Invisible Enemies

Who's the real threat in Little Saigon? Ask the FBI.

According to the CPJ report, on Aug. 3, 1988, Tu A. Nguyen, publisher of Viet Press, and two other people were "sentenced to death" in fliers stapled to telephone poles in Westminster shortly after the trio visited Vietnam.

Behind these attacks was one common thread: the victims had all rubbed their anti-communist neighbors the wrong way. More disturbing, the CPJ notes, was the presence in many of these incidents of the same organization that had claimed responsibility for killing Pham in Little Saigon: the VOECRN. The group's name first surfaced in 1982, when Houston police discovered it on a note left next to the body of Houston journalist Nguyen Dan Phong. The note contained a list of names of several other Vietnamese journalists whom the VOECRN had also sentenced to death. One of those was Triet Le, who, along with his wife, was shot to death outside their suburban Virginia home eight years later.

According to the CPJ, which cited anonymous law-enforcement sources, the VOECRN's "suspected masterminds were influential members of the Vietnamese community and former members of the South Vietnamese government and armed forces." The CPJ also quoted police sources saying they suspected a link between the VOECRN and legal anti-communist groups that, among other things, raised money to lobby for a toughening of U.S. policy toward Vietnam and published anti-communist magazines.

One such group is the California-based National United Front for the Liberation of Vietnam, which is more commonly called the Front, or Khang Chien, which means "resistance forces" in Vietnamese. Led by the late Hoang Co Minh, a former admiral in the South Vietnamese navy, Khang Chien modeled itself after the U.S.-backed Nicaraguan contras, raising money from Vietnamese exiles in America to support a liberation army based in Thailand. At least one Vietnamese journalist to die at the hands of the VOECRN, Le, had written articles critical of Khang Chien and Minh. Unlike its shadowy, terror-prone counterpart, however, Khang Chien over the years has boasted many members, including storeowner Tran's wife, Kim Nguyen. Throughout the 1980s, its members wore brown uniforms, attended political rallies, and sold copies of their magazine on street corners in Little Saigon.

"I gave money but wanted to see results," explained one former contributor. "They later admitted that their 'army' was made up of Thai and Cambodian people acting as soldiers and that they were using the money to live the high life in Bangkok."

Amid increasingly convincing reports that the organization and its supposed Thai-based liberation army was a fraud, support for the movement dwindled in the late 1980s. In 1991, a federal grand jury indicted five Khang Chien members for tax evasion and posing as a nonprofit organization after an investigation revealed that the group spent its money on personal expenses instead of on weapons to attack Hanoi. Nonetheless, according to UC Irvine student activist Ao Vai, who uses a nom de guerre, some of the organization's members are helping to provide uniformed security assistance for the anti-Tran rallies in Westminster.

While the CPJ report noted that police believe the VOECRN has been "dormant" since the early 1990s, it pointed out that the group could resurface at any point. "There has never been a thorough federal investigation into the possible links among these murders," the CPJ concluded.

One source involved in the investigation said local police departments were stymied by their lack of Vietnamese-speaking informants. Further complicating access to the community, he said, "was the undercurrent of suspicion that these ex-South Vietnamese army guys were somehow protected by the CIA-plus the very factual knowledge that these guys were ruthless and well-organized."

Nguoi Viet's Do believes the group has either gone underground or dissolved. "In Vietnam, people were trained in this type of action by the Americans," he said. "They are more prepared than the people who blew up the building in Oklahoma City."

While the FBI is happy to acknowledge its efforts to monitor communist spies in Little Saigon, the agency refused to discuss what it knows about the group that has caused the most trouble: the VOECRN, the death squad that claimed responsibility for Pham's murder. Nonetheless, FBI records show that on April 9, 1992, the agency began a federal racketeering and terrorism investigation into the secretive death squad.

Even that information was difficult to obtain; the FBI finally provided it in response to a 3-year-old Freedom of Information Act request filed by the Weekly. The records also show that in the mid-1970s, the FBI investigated a Washington, D.C.-based anti-war journal named Nguoi Viet Doan Ket, which is unrelated to the Nguoi Viet Daily News in Little Saigon. Evidently, the FBI suspected that the D.C. paper had been infiltrated by communists. While the results of the investigation are unknown, the documents reveal an early and quite keen interest on behalf of the FBI when it came to spying on the Vietnamese community in the United States.

Most of the FBI records released to the Weekly are heavily redacted by FBI censors. Page after page is filled with nothing but black stripes. The FBI also withheld 31 pages relating to its activities in Little Saigon because, it argued, releasing the information might compromise U.S. national security.

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