The Phoenix Program: How to Win at Counter-Insurgency

by Timothy Chilman


One of the most effective things the United States did during the Vietnam War was the Phoenix Program. Counter Spy magazine called it “the most indiscriminate and massive programme of political murder since the Nazi death camps of World War 2.” The United States could do with more of this sort of thing in the counter-insurgencies it keeps finding itself fighting.

In Vietnam, the government ruled by day, but the infrastructure of the Viet Cong ruled by night. Photo: Department of Defense.

Counterinsurgency requires that government forces neutralize not only the military capabilities of an insurgency, but also the infrastructure: the intelligence, recruitment, and logistics functions. In Vietnam, the Viet Cong Infrastructure (VCI) was a shadow government. One CIA veteran who served in Vietnam said, “the GVN may have ruled during the day, but these guys ruled at night.”

The VCI disseminated propaganda and established associations of students, wimmen, and farmers to weaken existing social institutions and make the Communist People’s Revolutionary Party the new focal point of society. The VCI mounted demonstrations and disrupted government efforts toward tax collection and military conscription. One estimate put the number of such people at between 70,000 and 100,000 in 1967.

Legal VCI cadres possessed valid identity documents, such as this pass card. Photo: Bình Giang.

U.S. intelligence divided the VCI into two categories: legal and illegal cadres. Legal cadres were citizens of South Vietnam who possessed legitimate identity papers. While termed “legal,” they operated covertly. Illegals, on the other hand, were generally well known to locals and the GVN. They were obvious targets, and so lived in well-defended areas with armed guards. By the end of the 1960s, it had become difficult for illegal cadres to operate in the hamlets of South Vietnam.

In the early 1960s, the GVN, encouraged by American advisers, instituted programs to counteract the shadow government. The GVN devoted most of its resources to engaging V.C. units, and later the North Vietnamese army, but anti-infrastructure efforts achieved some success.

A leaflet publicizing the Chien Hoi (“Open Arms”) program. Photo: National Archives and Records Administration.

Chien Hoi (“Open Arms”) was launched in 1963, and sought to persuade V.C. and, later, NVA members to defect through offers of amnesty and resettlement. One estimate found that 194,000 “ralliers” were lured between 1963 and 1971. While many were low-level personnel, and few were from the NVA, much valuable intelligence was gained as to the motivation, morale, and organization of the insurgents.

The Census Grievance program saw teams of GVN personnel sent to villages to interview a member of each family under the guise of better understanding the anti-government sentiment of the population, but in reality to collect intelligence on the VCI. Knowing who was related to whom was critical to counterinsurgency, as recruitment at the village level was generally initially based on family ties. Vast quantities of information were gleaned, but before computers were in widespread use, it was time-consuming and difficult to exploit the data.

The Revolutionary Development cadres were a CIA initiative which developed from the inchoate recruitment and propaganda endeavors of the Diem government, such as the Xay Dung Nong Thon (Rural Development) programs. These copied the V.C., sending armed teams of young men to the countryside to live among villagers, spread government propaganda, and recruit for village militias and other organizations. One scholar said, “The R.D. cadres did not accomplish much. When confronted by the V.C., they usually withdrew to safer environs rather than fight.”

While not usually placed in the category of counter-infrastructure measures, the GVN’s strategic hamlet program had that effect. Hamlets were encircled by moats and sharpened bamboo stakes and defended by locally-raised militias, with the intention of denying the V.C. access to the manpower and other resources of the location. The hamlets were no great obstacle to Communist plans in the countryside, but as they grew in number, the politburo in Hanoi became alarmed and gave orders to their commanders to infiltrate and destroy them.

Counter-Terror Teams (CTTs) were, like R.D. cadres, organized, trained, and equipped by the CIA and modeled on V.C. methods. They were trained for small-unit operations deep in V.C.-controlled areas with the aim of capturing or killing VCI members. As was true of the other aspects of pacification, the quality of the CTTs varied from team to team. Sometimes, province chiefs misused CTTs as bodyguards, or to settle personal grievances. President Thieu himself used them to eliminate his political rivals. Arrangements for command and control were inadequate, and the teams acquired a reputation for thuggishness. Press accounts accused them of being death squads.

The CTTs were later rebranded as Provincial Reconnaissance Units, which is rather friendlier. The units became more concerned with apprehending VCI suspects rather than killing them. As John Mullins, an American who advised the PRUs, said, “Prisoner snatches were key. You can’t get information out of a dead man.”

In June, 1967, anti-VCI operations were centralized to afford greater coordination. Ambassador Robert “Blowtorch Bob” Komer secured approval for a CIA plan for a program named Intelligence Coordination and Exploitation (ICEX). An officer of the Rural Development Cadre/Programs won a region-wide competition to come up with a name for the program. His suggestion was Phuong Hoang, the mythical “all-seeing bird” of South Vietnamese culture which represented grace, virtue, peace, and concord, and was similar to the phoenix. The program was known in English as the Phoenix Program.

The Phoenix Program was not a separate body, but instead a structure which brought together the various agencies which combated the VCI, and it was made of civilians rather than soldiers. Most of the Program’s manpower was South Vietnamese: the national police, the special police branch, Chieu Hoi, the R.D. cadres, the Military Security Service, military intelligence, the PRUs, and more.

The PRUs were the principal operational arm of the Phoenix Program. They were active throughout the war, but mostly from 1967 to 1972. There were never more than 5,000 men so employed, and they were essentially an intelligence-driven police force, albeit better trained, equipped, and paid than the South Vietnamese National Police due to their sponsorship by the CIA. The CIA attempted to ensure PRU commanders were generally of good quality. They were at least able to ensure that, in contrast to other elements of the forces of South Vietnam, commanders were not appointed for reasons other than merit. To prevent the PRUs from being used for personal reasons, multiple sources of information were necessary prior to the launching of an operation. Operations were frequently rejected if the U.S. advisers believed the intelligence to be inadequate.

The PRUs served in the provinces from which they hailed, making their knowledge of local conditions unparalleled by other South Vietnamese government agencies, never mind U.S. forces. Although other agencies were supposed to supply the PRUs with intelligence, in practice both South Vietnamese and U.S. agencies were rarely willing to do so, and so the PRUs generally collected and exploited their own intelligence. A CIA study said, “Successful PRUs developed [their] own sources of information, such as defectors, informants, and personal contacts in contested areas.” Major Dang Van Son, who was attached to the Phoenix program, told of an initiative known as Thien Nga – “wild geese” – where beautiful, young high school girls were used to infiltrate the local communist apparatus. Van Son said that when he served in Cantho, nearly all the Communist organizations were neutralized.

An American adviser, Andrew Finlayson, said, “Seventy-five percent of the time, the PRUs did their own targeting: ‘This guy’s sister is pro-V.C. He comes to the market and is buying way too much food,’ etc.” The PRUs used their own family members and friends, giving them informants in almost every village and hamlet. The resultant intelligence was of far superior quality to that provided by either South Vietnamese or U.S. agencies. Another American adviser, John Walsh, said, “What little intelligence we got was virtually useless.” He added that PRU members “knew their territory intimately… We advisers came to rely on their knowledge.”

Sergeant Ronald J. Lauzon was a Marine who was assigned to a PRU in Hue 1967. He said that he read hundreds of intelligence reports from the U.S. and South Vietnamese militaries, and not one was timely or wholly accurate. Clues were the times, dates, and map coordinates. He had taken part in dozens of interrogations and knew that the V.C. gave times as “after a specific event,” “soon,” “pretty soon,” or “now” and they used place names rather than map coordinates. The only reliable intelligence came from the PRUs or the Census Grievance program.

District Intelligence and Operations Coordination Centers were the offices of the Phoenix adviser in each of the 250 districts of South Vietnam. Province Intelligence and Operations Coordination Centers operated at that higher level. These were permanent organizations, rather than committees which met now and then. The CIA tended to operate at the provincial level, as it lacked the staff to man the DIOCCs, even after recruiting numerous contractors. Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV) was able to make use of the thousands of U.S. officers present in Vietnam to man the DIOCCs. By 1970, in excess of 700 advisers served in the Phoenix Program, and most were special forces officers. At that time, 102 U.S. military personnel and five civilians advised the PRUs. There were between 4,000 and 6,000 Vietnamese PRU personnel between 1967 and 1975.

Jeremy Kuzmarov, assistant professor of history at Tulsa University and author of The Myth of the Addicted Army: Vietnam and the Modern War on Drugs, spent months examining the files of the Phoenix Program when he worked on another book, Modernizing Repression: Police Training and Nation-Building in the American Century. He said the PRUs indulged in indiscriminate brutality and did not affect the senior ranks of the revolutionaries. The importance of the PRUs to senior CIA personnel in South Vietnam diminished because they felt it was more constructive to concentrate on the higher ranks of their enemy.

“Blowtorch Bob” Komer meeting President Lyndon Johnson

There was much inaccurate reporting under the Phoenix Program. A Phoenix adviser who had served in Czechoslovakia in the Second World War said, “The reports that I would send in on the number of Communists that were neutralized reminded me of the reports Hitler’s concentration camp commanders sent in on how many inmates they had exterminated, each commander lying that he had killed more than the other to please Himmler.” Internal reports stored at the National Archives show that there was widespread corruption among the PRUs, who abused their positions for revenge and extortion: people would be threatened with classification as VCI if huge sums of money were not forthcoming. Bribes were accepted in return for the release of prisoners. Ambassador Robert Komer, the director of the pacification program of MACV, accepted that there were many “phantom kills.” Non-VCI people killed during operations were identified as VCI. Report padding was at its worst in Long An province, where Phoenix adviser, Evan Parker, Jr., said, “the numbers just don’t add up.”

Kuzmarov was certainly correct in saying that most of the VCI neutralized by the PRUs were of low rank. A comprehensive Pentagon study of 1971 found that a mere three percent of Viet Cong personnel neutralized operated above the district level. Regional reports stated that one percent, and possibly less, of the people neutralized held key VCI leadership positions. Ralph McGehee, the CIA chief in Gia Dinh province and the Phoenix adviser there, said in his memoirs that “Never in the history of our work in Vietnam did we get one clear-cut, high-ranking Viet Cong agent.” Communist immunity was vastly aided by penetration of the GVN.

One Phoenix adviser said, “It was common knowledge that when someone was picked up their lives were about at an end because the Americans most likely felt that, if they were to turn someone like that back into the countryside it would just be multiplying NLF followers.” In one well-publicized case, a detainee was held in an air-conditioned room for four years because he feared the cold. His body was later disposed of at sea. K. Barton Osborne, a military intelligence specialist, testified to Congress that he saw acts of torture such as the prodding of a person’s brain through his ear with a six-inch dowel. He was active with the Phoenix Program for a year-and-a-half, and said, “Not a single suspect survived interrogation.”

Many U.S. government-provided statistics concerning the war have been shown to be profoundly flawed, which devalues quantitative estimates, but William Colby said the Phoenix Program caused the deaths of 20,000 V.C., while the GVN put the figure at 40,000. 95 percent of VCI was eliminated in some locations. It has been estimated that 5,000 innocent civilians died. Deborah Nelson and Nick Turse studied hundreds of declassified files held by the National Archives, and found that the army had investigated many claims of atrocities made by veterans and deemed them almost all accurate. The New York Times ran a number of prominent exposes of Phoenix in the early 1970s.

Nevertheless, the effect on the VCI was striking. The Viet Cong required people to collect taxes, spread propaganda, and recruit new members, and these were targeted by the Phoenix Program. A radio broadcast from Hanoi singled out the “Phoenix organization” for targeting in an offensive. After the war concluded, senior North Vietnamese officials testified to the effectiveness of the Phoenix Program. NVA Colonel Bui Tin said the Phoenix Program was “devious and cruel” and accounted for “thousands of our cadres.” General Tran Do, the deputy commander of communist forces in South Vietnam, said the Program was “extremely destructive.” Veteran V.C. leader, Madame Nguyen Thi Dinh, said, “We never feared a division of troops but the infiltration of a couple of guys into our ranks created tremendous difficulties for us.”

Many Viet Cong sympathizers were killed as a result of the Phoenix Program. Photo: Vietnam Center and Archive.

CIA Director, William Colby, said the Communists “attributed their problems to Phoenix, when they really should have attributed them to the growth of self-defense forces and that sort of thing.” The Vietnamese Communists, however, possessed what was possibly the most advanced intelligence apparatus of any insurgency of the twentieth century, and they are unlikely to be in error as to the source of their problems. The PRUs killed or captured approximately 380 cadres for every 1,000 of their men at their peak in 1970. The CIA said that anti-infrastructure efforts led to the capture, killing, or defection of more than 80,000 people. Thomas Thayer, Director of the Southeast Asia Division of the Department of Defense’s systems analysis branch at the time of the war and author of War without Fronts: The American Experience in Vietnam, said, the PRUs were “the single most effective anti-VCI forces. . . . No other force came close to this.”

The typical PRU comprised five teams of 18 men. Operations were usually staged late at night or early in the morning to maximize surprise, and were of short duration: rarely more than a few hours. The units were made of and led by Vietnamese men, but U.S. advisers helped to plan the operations and generally accompanied PRUs to the field. U.S. special forces were also available. This gave the PRUs access to air support, and the ability to summon helicopters to rapidly evacuate wounded personnel. The low level of PRUs casualties, assisted by this latter factor, had a greatly beneficial effect on morale. The presence of U.S. advisers granted first-hand knowledge of the strengths and weaknesses of units.

And what kind of man served in the PRUs? The U.S. adviser, Andrew Finlayson, said, “Most were professional soldiers: they liked soldiering, and they were nationalistic. And they had scores to settle with the Communists.” Many were former V.C. or South Vietnamese soldiers. The latter included some from special forces. Some had affiliations which made them natural enemies of the Communists, be it ethnically in the case of Montagnard tribesmen or religiously in the case of Cao Dai and Catholics. Colonel Terence M. Allen, senior military adviser to the PRU program from 1968 to 1970, said the most effective PRU teams were drawn from these groups. The men of the PRUs generally hated the Viet Cong, and it was difficult to infiltrate them.

Warren H. Milberg, the senior CIA officer in Quang Tri province, said that by the middle of 1967, the war was “heating up” and young men of military age were either in the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) or the Citizen Irregular Defense Groups (CIDGs), or were farmers. Not many men were available, and Milberg said that those who were recruited had “issues.” He said, “In the end, they became a great group of brave fighters, but they were not unlike a pack of pit bulls.” PRU members often solicited the recruitment of brothers, cousins, and nephews.

Elton Manzione was another American active in the Phoenix program. He said, the PRUs were “a combination of ARVN deserters, V.C. turncoats and bad motherfuckers; criminals the South Vietnamese couldn’t deal with who were turned over to us. Some actually had an incentive plan: if they killed X number of commies, they got X number of years off their prison term.” There were less paroled criminals after 1968.

When DIOCCs were not effective, U.S. advisers said it was primarily due to bureaucratic selfishness: agencies contributing to the project did not wish to share operational leads in case they did not receive credit, and hence budget allocations. Personality conflicts could also be a problem.

PRU teams dressed in the black pajamas worn by the peasants of Vietnam, or tiger-stripe uniforms. Some had V.C. or NVA clothing. The weapons of the PRUs were mostly M-16 rifles, 45 caliber pistols, M-79 grenade launchers, and M-60 machine guns. Other weapons used included M-2 carbines, Swedish K submachine guns, British Bren guns, 38-caliber Colt Cobra revolvers, and Browning 9mm automatic pistols. There was usually no shortage of ammunition.

Viet Cong Weapons. Photo: BrokenSphere.

Many PRUs often made use of their extensive collections of captured enemy weapons. PRUs equipped with AK-47 rifles and RPGs would initially be considered to be friendly by insurgents and would thus gain a tactical advantage. A drawback became evident, however, when the CIA began to interfere with enemy ammunition in late 1967 so that rounds would explode when fired. PRUs could often live with this risk.

Prisoners were held without trial in hundreds of jails and internment camps throughout the country. As a National Security Council report of 1969 said, these prisons were frequently overcrowded. Around 60 percent of prisoners taken in 1968 were later released..

Jane Barton, who monitored the treatment of prisoners for the American Friends Service Committee, said that captives would be chained to their beds with Smith & Wesson handcuffs. When they were tortured, it was by Americans in the late 1960s, and with American advisers present later on. Sidney Towle, the head of district intelligence in Vinh Long, became aware of the mistreatment of prisoners when he heard screams from the room next door, which was an interrogation center. Prisoners were connected to crank telephones with wires. A Pentagon report in 1968 found that electric shock treatment was widely applied to prisoners. A Naval Institute historian said that “the large majority of South Vietnamese interrogators tortured some or all” prisoners, including mere suspects.

Former CIA Director, William Colby, said, “If you torture, you’ll get what you want to hear or you’ll get something that the fellow invents.” Photo: CIA.

Is torture so bad? Hell, Jack Bauer did it. William Colby, however, said, “If you torture, you’ll get what you want to hear or you’ll get something that the fellow invents.”

The CIA instituted six “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques” in March, 2002, for use on the most important and recalcitrant prisoners. These are the attention grab, when the interrogator grabs the front of the shirt of a prisoner and shakes him; the attention slap, where a prisoner is slapped with an open hand; the belly slap, which is a hard slap to the stomach; prolonged standing, one of the most effective techniques; the cold cell, where prisoners are kept in such a room, nekkid, and periodically doused with cold water; and waterboarding. Sleep deprivation and other forms of stress, of course, make memory less reliable. While the CIA claims that enhanced interrogation techniques are not torture, George Washington University professor of law, Jonathan Turley, counters that bank robbery is no more than enhanced money withdrawal.

Ed Peters, a historian at the University of Pennsylvania, said that waterboarding was first used in the 14th century. It is the pouring of water over the face of a subject, over which cloth has been laid. Now, cellophane is used instead of cloth. A sensation of drowning is produced. Waterboarding was originally referred to as “water torture,” “the water cure,” or “tormenta de toca,” which refers to the thin fragment of cloth placed over the mouth of the victim. At the time, it was regarded as cross-examination is today. A doctor would be present.

President Theodore Roosevelt approved of waterboarding. Photo: Library of Congress.

In 1902, President Theodore Roosevelt wrote in a letter: “The enlisted men began to use the old Filipino method: the water cure… Nobody was seriously damaged.” The technique was used by the Japanese in the Second World War, U.S. troops in the Philippines, the French in Algeria, the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, and the British in Palestine. It has in the past been used by U.S. police forces. It was widely employed in the 1970s in Latin America, particularly by the dictatorships of Argentina and Chile, where it was known as “Asian torture.”

The Nazis and Soviets did not make use of waterboarding. They used harsher methods which left permanent scars or caused death. Darius Rejali, a professor at Reed College in Oregon and author of the book, Torture and Democracy, said that democracies prefer waterboarding. CIA officers who underwent waterboarding lasted for an average of 14 seconds before yielding.

In his testimony to a Senate Judiciary subcommittee, Air Force General Thomas Hartmann said, “Torture is prohibited under U.S. law.” When asked if this meant waterboarding was not used, he replied, “No ma’am, I didn’t say that.”

As argument can be made that legal codes prohibiting torture were drafted prior to the rise of terrorism, and these rules are out of date. Stephen Rickard, Washington director of the Open Society Institute, say that this justification has been used for centuries.

Harvard law professor, Alan Dershowitz, was one to suggest that torture be applied only after a torture warrant has been obtained. But when Israel experimented with “torture lite,” 85 percent of Palestinian prisoners were soon given the harshest treatment permitted. No government has ever successfully calibrated torture. Dubya’s General Counsel of the Navy, Alberto Mora, said that the “ticking time-bomb” justification could be used on every day on every battlefield of every war.

According to a U.S. interrogator, abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib was one of the most common reasons given by foreign fighters for fighting U.S. forces in Iraq. Photo: Department of Defense.

Matthew Alexander led a Special Operations interrogation team in Iraq in 2006. He wrote How to Break a Terrorist: The U.S. Interrogators Who Used Brains, Not Brutality, to Take Down the Deadliest Man in Iraq. He said that the primary reason foreign fighters gave for their involvement was the abuse doled out at Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. He also said that half of U.S. casualties in Iraq were inflicted by foreigners who joined their cause because of detainee abuse.

A detailed investigation by the New York Times in 2011 found that, contrary to the accounts of CIA chief Leon Panetta and House Homeland Security Chairman, Rep. Peter King, torture “played a small role at most” in the location of Osama bin Laden. The U.S. Army Training Manual’s section on interrogation states that “The use of force is a poor technique, as it yields unreliable results, may damage subsequent collection efforts, and can induce the source to say whatever he thinks the interrogator wants to hear.” The Intelligence Science Board provides scientific advice to the intelligence community of the United States. Its 2006 study, Educing Information, said that “coercive interrogation methods” have never been proven to be effective in the elicitation of intelligence.

The Phoenix Program was not one of assassinations. True, Tricky Dicky thought so. He said, “We’ve got to have more of this. Assassinations. That’s what they [the Vietnamese Communists] are doing.” William Colby said that if a battle occurred outside a village, the local guerilla chief would often be found dead the next morning. Robert Slater. the chief of the CIA’s Province Interrogation Center Program from June 1967 to 1969, said “The Allies have frequently found out where the District Party Secretaries live and raided their homes: in an ensuing fire fight the secretary’s wife and children have been killed and injured.”

Financially, the Phoenix Program cost little: $4 million from 1968 to 1972, excluding support to operational units. The political price, however, was steep. Negative perceptions saw the United States to be at war with the South Vietnamese people. In 1969, the Lower House of the South Vietnamese Congress held hearings into the Phoenix Program. 86 deputies signed a petition calling for an end to the Program. In 1970, four members of Congress concluded that the Program violated international law and the Geneva Convention. Rep. Ogden Reid said that if the Union had conducted a Phoenix Program against the Confederacy, its targets would have included Jefferson Davis and the mayor of Macon, Georgia. The Phoenix Program left an enduring legacy of suspicion of U.S. power. Official secrecy went some way to encouraging unfavourable estimations of the Phoenix program.

Insurgents in Iraq

The insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan both feature an extensive infrastructure for intelligence, counter-intelligence, media, finance, recruitment, and religious affairs, although not as well-organized as that of the V.C. It will not be difficult to find people who have legitimate grievances against insuragents. CIA selection of commanders would be especially useful in Afghanistan, where nepotism is rampant, and CIA supervision could prevent units from being used for personal reasons. If CIA personnel accompanied units, they could effect even closer supervision and ascertain the effectiveness of units. As for where the U.S. personnel would come from, sources told the Associated Press that soldiers would be put under CIA control so they would not be counted as troops. Torture should not be used, although perhaps a little waterboarding could be gotten away with. The program should be admitted to and explained to obviate false perceptions of it. Now that computers are readily available, more use could be made of the prestigious quantities of data elicited. The use of locals would be attractive at a time when U.S. forces are leaving these countries. At a time of economic hardship, a Phoenix-like program is attractive because it is a dirt cheap. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how to win at counter-insurgency.


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