The republication of Douglas Valentine’s The Phoenix Program as the first installment in a series of repressed, forgotten books by Open Road Media offers the opportunity to observe the continuity between the CIA’s secret war against civilians in Vietnam and our own “Homeland Security” apparatus.
Douglas Valentine’s The Phoenix Program is the first installment in a series of repressed, forgotten books that have recently been republished by Open Road Media in their “Forbidden Bookshelf” series. The Phoenix program was the CIA’s secret war on the political (civilian) infrastructure of the Viet Cong with the ultimate goal of “pacifying” dissent against the unimaginably corrupt South Vietnam government. “Pacifying” included torture, indefinite detention and assassination. It is also worth noting that The Phoenix Program was the first repressed book to be showcased in the series. The Phoenix program was not only responsible for horrific crimes against the Vietnamese people, but the program was replicated in US counterinsurgency campaigns in both El Salvador and Iraq. And of most significance, as Valentine states in his new introduction, is the fact that the Phoenix program became a “template” not only for counterinsurgency campaigns in the Third World thereafter, but also for the “Homeland Security Apparatus” the American people are living under today.
This Phoenix Program is a rare work of scholarship indeed. Over the course of his research, Valentine secured over 100 in-depth interviews with Phoenix participants. He developed a rapport with his interviewees and was able to elicit from them how the Phoenix program operated organizationally, and gained unique insight into how the CIA thinks in regard to its “operational targets.” The ability to have the level of detachment necessary to successfully conduct research about a subject so controversial is unusual to say the least. The Phoenix Program stands alongside the best that social science research has to offer. And as any “organic intellectual” (1) would do, Valentine has made publicly available many of his interviews so people can learn for themselves, “how the CIA thinks.” It is also worth noting that in the course of conducting his research, Valentine was harassed by the CIA and received threats.
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Valentine presents his research findings in a dispassionate tone, allowing the interviewees to describe in lengthy excerpts how the Phoenix program was developed out of the previous counterinsurgency programs in Vietnam that had been in place since the Americans took over from the French in 1954. For one who doesn’t have deep background in the history of the Vietnam War, or military intelligence programs in general, reading through the first part of the book can be daunting. However, it is well worth the effort because as one develops an understanding of the various programs that the Phoenix program drew together – the Province Interrogation Centers (PIC), Intelligence Operations and Coordination Center (IOCC), the Census Grievance program, the Provincial Reconnaissance Units, among others – one develops an understanding of what it takes to control the political environment of a colonized people.
Another key dimension to the functioning of Phoenix was the use of personnel from almost every branch of the military and the US Agency for International Development (USAID) among other supposedly more “diplomatic” agencies. Between the multiple programs in Vietnam, collecting intelligence gathered in statistical form, creating blacklists, targeted assassinations, use of selected terror against Vietnamese people, indefinite detention, the use of torture and the promotion of criminality and corruption, one can see in Phoenix a “bureaucratization of evil.”
The legacy of Phoenix, though largely forgotten, has remained a constant in US foreign (and now domestic) policy, though the technological means have continued to evolve. For example, in the early 1980s in El Salvador, blacklisted names of targets were shown alongside the nightly news. If you saw your name on that screen, you knew you were lucky if you had 24 hours to get out of the country. In 2013, when Christopher Dorner was hunted down by the Los Angeles Police Department, command and control rooms were staffed with cops analyzing Facebook, Twitter and other social media like Reddit to see what groups were emerging for and against Dorner. And just a couple years prior, US intelligence coordinated evictions of Occupy encampments in several cities at the same time through fusion centers, which Valentine points out were modeled after the District Intelligence and Operations Coordinating Centers (DIOCC) in Vietnam.
One final and important point about the Phoenix program and its significance today: Valentine emphasizes that psychological warfare was an essential, if not the principal, ingredient in the development of the Phoenix program. And this psychological warfare wasn’t only aimed against the Vietnamese people, but also against the American people. In the post-Cold War era, where concepts such as “humanitarian intervention” and “responsibility to protect” (R2P) proliferate alongside the forgetting of the nature, history and objectives of US foreign intervention, the majority of Americans (including large swaths of the progressive and foundation-funded left) have become increasingly mystified as if somehow the objective of US foreign policy has fundamentally shifted away from what it has almost always been: the protection of US military hegemony and the interests of the transnational capitalist class.
Kudos to the Forbidden Bookshelf series for bringing The Phoenix Program back to life. If we as Americans can recover our history and see it as it truly was, maybe we can marshal the conviction that once existed against the Vietnam War and the war that continues against the poor, people of color and the dispossessed here and around the world. Who knows, perhaps we might see the revival of a good old fashioned anti-imperialism movement.
1. The concept of “organic intellectual” was coined by Italian Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci. Gramsci conceived of the organic intellectual in contrast to the traditional intellectual whose role was to defend the capitalist state. The organic intellectual creates knowledge for the purpose of awakening the popular classes; often times he/she comes from the popular classes.