Determined to shine a light on what he called “the truth held prisoner,” Russo blew the whistle on American torture policy in Vietnam and on an intelligence debacle at the center of Vietnam decision-making that helped turn that war into the nightmare it was.
The witness reported men being hung by the feet or the thumbs, waterboarded, given electric shocks to the genitals, and suffering from extended solitary confinement in what he said were indescribably inhumane conditions. It’s the sort of description that might have come right out of the executive summary of the Senate torture report released last December. In this case, however, the testimony was not about a “black site” somewhere in the Greater Middle East, nor was it a description from Abu Ghraib, nor in fact from this century at all.
The testimony came from Vietnam; the year was 1968; the witness was Anthony J. Russo, one of the first Americans to report on the systematic torture of enemy combatants by CIA operatives and other U.S. agents in that long-gone war. The acts Russo described became commonplace in the news post-9/11 and he would prove to be an early example of what also became commonplace in our century: a whistleblower who found himself on the wrong side of the law and so was prosecuted for releasing the secret truth about the acts of our government.
Determined to shine a light on what he called “the truth held prisoner,” Russo blew the whistle on American torture policy in Vietnam and on an intelligence debacle at the center of Vietnam decision-making that helped turn that war into the nightmare it was. Neither of his revelations saw the light of day in his own time or ours and while Daniel Ellsberg, his compatriot and companion in revelation, remains a major figure for his role in releasing the Pentagon Papers, Russo is a forgotten man.
That’s too bad. He shouldn’t be forgotten. His is, unfortunately, a story of our times as well as his.
The CIA Interrogation Center, Saigon
Before him sat the enemy. VC. Vietcong. He was slender, a decade older than the 28-year-old American, and cautious in his initial responses. The American offered him a cigarette. “Smoke?”
Anthony Russo liked to befriend his subjects, finding that sharing a cigarette or a beer and congenial conversation could improve an interview’s results.
This man’s all right, Russo thought — unlike the one he had interviewed when he first arrived in Saigon. That prisoner had sat before him, quivering in fear, pleading for his life. “Are you going to kill me?” the distraught man had said repeatedly, his thumbs red and bulbous from being strung up.
Torture was not something Russo had anticipated when he took the job. A civilian with a rank equivalent to major working for the RAND Corporation, he had arrived in the South Vietnamese capital on February 22, 1965, and was briefed on his mission. Russo was to meet the enemy face-to-face and figure out what made them tick. On that first day, he could hear General Richard Stilwell, chief of staff of Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV), barking orders from the next room: “You get every goddamn plane in the air that you can!”
Russo thought the war would be over in a few weeks, months at worst.
Instead of the limited conflict he expected, years slipped by. Bombs fell, villages were decimated, the fabric of Vietnamese life assaulted. Russo persisted with his interviews of Vietcong prisoners, witnessing the after-effects of torture in nearly every instance.
It’s hard to pinpoint just when the shift occurred in the young man who came to Southeast Asia to “promote democracy.” But as one tour of duty extended to two, contact with the enemy changed not their hearts and minds, but his. On the eve of the 1968 Tet Offensive, he returned to the United States intent on challenging the war, a chance he would get, helping his friend and RAND co-worker Daniel Ellsberg with the Pentagon Papers.
That secret history of U.S. decision-making in Vietnam, a massive compilation of internal government memoranda and analyses, had been quietly commissioned by Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara in 1967 to assess what had gone wrong in Vietnam. Ellsberg leaked the Papers to the press in mid-1971, setting off a political firestorm and First Amendment crisis. He would be indicted on charges of espionage, conspiracy, and theft of government property, and would face a maximum penalty of 115 years in prison. Charges were also brought against Russo, who was suspected of complicity, after he refused to testify before a grand jury. He was jailed for 47 days for contempt and faced a possible sentence of 35 years in prison if convicted.
Ellsberg’s leak led to a Supreme Court decision on prior restraint, a landmark First Amendment case. Though all the charges were ultimately dropped, the leak and its aftermath had major political fallout, contributing to the demise of the presidency of Richard Nixon and forming a dramatic chapter on the path to U.S. defeat in Vietnam.
Ellsberg became a twentieth-century hero, applauded in print and film, his name nearly synonymous with the Pentagon Papers, but Russo, the young accomplice who goaded Ellsberg to go public, has been nearly forgotten. Yet he was, according to Ellsberg, the first person to document the systematic torture of enemy combatants in Vietnam. If no one knows this, it’s because his report on the subject remains buried in the vaults of the RAND Corporation, the think tank that did research for the Pentagon in Vietnam. Similarly, while the use of unprecedented airpower against the civilian populations of Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia inspired international calls for war crimes trials in the 1970s, Russo’s exposure of the fabrication of data that propped up that air war remains but a footnote in Vietnam War historiography, unknown to all but a handful of academics.
He has remained “the other conspirator.” Ellsberg later conceded that he probably wouldn’t have thought of releasing the Papers if Russo hadn’t prodded him to “put that out” and helped copy them in a series of all-night sessions. But Russo would take a backseat to Ellsberg, who had snuck the massive set of documents out of RAND headquarters and released them to the New York Times, the Washington Post, and 18 other news organizations.
The two of them would become the antiwar movement’s odd couple. Ellsberg was articulate, suave, and fashionable; Russo opted for hippie attire, long hair, and impossibly bushy sideburns, a style of dress that fit with his growing political radicalism. Russo and his attorney, Leonard Weinglass, devised a bold — some said reckless — defense strategy focused on using expert witness testimony to put the U.S. prosecution of the war on trial. Weinglass would emerge as a star attorney on the case, even — in the opinion of some observers — eclipsing Ellsberg’s senior lawyer, Leonard Boudin. But his client kept getting into trouble: scrawling a wiseacre comment on evidence before the court, handing a prosecution witness a press release that accused him of war crimes, peppering his statements to the press with movement jargon. In the end, Russo’s leftwing antics would help marginalize him and bury the story he had to tell.
The Think Tank
It all started in a nondescript mid-century building on Main Street in sunny Santa Monica, California. There, the RAND Corporation, a quasi-private think tank with a cozy relationship with the Air Force and Washington power brokers, dreamed up study projects for the Department of Defense.
RAND, an acronym for “research and development,” was launched in 1946 as a private research arm of the Army Air Forces, whose successor, the Air Force, would remain its primary financial backer and client for years to come. The think tank’s work ranged from weapons development to advanced strategic thinking on how to wage — or avert — nuclear war. RAND theorists would set the parameters for strategic defense thinking for decades, with the likes of Herman Kahn, once dubbed the “heavyweight of the megadeath intellectuals”; Thomas Schelling, Nobel laureate in economics for his work on game theory and the originator of “tacit bargaining”; and Albert Wohlstetter, the godfather of RAND’s nuclear strategists who devised the concepts of “second strike,” “fail safe,” and what he called the “delicate balance of terror” (aka “deterrence”).
In 1961, as President John F. Kennedy launched a counterinsurgency effort that would see its first expression in Vietnam, the think tank took on the study of guerilla war, falling into an easy alliance with the Department of Defense and Robert S. McNamara, the numbers man at its head. Thinking he could apply a systems analysis approach to national defense, Secretary of Defense McNamara had turned to the leader in the field for ideas and manpower. From RAND, he recruited heavily to help lead the counterinsurgency charge in Vietnam, creating a team popularly known as “McNamara’s Whiz Kids.” And he turned to RAND for an answer to an essential strategic question: “What makes the Vietcong tick?”
“M&M” would become the institution’s shorthand for the Vietcong Motivation and Morale Study that resulted, an attempt to apply social science to the study of enemy motivation. Russo was eager to join the effort. Elizabeth Gibbs, who married him in 1964, said that her young husband was preoccupied with the threat of guerilla war and wanted to see action on the front lines of the counterinsurgency effort.
Fascinated by flight, Russo had pursued aeronautical engineering in a cooperative work-study program run by Virginia Polytechnic Institute and NASA’s Langley Research Center, where he worked on the first Mercury space capsule. He then went to graduate school at Princeton, specializing in plasma physics. After just a year there, however, he took up the study of national defense policy at its Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, receiving master’s degrees in both engineering and public affairs in 1964. An ambitious academic, he also exhibited an unruly, prankster side. In one of his moments of youthful excess — a story he liked to tell — he cemented a commode to a Virginia war memorial, an act that might be considered a foreshadowing of things to come.
At Princeton, Russo studied under four men he called “heavyweights”: Oskar Morgenstern, an originator with Schelling of game theory; Cold War theorists Klaus Knorr and George Kennan; and Richard Falk, an expert on international law and the lone dove among Russo’s mentors. Falk argued against the move to RAND. But Russo, impressed by the think tank’s influence in the highest echelons of U.S. policymaking, jumped at the opportunity. Within six months he had secured an assignment to Vietnam.
Russo arrived in Saigon in February 1965 and met Leon Goure, his boss and future nemesis, just as the U.S. bombing campaign against North Vietnam was beginning and only two weeks before the first United States Marines landed at Danang. His job was to meet the enemy.
“How many people in your village work for the Front?”
“Everyone in the village works for the Front,” the prisoner responded in Vietnamese, translated by the young man at Russo’s side. His village was in the Cu Chi district, an area near Saigon under Vietcong control. Russo would later describe it as the birthplace of southern resistance to the French and then American armies. Despite their vastly superior arms, the South Vietnamese Army and its American allies rarely ventured into the prisoner’s village for fear of the VC’s deadly resistance methods.
“How was your village defended?” he asked.
“It had pit traps with bamboo spikes, grenade booby traps. It was surrounded by bamboo hedges,” the prisoner responded and then explained in detail how the villagers organized their resistance.
Physically fit and tall, Russo towered over the former cadre. He felt anything but complacent, however, about the enemy he faced, having barely escaped a bomb that had recently exploded in a Saigon restaurant where he was planning to have dinner.
“Why does the Vietcong use terrorism against women and children?” Russo asked. Until now, he had been careful to call the enemy military by its homegrown name, “the Front,” rather than the pejorative “Vietcong.” Emotion must have caused him to break protocol.
He was part of the second M&M study team. Joseph Zasloff and John Donnell, analysts from the initial team, had reported their results in Washington at a meeting attended by Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs John T. McNaughton and Henry Rowen (who would later head RAND). They described the Vietcong as a unified, disciplined army that already acted as an alternative government in large swaths of South Vietnam with widespread support from the population, prompting a shocked McNaughton to comment that it sounded as if the U.S. had signed up with the wrong — and losing — side. Daniel Ellsberg, who then worked for McNaughton, witnessed the exchange.
The Zasloff-Donnell report, however, came too late for an audience that had already made up its mind. The previous March, President Lyndon Johnson’s National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy had urged an expanded war even as the president campaigned for a full term in office with a promise to keep American soldiers out of Vietnam. Meanwhile, within the military, a struggle for dominance was underway, with Air Force Chief of Staff Curtis LeMay, instrumental in the founding of RAND, agitating for a bigger role for air power.
Then came the Tonkin Gulf incident in August 1964. As presented by President Lyndon Johnson, the destroyer USS Maddox was innocently sailing through the Gulf of Tonkin when attacked by North Vietnamese torpedo boats followed, two nights later, by a second attack on the Maddox and the USS Turner Joy. Johnson ordered military action “in reply,” and Congress quickly passed the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution giving the president carte blanche to repeatedly intensify the war. The claim of two separate attacks would, however, prove untrue, as Daniel Ellsberg would attest. It had been his first night on the job in the Pentagon.
At RAND, the stage was set for Leon Goure, an analyst acclaimed for his work on Soviet civil defense preparations. Goure had toured Vietnam and visited RAND’s Saigon operation in 1964. Upon his return to the U.S., he proposed that the M&M project be redefined with a critical twist. No longer would it focus solely on an assessment of enemy motivation and morale. It would now identify what kinds of weaponry would be most likely to demoralize that enemy, with an emphasis on air power.
A meeting with his friend LeMay cemented the deal. He would later report that “by the strings he pulled, LeMay assured continuation of the project” under Goure’s lead. At that time, the Air Force still provided two-thirds of RAND’s funding, a connection the new lead analyst made no attempt to hide.
The Answer Is Always Bombing
Susan Morrell could scarcely believe it. As RAND’s Saigon-based administrative assistant, it fell to her to pick up her new boss at the airport on his arrival. Making the Vietnam version of small talk on the way back to town, she asked Goure if he planned to use the existing protocol for enemy interviews or wanted to start over from scratch.
“I’ve got the answer right here,” he responded with a pat on his briefcase.
“What do you mean?” asked Morrell.
“When the Air Force is footing the bill, the answer is always bombing.”
Decades later, Morrell told RAND historian Mai Elliott that it was a moment seared into her memory and in those early days she wasn’t the only RAND staffer to observe Goure’s special affinity for the Air Force. At their first meeting, for instance, Russo remembered Goure commenting on that service’s unhappiness with the Zasloff-Donnell study. Zasloff himself was still in Saigon when Goure arrived and would soon accuse his successor of pandering to the Air Force. Half a century later, in a phone interview just before his death, Zasloff still lamented that his intelligence data hadn’t changed the course of the war and Goure’s had.
Goure’s work on Soviet civil defense was then widely known. In 1961, he claimed that the Soviets had trained 50 million citizens in civil defense procedures, were readying a massive system of bomb shelters to ride out a nuclear conflagration, and so were preparing to absorb a preemptive nuclear strike. His research seemed to have frightening implications: U.S. reliance on what was then called mutual assured destruction, or MAD, to stop a nuclear war suddenly appeared insufficient. The Soviets could strike preemptively if they thought national survival after a nuclear attack was possible. Kennedy stepped into the heated debate in July 1961 with a call for a $207 million appropriation for civil defense. That October, he began to encourage Americans to build their own private shelters for protection from nuclear fallout. Goure became a sought after expert.
In fact, his work would be challenged by New York Times journalist Harrison Salisbury, who questioned Goure’s sources, found observers who vigorously challenged his conclusions, and made his own 12,000-mile trip across the Soviet Union and found them unsubstantiated. But nothing, it seemed, could crack Goure’s reputation in Washington.
The year 1961 had been a seminal moment for Russo, too. His lifelong friend and future technology consultant William Grossmann recalled them driving to their NASA jobs together, one day in Russo’s white 1959 Ford convertible, the next in Grossmann’s white Chevy convertible — and on weekends, sharing heady conversation and wooing girls. The two like-minded Southerners had each taken stands against segregation, while worrying about the bomb, totalitarianism, and the “containment” of Communism. They were impressed that Kennedy had forced the Russians to stand down in the Cuban missile crisis. The same, both believed, could happen in Vietnam. On arrival in Saigon, Russo wrote Grossmann that the Vietnamese “are going to have to get used to it. We’re going to have to be the policemen for a while.”
Russo found himself at the epicenter of American intelligence-gathering in Vietnam. RAND’s Saigon villa became the requisite “prestige stop” for anyone with an interest in the war. By day, it served as a command center; at night, it hosted dinner parties for visiting luminaries, high-ranking figures in the military, the CIA, and members of the press. Goure was the star attraction. In that initial critical period of massive escalation, he provided the perfect mix of optimistic analysis and an engaging personality and so became the “go to” intelligence man in town.
Though Goure wrote research memoranda, RAND’s usual stock in trade, it was on the briefing circuit that he truly shone. His message, reported directly to Westmoreland, the top military commander in Vietnam, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Secretary of Defense McNamara, and others at the Pentagon, was unambiguous: the Vietcong were losing their resolve in the face of U.S. military might, especially airpower. Goure quickly established himself as the Air Force’s best pitchman.
It’s hard to overstate his influence. McNamara was so enamored of his message that, on first hearing him in June 1965, he offered to up the M&M budget on the spot from $100,000 to $1,000,000. As one analyst later quipped, the secretary of defense “lapped up Goure’s analysis like good scotch.” Journalists repeated his claim that the Vietcong were heading for defeat as the daily body count became a staple of war coverage.
Russo, who attended some of Goure’s Saigon briefings, remembered how he liked to brag that RAND had “the best damned intelligence in Saigon.” It would take some time for Russo to realize that his boss’s prescription for military success didn’t match the data.
The Cadre from Cu Chi
Intent on answering McNamara’s question about what made the Vietcong tick, Russo focused on his interviews with enemy prisoners. With full access and a small team of Vietnamese interviewers under his supervision, he visited detention sites all over South Vietnam, including the CIA’s National Interrogation Center in Saigon. Of all the interviews he conducted, the one with that cadre from Cu Chi would most deeply challenge his assumptions about Vietnam. He kept a copy of it, which he published in the left-leaning magazine Ramparts in October 1972, and spoke about it whenever he could, including at his Pentagon Papers trial.
He never knew the prisoner’s name; he was identified in the transcript only as AG132. Over the course of two days in May 1965, Russo sat in his cell listening to his views on Vietnamese history, the political forces at play in his country, and Vietcong organizing strategy and tactics. When the cadre blamed the Americans for the deaths of women and children, Russo took a new tack, initiating what he called a “friendly chat” about world politics, the American role in Vietnam, and the civil rights movement in the U.S.
“Even though I don’t know first hand what it means to be burned out, pillaged, and raped, I grew up knowing it had happened to my ancestors,” Russo would later say. While there is no record of how Russo described his personal history to that cadre, his comments to me years after in private interviews and public conversation provide a window onto what he might well have said. Unemployed and with time on his hands in 1990, Russo held daily court at the Boulangerie, a cafe on Main Street in Santa Monica, just blocks from the RAND Corporation. There, he regaled a small audience with old stories and political analysis.
With a twinkle in his eye, he would say that the short answer to why he got involved with the Pentagon Papers was that the British had burned his hometown of Holland, Virginia, to the ground. He was proud to call it a hotbed of sedition.
While he liked to portray himself as the descendent of America’s first revolutionaries, his Civil War heritage was harder to reconcile. Race was the first issue to challenge his personal worldview. Russo attended a segregated high school and then hung out with black friends he had met working at the local golf course. By the time he got to Virginia Polytechnic, the battle over court-mandated school integration had engulfed the state, with Senator Harry F. Byrd leading the segregationist charge. When Russo got Lionel Hampton to play for a school dance he organized, the university dean, anticipating that a black musician would attract a mixed crowd, demanded that the audience be segregated. Russo defied the order and black and white attendees packed the event.
“We integrated Burrus Hall,” Russo would say. “I see that as my first political act. We stood up for justice.”
He had a way of telling and retelling the stories that were most important to him, so I suspect that he told the Cu Chi cadre of his own experience with civil rights in the South. And perhaps, even under those circumstances — and even through a translator — made the prisoner laugh, as he had a way of telling a spirited tale.
Whatever he said, it appeared to affect the cadre as he hoped it would for he scribbled in the margin of his notebook, “The chat proved to be very successful and the subject’s attitude changed visibly.” Their talk then turned back to the situation at hand and the cadre accused the Americans and their South Vietnamese allies of blocking the election, agreed upon in the 1954 Geneva Accords that ended the French War, an election which would almost assuredly have brought Communist leader Ho Chi Minh to power and reunified Vietnam. A group of schoolteachers from his village, AG132 told Russo, had been imprisoned simply for writing a petition demanding those elections and peace.
The prisoner added that local government officials were, in his opinion, directed and controlled by the Americans who had the same intentions as the French colonialists before them. “The concrete evidence,” said the cadre, “makes the Americans identical to the French. But much more clever.” He summed the situation up this way: “The aims of the Americans are very nice. They fight for freedom and equality. It is very nice to talk about a free world, but I have not seen any good deeds. All I saw was evil.”
By the end of the interview, AG132 had confronted every issue that would later prove troublesome to Russo, including the indiscriminant bombing campaigns, the use of chemical defoliants, and torture.
The cadre’s analysis clearly unsettled the young American, who saw himself as a liberator, not an occupier. In an interview with filmmaker Peter Davis, he would later acknowledge how disturbed he was when the prisoner insisted that the Vietnamese hated the Americans and admitted that he then tried to defend his country, to show that “everything about America wasn’t bad.”
“He was very disdainful of me, but I was fascinated by him,” Russo said. By the end, “I had a great deal of admiration for him. He recited a poem for me. It was very moving to hear him recite this poem right in the middle of this interrogation room in a jail where I knew people had been tortured, if not killed.”
AG132, Russo later testified, had been tortured on multiple occasions. Historical research, including the work of Alfred McCoy, an expert on CIA torture practices, buttresses Russo’s statements about the brutal treatment of Vietcong prisoners. McCoy, for instance, quotes a military intelligence veteran who told a 1971 House subcommittee that, during his 18-month stint in Vietnam, not a single Vietcong suspect had survived the interrogations he witnessed.
Russo’s interview with AG132 took place only three months after he landed in Saigon. Though he would return to it again and again in the ensuing years, some time would pass before he became convinced that he was actually on the side of the aggressor.
His wife remembers him still defending U.S. intentions in Vietnam in the spring of 1965. By that summer, however, Russo and other RAND analysts were questioning their boss’s methodology and intentions. They still found themselves reaching conclusions nearly identical to those of Zasloff and Donnell: that the Vietcong represented peasant aspirations and weren’t likely to be bested by air power or any other kind of U.S. military action.
On a sweltering June day in 1965, Russo and Goure were together when word came in that the most powerful bombers in the U.S. arsenal, B-52s, had been approved for use in Vietnam. Russo knew airplanes and understood full well the kind of destruction B-52s would bring with them. For Goure, the decision was advocacy put into action and he would extol the B-52’s power to destabilize the enemy in his next report. In it, he was careful to note that civilians should be warned of such bombings by leaflets dropped in advance of a raid to insure against any popular backlash.
A month later, Russo would meet an old man at a detainment center clutching one of those warning leaflets. His village had been warned, just as Goure had said, but the bombers came a day early, wiping out nearly all of its inhabitants. “Why?” he cried. It was a moment Russo would not forget.
Breaking the Enemy
Torture hadn’t been part of the job description when Russo signed on at RAND. Of the first victim he met, he said, “I never will forget. He was washed out, looked very sad. He told the translator that he had been hung up by his thumbs and that they beat him real bad. They thought he had thrown a bomb,” though he proclaimed his innocence.
“That was one of the first interviews that I did. It was very sobering. I saw that a person could be broken badly.” The interview tape then goes silent for more than a minute as Russo struggled to regain his composure.
He reported the incident to the American captain who was his contact there only to experience the first of many official brush-offs when it came to torture. Russo said prisoners were tortured “as a matter of course” and reported specific forms of abuse including men being hung by the feet or thumbs, waterboarding, electric shocks to the genitals, and solitary confinement in “a dark cell, a dark, dank, dirty — very dirty cell.”
It is no accident that the torture methods he documented are strikingly similar to those revealed in the December 2014 Senate torture report. Vietnam was the first testing ground for what historian McCoy termed a new paradigm in the practice of torture developed by the CIA. The Agency had launched a multi-billion dollar research program on human cognition in search of techniques to protect U.S. forces in the event of capture by the Soviets. Finding that a potent combination of sensory deprivation and “self-inflicted pain” was more effective than centuries-old methods of physical torture and produced profound psychological regression in their test subjects, the CIA applied the same techniques to enemy interrogation. While they emphasized destruction of the psyche, physical brutalization was also employed. In Vietnam, this included electric shocks, beatings, rape, and the deaths of prisoners in “pump and dump” procedures, named for the process of pumping detainees for information and then dumping their bodies. Russo was witnessing the beginnings of what would become institutionalized CIA torture practices that would span four decades and four continents.
When asked about torture performed by Americans, Russo said a “CIA man” at the National Interrogation Center in Saigon told him in great detail on numerous occasions about the Agency’s torture techniques, including in one case the hanging of a man by his feet while a “piano wire noose was slipped around his genitals.” The CIA operative, he said, grinned as he told him that the prisoner never talked.
Russo documented every instance of torture he encountered. He later wrote that the interview reports were full of “embarrassing stories of atrocities and crimes against humanity” and he argued bitterly with Goure over his boss’s order to “sanitize” the interview transcripts by removing all mention of abuse. Though Russo defied the order, Goure controlled the final drafts.
Then there was the torture paper that Ellsberg has repeatedly said was the first to document American complicity in the routine use of torture and one of three papers that would ultimately get Russo fired. That document was either squashed in internal review or it remains classified, presumably buried somewhere in the think tank’s archives.
There is no reliable information on how much of RAND’s Vietnam-era work still remains off limits to the public. The think tank responded to a 2013 request of mine for Russo’s and other missing reports by saying that the “documents you have requested have not been cleared for public release and are not available.”
Making Russo’s missing torture report public, if it still exists, would provide eyewitness data supporting the burgeoning body of evidence that CIA torture practices have a long and sordid history beginning in Vietnam.
Trouble with the Data
Goure had fabricated his data to emphasize the efficacy and importance of air power and his analysts knew it. At the RAND villa, an open split developed, with Russo leading the group who wanted to expose their boss. He and his roommate, analyst Douglass Scott, spent long nights discussing “what to do about Leon.” Finally, with a third analyst, Russell Betts, they wrote the head of RAND’s Social Science department in the spring of 1966 about the improprieties they had found in Goure’s research methodology.
A succession of three RAND envoys came to Saigon to investigate and by summer a controversy raged on both sides of the Pacific. Russo and Scott had been particularly incensed that Goure signed their names to a February 1966 memorandum that again cited the benefits of air power, which was increasingly targeting rural villages, and proposed that the refugee crisis offered “a major opportunity to pacify” the population. It also pointed out that the chemicals that came to be known as Agent Orange could control movement of the population while also denying food to the guerillas. Russo and Scott fought to get their names removed without success. Around the time their whistleblowing letter hit Santa Monica, Goure amplified his arugument, proposing that the U.S. adopt a deliberate program to generate refugees.
Meanwhile, Goure’s prescriptions for success were being passed up the chain of command. The president’s phone records show McNamara using the February report to offer encouragement to Johnson that the American counterinsurgency operation was working. Influential Washington columnist Drew Pearson would capture Goure’s effect on the president in his famous May 1966 comment: “For the first time [he] sees light at the end of the tunnel.”
At this point, RAND’s leadership knew that Goure’s data, relied upon by both the Pentagon and President Johnson, was questionable at best and decided to pull Goure from the M&M study. The think tank couldn’t, however, get rid of him. He had secured his position with a direct line to the White House through National Security Adviser Walt Rostow, a hawk, architect of Vietnam policy, and staunch Goure supporter. Thanks in part to him, President Johnson, who reportedly sometimes carried a summary of Goure’s conclusions in his pocket for discussions with journalists, would continue to ride a wave of optimism in this period.
Though Russo never let his wife in on his conflict with Goure — he was, Gibbs said, too conscious of his secrecy oath to disclose such problems — she saw a changed man when he visited her in Bangkok on leave in November 1965. He was morose and withdrawn. When they returned to Santa Monica at the end of his first tour of duty in September 1966, Russo set to work at RAND headquarters trying to counter the most pernicious aspects of what he’d witnessed. Off work, he took to the hills of Topanga Canyon on his motorcycle, leaving Gibbs home alone. They would soon divorce.
Outside of RAND, the flaws in Goure’s analysis would gradually be noted. Westmoreland expressed his first doubts in late 1965 and McNamara began to worry when the general upped his request for new ground troops to 410,000 that winter. In February 1966, the secretary of defense confided to a few journalists that “no amount of bombing can end the war,” though he continued to maintain a façade of confidence in the war effort.
The bombing levels were by then unprecedented in the history of air power. From March 1965 through November 1968, Operation Rolling Thunder unleashed 800 tons of munitions a day on North Vietnam, a total of a million bombs, rockets, and missiles. Even more bombs were dropped in the South with estimates ranging from seven million to eight million tons of them, not to mention 70 million liters of defoliants, as well as napalm and other anti-personnel weapons. Then, of course, there was the massive bombing of neighboring Laos and later Cambodia.
Yet victory never came into view. Instead of drawing down, the administration only intensified the air war, sidelining the doubters, including — as he grew ever more disillusioned — McNamara himself. In August 1967, he testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee that the air raids had not broken Vietcong morale and that, short of the “virtual annihilation of North Vietnam and its people,” the air war could not succeed. Johnson quickly forced him out of the administration. At his farewell luncheon, a Johnson aide reported that the secretary of defense’s voice broke and there were tears in his eyes as he spoke of the futility of the air war. Later, he would acknowledge more than two million Vietnamese deaths.
Knowing the cause was lost, McNamara had by then ordered the production of the Pentagon Papers, the secret history that he hoped would avert future such disasters.
The Second Tour of Duty
Back in Santa Monica, Russo wrote a critical evaluation of the Motivation and Morale Study, which is still classified. He was also drafting an argument against the defoliation program, already in its sixth year, when, in September 1967, he was called back to Vietnam for a six-month tour of duty.
He found Saigon changed — Americanized, overrun with prostitution and corruption, expensive and dirty. Goure at least was gone, removed from the M&M crew in April by RAND’s new president Henry Rowen, who had been at that Zasloff and Donnell debriefing years earlier.
Once again, Russo felt hopeful that fact-based intelligence could rule the day. His cost analysis of defoliation, written in what he called “RAND systemspeak,” showed that while the chemicals sprayed did little to deprive revolutionary forces of food, they were having a profoundly destructive impact on the civilian population. He estimated that for every pound of food that defoliation denied a guerilla, 100 pounds were denied to civilians. But when he got his moment to brief Westmoreland’s scientific advisor on the subject, he was dismissed in under 15 minutes. Frustrated but undeterred, he set to work disproving a RAND socio-economic study that claimed widespread peasant support for the U.S. backed South Vietnamese army. Again, his work would not be well received.
Russo left Saigon just as the Tet Offensive, a vivid demonstration of the enemy’s resilience, began to unfold on January 30, 1968. He said he could see wrecked planes beneath him as he passed over Danang Air Base.
It’s likely that he wrote the missing torture report in the early months of 1968, a period when the CIA’s use of torture expanded dramatically under the notorious Phoenix Program.
During Russo’s stint in Vietnam, the CIA actually oversaw three separate operations that employed torture: its own interrogation centers, 40 provincial interrogation centers run by Vietnamese with CIA training and supervision, and a training program that schooled 85,000 Vietnamese police in torture techniques, part of a worldwide operation. Russo left Vietnam shortly after the Agency brought the three operations under one counterinsurgency umbrella. The Phoenix Program, designed to destroy the “civilian infrastructure” of the National Liberation Front, would be one of its major operations.
William Colby, the chief of “pacification” in Vietnam who would later become the CIA’s director, informed a House Operations Subcommittee in July 1971 that the Phoenix Program had killed 20,587 Vietcong suspects. Other sources quote figures as much as four times higher. Russo’s paper had done nothing to stop the carnage.
In May 1968, the new head of RAND’s economics department fired him. Associates were told to keep their distance from him during the six-month grace period he was given to find other employment. Ellsberg was the only RAND associate who argued for his reinstatement.
Meanwhile, though relieved of leadership of the M&M, Goure held onto a job at RAND, even returning to Vietnam in 1968 as head of a new study of enemy infiltration rates. He would finally leave in 1969 to become the director of Soviet studies at the University of Miami. There, he would contribute his “expertise” to another front in the war against Communism: Cuba.
In fact, Goure’s “best damned intelligence” had proved to be an intelligence debacle for the ages. After Ellsberg and Russo took the Pentagon Papers public, Russo was eager to expose one thing that mammoth document hadn’t: how a single think tank under contract to the government and far from the public eye, along with its highly touted expert in counterinsurgency warfare, had disastrously affected policy from behind the scenes.
His two Ramparts exposés (one aptly titled “The RAND Papers”) and his testimony at his trial were generally ignored by the mainstream media. Goure’s reputation remained remarkably unsullied and he would continue to be a player in the formulation of foreign policy. In 1980, for example, he was invited onto a panel of advisers to presidential hopeful Ronald Reagan. In 1991, by then the director of Soviet studies at Science Applications International Corporation, he participated in an International Security Council round table discussion of future Russian military policy. Past and future Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was in attendance.
Much of his work, however, was conducted in the shadows. He died in 2007. Stanford University holds the Goure Papers collection, a testament to his enduring legacy. Anthony Russo would not fare so well.
Charged With Espionage
“Russo weeps as he tells jury about change in views on war,” read the New York Timesheadline on the 66th day of the Pentagon Papers trial when Russo told the story of the Cu Chi cadre to the jury.
He had already published the cadre interview in Ramparts. Now, he again turned to the Vietcong prisoner who had come to symbolize for him all that was wrong with U.S. policy in Vietnam. As he would confide to filmmaker Peter Davis, the memory of that prisoner never left him. He was convinced that if other Americans met their enemy, if he could give that enemy a human face, the public would fully abandon Washington’s efforts to destroy them.
He compared the depersonalization of the Vietnamese to the Nazi depiction of the Jews. “If you don’t know who the Vietnamese people are, it is much easier to be racist. It’s much easier to kill them. This really is a lesson from World War II. Racist attitudes made it possible to manifest hatred and to undertake the extermination campaigns. Well, this really is what the United States is doing in Vietnam. The United States is exterminating the Vietnamese. And the United States couldn’t do this, no American, no human being could do this, if he really knew who the Vietnamese are.”
In the trial’s aftermath, Russo would be progressively marginalized, his claims about the M&M study ignored or written off as the ravings of a leftwing radical. But in its heady days, he reveled in his whistleblower role. Ten months after it began, prosecutor David Nissen’s case was in shambles. Revelations that the government wiretapped the defendants had resulted in a Supreme Court-ordered stay and then mistrial in its first round. And it had only got worse.
Soon enough, the press revealed that President Nixon’s right-hand man, John Erlichman, had introduced presiding trial judge William Byrne, Jr., to the president in his home and had discussed his possible appointment as FBI director — a clear impropriety in the middle of an espionage case. And then it hit the news that convicted Watergate conspirators G. Gordon Liddy and E. Howard Hunt, Jr., had burglarized the office of Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist.
On April 30, 1973, just days after the first news of that burglary, which tied the Pentagon Papers case to Watergate, a set of dominoes lay on the prosecution table. Each domino was labeled — Hunt, Liddy, Erlichman, Byrne, and so on — the last domino had Nixon’s name. It was Russo’s prank.
On May 1st, Erlichman’s domino fell when the news broke that he had admitted to the FBI his knowledge of the break-in at the office of Ellsberg’s psychiatrist. On May 2nd, the last domino did indeed fall. It was revealed that President Nixon had been informed of that break-in at least a week before the court knew about it.
On May 11th, Judge Byrne dismissed all charges against Ellsberg and Russo.
Postscript: Validation by RAND
Seventeen years later, Russo told me that a single realization had changed his mind about the war. He had, he said, been misinformed about the Vietcong. “They were not the enemy we were told they were.”
I asked what had most surprised him in his interviews with Vietnamese prisoners.
“The extent to which they cared about principle,” he answered. “The extent to which they had legitimacy, every reason in the world to be fighting. They were very admirable and very likeable. Very likeable. Natural friends of Americans.”
As for his participation in the release of the Pentagon Papers, he summed up his reasons in a single sentence: “It would have been un-American not to do it.”
Russo died in 2008 before RAND verified his claims about the Motivation and Morale Study in an extensive history written by Mai Elliott (herself a former M&M interviewer and interpreter) under contract to RAND and published in 2010. Her book, RAND in Southeast Asia: A History of the Vietnam War Era, forms a fitting sequel to the Pentagon Papers, with a carefully documented tale of how intelligence can go terribly wrong.
Elliott’s book validates nearly all of Russo’s claims. It confirms, for instance, that Goure did act as a pitchman for the air war, selling a prescription for military success that didn’t faintly match the data at hand. It details Goure’s outsized influence on policymakers and Russo’s claim that evidence of torture by U.S. forces and allies was systematically removed under Goure’s orders. She even quotes former RAND President Gus Shubert’s admission that the assignment of Goure to the Motivation and Morale Study appeared to represent collusion between his RAND predecessor and the Air Force, which he termed a “disgrace.”
In the end, Elliott, and by extension RAND, corroborate and elaborate on nearly every claim Russo made in his 1972 Ramparts articles. Only one of Russo’s charges was rejected: that the think tank was complicit in war crimes.
Never one to mince words, Russo called the M&M a “whitewash of genocide” and “a justification of genocide cloaked in the mantle of RAND social science,” accusations that echoed growing popular sentiment for war crimes trials and that must have held terrible personal resonance for a man whose name is there in black and white, attached to the call for the ever greater use of air power, defoliation, and the displacement of rural populations as tools of war.
Today, Anthony Russo is gone, his report on torture disappeared, and his legacy perhaps doomed to obscurity. RAND, meanwhile, continues to churn out studies for the military; the Air Force continues to drop bombs and fire missiles from Iraq to Afghanistan, Pakistan to Yemen; the CIA continues to cover-up its torture policies. But Russo’s spiritual descendants, whistleblowers like Chelsea Manning of WikiLeaks fame, John Kiriakou who exposed CIA torture, and NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden live on, each putting his freedom on the line just as Russo did. Whether or not any of the whistleblowers of the post-9/11 era knew Russo’s story, they benefitted from a tradition he, Ellsberg, and others of their generation had helped to pioneer.
It’s a testament to the explosive nature of Russo’s revelations that, almost 50 years later, RAND still keeps his report on CIA torture in Vietnam a secret — as the Pentagon Papers might be today if he had not convinced Daniel Ellsberg to make them public. It’s a tribute to Russo that his critical evaluation of the Motivation and Morale Study remains classified as well.
Call it an irony, but Dwight D. Eisenhower, the president who articulated the domino theory that brought Russo to Vietnam, crafted the words that might be most fitting for his epitaph years before he arrived in Vietnam. In his 1961 farewell address, Eisenhower focused on twin internal threats: “the military-industrial complex,” which he first named, and its forgotten corollary: that public policy could become the captive of a “scientific-technological elite.” Russo, who railed against RAND’s secret and deadly influence until his dying day, couldn’t have said it better.
Top Photo | Anthony J. Russo leaves a Los Angeles federal courthouse on Oct. 1, 1971 after the court released him from jail on his promise to appear later before a federal Grand Jury investigating the leak of the so-called Pentagon Papers. Ellsberg is in left background.
[Note: Special thanks go to Peter Davis for his use of his interview with Anthony Russo, provided courtesy of the University Archives & Special Collections Department, Joseph P. Healey Library, University of Massachusetts, Boston: Hearts and Minds collection, 1970-1974.]
Barbara Myers is a journalist, educator, and activist. She has written for the Miami Herald and edited and produced multi-media for the San Francisco Chronicle. In the 1970s, she worked with the Indochina Peace Campaign in Los Angeles, where she attended the Pentagon Papers trial and first met the subject of her TomDispatch story, Tony Russo.