On August 25, 1970, an article appeared in The New York Times hinting that the CIA, through Phoenix, was responsible for My Lai. The story line was advanced on October 14, when defense attorneys for David Mitchell — a sergeant accused and later cleared of machine-gunning scores of Vietnamese in a drainage ditch in My Lai — citing Phoenix as the CIA’s “systematic program of assassination,” named Evan Parker as the CIA officer who “signed documents, certain blacklists,” of Vietnamese to be assassinated in My Lai.
The Phoenix coordinator in Quang Ngai Province at the time of the My Lai massacre was Robert B. Ramsdell, a seventeen-year veteran of the Army CID who subsequently worked for ten years as a private investigator in Florida. Ramsdell was hired by the CIA in 1967. He was trained in the United States and sent to Vietnam on February 4, 1968, as the Special Branch adviser in Quang Ngai Province. Ramsdell, who appeared incognito before the Peers panel, told newsmen that he worked for the Agency for International Development.
In "Cover-up" Seymour Hersh tells how in February 1968 Ramsdell began “rounding up residents of Quang Ngai City whose names appeared on Phoenix blacklists.” Explained Ramsdell: “After Tet we knew who many of these people were, but we let them continue to function because we were controlling them. They led us to the VC security officer for the district. We wiped them out after Tet and then went ahead and picked up the small fish.” The people who were “wiped out,” Hersh explains, were “put to death” by the Phoenix Special Police.”
Even less well remembered is one mission in the CIA's Phoenix Program in Vietnam in July of 1968. A team of CIA psychologists set up shop at Bien Hoa Prison outside Saigon, where NLF suspects were being held after Phoenix Program round-ups. The psychologists performed a variety of experiments on the prisoners. In one, three prisoners were anaesthetized; their skulls were opened and electrodes implanted by CIA doctors into different parts of their brains. The prisoners were revived, placed in a room with knives and the electrodes in the brains activated by the psychiatrists, who were covertly observing them. The hope was that they could be prompted in this manner to attack each other. The experiments failed. The electrodes were removed, the patients were shot and their bodies burned.
The Phoenix Program was a CIA creation in Vietnam. It was not unlike the Einsatzgruppen. It consisted basically of killer squads. Eliminating selectively Vietcong leaders.
Operation Phoenix was designed with the stated objective to neutralize the NLF (National Liberation Front of South Vietnam, popularly known as the Vietcong), and it utilized infiltration, capturing, terrorizing, assassinating, converting, or killing to meet its objectives. More than 80,000 suspects were neutralized by the Phoenix operatives, killing more than 25,000 Vietnamese, and leaving the others disabled due to extreme torture. According to an internal communication, the intent of Operation Phoenix was to attack the NLF with a rifle rather than a shotgun to target the Vietnamese political leaders, command and control elements of the NLF activists.
According to MACV Directive 381-41, the intent of Phoenix was to attack the NLF with a "rifle shot rather than a shotgun approach to target key political leaders, command/control elements and activists in the VCI."
Under the Phoenix Program, the CIA created and directed a secret police ostensibly run by the South Vietnamese. Its objective was to destroy the Viet Cong’s infrastructure. During the course of the program’s existence, the secret police units, operating as virtual death squads, were implicated in burnings, garroting, rape, torture, and sabotage. As many as 50,000 Vietnamese were killed. [PILGER, 1986, PP. 274; VALENTINE, 2000] The most decorated American soldier of the war, Lieutenant Colonel Anthony Herbert, later recaledl in his book, Soldier, “They wanted me to take charge of execution teams that wiped out entire families and tried to make it look as though the VC themselves had done the killing.” [PILGER, 1986, PP. 274]
The Phoenix, legendary animal that comes to symbolize what rises from the ashes.
Covert paramilitary operations by the CIA in Vietnam began early in the sixties, but it was not until 1965, that the U.S. began developing terrestrial deployment, when the station was established at the headquarters of the American Embassy in Saigon. It was called OSA ("Office of Special Assistace"). Throughout the 44 provinces of South Vietnam, nearly thousand OSA agents would conduct various intelligence collection programs, political and covert operations.
Although some sources cite 1967 as the year when the Phoenix program was launched, it was not until January 1968, William Colby was sent to Vietnam by President Johnson and the CIA director Richard Helms with direct order from his office (in theory Colby came as ambassador) CORDS program ("Civil Operations and Rural Development Support"), the predecessor of Phoenix, and created by MACV ("Military Assistance Command Vietnam") in July 1967.
|William Colby in Vietnam|
Nelson H. Brickham, Chief of Field Operations Section intelligence liaison, and authentic creator of Phoenix, was the man who launched the following projects within CORDS:
- HIP ("Hamlet Informant Project"): The CIA and Special Branch (Vietnamese officials not operating as intelligence agents but as detectives) were engaged in recruiting informants throughout South Vietnam. The CIA informants paid only if the accused confessed that he was part of the Vietcong infrastructure (IVC).
- PIC ("Province Interrogation Center"): The CIA abducted political leaders, students, trade unionists and journalists close to the communist ideologies and recruit PIC centers that were built torture chambers in all provinces of South Vietnam by the architectural firm specializing in the construction of bunkers and prisons "Pacific Architects & Enginners".
|A PIC: The place where Vietcong were tortured|
- PVI ("Vietcong Infrastructure Penetrations"): The IVC was attacked putting pressure on family members or on their people. Once arrested a member of VC, was tortured until he gave the name of his people and their families. Once done, the members of the Special Division conducted a raid, the captured (most were usually women) and were raped in front of the detainee This program was directed personally by Brickham.
|"The bad guy". Nelson Brickham|
Meanwhile, the head of the CIA station in Saigon, John Limond Hart, had its own covert action program, which was coordinated by his deputy, Tom Donahue. This program clashed often with that of Brickham, despite having much larger budget was less effective, partly because Hart used paramilitary Cubans from the Bay of Pigs, rather than South Vietnamese staff.
|A captured Vietcong squeaks on his comrades|
To end this competition, Colby decided on arrival to unify all covert CIA operations programs in South Vietnam under the name of PHOENIX. It was necessary to unite the efforts of the CIA, the FAS of the U.S., South Vietnamese Special Branch, and the Central Intelligence Organization of Vietnam.
The Phoenix program in its infancy was called ICEX ("Intelligence Coordination and Explotation"), and although it was under command of the army, it had its own chain of command, directed by William Colby himself.
The first step by the CIA was the creation of the PRU ("Provincial Reconnaissance Units") paramilitary units comprising of volunteers South Vietnamese soldiers and Americans SEALS , whose mission was to attack the enemy in their territory, in rural areas.
|Delta PRU adviser John Wilbur with the Kien Hoa Province PRU team in 1967|
There were also special units operating independently called CT ("Counter-Terror Teams") consisting of a sniper, an observer and a transmission specialist. These teams closely guarded suspects filtered by the HIP, and if they met with members of the VC, they were eliminated. It is estimated that these units "removed" upto 3,000 civilians. Given its effectiveness, CT Colby received authorization to go into North Vietnamese territory to target high ranking Communist military or administration officials.
|Member of a special Phoenix team, displaying Phoenix tattoo|
One of the biggest successes of Phoenix was a program called "Chieu Hoi" or "open arms Programme", which was to provide money to middle and high ranking communists to become South Vietnamese allies. It is believed that some 159,000 members of the Communist organization joined the program, 15,000 of them were members of the NVA ("North Vietnamese Army")
Intelligence was gathered and transmitted by PIOCC ("Province Intelligence and Operations Coordination Centers") or its subordinate DIOCC ("District Intelligence and Operations Coordination Centers")
With the goal of transferring control to the South Vietnamese PHOENIX because of the growing "Vietnamization" of the conflict, members of the CIA were gradually replaced by elements of the U.S. military, mostly from the Special Forces. The handover took place in August 1971, taking the reins of the regular army, special forces and the South Vietnamese police. The program then became known by its Vietnamese name, "Hoang Pjung".
The Phoenix program was widely criticized by groups opposed to the war, considering it was a program of murders with indiscriminate brutality and constant violation of international law.
It is believed that the program was active until December 1972, although in some respects it was alive until the day of the fall of Saigon on 30 April 1975.
Ashes to Ashes: The Phoenix Program and the Vietnam War
The Hidden History of the Vietnam War
Covert Warrior: Fighting the CIA's Secret War in Southeast Asia and China, 1965-1967