The Perfect Spying Platform?
Pham Xuan An, 79, the Viet Cong colonel who worked as a reporter for U.S. news organizations during the Vietnam War while also spying for the communists, died of emphysema Sept. 20 in a military hospital in the former Saigon, now known as Ho Chi Minh City.
The secret of Mr. Pham's double life was kept for almost 30 years, from 1959 until the 1980s. He was the first Vietnamese to be a full-time staff correspondent for a major U.S. publication, working primarily for Time magazine.
Although his job as a spy was to uncover and report the plans of the South Vietnamese and U.S. military, he was so good at collecting and analyzing information that he was considered the best Vietnamese reporter in the press corps. He said he did not lie, tilt the news or spread disinformation in the stories he filed.
"It would have been stupid to do that. He would have been found out in an instant," said Frank McCullough, a retired newspaperman who was Time's bureau chief in Saigon and who hired Mr. Pham. "He used the bureau as a listening post. He was an extremely sophisticated understander of not only Vietnamese culture but its politics."
By night, he photographed intelligence reports that then were smuggled out of Saigon through the Cu Chi tunnel network. He disguised the film canisters as grilled pork wrapped in rice paper, according to one account, or hid them in the bellies of rotting fish. Other times, he wrote his reports in primitive invisible ink made of starch, author Stanley Karnow wrote.
"The most remarkable thing was how he was able to pull it off for such a long time, to be such a successful spy and a good journalist," said Larry Berman, whose biography "Perfect Spy: The Incredible Double Life of Pham Xuan An, Time Reporter and Vietnamese Communist Agent" will be published in the spring.
"He never had to steal a document because he was such a professional journalist and professional spy. His closest mentors were [Col. Edward] Lansdale and [later CIA chief] William Colby. People were always showing him things to get his opinion and analysis because he was so smart."
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