Samuel A. Adams

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Samuel A. Adams
Born June 14, 1934
Died October 10, 1988
Alma mater Harvard College
Occupation intelligence analyst and whistleblower

Samuel Alexander Adams (June 14, 1934 – October 10, 1988), known as Sam Adams, was an analyst for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). He is best known for his role in discovering that during the mid-1960s American military intelligence had underestimated the number of Vietcong and North Vietnamese Army soldiers. Although his position was challenged, he pushed the case within the CIA for a higher troop count. His efforts, however, met strong and persistent opposition from the Army's MACV which, in the short-term, prevailed against him.

Adams eventually resigned from the CIA, following his testimony for the defense during the 1973 prosecution of Daniel Ellsberg. In 1975 his article on intelligence appeared in Harper's. He testified before a House committee. In 1982 he was a consultant for a television documentary on Vietnam, and consequently he was named as a co-defendant in a well-known civil trial for libel, which was successfully defended. When he died, he was finishing his book about the CIA in Vietnam.

Family, education[edit]

Although he was born in Bridgeport, Connecticut, he was born into the prominent Adams family of Massachusetts. His father Pierpont Adams was a member of the New York Stock Exchange. Sam Adams attended St. Mark's School in Southborough, Massachusetts. He graduated in European history from Harvard College, class of 1955. After two years in the Navy, he attended Harvard Law School, then worked in banking.[1][2]

Career in the CIA[edit]

From 1963 to 1973 Sam Adams served in the CIA.

Africa division[edit]

Starting as an intelligence analyst at the Congo desk, in the CIA's new Africa Division, he read everything and talked to everybody, and "quickly became one of Washington's reigning authorities on the Congo". He wrote on its economy, but it was policial turbulence in the newly independent state that drew world attention, including Cuban arrivals and Che. Especially, Adams won commendations for his coverage of the Simba rebellion. Although at first greeted with "snickers" he successfully predicted of the Simba invasion of Congo from the east, their reaching Kisangani (then called Stanleyville), which prompted an intervention to rescue hostages. Adams, celebrated at CIA, recalled, "It was terrific... one of the high points of my life."[3][4][5]

Far East division[edit]

In 1965 he transferred to the Vietnam desk, Southeast Asia Branch of the Far East Division.[6][7]

Order of Battle[edit]

Adams was given an assignment to estimate the number of Vietcong guerrillas. From his research into captured enemy documents and other sources, he "concluded that previous estimates had undercounted the communists by hundreds of thousands. The implications were astounding."[8] If the Vietcong enemy combatant count was higher, it implied that the prospects for a South Vietnamese military victory were dimmed. It questioned American claims of progress on the battlefield. It'd be "politically disastrous" for the U.S. government. This numbers dispute became known in military terms as the Order of Battle (O/B) controversy.[9][10]

His findings, at first ignored, then challenged, after a heated struggle were not adopted. The Army's MACV forcefully insisted on its lower numbers, and the CIA in 1967, due to the domestic political environment, reluctantly agreed. Following the Tet offensive in early 1968, however, the controversy was revisited. The numbers of enemy combatents were raised to a higher count, more in accord with Adams' original conclusions.[11][12][13]

Challenging CIA[edit]

By then, Adams had resigned his Vietnam post and was doing CIA analysis of neighboring Cambodia. Yet he persisted in advancing the highter count of Vietcong in the 'Order of Battle' controvery, dispite the institutional fallout between CIA and MACV. He claimed that the CIA had compromised its integrity. He filed formal charges against DCI Richard Helms. He became notorious to many in the agency, and acquired a general reputation as a "gadfly, pariah and nemesis."[14][15][16][17]

In 1969 Adams, fearing that his opponents would destroy them, secretly removed CIA files and documents which would support his case. He buried them in the woods near his 250-acre (1.0 km2) farm in rural Virginia. His 1973 testimony in federal court,[18] where he restated his position on the 'Order of Battle' numbers, caused consternation at CIA. Following this trial, he retired from the agency.[19]

'Order of Battle' controversy[edit]

The 'Order of Battle' (O/B) originates in the military. The O/B controversy as it developed in Adams' CIA career is discussed above. Adams entered a contested arena between large and powerful institutions, each with multifaceted political dimensions. This labyrinth, and the role Adams played in it, is further described below.

Institutional context[edit]

The military takes orders from the President, who is Commander-in-Chief, and who also influences the Army budget and officer promotion. Yet an Army's victory or defeat in war can determine the success or failure of a President's foreign policy, likely a key element in the next election. President Johnson and the Army, particularly the MACV, arrived at the chosen strategy in Vietnam, basically a war of attrition. In order to explain the conflict to the American public, and garner their support, the Johnson Administration and the Army coordinated around a narrative derived from the strategy. The narrative would explain the progress of the war.

In a war of attrition victory belonged to the army which methodically reduces the number of enemy combatants.[20] It begins to wear the enemy down when it does so at a rate that is higher than the enemy's ability to replace his losses. The 'crossover' point arrives when this rate is reached. Eventually, the enemy will lose the war when he no longer can field forces sufficient to sustain the fight. Accordingly, the O/B numbers were a direct indication of the progress of the war.

The O/B here directly concerned the composition, the overall size and particulars, of the Communist fighting forces in South Vietnam, the Viet Cong and the North Vietnam Army (the PAVN). A complicating factor was the composition of the Viet Cong forces. Its conventional army was trained and armed, and full time, as were its 'combat guerrillas'. Yet there were also other categories of combatants: people with poorer weapons, or differently equipped, or less trained or in training, or who were primarily support units, or who might fight or participate only part time. "A characteristic of a guerrilla war is that the government side never knows how many of the enemy it faces." Or who, as "every Vietnamese who passes in the street could be a guerrilla."[21]

President Johnson wanted the Army to be announcing war events that conformed to the politico-military narrative established. A steady decline in the number of enemy combatants would fit the narrative of progress toward victory. The Army for a few years had been making such 'positive' announcements. In the summer of 1966 Adams, working for the CIA, found evidence indicating that the number of enemy combatants was perhaps twice that being reported.[22]

The CIA Charter at that time gave the agency two major tasks:[23] i) production of intelligence for the President in executive branch, its primary consumer; and, ii) liaison with the other intelligence agencies of the federal government in order to produce a coherent, collective intelligence report. A very large component of the American intelligence community remains the several military intelligence agencies.[24] The second task of coordination among would result in a yearly National Intelligence Estimate (NIE). Regarding the first task, the CIA had been for years providing the President with intelligence reports that were generally pessimistic on the Vietnam conflict. President Johnson had chosen to neglect much of this prior information.[25]

Numbers for 1967 NIE[edit]

The 1967 NIE went through 22 drafts. The available pool of future fighters was a further complication. The replacement potential here include forces coming down the Ho Chih Minh trail from North Vietnam. The issue as it arose thus had several components, simplified as: a) the existing war narrative, b) the prior numbers broadcast to the public, and c) what type of combatants were included in the count. In 1966 in South Vietnam, that would be: a) a war of attrition, b) about [200,000], and c) conventional and guerrilla, excluding the other categories. The Army had been counting primarilly only PAVN, and VC conventional and combat guerrilla forces.

In part, this was due to the Army's view of the struggle in more conventional terms, rather than as an revolutionary insurgency fighting a political war or a people's struggle, with sometimes quite different tactics and strategies. Institutional context and political relevance of the controversy, as well as it military consequences, political tones.[26]

As Commander-in-Chief, the U.S. President controlls the Army. The Presidency, being a political office democratically elected, must address political forces at play. Johnson had made the decision to seek advice primarilly from the military. His profile was more domestic with the Great Society programs, but he needed to satisfy the conservative by winning the war. The Army was stuck, however, in conventional war thinking. Johnson was, meanwhile, was accused for changing stories, and of a credibility gap.[27][28]

Helms knew that the President could chose simply to ignore him as he had the former DCI McCone in 1964. Moreover, Johnson was fully informed of the situation, of the dispute over the numbers, of the more likely probability of the higher numbers. Accordingly, an NIE that stated lower numbers, all things considered, would not be misinforming the President. Helms, too, considered that the Army was there fighting, killing and dying; it was their call. Also, Helms did not want to alienate military intelligence because he wanted their cooperation on an issue currently outstanding: the bombing of North Vietnam, which the CIA from the start generally considered as a poor, ineffective tactic, one that should be halted now. He allowed SAVA George Carver to agree to MACV's lower numbers during negotiations in Saigon.[29]

Tet and recalibration[edit]

A smaller Viet Cong force could not have mounted Tet offensive. Although in the end a military defeat for the Viet Cong, it was an unintended propaganda victory that knocked out U.S. President Johnson. With his prior credibility gap, and changing stories, it was not possible for Johnson to twist the politico-military narrative. In the next NIE there would be a recalibration to higher numbers, to accord more with Adams. Yet the whole episode was rendered dated because the whole reason for the fudged numbers no longer existed: Johnson's explanation of the progress of the war to the American public. Regarding the 1968 Presidential elections, its was 'Game Over' for Johnson. Yet this result did not satisfy Sam Adams, who appeared to want somehow a permanent institutional fix that would prevent in the future the political manipulation of intelligence. But such a problem seems perennial, e.g., WMD in 2002.[30]

Adams had grown frustrated with the perversion of intelligence to meet political objectives. He believed there had been political pressures in the military to depict the North Vietnamese and Vietcong in 1967 as weaker than they actually were..[31][32]After vis iting South Vietnam four times between 1966 and 1967, Mr. Adams concluded that senior military intelligence officers were underestimating the strength of the enemy, perhaps by half. He argued for a higher troop count, but late in 1967 the CIA reached an agreement with the military on lower figures. Adams responded with an internal memorandum calling the agreement "a monument of deceit." In January 1968, after the Tet offensive in Vietnam, the CIA adopted an enemy count along the lines he had recommended.[33][34][35][36]

Adams resigned from the CIA later in 1973, but he did not stop pushing on the issue of tainted intelligence. Key to research: organized data (file cards). South Vietnamese generated data, extrapolation of data: Interrogations, captured documents, intercepts, photo-reconnaisance. Politicized military documents evidencing contradictions. Moment of discovery in a back office, viola!. Intelligence not politically tainted (infomation tweeked to accomodate the receiver/consumer). Political primacy of 'domestic policy' in achieving foreign results.[37][38][39]

In the media, and testimony[edit]

After leaving the CIA Adams continued to advance the issues that arose out of the 'Order of Battle' controversy. These included the nefarious tailoring of 'pure' intelligence in order to suit the political agenda of its primary consumers: the American government and its policymakers, and ultimately the chief executive.

Trial of Ellsberg and Russo[edit]

Adams appeared as a defense witness at the 1973 trial of Daniel Ellsberg and Anthony J. Russo. The case involved their role in the unauthorized publication of the top secret Pentagon Papers, a 47-volume, government-produced, secret history of the Vietnam War. The prosecution alleged felony violations of the Espionage Act of 1917, and of signed secrecy agreements, involving disclosure of government secrets, not to foreign powers, but to American newspapers.[40]

Adams testified concerning the military's false numbers for Viet Cong combatants. The deliberate undercounting had been officially adopted by the American intelligence community. His testimony was offered to show that supposed 'secret information' in the text of the Pentagon Papers contained in reality many fictions.[41]

The trial was held at the U.S. District Court in Los Angeles. Eventually, citing the "totality" of government misconduct, Federal judge William Matthew Byrne, Jr. dismissed all charges against Ellsberg and Russo.[42]

Article on CIA in Harper's[edit]

Adams did additional research. Fearful that his opponents would destroy evidence, he had already removed files and documents from the CIA, hiding them on a farm in rural Virginia. He also scouted out former contacts and CIA employees in order to bolster his cause. After his resignation from the agency in 1973, he sought the support of other intelligence officials to prove that there was a Saigon cover-up. He detailed his allegations in an article sent to Harper's Magazine. In 1975, in its May issue, Harper's published his article, "Vietnam Cover-Up: Playing war with numbers". Adams brought his cause to the public.[43]

House Intelligence Committee[edit]

Adams gave sworn testimony before the Pike Committee,[44] of the House of Representatives. This committee was holding hearings during the latter half of 1975. Although it shed needed light on the secret operations of CIA, it also acquired constroversy.[45] His remarks were welcomed; Adams and the House Pike committee on intelligence reached similar conclusions.[46][47]

CBS Vietnam documentary[edit]

In 1982 Adams provided critical evidence to CBS News reporters who made the documentary The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception. He claimed U.S. Army General William C. Westmoreland had conspired to minimize reported Vietnamese enemy troop strength in 1967.[48][49]

Westmoreland v. CBS[edit]

General Westmoreland in 1982 sued for libel against CBS News, and named as co-defendants the producer George Crile, correspondent Mike Wallace, and consultant Sam Adams. The case, Westmoreland v. CBS, went to trial but ended in a private, out-of-court settlement.[50][51]

Adams testified "concerning the intelligence gathering and reporting of enemy strength." He told the court, "I believe there was a conspiracy. There was an attempt to do wrong with the numbers... . I have always felt that what went on in the 1967-1968 period was a conspiracy." Adams also stated, "I do not believe Gen. Westmoreland communicated fully to Washington."[52]

Also testifying at the 1984-1985 trial were several Army officers of MACV in the mid-1960s. Then Col. (later Gen.) Daniel O. Graham (chief of MACV intelligence estimates), Gen. Joseph A. McChristian (MACV intelligence), and Col. Gaines Hawkins (chief of MACV's O/B section). The MACV O/B ('Order of Battle') estimate was "undercut" by "latter admissions" at trial that

"[The officers] had known at the time that General Westmoreland's insistence on an O/B total of no more than 300,000 was an artificial position dictated by political considerations, and that the true number of enemy forces had almost certainly been much higher."[53]

After an 18-week trial, while the jury was beginning their deliberation, the parties negotiated and reached agreement. Evidently it was testimony "by his former chief of military intelligence" in Vietnam, which agreed more with Adams, that convinced Westmoreland to settle.[54] The General received no money, but in a public statement each side expressed respect for the other.[55]

The law suit ended in February 1985. In May 1993, Westmoreland appeared on NBC's The Today Show. He discussed the Vietnam war in 1967-68, and opined that the true calamity of the Tet offensive was its surprise, because the public did not know the Viet Cong's real strength. "And if I had to do it over again, I would have called a press conference and made known to the media the intelligence we had."[56]

His book War of Numbers[edit]

Adams worked on his revising his memoirs at his home in Vermont. The book was published posthumously.[57]


The Sam Adams Award for integrity in intelligence, given since 2002, is named after him.


  1. ^ Krebs (1988), ¶ 6.
  2. ^ Randolph (1985), ¶¶ 13-15.
  3. ^ Sinclair (1995), ¶¶ 5-9 ("reigning authorities" quote, Cubans, Simba invasion).
  4. ^ Randolph (1985), ¶¶ 21-23 (prediction, "terrific" quote).
  5. ^ Krebs (1988), ¶ 7 (Congo economy).
  6. ^ Powers (1997).
  7. ^ Ranelagh (1978), p. 455.
  8. ^ Theoharis (2005), p. 233 (quote).
  9. ^ Powers (1978), pp. 213-219.
  10. ^ Ford (1998), pp. 89-90 (Sam Adams), 87 ("disastrous" quote).
  11. ^ Ranelagh (1986), pp. 455-471, at pp. 462-463, 465 (Adams and numbers after Tet).
  12. ^ Theoharis (2005), p. 233.
  13. ^ See below, "Order of Battle controversy".
  14. ^ Andersen (1994), p.1.
  15. ^ Cf. Helms (2003), pp. 326-328.
  16. ^ Powers (1978), p. 221-222 (files charges).
  17. ^ Ranelagh (1986), pp. 469-470 (Adams bitter as wrong numbers lost lives).
  18. ^ At the Ellsberg espionage trial, see section below.
  19. ^ Krebs (1988).
  20. ^ Karnow (1983). Hence, the importance of body counts.
  21. ^ Pike (1966), quote, p. 239.
  22. ^ Powers (1978).
  23. ^ Immerman (2014).
  24. ^ Ranelagh (1986). Pending confirmation: Military Intelligence Corps (United States Army) (MI), Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI), the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA).
  25. ^ Helms, Powers, Ford, Theoharis.
  26. ^ Ford, Ranelagh, Powers, Sinclair, de Silva, Pike, Karnow, Taylor, Sheehan.
  27. ^ Carver v. Adams, Carver to Johnson.
  28. ^ Ranelagh, Helms, Powers, J-J; Karnow.
  29. ^ Ranelagh (1986).
  30. ^ Ford, Ranelagh, J-Jones, Andersen.
  31. ^ Ranelagh (1986), p.553.
  32. ^ Theoharis (2005), p.233.
  33. ^ Ford (1998).
  34. ^ Ranelagh (1986).
  35. ^ Powers (1978).
  36. ^ Sinclair (1995).
  37. ^ Andersen, Randolph, Sinclair; S.A., Hiam.
  38. ^ Randolph. A problematic political operative. Media, testimony. book. Rectification of names from 1975. Randolph's observations of Adams in monastery. Sinclair's quote re stuck on single issue quote by agent.
  39. ^ Randolph, Andersen, Sinclair, Theoharis, Ranelagh.
  40. ^ Ellsberg (2002), pp. 303 (secrecy agreements), 304 ("thousands of pages of top secret documents"), 429-430 (criminal prosecution, Espionage Act).
  41. ^ Randolph (1985) ¶36. Adams volunteered to testify that "the numbers Ellsberg was being tried for leaking were false anyway."
  42. ^ Ellsberg (2002), pp. 454-456 (case dismissed).
  43. ^ Adams (1975).
  44. ^ Now (2017) called the House Select Committee on Intelligence.
  45. ^ The Pike Committee was tagged for its "politically partisan manner" and as the source of leaks that "damaged national security". Publication of its official report was suppressed by House vote, but was leaked to the press. Ranelagh (1986), p.595 (quotes), cf. 593 (leaks).
  46. ^ Jeffreys-Jones (1989), pp. 207-212.
  47. ^ Theoharis (2005), p. 234.
  48. ^ Ford (1998), p.100.
  49. ^ Theoharis (2005), p. 234.
  50. ^ Jeffreys-Jones (1989), p.243.
  51. ^ Westmoreland's law suit was financed by politically conservative foundations. Mascaro, ¶ 10.
  52. ^ Times Wire Services (1988), quotes of Sam Adams.
  53. ^ Ford (1998), pp. 100-101 (officers' testimony), 91 (re Hawkins, re McChristian), 93 and 94 (re Graham), 100-101 ("known at that time" quote, cf. pp. 92, 94).
  54. ^ Times Wire Services (1988), quote re Westmoreland.
  55. ^ Theoharis (2005), pp. 234 (18-week trial, statement), 248-249 (Carver was a witness).
  56. ^ Mascaro, ¶ 13 (last ¶).
  57. ^ Andersen (1994).