- A.C. Thompson
producer and correspondent of the Frontline documentary, Terror in Little Saigon. He is a staff reporter at ProPublica and co-author of Torture Taxi: On the Trail of the CIA’s Rendition Flights.
- Rick Rowley
producer, writer and director of the Frontline documentary, Terror in Little Saigon. He was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature for the 2013 film Dirty Wars. He is an independent journalist with Big Noise Films.
During the 1980s, five Vietnamese-American reporters were murdered in the United States. Despite lengthy FBI probes, none of the victims’ killers were ever brought to justice.
Part 2 of our conversation with A.C. Thompson and Rick Rowley, who teamed up on the new PBS Frontline report, Terror in Little Saigon.
Thompson and Rowley uncover new evidence potentially tying a right-wing paramilitary Vietnamese exile group to the journalists’ deaths—and a U.S. government link that may have helped them evade justice. Could the documentary lead authorities to reopen the cases?
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Part 2 on our conversation on the Frontline documentary, Terror in Little Saigon.
When journalists are killed for doing their job, their names often become known around the world, martyrs in the cause of media freedom. But we’re now going to turn to a series of killings that happened in this country but were all but ignored. During the 1980s, five Vietnamese-American reporters were murdered. The killings shared key traits. All five victims appeared to be deliberately targeted. All five worked for small outlets serving the Vietnamese refugee community after the end of the Vietnam War in 1975. All had either voiced support for Vietnam’s Communists or had published criticism of a right-wing paramilitary Vietnamese exile group called the National United Front for the Liberation of Vietnam, known as “the Front.” And despite a lengthy FBI investigation, none of the victims’ killers were ever brought to justice. But now this case is being re-examined, thanks to a new PBS Frontline documentary called Terror in Little Saigon.
We’re joined by the men who made the film. A.C. Thompson is the documentary’s producer and correspondent and a staff reporter at ProPublica. Rick Rowley is producer, writer and director of Terror in Little Saigon. He’s an independent journalist with Big Noise Films, was nominated for an Academy Award for his film, Dirty Wars.
Let us begin with A.C. Thompson. Who were these five journalists in the United States who were murdered?
A.C. THOMPSON: So the first one was a guy named Duong Trong Lam, and he was in San Francisco, 1981. He was openly pro-Hanoi and published a newspaper that was a pro-Socialist newspaper. He was killed in ’81.
The next one was Dam Phong, Nguyen Dam Phong, in Houston. He was very different. He was staunchly anti-Communist. He was publishing a newspaper that was definitely anti-Communist. But he didn’t support the Front. He thought that they were frauds, and he didn’t believe the statements they were putting out. He was killed ’82, shot to death in his driveway, very similar to the first one.
In 1987, a magazine publisher in Orange County named Pham Van Tap was killed. He published an entertainment magazine. And after he was killed, the communiqué that went out said, “Hey, you were running ads for companies that were doing business with Vietnam. That means you were supporting the Communists, and that’s why we killed you.”
In 1989, Do Trong Nhan in Virginia was killed. And a year later, his colleague—less than a year later, his colleague, Le Triet, at the same magazine was also killed. That magazine was heavily opposed to the Front, and both men had spoken out against the Front.
AMY GOODMAN: A.C., how did you discover this story?
A.C. THOMPSON: I was working on a series of stories about Chauncey Bailey, an Oakland journalist who was murdered. And an Oakland filmmaker named Tony Nguyen came to me, and he said, “Hey, this happened in the Vietnamese-American community, in my community, over and over and over again, and nobody knows about it.” And I didn’t know about it. I had never heard these stories. And that planted the seed to do this project. Tony worked on this project as a associate producer. And that’s brought us to today.
I want to say one of the sad things about this is, as we’ve done this reporting, put out the project, there are people in the Vietnamese-American community who feel that we are casting a blanket portrayal of the community, that they’re all anti-Communist extremists and terrorists. And that’s not true at all. What we did is we went to search for a very, very small group of people behind these crimes and to illuminate the work that these journalists did and the price they paid. We are not casting a blanket judgment on the community at all.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to turn to a particularly emotional clip from Terror in Little Saigon. This is when you, A.C. Thompson, are speaking with Tu Nguyen, the son of the Houston reporter, Dam Phong.
A.C. THOMPSON: So look at this. This is terror incidents at that time—1981, arson, murder of this guy Lam, San Francisco, death threat naming your father, attack on this gentleman, murder of your father, murder of these people. It goes on and on and on and on.
The Front had a death squad. It was called K-9. Members of the group are telling us that K-9 killed your father.
TU NGUYEN: And my dad, he knew they were serious. But to him, his logic was: “Why would they want to take me out?” That’s the last thing what they want to do, because then the newspaper, the reporter will be all over him. Being a reporter, he say, “We look after each other. We’re very protective of each other.”
A.C. THOMPSON: Yeah. My profession, the English-language media, failed your father. We didn’t cover this story the way we should have. And that bothers me that people didn’t focus on him the way they should have.
TU NGUYEN: Thank you. You have—you have no idea. I waited 33 years to hear that. Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Tu Nguyen, the son of Dam Phong Nguyen, who was the Houston publisher and reporter who was murdered in 1982, speaking to A.C. Thompson, staff reporter at ProPublica and the producer and correspondent for this PBS Frontline documentary, Terror in Little Saigon, Rick Rowley, the producer, writer and director. So how is it possible, Rick, that in each of these stories, each of these murders, that the FBI did not crack any of these cases? Talk more about the power of the Front.
RICK ROWLEY: It’s a—I mean, it’s a really staggering thing, a staggering thing to all of us, that with total impunity this death squad could carry on a decade-long reign of terror. I mean, I think the sort of honest truth of it all is that if these journalists had been writing in English, if their readers had not been refugees, that this would—the response would have been very different. I think that—not just from local police, not just from the FBI, but from other journalists. I mean, we would have treated these people like fallen colleagues. And, you know, actually, I think we should point out, since we’re on Democracy Now!, that Juan González and CPJ were one of the only groups to do a really substantive reporting on these murders.
AMY GOODMAN: The Committee to Protect Journalists.
RICK ROWLEY: And the Committee to Protect Journalists back in the ’90s. And their work was actually an important sort of reference and touchstone to us.
AMY GOODMAN: Juan wrote the—what—the introduction to the 1994 Committee to Protect Journalists report called “Silenced: The Unsolved Murders of Immigrant Journalists in the United States.”
RICK ROWLEY: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, because these—after every one of these murders, there was a communiqué published, where the group publicly claimed responsibility for these murders, under a pseudonym and an acronym. You know, VOECRN was the group that claimed that, the Vietnamese Organization to Exterminate Communists and Restore the Nation. So, you have murders, and then you have a communiqué immediately after it that says, “We murdered this person because of their political speech. We executed them.” That is, on its face, really obviously more than just petty street crime. That is a—it’s a political murder. It should have—they should have immediately been made federal cases, in my opinion. So, it’s kind of staggering.
And, you know, talking to some of the FBI agents who were involved with this investigation, I mean, they were very frustrated by not being able to bring successful prosecutions in this case, too. Part of that was a lot of fear in the community. Even now, 30 years later, we ran into many, many people who were victims, family members of victims, who were afraid to go on camera. We did a very tragic interview with a man, Doan Van Toai, who was shot in the face and survived, who saw his killers and could have identified them back at the time, and said that after—after nothing happened for long enough, when the FBI finally came to him, he said, “I’m not going to cooperate with you, because you can’t protect me.” He said, “I came to this country thinking that the First Amendment protected speech here, and at last I was going to be able to say what was on my mind. And now I discover that there is no freedom at all for Vietnamese journalists.”
AMY GOODMAN: A.C. Thompson, can you talk about the Neutrality Act and how it fits into this story?
A.C. THOMPSON: Yeah, you know, the Neutrality Act is a rarely used law, but basically what it says is, if you are a resident of the U.S. or a citizen of the U.S., you can’t go start a war with another country. That’s a function of the government, not of private citizens. And the more we looked at the Front, the more we realized that they had been plotting a war and trying to start a war and fundraising for a war in total public. This was something known by Congress. It was something known by the State Department. It was something known—actually, a letter went to the president’s office, President Reagan at that time. It was something known by the CIA. And it was something known by the FBI. And we started thinking, you know, this may be a crucial failure that nobody stepped in here at that time and said, “Hey, this is not what we’re going to do. You can’t be a resident or a citizen of the U.S. and start a war.”
AMY GOODMAN: Why, A.C. Thompson, did members of the Front, in the first part of this interview that we played with you as you confront one of the members, why did they talk to you? At the end, he says, “You sound like the FBI.”
A.C. THOMPSON: You know, I think, for Be Tu, I think that he still has a certain amount of pride about what he did, and he’s proud of his accomplishments. And I want to say, that’s a very distinctly minority view within the community. There are very, very, very few people that feel that way. But for Be Tu, that was, I think, maybe the heroic moment of his life, and that’s part of why he wanted to speak.
AMY GOODMAN: Why were there no prosecutions under the Neutrality Act?
A.C. THOMPSON: You know, that’s a question that nobody has answered for us. I mean, part of what we hear is, you know, it was not politically feasible at that time. This was the Reagan era. The Reagan administration was openly saying, “Hey, we want to support the mujahideen in Afghanistan.” They were supporting proxy fighters in Angola. They were supporting the Contras in Nicaragua. And, you know, it was not the tenor of the times during the ’80s to go against the so-called freedom fighters.
RICK ROWLEY: Yeah, but, you know, even—
AMY GOODMAN: Rick Rowley.
RICK ROWLEY: Even though if it wasn’t—it wouldn’t be a popular political move, it would provide them with the leverage, the legal leverage, they could have used to flip people and pressure people and get them to talk about the murders that were going on domestically. I mean, it’s—you know, it’s a massive oversight. And when we—when A.C. and I, we went to Thailand to follow the trail of the Front, follow Dam Phong’s investigative trail, too—
AMY GOODMAN: Dam Phong, the Houston publisher.
RICK ROWLEY: Yeah, the Houston publisher, reporter Dam Phong went to Thailand to investigate the Front’s operations there. And they had a—they had a base right on the border, with hundreds of—hundreds of troops being trained and drilled. And they were armed. And Lao fighters there described opening up new cases of M-16s out of the box and preparing for, you know, excursions through Laos and Cambodia back to Vietnam. They were—you know, they were part of our constellation of Cold War partners at the time, I mean, next to the Khmer Rouge and the Lao anti-Communists.
AMY GOODMAN: And, A.C. Thompson, if you could talk more about what you learned about Richard Armitage’s relationship with the Front and with what happened in Thailand, as Rick was just describing it?
A.C. THOMPSON: Well, you know, the thing that was stunning to me is that in 1991, the FBI went and interviewed Richard Armitage. And he said, “Yeah, I knew the leader of the Front. We had been friends going back to Vietnam, going back to the war.” He said, “I had heard that his group had a death squad called K-9, comprised of former South Vietnamese special forces and special units. I think that my friend is capable of political assassinations.” And from everything we can tell, that was the first time he had talked to law enforcement about this. Now, when we contacted Richard Armitage, he said—he adjusted his statement some, and he said, “You know, I don’t know that my friend, Hoang Co Minh, the leader of the Front, would have conducted assassinations, but I think his group could have, absolutely.” And we were just—when we found this, we were really, frankly, stunned.
What we know is that in Thailand, the group had a patron, a general in the Thai army, who really allowed them to set up camp, who helped supply them with weapons, who allowed them to operate on the border of Thailand and Laos. And the group tried to invade Vietnam through Laos, going over the Mekong River and trekking across Laos into Vietnam. So this is sort of how they were operating.
AMY GOODMAN: What about the role of the CIA, A.C. Thompson?
A.C. THOMPSON: You know, that was a thing that we chased for a long time, to see if there was any CIA involvement or any involvement as a sort of off-the-shelf covert op that wasn’t the CIA. There’s a CIA cable out there that shows that the group was meeting with CIA personnel and that the CIA was aware of what they were doing. And people in the intelligence community tell us they were aware of what they were doing. We have not seen indications, beyond the help that Armitage offered, that the intelligence community in the U.S. was aiding these people.
AMY GOODMAN: These are journalists, Rick Rowley, the five journalists who were murdered, and you’re talking about how they didn’t do these things in investigating the murders. But this could be open today. I mean, there is no statute of limitations on murder.
RICK ROWLEY: Absolutely. And, you know, I hope that people will begin to look back into these murders. And, you know, 30 years afterwards, people are now willing to talk, were willing to talk to A.C. and I about things that they never told or admitted to the FBI. So, I think with the passage of time, these murders now, there’s a lot of new information that the FBI, if it wanted to, could look into. I think that these cases could be solved today.
AMY GOODMAN: What are the most important leads, A.C., that you think the FBI should follow right now?
A.C. THOMPSON: We interviewed a former top leader of the Front, and the second that we turned the camera off, he said, “So I was sitting in a meeting with other Front leaders, and they were planning to assassinate a journalist here in Orange County, a newspaper publisher. And I said, 'Oh, you know, I don't think that we should do that. I like that guy.’” And Rick and I looked at each other, and we were just stunned. We immediately asked our cinematographer, “Hey, did you hear that?” We immediately called my editor in New York and told him. We spoke to our translator immediately. “Hey, you know, this just happened.” So, if I was the FBI, he’s one person that I would go contact immediately.
AMY GOODMAN: And is there any indication? Has the FBI contacted you to ask you, now that your report has aired on PBS, Terror in Little Saigon, Rick or A.C.?
A.C. THOMPSON: I have not heard from the Bureau.
RICK ROWLEY: A.C., you should mention the tip line.
A.C. THOMPSON: So if there are people who have information about these crimes, if there are people who were victims of these crimes, if there are people who know about crimes we haven’t even heard about, we’d love for them to come forward and contact us. We can be contacted through the ProPublica website, via email, via snail mail, via phone. We can take tips in the Vietnamese language as well as English.
AMY GOODMAN: And you have now, in communities in the United States, in the Vietnamese community, you have the killers living alongside or nearby victims, is that right?
A.C. THOMPSON: As far as we can tell. And that’s a thing that seems to haunt the surviving victims. One of them told me, “Look, I’ve become an exile twice. We fled Saigon in '75 to flee Communist tyranny. We arrived here, and someone killed my relative. And now I feel like I've been exiled from the Vietnamese-American community, and I’m scared to be a part of that community.”
AMY GOODMAN: Rick, in your previous film, in Dirty Wars, that you did with Jeremy Scahill, you were looking at this history of—secret history of proxy armies, the whole issue of national—American national security. How does this compare?
RICK ROWLEY: You know, it’s kind of amazing. This feels, in a way, like a prologue to Dirty Wars. I mean, the template for covert ops and for proxy forces that are being spun up by our military intelligence community, you know, was really formed in the Vietnam era, and some of the cast of characters is even the same. I mean, Richard Armitage was at the center of these operations, you know, both back in the ’80s and also during the Bush years.
So, I mean, I think another important takeaway from this all is that this is, in many ways, a story of blowback. When you have a group formed by officers from the U.S.-trained military in South Vietnam, and when the war that we’ve been arming and funding them to fight, when we say that war is over, the war doesn’t end for them. I mean, they continue fighting it. And the battlefield isn’t necessarily 9,000 miles away. That battlefield for them could run right through a suburb in Houston. So, I mean, time and again, you see this. You see this in a very different way with the Afghan mujahideen, when we arm and fund and train them for years, and then when we decide the war is over, the war doesn’t end for them. And the war might not be so neatly, neatly siloed in a foreign country. So, you know, for us today, that is an important takeaway, as we continue to arm, train and spin up proxies as one of our favorite tools of foreign diplomacy and militarism. You know, I mean, these things—you know, these are not groups that we ultimately have control over.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you both for being with us, A.C. Thompson and Rick Rowley. Their film is called Terror in Little Saigon. It’s a PBS Frontline documentary. You can get it now by?
RICK ROWLEY: Off the Frontline website, you can stream the whole thing for free.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.