Source – truthdig.com
– The witness reported men being hung by the feet or the thumbs, waterboarded, given electric shocks to the genitals, and suffering from extended solitary confinement in what he said were indescribably inhumane conditions. It’s the sort of description that might have come right out of the executive summary of the Senate torture report released last December. In this case, however, the testimony was not about a “black site” somewhere in the Greater Middle East, nor was it a description from Abu Ghraib, nor in fact from this century at all.
The testimony came from Vietnam; the year was 1968; the witness was Anthony J. Russo, one of the first Americans to report on the systematic torture of enemy combatants by CIA operatives and other U.S. agents in that long-gone war. The acts Russo described became commonplace in the news post-9/11 and he would prove to be an early example of what also became commonplace in our century: a whistleblower who found himself on the wrong side of the law and so was prosecuted for releasing the secret truth about the acts of our government.
Determined to shine a light on what he called “the truth held prisoner,” Russo blew the whistle on American torture policy in Vietnam and on an intelligence debacle at the center of Vietnam decision-making that helped turn that war into the nightmare it was. Neither of his revelations saw the light of day in his own time or ours and while Daniel Ellsberg, his compatriot and companion in revelation, remains a major figure for his role in releasing the Pentagon Papers, Russo is a forgotten man.
That’s too bad. He shouldn’t be forgotten. His is, unfortunately, a story of our times as well as his.
The CIA Interrogation Center, Saigon
Before him sat the enemy. VC. Vietcong. He was slender, a decade older than the 28-year-old American, and cautious in his initial responses. The American offered him a cigarette. “Smoke?”
Anthony Russo liked to befriend his subjects, finding that sharing a cigarette or a beer and congenial conversation could improve an interview’s results.
This man’s all right, Russo thought—unlike the one he had interviewed when he first arrived in Saigon. That prisoner had sat before him, quivering in fear, pleading for his life. “Are you going to kill me?” the distraught man had said repeatedly, his thumbs red and bulbous from being strung up.
Torture was not something Russo had anticipated when he took the job. A civilian with a rank equivalent to major working for the RAND Corporation, he had arrived in the South Vietnamese capital on February 22, 1965, and was briefed on his mission. Russo was to meet the enemy face-to-face and figure out what made them tick. On that first day, he could hear General Richard Stilwell, chief of staff of Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV), barking orders from the next room: “You get every goddamn plane in the air that you can!”
Russo thought the war would be over in a few weeks, months at worst.
Instead of the limited conflict he expected, years slipped by. Bombs fell, villages were decimated, the fabric of Vietnamese life assaulted. Russo persisted with his interviews of Vietcong prisoners, witnessing the after-effects of torture in nearly every instance.
It’s hard to pinpoint just when the shift occurred in the young man who came to Southeast Asia to “promote democracy.” But as one tour of duty extended to two, contact with the enemy changed not their hearts and minds, but his. On the eve of the 1968 Tet Offensive, he returned to the United States intent on challenging the war, a chance he would get, helping his friend and RAND co-worker Daniel Ellsberg with the Pentagon Papers.
That secret history of U.S. decision-making in Vietnam, a massive compilation of internal government memoranda and analyses, had been quietly commissioned by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara in 1967 to assess what had gone wrong in Vietnam. Ellsberg leaked the Papers to the press in mid-1971, setting off a political firestorm and First Amendment crisis. He would be indicted on charges of espionage, conspiracy, and theft of government property, and would face a maximum penalty of 115 years in prison. Charges were also brought against Russo, who was suspected of complicity, after he refused to testify before a grand jury. He was jailed for 47 days for contempt and faced a possible sentence of 35 years in prison if convicted.
Ellsberg’s leak led to a Supreme Court decision on prior restraint, a landmark First Amendment case. Though all the charges were ultimately dropped, the leak and its aftermath had major political fallout, contributing to the demise of the presidency of Richard Nixon and forming a dramatic chapter on the path to U.S. defeat in Vietnam.
Ellsberg became a twentieth-century hero, applauded in print and film, his name nearly synonymous with the Pentagon Papers, but Russo, the young accomplice who goaded Ellsberg to go public, has been nearly forgotten. Yet he was, according to Ellsberg, the first person to document the systematic torture of enemy combatants in Vietnam. If no one knows this, it’s because his report on the subject remains buried in the vaults of the RAND Corporation, the think tank that did research for the Pentagon in Vietnam. Similarly, while the use of unprecedented airpower against the civilian populations of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia inspired international calls for war crimes trials in the 1970s, Russo’s exposure of the fabrication of data that propped up that air war remains but a footnote in Vietnam War historiography, unknown to all but a handful of academics.
He has remained “the other conspirator.” Ellsberg later conceded that he probably wouldn’t have thought of releasing the Papers if Russo hadn’t prodded him to “put that out” and helped copy them in a series of all-night sessions. But Russo would take a backseat to Ellsberg, who had snuck the massive set of documents out of RAND headquarters and released them to the New York Times, the Washington Post, and 18 other news organizations.
The two of them would become the antiwar movement’s odd couple. Ellsberg was articulate, suave, and fashionable; Russo opted for hippie attire, long hair, and impossibly bushy sideburns, a style of dress that fit with his growing political radicalism. Russo and his attorney, Leonard Weinglass, devised a bold—some said reckless—defense strategy focused on using expert witness testimony to put the U.S. prosecution of the war on trial. Weinglass would emerge as a star attorney on the case, even—in the opinion of some observers—eclipsing Ellsberg’s senior lawyer, Leonard Boudin. But his client kept getting into trouble: scrawling a wiseacre comment on evidence before the court, handing a prosecution witness a press release that accused him of war crimes, peppering his statements to the press with movement jargon. In the end, Russo’s leftwing antics would help marginalize him and bury the story he had to tell.
The Think Tank
It all started in a nondescript mid-century building on Main Street in sunny Santa Monica, California. There, the RAND Corporation, a quasi-private think tank with a cozy relationship with the Air Force and Washington power brokers, dreamed up study projects for the Department of Defense.
RAND, an acronym for “research and development,” was launched in 1946 as a private research arm of the Army Air Forces, whose successor, the Air Force, would remain its primary financial backer and client for years to come. The think tank’s work ranged from weapons development to advanced strategic thinking on how to wage—or avert—nuclear war. RAND theorists would set the parameters for strategic defense thinking for decades, with the likes of Herman Kahn, once dubbed the “heavyweight of the megadeath intellectuals”; Thomas Schelling, Nobel laureate in economics for his work on game theory and the originator of “tacit bargaining”; and Albert Wohlstetter, the godfather of RAND’s nuclear strategists who devised the concepts of “second strike,” “fail safe,” and what he called the “delicate balance of terror” (aka “deterrence”).
In 1961, as President John F. Kennedy launched a counterinsurgency effort that would see its first expression in Vietnam, the think tank took on the study of guerilla war, falling into an easy alliance with the Department of Defense and Robert S. McNamara, the numbers man at its head. Thinking he could apply a systems analysis approach to national defense, Secretary of Defense McNamara had turned to the leader in the field for ideas and manpower. From RAND, he recruited heavily to help lead the counterinsurgency charge in Vietnam, creating a team popularly known as “McNamara’s Whiz Kids.” And he turned to RAND for an answer to an essential strategic question: “What makes the Vietcong tick?”
“M&M” would become the institution’s shorthand for the Vietcong Motivation and Morale Study that resulted, an attempt to apply social science to the study of enemy motivation. Russo was eager to join the effort. Elizabeth Gibbs, who married him in 1964, said that her young husband was preoccupied with the threat of guerilla war and wanted to see action on the front lines of the counterinsurgency effort.
Fascinated by flight, Russo had pursued aeronautical engineering in a cooperative work-study program run by Virginia Polytechnic Institute and NASA’s Langley Research Center, where he worked on the first Mercury space capsule. He then went to graduate school at Princeton, specializing in plasma physics. After just a year there, however, he took up the study of national defense policy at its Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, receiving master’s degrees in both engineering and public affairs in 1964. An ambitious academic, he also exhibited an unruly, prankster side. In one of his moments of youthful excess—a story he liked to tell—he cemented a commode to a Virginia war memorial, an act that might be considered a foreshadowing of things to come.
At Princeton, Russo studied under four men he called “heavyweights”: Oskar Morgenstern, an originator with Schelling of game theory; Cold War theorists Klaus Knorr and George Kennan; and Richard Falk, an expert on international law and the lone dove among Russo’s mentors. Falk argued against the move to RAND. But Russo, impressed by the think tank’s influence in the highest echelons of U.S. policymaking, jumped at the opportunity. Within six months he had secured an assignment to Vietnam.
Russo arrived in Saigon in February 1965 and met Leon Goure, his boss and future nemesis, just as the U.S. bombing campaign against North Vietnam was beginning and only two weeks before the first United States Marines landed at Danang. His job was to meet the enemy.
“How many people in your village work for the Front?”
“Everyone in the village works for the Front,” the prisoner responded in Vietnamese, translated by the young man at Russo’s side. His village was in the Cu Chi district, an area near Saigon under Vietcong control. Russo would later describe it as the birthplace of southern resistance to the French and then American armies. Despite their vastly superior arms, the South Vietnamese Army and its American allies rarely ventured into the prisoner’s village for fear of the VC’s deadly resistance methods.
“How was your village defended?” he asked.
“It had pit traps with bamboo spikes, grenade booby traps. It was surrounded by bamboo hedges,” the prisoner responded and then explained in detail how the villagers organized their resistance.
Physically fit and tall, Russo towered over the former cadre. He felt anything but complacent, however, about the enemy he faced, having barely escaped a bomb that had recently exploded in a Saigon restaurant where he was planning to have dinner.
“Why does the Vietcong use terrorism against women and children?” Russo asked. Until now, he had been careful to call the enemy military by its homegrown name, “the Front,” rather than the pejorative “Vietcong.” Emotion must have caused him to break protocol.
He was part of the second M&M study team. Joseph Zasloff and John Donnell, analysts from the initial team, had reported their results in Washington at a meeting attended by Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs John T. McNaughton and Henry Rowen (who would later head RAND). They described the Vietcong as a unified, disciplined army that already acted as an alternative government in large swaths of South Vietnam with widespread support from the population, prompting a shocked McNaughton to comment that it sounded as if the U.S. had signed up with the wrong—and losing—side. Daniel Ellsberg, who then worked for McNaughton, witnessed the exchange.
The Zasloff-Donnell report, however, came too late for an audience that had already made up its mind. The previous March, President Lyndon Johnson’s National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy had urged an expanded war even as the president campaigned for a full term in office with a promise to keep American soldiers out of Vietnam. Meanwhile, within the military, a struggle for dominance was underway, with Air Force Chief of Staff Curtis LeMay, instrumental in the founding of RAND, agitating for a bigger role for air power.
Then came the Tonkin Gulf incident in August 1964. As presented by President Lyndon Johnson, the destroyer USS Maddox was innocently sailing through the Gulf of Tonkin when attacked by North Vietnamese torpedo boats followed, two nights later, by a second attack on the Maddox and the USS Turner Joy. Johnson ordered military action “in reply,” and Congress quickly passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution giving the president carte blanche to repeatedly intensify the war. The claim of two separate attacks would, however, prove untrue, as Daniel Ellsberg would attest. It had been his first night on the job in the Pentagon.
At RAND, the stage was set for Leon Goure, an analyst acclaimed for his work on Soviet civil defense preparations. Goure had toured Vietnam and visited RAND’s Saigon operation in 1964. Upon his return to the U.S., he proposed that the M&M project be redefined with a critical twist. No longer would it focus solely on an assessment of enemy motivation and morale. It would now identify what kinds of weaponry would be most likely to demoralize that enemy, with an emphasis on air power.
A meeting with his friend LeMay cemented the deal. He would later report that “by the strings he pulled, LeMay assured continuation of the project” under Goure’s lead. At that time, the Air Force still provided two-thirds of RAND’s funding, a connection the new lead analyst made no attempt to hide.
The Answer Is Always Bombing
Susan Morrell could scarcely believe it. As RAND’s Saigon-based administrative assistant, it fell to her to pick up her new boss at the airport on his arrival. Making the Vietnam version of small talk on the way back to town, she asked Goure if he planned to use the existing protocol for enemy interviews or wanted to start over from scratch.
“I’ve got the answer right here,” he responded with a pat on his briefcase.
“What do you mean?” asked Morrell.
“When the Air Force is footing the bill, the answer is always bombing.”
Decades later, Morrell told RAND historian Mai Elliott that it was a moment seared into her memory and in those early days she wasn’t the only RAND staffer to observe Goure’s special affinity for the Air Force. At their first meeting, for instance, Russo remembered Goure commenting on that service’s unhappiness with the Zasloff-Donnell study. Zasloff himself was still in Saigon when Goure arrived and would soon accuse his successor of pandering to the Air Force. Half a century later, in a phone interview just before his death, Zasloff still lamented that his intelligence data hadn’t changed the course of the war and Goure’s had.
Goure’s work on Soviet civil defense was then widely known. In 1961, he claimed that the Soviets had trained 50 million citizens in civil defense procedures, were readying a massive system of bomb shelters to ride out a nuclear conflagration, and so were preparing to absorb a preemptive nuclear strike. His research seemed to have frightening implications: U.S. reliance on what was then called mutual assured destruction, or MAD, to stop a nuclear war suddenly appeared insufficient. The Soviets could strike preemptively if they thought national survival after a nuclear attack was possible. Kennedy stepped into the heated debate in July 1961 with a call for a $207 million appropriation for civil defense. That October, he began to encourage Americans to build their own private shelters for protection from nuclear fallout. Goure became a sought after expert.
In fact, his work would be challenged by New York Times journalist Harrison Salisbury, who questioned Goure’s sources, found observers who vigorously challenged his conclusions, and made his own 12,000-mile trip across the Soviet Union and found them unsubstantiated. But nothing, it seemed, could crack Goure’s reputation in Washington.
The year 1961 had been a seminal moment for Russo, too. His lifelong friend and future technology consultant William Grossmann recalled them driving to their NASA jobs together, one day in Russo’s white 1959 Ford convertible, the next in Grossmann’s white Chevy convertible—and on weekends, sharing heady conversation and wooing girls. The two like-minded Southerners had each taken stands against segregation, while worrying about the bomb, totalitarianism, and the “containment” of Communism. They were impressed that Kennedy had forced the Russians to stand down in the Cuban missile crisis. The same, both believed, could happen in Vietnam. On arrival in Saigon, Russo wrote Grossmann that the Vietnamese “are going to have to get used to it. We’re going to have to be the policemen for a while.”
Russo found himself at the epicenter of American intelligence-gathering in Vietnam. RAND’s Saigon villa became the requisite “prestige stop” for anyone with an interest in the war. By day, it served as a command center; at night, it hosted dinner parties for visiting luminaries, high-ranking figures in the military, the CIA, and members of the press. Goure was the star attraction. In that initial critical period of massive escalation, he provided the perfect mix of optimistic analysis and an engaging personality and so became the “go to” intelligence man in town.
Though Goure wrote research memoranda, RAND’s usual stock in trade, it was on the briefing circuit that he truly shone. His message, reported directly to Westmoreland, the top military commander in Vietnam, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Secretary of Defense McNamara, and others at the Pentagon, was unambiguous: the Vietcong were losing their resolve in the face of U.S. military might, especially airpower. Goure quickly established himself as the Air Force’s best pitchman.
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