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

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.


Yards22-e1431552026188Photo: CIA Organized and Advised Montagnards. Courtesy of II Corps Phoenix Advisor Colonel Lewis Millett.

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.

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 officer 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.

Phoenix was understood as the silver lining in the Vietnam debacle, and in the wake of 9-11, it became the template for policing the American empire and fighting its eternal War on Terror. So successful were Phoenix operations in overthrowing the Ba’athist Party regime in Iraq that in 2004, Lt. Col. David Kilcullen, one of the US government’s top terrorism advisors, called for a “global Phoenix program.”

However, as noted above, the Phoenix program’s stated policies (consumer safety) are contradicted by its operational realities (“buyer beware”). Thus, success at politically and psychologically neutralizing foreign and domestic societies depends entirely on deniability – on secrecy and censorship.

The overarching need for total control of information requires media complicity in Phoenix operations. This was the second great lessons Vietnam taught the ruling class. The highly indoctrinated managers who run the U.S. government will never again allow the public to see the carnage they inflict upon foreign civilians. American citizens never saw the Iraqi women and children killed by U.S. forces. On the contrary, CIA kidnappings, torture, and assassinations are glorified on TV and in movies.

Thanks to media complicity, Phoenix has also become the template for providing internal security for America’s ruling elite. This process also began immediately after 9-11 with the repressive Patriot Act and a series of Presidential executive orders, which have legalized the administrative detention and murder of American citizens.

Just as Phoenix “Intelligence Operations and Coordination Centers” were established in every province and district in South Vietnam, the Department of Homeland Security has established Fusion Centers and the Department of Justice has established Joint Terrorism Task Forces across America to coordinate representatives from every police, civic, security, and military unit in a particular area. This merging of government and corporate forces against the public is perhaps the most insidious of the Phoenix program’s effects on American society.

And it is done, disingenuously, in the name of “protecting the people from terrorism,” a phrase that originated in the Phoenix program in South Vietnam. Many key phrases in the War on Terror, including “administrative detention,” “high value target,” and “targeted assassination” also derive from Phoenix.

The success of Phoenix doctrine is evident in the ability of the ruling class to divert massive amounts of public money into the militarization of foreign and domestic policy. The constant barrage of propaganda about looming terrorist threats, and the human rights violations of perceived enemies, justifies heavily armed police officers patrolling in paramilitary formations, and the presence of heavily armed soldiers in airports and train stations. Implicitly, the public knows those weapons can be used against them.

Now that the Phoenix structure is firmly in place, however, it is only a matter of time until we enter the final phase of explicit terror.

Douglas Valentine is the author of The CIA as Organized Crime and The Hotel Tacloban. His first book of poetry, A Crow's Dream (Oliver Open Press) was published in 2012. He can be reached at: Read other articles by Douglas, or visit Douglas's website.