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The CIA’s Costly Mistake

By Jacques Prindiville
1/3/2019 • Vietnam Magazine

In November 1967, Joe Hovey tried to warn the Johnson administration about the Tet Offensive—but his CIA superiors said he was crying wolf.

Unlike great statesmen, military leaders, diplomats or openly declared swashbuckling intelligence operatives, reallife intelligence analysts work quietly in back rooms and receive scant public recognition for their efforts. They could best be described as the nerds or geeks of the world of foreign affairs. Like anyone else, they produce work of both good and bad quality, but in general their good work is acknowledged only when it is consistent with current policy. Any analysis that challenges accepted beliefs often earns little or no praise for the analyst and can even be an obstacle to career advancement.

Such was the case of Joe Hovey, a Central Intelligence Agency analyst stationed in Saigon who correctly predicted the Tet Offensive. In November 1967, in response to a direct request to the Saigon CIA station from Walt Rostow, President Lyndon B. Johnson’s national security adviser, Hovey prepared—with the input of his colleagues in the CIA Collation Branch at the U.S. Embassy—a precise analysis predicting an imminent all-out, countrywide Communist offensive. The report reached Johnson’s desk six weeks before the actual event. Hovey’s warnings were ignored by the president and his advisers, because senior CIA analysts in Washington concluded differently and told the White House that the Saigon CIA Collation Branch was alarmist and crying wolf.

I knew Joe Hovey during the period when I served as a U.S Army civilian attached to the U.S. Embassy in Saigon. Hovey was a regular visitor at my apartment in the center of Saigon. Because of the apartment’s location and view, it was a favorite meeting place for a wide range of people. And, of course, the war was one of the major subjects of conversation.

Sometime in the fall of 1967, based on his analysis of captured enemy documents and prisoner interrogations, Hovey first began to talk to me about impending Viet Cong plans for massive countrywide attacks on U.S. and South Vietnamese civilian and military installations in Saigon and other urban areas. The idea seemed completely preposterous, since it was at variance with everything we were hearing from open and classified sources. This was a period when everyone was euphoric about the war and the progress being made. U.S. military and civilian leaders, both in Saigon and in Washington, were making frequent use of such phrases as “We can now see the light at the end of the tunnel” and “We have now turned the corner.” Among my colleagues, friends and sources of information, no one but Hovey was saying anything to contradict the prevailing mood of optimism.

As 1967 ended, Hovey said to me more than once, “Jack, they are coming into the cities.” Since I was not receiving confirmation of this from other sources, I dismissed Hovey’s assertions as deluded. Yes, there was the ongoing siege at Khe Sanh, which was growing in intensity at that time, but that was far away. Surely the VC were not coming into Saigon.

In the early morning hours of January 31, 1968, amid the celebratory din of Tet fireworks, the Communists struck into the heart of Saigon with unparalleled ferocity and devastation. For a day and a half following the onset of the offensive, Hovey did not appear at his office. At the request of his supervisor, two of his colleagues and I went to Hovey’s apartment, where we found him in a depressed state. After reassurances, we persuaded him that all was secure between his apartment and the nearby embassy, and we agreed to accompany him to his office. Hovey’s appraisal of what had taken place had shaken him to the core. This was very understandable. He had foreseen too clearly what others had refused to acknowledge.

How did Hovey accurately predict what proved to be the turning point of the Vietnam War, and why was his analysis rejected? The following is based on a recent meeting with Hovey, phone conversations and written material he prepared.

Joe Hovey arrived in Vietnam in February 1965. After extensive analysis of captured documents and interrogation reports, he concluded that the key element in determining the enemy’s future intentions was the People’s Revolutionary Party (PRP)—the southern branch of the Communist Party of Vietnam, which was headquartered in Hanoi. This was also the prevailing view of other CIA analysts at the time. All activities, including civilian, military and National Liberation Front, came under the authority of the PRP. Hovey believed that only by understanding that organization, and how persons within it thought, could one make reasoned predictions regarding the enemy’s plans.

Hovey found very useful the lengthy interrogation reports prepared by the RAND Corporation from debriefings of Viet Cong prisoners and defectors who had already been processed by the military and police. These reports went into a great deal of detail as to what it was like to be a member of the VC. Although mostly from low-level civilian and military cadres, the reports provided an invaluable insight into the mind-set of the enemy. The interrogation reports were delivered to Hovey’s office in large stacks, and he would spend hours reading them after everyone else had gone home.

Hovey did not believe this meant that everything the PRP said could be taken as the gospel truth. During 1966 and 1967, as a result of large-scale U.S. military sweeps in III Corps Tactical Zone and in the Central Highlands, large batches of captured enemy documents prepared by the PRP began showing up at Hovey’s office. What struck Hovey in reports sent by the PRP cadres back to the leadership in Hanoi were the wildly exaggerated claims of damage inflicted on U.S. and South Vietnamese forces. There was even talk about “popular uprisings and demonstrations” against the South Vietnamese government and the U.S. when no such events had occurred.

Hovey received his first premonition that something big was in the works sometime in late July or early August 1967 (as best as he can remember), when enemy documents started using for the first time the terms “general offensive” and “general uprising.” Hovey was struck by this terminology. It had not been used since 1945-46, when the Communists were rallying their forces to take over Vietnam after the defeat of Japan and before the return of the French colonial forces. These terms signified the triumphal, Armageddon-style culmination of the Vietnamese Communist revolution and final defeat of the bourgeois enemy. Considering that all indicators were pointing in the direction of victory for the United States and South Vietnam, how was it possible, Hovey reflected, that the Communists would be planning a general offensive? To Hovey and his colleagues in the Collation Branch, this made—at least initially—no sense.

The exhortations for a general uprising of the population in support of the Communist offensive made even less sense, since the United States had conducted extensive polling among the Vietnamese urban population and had discerned no indication that they would welcome a Communist takeover in their areas. After careful consideration, Hovey concluded that the Communist leaders in Hanoi assumed a general uprising would happen during the offensive based on the exaggerated reporting about popular uprisings and demonstrations that they had received from local cadres. This was a very costly false assumption that contributed to the huge losses suffered by the Communists and the eventual decisive military defeat of the offensive.

In Hovey’s view, the fact that a general uprising was a fantasy based on fabricated reporting from the field did not deter the Communists from believing it would take place. Hovey learned from his extensive and laborious study of captured documents and interrogation reports that the Communist higher echelon, when communicating with its cadres in the South, believed and meant what it said.

Even though the idea of a popular uprising was delusional on the part of the Communists, this did not mean that they were unprepared to carry out their plans for nationwide massive attacks in all the urban centers of South Vietnam. Other analysts at Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV), the Pentagon and CIA headquarters in Washington considered the enemy’s words to be propaganda and hyperbole, because there was no good, hard statistical evidence that a general uprising was likely. From this they jumped incorrectly to the conclusion that the idea of a general offensive had no basis in fact either.

Hovey concluded otherwise. He knew the enemy was capable of making false assumptions, but he also knew from extensive research of enemy documents that when the Communist leaders communicated their intentions to cadres at all levels, they did, or tried to do, precisely what they said they were going to do. This was a matter of serious concern to Hovey and his colleagues in the Collation Branch.

The statements made in captured enemy documents clearly described plans for a nationwide 1968 winter-spring offensive striking directly at urban military and governmental installations. These statements were being communicated countrywide on a repeated basis to all command levels and were contained in Hovey’s analysis, which was read by President Johnson. Hovey and his colleagues argued unsuccessfully that these statements of intent should be taken seriously.

Hovey’s confidence in his predictions was reinforced by Communist statements that they intended to attack allied forces in remote, underpopulated areas. This is precisely what happened in Loc Ninh in October and Dak To in November 1967. Those attacks took place during the period leading up to the siege of Khe Sanh. Enemy documents stated that the purpose of this strategy was to divert the attention of U.S. forces away from the urban areas, the real targets of the Tet Offensive. This, along with Hovey’s extensive experience analyzing earlier Communist assertions, convinced him that they could be depended upon to follow through on their statements of intent.

The Communists announced to their cadres in late 1967 that they planned to establish new political fronts in South Vietnam prior to the big offensive. Sure enough, new political entities calling for negotiations to end the war started appearing in urban areas, particularly in I Corps Tactical Zone. These groups did not amount to much, but they showed that the Communists carried through on their stated intentions.

Finally, Hovey noted that while the VC defector rate had been very high in early 1967, by the end of the year it had fallen to almost zero. Hovey concluded that as the enemy was telling its troops and cadres they were about to win the war, potential defectors were deciding to await the results of the upcoming offensive before taking such a risky move. Who would want to defect to the side that— they were told—was going to be driven into the sea?

Based on all of these indicators, and on extensive give-and-take discussion with his colleagues at the Collation Branch and with a couple of MACV intelligence officers, Hovey wrote his analysis confident that what he predicted would happen.

Another person who correctly predicted a big offensive, based on locally obtained tactical intelligence, was General Frederick Weyand, U.S. II Field Forces commander.

Weyand observed in his area of operations what Hovey saw nationwide. Thanks to his insight regarding enemy intentions in his area, he was able to convince General William Westmoreland a couple of weeks before the attack to move 15 U.S. maneuver battalions to positions near Saigon. Had this not been done, the Communists probably would have been able to seize and hold for a period of time large portions of Saigon, instead of just peripheral areas of the city. This very well could have included key command-and-control centers. One can only speculate as to what effect this would have had on further pursuit of the war.

Unlike their colleagues at CIA headquarters in Langley, Va., the Collation Branch in Saigon relied solely on human intelligence in the form of captured documents, agent reports and interrogation reports as a basis for its analytical work. According to Hovey, Langley placed primary emphasis on technically obtained intelligence such as communications intercepts, spy satellites and reporting from diplomatic sources. All other sources were looked upon with less confidence. Any uncertainty that Hovey and his colleagues had about the enemy’s intentions was overcome by the horde of documents received that clearly indicated what the enemy intended to do. Hovey stated: “We finally had to take the enemy at his word. He was going to try this.”

Hovey did not believe the people at Langley were any less intelligent, hardworking or committed than the analysts in Saigon’s Collation Branch. His branch simply had the advantage of being closer to the scene of action, where its personnel were able to study and absorb the mental processes of the local people and determine what was important to them and what was not.

Hovey concluded in his recent written comments to me: “One of the unstated objectives of an intelligence analyst is to try to get inside the mind of the enemy, i.e., to view the world through his eyes. What makes this process difficult is that the enemy, more often than not, views the world differently than we do. Differences in language, culture, religion, and history make the enemy’s thought process opaque and confusing to us. It is so much easier to view the enemy as carbon copies of ourselves and the way we do things. This is a serious mistake and can lead to a misreading of the enemy’s intentions as well as his strengths and weaknesses. Admittedly, the North Vietnamese plan for the Tet Offensive was irrational and a misinterpretation of the true situation in South Vietnam—but they did not see it that way. The failure of American intelligence to take the North Vietnamese plan seriously demonstrates a stubborn refusal on our part to view the world through the eyes of others. The consequences of this failure have been very costly for our nation.”

Thirty-nine years after the event, it is interesting to speculate what would have happened if Hovey’s analysis had been taken seriously by senior political, military and intelligence leaders in Washington and Saigon. We know the Tet Offensive was a colossal military debacle for the Communists. The VC infrastructure in South Vietnam was effectively destroyed. With the exception of General Weyand’s redeployment of 15 battalions to the Saigon area and a few minor redeployments in other areas, little or nothing was done in anticipation of this huge nationwide assault on urban centers. In fact, two days before the offensive, the ARVN’s effective strength was reduced 50 percent for Tet holiday leave.

Had U.S. military and civilian leadership acted on the Saigon Collation Branch’s hard documentary intelligence and insightful analysis, and mobilized all available resources for the impending attack, would the Communists have been crazy enough to go ahead with their plans? That is a hypothetical question that is very difficult to answer.

It is clear, however, that if the element of surprise had been removed and the enemy had gone ahead with his plans, the U.S. military and ARVN would have suffered far fewer casualties, and Communist losses would have been even more devastating. If the public had been alerted to the possibility of a major attack, American public opinion might not have turned against the war the way it did. And finally, the Communist leadership—rather than President Johnson—would have been humiliated, and Johnson would undoubtedly have decided to run for reelection. Under such circumstances the eventual denouement of the war could have been very different and more favorable to American objectives in Vietnam than what actually transpired. We can only wish that that had been the case.

Hovey returned to Langley in mid-1968. He was given no recognition for the work he and his colleagues had done. His presence was, in fact, embarrassing to those who had earlier questioned the accuracy of what he predicted. He worked on matters relating to Vietnam and was astonished to discover that nobody paid much attention to captured enemy documents. After correctly predicting various moves by the Communists based on captured documents and still finding that no one wanted to take him seriously, Hovey became discouraged and quit the CIA in late 1969.

Pearl Harbor, the Battle of the Bulge, the Tet Offensive and 9/11 are only some of the more spectacular intelligence failures of recent history. Their cost in American lives and treasure has been horrendous. These failures highlight the critical need for a cadre of career intelligence analysts who are encouraged to follow their intuitions and speak out about impending threats. People doing such work should spend part of their careers overseas in order to get the necessary experience to analyze correctly their areas of specialization. Maybe it is asking too much, but policymakers should, in their own best interest, be prepared to listen and give due consideration to views that contradict current policies.

One way to encourage analysts currently serving at the CIA and the Pentagon and to persuade young people to go into the profession—and stay there—would be to properly reward analysts who have gotten it right in the past. Joe Hovey and the Saigon Collation Branch’s spectacularly accurate Tet Offensive prediction is clearly deserving of high-level, belated recognition by the intelligence community. Such action would serve as an example and incentive to current and future members of the intelligence analyst profession. This would send a clear message as to the high caliber of intelligence that the U.S. government should expect from its operatives worldwide.

 

Jacques Prindiville served as a civilian with the U.S. Army in Vietnam, where he knew Joe Hovey. More recently, he interviewed Hovey by phone for this article. For additional reading, see: The Tet Offensive: Intelligence Failure in War, by James J. Wirtz; and War of Numbers, by Sam Adams.

Originally published in the February 2007 issue of Vietnam Magazine. To subscribe, click here

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