Cover image for Irreparable harm : a firsthand account of how one agent took on the CIA in an epic battle over secrecy and free speech
Irreparable harm : a firsthand account of how one agent took on the CIA in an epic battle over secrecy and free speech
Snepp, Frank.
Personal Author:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Random House, [1999]

Physical Description:
xvii, 391 pages ; 25 cm
General Note:
Includes index.
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
KF228.S559 S65 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

On Order



CIA v Snepp was a constitutional train wreck--and you can't avert your eyes from Irreparable Harm, Frank Snepp's hypnotizing and heartbreaking account of his case."            --Jeffrey Toobin

He began his professional life as a lockstep secret warrior--and wound up an improbable battler for free speech.  This is a searingly personal chronicle of the journey that carried Frank Snepp from the innermost circles of the CIA to the Supreme Court itself and forever changed the meaning of one of the most sacred liberties guaranteed to us by the United States Constitution.
Irreparable Harm tells of terror and sacrifice, and of the obsessive determination of CIA officials to destroy a man who dared call them on their mistakes.
Among the last CIA agents to be airlifted from Saigon in the closing moments of the Vietnam War, Snepp returned to Agency headquarters determined to force his colleagues to assist Vietnamese left behind. But this was the summer of 1975, when the CIA was under investigation by Congress and unwilling to admit to any more transgressions, least of all its final ones in Vietnam. Unable to prompt even an official summary of the disastrous evacuation, Snepp resigned to write his own account in the hope of generating help for those abandoned, and spent the next eighteen months like a fugitive on the run, dodging CIA agents out to silence him.
His expose, Decent Interval, was published in total secrecy under conditions reminiscent of a classic espionage operation--the first time any American book had been brought out this way. But it ignited a firestorm of publicity that drove the CIA and Jimmy Carter's White House to launch a campaign of retaliation unparalleled in the annals of American law, a strategy of vengeance designed to leave Snepp impoverished and gagged for life.
In struggling to survive, the onetime spy was forced to accept help from ACLU liberals, antiwar activists, and a fiery Harvard professor named Alan Dershowitz, whom he would previously have viewed as his ideological enemy.
Snepp's harrowing firsthand account of his ordeals, from his shadowy trench battles with the Agency, to the destruction of his friends and family, to his historic showdown with the CIA in the courts, reads at times like Kafka's The Trial and at times like a John Grisham thriller, and recounts a tale of government persecution that will leave the reader wondering how any of this could have happened in America.

Author Notes

Frank Snepp spent eight years in the CIA, five of them Vietnam as interrogator, agent debriefer, and chief CIA strategy analyst in the Saigon embassy. A constitutional scholar and freelance writer, he currently works as an investigative reporter and producer for cable television.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Every CIA applicant must sign a secrecy agreement, as did the author when he joined in the late 1960s. Disenchanted by the shabby conclusion of the Vietnam War, Snepp resigned, excoriated that war in Decent Interval (1977), and was sued by the CIA for talking out of school (technically, for breach of contract). This sequel traces that litigation's ascent up the appellate ladder, which Snepp reconstructs by the depositions and memos it produced. The Supreme Court stomped on his case, as Snepp later found out from Lewis Powell's records, in an ignoble judicial exercise of power: Powell persuaded his brethren to take the case less for its First Amendment aspects than to be able to pronounce against CIA renegades. That the intelligence agency routinely leaks to favored journalists helped Snepp not at all, other than to furnish him grist to grind away at the hypocrisy. Righteous dudgeon infuses Snepp's memoir, but a detached view recognizes his case was inherently weak--that a primordial secrecy agreement was too big a boulder in the path of free speech absolutists. --Gilbert Taylor

Publisher's Weekly Review

Written with deep indignation, Snepp's engaging memoir presents a compelling case study of how claims of national security arguably stifle expression that in no way endangers national security but instead might merely embarrass the government. A CIA operative in Vietnam from 1969 to 1975, Snepp grew frustrated by his superiors' lack of concern for the thousands of South Vietnamese who assisted the U.S. throughout the war and whom he believes were abandoned by the U.S. after the North's victory. Upon his return to the U.S., Snepp found himself at odds with the agency he had so loyally served, ultimately quitting to write Decent Interval (Random House, 1977). While the CIA did not stop publication of the book, it ultimately sued Snepp for violating a contract that required him to clear all publications with the agency. After lower courts ruled in favor of the CIA, Snepp appealed to the Supreme Court. The justices denied Snepp an oral argument and affirmed the government's asserted need for broad discretion to censor former CIA employees' publications. The amazing point, Snepp writes, is that his book contained no state secrets. Snepp's level-headed account is only slightly marred by awkward forays into Raymond Chandleresque monologue ("In time, [my two lovers] were sharing everything I had to offer but my heart. That I reserved for my only true mistress, the book that was to cleanse me"). Occasional howlers aside, the revealing mea culpas scattered throughout the text humanize Snepp, enhancing what is at once a moving personal narrative and a disturbing examination of how claims of national security can have a sledgehammer effect on arguments about free speech, overwhelming all competing claims. (July) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

This is the follow-up to Snepp's groundbreaking work of two decades ago, Decent Interval: An Insider's Account of Saigon's Indecent End. Snepp, a former CIA official, was sued by the Federal government for publishing Decent Interval without CIA permission, even though it contained no classified information. Although Snepp spends quite a bit of time on the political and emotional background of the first book, his new book will be better remembered for the recounting of his trial. Snepp describes the duplicity of the CIA's procedures with sustainedÄand deservedÄcontempt. Even though he was represented by the ACLU and defense attorney Alan Dershowitz, Snepp received a harsh restraining order that, along with severe monetary penalties, prohibited him from additional writing. The strength of the tale, however, lies in the personal insights that Snepp brings to both First Amendment law and judicial politics. Recommended for larger academic collections and those specializing in contemporary American history.ÄSteve Anderson, Gordon Feinblatt Rothman Hoffberger & Hollander, Towson, MD (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



So, how do you crawl out of a country standing up!"                  Offering this judgment with a finality that defied argument, Bill Johnson shoved himself away from the ship's rail and turned his back on the reporter with whom he'd been sharing confidences. His eyes glittered like splintered mica under the flop-brimmed fishing hat he'd worn throughout the evacuation. He'd just run out of rationalizations for the debacle we'd been through. But maybe this last one said it all. Gazing beyond him at the mist-shrouded bleakness of the South China Sea, I marveled at his capacity to rationalize at all. I felt dazed, disembodied, incapable of much more than self-recrimination. But he, a twenty-year veteran of the espionage wars, seemed to have lost none of his typical sang-froid. Perhaps it was experience that made the difference. Or perhaps simply Vietnam. Vietnam had always been an old man's war and a young man's tragedy. The old men had rationalized their way in and had almost as deftly rationalized their way out, and the young men had been left to bury the bodies and ideals and bear the shame of America's first lost cause without the soothing panaceas of high policy, so often classified "top-secret," beyond their ken. I moved away from Johnson and forced my unsteady sea legs toward the afterdeck of the USS Denver. Below, on the helipad itself, another group of evacuees, all Vietnamese, were doing penance, Buddhists and Catholics ranged side by side, mourning loved ones dead and abandoned. A strong breeze riffled the women's áo dàis and the red and yellow banner of the lost republic draped over a makeshift altar. I was glad not to be among them, not to have to look into their eyes. The memories were enough. Memories--already wheeling through the imagination like unsettled ghosts . . . Mr. Han, the translator, screaming over his CIA radio for help . . . Loc, the Nung guard, plucking at my sleeve, begging me not to forget him . . . Mai Ly, phoning just hours before the collapse, threatening to kill herself and her child if I didn't find them a way out . . . I stared at the Denver's wake, trying vainly to put Mai Ly behind me. She'd phoned too late, I kept telling myself. What could she have expected so late? But there was no consolation in that. The first time she'd called, I'd been chained to my typewriter, hammering out another piece of analysis which I was foolish enough to hope would nudge the ambassador toward the choppers. So I'd told her, "Call back in an hour. I'll be glad to help." But in an hour, I'd been down in the ambassador's office, trying to sell him on the analysis, and she'd left a message, "I would have expected better of you," and then had bundled up the baby boy she'd let me believe was my own and had retreated to that dingy room off Tu Do, and there had made good her promise. Mother and child: they might have been sleeping when a friend found them hours later except for the blood on the pallet and my misplaced priorities that day. But no more than the ambassador or any of the others I was now so ready to condemn had I troubled to remember that far more than American prestige was at stake those last moments before midnight. But I remembered now, too late, and the memories plucked at the mind's eye like conscience's own scavengers. Which is why I'd barely slept the past two nights since my own chopper flight out, despite a bone-numbing weariness and a melancholy that already weighed like a sentence of guilt. As the days passed and the evacuation fleet closed on Subic Bay in the Philippines, the weather cleared, and the Americans on the upper decks took to sprawling in the incandescent May sun like Caribbean vacationers. Below, in the ship's bowels where the Vietnamese were now quarantined, an old man died of heat prostration, a baby was born, and the stench gave appalling measure to the despair and humiliation arrayed on every inch of metal planking. Sometime midjourney, from Admiral Steele's flagship, came word that my old boss, Tom Polgar, would shortly give a press conference to damp down unhelpful speculation about the way the pullout had been handled. As the reporters among us choppered over for the show, the teletypes in the Denver's signals room beat out preemptive communiqués from Washington, absolving Secretary of State Kissinger of any wrongdoing, quoting him as saying that the North Vietnamese had been committed to a negotiated political settlement up until the last two days of the war and had shifted plans so abruptly as to make an orderly evacuation impossible. I read these dispatches with a rage that was to become chronic. Kissinger knew as well as the rest of us that our intelligence told a different story, and that it was his own blind stubbornness, not any change in Hanoi's strategy, that accounted for the delay in the evacuation and thus the chaos in the end. When Polgar opened his own dog and pony show, I expected him to set the record straight. It was his moral duty to do so, for without some acknowledgment of failure, there would never be any incentive in Washington to make amends, no pressure for anyone to mount rescue missions or attempt diplomatic initiatives to ease the plight of those we'd abandoned. But to my chagrin, this resilient little man whom I had served so long merely replayed Kissinger's line, imputing unpredictability to Hanoi and imperfections to our intelligence to explain his own and others' miscalculations. And when an opportunity arose for some self-serving scapegoating, he couldn't resist singling out Ambassador Martin himself, claiming that the old man's inflexibility, his refusal to sacrifice the Thieu regime, had doomed the prospects for a last-minute political fix. During this peroration, the accused himself wandered in, munching an apple. He said nothing in his own defense, but later pulled several reporters aside and repaid Polgar's slights by suggesting that it was the CIA station chief himself who had precipitated the breakdown of order and discipline in the embassy by spiriting his own wife and household belongings out of Saigon prematurely. Absurd though this allegation was, State Department officials on board quickly took up the refrain, and before long brickbats were flying fast and furious between them and Polgar's apologists. I listened and fumed but said nothing, confident that back home in official Washington somebody would insist on getting the facts and the lessons right. When the task force docked in Subic Bay on May 5, most of my CIA colleagues were hustled off to the United States for badly needed R&R. But not I. Believing naively that more intelligence might make a difference, I volunteered to fly to Bangkok to interrogate some "sensitive sources" who had just come out of Vietnam. En route, I stopped off in Hong Kong to replace the wardrobe I'd lost during the evacuation, and there encountered the New Yorker correspondent Robert Shaplen, who had likewise been witness to the fall. He was in the process of wrapping up a story on it all and asked if I would confirm some details for him. I consented, since the hulking, bushy-browed Shaplen had long been viewed as a "friendly" by the Agency and had often been the beneficiary of official secrets-laden briefings by me. Out at his Repulse Bay apartment, he softened me up with two martinis and some flattery, claiming that my tips to him during the final offensive had kept him from being wholly misled by Polgar and the ambassador. He was so grateful, he said, he wanted to credit me publicly, and despite my demurrals, did so (though with a typographical error) in the May 19, 1975, issue of The New Yorker. "Where Martin was more misguided," he wrote, "was in persistently believing that a political settlement was possible, though he had in fact been told for weeks by his military analysts, particularly by Mr. Frank Sneff, a civilian expert well qualified to judge, that the situation was deteriorating very rapidly." Despite the misspelling, this delicately hedged homage to one who was supposed to be invisible did not endear me to colleagues back home, and though weeks would pass before I'd begin feeling their ire, the start of my long, slow descent into official disrepute can surely be traced to Shaplen's generosity. As I rose to say good-bye, Shaplen draped an arm around my shoulder and, surprising me again, urged me good-naturedly not to let the story of Saigon's defeat become journalism's preserve alone. There was a book in it for somebody, he said, and given my knowledge of Vietnam and Martin's embassy, what better candidate to write it than I? He'd even supply a preface, he added jocularly. I looked at him in amazement. A book? Impossible, I told him. Too many reputations at stake. Besides, the Agency always performs its own postmortems, or suffers them, after a foul-up. Witness the Taylor Report after the Bay of Pigs, and the autopsy on Tet '68. There'd be one on this debacle too, no question. A book would be superfluous. When I reached Bangkok a day later, I'd all but forgotten his suggestion. Would that I could have forgotten the assignment, too. Protestors were raging through the streets in search of fresh pretexts for their resurgent anti-Americanism, and within days of my arrival an American merchant vessel, the Mayaguez, was commandeered off the coast of neighboring, newly "liberated" Cambodia by Khmer marauders and the White House had decided to send in the Marines just to show we still had some of our old spunk left. Suddenly, CIA and military colleagues from Vietnam were crowding into Bangkok on their way to staging areas up-country, and for one eerily incongruous moment, American might with flags flying mustered off to war again. By the time the smoke had cleared, however, this plucky show of force had degenerated into a cruel parody of yesterday's humiliations. Forty-one servicemen had died to save thirty-one crewmen and one tin tub, and the War Powers Act, designed to limit our involvement in such improvisatory hostilities, had been made a mockery again, the president having deployed the troops without fully alerting Congress as required by the law. To the north of us, meanwhile, another sequel to recent tragedy was being played out around the now irrelevant Laotian capital of Vientiane. Pathet Lao forces had already invested the city, and the few remaining U.S. embassy staffers there were now hunkered down in barricaded compounds awaiting their own inevitable evacuation. Outside the city, beyond any succor, the hapless Meo tribesmen who had once made up the CIA's thirty-thousand-man secret army were already threading their way south toward Thai sanctuaries to escape Communist reprisals. Only a third would make it. To some of my CIA brethren in Bangkok, the paucity of white faces among the past weeks' casualties seemed to offer consolation. But I knew, as many of them still did not, that the Mayaguez losses weren't the only ones to be accounted for. In addition to a CIA officer and several consular officials who had been captured up-country in Vietnam weeks before, two U.S. Marines had been killed in the final bombardment of Saigon, their bodies shamefully abandoned at the airfield, and another CIA veteran, an Agency retiree who'd returned to Saigon belatedly to help evacuate Vietnamese friends, had missed the last chopper out. Now, reports had it, Hanoi's secret police had him under hostile interrogation and were forcing him to finger those he had meant to save. Given all this and the lingering trauma of my own departure from Saigon, the last thing I needed was to be dragged back through the charnel house. But in the course of the Bangkok assignment, my interview schedule was rapidly expanded to include the debriefing of more and more late arrivals from the war zone--journalists, stragglers, boat people--and with each new source's revelations, I was forced to relive the horrors of the evacuation as few other CIA officers had. One of my interlocutors, an American journalist who'd just come out of Vietnam on a Red Cross flight, told me of a former Radio Saigon announcer who had been tortured and mutilated, her tongue cut out by her North Vietnamese "liberators," and then allowed to drown in her own blood. Another source recounted summary executions of defectors, CIA collaborators, and cadre of the once feared Phoenix counterterror program. And still another recalled how Communist troops had sought out a CIA billet in Saigon and systematically slaughtered the Vietnamese maids and houseboys who had gathered there in anticipation of last-minute deliverance. These and other outrages I duly reported in hopes that someone along the chain of command might be shamed into taking ameliorative action, diplomatic or otherwise. But by mid-June, my harping upon betrayed commitments had become an unwelcome dissonance. One morning, by urgent telex from CIA headquarters, I was ordered home. In my last two and a half years in Indochina, I'd had only five days of leave and few Sundays off, and I badly needed to decompress. But my monthlong odyssey back through the Mideast and Europe didn't do it. My traveling companion, an itinerant CIA secretary, promptly grew weary of my angst, the casual romance she'd anticipated descending quickly into a kind of joyless sexuality which I clung to with the desperation of a drowning man. Nor was there any comfort in the prospect of heading home. The only real home I knew was the Agency, and the disillusionment I'd suffered these past few months was only a foretaste of worse to come. For this was the Season of the Reckoning, the summer of 1975, and scandal and exposé were now swirling about the Agency like predators on a blood scent. The savaging had begun the previous winter when the press, emboldened by Watergate, had homed in on rumors of CIA kill plots and illegal domestic spying, and since then White House and congressional investigators had joined in the carnage. During the long months of Saigon's demise I'd been too preoccupied to be able to dwell on any of these indelicacies. But now, with unaccustomed leisure on my hands, I had time to contemplate as never before the overwrought headlines, the tales of murderous excess and lawlessness, and the intimations of perjury by one of my idols, former CIA director Richard Helms, who, it was reported, had deliberately lied to Congress about CIA complicity in the overthrow of Chile's Salvador Allende years before. Initially, I tried to convince myself it was all spiteful gossip, but the more I read en route the more insistent the truth became, for many of the most serious charges had recently been confirmed by a vice presidential panel, the Rockefeller Commission, appointed (ironically) to dispel them: not only had the Agency, together with the FBI, illicitly spied on thousands of Americans at home, many of them Vietnam War protestors; it had also ripped open and read the mail of countless citizens and exposed still others surreptitiously to deadly drug experiments. Beyond all this, there was the ghastly prospect, now being avidly explored by congressional muckrakers, that the CIA had systematically tried to rub out foreign leaders like Fidel Castro. Three years before, then CIA director Helms had Excerpted from Irreparable Harm: A Firsthand Account of How One Agent Took on the CIA in an Epic Battle over Secrecy and Free Speech by Frank Snepp All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

Anthony Lewis
Forewordp. ix
Prologue: Fathers, Sons, and Spiesp. xiii
Acknowledgmentsp. xix
Part I Search for Redemption
Chapter 1 Ghostsp. 3
Chapter 2 Reentryp. 11
Chapter 3 First Temptationsp. 26
Chapter 4 Leaks, Lies, and Loomisp. 40
Chapter 5 Sudden, Bitter Good-byep. 53
Part II Mightier Than the Sword
Chapter 6 Martin's Artful Dodgep. 67
Chapter 7 Muzzledp. 74
Chapter 8 Betrayedp. 87
Chapter 9 Showdownp. 98
Chapter 10 First Reprisalp. 108
Chapter 11 Unveilingp. 122
Chapter 12 Self-Inflicted Woundsp. 137
Part III Trials
Chapter 13 Suit and Subterfugep. 153
Chapter 14 Enter the Defensep. 161
Chapter 15 Roarin' Orenp. 170
Chapter 16 Inquisitionp. 183
Chapter 17 Pat and Billp. 193
Chapter 18 The Admiral's Unburdeningp. 207
Chapter 19 Spoilerp. 220
Chapter 20 Reckoningp. 230
Part IV No Quarter
Chapter 21 Ill-Gotten Gainsp. 265
Chapter 22 Black Dog and Stephanip. 287
Chapter 23 Road to Richmondp. 299
Chapter 24 Second Lifep. 310
Chapter 25 Auguriesp. 329
Chapter 26 Judgment Dayp. 338
Postscript: Settling Accountsp. 355
Indexp. 377