Reporting for the Enemy: Reuters, Time Employed Vietcong Agent for 15 Years

This story about a Vietnamese man who was a spy for the communists during the war as well as a reporter for Reuters and Time magazine is nothing short of an outrage. It also makes you wonder how many agents for totalitarianism are working in the press today. An's assertions of impartiality are all too familar as well. (An old MRC MediaWatch item on him is here.)

HANOI, Vietnam - Pham Xuan An, who led a remarkable and perilous double life as a communist spy and a respected reporter for Western news organizations during the Vietnam War, died Wednesday at age 79. [...]

In the history of wartime espionage, few were as successful as An. He straddled two worlds for most of the 15-year war in Indochina as an undercover communist agent while also working as a journalist, first for Reuters news service and later for 10 years as Time magazine's chief Vietnamese reporter — a role that gave him access to military bases and background briefings.

He was so well-known for his sources and insight that many Americans who knew him suspected he worked for the CIA.

Before Saigon fell to the communists, An worked to help friends escape, including South Vietnam's former security chief who feared death if he was found by northern forces. An later revealed his true identity as a Viet Cong commander, but said he never reported any false information or communist propaganda while in his role as a journalist.

In a 2000 interview with The Associated Press, An said he always had warm feelings for his press colleagues and for the United States, where he attended college at Fullerton, Calif. But deep down he remained a "true believer" in the communist cause as the best way to free Vietnam of foreign control.

"I fought for two things — independence and social justice," he said.

An's political and military contacts made him an essential source for other Vietnamese reporters working for foreign news organizations. He was known as the soft-spoken, chain-smoking oracle of "Radio Catinat," as the Saigon rumor mill was called.

But few, if any, suspected he was a communist spy.

Former media colleagues expressed mixed feelings, from bemusement to a sense of betrayal, after An revealed in the 1980s that he had been a spy.

Outside critics vilified An for his role in espionage activities that may have led to the deaths of many Americans and South Vietnamese. But most of An's ex-colleagues refrained from criticizing his deception. [...]

An told ex-colleagues in later years that he made secret trips to the jungle to confer with Viet Cong leaders. He said he knew in advance of major communist initiatives, including the 1968 Tet Offensive and North Vietnam's 1972 invasion aimed at destroying the Saigon regime.

An insisted he remained true as a journalist — never planting false or misleading information, realizing this could reveal his clandestine role.

"The truth was that I knew many things that I never told anyone," he said. "And because of this I was able on a couple of occasions to save Time from major embarrassment by telling them that a certain piece of important information was not true."

In the end, all his shilling for the communists didn't get him that much love from the regime:

An's Western connections caused senior Hanoi officials to distrust him despite his wartime record. They sent him to a postwar "re-education" school, and in 1997 refused him an exit visa to take part in a Vietnam War symposium in Washington, D.C.

He sometimes spoke candidly of being disillusioned with Vietnam's victorious leaders. In a meeting with three former American press colleagues in Ho Chi Minh City in 2005, An described them as "much more corrupt" than the Saigon officials he knew during the war.

At the same time he was made a brigadier general in retirement and a few years ago was promoted to major general.

Given his familiarity with the French, Viet-Minh, Viet Cong, South Vietnamese and American armies, An said in the 2000 interview, "I told them they should make me a five-star general. I don't think they understood my sense of humor."

Matthew Sheffield
Matthew Sheffield
Matthew Sheffield, creator of NewsBusters and president of Dialog New Media, an internet marketing and design firm, left NewsBusters at the end of 2013