Frank Snepp

Recruited into the CIA out of Columbia University's School of International Affairs in 1968, Snepp worked on NATO and European security matters for the Agency until he was hand-picked for two tours of duty at its Station in Vietnam, 1969 - 1975.

Doubling as an analyst and counter-intelligence officer, he interrogated the highest-ranking North Vietnamese spy ever captured, helped coordinate and debrief informant networks, served as the Embassy's principal press briefer, and rose during his last year at the Saigon Station to become the CIA's chief analyst of North Vietnamese strategy there, a position that afforded him access to the most sensitive intelligence and the ability to predict with uncanny accuracy what the Communists were planning. Among the last CIA officers to be helicoptered off the Embassy roof in April 1975, he was awarded the CIA's coveted Medal of Merit for his performance.

The accompanying citation, written by the Saigon station chief himself, declared: "During the final weeks of the Vietnam station, Mr. Snepp exceeded his own previously established peaks of achievement...The importance of [his] work during the final days and indeed hours of the American presence in Vietnam could hardly be overemphasized. His total unflappability, his ability to organize the necessary material along with his own thoughts during periods of the most intense pressure, his courage under fire and above all, the perspicacity of his analysis were such that it is my opinion they deserve and indeed demand special recognition...In summary, during the most critical final days of the American presence in Vietnam, Mr. Snepp turned in a kind of performance which I have never seen equaled nor even approximated during my long years with U.S. Intelligence. Special recognition, in the form of the Intelligence Medal of Merit, is definitely in order."

Such accolades notwithstanding, Snepp quickly became disillusioned at the CIA's unwillingness to rescue Vietnamese left behind or even to acknowledge that the evacuation had been a disaster. Unable to prompt any sort of internal after-action report, he resigned in 1976 to write a public one of his own in hopes of generating support for the abandoned Vietnamese.

His book, Decent Interval, was published by Random House in total secrecy without CIA approval. But the firestorm of publicity it ignited tuned it into an instant bestseller and sparked a government lawsuit against Snepp that culminated in a landmark U.S. Supreme Court First Amendment decision with far-reaching implications.

Though he was never accused of publishing any secrets, the Supreme Court held that his failure to seek official clearance for his memoirs had created the "appearance" of a breakdown of discipline within the CIA that had frightened U.S. intelligence sources and thus "irreparably harmed" the nation's security. Despite the lack of any evidence to support this allegation, Snepp was placed under a lifetime gag order preventing him from ever writing again without CIA permission, and was forced to surrender to the government all his "ill- gotten gains," every cent he'd made from Decent Interval.

The Court further ruled that any responsible official could be forced to submit to censorship simply as a matter of trust and in the interest of preserving the "appearance" of airtight government security. This diktat has led to the application of clearance and censorship rules throughout the Federal bureaucracy and the attendant trust theory has been used by private industry to justify a crackdown on whistleblowers within its own ranks. Legal scholars view U.S. v Snepp as the most important censorship ruling since the Pentagon Papers case of 1971.

Vietnam War Writers