The Best Defense

The CIA people who found bin Laden: What they're thinking about what they did

During the summer, the Best Defense is in re-runs. Here are some favorites that ran in late 2012 and in 2013. This item originally ran on April 19, 2013.  

The other night I went to a preview of Manhunt, a HBO documentary that will air on that network on May 1 and thereafter many times on CNN.

The documentary was like a high-class version of a Frontline episode, filmed and edited well, with expensive touches like music. One of the themes was how many of the analysts who targeted bin Laden were women. Another was how isolated it felt to be in the CIA after 9/11. Overall, I found the film a great document, but too inclined to give the CIA a pass, especially on the issue of torture and on some specifics, such as how the Khost bombing that killed seven CIA officers in December 2009 was allowed to happen.

But what I want to talk about today was the discussion following the film, which was even more interesting. (I took notes, having asked Peter Bergen, the documentary's executive producer, beforehand if I could, and was told yes.) It felt historic, a bit like being in the same room with the D-Day planners.

It also felt a bit like an encounter group. Clearly there had been strong disagreements within the CIA about the course they took:

  • Phillip Mudd, a former deputy director of counterterrorism at the CIA, began the conversation by saying he was not proud of what they did but that they did what they believed they had to do.
  • John McLaughlin, who was deputy director of the CIA on 9/11, recalled "how alone the CIA felt" in the years following the attacks.
  • Susan Hasler, who used to write the daily intel brief for the president, followed with a twist on that: "It was extremely lonely....We just didn't understand why we were going into Iraq" in 2003.
  • Jose Rodriguez, a former director of the CIA's clandestine operations, also was in the audience. He is remembered today as the man who ordered the destruction of the videotapes of some post-9/11 CIA interrogations. In the documentary, he downplays the significance of waterboarding. In the post-showing discussion, he said that, "We took a lot of risks, but we were successful."
  • Another guy with a Southern accent, whose name I didn't quite catch (I don't know the intel world nearly as well as I know the military world -- he's probably a big name), said, "We destroyed the enemy. However we cannot kill them all." So, he said, "We have to give people Kabul, in Gaza, in their own neighborhoods." This was a kind of theme of the end of the discussion -- that the CIA did what it could tactically, but that for long-term success, there has to be a national strategy that they couldn't provide.

What I found myself wondering as I listened to all this was a question an Army officer who worked on Guantanamo issues asked me years ago: How can you win a war for your values by using tactics that undermine them?

At the end of the discussion, I turned to the woman standing next to me, who I think had just been identified in the film as the chief bin Laden hunter. "So, are you Jessica Chastain?" I asked, referring to the actress who played that role in Zero Dark Thirty. (Yes, I know, on reflection, it was a stupid way to put it. I have been told that the Chastain character was a composite of several of the CIA women, including Jennifer Matthews, who was killed in the Khost bombing.)

"No," the woman replied, "Jessica Chastain wasn't there." Great answer!


The Best Defense

Vietnam war expert: There's a lot to appreciate in the new book 'Hanoi's War'

During the summer, the Best Defense is in re-runs. Here are some favorites that ran in late 2012 and in 2013. This item originally ran on April 18, 2013.  

By Richard Coffman

Best Defense bureau of Vietnamese War affairs

Hanoi's War is an important book drawing on secret Vietnamese Communist Party and government archives and chronicling how Hanoi planned and waged war in Vietnam following the defeat of the French in 1954.

More than that, the book surfaces serious dissension at the highest levels in Hanoi over priorities, strategies, and resources undermining, among other things, preparation for the Tet Offensive of 1968 and leading to arrests and purges. Had Washington and Saigon had a clearer picture of this, the war certainly would have been fought differently, and the outcome might well have been more favorable. It's probably fair to say that we knew as much about Hanoi's leadership then as we do the North Korean leadership today.

As it was, this book describes how badly U.S. bombing in the North and significant ground incursions into communist base areas in Cambodia and Lao hurt Hanoi's war effort. It further shows the utter failure and enormous cost of Hanoi's major offensives in 1968, 1969, and 1972, which forced the North into greater dependence on the Soviets and Chinese and ultimately to engage in negotiations to force U.S. withdrawal.

The author, Lien-Hang T. Nguyen, a native-born Vietnamese, naturalized U.S. citizen, and professor at the University of Kentucky, had access to a wealth of official Vietnamese language archives, personalities, and unpublished manuscripts. Among others, she interviewed Hoag Minh Chinh, once North Vietnam's leading communist theoretician and a purged dissident. She had access to the unpublished memoirs of the first of communist party First Secretary Le Duan's wives, who served in the Mekong Delta for years

Lieng-Hang not only plows much new ground, but does so in a well-organized, lucidly argued, and well-written chronological treatment of the Vietnam War and Hanoi's direction of it. Readers will be grateful for her facility in writing and organizing this substantively dense material, and that she makes clear that the archives she reviewed were sanitized and by no means complete.

To students of communist ideology and tactics, Hanoi's War neatly describes the rise to the pinnacle of power of communist party leader Le Duan and his close associate Le Duc Tho, and the marginalization of Ho Chi Minh and General Vo Nguyen Giap. Indeed, these latter two internationally acclaimed heroes of the Vietnamese communist revolution, widely thought to wield unchecked power in Hanoi, sat out the Tet Offensive, Giap pouting in Hungary and Ho taking the waters in Beijing.

We further learn that despite Le Duan's repeated failures of strategies and tactics in the war in the South and immense personnel losses and the virtual destruction of the northern economy, he held on to power by virtue of brutal and non-stop repression. Even before the infamous Hanoi Hilton imprisoned U.S. airmen, it held scores of Le Duan's political opponents and dissidents, both real and imagined. His purges even claimed senior military officers close to Giap and some who helped plan the Tet Offensive.

In these and scores of less consequential matters, this book should humble Western intelligence and diplomatic observers, journalists, historians, academics, and the international left who got so much of North Vietnam wrong then and whose mistaken interpretations and judgments persist to this day.

Make no mistake, this is not revisionist history. The book's subtitle gives us a clue to her leanings: "An International History of the War for Peace in Vietnam."

The author persists in describing the Vietnam War as "unwinnable" for the United States, which certainly must come as news to such eminent contemporary historians as Lewis Sorley and Mark Moyar, whose recent works, even without primary sources on Hanoi's troubles, make clear that the outcome in Vietnam was far from inevitable. Moreover, she has a palpable antipathy for Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger even while brilliantly and in great detail describing how they simultaneously leveraged both Moscow and Beijing to squeeze Hanoi -- and against his deep instincts, Le Duan -- to get the best possible negotiated deal extricating the United States from Vietnam.

Indeed, Le Duan so preferred massive offensives designed to trigger popular uprisings in the South that he sent his right-hand man, Le Duc Tho, to Paris to keep the lid on the negotiations. This follows Le Duan's pattern in dispatching trusted generals to command the headstrong southern communists who believed their revolution was betrayed by the 1954 Geneva Accords. How ironic -- or perverse -- that Le Duc Tho won a Nobel Peace Prize for his service in Paris.

Finally, she attributes Hanoi's victory not to its persistence and tenacity, not to winning hearts and minds in the South, not to the enormous sacrifices of North Vietnam's armies and people, nor to U.S. politics which hamstrung and undermined the U.S. effort, particularly under Richard Nixon, but to the unwavering and irresistible pressure of post-colonial, third-world, anti-war nations fed by Hanoi's clever propaganda and diplomacy and eager to teach the United States a lesson. This, she avers, is perhaps the greatest legacy of Hanoi's war and serves as a model to those planning future revolutionary campaigns against Western powers.

This flight of fancy only slightly detracts from what is otherwise a major and unique contribution to our understanding of what we faced in Vietnam. Students of military history, the Vietnam War, and revolutionary communism have much to look forward to as these archives are more fully mined in the years ahead.

Richard Coffman served as a Marine Corps officer in Chu Lai and Danang, RVN in 1965-1966. He then served in the CIA for 31 years, analyzing the North Vietnamese leadership there from 1967 through 1972.