Forbidden Book: Douglas Valentine’s “The Phoenix Program: America’s Use of Terror in Vietnam”

Forbidden BooksOn June 10, Open Roads publishers announced a new “Forbidden Bookshelf” series. Curated by New York University Professor Mark Crispin Miller, “Forbidden Bookshelf” aims to “fill in the blanks of America’s repressed history by resurrecting books that focused on issues and events that are too often left in the dark.”

One of the first books published in the series is Douglas Valentine’s invaluable, in-depth history of one of America’s most egregious counterinsurgency, torture and assassination programs, as described in his 1990 book The Phoenix Program: America’s Use of Terror in Vietnam.

The book is intricately and densely written, yet reads like a Rashomon-like detective story, as Valentine allows many of the actors involved speak for themselves. Never has such an in-depth look at a major CIA operation been written. You know who did what and when. The larger picture is not lost either, as, for instance, Valentine refers to earlier counter-terror programs that influenced Phoenix, such as the UK’s counterinsurgency-terror program in Malaysia after World War II.

An encyclopedic attention to detail is Valentine’s forte, as those will know who have read his two-volume history on the rise of the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and the Drug Enforcement Agency.

The Phoenix Program itself was created by the CIA as a way to coordinate numerous counterinsurgency programs during the Vietnam war, using methods of blanket surveillance, kidnapping and extrajudicial detention, interrogation and torture, and the paramilitarization of the police. The goal, beyond gathering of intelligence, was to eliminate — via murder, mass use of informants, and terror — what the U.S. called the “Viet Cong Infrastructure” (VCI), especially the top and middle levels of VC leadership.

Instead, Phoenix sank under the weight of institutional corruption and interagency competition, not to mention Washington’s demand to produce results — even if there were no results to produce. Phoenix itself grew out of the CIA’s theory of “Contre Coup,” or “counter-terror.” The idea was the U.S. would match the terror used by opponent forces, but do it even better.

As Valentine wrote in a May 2001 article: “The object of Contre Coup was to identify and terrorize each and every individual VCI and his/her family, friends and fellow villagers. To this end the CIA in 1964 launched a massive intelligence operation called the Provincial Interrogation Center Program [PICs]…. Staffed by members of the brutal [South Vietnamese] Special Police, who ran extensive informant networks, and advised by CIA officers, the purpose of the PICs was to identify, through the systematic ‘interrogation’ (read torture) of VCI suspects, the membership of the VCI at every level of its organization….”

As the Vietnam War grew in intensity and the U.S. intervention neared half-a-million troops, the CIA tried to rationalize their anti-terror campaign, uniting their counter-insurgency, police, and intelligence aims, while working closely with their fractious South Vietnamese partners.

What followed was murder and torture and graft and corruption on a grand scale. Untold thousands died and were tortured. The figures for those killed in the “counter-terror” program range from the CIA’s admitted 20,000 to over 40,000.

A vast number of those killed had no connection with the VC at all. Valentine explains in his book, “most Vietnamese jailed under Phoenix were anonymous pawns whose only value was the small bribe their families offered for their release.” The bribes didn’t help thousands, as Phoenix managers imposed quotas as high as 1,800 “neutralizations” per month.

Phoenix and Torture

The PICs became an integral part of Phoenix, and torture was standard operating procedure, while CIA “advisers” stood by. Later, CIA personnel argued they had tried to teach their South Vietnamese partners more effective kinds of interrogation, but in practice, they often were present during torture sessions, and countenanced much of what went on. Indeed, CIA’s Support Services Branch was in charge of training police Special Branch officers in interrogation methods.

Valentine describes the torture in the PICs: “rape, gang rape, rape using eels, snakes or hard objects, and rape followed by murder; electrical shock (‘the Bell Telephone Hour’),” as well as suspension in air, beatings with rubber hoses and whips, “use of police dogs to maul prisoners,”and more. But as the first director of the PIC program in Vietnam, John Patrick Muldoon, told Valentine, “You can’t have an American there all the time watching these things.”

The situation will sound familiar to those who have followed the actions of U.S. and allied forces in Iraq and Afghanistan who routinely turned over prisoners for torture to local authorities, while shadowy U.S. agents lurked in the background of the foreign torture chambers. (A direct report on such actions in Iraq can be seen in Peter Maass’s video report, Searching for Steele. More recent revelations in a new FOIA of the CIA’s interrogation manual from the 1960s shows such interactions with foreign intelligence and police services during interrogation and torture was something the CIA thought and planned about a great deal.)

When the CIA was in control of their own captives, they used the kinds of “touchless” torture they had perfected and described in their KUBARK interrogation manual. Valentine describes the torture of high-level North Vietnamese officer Nyguyen Van Tai, who was kept in a specially-built prison cell, kept in isolation and constant surveillance by hidden cameras, in a room painted “snow-white,” all the while exposed to frigid air conditioning. The solitary confinement continued over four years without Van Tai ever admitting who he was.

“Colby’s imprimatur”

In her August 2007 New Yorker article on the CIA black sites, Jane Mayer noted the interest of the CIA in the Phoenix Program as a model for the U.S. war in Afghanistan.

“A Pentagon-contract study found that, between 1970 and 1971, ninety-seven per cent of the Vietcong targeted by the Phoenix Program were of negligible importance,” Mayer wrote. “But, after September 11th, some CIA officials viewed the program as a useful model.”

While as a work of history The Phoenix Program is one of the most important books ever written on the CIA and the military, on the birth of US “counter-terror” policy, and government sponsored torture and assassination programs, its relevancy to post-9/11 history is self-evident. Anyone trying to understand the chaos and crimes committed by US and associated forces in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars must know this book.

There’s a good reason national security historian and author John Prados has called Phoenix a “must read.” Heavily researched over a number of years, more than any other book I know of about the period (with Nick Turse’s book, Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam, a close second), Valentine’s book relied on over 200 interviews with participants, including top CIA and special forces personnel. How the author obtained such access, and what happened as a result is a story in itself.

Valentine described the story in an email exchange with The Dissenter:

“I began work on The Phoenix Program in the summer of 1984,” Valentine wrote. “I approached the subject from two angles. First, I made a direct approach to William Colby, the former Director of the CIA and the individual most closely associated with Phoenix, based on his defense of the program before several Congressional committees. Colby agreed to help and referred me to several CIA officers who played prominent roles in Phoenix. These former, and in some cases current, agents spoke openly to me, simply because I carried Colby’s imprimatur.

“Colby generated access lasted into 1987, when I started to notice doors closing and people avoiding me. I’d always known it would happen sooner than later, and I’d pretty much made the rounds, so it didn’t bother me too much. I’d hustled the CIA, I’d gotten inside its walls and rummaged around, and now the CIA was going to exact its revenge. That’s just how it works. If you fuck with he bull, you get the horns. Everyone knows that.

“I also got asked by CIA officer Bob Wall to join the CIA before the door slammed shut altogether.

“But I wasn’t ready to quit, and I wanted to back the CIA off a bit, so I filed a Privacy Act request, and in 1992 I got some results, thanks to the ACLU and a sympathetic judge in the federal district in Springfield, Massachusetts.”

“It may cause damage”

More of the story is documented in John Prados’ book, The Family Jewels:

“Elements at Langley became uncooperative after one retiree asked CIA lawyers, in the summer of 1986, what things were safe to talk about. When a Publications Review Board lawyer checked to see whether Phoenix was off-limits (the Board had previously cleared Phoenix material in works by Colby himself and agency officer Ralph McGehee), he was advised to caution interviewees not to talk to Valentine….

“By April 1988 the Publications Review Board was advising clandestine service officers of a concern that Valentine’s ‘forthcoming book will contain so much detailed information about Agency operations and officers that… it may cause damage,’ and asking that senior management of the Directorate of Operations should have the entire matter brought to their attention. Spooks, including some in the ostensibly impartial Inspector General’s office, were ranging the halls telling each other that the author was bad news and hoping they might escape his attention. Valentine eventually discovered this stonewalling due to the reticence of CIA veterans—and the materials quoted here emerged in the course of legal discovery in the lawsuit Douglas Valentine brought against the Central Intelligence Agency.”

Valentine has posted online some of the legal documents from his lawsuit against the CIA. His papers collected in the writing of the book are held by the National Security Archives, and available to researchers. Many of his taped interviews, including interviews with William Colby and other senior Phoenix personnel, can be heard online (thanks

What Phoenix Wrought

While a good knowledge of the Phoenix Program in necessary to understand how U.S. counterinsurgency acts in reality in countries around the globe, in a new introduction for the Open Roads edition of the book, Valentine writes about the corrupting influence of Phoenix upon democratic processes domestically.

Valentine speaks of the “insidious” spread of Phoenix methods in the United States for the purpose of “the political control of its citizens through terrorism, on behalf of the rich military-industrial-political elite who rule our society.”

“Indeed, America’s security forces were always aware of the domestic applications of the Phoenix,” Valentine writes, “and the program has not only come to define modern American warfare, it is the model for our internal ‘homeland security’ apparatus as well. It is with the Phoenix program that we find the genesis of the paramilitarization of American police forces in their role as adjuncts to military and political security forces engaged in population control and suppression of dissent.”

For Valentine, who makes a compelling case, the building of Guantanamo, the use of black sites and torture, the provision — even as late as 2013 — for the indefinite detention of Americans and other “war on terror” prisoners, “was easy to predict,” if you knew about Phoenix.

I am grateful to Doug Valentine and Mark Crispin Miller for giving The Phoenix Program a new publishing life, to help educate a new generation, which faces a fight against forces of state repression every bit as difficult and important as any faced in this country’s history.

Other books released as part of Open Road Media’s “Forbidden Bookshelf” series include Christopher Simpson’s landmark history, Blowback: America’s Recruitment of Nazis and Its Destructive Impact on Our Domestic and Foreign Policy; The Search for an Abortionist: The Classic Study of How American Women Coped with Unwanted Pregnancy Before Roe v. Wade by Nancy Howell Lee, Interference: How Organized Crime Influences Professional Football by Dan E. Moldea; and The Lords of Creation: The History of America’s 1 Percent by Frederick Lewis Allen. More titles are promised in the near future.

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