231. Telegram From the Embassy in Laos to the Department of State1

1076. Reur 638.2

As seems to be always the case with matters affecting Laos, the problem re rules of engagement on the SVN border is not with the substance but with the shadow.RLG officials, in contrast to Cambodians, would have no objection to hot pursuit across ill-defined border by U.S. and friendly forces engaged with Viet Cong. However, they would have great difficulty with a public assertion of our right or intention to exercise such hot pursuit.
What bothers me therefore is precisely prospect raised in para 2 reftel that U.S. authority to undertake this pursuit would become public knowledge, despite high security classification. Experience has unhappily shown this to be true, no matter how much we may lament it.
Therefore, since neither I nor RLG would in any way wish inhibit friendly forces from defending themselves against attack from Lao territory, issue we must tackle is manner in which public repercussions can be eliminated. I would submit that this is not impossible, and that it can be handled in one of three different ways.
First way would be to change rules of engagement and publish them widely, albeit with high security classification. When inevitable leak occurs, Spokesman should merely deny it flatly. I put up this suggestion knowing full well it will not be accepted in Washington. However, it is obviously the best and most logical choice. Yet I realize it remains an unacceptable option.
Second way would be to change rules of engagement but not publish them widely. In this context, I would suggest they be held at the COMUSMACV level, on an eyes-only basis for a limited and specifically designated number of responsible officers. These officers could then respond, in the event, to an emergency by a field commander, giving him the authorization if and when a situation like a [garble] develops into a cross-border fight. In this option, I would prefer that the public line to be taken should differ from Thai proposed reftel. If there is a leakage, the [Page 458] answer to queries should be: “You are posing a question on a hypothetical issue which has not arisen. We do not answer hypothetical questions.”
The third way to handle the problem would be to take the decision at the national level but refrain from publishing it in the field. In this way, the actual change in rules of engagement would take place only when and if a cross-border situation arose. Since, contrary to the Cambodian situation, we are not faced with an immediate prospect of this type attack, there would be no actual handicap to the troops. There would, of course, be much continuing anguish among staff officers.
On balance, I suppose the second choice is the most practical. If and when an actual situation occurs and cross-border hot pursuit becomes necessary, then, at the point (but only then) would Spokesman fall back on our standard line for operational matter, affecting Laos, which is “no comment.” At no time would I foresee the necessity to go as far as to assert “authority” publicly, as proposed reftel. We could, however, if necessary, reaffirm our policy as outlined last sentence reftel.3
In general, I would feel it improvement to discuss this matter with RLG. However, just in the event that Washington should decide on some course of action from my current expectations, I wish opportunity to comment again on this aspect when you come to a consensus on the substance of your intentions.4
  1. Source: Department of State, Central Files, POL 27 VIET S. Top Secret.
  2. In telegram 638 to Vientiane, April 9, the Department of State asked for the Embassy’s comments on the proposed changes in rules of engagement for U.S. troops in Laos. The Department suggested that should any operation become public knowledge despite its tightly held security classification, U.S. spokesmen would reply that American military commanders have authority to take actions inherent in the right of self-defense to protect their forces. (Ibid.)
  3. The last sentence of telegram 638 reads: “In addition spokesmen would reaffirm USG policy to respect sovereignty, independence, neutrality, and territory of Laos and not to widen war in Southeast Asia.” (Ibid.)
  4. In telegram 659 to Vientiane, April 23, the Department informed the Embassy that MACV would hold on an eyes only basis authorization to operate in the Laos border area until needed. Should the Department receive press inquiries, the response would be that the question was hypothetical or “no comment,” as appropriate. If pressed, the spokesman could say that Laos is an area in which American commanders have self-defense authority. (Ibid.) In telegram 1116 from Vientiane, April 25, Sullivan suggested that U.S. spokesmen be instructed not to feel “pressed” beyond the “no comment” stage. (Ibid.)