When former CIA officer Frank Snepp published his controversial Vietnam memoir, “Decent Interval”, in 1977, his intelligence career remained shrouded in official secrecy and critics could tar and feather him without contradiction. But in a subsequent lawsuit, Snepp v. United States — which is the focus of Snepp’s latest book, “Irreparable Harm” — the CIA released classified documents and sworn testimony that confirm what his colleagues always knew — that he was a examplary spy and patriot.
As these papers make clear, former CIA Station Chief in Saigon Thomas Polgar might have been speaking for a majority in the Agency when he nominated Snepp for the CIA’s Medal of Merit in 1975. Describing Snepp as “a senior intelligence analyst” with “extraordinary knowledge and perception,” he wound up his now-public commendation this way:
“The importance of Mr. Snepp’s 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.”
For security reasons CIA officers are usually limited in their assignments to either intelligence collection or analysis so they never know enough to betray too much. But during his own eight years in the Agency (1968-1976) Snepp worked, and excelled, in many areas.
Although he was first assigned to Saigon as an intelligence analyst, a job description from his initial tour of duty (1969-1971) notes that he also “frequently takes part in interrogations.” When he returned to Vietnam in 1972 for a second tour, it was as a full-time interrogator on the Station’s counterintelligence staff. His responsibility, as described in one CIA memo, was to wring out “one of the most important and certainly one of the most hostile counterintelligence sources ever to fall into CIA hands.”
To judge from other contemporaneous accounts, he did the job well. “Where others failed,” wrote Station Chief Polgar, “Snepp succeeded to a considerable degree and by maneuvering the source into a continuous dialogue he was able to obtain significant information.” According to a field evaluation, Snepp also “engaged in other interrogations and was able to produce disseminations of significant strategic import.”
When Polgar nominated Snepp for two different promotions in 1973-74, he applauded his work as an interrogator and noted that his operational responsibilities were being expanded: “Because of his demonstrated expertise, he was asked by our [DELETED] colleagues to assist in the exploitation of their own sensitive collection effort in [DELETED] which Snepp accomplished with his usual skill and effectiveness.”
By mid-1974 Snepp’s involvement in “the debriefing of selected ralliers and other sources” had become routine. “He is a thorough and effective interrogator,” a supervisor remarked at the time, “and by his participation in these collection activities he has made useful contributions and produced valuable intelligence reports.”
During the final days of the war, despite staggering analytical responsibilities, Snepp continued, according to his Fitness Reports, “to assist in the debriefing and assessment of selected sources and in every case he was able to dig out valuable information from them. His operational reports based on these debriefings were excellent.”
In his alternate role as intelligence analyst, Snepp was so highly regarded that he quickly became responsible for top-level briefings and strategic assessments. In mid-1974 Polgar dubbed him “the most able briefer in Vietnam” and a final “Fitness Report” from Saigon portrayed him as “the principal drafter of Station appraisals, presenting the views of the senior officer [Polgar] on political and strategic questions.”
Looking back on Snepp’s work, Polgar later acknowledged that his analyses of Communist planning and of the final North Vietnamese offensive “have all turned out to be in accordance with the actual circumstances and thus served as the most valuable guidelines to the policy-makers.”
Indeed, so celebrated were Snepp’s strategic forecasts that news of them seeped into the national media.
Shortly after Saigon’s collapse, journalist Robert Shaplen wrote in The New Yorker magazine: “Where [Ambassador Graham] Martin was more misguided was in persistently believing that a political solution was possible, though he had in fact been told for weeks by his military analysts, particularly by Frank Sneff [sic], a civilian expert well qualified to judge, that the situation was deteriorating very rapidly” (The New Yorker, May 19, 1975).
Similarly, in a June 1, 1976 news story, Chicago Daily News correspondent Keyes Beech hailed Snepp’s insights.
“From early April onward” wrote Beech, “Snepp predicted with almost uncanny accuracy every move the Communists made, including their decision to rule out negotiations and go for Saigon. The same intelligence was available to top embassy officials, including Ambassador Graham Martin, who apparently chose to believe otherwise and, until the bitter end, hoped for a face saving political solution” (Chicago Daily News, June 1, 1976).
REPRODUCED BELOW: samplings of official documents and testimony about Snepp’s CIA career. The original references reside in Snepp’s personal files and with the National Security Archives, a private Washington repository for declassified government documents.
During his first tour of duty in Vietnam, from 1969-1971, Snepp was officially designated an “intelligence analyst” but his responsibilities were myriad. As a “Field Reassignment Questionnaire” of December 7, 1970 demonstrates, he was charged with producing political reports on Laos, as well as Vietnam, and writing speeches and position papers for the Station Chief. In addition, according to this report, “Incumbent frequently takes part in interrogations focusing on enemy plans and strategy.” He also was assigned to a liaison job with the South Vietnamese Special Police Branch and in this capacity conducted training seminars on Communist strategy — a function for which he was cited by Saigon’s high command.
In a “Fitness Report” of July 9, 1971, his immediate supervisor, William Christison, described Snepp as “an exceptionally fine oral briefer and a very effective writer” who “works well under pressure and has produced many fine analytical pieces under deadlines of a few hours or less.” Christison also reported that Snepp’s perspectives were far ranging: “While he has specialized on North Vietnamese and Viet Cong affairs, he constantly strives to relate whatever he is working on to developments elsewhere in Southeast Asia.”
Elaborating on Snepp’s work in the 1969-71 period, Christison commented years later: “My assessment was that his [Snepp's] performance was very high quality work … he wrote papers on North Vietnamese and Viet Cong activities, intentions and capabilities. He was in general one of the two or three, but probably the principal of these two or three analysts working on these areas.” (Christison deposition, May 9, 1978, page 12.)
By the time Snepp left Saigon in June 1971 at the end of his first tour, he was, as Christison remarked in a “Fitness Report,” “universally regarded — by others in the Vietnam Station, by the Embassy’s political section, by the analysts in MACV J-2, CORDS, and JUSPAO — as one of the most knowledgeable individuals in Saigon on such subjects as North Vietnamese policy and intentions, strengths and weaknesses of the Viet Cong and Viet Cong infrastructure.”
In addition, said Christison, “Subject is very well liked and respected by his colleagues, and also by those Vietnamese with whom he has come into official contact. In sum — a first class officer who has made a major contribution to the organization in Vietnam and who has all the potential to do likewise in future assignments.” (“Fitness Report,” July 9, 1971)
Back in Washington, Snepp was assigned to the Vietnam Task Force of the Office of Current Intelligence as an analyst of North Vietnamese political developments, an area which, according to a contemporaneous “Fitness Report,” represented a “key and difficult problem in OCI.”
At the end of his first nine months in this job, his immediate superiors rated his performance as “highly commendable.” “He has quickly developed a solid background knowledge of North Vietnamese affairs and has turned out a daily stream of thoughtful, well written and very useful analysis” ran one evaluation. “He has been operating under the pressure of tight deadlines and long hours associated with the recent Communist offensive in Vietnam. Nevertheless his enthusiasm and application to duty has remained strong.” Furthermore, “Mr. Snepp handles himself well in dealing with his superiors and associates, especially in his briefings of senior OCI officers and other agency officials.”
The ranking CIA officer who reviewed these remarks went on to say: “I fully concur in the above judgments and comments and would add only that we have also received laudatory comments from the US Paris delegations on production he [Snepp] is responsible for.” (“Fitness Report,” June 21, 1972)
In October 1972, Snepp was sent back to Saigon, on special assignment to the Station’s counter-intelligence branch, to handle a very sensitive interrogation and to prepare “Situation Estimates” as “time allowed.” His immediate supervisor reported in a “Fitness Report” of April 1973: “Subject [Snepp] is a young man of undeniable attributes which include an in-depth knowledge of Vietnamese realities, North and South; a sharp, alert, inquisitive and incisive mind; an excellent analytical capability; and a remarkable ability to express his thoughts orally in an orderly, precise, and eloquent manner, and to convert them into excellent prose at the drop of a hat.
“Subject was personally selected by headquarters with the Station’s concurrence to proceed to this Station to conduct the interrogation of one of the most important and certainly one of the most hostile counterintelligence prisoners ever to fall into allied hands. Subject met the challenge with great aplomb and determination and succeeded in obtaining significant information from the prisoner by maneuvering him into a continuous dialogue and blocking efforts on his part to recoil into his shell. Subject was able to perform the above through an accurate analysis of the prisoner’s personality and careful planning of strategy before each interrogation session, aimed at the exploitation of the prisoner’s vulnerabilities. But perhaps the greatest contributing factor was the utilization by Subject of his vast reservoir of knowledge concerning North Vietnamese realities and North Vietnamese leadership which succeeded in titillating subject intellectually and compelling him to discuss matters of interest to the Station. An equally important contributing factor was Subject’s dogged determination which succeeded in keeping the prisoner off-balance in a constantly defensive position, and often cornered by the logicity of Subject’s argumentation. The signing on the Vietnam peace agreement made it impossible to continue the interrogation of subject, but needless to say Subject’s performance was excellent as was the product.
“In addition to the above Subject engaged in other interrogations and was able to produce disseminations of significant strategic import. Because of his excellent grasp of Vietnamese realities subject was requested to prepare certain Station position papers on the enemy, which he performed with alacrity and with unquestioned competence … I would rate Subject among the top five percent of his grade in competence and effectiveness.”
A senior reviewing officer concurred in these judgments: “There is no question he [Snepp] has performed in a very strong manner and is an extremely capable, intelligent and hard working officer … I consider he has turned in an unusually fine performance compared to officers of his grade whose specialty is interrogation …
“As a substantive officer I regard him highly as a writer, briefer and analyst. His knowledge of the Vietnam scene is unusually fine and he has applied it extraordinarily well to his basically operational assignments during his TDY [temporary assignment]. I consider the Station was most fortunate to have his services, and as known, he has now been assigned permanently to the Station’s intelligence analysis section.
“Subject has excellent potential and value for the organization, and although unable to compare him to other substantive officers in his field, I would rate him among the top twenty percent of comparable GS-12 officers in [DELETED]. In summary, a dedicated, energetic and talented officer whose performance here has been topnotch.” (“Fitness Report,” April 22, 1973)
In January 1974, Station Chief Polgar concurred in an official “recommendation for a quality step increase” in salary for Snepp: “Subject has been working under my supervision since October 1972. During this period of time his performance has been outstanding. His excellent background in Vietnamese affairs, his analytical ability and his skill as a writer and briefer on political/military matters have made him a key member of the Indications and Analysis Branch team.
“Subject’s knowledge of substance and his demonstrated ability in both written and verbal presentation are accompanied by an overall attitude which makes him an exceptionally valuable employee. He has shown strong initiative in identifying analytical problems and has displayed ingenuity in seeking solution for them. A more than willing worker, Subject has shown an exemplary and always cheerful diligence. During the past eleven months, he has taken only five days of leave.
“The high quality of Subject’s performance has recently been attested by a formal letter of appreciation from the British Ambassador following a briefing given by Subject for a visiting foreign ministry official and an oral commendation from the Chief East Asia Division [CIA] for a briefing delivered during his visit to Saigon Station in August 1973.” (“Memorandum for: Chief of Station, Vietnam, Recommendation for Quality Step Increase — Frank W. Snepp, 18 January, 1974″)
On February 1, 1974 Polgar sent a special message to CIA headquarters, urging a further promotion for Snepp: “The Station has forwarded a recommendation for the promotion of Mr. Frank Snepp to GS-13. Because of close working relationship with Subject and my familiarity with his work since he arrived at this Station in early October 1972, I felt additional remarks may be in order.
“I first met Snepp after he was personally selected by headquarters to conduct the interrogation of one of the most important North Vietnamese counterintelligence sources to fall into our hands. This source, a senior North Vietnamese officer, had consistently refused to divulge any information of value and his attitude toward his several interrogators can be characterized as hostile. Where others failed, Snepp succeeded to a considerable degree and by maneuvering the source into a continuous dialogue he was able to obtain significant information. Mr. Snepp was able to achieve results through an accurate analysis of the target’s personality and by his own vast reservoir of knowledge of North Vietnamese realities on the basis of which a degree of intellectual companionship could be established.
“When during his TDY, a vacancy occurred in IAB [Indications and Analysis Branch] for which Snepp then volunteered, we were delighted to give him an opportunity to remain in Vietnam on a permanent basis. In a short time, he succeeded in establishing himself as the most sought after briefer of the Station, particularly on North Vietnam and other Communist affairs. Because of his demonstrated expertise, he was asked by our [DELETED] colleagues to assist in the exploitation of their own sensitive collection effort in [DELETED] which Snepp has accomplished with his usual skill and effectiveness.
“In short, we have here a young man who has demonstrated exceptional ability in interrogation, analysis, oral and written expression, and a forthright and convincing manner of presentation. He is a great credit to the agency in his current assignment. He has the educational background and personality which combined with his diligence and already vast accumulation of knowledge on our primary targets should carry him a long way. His promotion to GS-13 at this time would be in recognition of an outstanding and versatile performance. (“Telepouch: Att. Administrative/Personnel — Promotion Recommendation for Mr. Frank Snepp, 1 February, 1974″)
During a visit to CIA headquarters in early 1974, Polgar gave a personal assessment of Snepp’s performance to Paul Walsh, Associate Deputy Director of Intelligence. Recalling his remarks in subsequent sworn testimony, Walsh noted: “He [Polgar] spoke of Frank in just glowing terms. He was very pleased with Frank’s performance. I recall that there had been cable traffic in which Mr. Polgar recommended Frank for promotion … I know that he spoke very warmly of Frank’s services, with great praise.” (Deposition of Paul Walsh, May 1, 1978, page 20)
A “Fitness Report” prepared in February 1974 reflected Snepp’s expanding duties, noting that he “covers military and political developments in South Vietnam, North Vietnam, and in adjacent areas of Cambodia and Laos. As principal briefing officer, [he] prepares and presents oral briefings for ranking Embassy officers, Station personnel, and foreign officials … [He] writes intelligence memoranda as required, prepares and contributes to the preparation of field appraisals [Station's strategic assessments].”
Snepp’s immediate supervisor described him in this evaluation as a “thoroughly seasoned, intelligent, and highly competent current intelligence officer who has made an outstanding contribution to the work of the indications and analysis branch. His five years on the Vietnam account have provided him with a comprehensive knowledge about the country and people, North and South, which constitutes a valuable asset both to subject and to the organization.” A reviewing officer added: “Subject is now unquestionably a real expert on Vietnam” and “his potential as a supervisor is high. His capacity for hard work and his expertise should command the respect of subordinates.” (“Fitness Report,” February 22, 1974)
In June 1974, one month following Snepp’s promotion to GS-13, Polgar sent to the chief of the East Asia Division at CIA headquarters and to the Deputy Director of Intelligence a special memorandum commending Snepp’s intelligence briefings. “It is indeed with great pleasure that I commend Mr. Frank W. Snepp for his continuing outstanding performance as an intelligence briefer and, in particular, in connection with a demanding set of briefings he gave to widely varied foreign and American audiences during the past two weeks. His forceful and convincing manner of presentation is backed up by a brilliant and highly analytical mind. Mr. Snepp quickly adapts to each audience and perceives how to help each group better understand the situation in Vietnam. He is careful never to overstep proper bounds; he is perceptive of nuances. He defers to his superiors when appropriate; and above all he handles challenges from his audience skillfully and directly with a depth of knowledge of Vietnam which is truly exceptional.
“During the past two weeks, Mr. Snepp, in addition to producing a number of excellently written intelligence reports, has coped magnificently with a grueling briefing schedule of at least eleven appearances before vastly different groups. They include the Indonesian and Iranian ICCS delegation; the new British Ambassador to Vietnam; a delegation of Republican steering committee staff members; representatives of the German, Dutch and Italian embassies; Messrs. Elmer Lower and Frank Meriano, ABC President and ABC Bureau Chief in Saigon respectively; Mr. Larry Green of the Chicago Daily News; a delegation of Young Americans for Freedom and the Freedom Leadership Foundation; the GVN MR 2 Commander, General Toan, and his staff in Pleiku; the U.S. Consul General, Province Chief, and Station officers in Nha Trang; and the Ambassador’s Mission Council meetings. In each case the briefing was tailored to the audience, its requirements and its actual familiarity with the situation in Vietnam.
“Mr. Snepp and the Station received accolades from many of these groups for the highly professional presentations. Mr. Snepp personally has established a reputation, justly deserved, of being the most able briefer now in Vietnam” (“To Deputy Director, Intelligence; Subject: Mr. Frank W. Snepp, Commendation for Intelligence Briefings, 12 June 1974″)
A “Fitness Report” dispatched to CIA Headquarters a month later, on 31 July 1974, noted, “In addition to his normal duties, Subject has assisted in the debriefing of selected ralliers and other sources with excellent results. He is a thorough and effective interrogator and by his participation in these collection activities he has made useful contributions and produced valuable intelligence.” A reviewing officer also remarked that “over the past year and a half he [Snepp] has been the principal drafter of Station appraisals, presenting the views of the senior officer on political and strategic questions.” (“Fitness Report,” 31 July, 1974)
Following Saigon’s collapse in April 1975 and a month-long interim tour in Thailand where he debriefed select intelligence sources Snepp was recommended for a “quality step increase” in salary by the Associate Deputy Director of Intelligence, Paul Walsh, with the concurrence of the chief of the Office of Current Intelligence, William Parmenter. Describing Snepp as “senior intelligence analyst” in the Saigon”s station’s Indications and Analysis Branch, Walsh and Parmenter observed that he had turned in a remarkable performance during the final days prior to the evacuation of Vietnam. (“Recommendation for Quality Step Increase for Mr. Frank W. Snepp, 29 July 1975″)
Snepp’s last fitness report, dated 8 August 1975 and covering his final months in Vietnam, characterized him as “a hard-working, dedicated and highly intelligent officer” with “outstanding skills as an analyst, briefer and writer.” According to the reviewing officer: “During the almost two years that I have worked with subject he was the principal station briefer and the major contributor to situation appraisals and to other Station studies, including articles for each issue of the Mission’s North Vietnam Bi-weekly … The unusually heavy demands that developed toward the end of the previous reporting period continued to increase during this one and Subject, like all of his colleagues in the Indications and Analysis Branch of the Reports and Analysis Staff worked exceptionally long hours in the office under constant pressure to keep up with the fast pace of events and to meet the crowded briefing and production schedules. During this period, Station production reached record levels. Subject also continued to assist in the debriefing and assessment of selected sources and in every case he was able to dig out valuable information from them. His operational and intelligence reports based on these debriefings were excellent … Subject is an exceptionally fine officer with much to offer the agency in a variety of assignments. (“Fitness Report,” 8 August, 1975)
In late 1975, former Saigon Station Chief Thomas Polgar, as chairman of a review panel, supervised the drafting of a “Recommendation for Honor and Merit Award for M. Frank W. Snepp 3rd.” The memorandum was approved in December 1975 by Theodore Shackley, chief of the East Asia Division, William Parmenter, Director of the Office of Current Intelligence, and Edward Proctor, Deputy Director for Intelligence. The text reads:
“1. It is recommended that Mr. Frank W. Snepp III be awarded the Intelligence Medal of Merit.
2. Mr. Snepp was a senior intelligence analyst in the Vietnam Station’s Indications Analysis Branch from 1973 until the evacuation of the United States Embassy from Saigon on 29 April 1975. Throughout this period Mr. Snepp demonstrated that he had a keen analytical mind, great resourcefulness and energy and outstanding area knowledge. He excelled in both oral and written presentations and the contents of his fitness reports need not be repeated here. Suffice it to say that his outstanding performance was recognized by his recent promotion to the grade of GS-13.
3. During the final weeks of the Vietnam Station Mr. Snepp exceeded his own previously established peaks of achievement. With the IAB staff reduced to two men in line with the emergency evacuation of ‘surplus’ personnel, Mr. Snepp became responsible for daily briefings of station and key Embassy personnel and for the preparation of frequent situation reports and situation appraisals which were essential to keep the intelligence community abreast of the rapid deterioration of the situation. Particularly noteworthy was Mr. Snepp’s ability to correlate the current military developments with the overt propaganda lines of North Vietnamese publications and radio transmissions — an achievement made possible only by Mr. Snepp’s extraordinary knowledge and perception of Vietnamese communist thought and political processes.
4. The importance of Mr. Snepp’s work during the final days and indeed hours of the American presence in Vietnam could hardly be over-emphasized. His total unflappability, his ability to organize the necessary material along with his own thoughts during periods of 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. From the comfortable perspective of hindsight it should be quite easy to recognize that the analysis initiated by Mr. Snepp on such topics as the significance of the COSVN [Communist command] Resolution for 1975 and the results of the first phase of the communist offensive as well as his prediction for the second phase of the offensive and the subsequent military collapse of the Republic of South Vietnam have all turned out to be in accordance with the actual developments and thus served as most valuable guidelines to the policy-makers.
5. 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.”
Snepp received the Intelligence Medal of Merit from the then Director of the CIA, William Colby, on 16 December 1975, together with the following citation:
“Mr. Frank W. Snepp, III, is hereby awarded the Intelligence Medal of Merit for his performance as an Intelligence Analyst at the Vietnam Station from 1973 until the evacuation of the United States Embassy from Saigon on 29 April 1975. Throughout this period M. Snepp demonstrated great resourcefulness and energy and outstanding area knowledge. During the final weeks of the Vietnam Station Mr. Snepp exceeded even his own previously established peaks of achievement. He became responsible for daily briefings of Station and key Embassy personnel and for the preparation of frequent situation reports and situation appraisals which were essential to keep the intelligence community abreast of the rapid deterioration of the situation. In recognition of his outstanding performance he is awarded the Intelligence Medal of Merit.”
On January 27, 1976, four days after Snepp’s resignation from the CIA, former U.S. Ambassador to Saigon, Graham Martin, referred to him appreciatively in testimony about intelligence reporting during the last weeks of the war:
“… we did have information from a long-range penetration of the so-called COSVN, the Central Communist Unit in South Vietnam … which indicated that, regardless of all of the other [diplomatic] byplay, the North Vietnamese were now determined to press a strict military solution … At that time, that report was not given that much credibility by the CIA station chief … It was not until he was pressed by the officer who was in direct contact with this particular penetration to do so, that this man was allowed to send it back through operational channels. If you would like confirmation on that, that particular man is sitting here today … Mr. Frank Snepp, who was the person who was in direct contact with the penetration.” (Raw transcript, “The Vietnam-Cambodia Emergency, 1975, Part III–Vietnam Evacuation: Testimony of Ambassador Graham A. Martin, Hearing before the Special Subcommittee on Investigations of the Committee on International Relations, House of Representatives, 94th Congress, 2nd Session, January 27, 1976)