The Phoenix Has Landed: a New Introduction

Ten years after the publication of The Phoenix Program, I wrote a series of articles on the subject for Counterpunch magazine. The Clinton administration had popularized neoliberalism, hammered labor through NAFTA, and dismantled welfare. Conservatives were speaking of a “new American century” based on belligerent nationalism. The time seemed right to warn of the dangers.

The first of these articles, “Rob Simmons, the CIA, and the Issue of War Crimes in Vietnam: The Spook Who Would Be a Congressman,” appeared in November 2000.

As a CIA advisor to the Special Branch of the South Vietnamese Police, Simmons managed a secret interrogation center and a vast informant network in order to identify and locate members of the Viet Cong Infrastructure (VCI). Simmons then mounted paramilitary and psychological warfare operations against suspected “secret agents” who were administering the revolution in Phú Yên Province.

The people Simmons spied on, harassed, kidnapped, interrogated, and assassinated were civilians protected under the Geneva Conventions. He worked with the Phoenix program and what he did, in my opinion, amounted to war crimes.[amazon asin=B00KGMIW6Q&template=*lrc ad (right)]

Simmons, however, represented the nation’s renewed, aggressive spirit, and longing to rid itself of the Vietnam Syndrome. He was elected to Congress in November 2000 and quickly became a member of the House Homeland Security Committee, as well as chairman of the Subcommittee on Intelligence, Information Sharing, and Terrorism Risk Assessment.

My second article, “Fragging Bob: Bob Kerrey, CIA War Crimes, and the Need for a War Crimes Trial,” appeared in May 2001. The piece followed revelations that former Nebraska senator Bob Kerrey, as a member of a Navy SEAL team on a Phoenix mission in South Vietnam in 1969, participated in the killing of a dozen women and children in Thanh Phong village. Kerrey claimed the civilians were caught in a crossfire, but their bodies were found grouped together, as if they had been rounded up and executed.

Kerrey told the New York Times, “Standard operating procedure was to dispose of the people we made contact with. Kill the people we made contact with, or we have to abort the mission.”

According to the rules of land warfare, what Kerrey and his SEAL unit did was unlawful and amounted to a war crime. But again, in the spirit of the times, his crimes were rationalized away.

The articles about CIA officer Simmons and Navy SEAL Kerrey contrasted the stated purpose of the Phoenix program, which was to protect the people from terrorism, with its operational reality—the pacification of the South[amazon asin=0595133665&template=*lrc ad (right)] Vietnamese population through terrorism, through the same tactics employed by the Gestapo and Einsatzgruppen in the Second World War.

Created by the CIA in 1967 and headquartered in Saigon, the Phoenix program coordinated all military, police, and intelligence agencies in South Vietnam in pursuit of civilian members of the VCI. To this end the CIA created Intelligence and Operations Coordinating Centers (IOCCs) at region, province, and district levels. A particular IOCC would amass data on suspects in its area of operations, through informants and the CIA’s brutal interrogation centers, and then mount targeted operations using police, regular military, and special operations forces, as well as the CIA’s notorious counterterror teams.

To facilitate this sweeping method of population control, every citizen’s biographical data was fed into a computer at the Phoenix Directorate in Saigon. The Directorate was managed by a senior CIA officer whose job was to funnel information on top-ranking members of the VCI to the CIA station, where the staff attempted to turn these people into penetration agents who could report on the enemy’s strategies, plans, and allies in North Vietnam.

Any South Vietnamese citizen could become a VCI suspect based on the word of an anonymous informant. The suspect was then arrested, indefinitely detained in a CIA interrogation center like the one that Congressman Rob Simmons managed, and tortured until he or she (in some cases children as young as twelve) confessed, informed on others, died, or was brought before a military tribunal for disposition.

At the height of the program, Phoenix managers imposed quotas of eighteen hundred “neutralizations” per month on the CIA officers and soldiers in the field. The unstated intention was to corrupt the system, and the CIA succeeded in this effort. Crooked security officers, policemen, politicians, and racketeers began to extort loyal civilians as well as enemy agents. As one CIA officer put it, Phoenix was “a very good blackmail scheme for the [amazon asin=1844675645&template=*lrc ad (right)]central government. ‘If you don’t do what I want, you’re VC.’”

Warning: America’s democratic institutions are on the brink of being similarly corrupted, and for the same insidious purpose: 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, 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.

In the wake of September 11, 2001, my articles about the Phoenix program became more relevant than ever before. The third, “Homeland Insecurity,” appeared on October 1, 2001, and predicted that the government would establish Phoenix-style “extra-legal military tribunals that can try suspected terrorists without the ordinary legal constraints of American justice.”

The United States soon established detention centers at Guantánamo in Cuba, Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan, and at the infamous Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. And the CIA established “black sites” around the world. But I was referring to plans by the Bush administration to rob American citizens of their right to due process. And that is exactly what happened in January 2013 when President Obama signed a National Defense Authorization Act that[amazon asin=0979988659&template=*lrc ad (right)] provides for the indefinite detention of Americans.

These developments were easy to predict, given my background in Phoenix. In the October 2001 article, for example, I explained that Phoenix would become the bureaucratic model for the “homeland security” program that now envelops America and subjects its citizens to the same blanket surveillance that the Phoenix program imposed on the people of South Vietnam. Almost ten years later, in July 2011, the Washington Post published its “Top Secret America” exposé, which outlined America’s “heavily privatized military-corporate-intelligence establishment.” Lead reporter Dana Priest calls it the “vast and hidden apparatus of the war on terror.”

This Phoenix-style network constitutes America’s internal security apparatus, and it is targeting you, under the guise of protecting you from terrorism. And that is why, more than ever, people need to understand what Phoenix is really all about.

When the CIA created Phoenix in June 1967, it was called ICEX-SIDE: Intelligence Coordination and Exploitation—Screening, Interrogation and Detention of the Enemy. The SIDE function is often ignored as journalists and propagandists focus on the sensational aspect that involves the targeted assassination of terrorists and their sympathizers, often by remote-controlled drones.

But in the first instance, Phoenix was a massive dragnet that packed South Vietnam’s prisons, jails, and detention centers to overflowing. The foundation stone of this network was a jerry-rigged judicial system based on Stalinist security courts that did not require evidence to convict a person. People charged with national security violations had no right to legal representation, due process, or habeas corpus.[amazon asin=0990463109&template=*lrc ad (right)]

As Johan Galtung taught us, “Personal violence is for the amateur in dominance, structural violence is the tool of the professional. The amateur who wants to dominate uses guns; the professional uses social structure.”

It was perfectly clear, following the terror attacks of 9/11, that America’s elite were creating exactly this kind of criminally legal social structure. Climate change, overpopulation, income inequality, dwindling resources, and other geopolitical factors are pushing the rich into gated communities in every nation in the world. The establishment is preparing for the dystopian future that lies ahead.

The 9/11 terror attacks lifted all the moral prohibitions on militaristic America, unleashing on liberalism the anger and frustrations that the country had cultivated since the Vietnam War. The government, backed by industry and the corporate media, launched the largest psychological warfare campaign ever mounted. Extralegal Phoenix-style programs cropped up everywhere, seen as necessary for protecting the American people from terrorism, and the terrorized public gratefully received them all.

My article “An Open Letter to Maj. Gen. Bruce Lawlor” appeared in August 2002 and spoke to this imminent threat of fascism. As a CIA officer in South Vietnam in the early 1970s, Bruce Lawlor ran a counterterror team in one of the northern provinces. In 2002 Lawlor became the Office of Homeland Security’s senior director for protection and prevention. The Office of Homeland Security would soon evolve into the Department of Homeland Security, with its Orwellian “fusion centers,” which are replicas of the Phoenix IOCCs and serve the same “intelligence” function.[amazon asin=B0010SIPZ8&template=*lrc ad (right)]

After 9/11, the influence of Phoenix proponents like Simmons, Kerrey, and Lawlor was crucial in reshaping America’s attitude in regard to conducting murderous, illegal Phoenix-style operations against civilians in foreign nations, and against dissidents at home. Such men and women are everywhere in positions of authority, threatening the democratic institutions we hold dear.

I had warned against this development in the introduction to The Phoenix Program. As I said in 1990, “This book is about terror and its role in political warfare. It will show how, as successive American governments sink deeper and deeper into the vortex of covert operations—ostensibly to combat terrorism and Communist insurgencies—the American people gradually lose touch with the democratic ideals that once defined their national self-concept. This book asks what happens when Phoenix comes home to roost.”

The Phoenix has landed. The ultimate fusion of bureaucracy and psychological warfare, it serves as the model for America’s homeland security apparatus, as well as its global war on terror. That is not a theory. In his strategy paper “Countering Global Insurgency” published in Small Wars Journal in September–November 2004, Lt. Col. David Kilcullen called for a “global Phoenix program.” Kilcullen would become one of the government’s top counterinsurgency advisors.

Phoenix terms like high-value target and neutralization are now as common as Phoenix strategies and tactics. And the process of institutionalizing the Phoenix program, conceptually and programmatically, is just beginning.

Douglas Valentine, February 2014

 Excerpted by permission of Open Road Integrated Media from The Phoenix Program: America’s Use of Terror in Vietnam.