Meet Colonel Ray Sitton, the single source in one of the thinnest of Seymour Hersh’s thinly sourced claims: that Henry Kissinger had not only presided over the secret and illegal carpet bombing of Cambodia but also organized a vast conspiracy—what participants described as an elaborate “double bookkeeping” protocol—designed to keep the bombing hidden from Congress and the public.
Here’s Sitton’s description of being tracked down by Hersh, in the early 1980s:
One day 2 years or so ago, I had a call from Seymour Hersh on leave from The New York Times, the guy who blew the whistle on My Lai. Seymour Hersh said, “I would like you to have breakfast with me in the dining room of the Hyatt Arlington,’ where I was staying at the time, ‘tomorrow morning.’ Could you do that? I have something I need to discuss with you?’ Yes, I could. I went down to breakfast with him. We chatted for a while. He brought in a huge sheaf of papers. He said, ‘In case you wonder how I found your name and your identity, here.’ He picked up that stack of papers and put it on top of the breakfast table. He had a copy of every piece of paper I ever generated on this project that he had obtained under the Freedom of Information Act and, of course, on the bottom of every one of them, the drafter’s name was Col Ray B. Sitton. That’s how he found me. I was in shock. I couldn’t believe he had been able to get those things.”
Before getting into what “those things” were, some background: the US bombed Cambodia, a sovereign nation Washington was not at war with, from 1965 to 1973. When Nixon and Kissinger entered the White House in early 1969, they greatly intensified (in terms of bombing rate and amount of munitions dropped) and expanded (in terms of extent of territory targeted) the air assault. They did so both because Cambodia reportedly housed the headquarters of the National Liberation Front and because they wanted to send a message to Hanoi that Nixon was “mad” and unpredictable. Between 1969 and 1973, the US dropped at least 500,000 tons of bombs on Cambodia, killing over 100,000 Khmer civilians, according to Ben Kiernan, the founding director of Yale’s Cambodian Genocide Program. Broadly speaking, Nixon’s and Kissinger’s Cambodia bombing comprised two named operations. The first, Operation Menu, ran from March 18, 1969, to May 1970. The second, Operation Freedom Deal, ran from May 1970 to August 1973. Menu was the phase that was most secret, carried out with the deception protocol put into place by Kissinger. Freedom was less covert, justified by requests for support from the Cambodian government to fight the growing insurgency. Still, the extent and intensity of Freedom Deal was under-reported in the US press, which was often fed confusing and mixed messages by the administration.
It wasn’t until 1973 that Congress and journalists began to investigate Operation Menu, around the same moment that the Watergate scandal was unfolding. At the time, some members of Congress were “convinced that the secret bombing of Cambodia will emerge as another, perhaps more dangerous, facet of the Watergate scandal,” as Hersh, then a New York Times reporter, wrote in July of that year.
But investigators couldn’t identify the person (it was Kissinger) in Nixon’s staff that presided over the cover-up nor find the link (Sitton) connecting the conspiracy to the White House. “Who ordered the falsification of the records?” one senator asked General Creighton Abrams, the commander of military operations in Vietnam. “I just do not know,” he answered.
Hersh didn’t give up. Nixon resigned, Ford finished his term, and Kissinger left office in 1977 having largely escaped association with Watergate. Compared to the preverbal thuggery of the rest of Nixon’s inner circle—Haldeman, Ehrlichman, Mitchell—not to mention actual thugs like G. Gordon Liddy, Kissinger’s reputation was intact: “prodigiously intelligent, articulate, talented, witty, captivating and imposing man…. he is not mean-spirited, he seems drawn to telling the truth, and he wants to serve his country well. He also appears to have a historical vision,” as none other than The New Yorker’s William Shawn wrote (in 1973).
Hersh, though, kept digging, researching a book that still remains the defining portrait of Kissinger. As Colonel Sitton, recalling his encounter with Hersh, said: Hersh “was so upset with Kissinger’s first book he had decided to write an exposé, a counter if you will.” Sitton here is referring to Kissinger’s The White House Years. Published in 1979, that first volume of Kissinger’s memoirs won the National Book Award for history. Today, most honest historians would place it in the category of fantasy. In it, Kissinger devotes, as he does in nearly every subsequent book he’s written, a good many pages distorting the catastrophe he helped visit on Cambodia.
Hersh “countered” in 1983 with The Price of Power: Kissinger in the Nixon White House. An “authorized” biography of Kissinger will be out soon, but Hersh’s Kissinger is still the one to top. He gives us the defining portrait of the man as a preening paranoid, tacking between ruthlessness and sycophancy to advance his career, cursing his fate and letting fly the B-52s. Small in his vanities and shabby in his motives, Kissinger, in Hersh’s hands, is nonetheless Shakespearean, because the pettiness gets played out on a world stage with epic consequences. The Price of Power covers all of Kissinger’s many transgressions—from Bangladesh to Chile, from wiretapping his own staff to giving Suharto the greenlight to invade Timor.
But the secret bombing of Cambodia is the book’s centerpiece, fueling the paranoia that drives Nixon’s downfall.
Many of the recent criticisms that have been leveled at Hersh’s reporting on the killing of Osama bin Laden have revolved around how difficult it would be to keep elaborate “conspiracies” secret. “Hersh’s stories seem to become more spectacular, more thinly sourced, and more difficult to square with reality as we know it,” writes one critic at Vox.
But the cover-up of the bombing of Cambodia is as spectacular as it gets. And Hersh’s 1983 accurate claim that it was Kissinger who presided over the conspiracy comes from one single source: Ray Sitton.
In researching my own forthcoming book on Kissinger (Kissinger’s Shadow, out in August but available for preorder!) I came across a hitherto unknown interview Sitton, now deceased, did with an Air Force historian. The interview (the source of the above block quote) was conducted not long after Sitton’s woke up to find Hersh in the Hyatt’s breakfast room.
Here’s how the conspiracy worked: shortly after Nixon’s inauguration, on February 24, 1969, Kissinger and his military aide Alexander Haig held the first in a series of meetings with Sitton, who was an expert on B-52s assigned to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to work up a “duel reporting system,” a way to bomb Cambodia and keep it secret from Congress, while accounting for the use of spare parts, fuel and munitions.
Kissinger pushed Sitton to come up with a plan that would keep even the pilots of the B-52s in the dark as to where they were bombing. Sitton, though, told him that would not be feasible. Instead, they decided to “swear” the flight crew “to secrecy” (which means that as many, perhaps more, military personnel were involved in this conspiracy than the one Hersh is today derided for believing in).
Kissinger, Haig, and Sitton came up with a simple but comprehensive protocol. Sitton would work up a number of targets in Cambodia to be struck. Then he would bring them to Kissinger and Haig in the White House for approval. Kissinger was very hands on, revising some of Sitton’s work. “I don’t know what he was using as his reason for varying them,” Sitton recalled in his Air Force interview. “Strike here in this area,” Kissinger would tell him, “or strike here in that area.” Once Kissinger was satisfied with the proposed target, Sitton would use a special backchannel set up to send the coordinates to Saigon, and from there a special courier would be used to pass them on to the appropriate radar stations, where an officer would at the last minute switch out the official targets in South Vietnam for the covert ones in Cambodia. When the bombing was complete, he’d burn whatever documents—maps, computer print outs, radar reports, messages, and so on—that might reveal the true target and write up false “post strike” paperwork, indicating that the South Vietnam sortie was flown as planned. There was “a whole special furnace” set up in Saigon, along with others in the forward radar locations, for that job. “We burned probably 12 hours a day,” General Creighton Abrams (who, as one of the top military officers in Vietnam, recommended targets to Sitton) would testify before the Senate. The Senate would be provided “phony target coordinates” and other forged data. That way, it was possible to account for expenditures—fuel, bombs, spare parts—to Congress without Congress ever knowing Cambodia was being bombed.
Haig and Sitton were military men. But Haig worked for Kissinger, a civilian running an agency, the National Security Council, not subject to congressional oversight (since it wasn’t a cabinet-level office). As to Sitton, he did often wonder what he was doing participating in a shadow chain of command, bypassing superiors in the Department of Defense, plotting bombing targets in a vaulted room deep in the bowels of the Pentagon and then secreting them into Kissinger’s office for approval. As he put it in his Air Force interview: “I kind of felt I was way out on a limb and skating on some pretty thin ice with all my trips to the west basement of the White House.” But whenever he expressed these concerns to higher- ups, he was told: “Whatever you are doing, keep on doing it. It seems to be working. Do just what you are doing. When you get a call to go to the White House, go, because you don’t really have any choice.”
In Saigon, a whole “special furnace” was set up for the job. “Every piece of paper, including the scratch paper, the paper that one of our computers might have done some figuring on, every piece of scrap paper was gathered up,” Major Hal Knight, who in 1973 testified to Congress that he had carried out the falsification (out of all the hundreds, prehaps more, of military personnel who participated in this cover-up, Knight is the only one who turned whistleblower), said: “I would wait until daylight, and as soon as that time came, I would go out and burn that.” Knight went on:
I destroyed the papers that had the target coordinates on them. I destroyed the paper that came off the plotting boards that showed the track of the aircraft …. I destroyed the computer tape that took the target coordinates, UTM coordinates and translated them into information that the bombing computers could use. Then I also destroyed any scrap paper that went with that, and the brushgraph recording.
The secret illegal bombing of Cambodia entailed the creation of an elaborate, covert parallel chain of command stretching from the White House basement to radar stations in South Vietnam. “Maybe,” as Vox wrote in its bid to take down Hersh, “there really is a vast shadow world of complex and diabolical conspiracies, executed brilliantly by international networks of government masterminds. And maybe Hersh and his handful of anonymous former senior officials really are alone in glimpsing this world and its terrifying secrets.”
No reporter followed up Hirsh’s Sitton scoop, that Kissinger both designed and ran the covert bombing from the White House basement. By the time Hersh’s book appeared in the first term of the Reagan administration, Cambodia had become a minor historical footnote and Kissinger was well on his way to becoming one of the richest and most influential (through his consulting firm Kissinger Associates) former secretaries of state in US history.
The above description of the cover-up drew from Hersh’s Pricce of Power and Knight’s testimony, as well as from Sitton’s Air Force interview, which confirms in nearly every detail Hersh’s reporting.
Here’s what Sitton says about Hersh: There were some technical “inaccuracies” in his account, but “they aren’t all that important.” What did Sitton think of Hersh? “He made a lot of assumptions, thinking that he was so smart he knew that much about it. He didn’t do too badly.”