The CIA’s “Phoenix Program” in Vietnam and the “War on Terror”

Review of Doug Valentine's Book

The Phoenix Program in Vietnam in many ways provides a blue print for our own times. Assassinations and torture are the essence of the war on terror. As are death squads and false flag terror attacks. As are mass surveillance of the populace.

Thanks to the work of Douglas Valentine in his classic book The Phoenix Program we have an extremely detailed account of the Phoenix Program exposing a classic example of the brutality of the CIA’s counter insurgency wars. By studying the Phoenix program one can gain a great deal of insight into the  wars in Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq.

How the book came to be written is an interesting story in its own right. Doug Valentine had written a novel about his father’s experiences in a prisoner of war camp during World War 2 called “Hotel Tacloban.”

He decided his next book would be on Vietnam and he decided to focus on the CIA role since little had been written on the topic. He approached former CIA Director William Colby for help. He sent him a copy of his book and the former CIA director decided that Valentine was a man who understood the harsh realities of war and agreed to meet with him. Valentine cut his hair, bought a suit and tie met with Colby and managed to gain his confidence.  Colby believed Valentine would write a sympathetic account. After all, the CIA is used to working with journalists who censor the truth in exchange for inside information. Colby arranged for him to meet hundreds of former agents. The Phoenix Program Valentine, Douglas Best Price: $7.70 Buy New $108.10 (as of 01:20 EST - Details)

Valentine had managed to penetrate the inner world of the CIA. Amazingly, it took years for the CIA to suspect that Valentine had no intention of writing a sympathetic account of their crimes in Vietnam. By then it was too late, he already had hundreds of hours of taped interviews. He wrote his book, one of the most detailed accounts of a CIA program ever; however the CIA used it’s influence with the New York Times to kill the book with a bad review. The book was buried in obscurity. Valentine was forced to give up writing and became a private investigator, but fortunately one of the contacts he made while writing Phoenix Program helped him find an even more scandalous story, and he went on to write “The Strength of the Wolf” and the “Strength of the Pack” which expose in great detail the phony nature of America’s decades-long war on drugs. Doug Valentine is one of the most fearless researchers alive today. His works are required reading for anyone interested in the CIA, organized crime, and America’s corrupt establishment.

What was the Phoenix Program?

From the perspective of a bureaucrat like Bill Colby it was merely an attempt to coordinate a number of pre-existing programs.  Sort of like the Department of Homeland Security or more precisely its fusion centers where military, police, and intelligence agencies pool information on their enemies, the American people. Phoenix sought to provide cooperation between various Vietnamese and American agencies so that they could coordinate their war on the Vietnamese people. What was the Phoenix program? A massive campaign of torture and assassination aimed at destroying what the CIA called the Viet Cong Infrastructure (VCI).  Amusingly this term  was as confusing to Vietnamese as it probably is to you.

They had to hold a massive conference to attempt a translation and the word they ended up using only further confused the Vietnamese. By infrastructure the Americans meant not  roads and bridges but the civilian shadow government the Communist revolutionaries had set up across the country. In many places they were the ones in real control on the local level and they used their power to fight for land reform on behalf of the peasants. America’s South Vietnamese allies, however, were a corrupt class of elitists who supported the landlords against the peasants and were hated by the majority of the populace. For the Vietnamese the Vietnam war was a revolution aimed at land reform and re-uniting the country.

Since they had popular support, the National Liberation Front had hoped at first to win power peacefully; however the Americans had Installed Ngo Dinh Diem as dictator and he ruthlessly crushed all opposition, attacking not just the Communist National Liberation Front but all competitors for power, including Buddhists and fellow nationalists. His power was narrowly based in Vietnam’s Catholic minority and he relied on a massive network of corruption to maintain loyalty. After tens of thousands of their supporters had been killed, the National Liberation Front appealed to the North for help. When Vietnam was split, thousands of South Vietnamese had moved north, not wishing to live under Diem’s regime. In North Vietnam they had been trained in political organization and guerrilla warfare. They were sent south to help organize the revolution. They formed what were known as armed propaganda teams. They would enter villages at night, administer some revolutionary justice by executing a corrupt local official in front of the whole village and then would explain the goals of the revolution, educate the village about the crimes of the regime, and even stage plays and read poems.

The NLF expanded their control over the countryside and set up their own system of government. This system extended from the local level of small committees to the top level COSVN which planned the strategy for the war. It was this system that the CIA targeted with the Phoenix program.

Interestingly the Phoenix program had its roots in an attempt to mimic the tactics of the Viet Cong. Vietnam was quite literally a giant laboratory to study counterinsurgency tactics. In the early days of the CIA presence, there various CIA province chiefs were allowed to experiment with different ways to combat the growing revolution. Ralph Johnson decided to create the mountain scouts to imitate the tactics of the armed propaganda teams. Recruiting hardened criminals, Viet Cong defectors, and various ethnic minorities like the Hmong, and Montagnards the CIA formed brutal death squads highly trained in methods of covert war. They would sneak into a village at night and brutally slaughter someone they suspected of working with the NLF, along with their families and any witnesses, and hope the attack would be blamed on the Viet Cong themselves.

They called the tactic counter-terror, ironically, since what they were doing was terrorism. In fact, throughout the Vietnam War the CIA staged false flag terror attacks, even bombing theaters and blamed them on Viet Cong ‘Terrorists.’ It’s surprising this aspect of the war is little mentioned, given its special relevance today; however the primary purpose of the death squad commandos was to sneak into NLF-controlled territory and kidnap and kill a target. In contrast to most such forces, like the Contras in Nicaragua in the 80s (trained by people from the Phoenix program) or the fascist volunteer battalions in Ukraine today (often poor fighters, effective only at terrorizing unarmed civilians), the Provincial Reconnaissance Units (PRU), as the CIA’ Vietnamese death squads were renamed, were the most effective fighting force in South Vietnam. They would form one of the primary elements in the Phoenix Program. Along with the Field Police, they would be the enforcers.

The next element of the Phoenix program was the Province Interrogation Centers (PIC). Using a CIA front company, PacificArchitects, and Engineers, the CIA built prisons all over the country to be used to torture political prisoners. They are exact forerunners of today’s CIA black sites which now dot the world, aiming to torture people to produce real or fabricated intelligence, recruit double agents, break people’s spirits and terrify the rest of the planet into submission. Vietnam was covered with these torture sites, often featuring the only modern building in a village. At first, the Viet Cong made freeing the prisoners a major goal, and they staged a number of successful attacks until the PICs were redesigned to make them more secure from outside attack. Inside the prisoners were subjected to horrific tortures, starvation, beatings, electric shock and rape.

Through a special program, USAID, the infamous CIA front that pretends to dole out charity, distributed telephone generators to be used by CIA-trained secret police around the world to torture their people. Vietnam was only one example. People would be held for months and there were few survivors.  In return, these PICs would obtain names for further targets who would be either killed or sent to the PICs to be tortured to generate even more names in an endless cycle of horror. Many who ended up there were not even part of the resistance. Instead, many were the victims of extortion who failed to pay the proper bribes and whose names were fed into the system. Others were set up by their personal enemies. Still others were enemies of the VC, who had infiltrated all aspects of the South Vietnamese government. They were masters of espionage who were able to feed the names of their enemies into the system.

The third aspect of the Phoenix program was intelligence collection. The CIA maintained a network of spies throughout the country and attempted to assemble a master list of all the NLF members in South Vietnam.They set up the Intelligence Coordination and Exploitation program (ICEX) in an attempt to coordinate intelligence from the CIA, the Vietnamese Special Branch (which ran high-level NLF infiltrations), the Field Police, the PRU and US military intelligence; however, in reality, this proved impossible since the South Vietnamese were always plotting against each other and jealously guarded their secrets. The various agencies were tools of the various factions in South Vietnam’s Machiavellian political struggles. After the fall of Diem, Vietnam experienced a long string of coups as South Vietnam’s generals battled each other for control. In addition, each sought to use his position to enrich himself by engaging in drug trafficking, embezzlement, prostitution and protection rackets. How the CIA’s allies occupied themselves hunting down the NLF was only a minor concern. Of course, many US contractors, military officers, and CIA officers also managed to earn fortunes in various corrupt schemes.

The war was undertaken in part simply to enrich the corporate elite back home. Additionally, the military and the CIA were in competition, with the latter unwilling to share information. The military often assigned people to Intelligence with no prior experience or training, instead only giving them a short training course before making them case officers. Thus, for obvious reasons, the CIA considered them amateurs; However despite the difficulties, they were able to create a massive database of names of people they believed made up the NLF. In addition to gathering intelligence, the massive network of agents was a means for the CIA to buy loyalty, and the amount the CIA paid to agents in bribes exceeded USAID’s entire development budget for South Vietnam. As mentioned, Phoenix was a further attempt to coordinate these various elements into a program to eliminate what they called the VCI.

Phoenix was thus a massive program to capture and kill VC, with prisoners being tortured to reveal more names. It was also a massive psychological operation aimed at the mind of the enemy. Such operations range from propaganda to terrorism and both were prominent features of the Phoenix Program. Edward Landsdale, former advertising executive turned CIA counterinsurgency expert, was an important pioneer in these tactics. In the Philippines he had played on local superstitions about vampires in one famous example. He had used his agents to spread rumors that vampires were infesting the area the local guerrillas were camped.

When enough time had passed, his commandos grabbed a guerrilla bringing up the rear of a column, drained his body of blood and left it along the trail to be found the next day. The trick worked and the guerrillas fled the area. Another favorite tactic was to paint an eye facing the front door of those they suspected of supporting the guerrillas as a threat before later kidnapping killing and torturing them. Thus whenever they painted one of these eyes they were sure to terrify their target and let them know they were being watched. Landsdale called it the eye of God.

In Vietnam the CIA would use variations of both these tactics. They played on Vietnamese beliefs about the afterlife to add additional horror to their murders. The Vietnamese believed the liver and the third eye were important to reaching heaven. The CIA would have the PRU cut out their victims pineal gland and even have them eat their livers. Thus, their victims would not only be killed but denied an afterlife. They left the eye of God painted on corpses. They would also use variations of the eye of God technique. They would fly over their targets addressing the guerrillas by name and telling them to surrender before it was to late. They put up wanted posters to keep NLF cadres from being able to travel freely.

They even issued comic books explaining the benefits of being an informant.  They  dropped billions of propaganda leaflets throughout the country. These often backfired because they showed a  cruel disregard for the populace by constantly threatening them with death and destruction. The CIA had programs to indoctrinate its allies. For example, it employed an eccentric South Vietnamese Army officer named Be, who was an expert in Vietnamese mythology, to concoct an elaborate ideology to indoctrinate their own “revolutionary” development cadres in another attempt to imitate the NLF. They forced Vietnam’s peasants to form local militias to combat the VC. These RF/PF militias would suffer the highest casualty rate of all the forces fighting in the war.

Another element of the Phoenix Program involved what were called census grievance teams. In every village the CIA appointed an official who was responsible for interviewing the head of each household every month. Initially the idea was that he would then use some of this information to root out corruption and improve the lives of the people; however since he was invariably a member of the corrupt elite who generally despised the peasants, his real function was to discover who was dissatisfied and turn them in as suspected NLF.

Also involved in the Phoenix Program were US special operations forces. They acted as advisers, sometimes training the PRU teams. Often advisers were sent to PRUs that were already well trained and highly experienced in the ways of covert war. They also lead them on their snatch and grab missions and provided valuable equipment. One fascinating part of the book recounts the early misadventures of the Navy SEALs who had been training for many years but who had never before been in combat. They made a disastrous series of mistakes in their first months in country due to faulty intelligence and general ignorance about Vietnam. It was after teaming up with the PRU and their CIA adviser that they found their role in the war dressed as Viet Cong, hiding during the day, traveling at night, and kidnapping or killed targets provided by the CIA. In today’s world. special operations forces are CIA foot soldiers involved in secret wars in 140 countries. There is no telling how many people they have assassinated.

All these efforts, the enemies lists, torture centers, psychological operations and death squads would, in the end, prove futile. They rarely managed to capture high-level NLF members although they often targeted completely innocent people. They failed to regain control of the countryside. In part, this was because the entire program was misconceived, as they attempted to adopt the Viet Cong tactics while ignoring the VC’s goals. The VC were offering land while the government was attempting to force people off their land into new villages that were little more the  prison camps. The VC were acting in Vietnam’s two-thousand-year tradition of battling for national liberation. Throughout the centuries they had suffered repeated conquest by the Chinese and had also successfully fought for their independence repeatedly throwing off Chinese domination.

More recently the struggle against the French had lasted almost a hundred years. They had fought the Japanese during World War 2. America was merely the latest foreign invader, and no amount of propaganda could hide this fact. Another factor in Vietnamese society that made the effort futile was the corruption od America’s allies. Instead of using the program to hunt for communists, they used it as a giant extortion racket.In addition, they knew that if they targeted the high-level NLF members they themselves might be targeted in revenge. They often already knew who the top leaders were but they kept the information from the CIA for fear of the reprisals that might result. In actuality, there was often a sort of secret truce in place. The NLF would allow the South Vietnamese government the illusion of control over an area and, in return, the government wouldn’t interfere with their activities. Often the government ruled by day while at night the NLF ruled. Although 40,000 people were killed by the Phoenix program, the CIA failed to destroy the VCI, and instead, it was the South Vietnamese government which would collapse in the end.

The legacy of the Phoenix program is one of terror, torture, and death. With all the carnage of the Vietnam War it was little noticed, although there was a brief scandal about it when the UN declared the US had a responsibility to ensure South Vietnam adhered to the Geneva Convention on treatment of prisoners, since the US had designed and funded their prison system, one of the worst in the world. Colby was called before Congress where he denied that the Phoenix program was an assassination program and, instead, was merely an effort to coordinate intelligence gathering. He admitted 20,000 people had been killed but that was merely a byproduct. The Phoenix program became was just another brief scandal. Andre Vltchek estimates that 8 million people died as a result of America’s wars in Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.

The Phoenix program did not end with those wars just as in a sense it did not begin with them. The tactics of Phoenix are common to all counter-insurgency campaigns and one can read accounts of American actions in the Philippines at the beginning of the 20th century that involve many of the exact same tactics; however, the connection between the Phoenix program and later events is far more concrete and Doug Valentine ends his book with America’s dirty war in El Salvador. The US sent the exact same people involved in the Phoenix program to advise El Salvador on how to wage war on its own peasants. In Nicaragua there was another infamous example. Felix Rodriguez was a PRU adviser in the Phoenix program.

A Cuban exile, he was involved in the Bay of Pigs invasion and the murder of Che Guevara in Bolivia, then went to Vietnam to serve in the Phoenix Program. After the war, he and some of his exile friends did work as hit teams for Miami drug dealers before being sent to advise and train the Contras while helping with their drugs and gun smuggling. Drug dealing had been a major element in the Vietnam War as well (a topic I touched on in my March 2015 Article, ”Wars in Korea and Vietnam”). It was so prevalent in South Vietnam that the CIA often paid their informants in heroin as well as cash. The highest levels of the Vietnamese government were involved in the drug trade.

In nearby Laos much of the war centered over a battle for the opium poppy fields in the Plain of jars and many of the coups actually centered around how to divide the profits from the drug trade. The CIA ran Civil Air Transport (CAT), a front airline later renamed Air America, that smuggled in guns and smuggled out drugs to finance their massive secret army. In Nicaragua personal friend of then-Vice President George H.W. Bush, Felix Rodriguez, was involved in a very similar scheme to fly in guns and fly out drugs to fund the Contras. The Contras then terrorized the populace in a horrific manner in exactly the same way the original CIA counter-terror teams did. Thus, in Central America Phoenix was able to live up to its name rising from the ashes of Vietnam. In El Salvador and Guatemala they advised the government in a massive program of torture and assassination.

Death squads made up a major element in these programs. In Nicaragua, they trained the Contras to engage in terror and assassination that often targeted Nicaraguan health workers and teachers or any government member they could catch, doubtless in an attempt to eliminate the Sandinista “infrastructure.” Of course, they also terrorized anyone else who fell into their hands; men, women and children.  The Phoenix program would rise once again after the wars in Central America ended, this time in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In Iraq they explicitly called it the El Salvador solution and they sent people who had helped El Salvador wage its reign of terror to Iraq to train the Shiite Badr brigades. They would use these to wage a massive campaign of kidnapping and torture aimed at destroying the Sunni insurgency. In Syria they would train Wahhabi death squads in an attempt to overthrow the government in a manner similar to the way they used the Contras in Nicaragua, only worse. Again, Syria’s infrastructure has been targeted quite literally as the CIA-backed death squads attempt to destroy food production, hospitals schools, water, electricity and power, even cultural sites. Of course they also try to kill as many people as possible. Like the death squads of the Phoenix program they frequently commit false flag attacks, most famously using chemical weapons in attempt to frame the Assad government. Perhaps the latest site for the rebirth of the Phoenix program is Ukraine where fascist death squads have been unleashed to terrorize the populace, although after a recent power struggle the government plans to bring them into the regular army. Most ominous for Americans, the entire war on terror apparatus mimics the Phoenix program and fusion centers have already been set up to share intelligence on the American population itself, as Doug Valentine himself explained in a brilliant series of articles. The Phoenix program has spread terror across the planet. It will doubtless continue to be reborn again and again so long as America and its allies long war against the planet continues.


I relied on Doug Valentine’s “The Phoenix Program,” a masterpiece made up of hundreds of first-hand accounts analyzing every aspect of the program in depth. It is highly recommended for anyone interested in the Vietnam War, the CIA, and the wars in Central America and the Middle East. I’ve just started his next book, “The Strength of the Wolf” but I can already highly recommend it to anyone wanting to understand the Mafia, the War On Drugs, and the corrupt American Ruling class. His Next book is “Strength of the Pack,” which continues the story. For more on Vietnam I highly recommend “The Perfect War” by James William Gibson, which will be the topic of a future article. There is a great movie inspired by Graham Greene’s classic novel, “The Quiet American” that was actually based on Ed Landsdale.

Many Doug Valentine interviews and articles are available online. He has made all the recordings of the interviews he made on the Phoenix Program available to the public his website:

Here is a link to an interview he did and an article he wrote on Daniel Ellsberg, who shockingly was involved in the Phoenix program.

Here is Doug Valentine on what’s really going on in Mexico, where 100,000 people have died as a result of the war on drugs. This includes a great discussion of the Phoenix program.

Doug Valentine on the coup in Ukraine:

Doug Valentine on the history of the war on drugs:

Reprinted with permission from

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