WASHINGTON -- American combat troops in Iraq may be heading to the exits -- or not -- but the U.S. government's enormously expensive intervention there is hardly coming to an end.
In a telling sign of how dangerous and chaotic Iraq remains more than eight years after President George W. Bush launched the war against Saddam Hussein, U.S. diplomats, military advisers and other officials are planning to fall back to the gargantuan embassy in Baghdad -- a heavily fortified, self-contained compound the size of Vatican City.
The embassy compound is by far the largest the world has ever seen, at one and a half square miles, big enough for 94 football fields. It cost three quarters of a billion dollars to build (coming in about $150 million over budget). Inside its high walls, guard towers and machine-gun emplacements lie not just the embassy itself, but more than 20 other buildings, including residential quarters, a gym and swimming pool, commercial facilities, a power station and a water-treatment plant.
Yet the embassy is turning out to be too small for the swelling retinue of gunmen, gardeners and other workers the State Department considers necessary to provide security and "life support" for the sizable group of diplomats, military advisers and other executive branch officials who will be taking shelter there once the troops withdraw from the country.
The number of personnel under the authority of the U.S. ambassador to Iraq will swell from 8,000 to about 16,000 as the troop presence is drawn down, a State Department official told The Huffington Post. "About 10 percent would be core programmatic staff, 10 percent management and aviation, 30 percent life support contractors -- and 50 percent security," he said.
As part of that increase, the State Department will double its complement of security contractors -- fielding a private army of over 5,000 to guard the embassy and other diplomatic outposts and protect personnel as they travel beyond the fortifications, the official said. Another 3,000 armed guards will protect Office of Security Cooperation personnel, who are responsible for sales and training related to an estimated $13 billion in pending U.S. arms sales, including tanks, squadrons of attack helicopters and 36 F-16s.
Under the Status of Forces Agreement negotiated between Iraq and former President Bush in 2008 -- and, at least thus far, still in effect -- all U.S. troops are supposed to leave the country by the end of this year.
As of now, there are about 45,000 U.S. troops still in Iraq. Obama administration officials had been hoping the Iraqi government would allow at least 10,000 to remain past the end-of-the-year deadline. Earlier this month, however, they floated the idea of keeping only 3,000. But given the unpredictable nature of the fractured Iraqi leadership, nothing is certain.
As the Department of Defense pulls out and its spending drops, the State Department is expecting its costs to skyrocket. State asked Congress for $2.7 billion for its Iraqi operations in fiscal year 2011, and got $2.1 billion. It wants $6.2 billion for next year. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee estimates that State's plans will cost $25 to $30 billion over the next five years.
While $6 billion a year might not seem like much compared to the estimated $806 billion in direct appropriations spent on the Iraq war and reconstruction thus far, that is still an enormous amount of money. Consider, for instance, that the State Department's total operating budget this year is about $14 billion.
Money isn't the only resource being drained by Iraq. The toll on the diplomatic corps is substantial.
In addition to staffing the embassy in Baghdad, the department intends to have more than 1,000 people on staff at each of its two consulates, making them far larger than all but the most important U.S. embassies around the world. Given the de facto partitioning of Iraq, one consulate, in Erbil, will essentially be an embassy to the Kurds; the other, in Basra, an embassy to the Shia -- and to the country's biggest oil fields.
Steve Kashkett, then the head of the American Foreign Service Association, complained at Hillary Clinton's very first town hall meeting as secretary of State that the cost of creating the largest diplomatic mission in U.S. history "has been to take people away from all of our other diplomatic missions around the world, which have been left understaffed and with staffing gaps." A Government Accountability Office report in 2009 concluded that filling the numerous positions in Iraq and Afghanistan meant that "key positions at other hardship posts remain vacant or are filled by officers who may lack the necessary experience to effectively perform their duties, potentially compromising State’s ability to advance U.S. international interests."
IS IT WORTH IT?
U.S. Ambassador to Iraq James Jeffrey testified on Capitol Hill in February that the State Department's plan is absolutely necessary to achieve key goals when it comes to diplomacy, economics, energy, security and rule of law. "To not finish the job now creates substantial risks of what some people call a Charlie Wilson's war moment in Iraq, with both the resurgence of al Qaeda and the empowering of other problematic regional players," he said.
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), who fought the expansion of the embassy in the first place, told The Huffington Post he's been hearing similar arguments for eight years now -- and thinks Iraq isn't worth all this trouble.
"I don't know why that has to be one of our highest priorities," he said. "I think we've reached the point in Iraq where whatever we're spending money on, we're throwing good money after bad."
"I've been to that embassy," Leahy continued, "and I understand security concerns and all. But this is a small country. They can't even get their act together. A lot of people there see us as occupiers and wish we'd leave."
For Leahy, the continued spending spree in Iraq is also part of a larger complaint.
"We're told by a lot of the Republican party that wecan't even get disaster relief unless we take it out of some other program in the United States, maybe education or health care or something like that," he said. "I think it's about time that we started thinking more about money for Americans, more than we do for Iraq or Afghanistan. It's upside down."
Leahy stopped short of definitively calling for a smaller State Department footprint in Iraq. "I'm not exactly sure what I'd do, other than to say I wish we'd never built it to begin with," he said.
"I think what's important in this day and age -- particularly with the budget crisis in the United States and the need to convey a message to the Middle East that the United States seeks a relationship that isn't martial -- is to right-size the embassy in Iraq," he said. "That respects the fact that budgets are tight and sends the signal to the Middle East that we're not there as an occupying power."
"By building a palace -- a fortress -- in the middle of their country, we're sending a message," he said. That message is: "We're still here and we're still running the show."
The U.S. needs to have an embassy in Baghdad to do what embassies normally do, Christopher A. Preble, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the libertarian Cato Institute, told HuffPost. But, he added, "Having an embassy as large as the one that we have suggests that the United States Government is intending something much more than that."
The need for extensive security is certainly real. In his most recent quarterly report in July, Stuart W. Bowen, the Special Inspector General for Iraq Reconstruction (SIGIR) wrote that "Iraq remains an extraordinarily dangerous place to work. It is less safe, in my judgment, than 12 months ago."
But in Van Buren's view, the size of the embassy is overkill. "It's a fortress designed to keep both people and reality out," he said.
University of Michigan professor and Middle East blogger Juan Cole said the U.S. embassy in Iraq is "emblematic of the entire way of thinking of this enterprise: From the beginning, the Iraq war was hubris."
A COMPOUND PROBLEM
Construction of the embassy began in 2005, and was troubled from the start. An October 2009 review from the State Department's inspector general recommended that of the $470 million in no-bid construction contracts the U.S. signed with the First Kuwaiti construction company, the department should ask for $132 million back, because of construction deficiencies, inadequate quality control and other problems. There were even allegations that the construction company engaged in human trafficking as it assembled its large, third-country national workforce.
Some cost overruns were not the contractor's fault, however; they were a function of the naivete of the original embassy designers, who both expected diplomats to move to Baghdad with their families and that they would be able to shop at neighborhood grocery stores and eat at neighborhood restaurants. Instead, the designs had to be redrawn for a rocket- and mortar-proof cafeteria where compound residents could eat all their meals. A building intended for use as an international school was converted into offices.
And despite the compound's large size, a report in May from the State Department inspector general warned that there soon won't be enough beds to go around. State Department officials, the report said, are trying to get new leases on nearby properties currently being used by the military -- but are also considering "creative ways" to accommodate more personnel, including "hot bunking," having people share beds and sleep in shifts.
For security reasons, photography on the compound is banned except in a few rare circumstances (see the NBC video below). Its location is hardly a secret, though, and architectural designs for the compound have leaked out, but publicly available satellite imagery is either dated or blurred out.
Van Buren, who now has an administrative job at the State Department in Washington, recalled how shockingly out of place the embassy compound felt whenever he came in from his tours outside the fortified international zone.
"We lived in austere conditions, characterized by heat and dust," he said. But once past the compound's various security gates, "You feel like you've just stepped onto a fairly well funded American community college campus," he said. "It is one of the most surreal experiences that's available without pharmaceuticals."
The compound even had outdoor water-misters to keep people cool. "The people I was working with at the Provincial Reconstruction Teams were desperate for clean water -- and here we were spraying it in the air so that people could sit outside in the summer," he said.
"From the outside, all you see of course are walls," Van Buren added.
"It's a fortress," said Leahy. "I can't imagine how inviting that is to Iraqis."
But no matter how impregnable the embassy compound now seems, it may, in the long run, be doomed. "How long can this enormous fortress on foreign soil stand without at some point offending and angering the population?" asked retired Army Col. Douglas MacGregor, now a military analyst.
"These are supposed to be monuments to our determination and resolve to stay," he said. But, as with the British edifices built in India, he said, "at some point it's inevitable. At some point in the future, this little fortress America comes under siege."
The white pickup carries two life-sizedmannequins suspended from ropes tied around their necks. One has hollow, scratched-out eyes, a wispy beard, and an olive-drab pith helmet and faded green uniform. A yard-long arrow protrudes from his belly. His partner wears a gray business suit and slumps forward on his noose, head lolling forward. American and South Vietnamese flags tied to either side of the pickup's cab prop up the grisly display.
Signs stapled to the red-spattered clothes identify the first dummy as Ho Chi Minh, the Vietnamese revolutionary who led his country in wars against colonial France and the United States. The second effigy is of Nguyen Cao Ky, a former South Vietnamese vice president and air force pilot who fought Ho's troops but now plays a key role in America's political rapprochement with Vietnam.
Le Vu (center) and staff take over Main Street. Photo by John Gilhooley.
Every five minutes, as the pickup passes by, a roar erupts from several hundred people waving South Vietnamese and American flags. They have come in droves on this tree-lined block of Garden Grove's historic Main Street to surround the shuttered offices of theViet Weekly, a Vietnamese-language newspaper whose handful of employees have taken the day off. It's just after 2 p.m. on July 21, and the biggest anti-communist demonstration in nearly a decade in OC's Little Saigon, the largest community of Vietnamese exiles in the world, has just begun.
Spurred on by a constant barrage of negative press and impassioned denunciations in Little Saigon's myriad newspapers, radio stations and television programs, the protesters want to send a message to Viet Weekly—and particularly its publisher, Le Vu—that the magazine is not welcome in Orange County. They've heard word that editorials printed in the newspaper have praised Ho Chi Minh as a world leader and that the 9/11 terrorist attacks were a justifiable response to American imperialist aggression. Some in the crowd suspect Le Vu and his employees are actually communist agents sent by the Vietnamese government to infiltrate Little Saigon. A week earlier, California Assemblyman Van Thai Tran told a crowd of protest organizers at Westmister's Civic Center that the FBI had been investigating the communist inflitration of Little Saigon's media since 2003. Although he didn't mention Viet Weekly by name, that year happens to coincide with the newspaper's inaugural issue.
A megaphone blasts the martial anthem of the defunct government of South Vietnam, then the "Star Spangled Banner." For the next several hours, the crowd mills around on the sidewalk, urged on by a series of angry speakers, many of whom wear camouflage uniforms and combat boots. "Do not slander the 9/11 victims! Get out of here because you support the 9/11 terrorists!" shouts a middle-aged woman, reading her lines from a clipboard. "Viet Weekly: Down!" the crowd roars. "Down! Down! Down!"
At least 500 protesters (according to police estimates) join in the chant. Many of them carry signs: "Boycott Viet Weekly," "Viet Weekly: Don't Betray the American People!" and "Vietnamese and American People United Against Terrorism."
Holding a cell phone to his ear and walking the perimeter of the protest is Trung Nguyen, a Garden Grove school board member who recently lost his bid for Orange County's first supervisorial seat to Garden Grove City Councilwoman Janet Nguyen (no relation). He denies he's a protester, insisting he simply volunteered to serve as a liaison with the police. But he's no fan of Viet Weekly, which he says is "at a minimum, sympathetic to the communist government" of Vietnam. "You have to wonder why [the protesters] are still angry at the communist government," Nguyen says. "All of them have someone who died from the communists. You can say, 'Don't compare it to the Holocaust,' but for these people, it's like the Holocaust."
Phan Nhat Nam, a producer with the Westminster-based Vietnamese-language TV stationSaigon Broadcasting Television Network, isn't here to cover the event. A former captain in the South Vietnamese army, he's angry because "Viet Weekly prints many pro-communist articles" and "celebrates" the 9/11 attacks. Nam's station aired public-service announcements that helped draw the crowd.
"We consider them to belong to the terrorism group," Nam says, referring to Viet Weekly, whose office 10 feet away is protected by several Garden Grove police officers. "We express our support to the American community. We maintain the freedom-fighting spirit by hating them [Viet Weekly]."
Another protest organizer is Nguyen Chi Thien, a tall, elderly poet from North Vietnam who says he was "imprisoned without trial by communists for 27 years" and watched "many friends die from hunger, disease and cold."
"The Viet Weekly supports terrorism," Thien says. "They wrote that the American people deserved the 9/11 attacks. . . . The American people helped us in the war. Viet Weeklyglorifies Ho Chi Minh, a criminal! He killed 1 million people."
The protesters notice a camera peeking from between the Venetian blinds of the front window of the newspaper's office. They rush the window, blocking the camera with flags and placards. A woman standing nearby stamps her feet, screaming in Vietnamese. She ends her speech in English, with a Vietnam war-era denunciation of the Viet Cong familiar to most Americans through war movies: "VC No. 10! VC No. 10!"
Across the street, James Du, a Pasadena resident with long, curly hair and big forearms, is the only person carrying a sign defending "Viet Weekly's Right to Free Speech." He's surrounded by cops. People marching to join the protest yell at him in Vietnamese, but Du insists that many Vietnamese motorists who have driven past the corner have honked their horns in support of his sign.
"When I first got here today, [protesters] tried to grab my banner and hit me," he says. "They try to drive people like me with a different opinion out of town. But most Vietnamese are not fanatics like them. They drive by and give me the thumbs-up, but they dare not show up and support me. But I know you have to fight for your rights." Du adds that he isn't intimidated by the death threats he's received. "When I believe in something, I do it," he declares. "I believe in my cause."
Wearing a white linen shirt and sipping a chai latte, Le Vu seems remarkably relaxed for a man considered a communist by thousands of people who live within just a few miles of his newspaper's offices. Four days after the protest, Vu fields phone calls from worried advertisers and harried employees from his seat in a Main Street café. Tomorrow, his newspaper goes to print, but for the first time in Viet Weekly's four-year history, he's having problems finding places willing to display the newspaper. Several of his employees have received threatening calls since Vu interviewed Vietnamese president and former Viet Cong guerrilla Nguyen Minh Triet. A day after that June interview, Vu says, he received an anonymous e-mail threatening to burn down his office.
"I didn't save the e-mail," he says. "When I first started this paper four years ago, I got threats, and the police just took a report."
Vu concedes that his family worries about his safety. "Most Vietnamese who lived through war and a lot of conflict adopt a very cautious attitude. My family is like that, too. They see many things turned around and people getting killed by their own people. They just want to go about their business and not take a stand—like Americans would—for what they think is right."
Vu is more worried about the 20 or so advertisers who have dropped their accounts and a growing handful of local stores that will no longer carry his newspaper. "In the past few weeks, I checked with my accountant, and we have lost four or five advertisers," he says. "We're trying to get new ads, but it's hard. We're hoping to weather this quickly."
He believes the protests are the work of his competitors in the Vietnamese-language press. "A lot of people are still anti-communist," he says. "They truly think that we are communists, not because they read our newspaper, but because of this manipulation. They print tons of articles against us and none defending us. Even some of the people criticizing us have been accused of being communist. But if we are successful in putting up a fight, this minority will lose their magic power."
It wasn't too long ago that being called a communist in Little Saigon could get you killed. Early in the morning of Aug. 9, 1987, Tap Van Pham, then-editor of the Vietnamese-language entertainment magazine Mai and better known under his byline, Hoai Diep Tu, was sleeping in his Westminster office when it caught fire. Pham died of smoke inhalation, and police determined that someone had started the blaze with gasoline. The next day, a note arrived at the headquarters of Nguoi Viet Daily News taking responsibility for the murder on behalf of a shadowy death squad, Viet Nam Diet Cong Hung Quoc Dang, or theVietnamese Organization to Exterminate Communists and Restore the Nation (VOECRN).
According to a December 1994 report by the New York City-based Committee to Protect Journalists, Pham's murder prompted the FBI to list VOECRN as a terrorist organization that year. The clandestine organization had first turned up six years earlier, however, in connection with the San Francisco murder of journalist Lam Trang Duong. On July 21, 1981, a gunman shot Duong, a left-wing activist who had immigrated to the United States in the 1960s and opposed the Vietnam War, as he walked down the street. Although police at first suspected common criminals, VOECRN took responsibility for Duong's death a week later in telephone calls to local Vietnamese-language newspapers.
Besides Pham and Duong, VOECRN killed three other journalists between 1980 and 1991: editor Nguyen Dam Phong of Houston and layout designer Nhan Trong Do and editor Triet Le, both of whom worked for a Vietnamese-language magazine in Fairfax County, Va. All five journalists had angered the right-wing exile community by printing what were viewed as pro-communist editorials, investigative stories exposing alleged fraud by extremist Vietnamese exile groups, or, in Pham's case, simply running advertisements for Canadian businesses that promoted travel services and currency exchanges with Vietnam.
In 1990, Yen Ngoc Do, then-editor of the Westminster-based Nguoi Viet Daily News, produced a segment for a Little Saigon-based television show, which included footage shot in Vietnam. For a brief moment, the Vietnamese flag appeared in the background of a wide-angle shot. For that, Do's name turned up on a hit list taped to telephone poles in Little Saigon. Just a year earlier, someone had burned a Nguoi Viet delivery truck in front of the newspaper's office. On the wall of the building nearby, someone wrote the following message: "Nguoi Viet, if you are VC, we kill."
Do later angered right-wing readers by being quoted in a New York Times article about companies doing business in Vietnam. On Sept. 28, 1994, following threats of a boycott and a 300-person protest, he stepped down as editor. Do died of natural causes last August, but in a 1999 interview with the Weekly, amidst massive protests against Truong Van Tran, a Little Saigon store owner who refused to take down a poster of Ho Chi Minh that hung above his counter, Do said he'd long ago given up on trying to challenge the grip of Little Saigon's right-wing minority.
"There is freedom to publish here, but not freedom of expression," Do had said. "There is no room to disagree in this community."
How Viet Weekly's Le Vu came to be denounced as a communist agent is a story that begins 43 years ago, when he was born to middle-class parents in the coastal town ofQui Nhon in central Vietnam. His father, a teacher, had been drafted into the South Vietnamese army and discharged after a bloody and unsuccessful 1971 campaign against North Vietnamese troops in Laos. Some of Vu's earliest memories include swimming on the beach each morning, then, in the evening, standing on the roof as explosions lit up the sky and tracer bullets flashed back and forth in the nearby mountains. His parents owned a 10-room house near the beach and rented rooms out to American soldiers and their Vietnamese mistresses.
"It was like a hotel," Vu recalls. "Sometimes at night, the girls would run back to our house with blood on them. My mom was a nurse and would tend [to] them. The communists—you can call them terrorists—threw grenades in their cars. Sometimes, they shelled the city, and it would hit close to our home. We ran into the basement and saw on the TV that our neighbors got hit."
In February 1975, as North Vietnamese troops pushed south from the Central Highlands for Saigon, Vu's family fled to Nha Trang. They were met by a stream of refugees and South Vietnamese soldiers who had retreated from Ban Me Thout, the first major battle in North Vietnam's final, successful offensive.
"They were sitting ducks," Vu says. "Because they had so many civilians with them, they couldn't defend themselves. We saw the first people coming into Nha Trang, and a few days later, we started walking south with them."
Amid the chaotic evacuation, gangs of criminals broke free from jail and began preying on refugees. "Common criminals ruled the city for a few days," Vu says. "My uncle drove me through the city on his motorcycle, and people were shooting back and forth. I saw the raw side of humanity."
Along with thousands of civilians, Vu's family traveled down the coast to Cam Ranh Bay and from there to Phan Thiet. Along the country's 13th parallel, the South Vietnamese military had blown up all the bridges to Saigon. "They stopped people from crossing, and refugees just lived in the streets," he recalls. "We heard there was a ship picking up refugees at Phan Thiet, so we tried to get a boat." An American warship arrived and brought them to Vung Tau, where they briefly stayed before fleeing to Saigon, just weeks before North Vietnamese troops took over the capital.
Vu remembers the end of war with a mixture of childlike wonder and sorrow, saying that while fears of a massacre at the hands of invading North Vietnamese troops didn't materialize, it was obvious South Vietnamese people would receive little sympathy from their new communist rulers. "They were leading people around naked, with signs hanging over them," he says. "They bully you, and you have nowhere to run for help. Nobody will help you. This explains why people still hate the communists."
Although Vu's family was able to return to Qui Nhon, his father was sent to a communist re-education camp. "Life was difficult for my family, as it was for anyone in South Vietnam or who had served in the government," he says. "There was no future for us."
Vu realized that no matter how well he studied in school, he would not have any opportunity to advance in the communist-ruled educational system. In 1979, when he was 15 years old, war broke out with China, which invaded Vietnam to punish it for its invasion of Cambodia, where the Vietnamese had toppled the brutal Khmer Rouge. Along with that of his 16-year-old brother, Vu's name turned up on Qui Nhon's military draft list.
That year, Vu's family became part of the first wave of "boat people" to flee the regime, secretly working with several other Qui Nhon families to hire a boat to take them to Hong Kong. A photograph of someone who had made the trip—a faded, heavily thumbed snapshot of a smiling exile in stylish jeans and a T-shirt—had found its way to Vu's school. "It looked like a different world," he says. "We heard that if you could get to the international marine pathway where all the ships travel, you can get picked up and taken to a refugee camp."
Two boats set out for a larger vessel, one with Vu, his parents, two brothers and three sisters, and the other, a smaller boat with his older brother and several other priority passengers selected by the families. "That little boat actually carried all the important people," Vu says, including his older brother, who faced the most imminent risk of being drafted. "If they made it to the big boat, they were supposed to go without us. But only our boat made it."
Vu spent the next five days on a 15-foot motorboat crowded with 31 people. "We ran into a lot of ships," he says. "We could see people on the deck waving at us, but to our shock, they didn't pick us up. We were running out of gas, water, and food, and finally, we said we'd wait one more day, and if we get no luck, we head back."
Fortunately, the crew of a Pakistani cargo ship felt sorry for the stranded passengers and rescued them, fixing their boat and transporting them to a refugee camp on a small island in Indonesia. Local villagers fed them for a month, until a United Nations ship brought them to another camp, whose population soon swelled to 100,000.
"For us, it was a luxury," he recalls. "We didn't have to work. We got fed better than we would have been in Vietnam. We would swim in the ocean and sit around, waiting to hear news of relatives from refugees coming into the camp."
After several months, Vu's family relocated to Memphis with the help of a Tennessee church. Two years later, Vu graduated from high school after skipping his junior year, then attended the Christian Brothers College, a private school in Memphis, graduating with a degree in electrical engineering and minors in computer science and art in just three years. By the time most American students his age were graduating from college, Vu already had completed a graduate engineering program at Purdue University. He found work in El Segundo writing software for an aerospace firm.
In the early 1990s, Vu quit his aerospace job to work as a computer engineer at theUniversity of California, Los Angeles, hoping to create teaching software that might help improve education in Vietnam. But in 1996, at the beginning of the Internet boom, he left the university to found his own software company and consulting business in the tiny Garden Grove office that now houses Viet Weekly.
"The Internet was the ultimate victory of the free world," he explains. "I got excited and thought, Now is the chance for us to have a direct influence on Vietnam without being there, and also to connect all the fragments of the Vietnamese community all over the world. I wanted to create a Vietnamese university on the Internet."
Vu named his website Ki Con, after the Qui Nhon street on which he grew up. At first, it served as a clearing-house for news culled from other sources. But after several years, as other Vietnamese-language newspapers and radio stations began creating their own websites, he began posting original writing and podcasts.
As a Web publisher, Vu says, he discovered not only a lack of free press within Vietnam, but also an overwhelming editorial uniformity among Vietnamese-language media outlets in the United States. "They were still held hostage by this extreme anti-communist mentality, so they were afraid to be objective," he says. "They have to speak in a slanted direction to be accepted."
In 2003, with little fanfare, Le Vu foundedViet Weeklywith the express goal of breaking through the anti-communist monopoly on news in Little Saigon. The newspaper's first issue was only 36 pages long; it has since grown to nearly 120. His first cover story profiled Orange County's 2003 Vietnamese Film Festival. Vu interviewed directors and immediately earned the wrath of right-wing readers by voicing criticism of the festival for failing to include a single film from Vietnam.
In the next few years, Viet Weekly mostly focused on entertainment, with the occasional investigative story about mistreated restaurant workers or medical insurance fraud allegations against the wife of then-Garden Grove city councilman Van Thai Tran.
"They did some good stories," says Hao-Nhien Vu, managing editor of Nguoi Viet Daily News. "But they had a reputation for twisting people's words. As long as this involved singers and concert promoters and agents, people sort of laughed. But once they started playing games with political issues, like people being thrown in jail, people got concerned. Until then, they had been tolerated as something of an amusement."
In November 2006, Le Vu and two employees traveled to Vietnam to cover President George W. Bush's November 2006 visit, during which Bush took part in an international trade conference. The newspaper printed several stories about average people in Hanoi and their thoughts about America, trade and religious freedom in Vietnam, and the trip ended without controversy.
The same cannot be said of Viet Weekly's April 2007 visit to Vietnam, when the newspaper covered Congresswoman Loretta Sanchez's visit to Hanoi for a round of Asian security talks. When a group of women whose husbands had been arrested for religious activities tried to meet with Sanchez at the residence of U.S. Ambassador Michael Marine, Vietnamese police refused to allow them to enter the building. Viet Weekly covered the incident and attended an April 6 press conference, at which Marine answered reporters' questions about religious freedom in Vietnam.
Just days earlier, Father Nguyen Van Ly had been sentenced to eight years in prison for subversion against the regime. During his sentencing hearing in the central Vietnamese city of Hue, Ly managed to read several lines of a poem before a guard covered his mouth with his hands: "Communist trial of Vietnam/A lewd comedy for years/Judges are a bunch of baboons/Servants of dictators, who are you to judge?" A photograph of the incident swept through the Internet and found its way to the front pages of Vietnamese-language newspapers throughout the world, including Little Saigon—with the notable exception ofViet Weekly.
After Vu returned to Orange County from Vietnam, right-wing activists and Little Saigon media outlets united in a chorus of denunciation over his newspaper's refusal to print the picture, which had become a symbol of perceived religious oppression in Vietnam. In a letter to readers, Vu responded that he and his reporters felt the photograph—and the Vietnamese government's treatment of Father Ly—was a bit more complex than one might think. Vu had visited Nguyet Bieu and interviewed many of Ly's supporters there. "They were very impressed with Father Ly," Vu says. "They said if everyone in Vietnam were like Father Ly, everything would be better. They were very defiant."
But the villagers also explained that Ly's battle with Vietnamese authorities had nothing to do with his religious teachings, but a dispute involving an irrigation ditch the government wanted to build on land next to the church. Asked if they had been persecuted for being Christians, the villagers shook their heads. "We saw people practicing [religion] everywhere," Vu recalls. "There is such a renaissance of religion everywhere. I think the government in Vietnam tried to suppress the leadership of a church to avoid it turning into a powerful force that can mobilize the masses to overthrow the government, but to suppress the common people from practicing? No."
Viet Weekly's editorial mentioned that even Marine downplayed the photograph of Ly being muzzled in court when he spoke about religious freedom at his April 6 press conference, reporting that Marine "affirmed that Father Ly's noisy behavior in the courtroom . . . even in America would be dealt with forcefully."
After Vu published the editorial, the newspaper's critics in Little Saigon declared it had fabricated the statement. When Vu posted an audiotape and transcript of Marine's comments on the newspaper's website (www.vietweekly.com), his critics accused him of misrepresenting Marine's comments because the ambassador didn't actually accuse Ly of being disruptive, but only said that he knew of "certain circumstances in trials in the United States, a judge would order a prisoner who is speaking out to be removed forcefully, so there is a question about decorum in a court of law that may well be the explanation for that step that was taken [in regards] to Father Ly."
Vu denies he fabricated anything. "I stand by the audiotape," he says. "If it is fabricated, then I should be in jail by now, or the embassy would have contacted me. That's the cornerstone of their charge against me. If they can prove that, what is the defense for me? How could I make up Michael Marine talking about religious freedom other than if I were trying to help the communist regime?"
In an e-mail, Angela Aggeler, a press and cultural attaché with the U.S. Embassy in Hanoi, said her office was unaware of the controversy surrounding Viet Weekly's coverage of Marine's press conference. "I believe Ambassador Marine's comments speak for themselves, and I have nothing to add to them," she wrote.
The anti-communist uproar against VietWeekly intensified in Little Saigon a few weeks later, just in time for the anniversary of the April 30, 1975, end of the Vietnam war. Hoping to spark a debate over attitudes about the war in Vietnam and America, Viet Weeklyprinted two opinion pieces from a Vietnamese-language website. The first article, which ran in Viet Weekly on April 25, had been written two years earlier by University of Michiganprofessor and Vietnam veteran Keith Taylor, who defended the U.S. role in the war and celebrated South Vietnamese soldiers as heroes. On May 4, the newspaperran an opposing piece by ex-Viet Cong soldier Ha Van Thuy, who attacked Taylor's essay.
"Dear Professor Taylor," Thuy wrote. "Vietnamese people were the first to defeat the colonial French and America." Thuy described Ho Chi Minh as a "world-recognized cultural leader and great personality" and blamed the 9/11 terrorist attacks on U.S. foreign policy. "If I say this, people will think I am evil, but truly the 9/11 attacks were an appropriate price for America to pay for the things it did to the world," he wrote.
That particular line, Vu claims, has been taken out of context by the media in Little Saigon. "They say we praise Ho Chi Minh, that we support al-Qaeda, but these are just two opposing articles and one guy's opinion about 9/11—which is shared by most of Europe," he says. "But we print a lot of opinions that are offensive to the government of Vietnam. But they ignore that and try to take us out by saying, 'Don't read Viet Weekly anymore. They're communist.'"
Hoang Kiem Nam, a former South Vietnamese war correspondent who writes a political column for Viet Weekly, chafes at the charge that the newspaper supports communism. "I think it's complete nonsense," he says. "We love freedom, and we have to use freedom to defeat tyranny. Any regime that is oppressing people, we should go against them, but we shouldn't use their means by creating a division in the community. A lot of newspapers [in Little Saigon] are involved. It's a conflict of interest."
Nguoi Viet's Hao-Nhien Vu denies that his newspaper is stirring up opposition to Viet Weekly, although he acknowledges it has printed many stories critical of the newspaper. He says he sympathizes with Viet Weekly's claim that it is being attacked for airing controversial views with which it doesn't necessarily agree. "I try to make that argument with people, but most people I talk to don't buy it," he says. "I don't get the sense that they are agents sent by the Communist Party to infiltrate the community."
Like Le Vu, Hao-Nhien Vu has been accused of being a communist—in his case for daring to travel to Vietnam as a journalist. "I get people calling me names all the time," he says. "But in the case of Viet Weekly, it seems to be much more deep-seated."
Le Vu insists that the fact he's not a communist is beside the point. "The communism I experienced after the war is something I wouldn't wish on anyone, even my worst enemy," he says. "But what I'm doing has nothing to do with my political beliefs. Being called a communist in this town is just a tactic. It happens all the time. That's why I don't take this too seriously. There is no freedom of speech in Vietnam. We have it here, but look at the level of press freedom in Little Saigon, the capital of the Vietnamese community in America. The Viet Weeklyis the only voice trying to break this boundary and provide voices outside the mainstream. We will fight to the end because there is no free speech in Vietnam. Here, there is, but we don't use it—and we cannot afford to lose this fight."
Just before noon on July 26, five days after the Main Street protest, 20 copies of Viet Weekly are stacked in a neat pile on the sidewalk in front of a liquor store in a mini-mall at the intersection of Bolsa Avenue and Magnolia Street in Westminster. The liquor store used to sell the newspaper for 50 cents per copy, but the owner says she's tired of being yelled at by anti-communist activists. "No sell," she says in English before walking away.
Five minutes earlier, an elderly woman who was selling the paper on the sidewalk out of a shopping cart had been chased away when she complained about the fact that they were telling people not to buy Viet Weekly. A newspaper employee who witnessed the event called police, who have just arrived, along with Le Vu. The two cops quickly determine that no papers were stolen. "I have no problem with you selling the paper," one of them tells Vu. "But if they're telling people not to buy the paper, that's freedom of speech. There's nothing we can do."
Standing next to Vu is Chuoi Ly, who has worked as a distributor for the newspaper since it was founded four years ago. "Every store I go to today says they can't sell this paper," he says. "Every place that advertises, they're scared. I'm scared, too. They say, don't deliver this paper, but I need money."
Although the protesters' call for a boycott of Viet Weekly is taking an obvious toll on advertising sales and the distribution network, the 20 copies of the newspaper are all that's left of the 300 Ly brought to the corner just a few hours ago. One customer, Quan Hua, says he drove from El Toro to buy his copy. "I'm a supporter of Viet Weekly," he says. "I've bought this paper for many years. I went to a few other places to look for it, but there's nobody selling this paper."
"Why do you like this paper?" interrupts "Peter," an employee of a laundromat next door to the liquor store, who didn't want to give his last name. "I don't like this paper. I heard a lot of people say they support communism. People here don't read it."
"Freedom of speech," Hua answers, waving his hand in the air.
"Put the hand down," Peter says.
"We have an argument—we both talk," Hua continues. "Freedom of speech."
"Put the hand down," Peter says.
While they're arguing, a woman walks onto the sidewalk from the parking lot, grabs a copy of Viet Weekly, and drops 50 cents into a jar. Two more customers stop to purchase the newspaper. All 300 copies have now disappeared.
Le Vu walks up to Peter and asks why he's angry.
"They support communism," Peter says.
"No they don't," Vu insists.
"People don't buy this paper," Peter says. "Just ask them!" He stalks off.
Vu takes a deep breath. "These people are actually nice people who just don't like communism," he says. "And they're being used."