The dictatorial Ngô regime collapsed in 1963, for several reasons. One contributing factor was its Strategic Hamlet program. Designed to protect the regime by relocating millions of mostly rural people, the program was mistakenly placed under the supervision of Colonel Phạm Ngọc Thảo. A Communist “sleeper” agent, Thảo built as many hamlets as fast as possible, knowing the resettled people would resent being torn from their ancestral lands and garrisoned in forts they were compelled to build. Thảo further subverted the program by having the hamlets built in communist strongholds, a move that provided the insurgents with easy access to people who increasingly hated the central government.
By blaming the army for failing to properly defend the hamlets, the regime’s security chief, Ngô Đình Nhu, further enraged a cabal of disgruntled generals who, with the secret backing of the Kennedy White House, began plotting a revolution. The precipitating event was the so-called Buddhist Crisis.
The crisis began in May 1963, when police in Huế shot nine civilians for protesting a ban on the Buddhist flag. Buddhist monks soon joined the demonstrations and in June, the monk Thích Quảng Đức famously immolated himself in Sài Gòn. The spectacle attracted international media attention and by August, anti-government protests had spread across the country.
The Ngô regime was determined to remain in power and on 17 September, on Nhu’s instructions, Special Forces commander Colonel Lê Quang Tung and Special Police chief Dương Văn Hiếu launched attacks on Buddhist pagodas across the country. Hundreds of people were arrested and “disappeared”.
Meanwhile, on orders from the Kennedy White House, the CIA gave the disgruntled generals permission to stage their bloody coup: the generals executed Colonel Tung on 1 November (Vietnamese time) while army Major General Mai Huu Xuan seized National Police headquarters. Xuân then led the convoy that took President Diệm and Nhu into custody and assassinated them on 2 November.
Reorganizing the Special Police and CIO
The November 1963 revolution led to a restructuring of the military and police commands. General Xuân, as noted, was named interim head of the National Police, while still undiscovered “sleeper” agent Colonel Thảo was named head of military security. Thao was instrumental in elevating Colonel Nguyễn Cao Kỳ to head the Air Force.
Kỳ was prominent among the “Young Turks” who felt that the older, French-aligned generals on the twelve-member Revolutionary Council were going to engage in corruption as usual. These Young Turks joined forces and within three months, they and their CIA backers supported General Nguyễn Khánh in a bloodless coup that ousted the military junta. Khanh and his clique then began appointing military and police officials who the Americans felt were more willing to fight the communists.
“The main aim of the coup was anti-communist,” Nhuận explained, “but those who had been pro-Ngô were replaced by those who were anti-Ngô. Those who had carried out the Ngô regime’s inhumane measures and/or misused their positions to commit crimes were punished. Dương Văn Hiếu, the Chief of the Special Police, was one of the important targets.”
The CIA did not trust Hiếu, who ran the of the “Special Action Center” in Sài Gòn. Hiếu had publicly accused the CIA of placing agents in the press corps and of running unilateral operations out the US Information Service and among private US businessmen in Vietnam (all of which was true). He also accused the CIA of spending $50 million in support of various coup plots. For these reasons the CIA considered him “arrogant”, meaning independent of its influence.1
Nhuận had a more balanced perspective. “Hiếu was a very good Special Police officer,” he observed. “He’d been chief of the Central Region Special Operations Corps (Đoàn Công-Tác Đặc-Biệt Miền Trung) from 1957-1960, and chief of the Special Police Bloc (Khối Cảnh-Sát Đặc-Biệt) from 1960 to 1963. He had even tracked Colonel Thảo and reported on his activities. But, at the same time, his Central Region SOC did repress many nationalist dissidents. His operational area was Central Region (Miền Trung) and his sponsor was Presidential Advisor Ngô Đình Cẩn in Huế, but his men could take actions in the Southern Region that had been under Advisor Ngô Đình Nhu and Bishop Ngô Đình Thục in Vĩnh Long.”
After the coup, the Central Region Special Union Central Operations Corps was disbanded and Hiếu was investigated by the twelve generals who composed the ruling Revolutionary Council. He was exiled to Con Dao and released in 1964.
“The new Special Police chief was Tống Đình Bắc,” Nhuận recalled. “The new Director General of the National Police was Colonel Trần Thanh Bền (1963-64), followed by Colonel Phạm Văn Liễu (1964-66), and then Colonel Nguyễn Ngọc Loan (1966-68) .
With the arrest of Diệm’s spy master Dr. Trần Kim Tuyến after the coup, and the disbanding of SEPES, the CIO emerged as the RVN’s only functioning foreign intelligence agency. But the CIO had only begun to recruit personnel in 1962 and was still finding its footing. The CIA, as ever, was hedging its bets. Paul W. Hodges, the CIA officer who had established the CIO, noted in March 1963 that he “had “gradually and reluctantly” come to accept that the Vietnamese were using the CIO as a device to keep the Americans away from the intelligence activities they really cared about, namely, those of the Police Special Branch.”2
The CIO and Special Branch, as noted earlier, did have distinct functions. “The CIO was foreign intelligence,” Nhuận explained, “while the Special Branch was counter-intelligence. But both had the same CIA advisers.”
To avoid any hint that the CIA was shaping the domestic political environment, CIO and Special Police officers, “in theory, only let their advisers know about the communists. But, in reality,” Nhuận added, “the CIA knew many things about dissidents, public figures, and the population in general. Very few CIA officers spoke Vietnamese, so they relied on interpreters, who were officially known as Deputy Advisers and had the authority to contact any Vietnamese official and talk about any issue or person of interest.”
CIA officials also gathered political intelligence by organizing parties to meet people they wanted to build relationships with. The CIA contacted, helped, and exploited all political party and religious sect leaders. They also gathered a lot of information from public sources.
“I suspected but had no evidence of Special Branch members being paid by the CIA (to spy on other Special Branch officers),” Nhuan said. “My men and women were introduced to and allowed to meet and work with our CIA advisers. Each case produced many reports; each report had to be translated, reviewed, cross-examined, and provided with additional support, etc. There were many case-officers and many administrative staff, and the CIA adviser had to work with each case-officer on each report separately. I did not have time to be present with them during those sessions.”
As the war escalated through 1964, the CIA (while spying on the spies it selected and trained for the CIO and Special Police), provided increasing amounts of support to both organizations. To penetrate the ever expanding North Vietnamese espionage networks in the South, the CIA also began assigning CIA case officers to CIO and Special Police officers at the province level. The relationship between these two burgeoning spy agencies was ill-defined and often led to competitiveness and jealousy, especially with South Vietnamese military officers, but the Americans were determined to use their superior firepower and economic resources to their full advantage.
1 Hiếu was jailed for one year and released in 1964. Diệm’s youngest brother Ngô Đình Cẩn was executed in Sài Gòn in May 1964. Cẩn’s deputy for intelligence, Phan Quang Đông, was executed in Hue.
2Thomas Ahern, CIA and the House of Ngo, pp. 164-5, citing Hodges, Memorandum to Chief of Station. “Briefing Notes for Colby’s Visit,” 15 March 1963.