PHOENIX PROGRAM IN THE VIETNAM WAR

PHOENIX PROGRAM

The Phoenix Program was a brutal counterinsurgency program run by William Colby, later head of the C.I.A., aimed at weeding out Viet Coing and their sympathizers. According to some sources, more than 25,000 suspected Viet Cong were killed, many of them assassinated, as part of the operation. The Phoenix Program program designed, coordinated, and executed by the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), United States special operations forces, special forces operatives from the Australian Army Training Team Vietnam and the Republic of Vietnam's (South Vietnam) security apparatus during the Vietnam War. The program was in operation between 1965 and 1972, and similar efforts existed both before and after that period. By 1972, Phoenix operatives had "neutralized" 81,740 suspected NLF operatives, informants and supporters, of whom 26,369 were killed. [Source: Wikipedia +]

The Program was designed to identify and "neutralize" (via infiltration, capture, terrorism, torture, and assassination) the infrastructure of the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam (NLF or Viet Cong). The CIA described it as "a set of programs that sought to attack and destroy the political infrastructure of the Viet Cong". The major two components of the program were Provincial Reconnaissance Units (PRUs) and regional interrogation centers. PRUs would kill and capture suspected VC. They would also capture VC and civilians who were thought to have information on VC activities. Many of these people were then taken to the interrogation centers where some were tortured in an attempt to gain intelligence on VC activities in the area. The information extracted at the centers was then given to military commanders, who would use it to task the PRU with further capture and assassination missions. +

In a paper for the CIA Center for the Study of Intelligence, Colonel Andrew R. Finlayson of the U.S. Marine Corps wrote: "The Phoenix program is arguably the most misunderstood and controversial program undertaken by the governments of the United States and South Vietnam during the Vietnam War. It was, quite simply, a set of programs that sought to attack and destroy the political infrastructure of the Lao Dong Party (hereafter referred to as the Viet Cong infrastructure or VCI) in South Vietnam. Phoenix was misunderstood because it was classified, and the information obtained by the press and others was often anecdotal, unsubstantiated, or false. The program was controversial because the antiwar movement and critical scholars in the United States and elsewhere portrayed it as an unlawful and immoral assassination program targeting civilians. [Source: Colonel Andrew R. Finlayson, USMC (Ret.), A Retrospective on Counterinsurgency Operations, The Tay Ninh Provincial Reconnaissance Unit and Its Role in the Phoenix Program, 1969-70, CIA Center for the Study of Intelligence ^^]

Phoenix was one of several pacification and rural security programs that CIA ran in South Vietnam during the 1960s. The premise of pacification was that if peasants were persuaded that the government of South Vietnam and the United States were sincerely interested in protecting them from the Viet Cong and trained them to defend themselves, then large areas of the South Vietnamese countryside could be secured or won back from the enemy without direct engagement by the US military. Many of the programs activities were carried out by single operational units as part of the larger, country-wide action element of the Phoenix program--the Provincial Reconnaissance Units (PRUs). ^^

History of the Phoenix Program

The interrogation centers and PRUs were developed by the CIA's Saigon station chief Peer DeSilva. DeSilva was a proponent of a military strategy known as "counter terror" which held that terrorism was a legitimate tool to use in unconventional warfare, and that it should be applied strategically to "enemy civilians" in order to reduce civilian support for the Viet Cong. The PRUs were designed with this in mind, and began terrorizing suspected VC members in 1964. Originally, the PRUs were known as "Counter Terror" teams, but they were renamed to "Provincial Reconnaissance Units" after CIA officials "became wary of the adverse publicity surrounding the use of the word 'terror'". [Source: Wikipedia +]

In 1967 all "pacification" efforts by the United States had come under the authority of the Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support, or CORDS. CORDS had many different programs within it, including the creation of a peasant militia which by 1971 had a strength of about 500,000. In 1967, as part of CORDS, the Intelligence Coordination and Exploitation Program (ICEX) was created. The purpose of the organization centered on gathering information on the NLF. It was renamed Phoenix later in the same year. The South Vietnamese program was called Phu.ng Hoàng, after a mythical bird that appeared as a sign of prosperity and luck. The 1968 Tet offensive showed the importance of the NLF infrastructure, and the military setback for the US made it politically more palatable for the new program to be implemented. By 1970 there were 704 U.S. Phoenix advisers throughout South Vietnam. Officially, Phoenix operations continued until December 1972, although certain aspects continued until the fall of Saigon in 1975. +

After some complains a series of U.S. Congressional hearings on the Phoenix Program were held. In 1971, in the final day of hearing on "U.S. Assistance Programs in Vietnam", a former serviceman named K. Milton Osborn, described the Phoenix Program as a "sterile depersonalized murder program." Consequently, the military command in Vietnam issued a directive that reiterated that it had based the anti-VCI campaign on South Vietnamese law, that the program was in compliance with the laws of land warfare, and that U.S. personnel had the responsibility to report breaches of the law. +

In a paper for the CIA Center for the Study of Intelligence, Colonel Andrew R. Finlayson of the U.S. Marine Corps wrote: By 1967, the US Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV), had succeeded in consolidating all military and civilian pacification efforts into one entity, called Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support (CORDS). CIA and MACV were intensely involved in CORDS, which was run in conjunction with the Saigon government. CIA-veteran Robert H. Komer initially headed CORDS, but it was most active and successful under William E. Colby, who replaced Komer in 1968. Colby had served as chief of station in Saigon from 1959 to 1962 and as chief of the Far Eastern Division since then. Colby believed the United States must rid the south of the existing communist parallel government in the villages and eradicate the Viet Cong Infrastructure (VCI) in the countryside. Thus CORDS, while working on village defense and civic action programs--the latter included land reform, infrastructure building, and economic development--also devoted considerable resources to rooting out the VCI. [Source: Colonel Andrew R. Finlayson, USMC (Ret.), A Retrospective on Counterinsurgency Operations, The Tay Ninh Provincial Reconnaissance Unit and Its Role in the Phoenix Program, 1969-70, CIA Center for the Study of Intelligence ^^]

Phoenix Program Operations

The chief aspect of the Phoenix Program was the collection of intelligence information. NLF members would then be neutralized (captured, converted, or killed). Emphasis for the enforcement of the operation was placed on local government militia and police forces, rather than the military, as the main operational arm of the program. Historian Douglas Valentine states that "Central to Phoenix is the fact that it targeted civilians, not soldiers". [Source: Wikipedia +]

Neutralization took place under special laws that allowed the arrest and prosecution of suspected communists. To avoid abuses such as phony accusations for personal reasons, or to rein in overzealous officials who might not be diligent enough in pursuing evidence before making arrests, the laws required three separate sources of evidence to convict any individual targeted for neutralization. If a suspected NLF member was found guilty, he or she could be held in prison for two years, with renewable two-year sentences totaling up to six years. 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." +

Heavy-handed operations—such as random cordons and searches, large-scale and lengthy detentions of innocent civilians, and excessive use of firepower—had a negative effect on the civilian population. Intelligence derived from interrogations was often used to carry out "search and destroy" missions aimed at finding the enemy and destroying them. +

The Phoenix Program was part of CORDS. Colonel Andrew R. Finlayson of the U.S. Marine Corps wrote: Although Phoenix was run and ostensibly controlled by the Saigon government, CIA funded and administered it. Phoenix built on the work of the CIA-created network of over 100 provincial and district intelligence operation committees in South Vietnam that collected and disseminated information on the VCI to field police and paramilitary units. Essentially, these committees created lists of known VCI operatives. Once the name, rank, and location of each individual VCI member became known, CIA paramilitary or South Vietnamese police or military forces interrogated these individuals for further intelligence on the communist structure and its operations. [Source: Colonel Andrew R. Finlayson, USMC (Ret.), A Retrospective on Counterinsurgency Operations, The Tay Ninh Provincial Reconnaissance Unit and Its Role in the Phoenix Program, 1969-70, CIA Center for the Study of Intelligence ^^]

"The lists were sent to various Phoenix field forces. These forces went to the villages and hamlets and attempted to identify the named individuals and "neutralize" them. Those on a list were arrested or captured for interrogation, or if they resisted, they were killed. Initially, CIA, with Vietnamese assistance, handled interrogations at the provincial or district levels. Later, when the program was turned over to the Saigon government, the Agency alone handled information-gathering. Eventually, about 600 Americans were directly involved in the interrogation of VCI suspects, including both CIA and US military personnel. ^^

The PRUs became probably the most controversial element of Phoenix. They were special paramilitary forces that were originally developed in 1964 by the government of South Vietnam and CIA. Initially, they were known as Counter-Terror Teams. Eventually numbering over 4,000 and operating in all of South Vietnam's 44 provinces, the PRUs were commanded by US military officers and senior NCOs until November 1969, after which they were transitioned to CIA advisers. ^^

Joining the Phoenix Program Operation

On his introduction to the Phoenix Program, Colonel Andrew R. Finlayson of the U.S. Marine Corps wrote: "In July 1969, when, as a Marine infantry officer in command of G Company of the 2nd Battalion, 5th Marines in South Vietnam, I first came in contact with the PRU program...I was informed by the battalion operations officer that my infantry company was to provide security for a special unit of Vietnamese police that was to enter a village in the Arizona Area looking for suspected Viet Cong political cadre. When the police unit arrived, I greeted its commander, a US military officer dressed in black pajamas and armed with an assortment of unusual weapons, including a Chinese AK-47 assault rifle and a Browning 9-mm automatic pistol. I immediately recognized this officer as a fellow Marine who had graduated a year ahead of me from the US Naval Academy and who had served with me in 1967 with the 1st Force Reconnaissance Company near Da Nang. [Source: Colonel Andrew R. Finlayson, USMC (Ret.), A Retrospective on Counterinsurgency Operations, The Tay Ninh Provincial Reconnaissance Unit and Its Role in the Phoenix Program, 1969-70, CIA Center for the Study of Intelligence ^^]

"I spent three days with this officer and his team of 16 Vietnamese while they searched a village for VC political cadre. At the end of the operation, he suggested that I extend my tour of duty in Vietnam and apply for a position with the PRU program, to which he was then assigned. When I asked the normal questions anyone would ask about a new assignment--one he felt was so interesting and challenging that I would gladly extend my tour for a chance to join its ranks--he would say only that the program was classified and I would be told more about it if I agreed to add six months to my scheduled 13-month tour. I admired this officer and respected his judgment, so I accepted his offer with literally no knowledge of what I was signing up for. ^^

"In late August 1969, the invitation came, and I was ordered to Saigon to report to MACV's Marine Liaison Office for instructions. My orders included a provision that I take an Air America flight from Da Nang, something few Marines ever did. After landing at Tan Son Nhut Air Base in Saigon and reporting to the liaison office, I was told to go to the Duc Hotel, register, and await instructions. After a few hours, a Vietnamese officer wearing dark sunglasses, a tiger-striped camouflage uniform, and a grim smile met me in the hotel lobby. He introduced himself and told me he would be taking me to his headquarters. I tried to small-talk the officer, but he remained silent or cut me off with a curt, "You will see soon." ^^

"After a short ride in his jeep, we arrived at a stately but nondescript villa not far from the Presidential Palace. Inside, I was escorted to an office on the second floor and told to wait. Soon, I was introduced to a man dressed in civilian clothes, who told me he was a captain in the US Army, but he did not tell me his name. He told me he wanted to interview me for "an important job fighting the Viet Cong." If I "passed" the interview, I would be accepted into an organization responsible for eliminating the VCI and assigned to one of its operational units, which could be anywhere in South Vietnam's 44 provinces.The captain then began a nearly two-hour long interview. For the most part he questioned me about my knowledge of Vietnamese history, culture, and language. He spent a lot of time trying to ascertain my true feelings for the Vietnamese people and how I thought my military experience as a long-range patrol leader and infantry company commander would benefit the PRU program. ^^

At the end of the interview, he handed me Douglas Pike's, Viet Cong. He told me to read it that night and be prepared to discuss it in detail the following morning at 0800.3 I then was driven back to the Duc Hotel where I immediately began reading. I finished Viet Cong at 0200. ^^

Early the next morning, I was picked up at the hotel once more and driven to the PRU headquarters and again ushered up to the second floor office. After a few minutes of waiting alone in the office, the nameless captain and two other Americans in civilian clothes came in. They took me to another office, where I was formally introduced to the two, who turned out to be the top US leadership of the PRU. One was the senior PRU adviser in South Vietnam, a Marine Corps colonel; the other was his deputy, also a Marine Corps officer. The colonel told me I had been chosen to join the PRU program and would be assigned immediately to Tay Ninh Province to replace an officer who had been relieved of his duties because of financial and personal misconduct. ^^

The colonel told me forcefully that whatever I might think about working for a classified program like Phoenix, I was to conduct myself with the utmost discretion and do nothing that would violate the Uniform Code of Military Justice. In short, he told me I was never to do anything illegal or immoral while assigned to the PRU, and if I did, he promised to personally see to it that I was cashiered from the Marine Corps and imprisoned. I had no doubt about his orders or his ability to make good his threat. Surprisingly, we did not talk about Pike's book, which was an eye-opener to me. Until then, my perceptions of the Viet Cong had been shaped by the broad strokes and generalities of the Western press. Viet Cong gave me fresh insight into the connections between the VCI and Communist Party of North Vietnam and their organizational and operational procedures. Though reading did not help me through my interview, the knowledge would help me in the months to follow in Tay Ninh. ^^

Phoenix Program PRU Unit in Tay Ninh Province

On his experience running a Provincial Reconnaissance Units (PRU) in Tay Ninh Province, Colonel Andrew R. Finlayson of the U.S. Marine Corps wrote: "The next day, I was on one of Air America's Pilatus Porter planes to Tay Ninh City, the capital of Tay Ninh Province. After a 30-minute flight north from Tan Son Nhut Air Base, I saw the famous Nui Ba Den (Black Virgin Mountain) rising out of the flat surrounding plain that constituted most of the province. After landing and leaving the plane, I found myself alone on the rough corrugated steel runway that was the little Tay Ninh East Air Base. On arrival I met the US team in Tay Ninh, led by the the provincial officer in charge (POIC)--the senior CIA officer in the province who was, in effect, my day-to-day supervisor. I learned quickly from them that I would be working for two "bosses" in this assignment: in addition to the POIC, I would answer to the province chief who was responsible for all operational activities in Tay Ninh province. I met the province chief, the next day. A Lt. Colonel in the Vietnamese Army, he spoke good English and proved to be a capable, confident, and well-respected leader. I would come to regard him as a model leader, one who bore none of the characteristic corrupt qualities that were ascribed to many South Vietnamese provincial figures. [Source: Colonel Andrew R. Finlayson, USMC (Ret.), A Retrospective on Counterinsurgency Operations, The Tay Ninh Provincial Reconnaissance Unit and Its Role in the Phoenix Program, 1969-70, CIA Center for the Study of Intelligence ^^]

"On my second day, in a relatively informal gathering, I would meet many of the members of the 92-man Tay Ninh PRU that I would command and advise. I would find them to be brave and experienced troops. Some had military experience with the Cao Dai Army (a local militia that fought the Viet Minh), the South Vietnamese Airborne Division, or the Civilian Irregular Defense Group (CIDG), which had been commanded by US Special Forces. Most of the PRU's troops were members of the Cao Dai religion, but a few were Roman Catholic, and even two or three ethnic Cambodians were assigned. All of them had a deep hatred for the Viet Cong, primarily because of atrocities committed against them and their families. Religion and family played large parts in their lives. ^^

"The Tay Ninh PRU was divided into five 18-man teams (each team was broken further into three squads), one for each of the four districts in Tay Ninh Province and one for Tay Ninh City. The headquarters of the Tay Ninh PRU, which was collocated with the Tay Ninh City team, consisted of just two individuals, the commander and his operations officer. The commander of the city team also served as the Tay Ninh PRU's deputy commander. ^^

The PRU was armed with M16 rifles, M60 machine guns, 45-caliber automatic pistols, and M79 grenade launchers; however, individuals also had a variety of other weapons they had acquired from disparate sources. The units also possessed PRC-25 radios, 7-by-50 binoculars, medical kits, 4-by-4 Toyota -ton trucks, and Honda motorcycles. In garrison at their district headquarters, the men wore civilian clothes; in the field they wore tiger-stripe camouflage uniforms or black pajamas. The units' US advisers were similarly outfitted and armed. ^^

"In my first assessment of the Tay Ninh PRU's operational capabilities, I found that the teams functioned well in most situations, but they lacked fire discipline. That is, the teams did not maneuver well under fire, and they were not proficient in calling for and adjusting supporting arms, generally artillery fire. Thus, the units did not perform well when they and the enemy met by chance or when the enemy was prepared for them. In part, this was a product of their training, which was unsystematic and erratic. Most PRU members were highly experienced combat veterans, who had survived many years in elite combat units before coming to the PRU, but a few had received only rudimentary field training or had served in noncombat units. At the national level, training took place from time to time at a camp near Vung Tau on the shore of the South China Sea; but at the local level, US commanders and advisers led training when operational lulls permitted. As a result, training was uneven and so was performance. ^^

"The PRU's strong suits lay in its intimate and complete knowledge of the people and terrain of Tay Ninh Province. This knowledge was central to their success in mounting operations against local VCI cadre and in compensating for training shortcomings. This knowledge of the province led to a great ability to develop accurate intelligence on the VCI and to plan methodically. The members of the PRU also were masters in camouflage, concealment, and night movement. As a result they tended to rely heavily on surprise and ambush to achieve decisive results. ^^

While the PRU program was a national organization under CORDS on the American side and the Ministry of Interior on the Vietnamese side, it was much more a provincial "action arm." By that I mean the operational direction and authority for any PRU came from the Vietnamese province chief, who was the only official who could sign an arrest order or operational order for the PRU. Thus, as the US PRU adviser in Tay Ninh, I could coordinate with Vietnamese and American military units and plan operations, but I could not authorize them. To conduct any operation by the Tay Ninh PRU against a VCI target, I had to submit a written request for a signed authorization from the province chief. Since the province chief and his key subordinates and US advisers met almost daily, this requirement never really was an impediment to successful use of the PRU.

Torture and Targeted Killings in the Phoenix Program

Methods of torture used at the interrogation centers included: "Rape, gang rape, rape using eels, snakes, or hard objects, and rape followed by murder; electric shock ('the Bell Telephone Hour') rendered by attaching wires to the genitals or other sensitive parts of the body, like the tongue; the 'water treatment'; the 'airplane' in which the prisoner's arms were tied behind the back, and the rope looped over a hook on the ceiling, suspending the prisoner in midair, after which he or she was beaten; beatings with rubber hoses and whips; the use of police dogs to maul prisoners." [Source: Wikipedia +]

Military intelligence officer K. Milton Osborne witnessed the following use of torture: "The use of the insertion of the 6-inch dowel into the canal of one of my detainee's ears, and the tapping through the brain until dead. The starvation to death (in a cage), of a Vietnamese woman who was suspected of being part of the local political education cadre in one of the local villages ... The use of electronic gear such as sealed telephones attached to ... both the women's vaginas and men's testicles [to] shock them into submission." +

According to one former CIA officer few of the detainees who were interrogated survived—most of them were tortured to death, and those that survived the torture sessions were generally killed afterwards. The torture was usually carried out by South Vietnamese with the CIA and special forces playing a supervisory role. Phoenix operations often aimed to assassinate targets, or resulted in their deaths through other means. PRU units often anticipated resistance in disputed areas, and often operated on shoot first basis. Innocent civilians were also sometimes killed. William Colby claimed that the program never sanctioned the "premeditated killing of a civilian in a non-combat situation". +

Lieutenant Vincent Okamoto, an intelligence-liaison officer for the Phoenix Program for two months in 1968 and a recipient of the Distinguished Service Cross said the following: "It was also acknowledged that capturing NLF members was more important than killing them. The problem was, how do you find the people on the blacklist? It's not like you had their address and telephone number. The normal procedure would be to go into a village and just grab someone and say, 'Where's Nguyen so-and-so?' Half the time the people were so afraid they would not say anything. Then a Phoenix team would take the informant, put a sandbag over his head, poke out two holes so he could see, put commo wire around his neck like a long leash, and walk him through the village and say, 'When we go by Nguyen's house scratch your head.' Then that night Phoenix would come back, knock on the door, and say, 'April Fool, motherfucker.' Whoever answered the door would get wasted. As far as they were concerned whoever answered was a Communist, including family members. Sometimes they'd come back to camp with ears to prove that they killed people. " +

In his paper for the CIA Center for the Study of Intelligence, Colonel Andrew R. Finlayson of the U.S. Marine Corps wrote: "Critics of US involvement in Vietnam claimed that the PRUs were nothing more than assassination teams, yet only 14 percent of the VCI killed under Phoenix were killed by PRUs. Most of the rest died in skirmishes and raids involving South Vietnamese soldiers and police and the US military. In 1972 CORDS reported that since the 1968 Tet Offensive, Phoenix had removed over 5,000 VCI from action, and that conventional military actions and desertions--some prompted by Phoenix--accounted for over 20,000 more. MACV claimed that Phoenix and the US military's response to the Tet Offensive, along with other rural security, and militia programs, had eliminated upwards of 80,000 VCI through defection, detention, or death. That figure lies on the high end of estimates, all of which were dependent on statistics of varying reliability. By most accounts, however--including those of Vietnamese communists--Phoenix (which ended in 1971) and other pacification programs drove the VCI so far underground that it was unable to operate effectively. In the 1972 Easter offensive, and again in 1975, there was no sign of the VCI or the Viet Cong military because Phoenix and its allied activities had dealt them a very serious blow. [Source: Colonel Andrew R. Finlayson, USMC (Ret.), A Retrospective on Counterinsurgency Operations, The Tay Ninh Provincial Reconnaissance Unit and Its Role in the Phoenix Program, 1969-70, CIA Center for the Study of Intelligence ^^]

Intelligence Gatherings and Targeting Killings in Tay Ninh Province

On gathering intelligence, Colonel Andrew R. Finlayson of the U.S. Marine Corps wrote: Thanks to the introduction of systems associated with CORDS, the Tay Ninh PRU in theory had a wide array of intelligence sources available to it. Everything from local agent reports to national-level intelligence could in theory be funneled to them via the system of District Intelligence and Operations Coordination Centers (DIOCCs). US military district advisers could channel operational leads to district PRU units for exploitation. At the provincial level, the same organizational structure existed for coordination; however, at that level, the US PRU adviser filled the role US military advisers played at the district level. In practice, however, few operational leads were shared with the PRU for a host of reasons. Petty jealousies between the Vietnamese National Police, the Vietnamese Special Branch Police, and district chiefs often prevented the transmission of good operational leads to the PRU. [Source: Colonel Andrew R. Finlayson, USMC (Ret.), A Retrospective on Counterinsurgency Operationsm The Tay Ninh Provincial Reconnaissance Unit and Its Role in the Phoenix Program, 1969-70, CIA Center for the Study of Intelligence ^^]

"This same problem existed on the American side, where US military commanders and civilian advisers were reluctant to share intelligence with the Vietnamese for fear of compromise. Sadly, US civilian advisers were reluctant to share intelligence with the PRU even when they were specifically directed to do so by the US Embassy in Saigon--and many of them even refused to share their intelligence with other US agencies for fear of others getting a share of the credit. In theory, the DIOCC system should have worked well in developing operational leads, and on occasion it did. By and large, however, it did not function properly in Tay Ninh Province because of personal intransigence and bureaucratic in-fighting. ^^

"The sources that were uniformly inaccurate were the agent reports developed by US military intelligence units. During the 10 months that I served as the PRU adviser, not a single agent report received by the PRU from the US military proved to be of value. Most agents were paid for their information in a piecework fashion, and this led to the manufacture of a large volume of worthless reports. Vietnamese National Police agent reports were equally worthless to the Tay Ninh PRU, and in some cases, dangerously inaccurate. National-level intelligence sources were accurate but often did not pertain to VCI activities, so they were of little value to the PRU in rooting out the VCI in the province. Of moderate importance and value to the PRU were reports from the interrogation of prisoners by the Vietnamese Police Special Branch at the Provincial Interrogation Center (PIC). Many of the prisoners held at the PIC provided accurate and timely information on VCI personalities and activities. When this information was shared with the PRU, which was rare, the results were usually highly successful. ^^

"Of particular value were the many VC who rallied to the South Vietnamese government as part of the Chieu Hoi ("Open Arms") Program. These Hoi Chanhs (returnees) were screened after they surrendered to the South Vietnamese government and then interrogated at the PIC, where they often volunteered to guide PRU teams into highly contested areas to capture VCI. Hoi Chanhs were usually far more reliable than other prisoners, although many VC guerrillas and North Vietnam Army (NVA) soldiers also provided useful information on VCI targets. Another source of intelligence that was often productive, but time consuming to exploit and difficult to process, was the vast store of data collected by Census Grievance teams during 1963-64. These teams conducted interviews in conjunction with a national census at that time. Their interviews led to the development of maps of the province's districts and villages that were color-coded to illustrate degrees of loyalty to the South Vietnamese government. Green-colored houses were deemed loyal; yellow meant neutral; and red indicated VC sympathy. ^^

"In addition, these maps would often contain the names of family members who were VCI members or sympathetic to the communists. This storehouse of data was kept at the CIA villa in Tay Ninh City and reviewed periodically by the US adviser for operational leads. In most cases, the information was dated or difficult to exploit because of the inaccessibility or the death or capture of the communist sympathizer, but in some notable cases important mid-level VCI cadre were arrested or killed as a result of information on the Census Grievance maps. Had these maps been digitized and the information contained in a readily accessible database, the time taken to absorb their information probably would have been greatly reduced and many more operational leads developed. ^^

"By far, the most prolific source of intelligence for the PRU was the PRU's own intelligence system. The Tay Ninh PRU was forced to develop its own source of operational leads because of the aforementioned reluctance of other agencies to share information on VCI targets. As natives of Tay Ninh Province the PRU members had lived and worked in the province for most, if not all, of their lives. They were part of the fabric of the provincial society, and their families engaged in all kinds of commerce throughout the province. ^^

"Through family contacts, PRU members developed an extensive intelligence system that successfully gathered accurate information on the VCI at the hamlet and village level to map VCI activities. In many cases, the PRU members knew personally the VCI cadre they were hunting; indeed, many had known them since childhood. They knew the families of the VCI and the details of their personal lives. In some cases, the Tay Ninh PRU was actually successful in infiltrating the VCI. This intimate knowledge of the VCI led to many highly accurate operational leads and the elimination of several important VCI cadres during my tour there. While I was the US adviser to the Tay Ninh PRU, approximately two-thirds of the VCI the PRU captured or killed were uncovered by the intelligence developed by the PRU's organic system.

Impact of the Phoenix Program

Between 1968 and 1972, Phoenix "neutralized" 81,740 people suspected of NLF membership, of whom 26,369 were killed. A significant number of NLF were killed, and between 1969 and 1971 the program was quite successful in destroying NLF infrastructure in many important areas. By 1970, communist plans repeatedly emphasized attacking the government’s pacification program and specifically targeted Phoenix officials. The NLF also imposed quotas. In 1970, for example, communist officials near Da Nang in northern South Vietnam instructed their assassins to "kill 400 persons" deemed to be government "tyrant[s]" and to "annihilate" anyone involved with the pacification program. Several North Vietnamese officials have made statements about the effectiveness of Phoenix. According to William Colby, "in the years since the 1975, I have heard several references to North Vietnamese and South Vietnamese communists who account, who state that in their mind the most, the toughest period that they faced in the whole period of the war from 1960 to 1975 was the period from 1968 to '72 when the Phoenix Program was at work." The CIA claimed that through Phoenix they were able to learn the identity and structure of the VCI in every province. [Source: Wikipedia +]

In his paper for the CIA Center for the Study of Intelligence, Colonel Andrew R. Finlayson of the U.S. Marine Corps wrote: "While my experience in Tay Ninh does not necessarily represent the experience of other PRU advisers and their units, I can say confidently that the Tay Ninh PRU was successful during my tour. From September 1969 to June 1970, the Tay Ninh PRU killed 31 VCI and captured 64--at a cost of only two PRU members killed and two wounded. As early as December 1968, it was apparent to the Tay Ninh PRU that most of the senior VCI cadre had been either killed or captured in the months after Tet or had been driven into neighboring Cambodia. As a credible political threat, the VC had ceased to function in any meaningful way by the time I left Vietnam in June 1970. [Source: Colonel Andrew R. Finlayson, USMC (Ret.), A Retrospective on Counterinsurgency Operationsm The Tay Ninh Provincial Reconnaissance Unit and Its Role in the Phoenix Program, 1969-70, CIA Center for the Study of Intelligence ^^]

"Further proof of the PRU's effectiveness came in 1975, when the communists finally defeated the South Vietnamese. The NVA commander occupying Tay Ninh Province would put in a hurried request to North Vietnam for 200 civilian political cadre. He reported that there were only six local VC cadre left in the province to manage the province's affairs. The Tay Ninh PRU was successful primarily because it was a locally recruited outfit whose members had an intimate knowledge of their province, its people, and the enemy. They also had discipline, strong leadership, and an intense personal motivation to defeat the VC. They had an accurate and highly effective intelligence system that was difficult for the enemy to infiltrate or defeat because it was based on strong family loyalties and religious and civic affiliations...Long after the Americans left South Vietnam, the Tay Ninh PRU continued to root out the VCI. The concept may have been an American one, but the execution and adaptation were entirely Vietnamese. ^^

"After the fall of Saigon in April 1975, the lives of Tay Ninh PRU members changed dramatically for the worse. They were hunted down and arrested or killed. Many served long terms in reeducation camps, where they were tortured and made to work under inhumane conditions. Some escaped the camps and made their way to the United States, where they were settled by the US government and given jobs. Most, however, were executed or died in squalid camps. A few never surrendered and continued to fight the Vietnamese communists and their southern allies. They organized a "stay behind" unit in Tay Ninh called the "Yellow Dragons," and their activities were still reported on by the communist authorities in the province well into the 1990s. ^^

Abuses and Lessons Learned From the Phoenix Program

Abuses were common. In many instances, rival Vietnamese would report their enemies as "VC" in order to get U.S. troops to kill them. In many cases, Phung Hoang chiefs were incompetent bureaucrats who used their positions to enrich themselves. Phoenix tried to address this problem by establishing monthly neutralization quotas, but these often led to fabrications or, worse, false arrests. In some cases, district officials accepted bribes from the NLF to release certain suspects. After Phoenix Program abuses began receiving negative publicity, the program was officially shut down. However, another program of a similar nature, code-named "F-6", was initiated as Phoenix was phased out. [Source: Wikipedia +]

At the conclusion of his paper for the CIA Center for the Study of Intelligence, Colonel Andrew R. Finlayson of the U.S. Marine Corps wrote: "With the Tay Ninh experience behind me, I have often pondered if units similarly organized, equipped, and trained could duplicate the PRU's success in other places and times. Could special police units drawn from local communities to identify and apprehend insurgents be successful and be so in keeping with the fundamental democratic principles we espouse? [Source: Colonel Andrew R. Finlayson, USMC (Ret.), A Retrospective on Counterinsurgency Operationsm The Tay Ninh Provincial Reconnaissance Unit and Its Role in the Phoenix Program, 1969-70, CIA Center for the Study of Intelligence ^^]

"I believe they can if the following conditions are met: 1) The units are imbued with both a professional and civic ethical standards that make them accountable to the people for their actions, not only to specific government officials or political leaders. 2) They are equipped and trained to a high level of professionalism. 3) They are paid well (and regularly) and rewarded for tangible results--a crucial element in preventing corruption and enemy infiltration. 4) They are organized into small, tightly knit teams whose ranks are filled by members of the communities they serve. (Out of a population of over 17 million, there were never more than 4,500 PRU members in all of South Vietnam during the Vietnam War. Most of these PRU members were natives of the provinces in which they served.) ^^

"4) They are subject to effective judicial and political oversight and not free to conduct unauthorized missions, without orders from a competent legal authority. 5) The units are not responsible for interrogating or incarcerating captives beyond seeking identifying information and holding them until transfer elsewhere. 6) A clear separation is made between PRU-type units and other police units, especially those involved in criminal investigations and arrests. 7) The units' members and their families are protected by the state from retribution and given assurances that their names will not be revealed to the press or any other unauthorized source. 8) They are provided with the highest level of professional and ethical leadership 9) They receive full access to pertinent targeting intelligence through some form of interagency coordinating group, like the South Vietnamese DIOCCs. 10) If US advisors are assigned to such a unit, they should receive pre-assignment training concentrating on language proficiency, cultural sensitivity, intelligence management, small unit tactics, and staff planning. " ^^

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Vietnamtourism. com, Vietnam National Administration of Tourism, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, Fox News and various websites, books and other publications identified in the text.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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