“From the Army, intelligence, secret police, I had all kinds of sources,” An says. “The commanders of the military branches, officers of the Special Forces, the Navy, the Air Force-they all helped me.” In exchange for this steady stream of information, An gave his South Vietnamese informants the same thing he gave his Communist employers. “We discussed these documents, as the South Vietnamese tried to figure out what they meant. They had a problem. How were they going to deal with the Americans?” An then turned around and advised the Americans on how to deal with the Vietnamese. It was a high-level confidence game, with death hovering over him should he be discovered photographing the strategic plans and intelligence reports slipped to him by his South Vietnamese and American sources.
An worked through the night photographing these documents. Then his film cannisters were disguised to look like nem ninh hoa, grilled pork wrapped in rice paper, or hidden in the bellies of fish that had begun to rot. More fish or nem would be piled into baskets made to look like offerings being presented at a Buddhist funeral. In the morning, when An walked his German shepherd at the horse-racing track, he would deposit his nem cannisters in an empty bird’s nest high in a tree. For larger shipments, he hid his rolls of film under the stele of what he pretended was a family grave. An’s wife sometimes followed him at a distance. If he was arrested, she could alert his couriers.
Using live drops, dead drops, couriers, and radio transmitters that linked him through C.O.S.V.N. to military headquarters in North Vietnam, An was supported by dozens of military intelligence agents who had been detailed to work on his behalf. Of the forty-five couriers devoted to getting his messages out of Saigon, twenty-seven were captured and killed. “There were times before my departure on a mission when my wife and I agreed, if I were arrested, it would be best if I were killed,” An told Ngoc Hai. “It would be more horrible if they tortured me for information that put other people’s lives at risk. Sometimes it got so dangerous that, while my hands were steady, my legs were shaking uncontrollably. Despite my efforts to keep calm, the automatic reflexes of my body made me shiver with fear.”
“An was of paramount importance to the Communists, not only for getting information to the North but also for corroborating what they were receiving from other sources,” says former C.I.A. interrogator Frank Snepp. Author of “Decent Interval,” about the chaotic collapse of Saigon in 1975, Snepp now works as a television-news producer in Los Angeles. “An had access to strategic intelligence. That’s obvious,” Snepp says. “But no one has ‘walked the cat backward,’ done a postmortem of the damage he did. The agency didn’t have the stomach for it.” Snepp suggests that one source for An’s intelligence was Robert Shaplen, the New Yorker correspondent. Close friends and collaborators, An and Shaplen spent hours closeted in Shaplen’s room on the third floor of the Continental Palace Hotel, occasionally stepping out on the balcony to avoid being overheard. “Shaplen was one of our favorite journalists,” Snepp says. “We had orders from the top to give him unbelievable access to the embassy and high-level intelligence.
“We estimated there were fourteen thousand spies operating in South Vietnam. The Communists infiltrated right to the heart of the enemy. It was a government of Swiss cheese.” Describing turning points in the war, such as Henry Kissinger’s secret negotiations in Paris and the decision by the South Vietnamese government in 1975 to abandon its positions in the Central Highlands, Snepp says, “The Communists knew what was happening before the U.S. Embassy knew.
“We didn’t understand the degree of corruption in the South Vietnamese government,” Snepp goes on. “We didn’t want to look at corruption or morale. We didn’t want to know we were backing the wrong horse. This was true in Iran or Iraq or anywhere else where we’ve supported corrupt governments. An, of course, wanted very much to know these things. He knew under these conditions that Vietnamization would never work.”
… In 1970, An’s fellow Time correspondent Robert Sam Anson was captured by North Vietnamese soldiers and Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, where at least twenty-five other journalists were already dead or unaccounted for. After Anson’s wife pleaded with An to help her, he secretly arranged for Anson’s release. It would be another seventeen years before Anson learned the story of what An had done for him. When Anson saw An again in 1987, he asked him, “Why did you save me, if you were an enemy of my country?” An replied, “Yes, I was an enemy of your country, but you were my friend.” To this day, Anson works with a photo of An on his desk…
This article continues on, brilliantly. I can only suggest that those interested get it from The New Yorker, which owns the copyright.