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Rob Simmons, the CIA, and the Issue of War Crimes in Vietnam

The Spook Who Would Be a Congressman

by Douglas Valentine

Congressional candidate Robert Simmons vehemently denies that he committed war crimes while serving as a CIA officer in South Vietnam.? According to the five-term state representative from Stonington, Connecticut, the charges amount to “character assassination.”

“Any veteran, anybody who served his country in war, should be offended,” Simmons claims.

The specific charge against Simmons is that he routinely violated the Geneva Conventions while interrogating civilian prisoners during his 20 months of service with the CIA in Vietnam.? The charge stems from a profile of Simmons published by the New London Day in May 1994.? In that profile Simmons said he would threaten to withhold medicine from injured prisoners, in order to obtain information, but that he would never actually make good on the threat.? According to Simmons, such coercive tactics are perfectly legitimate and do not reach the threshold of a war crime.

On the contrary, “If I hadn’t involved myself, many people would have lost their limbs or their lives,” Simmons said in May 1994.

But Simmons, who is a Lector at his Episcopal Church, has not been totally forthcoming about his CIA activities in South Vietnam.? His reticence, notably, is partly a result of non-disclosure agreements he has with the CIA and Senate.? These secrecy agreements prevent him from divulging certain types of information, such as names of his colleagues and informants, and the “methods” he used.?

While these secrecy laws restrict Simmons in certain respects, they also protect him from the type of public scrutiny that might resolve, once and for all, the question of his involvement in war crimes in Vietnam.? Without access to CIA records and reports, there is no way to determine what Simmons did or did not do in Vietnam.

However, based on information and documents Simmons provided to this writer in an interview conducted in September 1988, there is evidence that his involvement in questionable activities was greater than he publicly admits.

This is a most sensitive subject that requires factual background information. From November 1970 until June 1972, Rob Simmons served as a CIA officer in Tuy Hoa, the capitol city of Phu Yen, a coastal province in South Vietnam’s Military Region II.? His job was twofold, and involved both “liaison” with the South Vietnamese special police, as well as mounting and conducting “paramilitary” operations.

As the liaison officer and advisor to the special police, Simmons assisted his Vietnamese counterpart in identifying civilian members of the Viet Cong Infrastructure? (the VCI) and in penetrating their organization with “double agents.”? He also advised the special police chief of the Phu Yen Province Interrogation Center, located in Tuy Hoa.?

With the assistance of Simmons, suspected members of the VCI, including women and youngsters, had their names placed on a blacklist and were subjected to surveillance by the special police.? If they appeared to be doing something suspicious, or if they were accused by an anonymous informer, the suspects could be arrested and held in the Interrogation Center, in “administrative detention,” for as long as two years, without any access to due process. If they survived their interrogations, prisoners were eventually brought before the Province Security Committee, a non-judicial body that disposed of captured VCI.

During the Vietnam War there were repeated allegations that innocent people were being tortured in CIA Provincial Interrogation Centers, including the one in Tuy Hoa.? As a result, several U.S. Congresspersons traveled to Vietnam to investigate the situation.? Their investigation culminated in 1971 with Congressional Hearings.? At the end of these Hearings, U.S. Representatives Paul McCloskey, John Conyers, Bella Abzug and Ben Rosenthal stated their belief that “The people of these United Stateshave deliberately imposed upon the Vietnamese people a system of justice which admittedly denies due process of law,” and that in doing so, “we appear to have violated the 1949 Geneva Convention for the protection of civilian people.”

They also stated their belief that “torture is a regularly accepted part of interrogation,” and that “U.S. civilian and military personnel have participated for over three years in the deliberate denial of due process of law to thousands of people held in secret interrogation centers built with U.S. dollars.”

Congressman Ogden Reid asked CIA Director William Colby if any CIA officers had ever resigned on the grounds that they could not be morally satisfied that they were identifying, interrogating, and in some cases assassinating the right individuals.? Colby replied that not one CIA officer had ever resigned.

Although the CIA acknowledged that it funded the special police and the interrogation centers -? one of which existed in each of South Vietnam’s 44 provinces — it refused to acknowledge or accept responsibility for the torture that occurred in those facilities.???????

Rob Simmons likewise absolves himself of responsibility for any abuses that occurred at the Phu Yen Province Interrogation Center.? He said he never let himself get into the sort of “untenable situations” that prompted the four members of Congress to conclude that the interrogation centers, which the CIA built and maintained, were de-facto torture chambers.

In the absence of any documentary evidence, it is impossible to know what really happened at the Phu Yen Province Interrogation Center.? The CIA will never make public whatever records it has in this regard.?

However, there is documentary evidence that, as the CIA’s paramilitary advisor in Phu Yen Province, Rob Simmons mounted operations that were designed to kill specific “targeted” members of the VCI.

Prior to arriving in Vietnam, Simmons had received intensive training in paramilitary operations.? He knew how to handle weapons and make bombs, in order to efficiently kill people and blow things up, and in this “paramilitary” capacity he worked with Phu Yen’s Provincial Reconnaissance Units, or PRU.

Like the special police interrogation centers, the PRU were a creation of the CIA.? But while the job of the special police was to identify and “turn” VCI into double agents in the interrogation centers, it was the job of the PRU teams to identify, capture, and kill VCI, depending on the circumstances.?

Throughout the Vietnam War, the PRU were accused of rampant war crimes.? Called “The CIA’s Hired Killers” by acclaimed journalist Georgie Anne Geyer, the PRU were recruited by CIA “talent scouts” from South Vietnam’s minority ethnic and social groups.? PRU teams were composed mostly of Chinese Nungs, Montagnards, Muslim Chams, Cambodians, convicts and former VC.? The one thing they had in common was a complete lack of any personal connection to Vietnamese community — and the ability to assassinate without remorse.

As the CIA’s paramilitary officer, Rob Simmons worked with the Phu Yen PRU teams, which in 1971 and 1972 were still funded by the CIA.? Simmons used PRU files and sources to develop intelligence on targeted individuals, and in return, he let the PRU use his radio.? But the PRU teams were controversial, so Simmons was instructed to develop his own “special action” paramilitary unit for capturing and killing individual VCI.

Simmons likened this aspect of his job to “fishing for bluefish.? When you’re fishing for bluefish, you need a bluefish lure and bluefish bait.? Going after the VCI is the same thing.”

During the interview with this writer in 1988, Simmons produced reports of paramilitary operations in Phu Yen Province.? One of the reports tells how a special police team killed three VCI in November 1970.? Based on information provided by an anonymous informer, the VCI were ambushed at night while digging a spider hole outside Vinh Phu hamlet.? One of the people killed was Nguyen Van Toan, described as the Secretary of the Communist Party Chapter Committee and chairman of the Village People’s Revolutionary Committee. Toan was 20 years old and a native of Vinh Phu hamlet.

As a result of this operation, Simmons was directed to develop the region’s paramilitary capability.? In response he created the prototype “special action” team in Military Region II.? Called the Special Intelligence Force Unit (SIFU) it was formed and trained in October and November of 1971.? Recruits came from five nearby districts.? All were volunteers from the special police and the National Police Field Forces.? Eventually there were six teams, each team consisting of four men from the special police, and four men from the National Police Field Forces.? The Phu Yen SIFU detachment, which had its own facility, was commanded by special police officer Nguyen Van Quy, and was advised and funded by Rob Simmons.

Simmons did not say if he accompanied the SIFU team on its missions, but in order to command respect, CIA paramilitary officers routinely did go on missions.

Documents provided by Simmons indicate the SIFU had continued success.? In a report dated December 1971, the National Police Commander in Phu Yen Province discussed several recent SIFU operations.? Colonel Nam specifically used the word “exterminate” to describe one particular mission, in which two VCI were killed in an ambush.

As another example of SIFU effectiveness, Simmons provided this writer with a copy of a 29 January 1972 letter he sent to one of his superiors.? The letter was a request for awards and medals for the members of the SIFU who had participated in “the recent Lien Tri operation.”

The Lien Tri operation began on 26 January 1972, when an anonymous informer reported to the special police that elements of the Tuy Hoa City Party Committee Action Team were planning to enter Lien Tri hamlet to build secret hiding places in preparation for an attack against Tuy Hoa and its northern suburbs.? According to the letter provided by Simmons, the SIFU moved into the area the following day to intercept the VC Action Team.? At 9:00 pm four VC, three women, and seven youths were seen digging a hole.? They were “taken under fire.”? Killed were Trinh Tan Luc, Tuy Hoa Party Committee member, and Nguyen Dung, Tuy Hoa Current Affairs Committee.?

Under South Vietnamese law, it was perfectly legal for CIA officer Simmons to target these South Vietnamese civilians for assassination.? Indeed, these two VCI had organized a recent attack on Tuy Hoa, and Simmons was especially happy to have eliminated them.? The operation was over by 11:00pm.

“This operation epitomizes the type operation we encourage the police to run against the VC/VCI in Phu Yen province,” Simmons reported to his boss.? “The special police prepared detailed information on the individual VC, tasked their local sources for information on the individuals targeted which was of immediate value and then were able to mount a strike force which was sufficiently well-equipped to effectively react to the information in a timely manner.? The results speak for themselves.” ? Prior to leaving Vietnam in June 1972, Simmons conducted one last major operation in Phu Yen.? In the spring of 1972 the North Vietnamese Army and the VCI launched an offensive against the South Vietnamese government and military.? A bridge in Phu Yen was a major target, as were CIA and special police installations.? Binh Dinh Province, directly north of Phu Yen, was overrun by enemy forces, which were advancing on Tuy Hoa.?

As Simmons recalls, everyone was in a panic.? For several harrowing days they were cut-off from the rest of Military Region II.? Simmons himself spent one night alone in the compound monitoring the radio, and the next day he helped move reinforcements and “re-supply” across the Tuy Hoa beachhead.?? It was touch and go, and even after the main attacks were repulsed, Simmons and his CIA colleagues were confronted with a dangerous situation.? Tens of thousands of refugees were fleeing Binh Dinh Province, and the VCI were using the refugees as cover to smuggle in their own assassins.? CIA officers had been targeted for assassination in Binh Dinh, and intelligence reports indicated that the CIA officers in Phu Yen were next on the list.?

There was tremendous fear and apprehension, but Simmons and the SIFU saved the day.? Documents captured in March, during an SIFU operation, revealed that the VC were infiltrating Tuy Hoa in Lambros.?

“So,” Simmons explains, “we rolled them up and we put them all in the PIC.? That’s fifteen to twenty people.?

“We interrogated the Lambro drivers,” he continues, “and learned they had all been conscripted.? They were bringing VC cadres posing as farmers into Tuy Hoa.?The Lambros were driven by VCI, including a few women.? They had weapons hidden under seats, to attack government offices.” ???????????????????? As a CIA officer, Rob Simmons traveled 12,000 miles to take the lives of Vietnamese men and women in their own backyards.? He did so unflinchingly.

“”I’m a poor farm girl,” he says, mocking a woman he had in the PIC.? “So we released her and watched her for three months, and then we put her name in the paper. Arresting and watching suppressed her.? It suppressed the organization too.”

What Simmons is describing is psychological warfare -? the application of terror to subdue people.?

Terror is what Simmons took to his enemies, in the secret war between the CIA and subversives in South Vietnam.? But the effects of psychological warfare are insidious and one must wonder if, as a Congressman, Rob Simmons might apply the same tactics in the United States that he applied in South Vietnam?? If Simmons was willing to deny suspected subversives due process in South Vietnam, might he not deny due process to suspected subversives here?? Will he apply, in America, the psychological warfare tactics he learned in Vietnam??

When asked about the morality of interrogation centers and hit teams, he said, “Most of what we did was benign.”

He admits only to negligent cruelties, and there is very little evidence to contradict what he says.?

To some extent, the lack of evidence is attributable to Simmons himself.? As Staff Director of the Senate’s Select Committee on Intelligence, a position he held for over three years, he helped sponsor the Agency Identities Bill, making it illegal to name CIA officers.? To this day he is required to clear anything he publishes with the CIA and the Senate.?

This fact raises the issue of his ability to function as a representative of the citizens of Connecticut’s 2nd congressional district.? Can the voters be certain they know everything they need to know about him?? Can they be certain he is free to speak his mind?

If it is true, as Simmons says, that “Politicians Don’t Belong In The Classroom,” then perhaps CIA officers do not belong in the legislative process?? How can anyone know for sure they aren’t playing a double game??

Indeed, unless Simmons submits to the democratic process, and fully discloses, explains, and justifies his past actions, in the legal and moral context in which they occurred, he is, by his own hand, disqualified from holding public office.?

Congessman Sam Gejdenson, a liberal Democrat, has represented the 2nd Congressional District of Connecticut since 1981. On Thursday, November 3rd, Gejdenson fired two campaign workers for inciting students at Wesleyan University to charge that Simmons had committed war crimes.

Douglas Valentine (douglasvalentine.com) is the author of The Phoenix Program and the recently published novel about Vietnam, TDY.