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
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
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