The Phoenix Program was created by the CIA as a way to coordinate numerous counterinsurgency programs during the Vietnam war, using methods of blanket surveillance, kidnapping and extrajudicial detention, interrogation and torture, and the paramilitarization of the police. The goal, beyond gathering of intelligence, was to eliminate — via murder, mass use of informants, and terror — what the U.S. called the “Viet Cong Infrastructure” (VCI), especially the top and middle levels of VC leadership.
Instead, Phoenix sank under the weight of institutional corruption and interagency competition, not to mention Washington’s demand to produce results — even if there were no results to produce. Phoenix itself grew out of the CIA’s theory of “Contre Coup,” or “counter-terror.” The idea was the U.S. would match the terror used by opponent forces, but do it even better.
As Valentine wrote in a May 2001 article: “The object of Contre Coup was to identify and terrorize each and every individual VCI and his/her family, friends and fellow villagers. To this end the CIA in 1964 launched a massive intelligence operation called the Provincial Interrogation Center Program [PICs]…. Staffed by members of the brutal [South Vietnamese] Special Police, who ran extensive informant networks, and advised by CIA officers, the purpose of the PICs was to identify, through the systematic ‘interrogation’ (read torture) of VCI suspects, the membership of the VCI at every level of its organization….”
As the Vietnam War grew in intensity and the U.S. intervention neared half-a-million troops, the CIA tried to rationalize their anti-terror campaign, uniting their counter-insurgency, police, and intelligence aims, while working closely with their fractious South Vietnamese partners.
What followed was murder and torture and graft and corruption on a grand scale. Untold thousands died and were tortured. The figures for those killed in the “counter-terror” program range from the CIA’s admitted 20,000 to over 40,000.
A vast number of those killed had no connection with the VC at all. Valentine explains in his book, “most Vietnamese jailed under Phoenix were anonymous pawns whose only value was the small bribe their families offered for their release.” The bribes didn’t help thousands, as Phoenix managers imposed quotas as high as 1,800 “neutralizations” per month.
The PICs (Provincial Interrogation Center Program) became an integral part of Phoenix, and torture was standard operating procedure, while CIA “advisers” stood by. Later, CIA personnel argued they had tried to teach their South Vietnamese partners more effective kinds of interrogation, but in practice, they often were present during torture sessions, and countenanced much of what went on. Indeed, CIA’s Support Services Branch was in charge of training police Special Branch officers in interrogation methods.
Valentine describes the torture in the PICs: “rape, gang rape, rape using eels, snakes or hard objects, and rape followed by murder; electrical shock (‘the Bell Telephone Hour’),” as well as suspension in air, beatings with rubber hoses and whips, “use of police dogs to maul prisoners,”and more. But as the first director of the PIC program in Vietnam, John Patrick Muldoon, told Valentine, “You can’t have an American there all the time watching these things.”
The situation will sound familiar to those who have followed the actions of U.S. and allied forces in Iraq and Afghanistan who routinely turned over prisoners for torture to local authorities, while shadowy U.S. agents lurked in the background of the foreign torture chambers. (A direct report on such actions in Iraq can be seen in Peter Maass’s video report, Searching for Steele. More recent revelations in a new FOIA of the CIA’s interrogation manual from the 1960s shows such interactions with foreign intelligence and police services during interrogation and torture was something the CIA thought and planned about a great deal.)
In her August 2007 New Yorker article on the CIA black sites, Jane Mayer noted the interest of the CIA in the Phoenix Program as a model for the U.S. war in Afghanistan.
“A Pentagon-contract study found that, between 1970 and 1971, ninety-seven per cent of the Vietcong targeted by the Phoenix Program were of negligible importance,” Mayer wrote. “But, after September 11th, some CIA officials viewed the program as a useful model.”
While as a work of history The Phoenix Program is one of the most important books ever written on the CIA and the military, on the birth of US “counter-terror” policy, and government sponsored torture and assassination programs, its relevancy to post-9/11 history is self-evident. Anyone trying to understand the chaos and crimes committed by US and associated forces in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars must know this book.
While a good knowledge of the Phoenix Program in necessary to understand how U.S. counterinsurgency acts in reality in countries around the globe, in a new introduction for the Open Roads edition of the book, Valentine writes about the corrupting influence of Phoenix upon democratic processes domestically.
Valentine speaks of the “insidious” spread of Phoenix methods in the United States for the purpose of “the political control of its citizens through terrorism, on behalf of the rich military-industrial-political elite who rule our society.”
“Indeed, America’s security forces were always aware of the domestic applications of the Phoenix,” Valentine writes, “and the program has not only come to define modern American warfare, it is the model for our internal ‘homeland security’ apparatus as well. It is with the Phoenix program that we find the genesis of the paramilitarization of American police forces in their role as adjuncts to military and political security forces engaged in population control and suppression of dissent.”
For Valentine, who makes a compelling case, the building of Guantanamo, the use of black sites and torture, the provision — even as late as 2013 — for the indefinite detention of Americans and other “war on terror” prisoners, “was easy to predict,” if you knew about Phoenix.
(First Published: Monday July 7, 2014)
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