Nhuận left the CIO/SOC in December 1963 to become Chief of the National Police in Quảng-Đức Province, headquartered in Gia Nghia City in the Central Highlands. Like his previous post in Darlac, Quảng-Đức was a mountainous province on the Kampuchea border, populated by Montagnards.
Nhuận maintained his CIO contacts, but there was less contact between the SOC and the Special Branch in the years after the 1963 revolution, as the CIA tightened its control of the CIO at the expense of the Special Police.
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As a province police chief, Nhuận was now a manager. His office consisted of three bureaus: the Special Police, the uniformed police, and administration. His job was to work politically against the communists and dissidents; judicially against any criminal; and administratively to protect people by maintaining law and order. Nhuận supervised more than one hundred police officers in the province capital Gia-Nghĩa and in four districts; Đức-Lập, Kiến-Đức, Khiêm-Đức, and Đức-Xuyên.
The failure of the resettlements programs, for example, created chaos. “After the 1963 coup, almost all inhabitants of the Dinh Điền Zones felt that they were now liberated from the Ngô regime,” Nhuận explained. “They spontaneously left these zones to return to their native villages.”
At the same time, political groups pressured the Khanh government to release political prisoners jailed during the First Republic. Among those released were key figures of the North Vietnamese intelligence network. The coup also engendered the return of dissident South Vietnamese military leaders who had fled or been exiled, and some of these officers were now agents of North Vietnamese intelligence. These developments enabled North Vietnamese and Vietcong intelligence to regroup and resume activities.
Another big problem concerned the CIDG program, which had been transferred from the CIA to the US Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV). Under the US military, the program stopped focusing on village defense and refocused on border surveillance. The program was expanded far too quickly, however, and the Americans soon lost control of the ever-rebellious Montagnard CIDG units.
“One of my main concerns in Quảng-Đức in that period (1963-65),” Nhuận recalled, “was the Montagnard liberation organization FULRO (Front Unifié de Lutte de la Race Opprimée).”
By September 1964, FULRO was armed to the teeth with American weapons, and FULRO forces under Y B’ham Enuol (who had been released from prison), staged a rebellion in pursuit of independence and their own separate nation. The rebellion began in Quảng-Đức Province.
“In the very early morning of 20 September 1964,” Nhuận recalled, “all the Mountaineer members of the CIDG station in Sarpa Camp, Đức-Lập District, revolted. They killed all their Vietnamese LLDB officers and took their American advisors hostage. When they got to the District Office, they grabbed and roped the District Chief, an army captain, as well as other officers. This happened in the presence of the US military advisors.”
Several more CIDG camps quickly fell, and the Montagnard liberation forces began marching on Ban Mê Thuột in neighboring Darlac Province. Khanh’s government and its American advisors intervened and persuaded the Montagnards not to attack Ban Mê Thuột, but Y B’ham fled to Cambodia with several thousand followers, where he continued to agitate for reforms. Another FULRO leader, Y Bih Alio, joined the insurgency and tried to bring the Montagnards under communist control.
“Prior to the FULRO uprising,” Nhuận recalled, “it had been unclear which RVN agency was responsible to monitor the Montagnards. The National Police and Special Branch thought it was the Military Security Service’s job, because the CIDGs were armed and under US and RVN military command. But the MSS did not take responsibility because the CIDGs were “civilian” militias under the CIA.”
As always, Nhuận stepped into the breach and took control. “After the uprising, I put the CIDG camps under National Police and Special Branch surveillance. I had my CIA advisor drive me to the CIDG camp on the frontier between Vietnam and Cambodia, to let them know that the RVN Police were backed by the CIA. But I was not involved in their cross-border operations until after the local CIDG men revolted and launched the FULRO movement. At that point I sent some Mountaineer Policemen into the jungle to infiltrate the FULRO ranks. One of them succeeded in contacting Mr. Y Bham, the leader (whom I had met years before in Ban Mê Thuột). The agent became one of Y Bham’s close advisors. He knew his activities, collected information, stole certain documents, and sent it all back to me.”
Nhuận distinguished himself as Chief of Police in Quảng-Đức Province in other ways as well. He knew that the US Military Advisory Group in Quảng-Đức had a fleet of helicopters, so he asked the MACV chief to organize a training course for his police forces. The policemen were given chopper tours over the hills and riverways surrounding Gia-Nghĩa so they could have a more realistic notion of the area, rather than just looking at the maps. A short time later in Sài Gòn, Nhuận noted with satisfaction, that particular kind of chopper-borne operation was adopted by the Armed Forces of the RVN.
Nhuận also helped to organize a paramilitary police force, which he led into armed operations, either by itself or together with the local Regional Force (Địa-Phương-Quân) units. This was dangerous work and in one clash with the VC outside Gia-Nghĩa city, Lt. Colonel Đặng Hữu Hồng, the Province Chief and Sector Commander, was shot and killed while standing ten meters from Nhuận.
The Special Branch
In 1965, General Khanh was overthrown in a bloodless coup and his successors – featuring Prime Minister Nguyễn Cao Kỳ – turned the government’s attention to fighting the flood of North Vietnamese Army (NVA) soldiers pouring into the Central Highlands. The first of tens of thousands of US combat forces arrived in South Vietnam in the autumn of 1965 to help. The “main force” war had begun in earnest.
At this critical juncture, Nhuận received his next promotion. As he recalls, “In December 1965, I was made Chief of Special Police in the Central Vietnam Highland Region. My region office was in the same building as it had been three years before in Ban Mê Thuột. Seven provinces were now under my control: Kontum, Pleiku, Phú-Bổn, Darlac, Quảng-Đức, Tuyên-Đức, and Lâm-Đồng, plus the independent city of Đà-Lạt.
“I do not remember how many people I supervised. There were many. Besides those working at the region Special Police office, there were officers under my supervision at the province, city, district, and village levels. Thomas Burke (a mid-career Foreign Intelligence officer) was my CIA adviser.”
The CIA began referring to the Special Police as the Special Branch, and a major effort was made to expand and professionalize the organization.
As the RVN’s lead agency in charge of secret intelligence and counter-intelligence operations, the Special Branch focused on the communist organization in South Vietnam. But it also had a mandate to watch every domestic political party, organization, society, alliance, movement, and intellectual force.
The Special Branch received its secret operating funds, including salaries, directly from the CIA, which also provided jeeps, motorcycles, gadgets, and facilities including interrogation centers. To ingratiate themselves, CIA advisors lavished gifts upon Special Branch officers; things like cameras, TV sets, and tape recorders. The CIA even attempted to offer a special monthly allowance to Special Branch members, but withdrew the offer when the uniformed police objected.
As American assistance increased, Vietnamese officials became “like a needy person,” Nhuận observed. “Any gift given to him or her was precious and heartily welcomed.” But the dependence was unhealthy and led to irresponsibility. “The officials saw that there were always newer and better things, so they willingly followed the corresponding instructions from their US advisors.” Even when those instructions were ill-advised.
“A proverb in the economic and financial circles applied, particularly when US suggestions were accompanied by money: He who pays, governs.”
As the centerpiece of its program to professionalize the Special Branch, the CIA in 1965 began offering courses for Special Branch personnel at the Central Intelligence School (Trường Tình-Báo Trung-Ương). The CIA conducted courses for case-officers, as well as in leadership and command, and specialties like counter-intelligence and interrogation. The CIA officers who trained and advised Special Branch personnel were, theoretically, expert in everything.
According to Nhuan, “the Special Police engaged in both “tactical” or Xâm-Nhập (infiltration) intelligence operations designed to discover and watch enemy agents moving into communist organizations; as well as “strategic” Nội-Tuyến (Penetration) operations to persuade agents already inside the communist (or other targeted) ranks to defect and work for us. Tactical information was about what people could see and know; strategic intelligence uncovered and documented the enemy’s secret programs, plans, and deceptions, as well as their viewpoints, strengths and weaknesses, all of which we needed to analyze and understand.”
The Special Branch was composed of a Secret Services Section, an Interrogation Section, a Research Section, and a Support Section, among others. The chief of the Secret Services Section (SSS) was the pre-eminent officer; he managed informant networks in the hamlets and villages, as well as the recruitment and management of double agents. The SSS watched, tracked, investigated, arrested, and recruited agents, sympathizers, and informants.
To facilitate these penetration operations, the CIA in 1965 starting building an interrogation center in each of the RVN’s 44 provinces. The CIA paid local contractors to build the facilities and then donated them to the Special Branch. Many penetration operations began in a province interrogation center (PIC), after a Special Branch officer (a trained interrogator assigned as the PIC chief) had singled out relevant information and clues about and leads to potential agents.
Through the PICs, and with the help of local military forces, the CIA and Special Branch learned the identity and structure of the Viet Cong Infrastructure (VCI) in each province.
To complement the Special Branch’s intelligence function, the CIA, through its Covert Action Branch, established “unilateral” counter-terror teams in every province. Starting in 1965, these CIA-advised counter-terror teams were called Provincial Reconnaissance Units (PRU).
As Nhuan explained, “The PRUs by themselves and apart from the Special Police launched operations capturing and eliminating VC [including VCI] members and destroying VCI organizations in VC-controlled areas. The PICs, however, did not run PRU operations, although members of the PIC chief’s staff and of a Secret Services Section sometimes joined in Allied Forces operations as indicators and/or interrogators.
“The PRU and PIC each had their own separate CIA advisors,” Nhuan continued, “and each of them, when making reports, would emphasize on their own [apparently separate] value. They both were good, but intelligence and operations were, unfortunately, two separate fields and phases.”
The lack of coordination between the CIA’s Foreign Intelligence and Covert Action branches created systematic problems that affected the performance of the PICs and PRU. When it was created in mid-1967, the CIA’s Phoenix program was designed specifically to improve performance by coordinating “intelligence” and “operations”.
Another serious problem was torture in the PICs.
Nhuan acknowledged that “In the interrogation rooms in general, there sometimes were hard measures used to make arrestees confess.” He cited the example of the murder of a female VC agent, Huỳnh thị Hiền, in Bình-Định Province. Nhuan was told to investigate the crime, and accompanied the commander of the National Police in II Corps, Colonel Cao Xuân Hồng, to Hoài-Nhơn District where the murder had been committed.
As Nhuan recalled, they found the dead girl, “with soap foam bubbling from her mouth hiding most of her face. She had been tortured to death. The two Special Branch interrogators involved were immediately removed and later indicted.”
Throughout the war, the CIA was content to blame the Vietnamese. But, in fact, CIA advisers were as likely to engage in rape and murder of arrestees as the Vietnamese they advised. Indeed, CIA-employed Americans working as PIC advisors often acted as interrogators (with interpreters) and often determined which detainees were the best leads to further actions. Exploitation and development were handled by the Special Branch advisor (a higher-ranking CIA official than the PIC advisor) and his Vietnamese counterpart. CIA case officers, acting outside the Special Branch apparatus, could also go to a PIC to do the needed interrogations, and then manage the ensuing clandestine operation.
Ultimately, torture in PICs continued unabated because the CIA considered the PICs essential in helping the Secret Services Section to single out potential leads for the Special Branch chief to exploit and develop.