Inside the CIA’s Use of Terror During the Vietnam War

Author Douglas Valentine discusses how the Phoenix Program set the stage for the War on Terror.

The CIA’s Phoenix program changed how America fights its wars and how the public views this new type of political and psychological warfare, in which civilian casualties are an explicit objective.

The CIA created Phoenix in Saigon in 1967 to identify the civilian leaders and supporters of the National Liberation Front; and to detain, torture, and kill them using every means possible, from B-52 raids and “Cordon and Search” operations, to computerized blacklists, secret torture centers, and death squads.

Originally called ICEX-SIDE (Intelligence Coordination and Exploitation – Screening, Interrogation and Detention of the Enemy), the program was renamed Phoenix for symbolic purposes. In time, the mere mention of Phoenix, the omnipotent bird of prey with a blacklist in one claw and a snake in the other, was enough to terrorize people into submission. The Phoenix Program Valentine, Douglas Best Price: $7.70 Buy New $108.10 (as of 01:20 UTC - Details)

Practically speaking, Phoenix is a highly bureaucratized system for dispensing with people who cannot be ideologically assimilated. Implemented over the objections of South Vietnamese officials, the CIA found a legal basis for the Phoenix program in “emergency decrees” and “administrative detention” laws that enabled American “advisors” to detain, torture, and kill South Vietnamese “national security offenders” without due process.

Within this extra-judicial legal system, with its Stalinist tribunals, a “national security offender” was construed as anyone who didn’t support the government. To be neutral or advocate for peace was viewed as supporting terrorism. Proof wasn’t required, just the word of an anonymous informer.

Legendary CIA office Lucien Conein described Phoenix as a very good blackmail scheme for the central government: “If you don’t do what I want, you’re VC.”

Modeled on the Ford Motor Company’s “command post” structure, Phoenix concentrated power in a chief executive officer and an operating committee at the top of the organizational chart. Supported by a computerized statistical reporting unit, management assigned “neutralization” quotas and other goals to participating agencies. But Phoenix was a CIA program, and deniability was one of its main objectives: Thus, stated policy (protecting the people from terrorism) was contradicted by the operational reality (terrorizing the public into submission).

Mismanaged by design, only the bottom line mattered, and corruption and abuses proliferated.

American military commanders resisted the unconventional Phoenix strategy of targeting civilians with Einsatzgruppen “special forces” and Gestapo-style secret police. Many resented the fact that young military officers were involuntarily assigned to the program. “People in uniform who are pledged to abide by the Geneva Conventions,” General Bruce Palmer said, “should not be put in the position of having to break those laws of warfare.”

Unfortunately, the current “stab-in-the-back” generation of senior American military officers, government officials, and reporters was forged on the anvil of defeat in Vietnam. This generation, which staffs America’s top “operating committees” in the public and private sectors, carries the burden of restoring America’s reputation for invincibility. This ruling class knows that its enemies, internal and external, must be conquered ideologically and economically, as well as militarily. And, thus, it has embraced the Phoenix concept of employing implicit and explicit terror to organize and pacify societies.

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