Unsolved Murders: A Vietnam Battle Still Being Fought in This Country

Posted by Michael Getler on

On Nov. 3, PBS’s venerable Frontline investigative series, in conjunction with ProPublica—another prize-winning, independent investigative organization—presented a one-hour broadcast, accompanied by extensive online material, titled “Terror in Little Saigon.”

The program takes a fresh look into the murders, between 1981 and 1990, of five Vietnamese-American journalists who worked for small-circulation, Vietnamese-language publications in California, Texas and Virginia that serve several of the refugee communities that formed in this country after the fall of Saigon in 1975. None of those murders has ever been prosecuted or solved.

And, as Frontline and ProPublica put in their press release, there was “another common thread: Many of those publications had criticized a prominent, anti-Communist organization called the National Front for the Liberation of Vietnam—or, ‘The Front’—whose ultimate goal was to restart the Vietnam War.” The program asks, and attempts to answer: “Who was responsible for this reign of terror—and why has that question gone unanswered for so long?”

The thrust of the answers provided by journalist A.C. Thompson, who also narrates the broadcast and, along with director Richard Rowley, spent two years re-investigating these cases, is, as Thompson put it in the film: “…by now, I’d seen enough documents and interviewed enough former Front members to know the group had a death squad” which, he reports, was designated “K-9.”

Along the way, Thompson reports on lackadaisical, or worse, police work at the local level and fear in the Vietnamese refugee communities as factors inhibiting convictions. But he also reports on an FBI investigation whose files, he says, “reveal a nationwide reign of terror—seven murders and dozens of attacks, many targeting journalists who were critical of the Front.” But prosecutors were never able to bring a case and the FBI closed its investigation in the late 1990s.

There is a lot more to this program, including a tantalizing link between a former Front leader and a well-known former U.S. government official.

The program, not surprisingly, has also caused something of an uproar in the Vietnamese-American community and has produced conflicting views within local Vietnamese communities in this country and dueling petitions on the website Change.org, which hosts sponsored petition campaigns.

Re-Open the Investigation

One petition, with more than 500 signers thus far and citing the new PBS documentary and an earlier 1994 report by the Committee to Protect Journalists, calls on the U.S. Department of Justice to reopen the investigation.

It claims, in part: “…their deaths appear to be political assassinations that likely would have generated much more attention had the victims been members of the mainstream press. Unfortunately but not surprisingly, the police investigation was stymied by a lack of cooperation from the refugee community due to fear of reprisals, language barriers and a general distrust of the government. Without solid leads and prosecutable evidence, their files were eventually closed and have remained so to this day.

“As time goes on the number of credible witnesses will only decrease. Therefore, it is important that the Department act quickly. The diaspora community today is very different from that of the 1990's. Vietnamese immigrants have been firmly integrated into mainstream society; their attitudes toward the rule of law and freedom of the press have matured significantly.”

No, Investigate Frontline and ProPublica Instead

The larger petition, signed by more than 1,900 people so far and calling for an ombudsman investigation, is highly critical of the journalism upon which the program is based. The petition is based on a statement by Viet Tan, or the Vietnam Reform Party, a political organization “founded by many of the original members of the National United Front for the Liberation of Vietnam, the group the FBI suspected to be behind the murders,” as OC Weekly reported and as the program maintains.

What follows now are abbreviated key challenges raised by Viet Tan and the response by Frontline/ProPublica. Go to the links to read the full statements, which contain some other aspects. My thoughts are toward the bottom of this very long posting.

Complaint, in Part, from Viet Tan Spokesman Duy Hoang

I recognize the noble endeavor of the reporting team to shed light on the unsolved murders of Vietnamese American journalists. But you cannot solve one injustice — the absolutely intolerable killing of journalists in the 1980s — by creating another injustice. While it makes for a gripping production, the narrative of this investigative report is flawed…Mat Tran (referred to as “the Front” in your program) never had a policy to use violence to silence critics. The organization never had a death squad nor a kill list. Mat Tran was founded by a coalition of Vietnamese groups in the diaspora and from inside Vietnam…The goal was to mobilize the people of Vietnam in a grassroots struggle for political liberation…This investigative report is built on theories and misrepresentations.

Reliance on hearsay and so-called new evidence

The promotional materials claim that five former “Front” members implicated the organization for murder. But of the five former members interviewed, the only person who claims that “the Front” had engaged in murder is an anonymous source…The program then draws conclusions from the other four sources, passing hearsay off as fact.

  • Nguyen Dang Khoa stated clearly on-air that he did not know anything about a K-9. His denial is audible in Vietnamese but not translated on-air.

  • Tran Van Be Tu was briefly a member of Mat Tran but expelled in 1984 for his extreme views. His responses about K-9 are the unsubstantiated claims of a person who was never part of K-9. Thompson asks him: “Dam Phong’s family think that Dam Phong is criticizing the Front, and that got him killed. Does that sound accurate to you?” Tran Van Be Tu’s answer is hearsay: “That’s what I heard, you know.”

  • “Johnny” Nguyen Van Xung consistently maintains that he is not aware of any involvement by “the Front” in the killing of critics.

  • Nguyen Xuan Nghia repeatedly denies the accusations of violence despite A.C. Thompson’s efforts to “pin him down” over several hours of interviews. The web story purports that Nghia, speaking off camera, was aware of individuals in “the Front” who considered violence. Nguyen Xuan Nghia has subsequently stated that he was misrepresented.

The report alleges that "the Front" pursued a policy of violence against critics, yet not a single document by Mat Tran ordering attacks could be found or shown.

The web story states that investigators “believed the Front also mailed out communiqués claiming responsibility for the crimes.” But the only “communiqué” was signed by a different group called VOECRN. The story also states that the FBI "theorized" a linkage between VOECRN and “the Front.” Yet this theory, unsupported by any evidence, is accepted as truth by the reporting team. Neither this program, nor the FBI, has produced evidence that Mat Tran committed these crimes.

Reality of the K-9 unit

The program alleges “the Front” operated an assassination squad, made up of members from each chapter. The report does not present a single piece of evidence, document, order, or corroborated fact to support this claim. Thompson does not seem to understand or willfully ignores the origin of the name of the unit, K-9, leaving viewers to make their own associations with a loaded term in American English.

Preconceived narrative of this program

This ill-founded narrative confidently claims that “the Front’s” “ultimate goal was to restart the Vietnam War.” In the story, Vietnamese patriots are relegated to being vengeful veterans motivated by a loss of social status. This is a gross misrepresentation of the motivations of so many activists. This dismissive portrayal of Vietnamese Americans permeates the reporting and demonizes individuals who want to see a free Vietnam.

The narrative is particularly forced if one considers that the first of the five murdered journalists, Duong Trong Lam, was killed in July 1981. “The Front” did not become active in the U.S. until 1982. Nguyen Xuan Nghia—a “top brass ‘Front’ member” featured in the documentary—denies allegations of the killings. Still Thompson narrates: “Nghia was hard to pin down, but by now I’d seen enough documents and interviewed enough former Front members to know the group had a death squad.”

This investigative piece did not find justice for the Vietnamese-American journalists who were killed in the 1980s. What the report satisfies is a preconceived narrative that the Vietnamese-American community was terrorized by anti-communist extremists. This is not the community that many Vietnamese Americans would recall. This caricature is insulting to our community while facilitating the false depiction of a “trail of terror” implicating a prominent anti-communist organization of the time.

In a video posted on ProPublica’s YouTube channel, A.C. Thompson summed it up himself: “All these crimes remain unsolved, 30 some years later. We don’t know for sure who did these crimes.” Despite Thompson’s admission, you aired a program and published an article that assigned direct responsibility for the killing of five Vietnamese-American journalists.

FRONTLINE and ProPublica Respond

FRONTLINE’s film, Terror in Little Saigon, and the accompanying ProPublica article, revisited a painful chapter in the Vietnamese-American experience. Since publication, we have heard from many viewers and readers who expressed deep gratitude for our reporting on the murders of five Vietnamese-American journalists and a broader pattern of violence within the refugee communities that grew up in America after the Vietnam War. The film and article showed that the FBI came to believe that an organization started by former South Vietnamese military officers, the National United Front for the Liberation of Vietnam, was linked to the violence.

Over the last week, we have also heard criticisms, in particular from a Vietnamese-American advocacy group called Viet Tan. Viet Tan, whose founders were leaders of the National United Front, has asserted that our reporting failed to prove the connection between the organization and the violence, and was, in certain respects, culturally insulting to Vietnamese Americans. Viet Tan maintains that the National United Front, known most commonly as the Front, was a group committed to fostering political change in Vietnam, and that it has been the target of rumors and false allegations for years.

ProPublica and FRONTLINE’s reporting included an unprecedented examination of the local police and the FBI investigations into the murders in California, Texas and Virginia. The police and FBI files had been secret for decades until we obtained them through the Freedom of Information Act. Now the American public, including the Vietnamese-American community, can begin to assess the substance and shortcomings of years of investigation… Those investigative files show that FBI agents were persuaded that the Front was behind a campaign of murder, arson and beatings, and they capture the frustration of investigators in never managing to bring any of the perpetrators to justice. As well, five former leaders of the organization told us the group had run its own assassination unit to deal with its critics or suspected Communists.

Viet Tan has also asserted that one or more former Front members who appeared in the film and article were either misquoted or somehow otherwise misrepresented. No one featured in the film or article has contacted us making such a claim. Viet Tan says that one former Front leader, Nguyen Xuan Nghia, now insists he never told our reporter, A.C. Thompson, and director, Richard Rowley, that he had been in a meeting with Front members who talked about killing a newspaper publisher. We would be happy to respond directly to Nghia should he want to raise an objection with us.

Viet Tan says that the Front never ran an assassination unit. The FBI’s files, however, are laden with discussions of the Front and the unit, known as K-9 — its suspected members and its catalogue of victims. These entries were built on in part accounts from former members of the Front. Katherine Tang-Wilcox, a retired FBI special agent who helped run the investigation of the Front, said it plainly, in the film and in the article: “K-9 was established as the assassination arm of the Front.”

…ProPublica and FRONTLINE followed the reporting where it took us. Where it took us over and over again was to the Front. We in no way sought to demonize Vietnamese refugees, and the profound hardships they endured both during the war and in the exodus after. We exposed the work of extremists, and the facts are the facts: Although there may have been other aspects to the Front, it was founded with the express mission of toppling the Communist regime in Hanoi, and it raised money in the U.S. to mount such an effort. It created a makeshift fighting force and tried three times to get inside Vietnam. That such an effort would have held appeal for many displaced and traumatized refugees from a lost war is no surprise. It just happened to violate American law.

It’s worth noting that we spent time with veterans of the former South Vietnamese military during the course of our reporting, at the cemetery on Memorial Day, at cafes, at their homes, and we are grateful to them for sharing their time with us. Two associate producers on the project, filmmaker Tony Nguyen and Jimmy Tong Nguyen, a translator and veteran of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, helped in our reporting and our understanding of the appropriate historical context and cultural sensitivity…

The story of a long-forgotten and unsolved spate of politically motivated murders and attacks may not have been the story Viet Tan wanted published nationwide, and indeed it is a grim, unresolved chapter in a vibrant community’s rich history. But that is the story told by documents, investigators and interviews in the Vietnamese-American community itself…We hope the reporting we’ve done can now lead to a break in these long cold cases. There is no statute of limitations on murder, and as Tang-Wilcox, the retired FBI agent, said, “Somebody knows who’s responsible for each and every one of these acts.”

My Thoughts

I have a lot of them regarding this program and controversy. It is not possible for me to investigate or re-report a two-year-long investigation that spans several states and two countries. But, having spent a fair amount of time with the material that was presented to viewers in the actual broadcast, and also with the accompanying online material, and having read the critiques and responses, asked some questions of my own, and also contacted some former associates of mine in Vietnam from periods when I was there as a reporter in 1965 and 1972, here’s where I come out:

First, this was an important program, a real public service that calls attention to and brings back into focus serious crimes that for a variety of reasons, many of which the program properly questions, were never prosecuted. The program ends with a statement from the FBI to Thompson saying that after 15 years of investigation, the Bureau and the Department of Justice concluded that “thus far there is insufficient evidence to pursue prosecution.” Maybe there were other factors involved. And these murders of journalists certainly seem to be crimes against freedom of expression as well as the individuals. This was also a dogged reporting effort by journalist A.C. Thompson.

The ‘But’ Factor

But, as readers of this column know by now, there is (almost) always a “but” in an ombudsman’s column.

I am going to deal here primarily with the television presentation because that was the main event; that’s what people watch. That’s what people are responding to. Whether some of them then go to the online material is impossible to know.  The online material, which is referenced briefly at the end of the broadcast, is supplemental and has more detail about the FBI files than is in the broadcast. Some of the material is very, very long. The accompanying online article by Thompson, for example, which is the main online component, is 63-pages.

Tang-Wilcox Is the Key

My sense is that the broad thrust of this broadcast is accurate, in part because of the high quality reputations and track records of Frontline, ProPublica and Thompson.

But much more important—in fact, crucially important in terms of credibility—is the on-camera interview and statements of retired FBI Special Agent Katherine Tang-Wilcox. If it were not for Tang-Wilcox, I think this broadcast’s focus on the murders of the journalists—and all the on-air interviews with alleged Vietnamese friends, suspects, former Front members and informers, plus the reference by Thompson to another former top front leader whose name could not be revealed but who is “certain” that K9 killed the journalists in San Francisco and Houston—would not have stood up very well against the scrutiny it is getting.

Here is what Tang-Wilcox said under questioning: “K9 was established as the assassination arm of the Front to take care of the people who either represented a threat to them and their anti-communist movement, or were viewed as being communist.” As for VOECRN, she said: “I’m more inclined to believe that VOECRN was just a name given by either the Front leadership or K9 to take responsibility—for the actions.”

She goes on to say: “We never got enough information at the time because people were still so afraid to really pin down who was in K9. I do think that, particularly with [publisher] Nguyen Dam Phong in Houston, there is a distinct belief on my part that the Front was responsible…There were no other motives developed, other than the articles he was publishing. And then the way the murder was conducted—the casings were picked up and collected…It was an assassination.”

Tang-Wilcox says she feels “badly I was never, ever able to bring someone to justice, to bring closure…there was more than just me trying to work these cases.” Yes, she says in response to Thompson’s question, these cases should be reopened “if new information is developed. Somebody knows who’s responsible for each and every one of these acts.”

The Armitage Factor

Another fascinating segment of the program that seems to bear re-opening or at least further examination, deals with the Front’s alleged leader based in Thailand, Hoang Co Minh, and the disclosure by Thompson that in Minh’s application for U.S. citizenship, “a surprising name shows up, Richard Armitage, [then] a top Pentagon official” and that documents show “the Pentagon asked for Hoang Co Minh’s naturalization to be expedited.”

The flaws that I felt weakened the program’s presentation were as follows. A damning interview with an “old friend” of the slain publisher is anonymous. Other former Front leaders say about the killings such things as: “I don’t hear but somebody told me…I don’t want to point the finger…that’s what I heard.” Others denied involvement. A former Los Angeles Times reporter says “there was something close to a consensus…there were people who thought.” All that may seem natural for an investigation such as this, but it doesn’t add much credibility to a story that was inconclusive at the outset.

Less than half-way through the program, Thompson says: “But after countless meetings, a handful of former Front leaders confirm the suspicions in the FBI files, that K9 was a secret unit the Front used to target its enemies.”

Where does that come from? What is the basis for that claim about former Front leaders confirming this? At that point, the only people who have said this on the program are the anonymous “old friend” and former FBI Special Agent Tang-Wilcox. At the end of the program, Thompson tells the son of the murdered publisher that: “The Front had a death squad. It was called K9. Members of the group are telling us that K9 killed your father.” That may be true, and as a viewer that’s what you think is true. But it seemed to me not to be nailed down in the broadcast with respect to what “members of the group” had been saying on air.

More Response

When I asked the producers my “where does that come from” question, here’s what they said:

“Although some former Front members were identified in the film and article, such as Tran Van Be Tu, we agreed not to identify most of the former leaders referred to above; they feared they would be endangering themselves as well as exposing themselves to possible prosecution. We know who they are, and the information they provided corresponds to the documents and other interviews. As we reported, the FBI files show that numerous people told agents that K-9 was a unit of the Front that targeted its enemies, and so did other interviewees in our film and article, including Tran Van Be Tu and Dam Phong's friend. The FBI files go into detail on K-9’s likely assassins, possible leaders, and agents refer to K-9 as the enforcement branch of the Front. We reference these files multiple times in the film and one of the lead agents on the case, speaking publicly for the first time, could not have spoken to this question more directly, saying ‘K-9 was established as the assassination arm of the Front.’”

The FBI Files

Thompson, to his credit, succeeded in getting FBI files released under a Freedom of Information Act request. There are glimpses of words shown on the screen but mostly blank or redacted pages are shown. References to material from the FBI files play some role in the broadcast. But the accompanying online material, especially the long article written by Thompson, is actually much more detailed about the files and brings more credibility to the broad theme of the program. Why more of this was not actually used on the broadcast seems strange to me.

Thompson is also the narrator of his own story and, as such, at times it takes on the sense of a personal crusade and apology, not just for the slain journalists, “my colleagues” as he calls them, but, as he also says, for the English language media that failed the victim’s families.

Frontline?

That’s clearly a deeply-felt sentiment but I would add one closing thought about this program and, actually, another Frontline program that aired last month on the battle over immigration in Congress. Both of these programs were not the traditional Frontline presentations. Both were done in collaboration with another organization. Vietnam was done with ProPublica. The immigration program, a two-hour affair, was done in collaboration with another PBS series, Independent Lens.

One result is that the traditional and iconic voice and role of the Frontline narrator was missing. I thought, as a longtime viewer of Frontline, that a narrator other than the reporter, Thompson, would have helped the Vietnam program substantially, putting things in more context and with more distance between reporter and theme so that it would be more clear what was actually new and verifiable on the air and elsewhere, and that the crusade and personal focus aspects would not be so prominent and, in a sense, distracting.

In the immigration program, the film’s directors were the narrators, and I thought at the time and as a viewer, that also did not work; the narration seemed to me far less helpful than it was in traditional Frontline formats. I also thought the program did not have the presentation skills of the typical Frontline, with a number of jumpy, hard-to-watch, hand-held camera scenes, too much insider chit-chat and seemingly endless films, shot from behind, of Rep. Louis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) walking down Congressional corridors with aides.

Posted on Nov. 19, 2015 at 3:58 p.m.

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As ombudsman, Michael Getler serves as an independent internal critic within PBS. He reviews commentary and criticism from viewers and seeks to ensure that PBS upholds its own standards of editorial integrity. Read More >
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