CIA Director Stansfield Turner, the prime critic of Frank Snepp, on ABC’s Issues and Answers, 1979. Photo Credit: Bettmann/Getty Images

By David Kurlander

The Trump administration’s attempts to stop the publication of former National Security Advisor John Bolton’s memoir, The Room Where It Happened, are the latest moves in the long history of governmental efforts to prevent national security figures from revealing sensitive information. In their lawsuit against Bolton, the Department of Justice constantly referenced Snepp v. United States, another legal conflagration over national security secrets and an explosive tell-all: ex-CIA agent Frank Snepp’s 1977 memoir, Decent Interval: An Insider’s Account of Saigon’s Indecent End Told by the CIA’s Chief Strategy Analyst in Vietnam.

Snepp, a North Carolina native, joined the CIA in 1969, straight out of Columbia University’s School for International Affairs. Snepp was swayed by the Machiavellian rationale of covert action: “For a Southerner nurtured as I was on the incongruous fruits of chivalry and racism, such cynical pap went down easily,” he wrote in his later-life tome on the case, Irreparable Harm. Snepp slowly lost faith in the War—and in the government’s honesty about its conduct—over the course of his two tours in-country. Upon leaving the agency, Snepp quickly began work on his 600-page epic. Decent Interval provided an unprecedented level of detail about the CIA’s propaganda campaign in Vietnam, from just after the Tet Offensive to the dramatic April 1975 helicopter evacuation from the roof of the American embassy, when Communist North Vietnamese forces overwhelmed the South. 

Snepp focused particularly on the panicked final year, during which the US-backed South Vietnamese strived in vain for a negotiated settlement. Snepp offered a litany of CIA mistakes and misdeeds: staggeringly fraught negotiations with Hungarian mediators, the decision to leave behind $220 million in South Vietnamese gold bullion, and the widespread failure to shred classified documents, including those about sanctioned assassinations. Snepp particularly singled out for criticism the Ambassador to South Vietnam, Graham Martin, who had printed sensational stories about a planned North Vietnamese massacre in Saigon to stall the evacuation. He also attacked Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who Snepp argued had prompted Martin’s delay in order to avoid embarrassment during sensitive negotiations between the Israelis and the Egyptians.   

Snepp initially planned to submit the manuscript to the CIA for pre-publication review, but  ultimately decided to forego the process for two reasons: First, he became disturbed by the CIA’s selective leaking of information to Marvin Kalb, who was slated to write what Snepp saw as a whitewashed account of the Fall of Saigon. Second, Snepp knew that he had revealed no classified information. Citing countless other memoirs by national security veterans that hadn’t gone through pre-publication review—most notably former director Allen Dulles’ own 1964 memoir, The Craft of Intelligence—he gambled that he could not be prosecuted. He worked clandestinely with Random House, who published the book in November 1977. He underestimated, however, the uniquely political and incendiary nature of his text.

Stansfield Turner, who had recently replaced George H.W. Bush as CIA Director, immediately went to battle against Snepp. Turner was a highly-regimented former President of the Naval War College in the midst of a mass lay-off of 800 CIA agents, designed to streamline the maligned Agency. In other words, the new Director was uniquely aware of the glut of soon-to-be-former-employees who could turn around and write damning books. Turner told the press he felt “let down” by his former agent and claimed Snepp had promised him directly that he would submit Decent Interval for review, a charge the writer immediately denied.

Turner then upped the ante in a rare Washington Post op-ed. He first condemned Snepp in no uncertain terms, writing “he simply violated both his own oath and our trust.” Turner then waxed philosophical about the nature of secrecy in America: “What is at stake, however, is a fundamental issue for our society. If the society cannot trust the judgment of its public servants regarding what should or should not be withheld from the public, then the society can in fact have no secrets at all.” Finally, the CIA head argued that the American people had to look to the future: “We need less encumbrance from national self-flagellation over the past and more interest in how we can achieve a workable balance between necessary secrecy on the one hand and oversight on the other.”

Then came the lawsuit. Attorney General Griffin Bell, on Turner’s prompting, filed a civil suit against Snepp in February 1978. The complaint argued that Snepp’s broken secrecy oath meant he should turn over his royalties rather than be “unjustly enriched” by the book’s publication. The lawsuit also stipulated that Snepp and all ex-national security personnel would have to clear every major public writing for pre-publication review. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, where in 1980 the Burger Court ruled in favor of the government.

Reaction to the Snepp decision was not strictly partisan. Rather, there was a sharp split between the press and those working in government, regardless of whether they were Democrats or Republicans. When Snepp went on conservative commentator William F. Buckley’s Firing Line television show, Buckley—a CIA alum himself and no bleeding heart when it came to intelligence leaks—realized that his own fictional works about the Agency, including his popular Blackford Oakes series, violated the Supreme Court’s ruling. 

Attorney General Bell, a moderate but a Democratic Carter appointee, fiercely defended the Snepp outcome in his 1982 memoir, Taking Care of the Law, co-signing Turner’s assertion that the case “did more to lift the sagging morale of the CIA than any other single incident he could recall.” Turner, for his part, threw an ebullient champagne reception for the government lawyers who represented the government. Snepp went on to become a Peabody Award-winning journalist for his coverage of environmental issues for KNBC Los Angeles. 

As the legal establishment grapples with the thorny ethics of the Trump administration and John Bolton’s fight over pre-publication review and the bounds of secrecy, Snepp’s pained reflections on the case from a 1983 interview with foreign correspondent Clete Roberts sound particularly relevant: “The U.S. government sued me for publishing Decent Interval without the CIA’s approval, even though nobody ever accused me of ever publishing any secrets in the book…one of the victims of the Vietnam War was the First Amendment, and my case was one of the cases that came out of the Vietnam War.”

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