate main force units were in the hills to the west of us preparing for combat. The commander of the 4th Infantry Division, not believing my reports on the multi-division size of the enemy force,  sent a battalion to reconnoiter. It was all but destroyed. At the end of the resulting battle, one of the bloodiest in the Vietnam war, no territory had changed hands.

In January 1968, at my behest, my agency, the National Security Agency (NSA), issued a series of reports warning that the North Vietnamese were preparing to launch a country-wide offensive. I briefed General Westmoreland and his staff at the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV). The general and his staff thanked me but dismissed the warning. The Tet Offensive which began days later was a surprise.

In April 1975, I alerted the U.S. ambassador in Saigon, Graham Martin, multiple times that the North Vietnamese were preparing to attack Saigon. I repeatedly informed him in writing and briefed him personally three different times. He didn’t believe my warning, never called for an evacuation, and barely escaped by helicopter when the North Vietnamese were already in the streets of the city. I fled the city under fire.

I write again here about the Cassandra Effect because, as I noted recently, our country is in severe danger due to an administration that not only ignores intelligence but is actually hostile to it. As I wrote in my post about my book Secretocracy, dismissing intelligence warnings and sabotaging the intelligence agencies invites disaster.

Feedback from a Reader

As I have reported before in this blog, I exchange letters with a man in prison. We began writing back and forth three years ago when he read my novel, The Trion Syndrome, about a Vietnam vet with Post-Traumatic Stress Injury (PTSI). He was moved by it. He told me he suffers from PTSI from combat in Vietnam. As I learned later, PTSI may have been a factor in the crime that landed him in prison.

As time went on, I noted this man’s talent for writing. I encouraged him to write for publication. When he did, I submitted his articles. One has now been published; a second has been accepted for publication. Eventually, I urged him to write about PTSI which we both suffer from. It took him a year to do it, but he finally did. I’m now circulating that article to periodicals. I’m sure one will accept it.

This man, like other veterans I spend time with, is my brother. A fraction of 1 percent of the American population has seen combat and understands the damage it can do to the soul. The panic attacks, flashbacks, nightmares, irrational rages, and depression characteristic of PTSI don’t fade with time; the victim has to learn to cope. It turns out that writing down what happened to injure the psyche is one of the most effective ways to deal with PTSI. I discovered that remedy early on. These days, thanks to facing my memories head on and writing down what happened, I manage. And that writing became the raw material for my novels and stories.

But my friend in prison didn’t have writing to turn to. He struggled through the malady alone. I admire him for his strength and courage in facing the disease without flinching but especially for his positive outlook in the face of disaster. A parole board will reconsider his case later this year. My hopes are up. And my heart is with him.

Secretocracy (3)

I want to return to the last thought in yesterday’s blog post: the damage to our intelligence agencies wrought by the Trump administration and the resulting danger to our republic.

I know all too well the experience of reporting valid intelligence findings and having them ignored by government leaders. As the fall of Saigon loomed, I repeatedly warned U.S. officials of the coming disaster. They paid no heed. The president, secretary of state, and the U.S. ambassador in Saigon were all surprised when the North Vietnamese attacked Saigon even though I and others had been foretelling the assault for weeks based on irrefutable evidence. That came at the end of a thirteen-year battle I’d had with intelligence recipients warning them what the North Vietnamese were doing only to have them dismiss the warnings. Starting a week before the 1968 Tet Offensive, for example, my agency, the National Security Agency (NSA), had, at my behest, been alerting U.S officials that the communists were about to launch a country-wide offensive. Our warning was discounted, and the U.S. was taken by surprise.

On the other side of the coin, I know of half a dozen instances when intelligence warning prevented a hostile move by a foreign government. In each of these cases, the U.S. public never knew of the foreign threat or of the U.S. action to thwart it. To protect the information sources and methods involved, the entire incident remained classified.

We are now facing a threat I never saw the likes of during my thirty-five years in intelligence: a president who not only ignores intelligence but is actually hostile to it. We know that early this year President Trump dismissed repeated warnings from the intelligence community that a pandemic was about to hit the U.S and didn’t act to protect the health of American citizens. We know that he has sought to suppress alerts that Russians and others are preparing to interfere in the 2020 election. We know that he fired the Director of National Intelligence when an intelligence expert warned Congress about the Russian threat.

The president and the Republicans who support him risk severe damage to our country by disregarding and even attacking intelligence. By turning a blind eye and deaf ear to the threats against us and attacking those who give warning, the leaders now in power are inviting disaster.

We are, in short, in grave danger.

Secretocracy (2)

Gene’s college-age son moves in with him. Together they face off attacks from the president’s men. Much of the last half of the book tells of the help each gives the other in the face of adversity.

Part of the challenge of the book was to bring together Gene’s professional and personal life at the climax of the story. I have tried to do that in all my novels—establish two different narratives, personal and work life, then find a way to tie them to one another so that they reach a single climax.

My novels usually end sadly but with hope. With Secretocracy I changed the pattern. The 2018 election shifts control of the House of Representatives to the Democrats. With Gene’s help, a House subcommittee calls for hearings and unmasks FIREFANG.

Part of the reason that Secretocracy works is that it is authentic. Even though the government organizations featured in the book are fictional, they are based on real entities and real happenings. And my depth knowledge of the serpentine maneuverings of government agencies and the Congress from my many years in government provided a solid underpinning of accuracy to the story.

My expectation is that Secretocracy will sell better than my other books not because it is superior but because it addresses a hot topic—the damaging flounderings of Donald Trump. As more and more scandals erupt, public interest in the harm Trump has inflicted will grow. What has escaped attention—because it is classified—is the injury Trump has wreaked on the U.S. intelligence community, our eyes and ears to warn us about what is going on with other nations. That damage could be the worst of all. Secretocracy hints at how serious the wound may be.

More tomorrow.


Adelaide Books of New York published my most recent novel, Secretocracy, at the end of March 2020. As reported earlier in this blog, it is, like all my stories and novels, fiction in name only. It’s based on something that really happened when I was on assignment at the intelligence budget staff under the Director, CIA (the staff is now subordinate to the Director of National Intelligence [DNI]). The administration then in power was pushing a highly classified program that violated U.S. law and treaties with other nations. I refused to approve the program and was severely punished. Only when a new administration took power after the next election was I exonerated.

Because President Trump has attacked the intelligence community repeatedly and withdrawn security clearances and even fired intelligence officers for reporting verified intelligence that falsified presidential claims, I set the story during the Trump administration. The book opens with the following: “So it had come to this. August 2018. Trump in the White House, and Gene Westmoreland out on his ass.”

Westmoreland, an intelligence budgeteer, won’t approve a program with the codename FIREFANG designed to establish clandestine nuclear missile sites all over the world. He establishes that the program is illegal and violates treaties. Trump strips him of his clearances and banishes him to a warehouse in the slums with no work to do. The administration harasses him so that he will resign because if the president fires him without cause, he can sue. Gene refuses to quit.

Meanwhile, Gene’s private life is in disarray. His estranged wife refuses to cooperate on a divorce, a woman he had an affair with won’t let him go, and he is penniless. His government pay won’t cover the cost of maintaining the household he has left and his current living expenses. He shares a joint house in Washington with other unattached men. He lives in the attic of the house, an old mansion owned by a man who can only afford to keep it by renting out rooms.

More tomorrow.

What It Means to Be a Man

My ruminations on being a writer led me to go back to the question cited at the beginning of that blog post: what does it mean to be a man?

First of all, what does “man” mean? There are two principal definitions: to be a member of the human race and to be male.

If being a man means being human, the most important meaning to me at this time in my life is that we humans are mortal. We all die. We are allotted a brief lifetime to do our work, mate, and propagate. According to Freud, “Love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness.” It is up to us to make the most of both.

Understanding “man” to mean male brings up an entirely different set of defining components. First of all, as a man, I am identified by my male body. By nature, I am bigger, stronger, rougher, louder, and more awkward than my female counterparts. Faced with a problem, I am naturally inclined to use force rather than reason to solve it. I can never get enough sex. I value strength over delicacy. And I am constantly attracted to the female.

A man’s way of looking at masculinity is partly inborn, partly socialized. I honestly can’t distinguish within myself which is which. Both shape my behavior, but one, the socialized side, is open to change.

Women in my life have sensitized me to the need for gentleness and humility—both virtues that feel unnatural to me as a man. I’m beginning to see that a complete man, one who exploits the full range of his competencies, realizes and fulfills all his potentials, not just those that become dominant at puberty. I’m coming to understand that the greatest of masculine virtues are those that flower late in life. I have come to treasure quietude, peacefulness, tenderness, and the need to put the good of others ahead of my own.

Even in maturity, there are times when the rougher male tendencies—strength, forcefulness, dominance—are appropriate. In defending the weak, helping the poor, fighting for the underprivileged, raw force can be required. But more often, a quieter power is needed. When the weak need comforting, the dependent need assistance, or the powerless need a hand, a real man knows how to use his strength to lift up rather than to put down.

That’s the ultimate test of what it means to be a man.