Time in Exile (2)

I appealed to the director and deputy director of NSA for respite from my exile to no avail. The president’s orders were not to be questioned. I came away with the impression that no one at NSA was cleared for the operation the president was pushing. I got the feeling that NSA leadership was embarrassed by my dilemma but was powerless to act.

To fill the empty hours, I read from the stack of waiting books I always have in my study. I brought in a portable typewriter and worked on my own novels and short stories. I got caught up and even ahead in my letter writing. I was an avid runner in those days, so I allowed myself long runs several times a week, occasionally covering over ten miles.

When, after weeks of banishment, I still didn’t resign, my captor upped the pressure. The heating in the room was turned off. Bulbs in ceiling lights were removed. It got dark and cold in there. So I invested in a space heater and a floor lamp. I brought in turtleneck sweaters and heavy sweatshirts to stay warm.

The president, as it happened, was late in his second term. As winter closed in, he left office and a new man moved into the White House. I immediately appealed to NSA to intervene in my behalf. As soon as it did, my exile was ended. But I didn’t go back to my assignment on the intelligence budget staff. Instead, I returned to NSA. Soon thereafter I was assigned to a responsible and challenging job.

Over time it became obvious to me that the entire episode of my expulsion from the budget staff job had embarrassed the NSA leadership. The less it was spoken of, the better. If anything, the entire episode probably helped my career along because of management’s desire to make reparations for a president’s egregious error.

Over time, as a result of my devotion to the principles of leadership as opposed to management and the great success it brought me, I ended up in the high executive ranks at NSA and was able to retire with a generous annuity that has allowed me to write full time.

As is standard for me, I used the fact of my ostracism in my fiction. It became Gene Westmoreland’s story in my novel Secretocracy published last year. But because persecution of intelligence professionals became one of the hallmarks of the Trump administration, I set the story during his time in office.

I have no complaints, but I wouldn’t advise up and coming government employees to defy the president. It doesn’t usually work out.

Time in Exile

I may have already mentioned in this blog the story of my time in exile, but I haven’t told the whole story. So I’ll tell it now. I’ll never forget it.

Many years ago, the National Security Agency (NSA—my employer) assigned me for a three-year tour to work on the Intelligence Budget Staff subordinate to the Director of National Intelligence (DNI), the highest-level executive in national intelligence who exerted control over all seventeen of the U.S. intelligence agencies. While there, I reviewed and approved funding proposals from all over the intelligence community and was blessed with security clearances and access to classified projects I’d never heard of before and have heard nothing of since. That I was given the assignment at all was a testament to my good standing in the intelligence community.

One day I received a proposal from the President of the United States. I’m reluctant to say which president it was because of the extreme secrecy of the planned operation. A mere handful of government officials, me included, were allowed to know of its existence. The undertaking it proposed would include clandestine actions in a number of overseas locations on foreign soil. I refused to fund the project on the grounds that it was clearly illegal—it broke multiple laws then in effect—and violated many international treaties to which the U.S. was signatory.

The president was furious. He stripped me of my security clearances and banished me to a warehouse in a seedy and desolate neighborhood of Anacostia. He didn’t want to fire me outright because I could sue the government if he did. That might mean court cases and news headlines about his pet project. The caretaker at the warehouse advised me to arrive and leave the premises during daylight hours because the streets weren’t safe after dark.

I was given no work to do and assigned to a basement room perhaps twenty feet wide whose front wall, with a door that opened onto the hallway, was a large glass window. The only furniture was a desk and a chair. People who worked in the building regularly passed through the hall and took particular pleasure in gawking at me through the window while talking and laughing among themselves. I discovered a curtain on the hall side of the window and closed it in hopes of a little privacy. The next group of workers who went by opened the curtain and watched me.

More tomorrow.

April: Anniversary of the Fall of Vietnam

April is always a sad month for me. It was in April 1975 that South Vietnam fell to the North Vietnamese communists. I was there, watching it happen. So was my family, my wife and my four children. The U.S., foolishly believing that the war was over and ignoring my warnings, made the assignment in South Vietnam a “gentleman’s tour,” no longer a hardship tour in a war zone, so I was allowed to have my family with me. I succeeded in getting my wife and children out of the country forty-one years ago today, only twenty days before Saigon fell. That same day the North Vietnamese launched their attack on Xuân Lộc, about which more anon.

My wife had been hesitant to leave. The American embassy assured her and other dependents that they could disregard reports that the North Vietnamese were about to attack Saigon. Then, on 8 April, forty-one years ago yesterday, a renegade South Vietnamese air force pilot, who had defected to the North Vietnamese, bombed the presidential palace, close to our house. That persuaded my wife it was time for her and the children to leave.

To my way of thinking, the death knell for South Vietnam was the decision by the U.S. government to cut off financial support for the South Vietnamese government. That assured that the government forces wouldn’t have the needed gasoline to move forces and drive tanks. Lost weapons would not be replaced. Some troops would not be paid. All hope of avoiding defeat was gone.

Central to the final defeat was the battle for and eventual loss of the crossroads town of Xuân Lộc, some 45 miles northeast of Saigon. In hopes of stalling the advance of the People’s Army of Vietnam (PAVN, i.e., the North Vietnamese regular army), the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) committed almost all their remaining mobile forces, especially the 18th Division, under Brigadier General Lê Minh Đảo, to the defense of Xuân Lộc. The battle raged from 9 to 21 April 1975. It ended when the town was captured by the PAVN 4th Army Corps led by Major General Hoàng Cầm.

Throughout this sad month, I’ll be continuing the story of the fall of Vietnam. I hope readers will be patient with me as I recount the sad tale.

The Gun Ratio (2)

This morning’s Washington Post features a front-page article announcing that President Biden is going to initiate a series of actions to curb gun violence in the U.S. What President Trump ignored for four years is finally getting attention from the nation’s top executive.

Meanwhile, reactions from readers to my post of yesterday about gun deaths in the U.S. made me realize that most Americans have no understanding of the lethality of firearms. Those of us who have lived through combat on the battlefield are, these days, few and far between. The percentage of Americans who have seen men killed by guns is vanishingly small.

But I’ve seen it. Many times during my thirteen years on the Vietnam battlefields and later elsewhere, I witnessed the horror of what firearms do to the human body. I know, first hand, up close and personal, the unspeakably gruesome consequences of bullets tearing men apart.

What do we have to do to persuade Americans that we must rid ourselves of this monstrosity? Why do some Americans, particularly Republicans, resist movements to reduce the number of firearms in the hands of American citizens?

I don’t know the answers to these questions. I welcome suggestions from readers.

The Gun Ratio

Yesterday’s Washington Post featured an editorial about the number of children killed by guns in the U.S. Some 30,000 have died as a result of gunfire over the past ten years, making guns the second-highest cause of children’s deaths in the U.S. That’s just children. The U.S. has an annual rate of 3.96 deaths per 100,000 people from gun violence, more than eight times higher than the rate in Canada and a hundred times higher than in the United Kingdom.

As reported by the Pew Research Center, “In 2017, the most recent year for which complete data is available, 39,773 people died from gun-related injuries in the U.S., according to the CDC.” The gun ownership rate in the U.S. is 120 guns per 100 people. We have more guns than people.

More statistics: Every day, more than 100 Americans are killed with guns and more than 230 are shot and wounded. Fifty-eight percent of American adults or someone they care for have experienced gun violence in their lifetime. Approximately three million American children witness gun violence every year.

Throughout the world, the ratio between the number of guns and the number of gun deaths per country is consistent—the more guns, the more killed by gun. The only way we can reduce the numbers killed by gunfire is to reduce the number of guns we have.

Many Americans argue that gun ownership and usage is part of our tradition and culture—to be an American means to own a gun. That’s why we have the Second Amendment to the Constitution. I argue that it’s time the U.S. joined the rest of the civilized world and reduced our gun ownership to the lowest level possible. I have always contended that to maintain that the Second Amendment should be interpreted to mean what gun ownership is unlimited is to misread the Amendment. But just to be sure, we should begin at once to work toward a rewrite of the amendment to assure the limitation of gun ownership, or better yet, abolish the amendment altogether.

It’s long since time that the U.S. joined the sane nations of the world in reducing gun ownership to near zero. Only by doing that can we save almost 40,000 lives a year.

Classified

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?

Thirteen Years as a Civilian on the Battlefield

Between 1962 and 1975, I spent more time in Vietnam than I did in the U.S. My job was signals intelligence support to U.S. combat troops and friendly forces on the battlefield. I tipped off the friendlies to what the enemy was doing, where he was, what units he had deployed, and what his plans were. My information came from the clandestine intercept of the enemy’s radio communications. After the withdrawal of U.S. forces in 1973, I stayed on as chief of the National Security Agency (NSA) secret operation working with the government of South Vietnam against the North Vietnamese invaders. I escaped under fire when Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese on 29 April 1975.

Through it all, even though I operated under cover as military—army or Marine enlisted man depending on which unit I was supporting—I was a civilian. I was a veteran—I had completed my military service before NSA hired me and sent me to Vietnam starting in 1962. One source defines a veteran as “someone, who in his/her life, wrote a blank check made payable to the United States of America for an amount ‘up to and including my life.’”

The troops I lived with and went into battle in Vietnam with found it hilarious that I, a civilian, often outranked their commanding officers. Yet here I was sleeping beside them, eating C-rations sitting next to them in the dirt, using their latrines, and going into combat at their side.

As far as I know, the enemy never penetrated my cover. And my status as a civilian on the battlefield makes me unique. No one else I knew could do the job I did in Vietnam. I was comfortable in Vietnamese, Chinese, and French, the three languages of Vietnam. I had been exploiting North Vietnamese communications since 1960 and knew them intimately. I was willing to put my life on the line for the good of my country. And when we lost the war—the first war the U.S. had ever lost—I went into mourning.

Some years ago, given my combat background, I tried to join the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW). The organization refused to admit me to its ranks. I was not qualified because I had been a civilian, not military, during my time in battle on foreign soil. But the American Legion welcomed me with open arms.

It regularly surprises me to realize that my service on the Vietnam battlefields ended 46 years ago this month. The memory of those days is as vivid as ever. My grieving over the men killed by my side never lessens. And my pride in my service has never been stronger.

Some experiences don’t fade with time.

My Chop

Sitting within sight as I write is my Chinese chop. It is a square piece of carved tan marble four inches tall and a little over an inch wide. The upper half is an intricately carved stylized dragon. Its bottom is a stamp of my initials, TG3 (for Thomas L. Glenn III, my payroll signature), as I scribbled them during my many years working and living in Asia. The initials look like a cursive Chinese character. My knowledge of Chinese obviously helped me shape my initials, even though I don’t remember doing it.

The word for this implement, “chop,” in English comes from the Hindi chaap, meaning stamp, imprint, seal or brand, or instrument for stamping. We use “chop” both as a noun and a verb, as a name for the object itself and to describe the act of stamping or sealing a document.

The chop—or seal—is used in China to sign documents and artwork. In looking into the history of the chop, I found out that its use goes back to the beginning of Chinese antiquity. According to the ThoughtCo website, “There are three Mandarin Chinese names for the Chinese chop or seal. The seal is most commonly called 印鑑 (yìn jiàn) or 印章 (yìnzhāng). It is also sometimes called 圖章 / 图章 (túzhāng).”

The same source reports that the Chinese normally use red ink to sign documents with a chop, but I usually use black. I don’t use the chop for official documents—chops are not accepted in the place of signatures in the U.S.—but I often chop letters to friends and family.

The chop is one of many links I have to my youthful years operating in Asia. It, along with my ceramic temple dog, porcelain elephants, and decorative garden seats, keep alive in my memory those happy and terrible days.

My Time as an AIDS Volunteer (2)

Over the years that I was a buddy for AIDS patients, I came to love every one of them. And when they died, I grieved.

In five years, I went through seven patients. They were all gay, and they all died.

Just at the time when I decided I couldn’t face another death, medical science isolated the means of transmission—bodily fluids, especially semen—and discovered medicines that treated the conditions brought on by the disease. The death rate plummeted. I ceased being a buddy. I worked for several years with the homeless, then spent seven years caring for the dying in the hospice system.

My experiences with the men who died of AIDS changed my life and outlook. I discovered that all my unconscious biases against gay men were wrong. I learned that the only difference between me and my patients was their sexual preference. They were men just like me. And the other volunteers—I was the only straight buddy—were blessed with an unusual strength and willingness to put their lives on the line to help their brothers. These were heroic men, not the sissies I’d been led to expect them to be.

Now, all these years later, I have put aside volunteer work. I’m too old and feeble to care for those who cannot care for themselves. But I see that working with the dying gave me a deepened understanding of the human soul. It enriched my lifework, writing.

My experience of caring for dying gay men, moreover, gave me a unique insight. I was so moved by the experience that my understanding of living deepened. And, since I was a writer, I wrote about it.

The result was the novel No-Accounts (Apprentice House, 2014).

My Time as an AIDS Volunteer

Something I said recently in one of my posts brought a question from a reader: what was my connection to the AIDS crisis in the 1980s? To answer the question, I resurrected a post from some years ago. Here it is, revised and updated.

First of all AIDS stands for Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome. It is caused by human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection. Until the late 1980s when we learned how to treat the disease, AIDS was invariably fatal. For reasons we didn’t understand, it hit gay men more than any other group.

When the AIDS epidemic first hit in the early 1980s, the U.S population as a whole was terrified of the disease. We didn’t know how it was transmitted. People, including health care professionals, were afraid to go anywhere near a person sick with AIDS. Landlords wouldn’t rent to them. Hospitals wouldn’t accept them. Doctors and nurses wouldn’t treat them. The result was that men were literally dying on the street because no one would take them in.

I watched what was happening, and I couldn’t tolerate it. I had faced death on the battlefield in Vietnam and knew I could do it again. I decided to volunteer to take care of AIDS patients. I told my wife that there was an unknown likelihood that I’d contract the disease. If I did, she would, too. She told me to go ahead.

For the next five years I was a buddy to AIDS patients in a program run by the Whitman-Walker Clinic, a gay men’s health and wellness center operating in Washington, D.C. I did everything for my patients because they could do nothing for themselves. I fed them, bathed them, dressed and undressed them. I was often the only human being caring for them. They were abandoned except for me.

More tomorrow.