Nhuận’s dismay with Thiệu climaxed during the national elections of 1971, when Thiệu resorted to the same dirty tricks Kỳ tried to use in 1967. Thiệu, however, was so successful in rigging the presidential election that the other candidates withdrew in protest. Thiệu ran unopposed and was elected, but his power grab dealt a fatal blow to South Vietnam’s nascent democracy and helped revive the insurgency. But Thiệu was unrepentant; the North was planning a spring offensive and his only concern was security; so he imposed further restrictions on the independent media and political parties.
After the election, Thieu appointed CIO chief Nguyễn Khắc Bình Bình to the post of Director General of the National Police. Brigadier General Nguyễn Văn Giàu was put in charge of Security (Phụ Tá An-Ninh), and thereafter managed (among other things) the Phụng Hoàng program, the Police Plan, and the Security Service (An-Ninh Cảnh-Lực).
Binh militarized the National Police in style and substance, and Nhuận was again demoted to deputy chief of Region II, this time under Lt-Colonel Nguyễn Hữu Hải. There were rumors that the new II Corps commander, Lieutenant General Ngô Dzu, was involved in drug trafficking and rice speculation, but there was also a rumor (apparently spread by Dzu), that the CIA officials in Bình-Định Province were involved in marijuana smuggling.
Nhuận suspected the CIA was involved in a related undercover operation leading to the seizure of two tons of marijuana. But there was nothing he could do about military or CIA involvement in drug smuggling.
“The Special Branch had no authority over the military,” he explained. “When the North Vietnamese military delegation came to Region II, the Air Force Security Service would not allow me to approach and take pictures, even though all the North Vietnamese officers were wearing ID cards on their jackets. The military police could not interfere when a soldier did something wrong, much less the civilian policeman. And that is why I refer to the system under Thiệu as a stratocracy.”
Through these changes, Nhuận remained an uncorrupted maverick belonging to no faction or political party. “After I lost a job,” he recalled, “I always was made chief of something else the same day, leaving one post to assume another under a string of corrupted bosses. I put the utmost time and energy into my duty; I was among the rare officials who worked in “off hours,” always ready to receive reports from the provinces and make decisions in time.”
Despite his demotion, civilian and military commanders, and their CIA advisors, continued to seek Nhuận’s advice on matters in the provinces and cities in Region II. Although politically incorrect, he was indispensable. But, as ever, his independence was both a blessing and a curse.
“In September 1973, my superiors, Major General Nguyễn Khắc Bình and Brigadier General Huỳnh Thới Tây (who had replaced Lieutenant Colonel Nguyễn Mâu in November 1970 as chief of the Special Branch in Sài Gòn), raised me to region chief again, this time in Region I, headquartered in Đà-Nẵng. They did this not merely to reward me, but also to sacrifice me.
“From the time I was banished from Huế in 1960,” Nhuận explained, “I had made it clear to everyone that I wanted to return. But now that I no longer wanted to go back to “the front line,” they sent me to Đà Nẵng. The political situation in Region I was deteriorating and my predecessors had failed to deal with it.
“I agreed to go, but my dedication caused marital problems and my wife suggested divorce before I left. We had been married in 1955, and had five daughters and one son by then. It was difficult, but during my last tour in Đà-Nẵng, my family stayed in Nha-Trang and I was alone. My wife died in 1997.”
In September 1973, Nhuận was appointed Director of Police Special Branch for Region I, headquartered in Đà Nẵng. The Paris Peace Accords, which had ended the Vietnam War, had also engendered a new relationship between the police and military services. In Region 1 commander, General Ngô Quang Trưởng authorized Nhuận to coordinate all the region’s security and intelligence services, including the MSS and the army’s “G2” intelligence branch. In coordinating military and police affairs, Nhuan and his staff compiled the Order of Battle (Trận-Liệt) that was used by all security and intelligence agencies nationwide.
Nhuận was especially proud of his accomplishments in Đà-Nẵng. “In a developing country, in wartime, and under military authority,” he said, “I alone applied the “Police Plan” and reaped the expected rewards.”
Nhuận’s allies in Đà-Nẵng included the mayor since 1968, Colonel Nguyễn Ngọc Khôi, and Lieutenant Colonel Dương Quang Tiếp, the National Police chief in Đà-Nẵng City. Colonel Khôi had been chief of the National Police in Region II when Nhuận was stationed in Pleiku City. Lieutenant Colonel Tiếp was influential not only within the police, but also with high-ranking military officers.
David Morales was the CIA’s region officer in charge, but Nhuận dealt with his operations chief, Mr. George, who handled CIA liaison affairs with the police and military. After George departed, Nhuận worked with Kenneth Ferguson until Ferguson was replaced in early 1975 by Mr. Watkins.
Nhuận’s job was to suppress the VC Infrastructure, and, by his own account, he succeeded in quelling all communist activities, as well as stabilizing the chaotic political and religious situation in the six northern cities of the country. He attributes this to his “obstinate though lonely application of the Police Plan.”
Nhuận’s CIA advisers welcomed his energy and dedication, and provided him with significantly greater funds than his predecessors. His relationship to the CIA grew closer when, in 1973, the paramilitary Provincial Reconnaissance Unit (PRU) program, which was entirely funded by the CIA, was placed under Special Branch command. On his own initiative, Nhuận created a region-level Special Branch Operations Team by combining the regional PRU team with two National Police Field Force (NPFF) platoons. Nhuận personally commanded the team, which included Local Forces (Địa-Phương-Quân).
At Nhuận’s request, the Region 1 National Police chief, Colonel Nguyễn Xuân Lộc, allowed the region PRU chief to wear the badge of a major, and the provincial PRU chiefs to pose as captains so they could work with military officers.
“General Tây, the Special Branch chief in Sài Gòn, reproached me over development,” Nhuận confessed.
Corruption was rife and generated many intrigues. For example, after Nhuận arranged for CIA employee Trần Văn Phú to become the PRU chief in Quảng-Nam Province, the national PRU commander in Sài Gòn, Lieutenant Colonel Nguyen Van Lang, contacted Phú and demanded that he provide him with the latest AKAI stereo system.
Nhuận complained to General Tây, who sent Lang back to the army.
In another instance, Major Đặng Văn Song, the Special Branch chief in Đà-Nẵng, allowed two defectors to approach other VCs, ostensibly as part of an intelligence operation. “But the two defectors,” Nhuận recalled, “used the opportunity to extort people who, if they didn’t pay the required bribe, were denounced as active VCs.
“I twice ordered Song to cease using these defectors, but Song still let it continue.”
Nhuận again appealed to General Tây in Sài Gòn, and Song, like Lang, was punished. “But the VCs in the jungle used their radio program, the Voice of the Provisional Revolutionary Government of the Republic of South Vietnam, to congratulate me,” Nhuan explained. “They said I was “their” sleeper agent inside the “puppet” administration and that I had interfered to protect the people from being molested and penalized by Song. Of course, they were really just trying to get me kicked out of Region I.”
Nhuận’s war with the VC was a dangerous undertaking. “In 1975 I rented a two-story building at the corner of Quang-Trung and Phan-Chu-Trinh Streets in Đà-Nẵng City,” he recalled. “I lived and worked upstairs; the lower story was the office of the Tracking Team I formed and aimed at the VC’s Military Coordination Committee. The Tracking Team consisted of Special Branch and MSS officers.
“Obviously, this was an important site. Everyone knew who I was, and the team chief was using a Jeep my CIA advisors had given me, and which bore a special plate reserved for foreigners. Sometimes CIA officials came the facility to meet me or join the team for dinner. One evening, the VC threw a grenade at the two uniformed traffic policemen working at that corner, injuring them. There were many crossroads with traffic policemen throughout the city, but they chose this spot to show their superiors that they did pay attention to me and my place.”
The VC also ordered a pedicab cell to watch Nhuan’s home and plant a bomb under his car. A pedicab cell had successfully pulled off a similar operation in Đà-Lạt City, badly injuring the Special Branch chief there. “But my bodyguards and home guards were always active,” Nhuan said, “and the head of the pedicab cell, Nguyễn Một, knew that I had been good to the neighbors and did not deserve to be harmed, so he decided not to do anything to damage me.”
The VC, of course, were aware of Nhuận’s long association with the CIA. They considered collaboration an act of treason. But for Nhuận, the CIA provided him with freedom from the corruption that plagued his cash-strapped colleagues. “I didn’t have to take money,” Nhuận explained, “because General Tây provided me with VN $20,000 each month from funds provided him by his CIA partners.”
Nhuận in turn allowed his CIA friends to use several of his subordinates as co-case officers in unilateral operations the CIA ran apart from the South Vietnamese. He likewise gave the US Consulate in Đà-Nẵng the appropriate security information needed to deal with demonstration against the US.
In exchange, the CIA responded to Nhuận’s concerns. The agency, for example, rarely, if ever, made an accommodation that diluted its authority. But it allowed Nhuận to place one policeman in each of the M’Nong teams that patrolled Đà-Nẵng City on the CIA’s behalf. The M’Nong were not government employees and were legally prohibited from using their weapons, even if provoked.
The CIA also gave Nhuận VIP access to its private airline, Air America, and allowed him to place officers at the AA gate to check passengers and luggage, to prevent hijacking and the smuggling of contraband.
Nhuận’s even convinced his CIA partners not only to aim at VC in or near South Vietnam, but to target members of the International Commission of Control and Supervision (ICCS). The Paris Peace Agreement had established the ICCS to monitor the ceasefire and make sure both sides were abiding by the Peace Agreement and Protocols. Several Communist and non-aligned nations were members of the ICCS, including Hungary and Poland.
Nhuận’s greatest achievement was recruiting an interpreter with the Hungarian delegation assigned to Đà-Nẵng City. Nhuận transferred this agent to his CIA advisor, Mr. George, who became the agent’s case-officer and followed him to Hungary when his tour in Vietnam ended.
A few weeks after George departed, his replacement, Mr. Ferguson, organized a dinner to congratulate Nhuận and his Secret Operations Team for their progress. “At one point,” Nhuận recalled, “Mr. Ferguson whispered in my ear that Mr. George had already contacted the agent and had built a liaison system with the Hungarian captain in Budapest.”
Nhuận is proud that he helped the CIA infiltrate secret agents into the communist party apparatus inside the governments of Hungary and Poland, an accomplishment widely recognized as having contributed to the collapse of the Eastern European Communist systems in the late 1980s.
It was an accomplishment that did not go unrecognized by his enemies.
The Fall of Đà-Nẵng
“Three days before the fall of Đà-Nẵng City on 29 March 1975,” Nhuận recalled, “Trần Văn Phú arranged with the captain of a military transport ship to reserve one place for me and another place for Major Ngô Phi Đạm, chief the Special Branch Operations Service in Region 1. Unfortunately, the ship was filled to overflowing and we couldn’t board it. Next, we drove to a secret helicopter landing space over the beach, where the main pilot had agreed to pick us up, but again in vain. So we parted, each trying by himself to flee the city, where some teams of VC would begin to show up in the next morning.”
Nhuận and Phú would not see each again for nearly 20 years.
Nhuận arrived at Cam- Ranh Bay on the afternoon of 31 March and immediately contacted the National Police Command in Sài Gòn. Through channels, Major General Nguyễn Khắc Bình ordered Nhuận to go to Nha-Trang, where, he said, the National Police commander in Region II, Colonel Lê Trọng Đàm, would provide Nhuận with air transportation to Sài Gòn. The NVA was everywhere.
Nhuận’s next call was to his wife in Nha-Trang, who burst out crying when she heard her husband’s voice. Given the circumstances, she realized they might never see each other again. “Please don’t be angry at me any longer,” she sobbed.
“I’m not angry anymore,” Nhuận replied. Full of apprehension and regret, he apologized for having allowed his ambitions to rule his life.
“Go home and be with our kids,” he said, then left the radio room, ran into the office of the private secretary of Colonel Nguyễn Xuân Lộc, and started crying. Lt.Colonel Tạ Văn Sánh, the chief of Personnel and Training, unexpectedly stepped in, and then silently stepped out.
On the night of 1 April 1975, the North Vietnamese Army entered the city of Nha-Trang.