Phạm Xuân Ẩn’s Notepad #6: ChiComs & North Vietnam

Campaign Series Vietnam | Phạm Xuân Ẩn's Notepad

Phạm Xuân Ẩn’s Notepad is the latest series of articles by David Galster that provides an overview of espionage in Vietnam. The articles provide some interesting background information for the upcoming release of Campaign Series: Vietnam.

My Dear Friends,

The Communist Chinese were a critical ally to the Viet Minh in 1950, and gave them a significant boost in their struggle against the French. Later, the Chinese helped North Vietnam in the resistance war with the US. This article is an overview of this relationship, and also provides some information on the Chinese intelligence agencies.

Chinese Communist Party Intelligence

The Chinese Communist Party, CCP had an intelligence apparatus since before WWII. Kang Sheng was the leader of this group from 1936 to 1946. With the Communist Chinese takeover in 1949, Li Kenong became Chairman Mao’s intelligence chief. The organization was known as the Investigative Department of the Chinese Communist Party. (ID/CCP)

The ID/CCP provided reports on the world situation, and on the major events and issues taking place abroad. These efforts were based on news reports of foreign press agencies, foreign newspapers and books, as well as their spy network. During the 1946-1949 warfare between Kuomintang and Communist troops, the intelligence proved instrumental in battlefield victories.

In the 1950s, every Chinese embassy had an Investigation and Research Office for intelligence collection by staff from the ID/CCP. Analytical tasks were the responsibility of the Central Investigation Department Eighth Bureau.

In 1967, the ID/CCP was placed under military intelligence because of chaos during the Cultural Revolution. Many of the agency’s cadres were vulnerable to accusations of enemy collaboration.

People’s Liberation Army Military Intelligence

Known as the People’s Liberation Army, (PLA,) the military intelligence is controlled by the General Staff Department, (GSD.) Each military region has an intelligence bureau, as well as the two services, the PLA Navy, PLAN, PLA Air Force, PLAAF, and the PLA Second Artillery Force, PLASAF.

The GSD’s Second Department, 2PLA manages HUMINT. This includes military attaches. The GSD Third Department, 3PLA is the national SIGINT service.

In the early years of Communist China, the CSD formed the Chinese Military Advisory Group to advise the Viet Minh under President Ho Chi Minh and General Vo Nguyen Giap. The head of this group was Wei Guoqing. He was the one who handed a copy of the French Navarre Plan to Ho Chi Minh.

Ministry of Public Security

The Ministry of Public Security of the People’s Republic of China (MPS) is the main police and security authority for the People’s Republic of China. It is headed by the Minister of Public Security, and its first Minister was Luo Ruiqing. Prior to 1954, it was known as the Ministry of Public Security of the Central People’s Government. The Ministry operates the system of Public Security Bureaus, which are broadly the equivalent of police forces or police stations in other countries.

At the time of its creation, MPS had a simple structure, consisting of one general office and six functional directorates, numbered sequentially, and responsible for political security, economic security, public order and administration, border security, armed security, and personnel.

Ministry of Public Security Police Badge

Ministry of Public Security Police Badge

Sino-Vietnamese Relations

China has always viewed itself as Asia’s “older brother,” and wanted this relationship with Korea, Japan, Mongolia, and of course, Vietnam. The name Vietnam, or Viet Nam, is from the Chinese, and it means: Viets of the south. Indeed the Vietnamese used Chinese writing, and ruled their country using Confucian principles, even during the early years of French colonialism.

The Vietnamese wanted more independence, but the Communist movement united China and North Vietnam under a common ideology. However, the other issue between them was the Soviet Union.

There is an old saying: Two is company, three is a crowd.” The Chinese also suffered from the same “older brother” syndrome with the Soviets. In particular, Stalin treated Chairman Mao with condescension.

In January 1950, Chairman Mao and Zhou Enlai visited Moscow seeking to gain an alliance treaty. But Stalin resisted, in part because of the Treaty of Yalta. This was a treaty that involved the Guomindang or Kuomintang, (Nationalist Chinese,) under Chiang Kai Shek. Stalin feared that by breaking Yalta, he might lose the Kurile Islands. Needless to say, Chairman Mao thought that fellow Communists should unite, and relinquish old relations with non-communists. But, Stalin had a larger perspective, and also felt like the Soviet Union, as the World’s first  Communist nation, made them a “big brother” to the ChiComs.

As a further illustration of Sino-Soviet strains, Premier Nikita Khrushchev withdrew Soviet experts from China in July 1960. This was related to complaints that China had made. The interactions that China had with the Soviet Union caused mistrust. And, China did not want Ho Chi Minh to get too close to the Soviets.

Beijing had also benefited from the 1954 Geneva Agreement. China wanted to focus on domestic problems after the Korean War. They also took precautions against possible American military intervention in Indochina, wanting to prevent another direct Sino-American confrontation.

With these considerations, the Beijing leadership neither hindered nor encouraged Ho Chi Minh’s efforts to “liberate” the South, until 1962. Chinese leaders seemed more resigned than their Vietnamese comrades to accept that Vietnam would be indefinitely divided.

During the American Vietnam War, China worked to weaken North Vietnam politically while at the same time, they were sending military aid to them. China sent two types of correspondence: 1) Those directed at North Vietnam, and 2) those sent to the Viet Cong, operating in the south. Letters to the Viet Cong never acknowledged the North Vietnamese government, and were written with the intent to develop a direct connection with China.

Military Aid

In the early 1950s, China supplied the Viet Minh with captured US M101 105mm howitzers. These had been captured from Korea and the Nationalist Chinese. In addition, heavy 37mm anti-aircraft guns were furnished to the Viets. These alone made a major difference at Dien Bien Phu. The Viet Minh also sent troops into China for training, as well as a sanctuary.

In the 1964 Tonkin Gulf Incident, Zhou Enlai and Luo Ruiqing cabled Ho Chi Minh, Pham Van Dong and Van Tien Dung. The message was to “Investigate and clarify the situation, discuss and formulate proper strategies and policies, and be ready to take action.”  The Chinese assured closer military collaboration to meet the American threat. The General Staff ordered Military Regions Kunming and Guangzhou, (adjacent to Vietnam) air force, and naval units to go into “combat readiness.”

In 1965, when the US sent more troops to South Vietnam and began operation “Rolling Thunder,” Beijing decided on three basic principles: 1) If US forces went beyond bombing, and invaded North Vietnam, China would send military forces. 2) China gave a clear warning to the Americans, that US ground forces were not free to expand military operations into the North. 3) China would avoid direct US military confrontation as long as possible; but would not shrink from conflict, if necessary.

China generally supported North Vietnam throughout the war, not just after 1965. Already before 1963, China’s arms shipments to Vietnam included 270000 small arms, over 10000 artillery pieces, 200 million bullets of different types, two million artillery shells, 15000 wire transmitters, 5000 radio transmitters, over 1,000 trucks, 15 planes, 28 naval vessels, and 1.18 million sets of military uniforms.

The arms supply sharply increased in 1965. Compared with 1964, small-arms supply increased 1.8 times, ammunition almost 5 times, artillery pieces increased by over 3 times, and artillery shells increased nearly 6 times. Military supplies fluctuated between 1965 and 1968, although the average amounts remained roughly steady. There was a lull in 1969-70, but another sharp increase occurred in 1972. (Probably to help military initiatives influencing the Paris negotiations.)


Relations between China and North Vietnam were friendly, and strengthened by their common Communist ideology. But, historical, social, and cultural perspectives, combined with competition for  Soviet favor made them more complicated. However, the Chinese would likely never abandon the Vietnamese under the threat of French or American military forces.


” Ministry of Public Security (China),” Wikipedia

” China’s Involvement in the Vietnam War, 1964-69,” Chen Jian

” The Cold War in Asia,” Cold War International History Project Bulletin 221

” Li Kenong,” Wikipedia

“China’s Military Intelligence System is Changing,” Peter Mattis

Campaign Series Vietnam | Phạm Xuân Ẩn's Notepad

Phạm Xuân Ẩn’s Notepad #5: South Vietnamese Intelligence

Campaign Series Vietnam | Phạm Xuân Ẩn's Notepad

Phạm Xuân Ẩn’s Notepad is the latest series of articles by David Galster that provides an overview of espionage in Vietnam. The articles provide some interesting background information for the upcoming release of Campaign Series: Vietnam.

My Dear Friends,

The South Vietnamese, or the Republic of Vietnam had many different organizations related to intelligence work. Naturally, ARVN had military intelligence functions. The National Police were also involved with many aspects of surveillance and intelligence-related activities. There were other  government-sanctioned ones, such as the organized-crime outfit, Binh Xuyen. Finally, there was a secret spy organization known as the Department of Social and Political Services, serving directly under the President. This article provides an overview of these, and the key figures that led them.

ARVN Military Intelligence

The South Vietnamese Army, ARVN, had a military intelligence structure similar to the US. They even used the staff nomenclature S2, G2 etc. like the US. The G2 of an ARVN Division was a South Vietnamese officer with an American adviser. Naturally, South Vietnamese personnel gathered most of the field intelligence, and made early assessments. Unfortunately, it was common practice for ARVN commanders to assign their less talented officers to G2 and S2 duties.

ARVN furnished their 3rd Military Intelligence Detachment, 3MID as staff of MACV’s “Separate Brigade S2 in Vietnam,” (VNIT-398.) Their capabilities included counter-intelligence, imagery interpretation, order of battle, and POW interrogations. Their best contribution was order of battle intelligence.

Generally, senior South Vietnamese officers relied heavily on American-supplied intelligence. This tended to discredit their own indigenous efforts. Brig. Gen. Giai even demanded that his G2 provide him only with US weather data. The trend of Saigon’s generals was to view high technology as primary, and that Americans provided the best high-tech intelligence. This resulted in ARVN commanders relying more on electronic and other US intelligence data. They tended to give lower priority to visual reconnaissance or interrogations, although in many situations, these were more useful.

National Police

During the First Indochina War, the Vietnamese government under Bao Dai had a police force known as the Surete Federale. The French had created it during WWI. It closely tracked activities of Vietnamese anti-colonialists, communists, and nationalists inside and outside of French Indochina. It was considered to be highly effective. It operated under Japanese occupation during WWII until March 1945, when the Japanese disbanded them.

When the French returned in late 1945, they rebuilt the civil police and security forces. (Service de Surete de la Cochinchine) However, Surete would not regain its former effectiveness. When the former emperor Bao Dai was named Chief of State for Indochina in 1949, the French transferred control of the police force portions of Surete to his government.

The more sensitive parts of Surete were kept under French control. These included the “territorial surveillance,” military security, 5th Section in charge of postal and telegraph communication, and the equally secretive “Police speciale.”

The new South Vietnamese government under President Ngo Dinh Diem took these related police forces of Surete and Saigon Municipal Police, to create the National Police in 1962. This is known to the Vietnamese as CSQG. (Canh sat Quoc gia)

Initially, the National Police Force only had only 16000 uniformed and plain-clothes agents. It was basically an urban constabulary with no rural component to counter the Viet Cong threat. However, its numbers grew and in 1971, it had over 103000 personnel.

American GIs often referred to the National Police as “White Mice,” because of their white uniforms, helmets, and gloves. And, American servicemen were wary of the “White Mice,” because on a Saigon weekend, troops wanted liquor, women, and a good time while the police wanted to preserve the peace. Many times, taxicabs with a soldier and Vietnamese girl were stopped by police demanding identification and a “cohabitation certificate.” These were not legal stops, and the police were often looking for bribes.

General Nguyen Ngoc Loan was the head of the National Police. His image in an iconic photograph, snapped just prior to shooting a Viet Cong, is famous. The National Police indeed worked hard to counter the Viet Cong. Police were usually the first to be notified of Viet Cong raids, and the first to respond to the scene.

They had a “Public Safety” program which was a major effort to check all products being brought into certain areas. Police searched for illegal items, weapons, currency, and of course the occasional Viet Cong of Vietnamese military deserter without proper identification.  Propaganda leaflets depicted policemen checking items at a bus stop.

Ultimately, the National Police consisted of eight departments:

River and Coastal Police

Traffic Control Police

Judiciary Police

Special Police

Police Medical Service

Administration Service

VIP Protection Service

Field Police

Flag of Republic of Vietnam National Police

Flag of Republic of Vietnam National Police

Special Police

The Police Special Branch was the core of Operation Phung Hoang. (Called Operation Phoenix, by the CIA)  It was basically a counterinsurgency effort to collect intelligence data about the Viet Cong infrastructure. In the first 11 months of the 1968 campaign, Operation Phung Hoang resulted in 13404 Viet Cong cadres being rooted out of their underground positions in the communist movement. Under Phung Hoang, the National Police and other government intelligence agents manned district centers which collected data, checked information against files and dossiers, and where warranted, arranged for operations. This effort is also discussed in the CSLegion article, HHH#12 Vietnam Counterinsurgency.

Leaflet depicting "White Mice" inspecting luggage.

Leaflet depicting “White Mice” inspecting luggage

Binh Xuyen

A “mercenary” outfit involved with intelligence and covert operations during the First Indochina War was the Binh Xuyen. They primarily operated in the Saigon area, and had been a crime organization since the 1920s. In 1949, the new Vietnamese Chief of State, Bao Dai authorized them as an independent paramilitary organization within the conventional army. Bao Dai did this because Binh Xuyen was  anti-communist, and the Vietnamese National Army was weak and needed support.  Bay Vien, leader of Binh Xuyen was given the rank of Major General of the Vietnamese National Army.

Binh Xuyen was self-funded with revenues from legally-run brothels and casinos. Bay Vien forcibly took control of the casinos from Macanese organized crime groups. Further, Binh Xuyen was involved with Operation X, a drug operation used to fund French military efforts, particularly the GCMA under Major Roger Trinquier. (See CSLegion article PXAN#2 French Secret Service in Indochina.) In fact, Binh Xuyen operated two major opiurn boiling plants in Saigon. (Transformed raw poppy sap to a smokable form.)  Bandits distributed the drugs to dens and retail shops throughout Saigon and Cholon, (Chinese district,) some of which Binh Xuyen owned.

The Binh Xuyen divided its receipts with Trinquier’s GCMA and Col. Antoine Savani’s 2e Bureau of South Vietnam. (2e Bureau au Forces Terrestres du Sud Vietnam) Surplus opium was sold to Chinese merchants for Hong Kong export, or to Corsican criminal syndicates for shipment to Marseille. GCMA deposited its portion in a secret account, and when Touby Lyfoung or other Meo tribal leaders needed money, they flew to Saigon and personally drew cash from the “caisse noire,” or black box.

French officials gave Bay Vien free rein in Saigon and Cholon, provided that he wipe out the city’s Communist infrastructure. Bay Vien had vast knowledge of the Viet Minh in Saigon, through his network of agents. This, and his strong desire to fight Communism, enabled Binh Xuyen to destroy Viet Minh forces there in a very short time. The French rewarded Bình Xuyen’s success by allowing Bay Vien to monopolize the trucking industry in South Vietnam, and allowing him to to operate as a warlord.

By 1955, when the French were leaving, Bình Xuyen had five regular battalions, and two battalions of public security shock troops. (Cong an xung phong) But, in an intriguing rift between Bao Dai and Ngo Dinh Diem, the Vietnamese National Army, under Duong Van Minh, basically wiped out Binh Xuyen in Operation “Rung Sat.”

Department of Social and Political Services

President Ngo Dinh Diem had a secret service at his disposal. It was organized in the late 1950s with the help of his brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, who appointed Tran Kim Tuyen as director. The organization was given the innocuous name of “Department of Social and Political Services,” (So Nghien cuu Chinh tri Xa hoi,) but in reality, it was a secret spy organization that had about 500 personnel.

Tran Kim Tuyen was from North Vietnam in the Ninh Binh Province, and he had studied law and medicine in Hanoi. As a Catholic, he rejected the Communist Viet Minh movement’s atheism. He met Ngo Dinh Nhu by chance, when his priest recruited him as a guide. Nhu was traveling in a Catholic area, and Tuyen knew how to evade Viet Minh attention.

In 1954, Tuyen was working for the anti-communist Vietnamese Army. He persuaded a number of Catholics to move to the south to avoid Communism. He later fled himself, on a plane from Hanoi to Saigon that also had Ngo Dinh Diem aboard.

Ngo Dinh Nhu became a mentor to Tuyen and asked him to draft rules for the Can Lao, a political party. The Can Lao party was anti-communist, but was neither capitalist, (rejected materialism) but followed a philosophy known as “Personalism,” which originated with Emmanuel Mounier, a prominent French Catholic philosopher.

Tran Kim Tuyen became a liaison with the CIA and knew William Colby and Phillip Potter. In late 1956, the Department of Social and Political Services was formed. He employed propaganda techniques to “frame” rivals. He learned this from the Viet Minh. He once circulated fake copies of an anti-Diem  magazine, with Communist propaganda substituted for real content. And then, he had the government ban the news outlet for being Communist.

In 1962, Nhu appointed Tuyen and Pham Ngọc Thao, to oversee the Strategic Hamlet Program. Thao turned out to be a double agent and Communist spy. (See CSLegion article PXAN#4 North Vietnamese Espionage.) The program attempted to isolate the Viet Cong by barricading villagers inside fortified compounds, locking Communists out. Tuyen promoted the concept to the populace.

Than Kim Tuyen became unhappy with the dominant influence of Madam Nhu. Diem ordered Tuyen to take a leave of absence to rest, implying that Tuyen had become to lenient towards some disillusioned military officers. But, Diem never asked Tuyen to return to work. However, during the May 1963 Buddhist crisis, Diem asked him to come back to resolve it.

By then, Tuyen was no longer loyal to Diem, and began plotting a coup. But, he was unable to get the cooperation of the generals, because of his closeness to Nhu. After that, Nhu assigned Tuyen as ambassador to Egypt, basically a form of exile.

Finally, General Duong Van Minh led a coup, and Diem was assassinated in November 1963. Upon hearing this, Tuyen returned to Vietnam, thinking he would be safe. Instead, he was arrested, tried, and sentenced to five years in prison. When his prison term ended, Tuyen remained under house arrest. He was allowed to write political columns under an assumed name.

In April 1975, as South Vietnam collapsed amid a communist onslaught, Tan Kim Tuyen escaped to the US with the help of his old friend, Pham Xuan An.


The Republic of Vietnam had many different organizations involved with intelligence. Their military intelligence relied heavily on the CIA and US Army. The National Police were very involved with the counterinsurgency program against the Viet Cong. This was somewhat effective at dismantling the Viet Cong infrastructure. Other parts of South Vietnam’s intelligence were corrupt, like Binh Xuyen, or subject to much political intrigue, like the Department of Social and Political Services.


“Military Intelligence Operations and the Easter Offensive,” Thomas H. Lee

“The Separate Brigade S-2 in Vietnam VNIT-398,” Major Dennis F. Hightower

“Republic of Vietnam National Police,” Wikipedia

“The “White Mice” of Vietnam,” SGM Herbert A. Friedman

“Bình Xuyen,” Wikipedia

“French Indochina: Opium Espionage and “Operation X,”

“Tran Kim Tuyen,” Wikipedia

Campaign Series Vietnam | Phạm Xuân Ẩn's Notepad

Phạm Xuân Ẩn’s Notepad #4: North Vietnamese Espionage

Campaign Series Vietnam | Phạm Xuân Ẩn's Notepad

Phạm Xuân Ẩn’s Notepad is the latest series of articles by David Galster that provides an overview of espionage in Vietnam. The articles provide some interesting background information for the upcoming release of Campaign Series: Vietnam.

My Dear Friends,

Would you be surprised to learn that a Time Magazine journalist was one of North Vietnam’s top spies? His reports back to Hanoi were so useful that General Giap once joked, “We are now in the US war room.” Who was this journalist? Why, it was Pham Xuan An, who worked in Saigon for Time Magazine, while spying on the US and South Vietnamese forces. This article provides more details on this and the overall efforts of North Vietnam to conduct espionage on its enemies.

North Vietnamese Intelligence Overview

The Democratic Republic of Vietnam had two main intelligence organizations, a military one and a civilian one. The young country did not have many foreign embassies where they could place intelligence staffs. In 1964, the DRV had opened 19 diplomatic missions abroad; six years later this number increased to 30. But, North Vietnam did not have embassies in the US, France, UK, or Austrailia, so there was not a platform to conduct espionage in these  enemy countries.

Typical functions like general intelligence, counter intelligence, and technical development were included in their operations. The emphasis was mainly on policing North Vietnam civilians, propaganda, and doing foreign espionage in South Vietnam. There were also SIGINT and ELINT efforts, aided by the Soviet Union, to intercept radio messages and jam US aircraft communications.

The two main organizations for intelligence were the Ministry of Public Security, Nha Cong An, and the Ministry of Defense Intelligence Bureau, Cuc Tinh Bao.

Nha Cong An

Decree No. 121-NV/ND  established on the organization of police forces in North Vietnam in 1946. The goal was to identify disloyal people, and to gain political control over the population. This applied to the  Viet Minh controlled areas. The police had three levels:

Central level, called the Central Police House.

Regional level, called the Department of Public Security.

Provincial level, called Provincial Public Security Bureau.

During the First Indochina War, the Central Police House was located in Lung Co valley, in Tuyen Quang province. The Police House had an intelligence Company,  a judicial body, and a political department. The first director was Le Gian. He had received intelligence training by the British MI6 and the US OSS during WWII.

In 1953 President Ho Chi Minh signed Decree No. 141-SL placing the Central Police House into the Ministry of Public Security, or Nha Cong An. Mr. Tran Quoc Hoan, Member of the Party Central Committee, was appointed Minister. Nha Cong An was composed of: Ministry Office, Legal Department, Human Resources Department, Police Department, Political Protection Department, Police School, and an Administrative Security Department. In 1959, the Border Guard Forces were created and placed under Nha Cong An.

The mission of Nha Cong An was to protect the government, army, and national economy. It included counterintelligence, border defense, and international espionage. On local levels, it sought to establish order and security, combat crime and corruption, and detain and re-educate prisoners.

The Nha Cong An ran a successful radio counter-espionage program. Nguyen Huu Nhan was the commander of the SIGINT unit, which played a major role in defeating the  US “Black Entry Operations,” inserting teams of “spies and commandos” into North Vietnam between 1961-68. The operation tracked down spies, including one using high-speed communications equipment.

Ministry of Public Security Insignia

Ministry of Public Security Insignia

Cuc Tinh Bao

The Ministry of Defense Intelligence Bureau, or Cuc Tinh Bao, was created by the Viet Minh during the First Indochina War. The name, Cuc Tinh Bao, directly translates to English as “Intelligence Bureau.”  Tran Hieu was the first Intelligence Minister. He received MI6 and OSS training during WWII. In addition, a Japanese Colonel taught intelligence work to Viet Minh officers near the end of the war.

After defeating the French in 1954, the North Vietnamese developed Cuc Tinh Bao further and expanded its capabilities. It was Cuc Tinh Bao that placed spies into South Vietnam, and infiltrated the South Vietnamese Army with agents. Also Cuc Tinh Bao worked with the Soviet GRU for radio jamming capability. See also PXAN#3 Soviet KGB “Razvedka.”

In 1951, a third intelligence service called the “Liaison Directorate” (Nha Lien Lac) was created with espionage elements of Nha Cong An and Cuc Tinh Bao. It was to be a  “strategic intelligence” service, with high-level human HUMINT. Pham Xuan An was a member of this group. But in 1957, it was disbanded, and its agents reassigned to Cuc Tinh Bao.

Some of the types of units in Cuc Tinh Bao were the 75th Technical Reconnaissance Regiment, and the 8th Jamming Reconnaissance Battalion, (Trinh sat nhieu.)

Within Cuc Tinh Bao was a research department, called Cuc Nghien Cuu. Part of this was a secret Navy unit of commercial boats that carried military supplies and off-loaded them in obscure bays in Central Vietnam. Another secret Naval unit consisted of wooden sampans documented as South Vietnamese fishing boats. They ferried spies between Haiphong and South Vietnamese places like Nha Trang.

A significant number of spies were sent to infiltrate the Army of the Republic of Vietnam. (ARVN) Some notable spies were Pham Ngoc Thao, Vu Ngoc Nha, and Pham Xuan An. These spies and their operations will be covered in the next sections.

People's Army Vietnam Insignia

People’s Army Vietnam Insignia

Pham Ngoc Thao

Phạm Ngọc Thao infiltrated ARVN, and served as a colonel. He was appointed by Ngo Dình Nhu as a director for the Strategic Hamlet Program, which aimed to eliminate communist agents in South Vietnam. He deliberately worked to destabilize the program, causing protests against the South Vietnam government.

Thao was born in 1922 in Saigon to Catholic parents. His father was a wealthy landowner with French citizenship, which made his children eligible to study in France. However Pham Ngoc Thao attended an engineering school in Hanoi. Thao joined the Viet Minh in 1946 and after some training, he was part of an escort for the leader Le Duan, who influenced him in intelligence work.

After the French defeat, Thao stayed in the Saigon area teaching at a Catholic school and joining the Can Lao Party. The Bishop introduced him to Ngo Dinh Nhu, brother of Ngo Dinh Diem. Through this contact, he eventually went to the Da Lat Military Academy. After graduating In 1960,he was appointed as a Detective Inspector General in ARVN.

In 1961 Pham Ngoc Thao was appointed by Ngo Dinh Diem as Governor  of Kien Hoa Province and was to test the Binh Dinh program. It was after that that became director for the Strategic Hamlet Program.

He collaborated with Tran Kim Tuyen, director of the Department of Social and Political Services to plot a coup to force Ngo Dinh Nhu, brother of President Ngo Dinh Diem, to go abroad. To end this, President Diem appointed Tran Kim Tuyen ambassador to Egypt. Ngo Dình Nhu did not believe that Pham Ngoc Thao was involved.

However later, 1 November 1963, the Ngo Dinh Diem government was overthrown by General Duong Van Minh, with support of some American generals. Pham Ngoc Thao was not actively involved in the coup and afterward was assigned as press advisor in the Revolutionary Military Council. They sent him to the United States for training. Some time later, Pham Ngoc Thao was appointed cultural attaché of the Embassy of Vietnam in America.

Thao was called back to Vietnam because some Saigon authorities were suspicious. They intended to arrest him at Tan Son Nhut  airport.

Thao secretly contacted other opposition forces, and organized a coup in Saigon for a very important reason. According to a document he captured, the United States and General Nguyen Khanh agreed to bomb North Vietnam on 20 February 1965. So, the coup was planned for 19 February, and was called Operation Nguyen Hue.

Maj Gen Lam Van Phat, Col Bui Dzinh, and Lt Col Le Hoang Thao organized forces, and occupied Le Van Duyet camp, the Saigon radio station, Bach Dang wharf, and Tan Son Nhut airport. The force included the Thu Duc infantry, the main force 46th Regiment, and 45 tanks.

They detained General Nguyen Khanh for a short period, but the coup attempt was countered by an ARVN division. The coup forces abandoned their positions and fled. Khanh was rescued and flown to Vung Tau. The officers running the coup also fled.

Pham Ngoc Thao had to retreat into secrecy to evade authorities. A rifle battalion accompanied him. He continued propaganda and revolutionary activities by publishing the “Viet Tien” newspaper.

The US embassy also offered to take him abroad safely, but he refused. President Nguyen Van Thieu decided to capture and kill Pham Ngoc Thao, who eventually hid in Phuoc Ly monastery in Vinh Thanh. On 16 July 1965, Thao was ambushed by security forces.

Pham Ngoc Thao was only grazed by a bullet on the chin, and escaped into the church, where the Order of the Dominican Sisters hid him. However, the security force discovered him. He was brutally tortured and killed 17 July 1965.

Vu Ngoc Nha

One of the most significant Vietnamese intelligence legends is Vu Ngoc Nha (1928-2002.) He ultimately became a Major General of the Vietnam People’s Army. He is best known as an advisor for a number of senior politicians in the Republic of (South) Vietnam,  and as a key figure in the A.22 intelligence case that shook the Saigon political scene in late 1969.

Throughout his life, Vu Ngoc Nha has many names such as Pièrre Vu Ngoc Nha (Holy Name), Vu Ngoc Nha, Hoang Duc Nha, Vu Dinh Long (also known as Hai Long), or Le alias. His real name is Vu Xuan Nha, and he was from Vu Hoi in the Thai Binh province of the northern coastal region.

In early 1945, Nha went to a university in Hanoi, where he became acquainted with a Viet Minh officer, Hoang Minh Van, who taught him about the Communist revolution that was heating up against the French at that time.

After the Viet Minh withdrew from Hanoi, he returned to Thai Binh, and worked in the participated in Viet Minh movement to infiltrate the Catholic Church, with a alias of “Le Quang Kep.”

In 1953, he was recruited by Tran Quoc Huong as a military intelligence agent to train officers working with the Catholic church. In 1954, the head of military intelligence, Hoang Minh Dao issued orders to plant agents into South Vietnam to prepare for the “post Geneva” period.

Vu Ngoc Nha was part of this operation, and in 1955, he, his wife, and daughter emigrated to the South with many Catholics.  Nha set up some safe houses, working with the Catholic Relief Society, Phat Diem. This won approval of Priest Hoang Quynh. Nha also became a helper to well known Bishop Le Huu Tu.

However, at the end of December 1958, he was suspected by by a counterintelligence officer. For this reason, he was detained. Due to priest Hoang Quynh vouching for him, was not found guilty, but remained unofficially detained until 1961.

Nha used the cover of “servant to Bishop Le Huu Tu” as liaison and informant of Catholic immigrants. In this position, he not only obtained valuable intelligence, but also influenced relations between the two sides.

South Vietnamese General Nguyen Van Thieu used Vu Ngoc Nha as a liaison to Hoang Quynh, to seek political support. As a spy, Vu Ngoc Nha skillfully used this role to create relationships and influence politicians both in civil and military.

His superiors expanded his mission into a network codenamed intelligence cluster A.22. which was his personal codename. The entire A.22 cluster was under the direct command of Nguyen Duc Tri.

The biggest success of the A.22 group involved Le Huu Thuy, code name A.25, to penetrate important South Vietnamese government positions. He recruited Huynh Van Trong, a well known Vietnamese politician into the network. Trong later took a position of assistant to President Nguyen Van Thieu. Trong had opportunities and contacts, and so was able to obtain many US top secret documents, which were later handed over to Vu Ngoc Nha.

The A.22 network activities drew suspicion with Saigon authorities, and the CIA quickly discovered abnormalities of these individual characters and their actions. The CIA began investigating this spy ring. A special CIA unit, codenamed S2/B was commisioned and carried out detainment of Cluster A.22 in July 1969. This involved arrest of 42 Communist spies

When the case was brought to trial in November 1969, the Saigon press labeled it “the political case of the century.” In order to save their message and maintain their political standing, members of Cluster A.22 decided to turn the spy case into a political case. The complication for the prosecution was that the most important witness was the President, and as a result, the court would not summon Thieu for testimony. The defendants argued that they were acting in accordance with requirements of the authorities, and guided by religious conscience.

As a result of the political issues involved, the court sentenced Vu Ngoc Nha, Le Huu Thuy, Huynh Van Trong, and Nguyen Xuan Hoe to between 5 and 20 years in prison. (Rather than death sentence) In 1973 however, under the terms of political prisoners under the Paris Agreement, Vu Ngoc Nha was handed over to the National Liberation Front, or the Viet Cong.

After verifying his actions and status in 1974, Vu Ngoc Nha was restored to his position as a secret agent, and promoted to Lieutenant Colonel of the People’s Army of Vietnam. Ultimately, he was awarded title of “Hero of the Armed Forces,” and promoted to Brigadier General.

Pham Xuan An

A most intriguing spy for North Vietnam was Pham Xuan An. He was agent X6, member of the H.63 network in Cu Chi.He got a job as a journalist for Time Magazine, working in Saigon, where he conducted his spying activities

An was born 12 September 1927, in Bien Hoa, northeast of Saigon. His father  was a civil engineer for the Department of Public Works, but was not a French citizen. In 1945, An joined the Young Pioneers and studied Viet Minh propaganda. He joined the Communist Party in 1953, and was later called up to serve in the French Union forces. He was secretary for the psychological warfare department at the French Army Headquarters in Camp Aux Mares.

It was in this organization that An met Colonel Edward Lansdale, chief of the newly formed US Saigon Military Mission. (SMM) He later worked with the Americans in their advisory efforts to   ARVN. (Army of Republic of Vietnam – South)

But, An’s strongest ties were with the Vietnamese Communists, and under direction of Mao Chi Tho, deputy head of the South Vietnamese Communist Party Committee, he was sent to the US to study journalism at the Orange Coast College. (1957-59) It was here that Pham Xuan An developed a strong admiration for America and the American people. He was the first Vietnamese to study at that college.

However, An wanted to see Vietnam as an independent and unified country, and not controlled by foreign powers like France or the US. And so, An’s true loyalty was with the North Vietnamese Communists. They were the only entity by which Vietnam could become unified and independent. When An returned to Saigon in 1959, he became a journalist for Reuters. Later in 1964, he joined Time Magazine, working in Saigon.

At that time, An cultivated close ties and friendship with Tran Kim Tuyen, the Director of Social and Political Services for the Ngo Dinh Diem’s South Vietnamese government. He would be a source of valuable intelligence information later.

While working for Time Magazine, Pham Xuan An secretly spied for Cuc Tinh Bao, military intelligence. His network, H.63 operated from the town of Cu Chi, about 30 km northwest of Saigon. They maintained a safe house there, with a radio transmitter. The H.63 commander of the network of 45 members was Col. Nguyen Van Tau.

On a weekly basis, Pham Xuan An would meet with the H.63 courier, Ms. Nguyen Thi Ba. Usually, they met at the “Old Market,” where all kinds of merchandise and animals, such as birds and dogs were traded. An would give her documents, written in invisible ink, and placed into small discreet containers. And, he would receive his network instructions from Ms. Ba. She took the documents to Cu Chi, where they processed the invisible ink, revealing the text. Later, they transmitted the intelligence to Hanoi via radio transmitter.

Life in Saigon was actually quite tense for Pham Xuan An. While the chain-smoking An maintained a very friendly persona, and was well liked by journalists and government officials, he had to be careful not to show any hint of spy activities. One slip, and he could be caught, and likely executed.

Perhaps the only one to suspect Pham Xuan An’s spying was Zalin Grant, an undercover US Army intelligence officer. In 1965, Grant became acquainted of Beverly Deepe, journalist for the New York Herald Tribune. She explained that the Tribune offered An a job with a high salary, but he turned them down. Grant was curious of why Pham Xuan An seemed to have independent financial means, and was not scrambling for additional jobs, like assistant reporters or “legmen,” like other well educated Vietnamese. But he was fearful of  “unmasking” An. Grant was afraid for his own life, that the Viet Cong might kill him, and never pursued Pham Xuan An further.

An frequented the Givral coffee shop, located across Tu Do street (now Dong Khoi,) from the Continental Hotel. Almost daily, An would drive his little green Renault “quatre-chevaux” motor scooter to the Givral coffee shop, and mingle with the patrons there. It was a gathering spot for police, government officials, journalists, and correspondents; it was the place where rumors started, and where everyone vied for the best daily story. An even knew CIA’s Lou Conein, and William Colby. This rumor mill was known as “Radio Catinat,” as prior to 1955, Tu Do street was called “Rue Catinat.” And, such was An’s reputation, he was nicknamed “General Givral.”

In 1963, Pham Xuan An gave the Viet Cong advance notice of an American attack at Ap Bac. The battle was a total failure for the US because they lost the element of surprise. Five helicopters were downed, and three Americans were killed.

In his spy career, Pham Xuan An sent back 498 reports, including original material copied, and information he collected and analyzed. These included special war strategies such as McGarr Documentation, Staley documents, Taylor papers, and Harkins documents. He also obtained  local strategy plans Mau Than, and provided information used for the 1968 Tet Offensive. In later years he provided documents related to Vietnamization.

In the 1975 fall of Saigon, Pham Xuan An witnessed NVA tanks breaking through the palace gates. But, he helped his friend Tran Kim Tuyen escape during the Saigon evacuation. After the war, the Communists placed him on house arrest, and gave him “re-education” training, because they were suspicious of his association with Americans.

In Pham Xuan An’s later years, US authors such as Larry Berman made contacts with him, and interviewed him for books. The Vietnamese government promoted him to Brigadier General. In 2003, he was invited aboard the USS Vandegrift when it made the first US Navy port of call to Ho Chi Minh City since the war. This signified reconciliation between America and Vietnam, and improved relations between the two countries was something that Pham Xuan An had long wished for.

As he was a chain smoker for many years, Pham Xuan An died in 2006 from emphysema. His funeral was attended by over 300 international and domestic delegations. He was buried in Ho Chi Minh City.


North Vietnam developed a good spy network, particularly in South Vietnam. They were well organized and had a committed cadre of spies and loyal members.


“Ministry of Public Security Nha Cong An,” Wikipedia

“General Department of Military Intelligence (Vietnam),” Wikipedia

“The Soviet-Vietnamese Intelligence Relationship during the Vietnam War: Cooperation and Conflict,” By Merle L. Pribbenow

“Pham Ngoc Thao,” Wikipedia

“Major General Vu Ngoc Nha, an outstanding secret agent,” Nguyen Duc Vinh

“Vu Ngoc Nha,” Wikipedia

“Pham Xuan An: Vietnam’s Top Spy: Why Did U.S. Journalists Love Him?” Zalin Grant

“Pham Xuan An,” Wikipedia

“Perfect Spy – The Incredible Double Life of Pham Xuan An, Time Magazine Reporter and

Vietnamese Communist Agent,” Larry Berman

Campaign Series Vietnam | Phạm Xuân Ẩn's Notepad

Phạm Xuân Ẩn’s Notepad #3: Soviet KGB “Razvedka”

Campaign Series Vietnam | Phạm Xuân Ẩn's Notepad

hạm Xuân Ẩn’s Notepad is the latest series of articles by David Galster that provides an overview of espionage in Vietnam. The articles provide some interesting background information for the upcoming release of Campaign Series: Vietnam.

My Dear Friends,

Would you believe when North Korea hijacked the USS Pueblo, that it played a key role in Soviet espionage in the Vietnam War? This article describes the Soviet KGB, and how one of its big intelligence exploitations helped North Vietnam against American air campaigns.

KGB Background

The Soviet Union had a strong spy program dating back to the Bolshevik days of Felix Dzerzhinsky’s Cheka. The KGB, (Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti) which means “Committee for State Security,” was a 1953 reorganization and renaming of its predecessor, MGB. It was distinct from the military reconnaissance and intelligence group, the GRU (Glavnoye Razvedyvatel’noye Upravleniye,) which means “Main Intelligence Directorate.”

The Russian word “razvedka” means reconnaissance and intelligence with a combined meaning. The Soviets term, “razvedka,” describes all actions necessary for a better understanding of the enemy. The English language, applies distinct meanings to “reconnaissance ” and ” intelligence,” describing  information collection and analysis as separate entities. Soviet and US terminology differ more than just semantically. The Soviets view razvedka as a single process, encompassing actions at the lowest level, as well as highly sophisticated analysis at the national level to gather and process information on enemies.

KGB Sword and Shield Insignia

General Organization

The KGB is a vast organization. It is divided into “Chief Directorates,” some numbered, like the First Chief Directorate, FCD,  for Foreign Operations, or the Second Chief Directorate of counterintelligence. There are about thirteen Chief Directorates.

Below Chief Directorate level are Directorates, Services, or Departments. All three terms are used and cover different functions within a Chief Directorate. An example might be the Directorate “T” for Scientific and Technical Intelligence. Whether something was  a Directorate, Service, or Department depended on staff size. (40 or less were Departments)

One such Service within the FCD was “Service A” for Aktivnyye Meropryatiye, or “Active Measures.”

For foreign locations, the Soviets had a “residency” (rezidentura) organization, analogous to a station in the CIA. These would be associated with the Soviet embassies or consulates. A residency was divided into two staffs, operational and support. The table below shows the generic residency organization for the FCD. A “line” is a section or small group of just a few people. The total would be on the order of 40 people, but this would vary depending on need.

First Chief Directorate Organization

Espionage relating to the Vietnam War was covered mostly by the First Chief Directorate. The Departments that were most involved were the First Department, for US surveillance, the Sixth Department, which included Vietnam and China, and the Sixteenth Department, dealing with SIGINT and codebreaking.

Chief Directorate KGB

During most the Vietnam War, the Head of FCD was Aleksandr Sakharovsky. The Head of the US Residency was Boris Aleksandrovich Solomatin, 1966–1968. He was involved in exploiting the “Walker spy ring.”

Viet Minh Obtain Copy of Navarre Plan

The Soviet Union was ever watchful over the fledgling Communist movement in Indochina, and although no official contact or relationship existed with the Viet Minh, KGB probably provided at least one piece of intelligence shortly before Dien Bien Phu. According to General Vo Nguyen Giap, in September 1953, the Chinese delivered a copy of the French strategic plan, called the Navarre Plan (named for the French Commander-in-Chief Henri Navarre), complete with a map, that a “friendly” intelligence agency had obtained. The speculation is that, given the KGB’s extensive spy network inside the French government, military, and intelligence services at that time, and with China’s capability so new, it seems probable that the Navarre Plan was acquired by Soviet intelligence, and then given to the Chinese for passage to the Viet Minh.

Project Vostok

In 1955, the Vietnamese Ministry of Public Security asked the Soviet KGB for a small amount of electronic equipment for the establishment, on a trial basis, of a radio intercept (SIGINT) unit. The KGB sent a team of specialists to select the best radio intercept sites, and to train Vietnamese personnel.

The experiment was successful, and 1959, North Vietnam asked the KGB for further assistance in establishing a large “radio counter-espionage and radio intelligence” program. The KGB responded enthusiastically, providing funding, equipment, and training for the construction of what was called Project “Vostok,” which was completed in 1961.

The KGB’s Eighth Chief Directorate (and later the Sixteenth Chief Directorate), were the organizations responsible for SIGINT operations, provided training, advice, and guidance to the Vietnamese.

GRU Assistance to North Vietnam

The Soviet military intelligence, GRU provided North Vietnam with technical support. In the spring of 1967, the Soviet Union sent electronics intelligence (ELINT) specialists and advanced equipment to counter American electronic jamming used by bombers over North Vietnam. The GRU also helped with breaking American military codes.

A team of Soviet electronic warfare specialists were dispatched to Vietnam along with equipment for an ELINT battalion. The Soviet specialists spent three months in Vietnam, setting up the equipment, detecting and analyzing American jamming signals, and training Vietnamese on operation.

When the Soviets left, they turned their equipment over to a newly-formed Vietnamese ELINT unit. In 1968, the Soviet Union sent a second shipment of electronic equipment that enabled the Vietnamese to expand its unit into a full ELINT battalion. This unit was called the 8th Jamming Reconnaissance (Trinh sat nhieu) Battalion, and was focused on detecting, studying, identifying, and exploiting American electronic jamming signals, especially from B-52 bombers. The information obtained by this unit played a key role in countering US Operation Linebacker II, the 1972 Christmas bombing campaign.

Walker Spy Ring

John Walker was a US Navy sailor who joined in 1955, and became a radioman. After some surface fleet assignments, he went to submarine school and became qualified. Assigned to the USS Razorback (SS-394,) he received top-secret crytographic training.

By 1963, Walker had advanced to Chief Petty Officer, and was in charge of the radio room on the USS Simon Bolivar (SSBN-641,) a nuclear ballistic missile sub. He was qualified for cryptographic equipment maintenance at that time, and later became a Chief Warrant Officer.

Suffering from financial difficulties, and perhaps motivated by greed, Walker decided to balance his checkbook, by leaking top secret information to Moscow. He photocopied a document at his shore- duty station, Atlantic Submarine Forces HQ in Norfolk, and slipped it in his pocket. The next day, he drove to Washington DC, walked into the Soviet Embassy, and asked to see security personnel.

Yakov Lukasevics, an internal security specialist at the embassy, was unsure what to do with the American who came bearing documents. He telephoned Boris A. Solomatin, the KGB rezident chief.

After studying the situation, and consulting with other KGB officials, Solomatin assigned Oleg Kalugin, his deputy for political intelligence (Line PR,) as Walker’s handler. Kalugin carefully selected a “dead drops” location for Walker to deposit document packages, and pick up cash and instructions.

The information Walker provided was the cryptographic key for KW-7 encryptors.  The cryptographic key is a long random number used to encrypt a message. The KW-7 was a gray box, weighing about 34 kg. The internals consisted on a combination of vacuum-tube and transistor technology, and in 1967 it was the most widely used encryptor in the US inventory.

However, the Soviets did not have a KW-7 encryptor with which to decode messages even if they had the key. Apparently, they got the North Koreans to hijack the USS Pueblo (AGER-2) in January 1968. And, the North Koreans were able to recover the ship’s KW-7 encryptor.

The US military changed cryptographic keys every 24 hours, and so Walker provided the KGB with future key lists so they could continue to break the code. Walker also provided a huge array of other secret Navy and US documents. These included operational orders, war plans, technical manuals, and intelligence digests. The KGB devised and furnished its spy with an electronic device that could read the KL-47 (a later encryptor,) rotor wiring, and gave him a miniature Minox camera. At Norfolk, he used his status as a courier to smuggle documents from headquarters to his officer quarters room, where he photographed them.

Now the KGB could decode all radiograms transmitted from the carriers like the USS Enterprise, and other ships year round. They deciphered more than a million messages, to obtain data from the most modern American encryption equipment available. The commander of the Atlantic Fleet, Admiral Isaac K. Kidd was alarmed by actions of Soviet submarines, which during exercises, moved as if reading the messages of American ships.

The impact was critical in the Vietnam War. The KGB could provide the North Vietnamese with any communications regarding strategic bombing. Most messages between carriers on Yankee Station and MACV were intercepted, and North Vietnamese knew where B-52 bombers would strike.

According to a senior North Vietnamese Public Security officer stationed in South Vietnam, warnings of dates, times, and locations of planned American B-52 strikes were transmitted from Public Security Headquarters in Hanoi to Public Security offices in South Vietnam. The dissemination went to NVA units, communist headquarters elements, and civilian officials in scheduled target areas.

Finally, the end for John Walker came when FBI agents arrested him after confiscating 127 classified documents left at a dead drop. A search of his home turned up plentiful evidence of the spy ring, including records of payments to Jerry Whitworth, who turned himself in a few days later. Brother Arthur was also arrested. The spy ring was caught only because John Walker’s ex-wife reported him to the FBI in a fit of drunken spite over unpaid hush money.

Walker led one of the most devastating spy rings ever unmasked in the United States. He and the spy ring compromised US Navy cryptographic systems, and top-secret information from 1967 to 1985.


The KGB was a very extensive spy organization with vast capabilities and resources. They had redundant organizations at virtually every level, and had very large staffs with highly trained and motivated personnel. The helped the North Vietnamese in a very significant way with SIGINT, and cryptography.


“Startling Cold War Revelations of a Soviet KGB Chief,” Tennent H. Bagley

“First Chief Directorate,” Wikipedia

“KGB,” Wikipedia

“The Fundamentals of Soviet Razvedka (Intelligence/Reconnaissance),” David M. Glantz

“An Analysis of the Systemic Security Weaknesses of the U.S. Navy Fleet Broadcasting System, 1967-1974, As Exploited by CWO John Walker,” Major Laura J. Heath

“The Soviet-Vietnamese Intelligence Relationship during the Vietnam War: Cooperation and Conflict,”

By Merle L. Pribbenow II, December 2014

“The John Walker Spy Ring and The U.S. Navy’s Biggest Betrayal,” John Prados

Campaign Series Vietnam | Phạm Xuân Ẩn's Notepad

Phạm Xuân Ẩn’s Notepad #2: French Secret Service in Indochina

Campaign Series Vietnam | Phạm Xuân Ẩn's Notepad

Phạm Xuân Ẩn’s Notepad is the latest series of articles by David Galster that provides an overview of espionage in Vietnam. The articles provide some interesting background information for the upcoming release of Campaign Series: Vietnam.

My Dear Friends,

The new CS Vietnam game features units and scenarios of the First Indochina War. French espionage was important to the CEFEO, (Corps Expéditionnaire Français en Extrême-Orient,) and helped them fight the Viet Minh. This article gives a picture of that espionage, and is an overview of the French Secret Services in Indochina.

Strategic Level Intelligence

The French High Commissioner was the one who “directed the war.” Emile Bollaert held this position during the late 1940s, and brought the former emperor Bao Dai in as Vietnam’s political leader.  The High Commissioner was the political link to the associated states like the US, but also closely coordinated his actions with the C-in-C. (Commander in Chief of CEFEO) The staff that supported him was known as the DGD. (Direction Generate de la Documentation) When General Jean de Lattre became C-in-C in 1951, he was also assigned as High Commissioner.

The SDECE (Service de Documentation Extérieure et de Contre-Espionnage) and the Surete Nationale provided intelligence to DGD, but also worked closely with the military intelligence organization, 2e Bureau.

The SPDN (Secretariat Permanent de la Defense Nationale) fed information to the DGD, and was made up of the various military attaches in south-east Asia, as far away as Tokyo and Hong Kong. The attaches were not well directed, and their HUMINT efforts were mostly wasted.

The GCR (Groupe de Controles Radio-Electriques) performed interception of radio communications, and radiogoniometry (direction finding.) They played a prominent ELINT and SIGINT role in providing information on Viet Minh VM troop movements. They also provided information to other intelligence services.

The Autonomous Listening and Direction Finding Company CAER, (compagnie autonome d’écoute et de radiogoniométrie) moved to Saigon and Hanoi with its listening centers, and a semi-fixed chain of eight direction finders was deployed on the peninsula. This chain is reinforced with two sections of mobile direction finders with six positions each.

In 1950, the CAER contributed to the location and assessment of Viet Minh forces during the evacuation of Cao Bang and, in particular, from Lang Son by Colonial Road No. 4 (RC 4). The picture below is one of the fixed direction finders. (Radiogoniometrie Fixe – CAER)

Fixed Radiogoniometry Station

Fixed Radiogoniometry Station


The “exterior” intelligence agency, SDECE was analogous to the US CIA, although was not purely civilian and had many military officers. Its responsibilities went beyond military, and was under control of the French Prime Minister in Paris. The director of SDECE during the late Indochina war was Pierre Boursicot, and the Saigon chief was Colonel Maurice Belleux. The SDECE was the largest and best funded French intelligence agency. There were four branches, SR, Counter-espionage, STR, and GCMA.

The SR (Service de Renseignement) worked exclusively outside of Indochina. China, Taiwan, and Thailand were a priority. The SR employed array of correspondents and spies, mostly performing HUMINT, and some COMINT. The agents were mostly westerners, and had trouble penetrating oriental societies, and the task was more difficult after China went Communist in 1949.  As the new Chinese regime consolidated its power, old spy networks disappeared.

The counter-espionage organizaton in SDECE was “Brigades de Contre-espionnage Opérationnelles,”called “Brigades” for short. This group had many challenges due to inability of French and Vietnamese military personnel to maintain basic rules of security. The Viet Minh were always actively trying to exploit this.

The STR (Service Technique des Recherches) was an analytical service, and was successful with decoding and exploiting Viet Minh radio signals. Starting in 1951, the VM used radios down to the battalion level. Increased reliance on radio communication, and lack of security provided STR with a very large wealth of information. Before the campaign against Nghia Lo in October 1951, STR learned that the VM 312th Division had supplies for only a month. When the offensive started going seriously wrong, STR decrypts provided a vivid and interesting picture of 312th  Division commander failing to answer questions from Vo Nguyen Giap.

In September 1952, the Viet Minh changed their codes as main force units moved into Thai country. For a few days, the French High Command was in the dark. STR soon mastered the new codes, but the French did not know the configuration of Viet Minh units in the Northwest Zone. This contributed to the loss of Nghia Lo.  A later report criticized the intellectual laziness of certain echelons by over-reliance on STR decrypts, and not employing other methods.

The covert “action branch” of the SDECE was the GCMA. (Groupement des Commandos Mixtes Aéroportés) Major Roger Trinquier was in charge of this rather large group of “Maquis,” (guerillas,) numbering about 20,000. Organized in 1951, the GCMA mission was to organize guerrilla and sabotage operations, and escape and evasion networks in areas occupied by the Viet Minh.

The French knew most of the ethnic minorities were willing to fight the Vietnamese Communists in exchange of protection and civic aid. So, the GCMA heavily recruited from the following tribes of Indochina: Bahnar, Bru, Cham, Halang, Hre, Jarai, Jehs, Katus, Koho, Hmong, Raglai, Rengao, Rhade, Sedang, Steng, Meo, and Nungs.

Although Trinquier later became a known counterinsurgency expert, the GCMA lacked intelligence gathering and analysis capabilities needed to run such an operation. Rather, the GCMA was an operations outfit. Maquis commando units had about 1000 trained personnel. Their operating approach was adapted to politico-military missions, from psych ops or civic action to direct action.

Trinquier visited his men often, and emphasized the necessity of selecting the best possible indigenous personnel to co-command these units, as they would help to ensure cohesion and effectiveness, and to take equal care in choosing a 2nd-in-command. In most cases, leaders were sent to Vung Tau Junior Officers School. As for the GCMA cadres acting as military advisors to Maquis units, their mission from province to village level was threefold: establish a self-defence system; train Maquis recruits, and establish a base of operations.

The GCMA often lacked funding and material resources. Despite high success, it suffered from a lack of support, and hostile incomprehension by the  French High command. Further, lack of funding was a problem for the CEFEO, generally. The solution was “Operation X,” a clandestine narcotics traffic operation. It was so secret that only high-ranking French and Vietnamese officials knew of its existence. During its peak years from 1951 to 1954, Operation X was sanctioned at the highest levels by Colonel Belleux of SDECE and General Raoul Salan.

Major Trinquier assured Operation X a supply of opium by ordering his liaison oflicers serving with Meo commander Touby Lyfoung and Tai Federation leader Deo Van Long to buy opium at a competitive price. Not only did this supplement financing, but it maintained indigenous tribe allegiance. Unless they provided an outlet for local opium production, the prosperity and loyalty of their hill tribe allies would be lost.

As an example of a GCMA operation, Lt Nung organized a Maquis in the upper Red River region near the Chinese border in May 1952. After choosing an able Montanyard, Lt. Long, as his deputy, Nung selected 40 commandos. All training and preparation completed, the “Maquis Cardamone” was ready to go by early 1953, and by the end of June, had rallied 600 volunteers. Some came from a Tonkin village, Phong Tho, that Nung liberated from VM control.

Nung’s scout network informed him in September 1953 that the enemy planned an operation to recapture Phong Tho. The VM battalion staging area was at the Red River town of Lao Kay, west of Phong Tho. Nung decided to hit the VM at Lao Kay with a combined ground-airborne assault before their offensive could mature.

Lao Kay is situated on the east bank of the river. The Viet Minh established a temporary headquarters there, basing their troops across the river near the adjoining village of Coc Leu. During the night of the 5 October 1953, 500 Maquis commandos led by Lt. Long infiltrated to within 100 metres of Coc Leu, a jump-off point that also served as a block position for VM retreat. At daybreak, Lt Nung and 40 of his commandos jumped from three Dakotas, landing in their designated DZ south of Coc Leu and Long’s position. After assembling and linking with Long’s commandos, Nung’s paras spearheaded the surprise attack.

Though caught off guard, the Viet Minh mounted a hasty counterattack that was beaten back. Nung’s men drove them across the river towards Lao Kay. By day’s end, the Viet Minh had been completely routed, their arms and supply caches destroyed. The VM offensive was thwarted. As a bonus, Nung’s men blew the only bridge connecting Lao Kay to China, thus temporarily severing a primary Viet Minh supply line.

Surete Nationale

The Surete, or Security Service, was a police force that provided political intelligence. Before 1945, it was very powerful and well-informed. Not only was it an intelligence gathering agency, but also had policing powers of arrest and repression. The Japanese coup of 1945 and the short period afterward dislocated and destroyed Surete’s networks.It was slowly reconstituted but never regained its previous power, especially after many of its powers were progressively passed to the new Vietnamese Surete.

Pierre Perrier became the new director of Surete. He was in direct liaison with other civil and military intelligence services.  Andre Moret, who previously directed French police in Shanghai, took charge of reorganizing the Surete’s activities in Tonkin, while M. Thierry did the same in Cambodia.

2e Bureau EMIFT

The French military organization has different bureaus corresponding to function. The 2nd or (Deuxième) 2e Bureau is intelligence, while the 3e is operations, and so forth. This is similar to US military with G2 or S2 being intelligence and G3 or S3 as operations.

Every French military organization down to the battalion and groupement level also had their own intelligence staff, or 2e Bureaus. These lower level ones worked closely with reconnaissance, but supplemented with analysis. HUMINT was typically available through prisoner interrogation. These staffs might also have access to COMINT from STR decrypts, or aerial photography from the Air Force 2e Bureau.

The top staff was the French 2e Bureau EMIFT. (2e Bureau des Etat-Major Interarmées et Forces Terrestres.) The 2e Bureau Chief was Colonel Boussarie, and his Deputy Chief, Colonel Gracieux. He had 15 analytical staff members.

The 2e Bureau EMIFT Motto was “Nihil mirare, nihil contemptare, omnia intelligere.”  Be surprised at nothing, disregard nothing, and understand everything.

The C-in-C also had a staff, called SRO, (Service de Renseignement Opérationnel.) The Saigon chief was General Meyer. Its mission was to provide information from the Viet Minh controlled areas, and information from VM regular units that infiltrated in Franco-Vietnamese controlled areas. Most of the information SRO provided was through agents. (HUMINT) It was similar to that produced by the sector, or territory, 2e Bureau where the intelligence officer a network of informers and spies. However, the SRO lacked Vietnamese speaking officers who could deal with the Vietnamese spies or who could themselves venture into Viet Minh-controlled areas.

The French Air Force and Navy also had their 2e Bureaus. An important part of the Air Force 2e Bureau, which fed the 2e Bureau EMIFT, was air-related intelligence, such as Chinese Air Force capabilities in the Yunnan and Kwang Si provinces. Photographic interpretation was based on two reconnaissance squadrons: EROM 80 (Escadrille de reconnaissance d’Outre-mer 80, Grumman RF 8F Bearcat,) and ERP2/19 (Escadrille de Reconnaissance Photo 2/19 “Armagnac,” B-26.)

Under the CEFEO, subordinate administrative commands directed operations, logistics, and training. These administrative commands also had their own 2e Bureaus. A key intelligence organization was the 2e Bureau FTNV/ZOT, (Forces Terrestres du Nord Vietnam and Zone Opérationnelle du Tonkin.) This covered the Tonkin area where the biggest struggle with the Viet Minh was. Lt. Col. Levain was the Chief. In the south,  Col. Antoine Savani ran the 2e Bureau of South Vietnam. (2e Bureau au Forces Terrestres du Sud Vietnam)

Another exclusive source for the 2e Bureau EMIFT was the 2e Bureau of the Territories, Tonkin, Cochin-China, Central Annam etc. They often had their own networks of informants, which had to be cleared and approved from 2e Bureau EMIFT. The information received from these depended on ability and initiative of the intelligence officer. If the officer researched the enemy, and acquainted himself with his jurisdiction, then the information could be very good. Zone or sector intelligence officers were dealing with the local population, which they had to pacify, so as to be able to receive information. The language barrier was always there, and interpreters had to be carefully chosen to avoid infiltration by Viet Minh agents.

Collaboration with Other Agencies

The SDECE worked with an MI6 (British Intelligence) liaison officer in Saigon. And, two US CIA officers were liaisons to the SDECE. A CIA liaison was attached to the CGMA. (Action branch.)

In 1954, Colonel Belleux and US Edward Lansdale’s Saigon Military Mission (SMM) collaborated on future US-France relations.

The French were wary of US intelligence. The French invited the Americans to assist with military intelligence, but thought the diplomatic side was out of bounds, where as the Americans wanted to be involved with both. They were accused of meddling. Example were Trinh Minh The, a Cao Dai defector in South Vietnam  or Ngo Dinh Nhu, Diem’s brother. The French Surete  reported that a cell composed of a dozen Chinese and Vietnamese were in contact with the the US consul in Hanoi, and that the Chinese were given a radio transmitter.

Some French were suspicious of American involvement because of the incident with OSS Major Archimedes Patti’s mission in Hanoi. He had given weapons to the fledgling Viet Minh, proof to the French  that the US played both sides. General Salan in particular resented this, which hurt cooperation.

French Intelligence Org Chart

French Intelligence Org Chart CinC Level

Operational Examples

Credibility is the ultimate issue for intelligence organizations, and was also the case for the French in the First Indochina War. A recurring theme was for military operations to not trust military intelligence. Operations 3e Bureau sometimes blamed the 2e Bureau for its failures.

Such was the case in the RC4 (Route 4) disaster in 1950 along the Chinese border. This was when the French lost many of their border outposts. Some authors blamed the 2e Bureau for this, claiming that intelligence did not predict increases in Viet Minh forces. However, 2e Bureau FTNV/ZOT began seeing changes in the quality of the Viet Minh army from the end of 1949.

In fact, The 2e Bureau FTNV/ZOT had good information about the forces, including artillery. Particularly in the case of Pho Lu, it reported 5000 newly-armed main force units in the area. Yet, the  HQ of the ZOT decided to drop a parachute company of 3rd Battalion of Colonial Chasseurs-Paratroops (3rd BCCP) 20 kilometres from Pho Lu. They hoped the paras would be sufficient to safeguard the post and disperse the Viet Minh. After hours of marching in difficult mountainous terrain, the company was attacked by two Viet Minh battalions in full view of Pho Lu. In the unequal battle that followed, the French lost three men, including the commanding officer. They had to make a fighting withdrawal, under constant harassment. This failure cannot be blamed on intelligence.

The 2e Bureau EMIFT had some good HUMINT and COMINT in the early 1950s, and in fact intercepted several Viet Minh documents and speeches. In Intelligence Bulletin No. 3125 in 1950, the 2e Bureau provided a full translation of Truong Chinh’s speech to the Congress of the Vietnamese Communist Party, of 21 January 1950. Truong Chinh’s speech was entitled ‘Execute the preparatory missions for passing in force at the general counter-offensive’. It was a guide to the Viet Minh’s actions over the next few months, and provided insight into their mentality. Other captured documents  included ‘Strategic Movements’, by Dang Tri Dung of April 1950, and even the military report by Giap after the Congress for Commanders. It dealt with Viet Minh reorganization of forces, and gave 2e Bureau analysts much better insight.

Sometimes different agencies provided varying intelligence assessments. During the Hoang Hoa Tham offensive in the eastern Tonkin delta in March and April 1951, the Viet Minh launched a disinformation campaign. It leaked documents indicating a Viet Minh offensive in the north-west Delta. These were full of details about dispositions of units and their objectives. They seemed convincing to 2e Bureau EMIFT. The fake documents gave the impression the Viet Minh attack would be between Phuc Yen and Son Tay, on the west side of the Tonkin Delta.

Simultaneous to the disinformation campaign, the Viet Minh suppressed radio communication, and switched to telephone lines. This increased uncertainty of where the attack was coming from. But despite this, there were indications that the attack would be at Dong Trieu, which is considerably east of Phuc Yen. One was that roads linking Lang Son and Dong Trieu were being repaired.

But, three deserters from VM 174th Regiment claimed that the next offensive would be between Luc Nam and Uong Bi, on the eastern side of the Tonkin Delta, and east of Dong Trieu. The leaked documents and deserter’s stories pointed to two different attack objectives. Between the deserters and the documents, General de Lattre and 2e Bureau EMIFT, heavily influenced by its SRO, were inclined to believe the documents. They believed in an attack between Phuc Yen and Son Tay.

However a different agency, 2e Bureau FTNV/ZOT always maintained that the Viet Minh were targeting Dong Trieu, and not, as the documents indicated, Phuc Yen/Son Tay. But the SRO was convinced of the veracity of its single source, and that the 308th Division was moving west, not east.

Meanwhile, 2e Bureau  FTNV/ZOT continued to present a complete picture of what was about to happen. From the first week of March, it was quite clear where the new attack was at Dong Trieu. The Vietminh logistics build-up was closely and correctly identified. The roads from Kep to Cao Bang also became fully useable again in the first fortnight of March. Aerial reconnaissance provided much of that information. Intelligence reports of 2e Bureau FTNV/ZOT on were based mainly on aerial intelligence and probably some SIGINT, and had many indications the Viet Minh were moving men and materials to Dong Trieu for its next offensive.

When the attack came a few days later, it was exactly where 2e Bureau FTNV/ZOT predicted, at Dong Trieu. The 2e Bureau FTNV/ZOT showed that as a multi-source intelligence analysis center, it could achieve accurate estimations of enemy intended actions, unlike the SRO, which made predictions based on a single source.

Dien Bien Phu is a ripe discussion topic for intelligence. Although there were many issues, both involving intelligence and some oblivious moves made by diplomats, the most obvious errors deal with estimates of Viet Minh artillery capability.

Unfortunately, the command at Dien Bien Phu did not trust their intelligence services. The experience of General Meyer reveals this state of mind. Indeed, as chief of SRO, he visited the Dien Bien Phu bowl in December 1953. After his tour of the entrenched camp, he proposed to Colonel de Castries to put himself at his service. At that, Castries replied: “The SRO is a useless and parasitic service.”

And de Castries lack of confidence was justified. Although French intelligence estimates of Viet Minh artillery were in the ballpark, (48 105mm howitzers, a similar number of 75mm howitzers and 120mm mortars,) they were thought to be for the entire Indochina theatre. The artillery numbers for Dien Bien Phu were thought to be much lower. The 2e Bureau EMIFT also greatly underestimated the number of  37mm anti-aircraft guns at Dien Bien Phu. The VM had 36 of these which shut down the airfield, and greatly hampered French air capabilities. Ammunition estimates were also significantly low.

The real miscalculation was thinking the Viet Minh could not move all those guns over the long distance from the Chinese border on Route 13B to the Red River, and then along Route 41 to Dien Bien Phu. This distance was over 800 km. Also, the French artillery commander at Dien Bien Phu, Colonel Charles Piroth, did not consider that the Viet Minh would place these guns in camouflaged bunkers on the hillside facing the entrenched camp. With this plan, the Viet Minh could use direct fire at their targets, greatly increasing accuracy, and eliminating target “bracketing” steps before “firing for effect.”


All advantages of French weapons capability were of little use unless the C-in-C and his commanders had accurate knowledge of Viet Minh intentions, capabilities and dispositions. Despite severe difficulties, the French and Vietnamese intelligence organizations were able to provide most of this knowledge. Just as intelligence bureaus of other countries in other conflicts, the French faced their own internal crises, conflicts of interest, and turf fights over collection assets and information. Some experts criticize the lack of HUMINT on the Viet Minh and China. But one must ask, which country had good intelligence on China in 1950? The French had multi-source capability, and their reports were often correct, showing excellent capabilities at the strategic and operational levels.


Nihil mirare, nihil contemptare, Omnia intelligere: Franco‐Vietnamese intelligence in Indochina, 1950–1954″ Alexander Zervoudakis

“Hell in a Small Place,” Bernard Fall

“French and American Intelligence Relations During the First Indochina War, 1950–54,”  Jean-Marc LePage, PhD, and Elie Tenenbaum

Pham Xuan An was born on Sept. 12, 1927, outside Saigon. In 1944, when he was 16, he became a courier for the Viet Minh, which was then fighting the Japanese. After 1954 he became an agent for the North Vietnamese Communist government, and infiltrated the South Vietnamese Army.

Campaign Series Vietnam | Phạm Xuân Ẩn's Notepad