A story of CIA officers, Russian agents in Paris, the French FBI, lavish parties and one doctor who operated a clinic in South Vietnam.
The only known Soviet espionage agent permanently based inside South Vietnam during the war was a Frenchman who treated tuberculosis patients and mingled freely with U.S. and Vietnamese officials. The “French doctor case,” one of the conflict’s most intriguing spy tales, has been mentioned in many publications, including John Sullivan’s Of Spies and Lies, John Prados’ Lost Crusader, Tom Mangold’s Cold Warrior and Joseph Trento’s The Secret History of the CIA. Additionally, a fictional character clearly based on the French doctor appears in Arnaud de Borchgrave’s 1981 spy novel, The Spike.
But such accounts have provided only vague information about the case. They focus primarily on suspicions James Angleton, the legendary chief of the CIA’s counterintelligence staff, harbored about William Colby, the CIA’s Saigon station chief in the 1960s and later the agency’s director. Colby had contacts with the doctor—contacts he failed to report in writing as required by CIA regulations. Prados and Mangold state in their books that Colby told another CIA official he had talked with the doctor only socially on a few occasions and could hardly remember him.
The CIA learned about the existence of a Soviet spy in Saigon when it intercepted coded radio messages broadcast from the city. An analysis of the signals revealed that the messages were being sent from a Soviet-style medium-speed transmitter and beamed straight to Moscow. A long and arduous investigation zeroed in on the transmission point: the home of Dr. Pierre Hautier, a resident of Saigon since at least the early 1960s.
Hautier ran a tuberculosis clinic in Saigon and was a lecturer at Saigon University’s medical school. His Vietnamese wife was a relative of Lt. Gen. Dang Van Quang, special assistant for military and national security affairs for President Nguyen Van Thieu. The couple regularly dined with Quang and other high-ranking South Vietnamese officials.
The only publicly available information about the Communist recruitment of Hautier comes from a confession he made under interrogation by France’s equivalent of the FBI—Direction de la Surveillance du Territoire, or DST, which arrested the doctor in 1972.
French journalist Thierry Wolton revealed the details of the confession and other aspects of the case in his 1986 book Le KGB en France, based on information from unidentified French intelligence and security officials. In his account of the case, perhaps at the request of French officials who gave him the story, Wolton refers to Hautier by the pseudonym Victor Gregoire.
It is impossible to know how much of Hautier’s confession is true without access to Soviet and Vietnamese intelligence files, but according to Wolton, the doctor told the DST that he was initially recruited by the Viet Cong to provide money and medicine to Communist forces in South Vietnam. Later the doctor was asked to supply his VC “friends” with military and political intelligence gathered through his wide circle of social contacts. Hautier said he traveled to Moscow in 1967 to be trained in espionage and clandestine communications. Hautier made two subsequent trips to Moscow before he began meeting with Soviet intelligence officers in Paris. These meetings occurred once every year, during the doctor’s annual vacation in France.
In Saigon, Hautier would signal his Viet Cong contacts by parking his car a certain way. Then, posing as TB patients, they would come to his clinic to receive the information Hautier had gathered. He sent the Soviets separate reports written in invisible ink or transmitted via other forms of secret communication, according to the confession.
Hautier admitted that from 1967 to 1972 the Soviets paid him a total of $20,000 in U.S. currency, a substantial amount at the time and an indication that the information he provided must have been important. Hautier used some of the money to throw lavish parties for senior Vietnamese military officers and high-ranking politicians in the Saigon government so he could get intelligence information from them.
When CIA agents learned from the intercepted radio signals that Hautier was a spy, they at first knew only where he lived. The CIA still had to determine what kind of information was being transmitted, who gave it to Hautier and the full extent of his involvement in espionage.
Instead of briefing the South Vietnamese police so they could search the doctor’s residence for the transmitter and other incriminating materials, the CIA decided to keep the information to itself. Its counterintelligence officers played a waiting game, hoping to learn more about the doctor and his contacts. Their goal was to “double” this operation—to turn the doctor against his Soviet masters and induce him to secretly report on contacts with his Soviet handlers.
In the meantime, the DST, operating with no knowledge of the CIA investigation, developed suspicions of its own about Hautier. During the summer of 1971, a DST surveillance team watching a known intelligence officer assigned to the Soviet Embassy in Paris spotted Hautier passing a package to the official during the doctor’s summer vacation in France. (Wolton’s book says the official was a KGB officer, but other sources indicate that all of the Soviet officers in contact with Hautier worked for Soviet military intelligence, the GRU.) The French monitored Hautier’s activities until he and his family left for Saigon.
The next year, as the CIA investigation in Saigon continued without any inkling that the DST had also picked up the scent, Hautier and his family returned to France for their summer vacation. As soon as they arrived, the DST resumed its surveillance. On July 11, 1972, DST officers swooped in to arrest Hautier as he was handing a package to Soviet Embassy Third Secretary Vladimir Nesterov. Inside the package, the DST found intelligence reports the doctor had written on “the political and military situation in South Vietnam” and Hautier’s accounts of the money the Soviets gave him to conduct his operations.
Caught red-handed, Hautier confessed. The French government then expelled Nesterov and two other Soviet officials involved in the case, Georgy Sliuchenko and Viktor Aleksandrovich Sokolov, declaring them persona non grata. Hautier received no punishment. A judge ruled that the doctor had not committed a crime under French law because he had spied only on the South Vietnamese and Americans, and Hautier was released. He never returned to Saigon. The family resettled in a former French colony in West Africa, where the doctor lived until his death many years later.
As word of Hautier’s arrest in France filtered back to Saigon, the South Vietnamese police swept into the doctor’s residence and conducted an extremely thorough search. No incriminating documents or spy materials of any kind were found. The radio transmitter, the doctor’s code books and all of his other espionage gear were gone. No one knew who “cleaned out” the doctor’s residence.
Rumors about the reasons for Hautier’s sudden departure rumbled through the overseas French community and Saigon’s high society, but the entire embarrassing affair was quickly hushed up and forgotten.
In addition to its significance as the only known case of a Soviet spy operating in South Vietnam during the war, the Hautier affair provides a couple of historical insights into effective intelligence operations.
First, in counterintelligence investigations it is often best to take direct action once your target has been identified. In the Hautier case, CIA investigators wasted time and effort trying to sidle up to the doctor and his associates in the hopes of “turning” one of them. They lost the chance to catch the doctor with his transmitter in Saigon, where the South Vietnamese police and CIA had considerable leverage they could have used to persuade him to identify other members of the Soviet spy ring, his Viet Cong contacts and his sources. Instead, the CIA had absolutely nothing to show for its lengthy and expensive operation. It could not even take credit for Hautier’s arrest because the French investigation had been conducted without American knowledge or assistance.
Second, this case revealed that the vaunted Soviet espionage officers were not nearly as good as their reputation. The Soviet GRU officers handling this case managed to compromise their agent twice—once to the CIA, through their use of an easily detected and identifiable transmitter, and once to the French, through the poor tradecraft and surveillance-detection measures they used when meeting with the doctor. In contrast, the CIA and DST never detected the classic, nontechnical meeting and communications arrangements that Hautier said VC intelligence officers used to contact him, showing once again that simpler is better.
Merle Pribbenow is a retired CIA officer who was stationed in Saigon from 1970 to 1975.
Originally published in the October 2014 issue of Vietnam. To subscribe, click here.