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Transcript of William Johnston, Lieutenant Commander, U.S. Navy
Purple Dragon - Part I
May 31st, 2006
The Social Diary Columnist & Photographer
May 22, 2006
Interviewee: William Johnston, Lieutenant Commander, U.S. Navy
Photos: © Photographs Copyright William Johnston 2006. All
Published with permission.
Johnston is the father of Scott Johnston, a multi-awarded member
of the Police Department, City of San Diego, California.
Part I Begins:
Today, our guest is William Johnston, Lieutenant Commander, U.S.
Navy (Retired.) Commander Johnston, thanks for taking the time
to be with us.
It's my pleasure to be here.
Please tell us a little of your background.
Sure. I enlisted in the U.S. Navy, oh, it seems maybe a hundred
years ago, and served almost six years in enlisted status, mostly
as a Communications Technician. Under a special officer acquisition
program, I was selected for and received a commission as an Officer
of the Line. I spent the next sixteen or so years in various positions
both at sea and ashore. My duties at sea were in Destroyers and
in Amphibious Warfare ships. As to the latter type, I served a
tour as Commanding Officer, U.S.S. POLK COUNTY, a Tank Landing
Ship, home ported here in San Diego. Ashore, I served in various
Intelligence positions, most notably with the Defense Intelligence
Agency and with the Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Pacific Command.
Also, I served a tour as the Director of Training at the Pacific
Fleet Training Center, here in San Diego. After I retired from
the Navy, I became involved in various civilian pursuits.
That's quite an interesting background. Now, turning to current
affairs, I understand that you just returned from a week-long
trip to Dallas, Texas.
Yes, I did. I got back to San Diego on Friday night.
What was the purpose of your trip?
Well, I went to Dallas to participate, as a featured speaker,
in the 17th Annual National OPSEC Conference. The conference was
sponsored by the Interagency OPSEC Support Staff -that's under
the Director, National Security Agency- in association with the
OPSEC Professionals Society, the Department of Homeland Security,
and the Department of Defense. I also participated as an attendee.
And, what happens at an OPSEC conference?
An OPSEC conference, like most conferences, is designed to provide
training and networking opportunities for professionals. In this
case, the professionals are those in management, security, intelligence,
infrastructure protection, counterintelligence, military operations,
public safety, and related fields.
Who is eligible to attend an OPSEC conference?
Those eligible to attend an OPSEC conference include all U.S.
Government personnel, U.S. Government contractors, State and Local
Government employees, and Contractors with a Homeland Security
Who are the speakers at an OPSEC conference?
The speakers are all recognized experts in their topic areas,
and are recruited from both government organizations and private
What subjects were covered in the conference?
The subjects are covered in a series of briefings set up in the
form of tracks. The tracks included: Homeland Security and Public
Safety, Threat, Military Operations, Corporate Operations, and
General OPSEC topics.
What was your speech about?
The title of my speech was: The Birth of the Purple Dragon Redux.
In the first place, it was a retrospective of the origins, during
the Vietnam War, of the OPSEC function and of the impacts of its
implementations by members of the Staff, Commander-in-Chief, U.S.
Pacific Command, under the command of Admirals Ulysses S. Grant
Sharp and Admiral John S. McCain, Jr., respectively. In the second
place, I did some comparing and contrasting of the Vietnam War
with the Global War on Terror.
You've used the acronym "OPSEC" several times now. What,
specifically, does OPSEC stand for?
Oh, sorry. OPSEC stands for Operations Security.
OK. And, what, specifically, is Operations Security?
Well, although that's a short question, it may require a somewhat
long answer. The short answer is: essentially, Operations Security
is the name of a methodology used in a risk management program.
It's a five-step program that actually has more to do with Operations
than with Security, per se, although it deals with Security Disciplines,
such as Physical Security, Communications Security, Information
Security, and the like.
see, intelligence collection -collecting the dots- and analysis
-connecting the dots- is a lot like putting together a picture
puzzle. Intelligence collectors know how important it is to obtain
small bits of information, or "pieces" of a puzzle,
from many sources and assemble them into the overall picture.
How do these intelligence collectors obtain these bits of information?
They use lots of different sources and methods.
What kind of sources can you tell us about?
Oh, there are many sources. The information I am talking about
might be collected by monitoring radio and telephone conversations,
analyzing telephone directories, financial or purchasing documents,
position or "job" announcements, travel documents, blueprints
or drawings, distribution lists, shipping and receiving documents,
even personal information or items found in the trash. The goal
of OPSEC, as a countermeasures program, is to deny to an adversary
those pieces of the intelligence puzzle.
How would they gain access to these kinds of information?
Some are difficult, but some can be quite easy. The methods range
from sophisticated surveillance using highly technical electronic
methods to just simple visual observation of activities that we
call "indicators." And, of course, there is the spy.
The premise of OPSEC is that the accumulation of one or more elements
of unclassified but sensitive information or data could damage
national security by revealing classified information through
logical linkages to the indicators.
That's kind of confusing to a layman.
Yes, I'm afraid it is. Let me try to explain.
The OPSEC process has to be tailored to the specific organization
and activity being analyzed. Also, the process is a cycle where,
after countermeasures are implemented, you have to continue to
evaluate the situation.
Can you tell us what the five steps are?
Sure. Fundamental to the OPSEC process is determining what information,
if it becomes known to one or more adversaries, would harm an
organization's ability to carry out an operation or activity effectively.
So the first of the five steps in the OPSEC process is to identify
the critical information to be protected.
OK. Once you know what you want to protect, what do you do next?
The second step is to analyze the threat. This means you need
to know who the adversaries might be. You also have to know what
information they need to meet their objectives, and whether they
have both the ability and the intent to collect, process, analyze,
and use that information. To complicate things, in a given situation,
there may be more than one adversary and each may be interested
in different types of information.
SCHWAB: Then, what?
The third step is to analyze your own organization's vulnerabilities.
To do that, you have to know how your operation or activity is
actually conducted by the members of the organization, rather
than how "the book" says they should do it.
How do you do that?
The best way is to look at the organization or activity the way
the adversaries would. Literally, you do what we call, "Looking
through the eyes of the adversary." This way is the key to
discovering indicators that could allow an adversary to deduce
your intentions to a relatively high degree of accuracy.
So, you first decide what you want to protect, then you figure
out whether your adversary wants to and is able to gather the
information, then you look at what you are doing to see if you
are, in a sense, broadcasting indicators that the adversary can
use to figure out what you plan to do.
Exactly. Very good call. But we aren't finished yet. We need to
take the fourth step and assess the risk. After all, we don't
have unlimited time or money. At some point, depending on where
we are in the operation, we might not even care what the adversary
might find out because it will be too late for him to do anything
So, you're saying that there is also a time-value to the information?
Right again. So now we move to the fourth step, assessing the
risk. To assess risk, we have to match specific vulnerabilities
with specific threats. Where we find the vulnerabilities are great
and the threat from the adversary threat is also great, it is
evident that the risk of adversary exploitation is high. In this
case, we would set a high priority for protection, and would take
countermeasures to deny the adversary the information. On the
other hand, where the vulnerability is slight and the adversary
has, say, a marginal collection capability, we can set a lower
So, logically, you would then want to match the countermeasures
to the risk, right?
You have nailed it again. That's exactly right. So step five in
the OPSEC process is applying countermeasures designed to eliminate
or drastically reduce the vulnerabilities, the threats, or the
utility value of any indicators to the adversaries. Obviously,
different countermeasures likely to work in a particular situation
may vary in their effectiveness, feasibility, and cost. The decision
as to whether to implement a particular countermeasure is based
on a cost/benefit analysis with respect to the overall program
That all sounds very time consuming and complicated.
In some respects, it is. But, I'll bet you practice OPSEC at home
without knowing that's what it is called. I'll give you an example.
Say you've read in your paper that there has been a string of
burglaries not too far from your neighborhood. People have come
home from their vacation to find their house ransacked.
say that you're going away on vacation for a week or so and you
want to lessen the risk that your home will be hit by a burglar.
What do you do? One good countermeasure is to call the newspaper
and cancel deliveries while you are away. You do this because
if you let newspapers pile up in front of your house, that's an
indicator to a burglar that nobody's home. You probably do this
with another indicator, your mail, too; or maybe you have a neighbor
collect and keep them for you till you get home. You might also
leave a vehicle parked in your driveway. You might connect your
porch lights and inside lights to a timer so they will go on and
off at preset times to make it look like someone is home. Likewise,
you might put a radio on a timer so that it comes on and goes
off at various times of day to make it sound like someone is inside.
Well, guess what? You practiced OPSEC!
Yes, I've done all of those things.
Let's analyze the situation in OPSEC terms. Since burglars definitely
do not like high-risk situations, like a confrontation on the
job, in this case, the critical information is obvious: it is
whether anyone is home or not. You don't want anyone to know your
house is unoccupied, so that is the information you want to protect.
You protect it by removing any indicators that a burglar could
use to deduce that you are not at home.
none of the countermeasures, or actions you took, directly concealed
the fact that your home was not occupied. A newspaper on the lawn
or driveway doesn't necessarily mean no one is at home. Newspapers
in the yard or driveway are only one indicator to a burglar. That
indicator, though, combined with other indicators such as no internal
lights at night, mail stuffed in the mailbox, and so forth, can
provide the burglar with the information he needs to reach a conclusion
with an acceptable level of confidence. In this case, the more
indicators the burglar is able to spot, the greater the level
of confidence he will have in his conclusion that people are away.
When you eliminate the indicators, though, a burglar will not
have this kind of confidence and you will have a much better chance
of not having your home burglarized while you are away.
Oh, I see what you mean. That's a lot more clear. So, how did
For that, I'll need to go way back into history.
OK. Go ahead.
The genesis of Operations Security, as a discipline, occurred
in The Vietnam War Era. Because our intelligence services revealed
that the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese Army were somehow obtaining
foreknowledge of many of our operations, a group of officers and
men, seventeen individuals, to be exact, were pulled together
to set up a Top Secret organization within the headquarters of
the Commander-in-Chief of the U.S. Pacific Command. Our mission
was not only to determine how the enemy was obtaining foreknowledge,
but to come up with countermeasures to stop them from continuing
to obtain foreknowledge. The Unclassified Nickname given to our
organization was, "Purple Dragon."
So what did you do?
Well, since no such organization had existed before, we were freed
by our commander, Admiral U.S. Grant Sharp, U.S. Navy, to use
our own initiative and imagination. At first, operating by SOP,
that's "Seat of the Pants," we went out to discover
foreknowledge problems. Once we found a problem, we designed and
developed countermeasure programs, methods, and procedures intended
to prevent enemy exploitation of our activities.
So how did you go about discovering problems of foreknowledge?
We did this by putting together, out of our seventeen people,
joint-service, interdisciplinary teams that accompanied ground,
sea, riverine, and airborne units of all U.S. Armed Forces on
regular and special forces combat operations. We called what we
were doing "taking surveys." We traveled . . . did we
ever travel, not only throughout the Vietnam combat zones, but
elsewhere in Southeast Asia and the Far East. We would conduct
on-site observations, collect data, and analyze operational, administrative,
and logistic support activities to determine possible sources
of enemy prior-awareness of friendly intentions.
So, how did this work out?
I am proud to say that we exceeded even our own expectations.
Our efforts resulted in preventing enemy exploitation of a wide
range of our operations and significantly raising combat effectiveness.
The ultimate result was the saving of human lives and material
resources of an incalculable magnitude.
lest you think I am claiming undue credit for myself, let me emphasize
that the key to our successes at CINCPAC was our attention to
basics and our tightly integrated teamwork. Without that attention
and tight integration of effort, those successes would not have
been possible. Picture this: seventeen people from different armed
services, different disciplines, different ranks, all working
in the same space, striving together to make sense out of mountains
of information; collecting it, studying it, analyzing it, vetting
it within the staff, deciding what to do with it.
So what eventually happened?
I am again proud to say that our highly effective methodology
became the model applied to U. S. military and naval operations
worldwide. Later, we assisted in developing conference goals and
agenda items for the first worldwide OPSEC conference. Also, the
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the Armed Forces directed
us to prepare a draft OPSEC Survey Guide for worldwide use. Our
methodology was adopted by the federal government in 1988 as mandated
by National Security Decision Directive Number 298 issued by President
Ronald Reagan. The Operations Security professionals of today
learned our methodology and are using those proven programs, methods,
and procedures as we speak.
That sounds exciting. Is it possible for you to give us some details
about some of the operations you were involved in?
Yes it is, with a caveat. Since the OPSEC activities in which
I participated were heavily associated with very highly-classified
and tightly-compartmented special intelligence and other such
code-word materials, obviously, it was not possible for me to
keep "mementos" of any kind. So, where I talk of the
past, where I could not find officially declassified information,
I dredged things up from my long-term memory. Even though I think
I still have a keen memory, the mists of time do tend to accumulate
and sometimes details can become obscured. Having said that, I
assure you that I am confident that I can differentiate between
those subjects I can discuss and those on which I must continue
to maintain complete silence. What that means is that I can tell
you some details, but not all of them. Is that OK?
Yes, of course.
I participated in a number of "surveys" where we were
very successful in producing analyses that successfully pinpointed
sources and determined the degree to which many activities in
the Pacific Theater of Operations were being exploited by hostile
foreign intelligence interests.
the first operation I became involved in was Operation ARC LIGHT,
the U.S. Air Force, Strategic Air Command, B-52 Bombing Operations
in North and South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.
ARC LIGHT began on June 18, 1965 when 30 B-52's, 10 cells of three
aircraft, each with six aircrew aboard, thundered down the runway
at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam, en route the 1 by 3 kilometer
target boxes at Ben Cat, about 40 miles north of Saigon containing
concentrations of Viet Cong and possibly as high as 6000 North
Vietnamese Regular Army troops.
ensure the 12-hour mission remained a secret, the planners of
the operation intended that it be carried out in complete radio
silence from beginning to end, including prestrike aerial refueling
from KC-135 tankers that would take off from Kadena Air Base,
Okinawa about one-and-a-half hours after the bombers had departed
refueling was to take place on five parallel tracks in an area
chosen to avoid commercial airspace. The tracks, all at the same
altitude, and separated by 20 nautical miles, were to be entered
from a common Initial Point. Twenty miles is a long distance if
you are hiking, but traveling at 500 knots you can cover the distance
in 144 seconds.
refueling requires a precise rendezvous when the tankers and the
bombers are not flying in company, so most refueling tracks incorporate
a pair of turns called a "timing triangle," to allow
navigators a chance to adjust their arrival time. The tracks designated
for the first ARC LIGHT mission lacked these triangles.
Did the lack of those triangles pose a problem?
Yes, it did, and a serious problem indeed, because it came to
pass that one cell of bombers arrived at the rendezvous point
too early. To take up the slack while awaiting the arrival of
the tankers, they executed some turns off the assigned refueling
track. For some reason, during one of those 360-degree timing
adjustment turns, they crossed into the track of another cell.
Two B-52's slammed into each other. Both aircraft were crippled
and fell into the sea. Eight of the 12 crew members were killed.
The remaining four crewmen parachuted successfully and were rescued
from the sea by USS Point Defiance (LSD-31.)
A third B-52 suffered an equipment malfunction and was diverted.
The remaining 27 aircraft completed the mission.
the disastrous beginning, all of the bombs were dropped into the
correct target boxes, except for one string which, because of
a radar malfunction, completely missed the target.
day, the press generally derided the raid as an expensive and
costly failure. One report claimed that only one water buffalo
and 100 pounds of rice were destroyed. One report said that the
bombs were dropped on an area that the Viet Cong had just evacuated.
Other reports said that the results of the raid were a lot more
effective than the press had led people to believe.
Did they ever find out why the aircraft involved in the collision
got themselves into that position?
Yes, Investigators determined that there were multiple causes,
actually a combination of factors: poor planning, weather conditions,
forbidden radio communications, and an untested air refueling
operation. As you can imagine, further raids were postponed while
the operation went back to the drawing boards.
July, ARC LIGHT raids resumed, and during the next 30 months,
more than 126,000 sorties were flown from the three bases that
were involved in the B-52 effort in Southeast Asia, 126,615, to
over Laos were added in December 1965, and raids to North Vietnam
added in April 1966.
May 18, 1969, extensive, secret, bombing of suspected Viet Cong
sanctuaries in Cambodia began with 60 B-52s taking off from Guam
on what seemed to be yet another "ordinary" ARC LIGHT
mission. In good OPSEC countermeasures fashion, at the last possible
minute, 48 bombers crossed into Cambodia, each dropping twenty-four
tons of bombs on the operating area of the headquarters of COSVN,
or Central Office for South Vietnam, North Vietnam's headquarters
for staging and directing operations into South Vietnam.
1972, B-52s were involved in LINEBACKER and LINEBACKER II missions
over North Vietnam, and that Operation ARC LIGHT ended on August
15, 1973, with all B-52s withdrawn from Southeast Asia shortly
by the way, these aircraft, now fifty years old, were used to
hit targets during Operations Desert Storm, Southern Watch, Desert
Strike, Desert Fox, Allied Force, Enduring Freedom, and Iraqi
Freedom. These fine aircraft are expected to remain in service
at least until the year 2040, perhaps beyond.
SCHWAB: It sounds like you spent considerable time in Vietnam.
Well, yes. I did. The first time I shipped out to Vietnam was
1965; the last was 1971, and there were many times in between.
I went on missions in all four of the Military Corps areas, and
of seventeen named campaigns for persons serving in the U.S. Navy,
I participated in eleven.
No doubt you received various awards during your years of service.
Yes. I am authorized to wear the Meritorious Service Medal, Navy
Good Conduct Medal, National Defense Service Medal (2 awards),
Korean Service Medal, Vietnam Service Medal with eleven campaign
stars, United Nations Service Medal, Republic of Viet Nam Gallantry
Cross Unit Citation and the Republic of Vietnam Campaign Ribbon.
That's quite an accumulation of awards. And thank you for serving
sorry to say, that's all we have time for right now. Commander,
I thank you again for being with us here today. It has been quite
a revealing and educational interview. I hope you will consider
coming back and providing us with more of your experiences and
insights, especially with respect to comparing and contrasting
the Vietnam War and the Global War on Terror, and the fascinating
subject of OPSEC.
You are quite welcome, and I'd be glad to.
Part I Ends
* Margo Schwab has
produced, written, interviewed and photographed for various media
organizations since 1989. Schwab has a college degree
from Scripps College and a Masters of Business
degree from the University of San Diego.
Schwab volunteers for numerous charity organizations. She also
continues to lobby for water safety and for family violence mitigation.
Schwab is the owner and publisher of The Social Diary.
to New this Week.....Margo
** photos, video and writing on this
site are the
of the author, The Social Diary, San Diego Social Diary, margomargo.com
and Margo Schwab.
reproduction of any part or parts is allowed without written permission
by Margo Schwab