Snepp, in his capacity as a CIA analyst, was on hand for the Fall of Saigon and was one of the last Americans to leave the US Embassy, Saigon before the city fell to the North Vietnamese on April 30, 1975. Snepp was evacuated with other American personnel in Operation Frequent Wind. He wrote a memoir of the event, Decent Interval, in 1977, at great risk to his career. The book excoriates the tardy, improvised nature of the evacuation and laments the many Vietnamese working for the Americans that were left behind.
The CIA attempted to stop Snepp from publishing his book. He accused the CIA of ruining his career and violating his First Amendment rights. The CIA, in return, claimed Snepp had violated his employment agreement by speaking out. They sued (United States v. Frank W. Snepp III). He enlisted the help of the American Civil Liberties Union in his defense. In the end, the CIA won a court verdict against Snepp and attached the royalties from Decent Interval. As a result of the case Snepp must clear all articles he writes with the CIA. He wrote a second book, Irreparable Harm, about his court battle with the CIA.
During the late 1980s, he taught a Journalism and the Law course at California State University, Long Beach.
He worked as a producer for KNBC in Los Angeles until late 2012 and is now a freelance journalist. In 2006 he won a Peabody Award for his KNBC investigative story “Burning Questions”
He was a technical consultant for the comedy film Spies Like Us.
1999: Author of Irreparable Harm, a Firsthand Account of How One Agent Took on the Agency In an Epic Battle Over Free Speech; from Random House.
“Snepp’s well-written, candid, modern version of Kafka’s Trial.” — The New York Times“CIA v. Snepp was a constitutional train wreck — and you can’t avert your eyes from Irreparable Harm, Frank Snepp’s hypnotizing and heartbreaking account of his case.” — Jeffrey Toobin
“…excruciating honesty…must reading for every law student in America, and for every burgeoning nihilist…He took a courageous stand, and paid for it. Snepp, and the Constitution, deserved better.” — The Los Angeles Times
“Readers who have been ground slowly and exceeding small by the justice system will love it … Relishers of unspeakably painful government ironies will go for it … First Amendment enthusiasts will applaud it … At its best, this chronicle of a whistleblower whistled down by a most suspect policeman is a reminder that cannot be repeated often enough of how government agencies hide their occasional malevolence and frequent Keystone Kop stupidities behind the tattered curtain of need-for-secrecy.” — The Washington Post
“…a compelling case study…at once a moving personal narrative and a disturbing examination of how claims of national security can have a sledgehammer effect on arguments about free speech, overwhelming all competing claims.” — Publishers Weekly
1977: Author of Decent Interval, an Insider’s Account of Saigon’s Indecent End Told By the CIA’s Chief Strategy Analyst in Vietnam; a bestseller from Random House.
“And what disclosures! Rich in detail, vivid…intriguing and convincingly argued. Other memoirs or accounts of that time will have to be measured against what Snepp, from his unique and highly informed perspective, has produced.” — The New York Times“Important revelations. One feels that the incredible history of the American role in Vietnam would have been forever poorer without Snepp’s perspective.” — The Boston Globe
“By far the richest document yet produced on the American and South Vietnamese endgame. Not only did [Snepp] draw from his own diary and remembrances, but he also combed the recollections of scores of other participants in depicting the disordered panorama of defeat.” — The Washington Post
“Vigorous, gripping, novelistic in its evocation of mood, setting and character.” — The Los Angeles Times
Other Literary Credits
1980-1999: Contributing writer, Newsweek, The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Newsday, Granta, Los Angeles Weekly, Penthouse, Playboy, Village Voice, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, McCall’s.
1984: Contributing author, Vietnam Reconsidered, edited by Harrison Salisbury, Harper/Colophon Books.
Primary Broadcast Credits
February 2005 – October 2012: KNBC-TV, Enterprise/Investigative Producer
January 2003-January 2005: KCBS-TV, Investigative Producer
January 2002 – May 2002: ABC News, Producer for 20/20 Downtown
January 1998 – September 2000: EXTRA, Senior Producer/Writer, investigative reports and features on crime, scandal and Monica Lewinsky for nationally syndicated TV news magazine from Time-Warner.
1995 – 1996: KCAL-TV, Senior Producer/writer, investigative series (including exclusive on terrorism in U.S.) , spot news and documentaries (including Emmy Award-winning hour special, “Deadly Traffic: Mexico’s Drug Highway“) for Walt Disney-owned Los Angeles- based station.
1992 – 1994: The Crusaders, On-air reporter/producer, investigative reports (including Ark Award-winning exclusive on “Canned Hunts” in U.S.) for nationally syndicated investigative news magazine from Buena Vista TV. Also, producer of lead segment for The Crusader’s pilot show (1992).
1993 – 1994: KCOP-TV, On-air reporter/producer for Los Angeles -based UPN TV
1987 – 1992: ABC World News Tonight with Peter Jennings, Field Producer, Investigative Team, responsible for breaking exclusives on the Iran-contra scandal, Iraqi Bio-war operations and IRS corruption, among other topics.
1986 – 1985: ABC News 20/20, on-air consultant/producer
Other Broadcast credits
1995: Crisis Line, Producer, Pilot for reality-based TV show from Buena Vista TV
1995: Last Chopper Out, on-air Reporter/Producer for hour-long news special, KCOP-TV (Los Angeles).
1995: Fall of Saigon, on-air Commentator, BBC Documentary for Discovery.
1994: Trauma Center, Co-Producer, reality-based series, FOX-TV
1992 – 1993: Beyond The Call, Writer/Producer for reality-based series from ABC Entertainment.
1992: Phoenix Rising, on-air Commentator, BBC Documentary for A&E
1987: Radio In Vietnam, on-air Commentator for NPR series
1980 – 1984: ABC News Nightline, on-air contributor.
10,000 Day War, on-air Commentator, Thames Television
Vietnam, on-air Commentator, PBS-TV
1995: Open Secrets, Co-writer (with Meg Bennett) for proposed theatrical feature.
1992: Ender, author of pilot story for dramatic police series pilot for CBS from Reeves Entertainment.
1990 – 1991: Undercover, staff writer (and technical consultant) for dramatic ABC TV series from Warner Brothers
1986-1989: Jericho, Co-Writer with Marlon Brando and technical consultant for forthcoming theatrical film.
1985 – 1986: The Agency, Technical Consultant and Co-Producer, for MGM- Hamner series developed for CBS.
1983: Spies Like Us, Technical Consultant for theatrical film from Brian Gazer/Walt Disney Productions.
1981 – 1982: Year of the Cat, Technical Consultant for Thames TV production directed by Stephen Frears.
1980 – 1981: Fall of Saigon, Technical Consultant for Walter Doniger Production for Marble Arch.
1985 – 1989: Distinguished Lecturer on First Amendment Law and international relations, Departments of Journalism and Political Science, California State University, Long Beach.
1983 – 1985: Otis B. Chandler Special Lecturer in investigative journalism and Constitutional Law, University of Southern California. Arranged an exchange program with ABC News whereby students helped research and produce segments for 20/20.
1976 – 1982: Lecturer/consultant on variety of projects, including CIA, Vietnam and national security issues.
Noriega Legal Defense Team, 1991-1992
In mid-1991 the Manuel Noriega Legal Defense Team in Miami hired Snepp as a consultant/investigator and expert witness to research national security aspects of the planned defense strategy of the deposed Panamanian leader. The assignment lasted through Noriega’s trial in 1992 and focused on the question of whether U.S. intelligence agencies unknowingly acquiesced in Noriega’s alleged involvement in drug trafficking.
CIA Career, 1968 – 1976
Recruited into the CIA out of Columbia University’s School of International Affairs in 1968, Snepp worked on NATO and European security matters for the Agency until he was hand-picked for two tours of duty at its Station in Vietnam, 1969 – 1975.
Doubling as an analyst and counter-intelligence officer, he interrogated the highest-ranking North Vietnamese spy ever captured, helped coordinate and debrief informant networks, served as the Embassy’s principal press briefer, and rose during his last year at the Saigon Station to become the CIA’s chief analyst of North Vietnamese strategy there, a position that afforded him access to the most sensitive intelligence and the ability to predict with uncanny accuracy what the Communists were planning. Among the last CIA officers to be helicoptered off the Embassy roof in April 1975, he was awarded the CIA’s coveted Medal of Merit for his performance.
The accompanying citation, written by the Saigon station chief himself, declared: “During the final weeks of the Vietnam station, Mr. Snepp exceeded his own previously established peaks of achievement…The importance of [his] work during the final days and indeed hours of the American presence in Vietnam could hardly be overemphasized. His total unflappability, his ability to organize the necessary material along with his own thoughts during periods of the most intense pressure, his courage under fire and above all, the perspicacity of his analysis were such that it is my opinion they deserve and indeed demand special recognition…In summary, during the most critical final days of the American presence in Vietnam, Mr. Snepp turned in a kind of performance which I have never seen equaled nor even approximated during my long years with U.S. Intelligence. Special recognition, in the form of the Intelligence Medal of Merit, is definitely in order.”
Such accolades notwithstanding, Snepp quickly became disillusioned at the CIA’s unwillingness to rescue Vietnamese left behind or even to acknowledge that the evacuation had been a disaster. Unable to prompt any sort of internal after-action report, he resigned in 1976 to write a public one of his own in hopes of generating support for the abandoned Vietnamese.
His book, Decent Interval, was published by Random House in total secrecy without CIA approval. But the firestorm of publicity it ignited tuned it into an instant bestseller and sparked a government lawsuit against Snepp that culminated in a landmark U.S. Supreme Court First Amendment decision with far-reaching implications.
Though he was never accused of publishing any secrets, the Supreme Court held that his failure to seek official clearance for his memoirs had created the “appearance” of a breakdown of discipline within the CIA that had frightened U.S. intelligence sources and thus “irreparably harmed” the nation’s security. Despite the lack of any evidence to support this allegation, Snepp was placed under a lifetime gag order preventing him from ever writing again without CIA permission, and was forced to surrender to the government all his “ill- gotten gains,” every cent he’d made from Decent Interval.
The Court further ruled that any responsible official could be forced to submit to censorship simply as a matter of trust and in the interest of preserving the “appearance” of airtight government security. This diktat has led to the application of clearance and censorship rules throughout the Federal bureaucracy and the attendant trust theory has been used by private industry to justify a crackdown on whistleblowers within its own ranks. Legal scholars view U.S. v Snepp as the most important censorship ruling since the Pentagon Papers case of 1971.
Snepp’s latest book, Irreparable Harm, is about his legal battles and the Supreme Court decision that changed the meaning of free speech in America.
1975: CIA’s Medal of Merit
1982: Hugh M. Hefner First Amendment Award
J. Roderick MacArthur Foundation Grant
1983: Society of Professional Journalist’s National First Amendment Award
1984: Emmy Award (shared) for 20/20’s “Moment of Crisis”
1995: Genesis Award, for “Canned Hunt,” The Crusaders
1996: Greater L.A. Press Club Investigative Reporting Award, “Mexico: The New Colombia,” KCAL-TV
1996: APTV-Radio Association, Best Documentary, “Deadly Traffic: Mexico’s Drug Highway,” KCAL
1996: Radio and TV News Director’s Association, Overall Excellence, “Deadly Traffic” KCAL-TV
1996: Emmy Nominations, Best Feature Story, Best News Writing, “Last Chopper Out,” KCOP-TV
1997: Emmy Award, Best Crime Documentary, “Deadly Traffic,” KCAL-TV
2003: National Air Disaster Foundation Investigative Reporting Award, KCBS-TV 2003: Center for California Studies and the Sacramento Press Club, California Journalism Award – “Fostering Failure,” KCBS-TV
2004: California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform, Advocacy in Media Award for Senior Scam stories, KCBS
2004: Radio and Television News Association Golden Mike – “Fostering Failure,” KCBS-TV
2005: Center for California Studies and the Sacramento Press Club, California Journalism Award for reports on the energy industry’s influence on the five state public utilities commissioners who determine how much profit the energy companies are allowed to make. KCBS-TV
2006: Edward R. Murrow Regional Award – “Spy Next Door,” KNBC-TV
2006: Peabody Award – “Burning Questions” broadcast in 2005, KNBC-TV
2007: LA Press Club Award – “Staples Investigation,” KNBC-TV
2007: Radio and Television News Association Golden Mike – “Staples Investigation,” KNBC-TV
2007: Edward R. Murrow Regional Award, “Staples Investigation,” KNBC-TV
2008: Emmy Award, Best hard news story – “Laundered Elections,” KNBC-TV
1961-1965: Columbia College, Columbia University, B.A.
1966: New School of Social Research
1966 – 1968: Columbia University’s School of International Affairs, Masters in International Affairs