An Affair to Remember?


Patrick R. Tower







One would be hard-pressed to find a more dramatic month in the first term of the Nixon administration than the period from 25 January to 26 February 1972.  While it is true that significant events were happening at home (Edmund Muskie and the Democrats were heating up election year politics, and Attorney General John Mitchell resigned to head the Committee to Re-Elect the President), the real drama was provided by Nixon’s foreign policy, which began the period close to its nadir and ended the period very close to its zenith.  This roller-coaster ride began with reports suggesting deep trouble in the Nixon administration’s efforts to bring the war in Southeast Asia to a successful conclusion; but the month ended with news that Nixon’s historic visit to China had produced a last minute, unexpected agreement with Chou En-Lai, Premier of the People’s Republic.


The bad news about the war effort came in two strong doses on January 25.  That morning the Washington Post carried a front-page, below-the-fold story reporting the failure of a bombing campaign conducted against North Vietnam the previous month.  An estimated “245 U.S. planes flew about 1100 individual sorties” in pre-planned strikes against the North, but they “produced little in the way of military damage to the enemy.”  As the reporter noted., the greatest damage “resulted from U.S. pilots demolishing a handful of big enemy radar installations that were not on the pre-planned target list.”  (These unplanned, so-called “protective reaction” strikes were ad hoc raids flown by fighters escorting unarmed photo reconnaissance aircraft.  When hostile radars locked onto the photo plane, the escort fighters would pounce on the radar installations, sometimes “attacking with missiles that ride in on enemy radar beams.”)  Despite these minor achievements, the story noted that the failure of the pre-planned strikes produced “bitterness among military planners” because they felt that “White House restrictions imposed on the bombing were so tight that it was impossible to get the job done.”  In fact, there seemed to be a consensus that the raids were not conducted for military reasons but were instead “political, designed to put more pressure on Hanoi.”


The second dose of bad news came the evening of January 25 when President Nixon revealed to a national TV audience that his National Security Adviser, Henry Kissinger, had secretly traveled to Paris on 13 separate occasions in a thus-far futile effort to negotiate a peace agreement with the North Vietnamese.  In addition to revealing his eight-point peace plan, Nixon made a distinct point of saying he was making this announcement to “prove beyond doubt which side has made every effort to make these negotiations succeed.  It will show unmistakably that Hanoi—not Washington or Saigon—has made the war go on.”


The point later was made even more forcefully by an anonymous source:


A White House official, asked why this time was chosen to announce the President’s offers in the secret talks, said there were three reasons:  (1) an attempt to trigger a response from Hanoi; (2) the development of a situation “where our public and private positions diverged” to the point where administration credibility was undermined; (3) the knowledge that there may be a Communist military offensive and that the American people should know who is responsible for increased fighting.


Nixon’s speech certainly triggered a response.  On January 27, the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong delegates to the Paris peace talks “denounced [his] new peace plan in every conceivable way, but refrained from rejecting it outright.”  On the 29th, the Chinese were reported as saying “the Nixon plan was ‘absolutely preposterous’ and that Nixon should never expect Hanoi and the Viet Cong to accept it.”  On February 2, Senator Muskie denounced the plan, and on February 4, three analysts associated with the Institute for Defense Analyses expressed fears that Nixon would soon renew a bombing campaign against North Vietnam.  Two days later, Hanoi formally rejected Nixon’s eight-part proposal, and on February 14, the Washington Post carried a front-page, above-the-fold story detailing increased U.S. air attacks in South Vietnam.  This story resonated with a Post story that appeared on February 17, which stated that concerned analysts had been tracking a very heavy buildup of North Vietnamese forces in the vicinity of the so-called Demilitarized Zone (DMZ).


These developments formed the international context for Nixon’s first trip to China, which began on February 18.  Some 8,000 well-wishers gathered on the White House lawn to hear Nixon’s pre-departure speech, which the Washington Post cast as displaying an unmistakable optimism about the trip’s significance:


He said it was his wish that history would describe his trip in “the words on the plaque which was left on the moon by our first astronauts when they landed there:  ‘We came in peace for all mankind’.”

Mr. Nixon quoted from the toast Premier Chou En-Lai proposed at a dinner he gave in October for Henry A. Kissinger, assistant to the President for national security affairs, when Kissinger was in Peking on his second visit to arrange Mr. Nixon’s meeting.

In the President’s words, Chou said “the American people are a great people.  The Chinese people are a great people.  The fact that they are separated by a vast ocean and great differences in philosophy should not prevent them from finding common ground.”


Nixon arrived in Peking (after stopovers in Hawaii and Guam) on February 21 and was given a “low-key” reception.  Nevertheless, within four hours of his arrival, he and Kissinger met with Chou En-Lai and Mao Tse Tung (who seemed to bless the warming trend in Sino-American relations).  At a banquet in Nixon’s honor that evening, things warmed even further.  In his remarks Chou En-Lai “emphasized that Peking intends to continue improving its relations with the American people no matter how its dealings with the U.S. government evolve.”  Nixon’s response matched Chou’s tone:


Seeking to reassure the Chinese, who have been sensitive to foreign designs on their country for more than a century, the President said that “Neither of us seeks the territory of the other,” and “Neither of us seeks domination over the other.”

The President also sought to invoke Mao’s immense prestige, quoting a poem by the chairman calling for urgent action and ending:  “Seize the day, seize the hour!”


The ebullience of the hour was not universally shared.  Expressions of concern were issued by Warsaw, Taipei, and Delhi, but special reservations were expressed by Moscow.  Izvestia accused China of keeping silent about the American bombings of North Vietnam while receiving President Nixon in Peking.  As reported by the Times (London), duplicity was the central theme of the Izvestia story:


The Izvestia article said:  “At present it is no secret for anyone that Mr. Nixon’s trip to Peking, advertised in every way by Washington as ‘a visit in the name of peace’, is taking place against a background of severe enlargement of the United States military clique’s piratical actions in Indo-China.”


North Vietnamese negotiator Nguyen Thanh Le continued this charge of duplicity after the members of his delegation walked out of the Paris peace talks on February 24:


[Le] hammered home the theme by quoting from President Nixon’s speeches in Peking—without directly identifying them—to suggest the “hypocrisy” of the President’s words of concern for peace and children while the administration continued “its acts of war.”


Over the course of the next few days, it appeared as though any misgivings over a Sino-American agreement or informal alliance might be premature.  Despite the optimism and good will of the opening banquet, Nixon and Chou seemed to be deadlocked after five days of candid talks.  The sticking point seemed to be U.S. reluctance to withdraw American forces from Taiwan and recognize Peking’s right to the island.  Late on the night of February 25, however, the two sides broke the deadlock and on the 26th announced “a ‘basic agreement’ on major agenda points.”  Nixon had opened the door to China and had found a way, at least temporarily, to keep it open.




Not entirely coincidentally, the period from 25 January to 26 February 1972 probably was the most dramatic month in the Air Force career of Lonnie Douglas Franks.  Born on October 8, 1948, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Franks was graduated from Washington Senior High School in Cedar Rapids and had three years of college under his belt when he enlisted in the Air Force in 1969 and then trained as an intelligence specialist.


In August 1971, Sergeant Franks was transferred to Udorn Royal Thai Air Force Base, where he was assigned to the Directorate of Operational Intelligence of the 432d Tactical Reconnaissance Wing.  Although he had completed just two years of his first enlistment at the time of his assignment to Udorn, Sergeant Franks was no stranger to the wartime intelligence mission or to Thailand.  He already had served a tour of duty at Nakhon Phanom Royal Thai Air Force Base and had there performed some of the same duties he would perform at Udorn.


Over the course of the next year (August 1971 to September 1972), Sergeant Franks was assigned to two different divisions within the Directorate of Operational Intelligence.  He originally was assigned to the Current Intelligence Division, where his primary duties included updating maps and slides with information useful to two distinct groups of people.  The first group he was responsible for briefing consisted in aircrews on their way to fly missions over Laos and North Vietnam:  his maps and slides would indicate the location of friendly and enemy units, orders of battle, the nature of enemy units, the equipment of enemy units, and the nature and location of reconnaissance targets.


Franks also performed similar tasks for a group consisting of senior staff of the 432d Tactical Reconnaissance Wing.  At 0800 every day the Wing Commander of the 432d, Colonel Charles Gabriel, would gather his staff in the wing command post to exchange information and discuss issues of pressing interest.  All of the senior commanders and staff members were present at this meeting (called “standup” in the vernacular), including key support personnel such as the commander of the base hospital.  It was Sergeant Franks’ job to prepare slides summarizing the previous day’s reconnaissance missions for this meeting, and he was allowed to sit in the back and listen as someone else briefed his slides.  Because standup was a meeting with a wide and varied cast of characters, Franks’ slides were neither very detailed nor a central topic of discussion.


These duties continued until mid-November 1971, when Franks was transferred to the Targeting Division of the Directorate of Operational Intelligence, which had too few noncommissioned officers (NCOs) at the time.  During his six weeks in the Targeting Division, Franks’ jobs included plotting targets in Laos and North Vietnam for reconnaissance aircraft and building so-called “target folders.”  Included in these folders was a photo of the target, a 1/250,000 scale map the pilot would use to navigate to the target, and a 1/50,000 scale map on which the target was plotted within 10 meters.


Franks certainly understood the importance of his targeting job to the mission of the wing.  A photo reconnaissance plane at that time was crewed by two persons—a pilot and a navigator—and it was flown utterly unarmed, i.e., without offensive or defensive weaponry.  In order to take accurate pictures of the target, it had to fly straight and level; banking or turning would render the film “absolutely useless.”  If the plane flew at an altitude other than the one required by mission plans, those reading the photos later would not be able to tell the size of the objects photographed.  In short, a reconnaissance plane is a “sitting duck,” thus making it imperative that the target be properly identified and charted on the maps before the mission is flown.


This does not mean that reconnaissance flights in Southeast Asia were suicide missions.  It was standard practice for the reconnaissance plane to be escorted by at least a pair of fighter-bombers armed with offensive weapons.  These escorts would fly behind the reconnaissance (or “recce”) aircraft, but they did not have to fly straight and level at a predetermined altitude.  Instead, they engaged in something called “jinking”—flying in irregular patterns, trying to anticipate ground fire that might be directed at the recce bird.  If someone on the ground fired at the reconnaissance mission (or the fighter-bomber escorts), then the escorts were permitted to drop their ordnance directly and immediately on the source of the ground fire (whether it be one man with an AK-47 assault rifle or a battery of anti-aircraft artillery, also known as “AAA” or “triple-A”).  The release of ordnance under these circumstances was called a “protective reaction strike”—the kind of strike that played a role in the story that appeared on the front page of the Washington Post on 25 January.


Lonnie Franks very firmly believed that the rules governing protective reaction strikes were strict and subject to little, if any, interpretation.  The rules of engagement (ROE) prohibited an attack on a ground target unless that target was an immediate threat to the mission.  That is, the target had to be engaged in offensive action against the reconnaissance plane or its escorts.  The reaction could only be directed at the source of hostile fire on the ground—they could not start bombing any or all targets of opportunity in the area.  The sole purpose for the fighter-bombers was to protect the recce aircraft—and that meant they could only drop their bombs in response to a confirmed hostile threat on the ground.  One official source gives the following brief history of these flights:


Since the bombing halt pause began in November of 1968, the United States has been conducting manned tactical reconnaissance over the southern portion of North Vietnam.  Very shortly after the bombing pause began the North Vietnamese attacked one of our unarmed reconnaissance aircraft and we began to escort the reconnaissance aircraft with armed fighters. During 3 1/2 years between November 1968, and March 1972, these escort aircrafts were authorized to retaliate if fired upon.


Despite the importance of his targeting job, Franks’ talents were needed more in the Current Intelligence Division, and so he returned there during the first week of January 1972.  As in the past, Franks went about the business of preparing maps and slides to be used in the wing commander’s daily standup, and he continued to brief crews who were about to fly missions over Laos and North Vietnam.  But he was also asked to learn something entirely new—he was asked to become a “debriefer,” a person who meets aircrews as they return from a mission and picks their brains for every scrap of information having possible value to those who plan, fly, or assess the value of operational missions.


As practiced by Sergeant Franks, “debriefing” was actually a two-stage process.  It involved, first, the conscientious writing down on a sequence of preprinted forms a multitude of facts about what the crew encountered and what the crew accomplished.  Once these forms were completed, the second stage of the debriefing began:  the writing of an operational report that was sent to a host of organizations who had a need to know about the mission and its particulars.  In Sergeant Franks’ case, the report written was called an “operational report-4” (OPREP 4), which became the official record of the mission once it was transmitted.  Obviously, the integrity of the OPREP 4 was of crucial importance; for, it was an essential datum factored into the overall assessment of the success of the air war, and the integrity of the OPREP 4 was a function of the debriefer’s ability to conscientiously and accurately complete the first stage of the process.


An official source once explained the operational reposing system used in Southeast Asia in this way:


OPREP 1 indicates the intent to conduct the operation and the nature of the operation.


The OPREP 2 indicates that the operation is now underway, the aircraft have been launched, for instance.


OPREP 3 reports special events that are of particular interest which may occur during the progress of the operation.


OPREP 4 is the report that the pilots make immediately after they return from a flight.


We recognize that this report may not be complete and may be subject to reevaluation but it gives us immediate information on what has happened.


For instance, when the mining operation was conducted in Haiphong, within 30 minutes we had the OPREP 4 back telling us that the mines had been put in the proper position, that the aircraft had returned safely, and a brief outline of the enemy reaction. That type of thing is an OPREP 4.


And finally there is an OPREP 5 which gives a good summary of the verified information that has been reviewed and evaluated and more or less winds up the reporting on the particular operation.


Franks performed these duties for three weeks without incident, but on 25 January—the same day the Washington Post carried the story about the failure of December’s pre-planned raids over North Vietnam—something new and totally unexpected happened to Lonnie Franks.  On that date, Sergeant Franks was debriefing a reconnaissance crew that had just flown a routine mission, when either the pilot or the navigator gave a particularly disturbing answer to one of his questions.  When Franks asked them if they had received any hostile fire, one of the crew members said something like, “No, we didn’t, but we have to report that we did.”  What made this especially odd was that the escort aircraft hadn’t dropped any bombs on this mission.  Nevertheless, Franks was instructed to report that they had received anti-aircraft fire so that if they had dropped their bombs, they would have been justified in doing so under the ROE.


Franks was upset at the suggestion that he should falsify the debrief forms and subsequently lie on the OPREP 4, so he kept the aircrew waiting while he went to check this out with his immediate supervisor—a Technical Sergeant (TSgt) by the name of Voichita.  TSgt Voichita told Franks to do as the recce crew instructed—”make it look real; just make up some sort of hostile reaction.”  This response from his immediate boss was unsatisfactory, so Franks approached the next person in the chain of command—the officer in charge (OIC) of Current Intelligence, a Captain by the name of Murray.  Again, Franks was told to follow the orders given him by the aircrew.


At this point Franks decided to take the matter no further (his next step would have been to speak to Lieutenant Colonel Glendenning, the Director of Intelligence for the 432d Tactical Reconnaissance Wing).  Instead, he returned to the debriefing table and undertook the task of falsifying the debrief data.  Franks decided to report that the crew had received “10 to 15 rounds of 23-millimeter,” but he couldn’t simply write a sentence to that effect on the debrief form.  Rather, he had to write it as though it had actually occurred, and that meant fabricating a complete and believable real world context:  Where was the gun that was doing the firing?  What altitude and direction was the plane flying when attacked?  What evasive maneuvers were taken by the pilot? and so on.  Even the rate of fire of the 23-mm gun had to be accounted for:  “You couldn’t have an airburst every 3 seconds when it shoots at a half-second interval; you should have an airburst every half a second.”  After considerable effort, the debrief forms were completed, the aircrew initialed them, and a false OPREP 4 was placed into official channels.


In other words, on the very same day the Washington Post carried a story in which unnamed “military planners” were said to have experienced “some bitterness” because of their perception that “White House restrictions imposed on the bombing were so tight that it was impossible to get the job done,” Sergeant Lonnie Franks found himself falsifying an official classified report so that, had they wished to do so, fighter-bomber crews could have gotten around one of Nixon’s rules of engagement.  On the very same day that Nixon appeared on national television and accused the North Vietnamese of being the prime obstacle to peace, Sergeant Lonnie Douglas Franks found himself involved in an enterprise whose raison d’ être seemed to be to increase the level of US aggression against North Vietnam.


It was not long before Franks found himself beset by serious questions.  He wondered, for example, “where the false reports were going and whom we were trying to fool”; and he was equally concerned that no one seemed to be keeping track of the accurate data.  When he falsified the report on 25 January, he had done nothing to flag the good data or to separate it from the lies.  Now the historical record of that mission was permanently distorted.  He could not retrieve the report or repair the damage done from his modest level, and he worried about that fact.


From Franks’ perspective things deteriorated over the next few weeks.  At the very least, things became more complex and entangling.  On or about 6 February, for example, Franks found himself debriefing what he would call a “strike” mission.  A strike mission, like a reconnaissance mission, involved fighter-bombers flying in conjunction with reconnaissance aircraft, but that was as far as the parallel went.  During a normal reconnaissance mission, it was standard practice for 2 fighter bombers to escort every reconnaissance plane; in a strike mission, however, the ratio was either 4:1 or even 8:1 such that 2 reconnaissance planes could be escorted by 16 fighter-bombers.  In a normal reconnaissance mission, furthermore, the reconnaissance planes were the raison d’ être for the fighter-bombers, but in a strike mission that relationship was reversed. That is, during a normal reconnaissance mission the fighter-bombers flew cover for the reconnaissance planes, but during a strike mission the reconnaissance planes were used to cover up the mission of the fighter-bombers. In other words, a strike mission was a pre-planned attack on various targets in North Vietnam conducted under the guise of a protective reaction strike.


The planning for a strike mission was straightforward. The target information for a strike mission came from above Sergeant Franks’ level, but be was unsure of its ultimate source.  This target information was not transmitted in writing but came over the telephone to someone in Franks’ shop.  The targets could be fuel dumps, truck farms, or other such targets of military value.  The fighters would bomb those targets as the reconnaissance aircraft flew in their general vicinity—but there was no requirement that the targets bombed would be photographed by the reconnaissance planes.  Indeed, there was no requirement that the fighters would even follow the reconnaissance planes to the target area.  Sometimes the bombers would attack before the reconnaissance planes had even arrived in the general area of operations.


However, these messy details could be cleared up during debriefing, which could take as many as three hours after a strike to complete.  What made it so time-intensive was the Air Force accounting system, which defined a reconnaissance mission as one reconnaissance plane flying against a target, while an escort or strike mission was apparently defined as 4 fighter-bombers flying against a target.  Thus, if 2 reconnaissance planes were escorted by 16 fighter-bombers, that meant 6 separate missions had to be debriefed and 6 separate OPREP 4s transmitted.  In human terms, 6 separate intelligence specialists had to carefully coordinate 6 separate debriefings and the content of 6 separate OPREP 4s for every such strike mission flown against North Vietnam. In fact, the coordination process was so tricky that a seventh intelligence specialist would have to run from table to table to ensure the internal consistency of the fabrications being recorded on the different debrief forms.


There were four very specific areas requiring fabrication:  target type, target coordinates, timing, and bomb damage assessment.  With respect to target type, for example, they could not truthfully report the bombing of a fuel depot or truck farm because those targets were not permitted under the ROE.  Rather, they could report as targets only those things that were capable of firing at the reconnaissance planes—in other words, offensive weapons such as anti-aircraft artillery.  Likewise, they couldn’t report that the fighters had bombed a target 20 miles away from the recorded flight of the reconnaissance aircraft since such a distant target could not be a threat to the recce plane.  Thus, regardless of where the bombs actually fell, the specialists had to be sure that the target coordinates actually reported on the OPREP 4 had to be close to the reported flight path of the reconnaissance plane.


Timing was just as sensitive.  Because the ROE stated that fighters could bomb only in reaction to attacks on the reconnaissance mission, the intelligence specialists could never report that the fighters had entered the area of operations ahead of the recce planes or bombed the targets before the recce aircraft had crossed into North Vietnamese air space. They would only report what the ROE allowed and nothing more.


Finally, to solve the problem of bomb damage assessment, they always reported that “the targets were not observed because of smoke and foliage.”  Thus, what the OPREP 4 may have represented as a protective reaction strike with unknown results against an emplacement of anti-aircraft artillery that had fired on a pair of reconnaissance aircrafts could actually have been a very successful strike against a fuel storage area 1 hour and 20 miles from when and where the recce birds flew their mission.


Before too long it became apparent to someone up the chain of command that some effort should be made to segregate the actual facts about a strike mission from the lies fabricated about it.  Thus, on or about 18 February (the day Nixon left for China), Captain Murray directed Sergeant Franks to record the correct and incorrect information in separate columns on the debrief sheets.  The incorrect information would still be used to write the OPREP 4, but Captain Murray would collect the correct information and send it up-channel to Seventh Air Force at Tonsunhut.


Headquarters Seventh Air Force was responsible for all Air Force operations in Southeast Asia.  Its commander, General John D. Lavelle, was also the “Deputy for Air” to General Creighton Abrams, who had overall responsibility for in-theater operations.  The person on General Lavelle’s staff responsible for tracking day-to-day flying operations in Southeast Asia was Major General Alton Slay.  Sergeant Franks believed it was to Major General Slay that Captain Murray telephoned the truthful information he had culled from Sergeant Franks’ debrief forms.  Thus, as far as Sergeant Franks knew, only Seventh Air Force—in the person of Major General Slay—had all of the correct information about the strike missions.


This two-track reporting system manifested itself in the briefing slides Sergeant Franks also continued to prepare.  The incorrect information was placed on the slides Franks prepared for the Wing Commander’s daily standup, but the correct information was placed on a separate set of slides that were used for a second, newly instituted meeting that began in Colonel Gabriel’s office immediately following the standup.  This second, inner sanctum-type meeting was with those persons and only those persons having direct responsibility for flying operations in the wing, and it was instituted at about the same time that the “strike” missions began, i.e., in early February 1972.


Thus, during the last week of February 1972, Franks found himself involved in what appeared to be a clandestine bombing campaign against North Vietnam.  At the same time that Nixon and Chou En-Lai were in secret deliberations over the future of Sino-American relations, Franks was involved with an internal struggle about the enterprise in which he found himself entangled.  At the same time that Izvestia was denouncing China for turning its back on the “enlargement of the United States military clique’s piratical actions in Indo-China,” Franks actually found himself trying to avoid debriefing crews returning from strike missions over North Vietnam and Laos because it so deeply bothered him to be falsifying official reports.  He was being asked to write reports that asserted the wing’s full compliance with rules of engagement established by civilian authority—rules he knew the wing blatantly violated on a regular basis.  At what level was the falsification order generated?  Franks knew that the Wing Commander, Colonel Gabriel, and the Vice Wing Commander, Colonel O’Malley, were both aware of the falsifications.  In fact, the two of them actually stood in the debrief room and watched as the intelligence specialists carefully crafted their false reports following one of the strike missions.  He also had good reason to believe that General Slay was also fully aware of what was happening.  But how much higher did it go?  Was General Lavelle the mastermind or did it go as high as General Abrams?  Could it be coming from the Chief of Staff of the Air Force {General Ryan) or even higher?


Thus, at about the time that the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong delegates walked out of the Paris peace talks—a move “formally justified as a protest against ‘escalation’ of American bombing of North Vietnam”—Sergeant Lonnie D. Franks found himself in a quandary.  He could shut up and do nothing, but he wasn’t sure his conscience would allow him to do that.  He could take his concerns to the Inspector General system, but the Wing Inspector General was Colonel O’Malley (who Franks believed was knee-deep in the falsification effort), and Franks wasn’t sure that anyone else in the Inspector General system could be trusted.  (After all, if the Chief of Staff of the Air Force was running the clandestine operation, wouldn’t Franks get into trouble by complaining to the Air Force Inspector General?)  Any complaint inside the Air Force could invite recrimination, but what else could Franks do?  He could go to the press, but he didn’t want to compromise classified information.  What other options did he have?







On either 25 or 26 February, Sergeant Franks sent a letter to his Senator, Harold E. Hughes (D-IA), who was a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee or “SASC.”  Hughes received the letter in early March and immediately referred it to Senator Stuart Symington, another SASC Democrat and former Secretary of the Air Force, for evaluation and possible action.  On 8 March, Senator Symington transmitted a sanitized version of the letter to General John D. Ryan, Chief of Staff of the Air Force:


Senator Harold Hughes

Capitol Building,

U.S. Senate,

Washington, D.C.


Dear Senator Hughes:


I am an intelligence specialist __________ (for the Air Force). . . .


I and other members of __________ have been falsifying classified reports for missions into North Viet Nam.  That is, we have been reporting that our planes have received hostile reactions such as AAA and SAM firings whether they have or not.  We have also been falsifying targets struck and bomb damage assessments.


I have been informed by my immediate OIC, __________ that authorization for this falsification of classified documents comes from secure telephone communications from the Deputy of Operations, 7th Air Force.


I do not know where the original authorization comes from and this is my major concern.  This same (officer) quipped that the President doesn’t even know about the situation.


I am writing this letter to inform you of what is happening and to find out if this falsification of classified documents is legal and proper.


Sincerely yours, __________


The next day General Ryan sent Lieutenant General Louis L. Wilson, Jr., Air Force Inspector General (AF JIG) to Southeast Asia to investigate the matter.


On 23 March Wilson confirmed to Ryan that “some missions had not been flown in accordance with the Rules of Engagement and there were irregularities in the operational reports.”  That same day, Ryan “summoned General Lavelle to Washington.”  Lavelle arrived 26 March, discussed the matter with the Chief of Staff, and Ryan “offered [Lavelle] the option of continued service—a new assignment—in his permanent grade.”1 To sharpen General Lavelle’s thinking on the matter, General Ryan “told him an application for retirement would probably be accepted.”


After receiving assurances that the Secretary of Defense and the Secretary of the Air Force would receive full explanations of his decision, Lavelle submitted a letter requesting retirement on 31 March.  On 6 April, General Ryan chose Lavelle’s replacement:  General John w. Vogt, Jr.  On 7 April, Lavelle retired, and the Pentagon issued a press release announcing these events; Lavelle, it said, was retiring “for personal and health reasons.”  Lavelle retired at his permanent grade:  Major General (= two stars).


The matter lay dormant for nearly a month, and then it came to the attention of Michael Getler of the Washington Post:


On April 7, just one week after the North Vietnamese invasion began across the demilitarized zone and in the midst of a massive U.S. build-up of air power in Southeast Asia, the Pentagon abruptly announced the assignment of a new commander for the Seventh Air Force, which directs all Air Force operations in the war zone.

The Pentagon announcement claimed that four-star Gen. John D. Lavelle, who had commanded the Seventh Air Force since July [sic], 1971, was “retiring for personal and health reasons.”  Defense spokesmen would offer no further explanation for the action.

The unexpectedness of the move was also dramatized by the appointment on the same day of Air Force Gen. John W. Vogt to replace Lavelle.  Vogt, until the previous day was slated to become chief of staff for allied headquarters in Europe.

The retirement of Lavelle has been handled in an unusual fashion since it was first announced.  Normally the announcement of retirement for high-ranking generals is accompanied by the White House nomination for retirement rank.  In Lavelle’s case, the nomination came several weeks later.

Technically, all active-duty three- and four- star generals at the instant of retirement revert to a permanent two-star rank which is the highest allowed by law.  But the President then nominates them, subject to Senate confirmation, to advancement to higher rank as retired officers.

Spokesmen for the Army and Navy say that to the best of their services’ knowledge, no four-star general or admiral has ever been retired at a lesser grade.  The Air Force declined to answer a similar query, but Defense Department officials say they also know of no precedent for the current situation.


Representative Otis Pike (D-NY) picked up on the story and said the following on the floor of the House on 15 May:


Mr. Speaker, it is time the Air Force and the Pentagon told the American people the truth about the so-called retirement of a four-star general who was removed as the head of all of our Air Force operations in Vietnam just 1 week after the Communist offensive was launched.

The Air Force put out a little story that the general had retired “for personal and health reasons.”  The Air Force did not tell the truth.  I believe there is a major issue here, important to our Air Force, and important to our Nation.

Perhaps the most major issue is the credibility of our military.  The military complains that it is misunderstood and mistrusted. It cannot be understood and it cannot be trusted as long as it tries to sweep its scandals under the rug and as long as it persists in trying to obscure the truth instead of telling the truth.


Later that same afternoon, General Ryan released a statement saying that “he personally relieved Gen. John D. Lavelle as commander of the Seventh Air Force in Vietnam ‘because of irregularities in the conduct of his command responsibilities.’”


The level of controversy generated by these and other statements was sufficient to prompt the House Armed Services Committee or “HASC” to hold cursory hearings in June.  These hearings, which essentially involved the testimony of Lavelle and Ryan, were not sufficiently in-depth to resolve anything.  In fact, the mild manner in which the HASC treated Lavelle only managed to stoke the fires of controversy even further.  For example, Tom Wicker’s assessment was the following:


The Vietnam War has generated so much dishonesty and moral blindness through three Administrations that the nation now appears to consider these normal.  So there is no particular outcry over the disclosures that numerous “protective reaction” raids on North Vietnam have been staged, to let American fliers bomb what they wanted to bomb, when they wanted to bomb it.


Time’s 26 June article on Lavelle (which termed him a “veteran Air Force ‘tiger’”) ended with this paragraph:


Senator William Proxmire of Wisconsin urged the Air Force to court-martial Lavelle, who, though now a civilian, can be legally returned to stand military trial.  Proxmire rightly termed Lavelle’s shoot-from-the-hip action a violation of “the principles of civilian control over the military.”  Then there was the haunting possibility that Lavelle’s raids might have contributed to the mysterious breakdown of Kissinger’s secret peace negotiations in Paris last November—the very month Lavelle began his extracurricular activity with strikes at three North Vietnamese airfields.  Beyond that is yet a fresh puzzlement in the often baffling conduct of the war:  how one man could get away with such grave and potentially disastrous cowboyism for four months without his superiors in Vietnam or the Pentagon t knowing it.


The 26 June Newsweek saw it this way:


At the very least, the evidence against Lavelle made it clear that scores of pilots, squadron and wing commanders, intelligence and operations officers and ordinary airmen were caught up in the plot.  The existence of such a widespread conspiracy dredged up Strangelovian fears that if a four-star general could so easily circumvent conventional bombing directives, he might also be able to launch a nuclear war.  And although the Pentagon insisted that virtually foolproof command-and-control safeguards protected America’s nuclear arsenal from seizure by a crackpot, this did not put everyone’s mind at rest.


The SASC scheduled hearings for September to review Lavelle’s nomination to be promoted to Lieutenant General on the retired list.  Sergeant Franks got wind of these hearings and sent a letter to Senator Hughes requesting a chance to testify.  Among the portions of the letter published in the Congressional Record were the following paragraphs:


The actions taken by the military against General Lavelle and the other people involved have shown that a military member can exceed the limitations placed on him by civilian authorities with relative safety.  Further, the apparent lack of any action against General Lavelle’s subordinates has shown that it is safer and in many ways even preferable to obey illegal and immoral orders.

The events of these past weeks have made it obvious to me that definite civilian control must be placed over the military.  In my own case, I had very few alternatives of whom I could go to in order to reveal my information.  It seemed impossible for me to contact either my Wing Commander or the base Inspector General, since both were involved in the air strikes.  It would also have been difficult for me to contact anyone at higher headquarters.

At the time I wrote the letter, the Paris peace talks had deteriorated to the point that the U.S. refused to continue negotiations, alleging that the North Vietnamese were using the talks as a forum to disseminate untruthful propaganda concerning our indiscriminate bombing of North Vietnam.  It was for this reason that I was compelled to write to you, you in turn having no other course but to release my letter to military authorities for them to investigate.  The military investigating itself negates any check or balance civilian authorities might exercise over the military.  It is apparent that Congress should establish a civilian inspection system at base level, similar to the present military inspector general, but not under military or DoD control.


Sergeant Franks’ request to testify was honored.




The SASC hearings opened on 11 September with General Lavelle’s testimony.  The thrust of the hearings was to decide whether or not Lavelle should be allowed to retire as a Lieutenant General (= three stars) by exploring in detail the circumstances surrounding his relief as commander of Seventh Air Force.  In two days and 99 pages of testimony, Lavelle impressed the committee with his cooperation and candor.  He affirmed to them his unwavering belief in the primacy of civilian control of the military and the Constitutional foundations of that relationship.  He also openly subscribed to the axiom that a commander is always responsible for all actions undertaken by persons in his command, even if he is not aware of them.  He also publicly stated that he agreed with Sergeant Franks’ act of conscience, although he also asserted that Franks would have received no less satisfaction by sending his original letter to Lavelle.


The General also admitted that he very liberally interpreted the rules of engagement such that from 23 January to 9 March 1972 he ordered so-called “pre-planned” protective reaction strikes against critical, clearly hostile sites in North Vietnam.  Even more surprising, perhaps, was Lavelle’s admission that persons in his command falsified at least 3 official reports because they believed he wanted them to do it.


Nevertheless, General Lavelle steadfastly proclaimed his own innocence.  He rejected General Ryan’s assessment that he had “exceeded his authority” and he was convinced that the SASC, which had access to all classified information associated with the case, would reject the public depiction of him as “an unprincipled malefactor, who recklessly endangered the prospects of peace, by conducting a massive private air war, in a calculated disregard for orders from the President and personally engineering a conspiracy to conceal it all through falsification of reports.”


Lavelle’s testimony was grounded in four central considerations, reasons, or organizing principles.  These considerations led him to conduct the air war in the manner in which it actually came to be conducted over the first few months of his short tenure as commander of Seventh Air Force.  It was Lavelle’s belief that (1) he was facing an increasingly aggressive enemy; (2) his superiors were pressuring him to be more aggressive; (3) the rules of engagement had been rendered obsolete by changing enemy technology; and (4) every commander has important moral obligations.


Increasing Enemy Aggression.  The first of these principles began to play a part in his decision-making from almost the instant he assumed command of Seventh Air Force and its influence continued and grew over the next seven months:


This was not by any means a routine period.  This was, as we well recognize, a critical period of tremendous enemy buildup in preparation for the invasion of South Vietnam.  To protect this buildup, the North Vietnamese had moved into the area north of the DMZ the largest concentration of missiles, antiaircraft artillery and radars we had ever seen in Southeast Asia.


Lavelle made it clear that the enemy’s increasing aggression was a multifaceted phenomenon whose growth followed a steep upward curve:


Considering the air war alone, from the start of the dry season, which ran from November 1 through the end of February of this year [1972], a period of 4 months, there were 72 incursions by North Vietnamese Mig’s2 into Laos or Northern South Vietnam as compared with only four the previous year.

During the same period there were over 200 surface-to-air missiles fired at U.S. aircraft, as compared to approximately 20 for that period the previous year. . .

Another indication of the aggressiveness of the North Vietnamese was on the day that their forces launched their attacks in the Plain of Jars, which as you recall was on the 18th of December, over 25 enemy Mig’s were airborne and several of them crossed into Laotian territory.


And in response to written questions from Senator Margaret Chase Smith (R-ME), he developed this point even more explicitly:


During January and February, the NVN were steadily step stoning their missile sites closer and closer to the DMZ to protect their pre-invasion build-up.  The last site they attempted to build was right on the northern edge of the DMZ.  They moved a large ground force into the area between the DMZ and Bat Lake and set up what appeared to be a communications center for a headquarters complex.  Reconnaissance aircraft had photographed about 60 tanks in this same Bat Lake area, about 10 miles north of the DMZ.  The North Vietnamese air defense forces had become extremely aggressive in an effort to conceal and protect this pre-invasion buildup.  In fact, for the first time in this war, they fired missiles at aircraft flying over South Vietnam.  They had fired a missile from North Vietnam at the gunship we were maintaining over Dong Ha every night. [Deleted.] The NVN were preparing for an invasion and the only rule they were following, and they were following it very aggressively, was “shoot down” U.S. aircraft.


Pressure From Above.  As the enemy turned up the heat, Lavelle’s superiors reciprocated with increased pressure on him to be more aggressive in dealing with the enemy.  This increasing pressure from above is the second organizing principle in Lavelle’s testimony.  He became acutely aware of the pressure from above in December 1971, but its application can be traced to events in October and November.  In October 1971, “a Mig taking off from Quinn Lang [Air Force Base in North Vietnam] had attempted to attack a B-52 over Laos.”  The Mig missed, but Lavelle’s fighters also failed to intercept and destroy the Mig.  Consequently, on 8 November an escorted reconnaissance flight” was flown against Quinn Lang, and strict rules of engagement were followed, i.e., the escort assiduously followed the dictum to “fire only when fired upon.”


Lavelle viewed the 8 November raid as significant for his case because of the response it generated from higher headquarters.  The American planes were fired upon, and they returned that fire.  This prompted a call from the Commander in Chief, Pacific Air Forces (CINCPACAF), in Hawaii:


. . . he called me and said that he had been called from Washington and Washington didn’t believe that we had done a good job on hitting that airfield.  He followed this up with a wire asking me to examine it, that he didn’t think we had done a good job on our strike on the Quang Lang Airfield.  I examined the photographs; I examined the tactics; I examined the ordnance we carried and I had to admit that I didn’t think we had done a god [sic] job either, and in trying to determine why we had not done a good job, in working with my staff, I resolved these things:  (1) They had not planned aiming points on the airfield; (2) they were trying to strike the airfield when they were under fire, taking evasive action; (3) we had an ordnance load that would be better for flak suppression. [Deleted.] As a result, only that one aircraft did damage across the end of the runway.

I resolved then if we were going back to any more of these, and if we were going to be questioned about how effective we were, we had to plan them more precisely to be sure that we did do a good job. . . .


Even more obvious was the pressure conveyed from the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) during a conference hosted in Honolulu by the Director of the Joint Staff on 4 and 5 December:


During the conference, as reported to me by my representative, the Director, JCS, indicated:


(1) Field commanders should be more aggressive.


(2) Field commanders had not been flexible enough in the use of existing authorities.


(3) Fighter escorts for reconnaissance aircraft should be increased to 8 or 16 to insure adequate damage on protective reaction strikes.


(4) When intelligence indicates MIG presence on Southern airfields, schedule maximum escorts.


(5) JCS would not question our aiming points (targets) on protective reaction strikes.


(6) In the advent of adverse publicity we could expect full backing from the JCS.


This also seemed to be reiterated by Secretary of Defense Melvin R. Laird when he met with Lavelle for about 10 minutes during the farmer’s visit to Saigon in early December.  Although he could not remember verbatim what Secretary Laird had said, Lavelle recalled the gist of the conversation as “don’t come into Washington requesting new authorities, it was an inopportune time; make maximum use of the authorities we had and he would support us in Washington.”


Obviously, Washington wanted something done about the increasingly hostile enemy massing forces just over the border.  As proof of this, Lavelle pointed to the three mass raids they were directed to carry out in September, December, and February.  The December raid he mentions is the same raid discussed in the Washington Post story of 25 January:


Late in September we were directed two days of mass raids below 17 degrees:  In December we had the mass 5-day raid going on up to 20 degrees and in February we had the raid to hit the guns within 7 nautical miles of the DMZ. . . .


This suggested to Lavelle that Washington was not very serious about the rules of engagement or the targets that could be struck.  This last point was especially apparent with respect to the December raids:


We had made specific recommendations to JCS that we be allowed to hit the airfields, that we be allowed to hit the missiles, that we be allowed to hit the radars, that we be allowed to hit the marshaling areas, storage areas.  The authority that came through, initially came through authorizing us to strike; it directed maximum effort strikes in North Vietnam up to 20 degrees.  It did not respond to any of our requests.  It didn’t say marshaling areas; it didn’t say radar; it didn’t say airfields; it said maximum effort up to 20 degrees.


Rules Made Obsolete.  It was during that series of late-December raids when the third organizing principle first presented itself to Lavelle.  Sometime between Christmas and New Year’s Eve it became apparent to him that the North Vietnamese had developed a technology that took full advantage of the rules of engagement under which Lavelle’s troops had to operate and which were first developed during the Johnson administration—”. . . we were operating under 1968 Rules of Engagement in a 1972 environment.”  The rule with which Lavelle was most concerned was this:


Fighter aircraft may strike any SAM or triple A in NVN below 20 degrees north which fires at or is activated against U.S. aircraft conducting missions over Laos or North Vietnam.


When that rule was originally formulated, the North Vietnamese had to activate special radars before their surface-to-air missiles (Sims) could track and destroy U.S. aircraft.  These missile-guiding radars had tell-tale signatures that were detectable by U.S. pilots.  But in late December 1971, the North Vietnamese managed to create something new:


The North Vietnamese had added [deleted] new radar sites in the southern part of North Vietnam and had netted these stations with their missile radars to form a most sophisticated and complex air defense system.  This meant that the more powerful ground surveillance and ground control intercept [GCI] type heavy radars were netted with the surface-to-air radars and missiles to form a sophisticated, integrated system, allowing either the GCI radars or the missile radars to pass target tracks to the missile firing units.


This development caused a very real problem for U.S. airmen:  How do we know when a SAM missile battery is tracking us and is ready to fire?  Apparently, when the normal SAM radars were activated, U.S. pilots could discern that fact in their cockpits, but under the new system, pilots were “deprived of radar warning”:


The normal North Vietnamese tactic was to employ the two Fan Song radars of the SAM battalion for tracking our aircraft and controlling the missile.  When the tracking Fan Song radar picked up a U.S. aircraft and began to track it, the Radar Homing and Warning—RHAW—gear in the cockpit was activated and alerted the crew that they were being tracked by a missile unit. [Deleted.] This, of course, alerted the crew and, depending on the type of aircraft and the mission, they would maneuver out of the area or be prepared to take evasive action if a missile were fired. [Deleted.]

As a consequence of having netted their air defense control and surveillance radars with their missile units, the North Vietnamese were able this year to vary their tactics.  Starting, I believe, in mid-December they often used the long-range Barlock or Whiff air defense radar which always tracked our aircraft to pass target information to the missile fire control radar. [Deleted.]

Being deprived of radar warning, perhaps one could make the judgment that you could no longer determine when the system was activated against U.S. aircraft.

In the face of the new tactics, however, a more logical judgment appeared to be that since U.S. aircraft were under constant surveillance by the air defense radars netted with the missile units, the system was constantly activated against us.


In other words, whenever aircraft flew into North Vietnamese air space, the system was constantly activated against them and that meant the 1968 rule of engagement was satisfied.  Obviously, the 1968 rule of engagement meant to say that whenever Fan Song radars were activated against American aircraft, those aircraft could fire on the missile sites associated with the activated Fan Song radars.  But this new technology—this country-wide radar net—allowed Lavelle to reinterpret what the rule was saying.  In other words, whenever fighter-bombers escorting reconnaissance aircraft crossed into North Vietnamese air space, they should prudently assume that the missile system was activated against them, which meant that they had immediate justification for bombing any portion of the netted air defense system.


Commander’s Moral Obligations.  The final organizing principle in Lavelle’s testimony was no doubt at work in his mind long before he assumed command of Seventh Air Force, but it seems to have loomed ever-larger in his thinking as a hectic 1971 became a frantic 1972.  The SASC testimony makes it clear that Lavelle was deeply involved with what he terms “a commander’s moral obligation to protect his men”:


. . . all of my judgments were made as a field commander acutely mindful of my often anguishing responsibility for the protection of the lives and safety of thousands of courageous young airmen under my command.  It was that central consideration which was at the heart of my motivation with respect to every operational judgment I was ever called upon to make in Southeast Asia.


This “central consideration” also seemed to be at work in his interpretation of the rules of engagement:


It was my opinion at that time and it still is that the actions which I took were consistent with the overall policies pertaining to protective reaction as they applied to air operations in Southeast Asia.  My understanding was that the rules of engagement were designed to afford a degree of protection to the American fighting man exposed to attack from an enemy who was taking advantage of every rule of the game to maximize his opportunity to kill Americans.  I interpreted the rules of engagement in away which I felt would save American and South Vietnamese lives.


Moreover, the General’s sense of moral obligation was so strong that it even shaped operational plans:


I felt I had a moral responsibility to the crews who were daily ordered to fly over the Ho Chi Mink Trail to destroy the missiles moving into positions from which they could destroy our aircraft and crews, and this we did.

Between late January and the 9th of March, we attacked missiles and supporting equipment near the border on several occasions.  We had no further missile firings from the Ho Chi Mink Trail between mid-January and the 29th of March, which was a few weeks after we stopped hitting these missiles trying to enter Laos.


This same sense of moral obligation to his subordinates also prevented Lavelle from authorizing a practice known as “trolling.”  To ensure that the rules of engagement were technically satisfied, the Navy had adopted the tactic of sending “bait” aircraft into hostile areas in order to provoke a hostile response from the enemy.  In a final statement submitted after his testimony was complete, Lavelle said the following:


It was brought out during the testimony that had I elected to “troll,” i.e., send an aircraft and crew into the area as bait to draw fire, the strikes would then have been considered authorized under the pertinent rule of engagement. Mr. Chairman, I just couldn’t do this in the environment in which my crews were flying.  Even if a tactic of trolling would have made these strikes legal with respect to the enemy, it would not have been morally right in that hazardous area, with respect to my crews.  Quite apart from that, it should be remembered that in the final analysis, the practice of provoking enemy fire through trolling was done in order to execute air strikes involving preciselly [sic] the same degree of pre-planning as those which I directed.  Consequently, as regards the pre-planned aspects of the strikes, I respectfully submit that this tactic cannot be fairly differentiated.


General Lavelle’s moment of truth arrived on 23 January 1972, when he personally supervised the raid on Dong Hoi Air field in North Vietnam.  This was the first of the so-called “pre-planned” protective reaction missions (what Sergeant Franks called a “strike” mission).  Because Lavelle wanted no repeat of the Quang Lang mission on 8 November, things were carefully planned, thus ensuring execution of the plan would be as effective as possible.  Moreover, Lavelle was for the first time applying his “liberal interpretation” of the rules of engagement:  The aircraft could expend their ordnance without first being fired upon because they were flying over North Vietnam, where the radars were always activated against them.  The mission was an unabashed success; the aircraft so surprised the enemy that the latter had no time at all to open fire upon the aircraft.


From 23 January to 9 March, Lavelle directed 19 other “pre-planned” protective reaction missions against “highly effective North Vietnamese weapon systems” such as missiles, missile sites, and associated equipment.  None of these missions targeted civilians and none resulted in the loss of an American aircraft.  He took pains to point out to the SASC that these 20 missions were a very tiny fraction of the 25,000-40,000 missions flown during Lavelle’s tenure as Seventh Air Force commander, but that does not mean that Lavelle was ashamed of them or attempted to hide them.  Indeed, he believed they were wholly justified:


It was quite clear that we were first encouraged to be and then commended for being more aggressive; that we were told to be more flexible; that we were told to increase the frequency of reconnaissance flights over NVN; that we were told to increase the number of fighter escorts with the reconnaissance aircraft to ensure effective results on protective reaction strikes; that Washington wouldn’t question our aiming points and would back us up.  It was also very clear that the J.C.S. representative at the Honolulu conference, and higher authority, the J.C.S., CINCPAC, and CINCPACAF in messages, had made very liberal interpretations of the Rules of Engagement (R.O.E.) concerning protective reaction strikes.  That rule covered the targets that could be attacked and the conditions under which they could be struck.  The authorized targets are certainly less ambiguous and less subject to interpretation than the authorized condition or “activated against.”  Higher authority had recommended, encouraged and then commended an extremely liberal targeting policy, well beyond the language of the R.O.E.  This liberal interpretation by higher authority of what could be struck, plus the encouragement to be more aggressive and more flexible, influenced my determination to make a similar, though I believe less liberal, interpretation of the conditions under which we could strike.


When all was said and done, the committee members had two sets of lingering questions.  The first had to do with Lavelle’s apparent failure to share with his superiors his concerns and his decision to liberally interpret the rules of engagement.  There were, for example, the suspicious circumstances surrounding a raid conducted on 5 January against the Moc Chau radar, which apparently had something to do with controlling Mig’s.  The SASC members were aware that the JCS had chastised Lavelle and his boss, General Abrams, because the mission did not clearly fit a strict interpretation of the rules of engagement.  This was a clear case involving GCI radars—the kind that were netted with the Fan Song missile radar—and the JCS balked about attacking them.  But, as Lavelle pointed out in his testimony, he received approval to attack them “approximately 3 weeks later,” i.e., before the end of January.


Of course, this still does not address Lavelle’s failure to brief higher ups about his liberal interpretation of the rules of engagement.  If one boils down the testimony, this lapse was largely due to missed opportunity or geographic separation.  Given the frantic pace at which things were happening, General Lavelle didn’t have the time to travel to Honolulu or Washington to explain things to his bosses, and he fully believed that he was operating within his sphere of proper authority as the Seventh Air Force commander.


The second set of lingering questions was also an important question for Sergeant Franks:  How is it that some of the OPREP 4s came to be falsified?  Was Lavelle the mastermind of a plot to hide his liberal interpretation of the rules of engagement from his superiors and the American people?  Did he orchestrate a concerted effort to fabricate classified official reports?


At no time did I intend to mislead my superiors concerning these missions.  I did not lie about what I was doing, nor did I order any of my subordinates to misrepresent the truth.  It is true that some reports were falsified at a lower echelon of command, which probably resulted from my failure to make clear my objectives and my interpretation of the pertinent rule of judgment.


In other words, Lavelle believed that the falsification was instigated as a result of a misunderstanding or misinterpretation of a remark Lavelle made:


Senator Schweiker.  It must have been something specific that caused the misunderstanding.


General Lavelle.  Yes, sir.  On the strike at Dong Hoi airfield on the 23rd of January, I was in the command and control center monitoring that strike, watching it very carefully. There was our [deleted] to Dong Hoi.


Senator Schweiker.  Yes, I saw that part of it in here.


General Lavelle.  When the strike aircraft pulled off the target they reported [deleted] they hit Dong Hoi, they were successful, all ammunition was expended, no reaction.  At that time I told my Director of Operations we could not report “no reaction.  We should have reported “hostile reaction, radar” because there was no way we could have flown into that area without those radars picking us up.


In other words, Lavelle was insisting that they report what he believed to be a fact:  there had been a reaction—not firing from the ground, but the reaction of a vast radar network that was designed to deprive aircrews of early warnings.  From Lavelle’s perspective, “no reaction” was as false a report as the claim that they had received anti-aircraft fire.


Senator Dominick.  You did not intend your instructions to the Director of Operations-”that we could not report ‘no enemy reaction,’“ as a general instruction?


General Lavelle.  No, sir.


Yet, how was it possible for the falsification system to become such an elaborate enterprise involving so many persons and so many dedicated hours of staff work?


I told my Director of Operations [General Alton Slay] that we could not report “no enemy reaction.”  “Hostile radar” would have been a proper and, in my opinion, an accurate report.  Unfortunately, as my instructions were passed from my Director of Operations probably to the wing commander, to the wing deputy for operations, to the squadron commander, to the intelligence officer on duty and finally, to the sergeant technician who prepared the follow-on reports, the word apparently got distorted.  Although I feel they should have reported “hostile reaction, enemy radar,” the detailed following report form was filled out indicating heavy AAA fire.  This and at least two other reports were submitted with similar erroneous information.  The inaccurate reports were OPREP 4 reports which are formated [sic], extremely detailed reports; readable only by a technician or with a key to the format.  These reports were routed to the report section of my staff; I never saw them.  As commander, I usually saw the OPREP-3 reports which are flash reports designed to provide key personnel with limited, pertinent poststrike information.


Lavelle was a very powerful Air Force commander who had earned the respect of his subordinates.  As the misunderstanding was passed from echelon to echelon it became amplified and acquired the imprimatur of rationally grounded accepted practice.  Because Lavelle never read the OPREP 4s, he had no way of telling that the falsification was occurring, and no one told him that they were doing what they believed he had ordered.


There was thus a single lingering question:  Who was the highest ranking person to know that falsification was occurring?


Senator Bentsen.  Who do you think was the—do you know—who the highest subordinate was that you had under you who knew of the falsification of the reports at a time when you did not yet know of them?  Did General Slay know of the falsification of the reports?


General Lavelle:  Sir, I would rather not say who I think because I am not sure that I know.


Senator Bentsen.  All right.  Do you know?


General Lavelle.  No, sir.


Following General Lavelle’s testimony on 11 and 12 September, General Lavelle’s boss, General Abrams, appeared on 13 September, and Sergeant Franks appeared on Thursday, 14 September.  General Abrams essentially confirmed that he and General Lavelle had attempted to receive increased authority from Washington, but he denied any knowledge of Lavelle’s , “liberal” interpretation of the rules, and he was certainly unaware of any false reporting.  Sergeant Franks’ testimony is summarized in the “A” case.


On Friday, 15 September, the SASC received testimony from two more key players:  Colonel Charles A. Gabriel, Commander of the 432d Tactical Reconnaissance Wing, and Captain Douglas Murray, Sergeant Franks’ OIC.




Colonel Gabriel was asked a sequence of questions clearly designed to confirm or infirm the testimony of previous witnesses.  For example, he immediately confirmed that on perhaps “25 to 30” missions, his wing “was given instructions from Seventh Air Force to conduct a planned strike against specific targets regardless of whether or not there was a reaction from the air defenses in North Vietnam.”  However, while he believed that most of these missions were flown in February and March 1972, it was his recollection that the first such mission was flown on 8 November against the Quang Lang airfield.  He did confirm that he was first told he could not report “no reaction” on 23 January:


The Chairman.  Did that happen to you now, did you say, you got a call like that?


Colonel Gabriel.  No, sir; the call from 7th Air Force came to my command post but then I did discuss with General Slay and he said, “Yes, you will report it that way each time, regardless of whether or not there is a reaction you will report reaction, fighters expended.”


The Chairman.  So during the course of this matter you and General Slay did discuss this very item about the false reporting.


Colonel Gabriel.  Yes, sir; General Slay.


However, Gabriel denied that he ever discussed false reporting with General Lavelle.  The only time the subject came up was as they were entering a commander’s conference; General Lavelle teased Gabriel about his initial “no reaction” report on 23 January.  He never discussed false OPREP 4 reports or the dual reporting with General Lavelle.  The only person with whom he ever discussed false reporting was General Slay.


No one in the 432d Tactical Reconnaissance Wing ever approached General Gabriel with a complaint about false reporting.  But neither did Colonel Gabriel question the orders he was receiving from General Slay.  How come?


The reason I didn’t, of course, is because he issued me the rules of engagement as well as the orders.  Looking back, I think certainly if his directions were to strike civilian targets, cities or anything not directly related to our military objectives over there, I certainly would have questioned the orders.  But since these were all military targets and I had one authority that I answer to, the 7th Air Force, for the rules of engagement as well as the strikes, I assumed he had the authority to tell me what to do.




Captain Murray was Sergeant Franks’ OIC.  On 1 September 1972, he had accumulated seven years of Air Force commissioned service.  He essentially confirmed Sergeant Franks’ testimony and account of his activities.  He indicated that he had received instructions from his boss, Lt Col Glendenning, about the dual-track reporting system.  He admitted that Franks questioned the procedure, but he did not understand this questioning to be the equivalent of a moral objection or that he didn’t want to do it.


However, the committee was especially interested in why “some alarm didn’t go off when someone questioned filing false reports.”  Captain Murray’s response to this question was the following:


Sir, let me describe it this way:  I think you have to look at the framework of thought here.

First of all, and these are all facts that should be considered together, at the wing level we were not involved in planning and policy decisions.  Likewise we were not involved—particularly in the intelligence division and particularly the sections of that division which I was responsible for—we were not involved in the determination of the rules of engagement, what those rules should be and how they should be not only developed but also interpreted.

Then you have got to consider the fact that they are rather complex; it is not a simple black and white decision, issue, so far as we are concerned.

Third, you have got to consider—and this is a factor that I would consider—that the targets that were being hit were in fact military targets; they were targets that you hit earlier—that type, I mean, that type of target—hit previously in missions that were authorized and this entered into it.

The fourth factor would be the idea of the reports themselves.  Yes, the reporting procedure was different; we have had different reporting procedures before.  The report that went out for general dissemination did not have all the information that the report had—the special report—that went out and in fact had protective reactions included in it.  But at the same time there was a special, specat report that had the actual information in it and that information was going to the 7th Air Force level of command.

The next factor that should be considered is that, taking all of this into consideration, you operate under a concept or an assumption of legitimacy and that is not to question orders unless you feel there is some illegality in the orders and in the system of trust.

And the last factor I think to consider was the fact that this was not done in secrecy; no one was called in separately; the procedure was outlined to the entire office and there was never any attempt by anyone to conceal the procedure. So all these factors together in my mind did not present a reasonable doubt that the order was illegal and, therefore, I proceeded to follow it.





Major General Alton D. Slay testified on Tuesday, 19 September 1972.  General Slay had been General Lavelle’s Deputy Chief of Staff, Operations, and he assumed that job in late 1971.  As Slay described it to Senator Goldwater, his working relationship with General Lavelle was a close one:  Lavelle’s approach was to be involved in “the real nitty-gritty detailed planning right down to the nth degree as to what could be done on that particular mission.”  This was especially true of the pre-planned reaction strikes:


General Lavelle personally directed each one of these.  He would not allow any of his staff to make the decision to go on one of these.  This was his personal decision and, as a matter of fact, as I said before, he would describe the numbers of airplanes that would go and quite often we would perhaps differ on that and we would dicker back and forth as to how many airplanes we should send on this particular raid or, in fact, whether it should be sent.


Slay would convey this information to Colonel Gabriel, and once the mission had been flown, Gabriel would transmit the correct results to Slay, who then would take this information straight to Lavelle and brief him on the outcome.  Initially, Gabriel merely called Slay over a “secure line,” but Lavelle sent Slay back for more information so often that Slay asked Gabriel to send “specat” secret messages instead.


Was there a time when General Lavelle switched from a strict interpretation of the rules of engagement to a more liberal view?  Did he change his policy from “fire only when fired upon” to “always assume hostile action”?  Slay’s answer was negative; “[Lavelle’s] position was from the very word ‘go’ that you just by definition of the fact that you were over North Vietnam, that you would have a reaction.”


Did Lavelle know about the false reports?  In reply to this question from Senator Stennis, Slay said the following:


General Slay.  Lavelle knew, sir, that regardless of whether there was reaction or not, it would be reported that there would be reaction. He knew that because he directed it.

The Chairman.  That came from him; correct?

General Slay.  That came from him.

The Chairman.  That came from him, correct?

General Slay.  That to me is the falsification of the reports, if that is the right word.

The Chairman.  Yes.

General Slay.  And, again, I don’t know how many of those there were. He knew that the specific reports, the so-called specats, came to me because he was briefed on each one of them.

The Chairman.  That was the true report that came to you?

General Slay.  Whether you call it the true report, all I asked General Gabriel was to send me the—exactly what happened on that mission in clear text.


Did Lavelle also see the OPREP 4s?  Slay doubted that “anyone above the rank of sergeant or so whoever, at headquarters, whoever looks at the OPREP 4.”


Given all of this, why didn’t Slay challenge Lavelle outright about this operation?  While Slay did raise the subject of the protective reaction strikes, he did not challenge Lavelle directly:  “if you want to how the honest-to-God truth, I thought somebody was holding his hand.”  As he put it elsewhere in his testimony:  “I accepted the fact that General Lavelle would not be such a damned fool to go about this on his own.”


On 6 October the SASC voted on General Lavelle’s nomination to be retired as a Lieutenant General.





General John D. Lavelle’s nomination to be retired as a Lieutenant General (= three stars) was disapproved by the SASC on 6 October 1972.  He retained his rank as a Major General (= two stars).


On 5 April 1974, Senator Hughes wrote a letter to every member of the Senate, and that letter was entered into the record on 24 April.  The opening paragraph notes that the Senate will soon act on “Air Force promotion list 91,” and it urges the Senate to “decline to consent to the proposed nominations of Brigadier General Charles A. Gabriel for the temporary rank of Major General and Major General Alton D. Slay for the permanent rank of Major General.”  Toward the end of this lengthy letter, Hughes wrote the following:


. . . to decide not to punish a man for his actions is one thing, but it is quite another thing to reward him with higher rank and our confidence.  I could not rest easy if I thought that one of these men who knowingly participated in this false reporting might one day become Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

The integrity of our command and control structure, both within the military and under civilian authority, depends upon men of the highest character, whose obedience to our law and the Constitution is unquestioned.

Hindsight is no substitute for foresight, and honest admission of error cannot replace good judgment at the time.  The otherwise distinguished military records of these men cannot quell my own doubts to how they might act in future circumstances.


On 24 April 1972, by a vote of 51-36, the Senate approved the nomination of Major General Alton D. Slay to become a Major General on the permanent list.  He eventually was promoted to General (= four stars), with an effective date of rank of 1 Apri1 1978.


That same day, by a vote of 53 to 35, the Senate voted to advance Brigadier General Charles A. Gabriel to the temporary rank of Major General.  He subsequently earned his fourth star on 1 August 1980.  In July 1982 he became Chief of Staff of the United States Air Force.


Jerome F. O’Malley, the Vice Commander of the 432d Tactical Reconnaissance Wing, became a general officer, earning his fourth star on 1 June 1982.


Captain Murray eventually became a Colonel.


Sergeant Franks asked to be relieved of his intelligence duties in June 1972.  In one of his columns in June, Seymour Hersh revealed a sergeant from Iowa and assigned to Udorn blew the whistle on Lavelle.  There were only two sergeants in the Current Intelligence Division, and the other one was from California.  Thus, Franks came to feel that his position was untenable.


He was transferred from the intelligence shop to base social actions, where he became the “custodian” for the “coffee shop” run by social actions.  Service members would come into the coffee shop to discuss their problems, and Franks would counsel them.  When he asked for access to classified information to prepare his testimony before the Senate, his request was denied, and he was taken out of the coffee shop and made a clerk-typist in the social actions office proper.  He returned to the States on 28 August for McCoy Air Force Base in Florida, where he was also put to work as a clerk-typist.





“AAA” “anti-aircraft artillery” ; also known as “triple A “

“AF/IG” “Air Force Inspector General”

“Brief” “to give information to”

“CINCPAC” “Commander in Chief, Pacific”

“CINCPACAF” “Commander in Chief, Pacific Air Forces” (works for CNCPAC)

“Debrief” “to get information from”

“DMZ” “demilitarized zone” between North and South Vietnam

“GCI” “ground control intercept” radars; used primarily for air traffic control”

“HASC” “House Armed Services Committee”

“IG” “Inspector General”

“JCS” “Joint Chiefs of Staff”

“Mig” type of Sino-Soviet aircraft

“NVN” “North Vietnam”

“OIC” “Officer in Charge”

“Recce” “reconnaissance”

“RHAW” “Radar Homing and Warning”

“ROE” “Rules of Engagement”

“SAM” “Surface-to-air missile”

“SASC” “Senate Armed Surfaces Committee”

“Seance” “intelligence briefing”

“Standup” “staff meeting”; personnel come to attention (stand up) as commander enters

“Triple A” see “AAA”

“TSgt” “Technical Sergeant”





1.  General officers carry a “temporary” and “permanent” rank.  The temporary rank is the rank in which they serve.  The permanent rank is the rank at which they retire, unless Congress promotes them to a higher rank at the time of their retirement.  General Lavelle’s temporary rank was “General” (= four stars), but his permanent rank was “Major General” (= two stars).


2.  The word “Mig” is also spelled “MIG” in the testimony, and the plural form of “Mig” is given as “Mig’s.”  The spelling of the word as it appears in the original text is followed as faithfully as possible.  In any case, a “Mig” is a fighter jet of Soviet design and Sino-Soviet manufacture.


3.  Colonel Gabriel was promoted to Brigadier General in February 1972, but did not “pin on” or wear the rank until 1 November 1972.  It is for this reason that he is referred to as “Colonel” and “General” in the testimony.