Western Intelligence and SEATO's war on subversion, 1956-63
Between the French defeat in Vietnam of 1954 and the beginning of significant US intervention in Vietnam in 1964-65, Western and South East Asian intelligence and security bodies co-operated in opposing subversion and armed insurgency under the auspices of the South East Asia Collective Defence Treaty, signed in Manila in 1954. The 'Manila Pact' saw the establishment of the South East Asia Treaty Organisation, (SEATO) a regional equivalent to both North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and the Baghdad Pact or Central Treaty Organisation (CENTO). SEATO's signatories were the United States, Great Britain, France, Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, Pakistan and the Philippines.
This article examines one part of SEATO activity which was the work of the Committee of Security Experts (CSE) a secretariat liaising between the security and intelligence organisations of SEATO signatories and convening biannual meetings of those organisations.
The birth of SEATO took place in a region still in the throes of decolonisation and challenged by communism. The Pacific war had fatally disrupted European colonial control and allowed both nationalist and communist forces to emerge and strengthen. In Europe, the communist challenge lead Truman to enunciate in 1947 his doctrine of containment which was to be sharply tested in Southeast Asia. That same year saw a radical turn in Soviet foreign policy which spurred on communist forces to mount significant armed challenges in Malaya, Indochina and the Philippines, and lesser ones in Burma and Thailand.
But the decisive events in the strategic situation of Southeast Asia were the victory of Mao's communists in China in 1949 shortly followed by the Korean War. Doubts about US commitment to the region evaporated and US policy toward the region turned from non-intervention to intervention.. In the case of Indochina, US material support for France, initially for reasons of co-operation in Europe, was dramatically bolstered to contain communism. The American fear was that Indochina would create a 'knock on' effect enabling other communist parties to seize power.
It was the surrender in May 1954 of the French garrison at Dien Bien Phu and the subsequent Geneva Accords which led to the creation of SEATO. The Geneva Accords temporarily partitioned Viet Nam at the 17th parallel, ceding the north to the communists led by Ho Chi Minh. The agreement also provided for reunification elections which were never held, largely because the communists were widely expected to win, according to former Director of Central Intelligence, Charles Colby. After the signing of the Geneva Accords Cambodia effectively declared its neutrality, a worrying move to the US, as was its later recognition of the Peoples' Republic of China.
By the time of the creation of the SEATO administrative structure in 1955 communist groups in South East Asia had reached very different stages of development. While the communists had gained part of Viet Nam, military insurgencies led by communist parties in Malaya and the Philippines had been defeated.
In Thailand, where the administrative bodies of SEATO were established, small communist groups existed in some urban areas, in the remote north and in the far south which was also a safe rear area for the Malayan Communist Party (MCP). With its common borders with Laos, Cambodia, Burma and Malaya, Thailand was regarded as the key to Western efforts to counter communism and was the main base for the Central Intelligence Agency operations in the South East Asia in the period. The CIA was closely involved in training and arming the Thai Border Police in a series of growing counter-insurgency operations from the early 1950s onwards.
The Republic of Indonesia, founded in 1949 after a long period of Dutch colonial control, had a significant, growing communist party which had won nearly one quarter of the popular vote at the 1955 election. In 1958 the CIA had encouraged a group of dissident military leaders to start a local revolt directed at the central government. Using its Civil Air Transport, the CIA provided covert military support in an unsuccessful attempt to overthrow Indonesian President Sukarno. Sukarno, a leftwing nationalist who sponsored the neutralist Non-Aligned Movement, was known for anti-Western sentiments and had designated two communists as ministers without portfolio in his government in 1962.
By 1955 the guerrilla challenge in Malaya had effectively ended although a new challenge was emerging in the form of full political independence for Malaya and Singapore. In the latter a relatively strong left-wing movement existed. Singapore was Britain's key base east of Suez and projected British power as a deterrent to China and as protection for North Borneo, Sarawak, Brunei as well as Singapore and Malaya. In Burma a small communist insurgency existed with the greater fear that China might intervene militarily to support it. In Laos fighting had flared in July 1955 between the communist Pathet Lao and the pro-Western government. A period of stabilisation followed but broke down into a series of coups and counter coups which saw Laos turn into a war by proxy between the USSR and USA. By 1961 the US proposed to intervene militarily using SEATO but this was blocked by France and Great Britain. The conflict in Laos proved to be a turning point for SEATO, demonstrating its ineffectiveness and internal divisions.
While some Western states always had doubts about the effectiveness of SEATO, the Americans were keen to promote it in its early years, with Secretary of State John Foster Dulles attending every Council meetings between 1955 and 1959. SEATO as a whole was, until around 1960, central to US plans to counter what they saw as the deterioration of pro-Western governments in South East Asia, especially Laos. According to the US Defense Department, the use of a multilateral SEATO force to counter communist insurgency, which would include Asian military forces, was attractive because it would be politically acceptable. During the 1961 'Laos crisis', a proposal by the Thai Government for a SEATO force to intervene was supported by US Secretary of State Dean Rusk but this proposal was shelved due to strong opposition from the French and British. The consequence was that the US relied increasingly on its covert military aid through the CIA, including its recruitment of the Laotian ethnic minorities as counter-insurgency units.
Britain was also genuinely committed to SEATO from its inception. It reinforced British status in the Western alliance as well as offering a practical deterrent to communism. Unlike France it had successfully fought a communist insurgency while granting independence to a former colony. This experience in Malaya was highly regarded by the American who later sought to apply its lessons in Viet Nam. But Britain's participation in SEATO was predicated on its continued ability and desire to keep significant military forces in Singapore. By the early 1960s the likelihood of an independent Singapore continuing to permit British forces on its territory was dim. At the same time Prime Minister Harold Macmillan determined to cut defence expenditure east of Suez and to encourage bi-lateral agreements (for instance with the Republic of Vietnam) rather than multilateral ones such as SEATO.
Southeast Asia was a key theatre of conflict between the Western powers and communism, having gone close to the nuclear brink at least twice and seen several armed insurgencies culminating in the Vietnam war. Yet in the immediate postwar period, the attention of London and Washington was focussed on Europe and the Middle East and Asian intelligence targets were low status. Western intelligence in this region was complicated by demobilisation and the imperial legacy as well as being in a state of 'dilapidation'. The literature on this region is uneven. Busch notes that the key defence agreement in the region, SEATO, has not attracted a great deal of scholarly attention. Compounding this problem, studies of intelligence and security in the region are thin on the ground by comparison with Europe. The most extensive and richest knowledge we have concerns the Central Intelligence Agency . Coverage of the British Secret Intelligence Service and Security Service is negligible by comparison although South East Asian operations are mentioned in a number of general studies In recent times the Malaya Emergency has been a particular focus and a specialised collection on the clandestine cold war in Asia also recently appeared. Until now the work of SEATO's Committee of Security Experts (CSE) is unrecorded in the literature discussing intelligence activity. Study of it however can give insights into the thinking of British, American, French and Australian intelligence bodies in the crucial period leading to the war in Viet Nam. This article is based on archival records of the Committee of Security Experts which include position papers produced by each intelligence service for CSE meetings and the accounts of those meetings by Australian security and foreign affairs participants. (These documents have only become available in recent years after negotiations between archive agencies of the original signatories to the Manila Pact.)
The work of the committee of security experts
The overall policy for SEATO was made by annual meetings of its Council, comprising the Foreign Ministers of member countries. The bulk of the work of SEATO was carried out by the military and civil wings based at its headquarters in Bangkok, supervised by Bangkok-based diplomats of SEATO signatories. SEATO's Military Planning Office (MPO) planned counter-insurgency operations and prepared for military intervention in both Laos and Thailand. It also conducted twenty three major military exercises from 1955 to 1962 . However, SEATO had no dedicated military forces and its purpose was the co-ordination of its members' armed forces.
A less well known aspect of SEATO's purpose involved intelligence liaison aimed at countering the rise of communism in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaya and Singapore, as well as the countries of Asian signatories. This liaison was conducted through the Committee of Security Experts (CSE) which was based in Bangkok, Thailand and which met every six months. The CSE was formed in 1955 initially under the name 'Committee to Combat Communist Subversion', at the instigation of the CIA. Working with the Committee of Security Experts (and also staffed by security and intelligence officers) was an Office of Counter Subversion and a Research Services Office. In 1963, as the military conflict deepened in Vietnam, the Committee of Security Experts was re-named the Intelligence Assessment Committee and its functions altered. This article mainly concerns its work between 1955 and 1963.
The biannual meetings of CSE saw delegations headed by the local representatives of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Britain's MI 5 and MI 6, the Australian Security Intelligence Organization (ASIO) , New Zealand's Security Service, the Philippines National Intelligence Coordinating Agency (NICA), the Pakistan Intelligence Bureau, and the Thai Directorate of Central Intelligence. The CSE role was twofold. First, to provide intelligence-based assessments of subversion and insurgency to the SEATO Council and its Military Advisers. These ranged from studies of subversion in schools and universities, trade unions, and agricultural communities to a more purely military analysis of the weaponry and personnel. Second, to develop political warfare through 'counter-measures', particularly in the ideological field, which were usually carried out in conjunction with the Research Services Office. The Research Services Office specialised in 'exposure papers' for selected release to governments and journalists. Early suggested topics included 'Communist Exploitation of Neutralism', 'Communist Exploitation of Overseas Chinese', 'Living Standards in Communist Countries' and 'The Communist Record and Views on Religion'. Less formally, the time spent at CSE meetings discussing threat assessments functioned in part as an education forum for the Asian security agencies. As well, CSE was a regular venue for personal contact between Asian-based Western intelligence officers. An early report referred to its 'normal cheerful, club-like atmosphere.' Within SEATO, the work of the CSE was co-ordinated by a dedicated Liaison Officer, at first H. M. Askew until he was replaced in 1960 by Peter Joce, both British intelligence officers.
Two of the two key intelligence figures who participated in the CSE in its hey day were MI5's Michael Serpell and the CIA's Bangkok Chief of Station Bob Jantzen. Jantzen was something of a legendary figure, 'a gregarious, six-foot-four inch, red headed, back slapping extrovert', according to former CIA officer, Ralph McGehee. Another former CIA officer, Joseph Smith, portrays him as superficially friendly and accommodating but with a pushy style. A hint of his personal style is given in a report of a CSE meeting in May 1959: 'Jantzen's chairmanship of the meeting was poor and his impatience and lack of tact gave unfortunate offence to some Asian members, particularly [Colonel Nicanour] Jimenez [leader of the Filipino delegation]. Jantzen scarcely concealed his belief that the Asian members were not pulling their weight'.
Michael Serpell lead delegations to meetings of the CSE in 1960-62 and was based in Singapore at Security Intelligence Far East (SIFE). SIFE was the joint operations centre for MI5 and MI6 for Southeast Asia and was housed in the offices of the British Commissioner General for Southeast Asia at Phoenix Park. Serpell's particular contribution to CSE was to report on the British sphere of influence covering Malaya, Brunei, Sarawak and Singapore. In the late 1940s Serpell had been personal assistant to MI 5's Director General, Sir Percy Sillitoe, and wrote one of the early reports on looming Soviet espionage after the Nunn-May affair. Other British officers who participated in the CSE include Dick Thistlethwaite, who lead delegations from 1956 -59, and Michael Wrigley, the SIS station chief in Bangkok, who led them between 1963 and 1969. Other security officials included Brigadier H.E. Gilbert (New Zealand), Captain P. Collinet (France), Police General Chamra Mandukananda (Thailand) and Colonel Nicanor Jimenez (Philippines).
An important and tangible result of CSE meetings was the arrangement of specialised training for Southeast Asian intelligence agencies. Given the high regard for its successful counterinsurgency in Malaya, Britain took a major role in training, using Special Branch School in Kuala Lumpur. It conducted more specialised training at Security Intelligence Far East (SIFE) in Singapore.
The functioning of the CSE was hampered from the start by a number of factors which made it quite different from the intelligence co-ordination of its European equivalent, NATO . An attempt by SIFE in 1956 to broaden the terms of reference of the CSE lead to a perceptive analysis by the New Zealand Department of External Affairs:
The root problem has been that the committee consists fundamentally of representatives of the national security services each of whom can speak authoritatively only on the security problem within his own national frontiers - This problem is complicated by the fact that the major non-Asian powers have sources of intelligence other than those of their national security services concerning the subversive threat to the Treaty area. In some respects these sources and the evaluations made by the intelligence bodies give a much fuller picture of the problem in particular countries- Further more they may be more accurate than the intelligence material and evaluations presented to the Committee by the Asian powers since - these are distorted either because the Asian intelligence and security agencies are not as efficient as those of the Commonwealth and the United States, or because for political reasons they are consciously or unconsciously falsified
This disparity between the partners in SEATO was a continuing problem. An Australian CSE participant commented in 1958 that 'the committee tends to be monopolised by the Western members' because of fears of wasted time and that 'little will be achieved unless the Asian members send competent delegations to the CSE meetings.' Within the standing SEATO bureaucracy certain offices were designated to filled by the nationals of particular member states, regardless of skill or appropriateness. The director of the Research Services Office was to be a Pakistani while his deputy was American (initially Jack Lydman of the CIA). But the initial director, M. Hadi Hussain, was 'indolent and inefficient', according to the Australian ambassador to Thailand, J K Waller. Such appointments undermined the CSE's 'exposure program' and counter propaganda effort. Colonial attitudes also survived. An Australian and a Pakistani delegate took Richard Thistlethwaite (MI5) to task at an early meeting after his attempt to 'rush proceedings' by letting it be known that he had a more pressing engagement after the CSE meeting.
Tensions between the Western intelligence agencies also hampered the work of the CSE. From the earliest days of SEATO the British preferred a less fundamentalist approach to anti-communism to the US. For example, in 1955 the British distanced themselves from an American proposal for SEATO to issue a strident anti-Communist declaration. The British argued that such a declaration would be 'out of place' in the context of the emergence of the Non-Aligned Movement after the 1955 Bandung meeting. Britain and the US were also divided on the question of 'neutralism'. The British, supported by France, advocated a policy of neutrality for South Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos to create a buffer between communist and Western-aligned areas of the region. But for the US, there was no room for neutrality because it gave openings to communist forces. American fundamentalism was observable when, during the Laos crisis, the US told Australia privately that they were critical of British intelligence assessments which suggested that the local disorders were 'spontaneous' rather than 'the result of outside Communist inspiration', as the US believed. Later at one senior CIA officer admitted the failings of this approach which helped precipitate civil war in Laos in 1960-61. Former deputy director of plans, Richard Bissell has described how the CIA financed one Laotian political front then shifted its support to a more anti-communist group which staged a coup. Yet the latter had little local political support. The problem with the former was that it 'advocated pro-Western neutrality', said Bissell, and this was enough to condemn it in US eyes.
Outside the CSE proceedings, such tensions between British and US intelligence agencies were longstanding. In spite of agreements between them that they would not run operations in the other's sphere of influence, this was routinely disregarded by the CIA in Singapore and Malaya and through the activities of the Asia Foundation, an object of suspicion by the British intelligence, according to Joseph Smith. In 1956, the CIA was covertly intervening in Singapore to block the growing strength of the Peoples Action Party and its left-wing allies.
Marked strategic differences were regularly displayed between France and the US at many meetings. At the 13th CSE meeting in November 1960, a US assessment of South Vietnam spoke simply of the Diem government's 'bold counter-measures' and the communists' ability to 'exploit dissatisfaction with the government'. The analysis of the French spoke frankly of the government's 'corruption and excesses' and its 'panicky measures'. An Australian report of the meeting noted the isolation of the US because of its 'over-confident' view on South Vietnam.
The attitude of the Pakistan Intelligence Bureau was a regular problem at CSE meetings because most of its work was directed at the threat from India, rather than from communist subversion. This became most critical during the Sino-Indian border dispute in 1964, when the Pakistan Intelligence Agency argued that there was little threat from Communist China and objected to the term Chinese 'attack' and preferred a reference to the 'aggravation of the Sino-Indian border dispute'. After 1965 France and Pakistan formally reduced their participation in the military structure of SEATO and lowered their profile at Council meetings.
The dilemmas of political and cultural warfare
In the period under study, the main thrust of Western intelligence through SEATO was to encourage political and cultural warfare against subversion. To this end the CSE organised two public seminars under the auspices of SEATO at Baguio in the Philippines, in November 1957 and at Lahore, Pakistan in February 1960. Delegates to the seminars included intelligence officers and anti-communist journalists, trade unionists, politicians and educationalists. These included the former communist Douglas Hyde who spoke at Lahore and John Rayner, from the Foreign Office's Information Research Department who discussed 'counter action' to subversion. Apart from its overt aim of exchanging views, the purpose of the seminars was to provide quotable material in the form of reports, documents, film and speeches for in 'exposing communist tactics and techniques'. Speeches and resolutions at the seminars strongly emphasised freedom and democracy in contrast to communism. The Baguio seminar recommended that 'Communist subversion is often most effectively precluded or defeated by positive action to support the concepts under which the nations of the Free World are established- positive values [such] as freedom, human dignity, religion and spiritual worth-'. This reflected the Pacific Charter, signed along with the Collective Defence Treaty, which pledged to 'invigorate the foundations of justice and liberty'.
The articulation of such values highlighted one of the dilemmas of the position of the CSE security agencies (and their governments) which was that countering subversion was regarded as a higher priority than preserving democratic freedoms, including those associated with elections.
Some of this emerged during a CSE meeting which discussed the 'historical review of the communist threat' in May 1959. The Pakistan Intelligence Bureau reported that all communist activity had been suppressed by the Pakistan Government in 1954, although the Communist Party of Pakistan had won five seats in the East Pakistan elections held that year. The following year, having abandoned neutralism and joined the Baghdad Pact, Pakistan declared the local communist party illegal. Repression of communist infiltration of peasant, student and trade union groups followed a military coup in October 1958. The experience of the intelligence authorities of Pakistan in suppressing communist electoral activities was summed up in paper on 'Communist Exploitation of Elections' given to the CSE in August 1960.
The aims of counter-subversion also conflicted with democratic norms after a coup in Thailand in 1958. The coup lead to the arrest of the chairman of the Socialist United Front and over 400 alleged communists and their sympathisers in the press, political parties, trade union and student organizations. Fourteen publishing firms and 29 newspapers and magazines had been closed, according to a Thai intelligence report to the meeting. In the British colony of Singapore, reported the British delegation, 'police action in 1956 effectively disrupted the communist plans for the complete domination of the Singapore Trade Union Congress'. In Malaya, the MCP continued to work in the unions and concentrated on what was termed 'legal subversion' by supporting left-wing parties.
Apart from purely political activities, the CSE's counter-subversion effort extended to broader cultural and intellectual areas. In 1959 the SEATO Council welcomed a series of CSE recommendations which called for a survey in member states on the extent and influence of communist textbooks, literature and films. Existing laws on the importation of such material should be examined and 'regular examinations should be made of the syllabi and textbooks (especially foreign publications) in use in schools to prevent the spreading of Communist propaganda among young people', said the Council. A survey of subversion at universities in South East Asia reported that governments in Pakistan, the Philippines and Singapore screened potential university staff for communist tendencies. In response to a related CSE recommendation about university staff who visited communist countries, the Philippines reported that such university staff had been closely interrogated and 'are under constant surveillance'.
Of particular concern in the cultural and educational sphere were overseas Chinese communities which had originally been encouraged by the colonial powers in South East Asia. After the 1949 Chinese revolution, these communities were sometimes used by local communists as launching pads for various political struggles, with the Chinese community in Malaya being the most obvious example. In a similar way the Chinese Peoples' Republic was prepared to use these communities to develop cultural and other ties with their host countries. (This 'cultural offensive', in the parlance of the intelligence agencies, was regarded as a major threat. A 1959 paper by CIA officer and the deputy director of the Research Services Office, William Coolidge, argued that 'cultural exchanges serve to open up the country to communist penetration- because cultural ties seem 'innocuous''.
The British delegate (either Serpell or Thistlethwaite) reported that in the territories of North Borneo, Brunei and Sarawak the 'China-born nostalgia' of the 22 per cent Chinese minority was kept alive by 'vernacular films, travelling 'opera' companies, and a continual leakage of mainland news through clandestine channels'. To stem this, in North Borneo, 37 publications had been banned and nine teachers deported as undesirable immigrants. In Sarawak two Chinese had been deported for using a 'subversive song book' which contained songs 'in praise of Communist China, intended to create a sense of grievance'. In Singapore, the new government had banned the publications of 43 Chinese mainland publishers and ten from Hong Kong. In Malaya, a search of a factory workers' union office had 'yielded 120 books , three quarters of which were communist, including communist song books'. In Thailand the new government 'ordered the arrest of all known communist and pro-communist elements, including those who had visited Communist China on 'cultural missions'.'
Restrictions on travel to communist countries (and associated surveillance) was another aspect of counter-subversion reviewed by SEATO intelligence officers. An American paper described the Chinese tactic of 'peoples' diplomacy' which encouraged travel to China particularly by visitors from Third World countries who might be impressed with its achievement. The actual purpose of 'peoples' diplomacy' was to increase pressure for formal diplomatic recognition of China and to establish 'propaganda channels' particularly in African and Latin American countries. The CSE Liaison officer warned against certain tourists to communist countries whom he described as 'busybodies who think that, with the knowledge gained from the visits, they can, single-handed, bring about a relaxation of tension between the West and the East'.
The debate on 'civic action' and counter-insurgency
Differences within the intelligence agencies operating in South East Asia were evident in discussion over a paper on 'Civic Action' delivered by the US at the 13th CSE meeting in November 1960. In a familiar approach to guerilla warfare, the US emphasised the non-military aspects needed to win, such as the political and psychological support of ordinary people.
'Communism thrives where discontent, poverty, corruption ineptitude, abuses and other social ills exist. Guerrilla warfare is not only a military war but also a political, psychological and socio-economic war,' the paper said, echoing similar analyses by communist theorists of guerrilla war. The manner in which the counter-insurgency forces behave toward the people 'greatly influences the course of events'. To build popular support for counter-insurgency, forms of civic action were needed including road building, health and medical assistance, the installation of honest local officials and the distribution of food. Honesty, respect and consideration for local populations were to be prized.
In stating this , the US was referring to the methods used by the CIA's Edward Lansdale to defeat of the Huk rebellion in the Philippines some seven years before. His strategy included civilian-commando units to defend local communities, civilian advisory committees, keeping elections free, as well as road building and other public works. Another aspect was the resettlement of civilians into temporary villages, screened from the visits of communist guerrillas. This had 'proven very successful' in the Philippines and was being practised in Vietnam where 150,000 people 'mostly from the over-populated lowlands' were re-settled in 'agrovilles' in the high plateaux or the Mekong Delta. Combined with other civic action in Vietnam, including building schools, bridges, markets, the strategy had lead to 'much of the war-torn economy [being] rehabilitated'. The American paper gave similar optimistic examples of civic action in Indonesia, Burma and Laos.
The US optimism about civic action as a remedy to communism in South Vietnam was not universally shared. The French delegation lead by Captain Pierre Collinet at the 1960 meeting was scathing about what it regarded as the superficiality of the US approach and warned that civic action was 'no panacea against Communism'. In South Vietnam after the 1954 settlement, he said, many disorganised programs of civic action were initiated by government agencies. One consequence of this was that 'no one was willing to take responsibility for the ensuing failures and set backs'. The successes of civic action programs were often spoilt by 'arbitrary arrests, extortion by rural government officials and operational units in the field, delays and errors in the agrarian reforms and favouritism'. Civilians were often left with the impression that the aim is to 'woo' the masses which was 'in itself a confession of the weakness and possibly even insecurity of the regime,' said Collinet. The methods of civic action were copied from the enemy who was in fact more skilled in articulating the populace's grievances. In addition, many people resented the boredom of having to attend pep talks and saw the Government propaganda as just 'eye wash'. But the American paper was well received by the other intelligence services represented at the meeting with the Australian ASIO officer, Colin Brown, commenting that most thought was 'one of the more useful works produced in the committee.'
The failure of SEATO's counter subversion work
The heightened level of insurgency in Laos and Vietnam in 1961-62 marked a turning point for the Committee of Security experts. It became clear that the war on subversion was taking a decidedly military turn and that the counter-subversion effort had to be stepped up.
Acting on a suggestion from the US State Department, the foreign ministers on the SEATO Council in August 1961 commissioned an expert group to report on new ways to fight communist subversion. Led by G. R. (Ron) Richards, the deputy director-general of ASIO, the group's report successfully proposed the creation within SEATO of a high-level Office of Counter Subversion (OCS) led by a Special Assistant who ranked third in the hierarchy of SEATO. The Special Assistant position was initially filled by a CIA officer, George Aurell, a former Lieutenant Colonel in the US Army who had headed the CIA's Far East Division in the Philippines from 1952-58. Given extensive bilateral American intelligence and paramilitary activity in Thailand which was quite independent of SEATO, his appointment was seen by some as a guarantee that the CIA would face no interference from SEATO-associated intelligence forces. According to a former intelligence officer, Aurell's appointment to the SEATO role was denounced by Radio Peking several days before he arrived in Bangkok, reinforcing doubts about the security arrangements of SEATO's Bangkok bureaucracy.
Under Aurell, the Office coordinated several assistance programs to member states, especially Thailand. It also organised security training assistance to the Thais, including a two year attachment to the Thai Provincial Police by an Australian officer, Douglas McPherson. Aurell may not have been the most suitable person to run the office, given his preferences for military operations rather than civic action by the CIA. During his time in the Philippines, he is reported to have complained: 'What in hell is an intelligence agency doing running a rural resettlement program?' A New Zealand account comments that Aurell 'did little' and that his re-appointment therefore suited New Zealand which was sceptical of the worth of SEATO counter subversion strategy.
By the mid 1960s, the weakness of SEATO's work in the field of counter subversion was extensively detailed in a report by an Australian intelligence officer who was seconded to work in the Office of Counter Subversion. Among the barriers he faced in undertaking counter subversion work was a lack of co-operation from Thai officials. The Director of the OCS at this time was a Major-General Thamrang Parnsingha, an expert on psychological warfare who 'is extremely suspicious of personal contact between foreigners and Thai officials on matters of security. In the 10 months he controlled the office, Thamrang managed somehow to avoid any material involvement with counter-subversion in Thailand,' said the disgruntled officer. The failure of the SEATO Office of Counter Subversion stands in stark contrast to the extensive CIA para-military counter-insurgency program within Thailand under bilateral agreements with the USA. The paralysis and irrelevance of SEATO, said the officer, 'is leading increasingly, and very understandably, to a reluctance on the part of American officials to discuss locally any matters graded confidential and above.'
In the terms set by SEATO itself, notably the prevention of the spread of communism, particularly in South Viet Nam, SEATO failed to achieve its goals. The reasons for the its failure are complex but the continuing participation of the United States as the key player in SEATO was decisive. From 1962 onwards in the wake of the Laos crisis the US began to circumvent SEATO in favour of bi-lateral relations and direct intervention. In the looming crisis in South Viet Nam both methods would soon be become its preferred modus operandi rather than working through cumbersome multilateral bodies like SEATO. Added to this problem were several other factors, including a more definitive British withdrawal east of Suez, deepening passivity of France about South East Asia and its preoccupation with the events in Algeria. Thus SEATO, including its civilian intelligence side, became what Pearson refers to as a 'paper machine with a momentum of its own' where multilateral discussion and editing of position papers tended to substitute for meaningful action.
Behind this failure of the administrative expression of a defence pact were three deeper differences among its signatories and these were expressed at the level of the Committee of Security Experts. The first involved drawing a distinction between communism and nationalism in a decolonising Southeast Asia. This was a point made by SIS's Michael Wrigley who believed that much of the unrest in Southeast Asia was inspired by nationalism rather than being directed by Moscow or Peking. Such conclusions were unpalatable to the United States. The second was differing attitudes to neutralism. The US refused to countenance any form of neutralism while the former colonial powers in the region, Britain and France, were prepared to accommodate some form of neutralist governments in Viet Nam, Cambodia and Laos. The third concerned China. While the existence of the Peoples' Republic of China provided a unifying focus for Western intelligence co-operation in Southeast Asia this co-operation was dogged by disagreements, with Britain having recognised the government in Beijing while the US remained opposed such diplomatic recognition. This difference extended to analysis of intelligence with British and Commonwealth allies more inclined to see a defensive stance rather than an aggressive one.
While the Committee of Security Experts provided a venue for liaison between the security agencies in Southeast Asia and training for regional security bodies, its participating intelligence agencies proved unable to overcome these broader differences at the strategic and diplomatic level of their parent nations.
Acknowledgments: I would like to thank Michael Boyle for his insightful comments.