<<

. 50
( 118 .)



>>

the rescue. Nevertheless, the ferocious battle went on for days. By the
time it was over, enemy soldiers were stacked five deep around the
listening post. "The plows pushed about four hundred dead Vietcong into
a low drainage area to the right and in front of our bunker line."
Gary Bright, a stocky, sandy-haired Army warrant officer, woke to the
ring of the phone beside his bed in Saigon's Prince Hotel. It was 2:30
A.M. "They've hit the embassy and palace. The airfield is under attack,"
said the excited voice. "I'm going to blow the switch." The call was from a
sergeant at NSA's newly installed Automatic Secure Voice Switch at the
MACV compound on Tan Son Nhut Air Base. The switch was the key link
for highly secret phone calls between Saigon and Washington, and the
sergeant was afraid that the facility and all its crypto equipment would
soon be captured. Bright, in charge of the switch, told the soldier to get
ready for a destruct order but not to pull the plug before he arrived.
Bright quickly threw on his tan uniform, grabbed his glasses, and ran
down three flights of stairs to his jeep. "As we got in I armed my grease
gun”a .45-caliber submachine gun”and watched the street," he said.
Bright and his partner sped down Plantation Road, the main traffic
artery, toward the MACV compound. As they rounded the traffic circle
near the French racetrack they passed another jeep with its lights on.
Seconds later Bright heard a loud explosion and turned around to see
the second jeep demolished and in flames. Then he started taking fire
from the top of the racetrack wall, bullets crashing into his vehicle.
Bright swiveled around and opened fire with his submachine gun,
knocking some of the Vietcong shooters off the wall.
Upon reaching the secure switch, Bright began to prepare for
emergency destruction. Later a call came in from the U.S. embassy. "The
VC were on the first floor," Bright said. The caller was shouting, worried
that enemy forces would soon capture the sensitive communications and
crypto equipment. To make matters worse, the embassy had no destruct
devices and Bright was asked to bring some over. "I got on the phone and
told them that it was impossible to get out, much less get downtown to
them," Bright recalled. "I told them the best thing to do was to shoot the
equipment and smash the boards as much as possible if emergency
destruction became necessary."
At the time of the attack, the Oxford's crew was living it up in
Bangkok. The ship would not sail back until February 1, a day after the


282
start of the biggest offensive of the war.
Battles were taking place simultaneously throughout South Vietnam,
from Hue in the north to Saigon in the south. By the time the acrid cloud
of gunsmoke began to dissipate, on February 13, 4,000 American troops
had been killed along with 5,000 South Vietnamese and 58,000 North
Vietnamese soldiers. Although the United States eventually turned back
the Tet offensive, the American public now realized what price was being
paid for a war without end.
The sole winner to come out of Tet was NSA. Of all the intelligence
agencies, it was the only one to come up with the right warning at the
right time. That the intelligence was not acted on much sooner was the
fault of Westmoreland and the generals and politicians in Saigon and
Washington who refused to pay attention to anything that might detract
from their upbeat version of the war and their fantasy numbers. "The
National Security Agency stood alone in providing the kind of warnings
the U.S. Intelligence Community was designed to provide," concluded a
1998 CIA review of the war, which gave only mediocre reviews to the
agency's own intelligence. "Communications intelligence often afforded a
better reading of the enemy's strength and intentions (and was better
heeded by command elements) than did agent reports, prisoner
interrogations, captured documents, or the analytic conclusions derived
from them. But in Washington the Sigint alerts apparently made little
impression on senior intelligence officers and policymakers."
Finally, the CIA study concluded, "Senior intelligence and policy-
making officers and military leaders erred on two principal scores: for
having let concern for possible political embarrassment derail objective
assessments of the enemy order of battle, and for ignoring NSA's alerts
and Saigon Station's warnings that did not accord with their previous
evaluations of probable enemy strategy."
Pleased with his agency's performance, Director Marshall S. Carter,
on May 8, 1968, sent a telegram to former president Harry S. Truman on
his eighty-fourth birthday. "The National Security Agency extends its
heartiest congratulations and warm wishes," he wrote. "You will recall
establishing the National Security Agency in 1952 and we will continue
to strive to accomplish the objectives you laid down for us at that time."
Back in Washington, Lyndon Johnson was being compared in the
press to General George Custer at the Battle of the Little Big Horn. About
a month after the heavy fighting ended, he announced he would no
longer be a candidate in the upcoming presidential election. In Vietnam,
American troops suddenly began to realize they might be fighting a losing
war.
Some soldiers who physically survived Tet nevertheless died inside.
Following one fight, an injured American soldier and two wounded


283
Vietcong were brought to an aid station at a firebase named Stephanie.
After attempting, unsuccessfully, to save the U.S. soldier, an Army medic
went off to have a beer while leaving the two Vietcong, a father and his
young son, to bleed to death.
Nearby was Dave Parks, working his PRD-1 direction finder. "Nothing
had been done to attend to their wounds," he said. "The younger one,
despite having several chest wounds and his left leg shot nearly in two
below the knee, was alert; we looked into one another's eyes as I paused
briefly to look them over. There was fear in the eyes, and pain. The older
fellow was pretty far gone. His eyes were glazed over and half closed. . . .
Without help they were not going to live. Even my untrained eye could
see that."
Parks returned to his direction finder, expecting that the medic would
treat the men. But a short while later he looked back and saw they had
never been attended to. "I got up and went over to them, expecting to find
them dead," he said. "The older fellow was dead now, his eyes filmed over
but still open in death. The young one was alive but not nearly as alert
as before; his dark eyes briefly locked into mine when I approached. I felt
the need to do something for him; it looked as if the medic had forgotten
these two."
Returning to his DF site, Parks grabbed a canteen to give the young
Vietcong some water, but first thought he would check with the medic to
see if water was the right thing to give him. "I wondered why nothing was
being done . . . ," said Parks. "I found the medic inside the bunker
drinking a warm beer and asked him what would be done with the VC,
adding that one looked as if he was already dead. 'Fuck those gooks,' he
swore at me, voice rising. 'Leave them the fuck alone, they can just hurry
up and die 'cause I'm not touchin' those filthy bastards!' " Confused by
the medic's reaction, Parks returned to the injured boy. "The sergeant
had done a good job of intimidating me into doing nothing," he said, "but
I was still left with the feeling that I should try something.
"Looking down on the VC," Parks continued, "it dawned on me that
the medic knew full well their situation. He was allowing them to die; it
was his payment to the dead American. I spent a moment or two looking
at the young VC. His eyes seemed duller now, and the flies were all over
his wounds. I knelt beside him and brushed at the flies to no real effect.
'Screw him,' I thought, thinking of the medic. I pulled the stretcher into
the shade. I ripped a square off of the old fellow's shirt and wet it from
my canteen. I wiped the teenager's forehead, upper chest, and arms."
Parks attempted to get the help of a nearby Army captain. " 'Sir, one
of the VC that came in with that kid is still alive. He looks like he's going
to die if something isn't done. The sergeant says he won't touch him.' The
captain looked at me, looked over toward the aid station, and back at me.



284
He said, 'If I were you, Specialist, I'd keep my goddamned nose out of it.
The sergeant is in charge over there, and you just might need his
services someday. Let him run the aid station any damned way he sees
fit!'
"Not the answer I had expected. The subtext of the man's statement
was clear enough, though. The good captain just might need the
sergeant's services someday, too, and he wasn't about to screw with that.
Defeated, I returned to my war, and my area of responsibility in it. By
sundown the young VC was dead.
"I have lived with that day's events for thirty-plus years now, I am
positive I will live with them for the rest of my life. . . . The Vietcong
teenager is my personal guilt. I should have moved heaven and earth to
do more for him, but I failed him."
Following the Tet offensive, the war, like the young Vietcong, slowly
began to die. The next year, NSA pulled its Sigint ships from Vietnam
and then scrapped the whole fleet. "My opinion of 1969 on Oxford thirty
years later," said Richard E. Kerr, Jr., "[is that] we proved to the NSG
[Naval Security Group] Command and the CNO [Chief of Naval
Operations] that operations like this at sea . . . were obsolete. You cannot
combine large numbers of NSG personnel with uncleared officers and
crew. All the ships . . . were too slow, too old, and had no business being
in tense situations. . . . Events of the Liberty and Pueblo (1967 and 1968)
had already placed this type of platform in jeopardy. Vietnam was over in
1968 and the [Sigint] fleet was dead in 1969."
By then, largely as a result of the war in Vietnam, NSA's cryptologic
community had grown to a whopping 95,000 people, almost five times
the size of the CIA. In Southeast Asia alone, NSA had over 10,000
analysts and intercept operators. In addition, the agency's budget had
grown so large that even Carter called it "monstrous." To emphasize the
point, one day the director called into his office an employee from the
NSA printing division who happened to moonlight as a jockey at nearby
Laurel racetrack. The man stood about four feet six. Carter had the
jockey get behind a pushcart, on which the budget documents were piled
high, and called in the NSA photographer to snap the picture. The photo,
according to Carter, was worth a thousand explanations, especially since
"you couldn't tell whether [the jockey] was four feet six or six feet four."
On the last day of July 1969, Carter retired after presiding over the
bloodiest four years in the agency's history. In a letter to a friend, he had
harsh words for the middle-level civilians at the Pentagon who, he
complained, were trying to micromanage NSA through control of his
budget. He called them "bureaucrats at the termite level." Carter had also
become anathema to many on the Joint Chiefs of Staff for his
independence, for example in the matter of Vietcong numbers.



285
In a revealing letter to his old boss at CIA, former director John
McCone, Carter explained some of his troubles. "I am not winning," he
said, "(nor am I trying to win) any popularity contests with the military
establishment nor those civilian levels in the Pentagon who have a
testicular grip on my acquisition of resources. For all my years of service,
I have called the shots exactly as I have seen them. I am hopeful that the
new administration [Nixon's] will try to overcome some of this and leave
the authority where the responsibility is. The usurpation of authority at
lower staff levels without concomitant acceptance of responsibility is the
main problem that somehow must be overcome by the new
administration. I tell you this in complete privacy after almost four years
in this job. I would not wish to be repeated or quoted in any arena."


Picked to become the sixth NSA director was Vice Admiral Noel
Gayler, a handsome, salt-and-pepper-haired naval aviator. Born on
Christmas Day, 1914, in Birmingham, Alabama, Gayler graduated from
the Naval Academy and spent the better part of his career as a fighter
pilot.
In many respects, Gayler's background was the exact opposite of
Carter's, which may have been the reason he was chosen. Whereas
Carter had been influenced by civilian attitudes during tours at the State
Department and the CIA, Gayler's background was virtually untouched
by civilian influence. Also, his lack of prior intelligence experience may
have been seen as an advantage by those who felt Carter had tried to
turn NSA into another CIA. Finally, unlike Carter, who knew he was on
his final tour and therefore could not be intimidated very easily, Gayler
was young enough to have at least one more assignment ahead of him,
which could earn him a fourth star. He could be expected, then, to toe
the line when it came to military versus civilian decisions.
If those were the reasons behind Gayler's selection, it seems that, at
least initially, the planners must have been disappointed. Within two
years, the Army was complaining that Gayler, like Carter, had
traitorously turned his back on the military and was making NSA more
civilian than ever. In October 1971 the chief of the Army Security Agency,
Major General Charles J. Denholm, told his tale of woe at a classified
briefing for the Army vice chief of staff.
"At the end of World War II," Denholm told General Bruce Palmer, Jr.,
"NSA was about 99 percent military. Now at NSA within the top two
thousand spaces, you will find that there are perhaps five percent
military. . . . There are about thirteen military men among the three
services out of about 275 supergrades [a supergrade is the civilian
equivalent of an Army general] that are running the show. So the military
has gradually disappeared from the higher echelons at NSA." Denholm



286
concluded, in the not-for-NSA's-ears briefing, "I fear that in about five
years there probably will be no more military at NSA. All the key NSA
slots are disappearing."
By the early 1970s, with the war in Vietnam winding down, the war
within NSA for control of the dwindling budget heated up. The question
was whether the civilians or the military would be in charge of the vault.
In what one former NSA official termed a "declaration of war," a strategy
paper was submitted to Director Gayler, arguing that that person should
be a civilian.
The paper was co-written by Milton S. Zaslow, then the assistant
deputy director for operations and the second most powerful civilian in
the agency. It argued that because the civilian leadership at NSA
represent continuity, civilians were in a better position to determine the
needs of the Sigint community. Said the former NSA official quoted
above: "The strategy paper was written saying, 'We're the ones who know
all about this stuff, we'll control it and we'll tell you what you can have,
and we'll see that you get the support you need when you need it.' "
But the military side argued that since it operated the listening posts,
the aircraft, and the submarines, it should have final authority over the
budget.
Eventually Gayler had to make the choice”and the decision went to
the military. In the view of one of the civilians: "He wasn't a ballplayer
until the end. From what I saw, he [Gayler] was really good for NSA, up
until the end, and then I think he sold out; he went along with the
military." Whatever his motive, Gayler's move was handsomely rewarded
by the Joint Chiefs of Staff. On August 24, 1972, after three years as
America's chief electronic spymaster, he was promoted to full admiral
and awarded one of the choicest assignments in the military:
Commander-in-Chief, Pacific (CINCPAC), based in Hawaii. Gayler's
ascent to four-star rank and promotion to bigger and better things
marked a turning point in the history of the NSA. Before Gayler, the NSA
directorship was generally acknowledged to be a final resting place, a
dead-end job from which there was no return. Beginning with Gayler,
however, NSA frequently became a springboard to four-star rank and
major military assignments.
Gayler's successor was Lieutenant General Samuel C. Phillips, an Air
Force officer who, while seconded to NASA, directed the Apollo space
program from its infancy through the lunar landing in 1969.


By the time Phillips arrived at NSA, in August 1972, American fighter
pilots in Vietnam were being shot down in ever increasing numbers.

<<

. 50
( 118 .)



>>