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So it came to pass that in November 1969 the VNTF was saddled with the task of bringing into line with "USAID budgets and the law," as one VNTF coordinator put it, a program that had been conceived by the CIA without any regard for legalities, and to do it without treading on the CIA's ability to conduct covert operations.

It was a ticklish job that required squaring the hard reality of political warfare in Vietnam with the fluctuating political situation in Washington.

The major effects were to bring the military into an adulterous relationship with the Special Branch and to set the State Department on a collision course with international law.

The Vietnam Task Force's assistant for concepts and strategies became the staff officer responsible for Phoenix.

A Marine lieutenant colonel standing over six feet tall and weighing over two hundred pounds, he was a tough Korean War veteran with a resume that included employment with the CIA and the State Department as well as with the military.

From 1964 to 1967 he prepared military officers for civil operations service in Vietnam, and from late 1967 to early 1969 he was a member of CORDS, serving as John Vann's deputy for plans and programs in III Corps.

Jack, as he has been dubbed, preferred to remain anonymous when we met at his home in 1987


Jack was at the center of the Phoenix drama as it was acted out in Saigon and Washington, and according to him, the VNTF was "Laird's baby; it was his locus." [17]

Jack often briefed the defense secretary and prepared "hundreds" of memos for his signature; he wrote papers for and briefed the ISA director Warren Nutter; he coordinated on a daily basis with members of the National Security Council, the Vietnam Working Group, the Special Studies Group, the Vietnamization Task Group (over which the VNTF "had cognizance"), and Tom Donohue at SAVA. On matters affecting the Joint Chiefs, Jack coordinated with its representative, Colonel Paul Kelly -- later commandant of the Marine Corps. Jack's contact at SACSA was Colonel Ray Singer, and he worked with members of Congress investigating various facets of the Vietnam War. All in all, Jack was the man in the middle. He is an experienced. military theorist, and his recollections and assessment of the Phoenix program are especially incisive and well worth noting.

Jack adhered to Robert Thompson's theory that in order to succeed, a counterinsurgency requires a coordinated military-police-intelligence attack against the insurgent's political leadership. But, Jack contended, although the theory is valid, Thompson's extrapolation from Malaya to Vietnam was doomed to fail, for whereas the ethnic Chinese leading the insurgency in Malaya were visibly different from the Malayan people, those in the VCI were indistinguishable from other Vietnamese and impossible to track by foreigner advisers. What's more, said Jack, "the Brits were shrewd enough to offer large rewards ... to informers. But no Vietnamese was going to turn in Uncle Ho for fifty bucks." [i] Jack cited this misuse of resources as a major flaw in America's counterinsurgency policy in Vietnam. "Komer was trying to solve problems through Aid-in-Kind," he explained. "Komer would evaluate people on how many piasters they gave away. He did what corporate managers do; he set goals ... which were higher than people could achieve. But these were managerial-type solutions, a repeat of World War Two, and this was a political war.

And the way to win hearts and minds was through security."

In order to establish security, Jack said, "You don't need to get each individual VCI; you just need to neutralize their organization. For example, the presence of a terrorist unit confers influence, so the idea is to prevent any accommodation. As John Vann explained, it's not enough to agree not to fight. That means you can still sell guns and medicine to enemy, like the Filipino group did in Tay Ninh. That is an active accommodation.

The people had to have a dual commitment. They had to reject the VC


support the GVN. Many would support GVN, but not betray VC, and that was the problem."

Even if the Vietnamese had not identified with the VCI, and even if American resources had been properly used,

Thompson's three-pronged attack on the VCI was doomed to fail, explained Jack, because the CIA did not report to CORDS on highly sensitive matters, like tracking high-level penetrations. Phoenix could have been effective only if the CIA had brought its CIO, PRU, and Special Branch assets to bear.

But when the CIA relinquished control of the program in 1969, it took those assets -- which were the only effective tools against the VCI -- with it. In order to protect its political intelligence operations, the CIA never shared its sources with the military officers or Public Safety advisers assigned to Phoenix -- unless, of course, those people had been suborned. [ii]

In this way the CIA kicked out from under Phoenix one of the three legs it stood upon. After June 1969 the agency conducted its own unilateral operations against the VCI, apart from Phoenix, through the PRU in rural areas and through the Special Branch in the cities.

MACV and the Office of Public Safety in Saigon complained to their headquarters in Washington, making reform of the Special Branch and the PRU the central Phoenix-related issues, but these were

areas over which the Defense and State departments had no influence.

After mid-1969 MACV tried desperately to obtain access to Special Branch intelligence in the DIOCCs. But, as Jack explained, Special Branch worked at the province level and above, primarily in urban areas, and avoided the rural areas where most DIOCCs were located. Nor did the Special Branch desire to share sources with its rival, the MSS, forcing the CIA into greater dependency on the PRU for its rural operations. Having been excluded by the CIA, military advisers to Phoenix relied totally on their ARVN counterparts, with a corresponding emphasis on tactical military rather than political operations.

There were rare instances when a CIA province officer would send the PRU down to a DIOCC to assist the Phoenix adviser.

Other times the PRU fed "washed-out" bodies into the PICs. On the other side of the coin, the Special Branch was usually chasing dissidents, not the VCI. A study by Robert Thompson on behalf of the National Security Council revealed the Special Branch to be undertrained, understaffed, suffering from bad morale, and racked by corruption. Jack put it this way: "Whereas the average cop on the street would take fifty piasters as a bribe, when the Special Branch got involved, the price went up." He added, "There was good reason to believe that the VC had penetrated the inner circle of the Special Branch.

This is why Colby requested that two FBI agents be sent to Saigon to set up a counterintelligence operation."

Knowing that the PRU and Special Branch were fractured beyond repair but that problems within them would remain hidden under layers of CIA security and that CIA officers would continue to mount their own operations apart from Phoenix, the State and Defense departments were compelled to seek other solutions.

The question became whether -- in the absence of intelligence officers -- soldiers or policemen were better suited to mount anti-infrastructure operations.

"What you needed," Jack suggested, "was to be flexible in order to conform to Hamlet Evaluation System ratings; you needed police forces in secure areas, and the military in areas controlled by the enemy. But generally, in guerrilla warfare it's more military than police, and so that's where the emphasis should fall." Nevertheless, Jack explained, this flexible approach, applied to Phoenix after 1969, was slow to develop and basically ineffective. "In the beginning of the Phoenix program," he said, "the Army and Marines had a surplus of armor and artillery officers, who were assigned to the program but had no knowledge of running intelligence operations. We were sending out the third team against the first team. Then, when they began staffing the DIOCCs and PIOCCs with military intelligence officers,

it became clear that their training was inadequate for the job. Six weeks is not enough time to train a Special Branch officer.

"So it became clear that what they needed was experienced police officers, and in 1970 the police through USAID began playing a larger role. But there were defects on this side, too.

They should have had seasoned civilians coming into AID, but instead they got all the losers in that one. The civilians coming to AID were running away from bad marriages and bad careers. Many were alcoholics; they'd get a Vietnamese girl and enjoy the cheap living.

These people had a good war." But they had little success against the infrastructure.

Jack said he believed that military policemen were the answer, and on his advice, on a trial basis, Colonel Albert Escola was appointed the Phoenix region coordinator in IV Corps. Now corporate secretary of Bechtel, Escola had received a degree in police administration from Michigan State in 1957 and was known as a protege of General Abrams's. For "improving procedures against the VCI;" Escola was awarded the Legion of Merit in 1970 and a few years later was promoted to major general -- rewards never bestowed upon Doug Dillard.

In any event, Phoenix as an organization proved far less than the sum of its parts. Moreover,

by 1969 concerns about its concept had moved from the boardroom into the courtroom, where Phoenix was coming under attack as an assassination program.

Suddenly its problems were legal and moral, not organizational and procedural.

Jack said, "Colby pushed Khiem to get Phoenix legitimized so it would have a constitutional basis in Vietnamese law, similar to the FBI or the CIA. Colby tried to make Phoenix legitimate internal security -- that to be a member of the Communist party is illegal. This is the nail upon which Phoenix is hung: If you're a Communist, you're breaking the law. Then Phoenix goes out and gets these guys."

Of course, Phoenix had been going out and getting those guys for fifteen years by the time 1970 rolled around. The effect of those fifteen years of illicit covert action, on both Vietnamese and Americans, is the next subject.



i. Jack suggested that a point system -- ten points for a COSVN cadre down to one point for a messenger boy -- with a monetary equivalent would have resulted in a truly qualitative attack.


According to Michael McCann, Saigon Public Safety director from July 1969 until April 1972, his biggest Phoenix problem was that the CIA used the Public Safety program as a cover for its case officers, bringing all Public Safety advisers under suspicions.

[18] Likewise, said Fred Dick, chief of the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs in Vietnam,

"Everyone had his rock to hide under, but CIA kept using our rocks, listing its officers as narcotics advisors to the embassy."


CHAPTER 21: Decay

After August 1969, writes Professor Huy, "Power in Saigon belonged to three generals: Nguyen Van Thieu as President; Tran Thien Khiem as Prime Minister; and Cao Van Vien as Chief of the Joint Staff. They kept their positions until the eve of South Vietnam's collapse." [1]

As was customary in Vietnam, according to Huy, power was administered by each man's wife.

"Mrs. Thieu dealt with the businessmen, especially those of Chinese origin, and had her shares in profits obtained from import, export and international trade." Mrs. Khiem "fixed a price for new appointments for the posts of chief of province, chief of district, and chief of police services at the provincial and district levels. Mrs. Vien's domain was the army: contractors working with the army could pass through her intermediary, and she had her tariff for a quick promotion in the army." [2]

With the consolidation of power by these three men came a resurgence of what CIA Summary 0387/69, dated September 12, 1969, called "influence by the widely hated Can Lao group of the Diem era." The CIA memo named as members of the

neo-Can Lao cabal

"Foreign Minister Lam, as well as the ministers of information, economy, finance and legislative liaison."

The memo noted that Duong Van "Big" Minh had predicted "that renewed Can Lao influence could lead to a tragic clash between Catholics and Buddhists."

And, the memo noted, "apprehension is likely to increase over reports that the new information minister [Thieu's cousin, Hoang Duc Nha] has appointed some 20 cadre from the Nhan Xa Party -- a neo-Can Lao group -- to key subordinate positions."

Indeed, political developments in 1969 mirrored those of 1955, when Ed Lansdale was told that Diem "needed to have his own political party." [3]

Likewise, to strengthen Thieu's position, the CIA in 1969 financed the creation of the National Social Democratic Front, described by former CIA officer Frank Snepp as "a pro-government coalition of political parties." And, just as in Diem's day, Snepp writes, "the CIA lavished large sums of money on the Thieu government to be used in cowing and 'neutralizing' its opposition," [4] the opposition being those nationalist parties, like the Dai Viets, that had relations with the Buddhists.

With the Americans chasing the VCI, these domestic groups became primary targets of the Special Branch and its stepchild, Phung Hoang.

In particular, Thieu felt threatened by Tran Ngoc Chau, the popular nationalist whose persecution was said to symbolize the "fratricidal" nature of the Vietnam War. But in fact, Chau's persecution had less to do with regional differences than with rampant corruption, itself fueled by the CIA's bottomless black bag and irrational obsession with internal security at any cost.

Chau's problems began in 1969, when he launched an anti-corruption campaign against Thieu, his old classmate from Fort Bragg. The gist of Chau's claim was that Nguyen Cao Thang -- a wealthy pharmacist and former Can Lao from Hue -- was using CIA funds to undermine the National Assembly. Chau's crusade was seen as a threat to GVN stability, and as a result, the CIA sent two case officers to offer him enough money to start his own political party in exchange for backing off. When Chau declined, Rod Landreth informed General Dang Van Quang that Chau was secretly in contact with his brother, Tran Ngoc Hien, a senior Cuc Nghien Cuu officer in North Vietnam. Quang issued an arrest warrant for Chau, charging him with the capital crime of espionage.

Hien was arrested, Chau went into hiding, and on orders from Washington, Ambassador Bunker ordered Chau's case officer, John Vann, to break off contact. At that point Vann, in June 1969, summoned Frank Scotton from Taiwan and arranged for him and Chau to meet in a safe house in Gia Dinh. The conversation, according to Scotton, went like this: "I said to Chau, 'Sergeant Johnson is standing by near the Cambodian border with some of his Special Forces friends. They're dependable, and they'll help you get out. But it's now or never.' [5]

"Chau was very emotional that night in Gia Dinh," Scotton continued. "He said, 'To run now would be the same as admitting I'm a Communist. And I'm not. So I will not run.'" And so Chau remained in hiding until captured in late 1969.


Ironically, while Thieu was using Phoenix to repress his domestic opponents, his own cabinet was crawling with Communist agents.

But in order to perpetuate the myth of GVN stability, the CIA was reluctant to publicize this fact. Consequently, says renegade CIA officer Sam Adams,

in May 1969 station chief Ted Shackley "indicated on a visit to Washington his belief that the Vietcong had only 200 agents in the South Vietnamese Government. He spoke from ignorance. An in-depth research study going on at that time suggested the real number of such agents was more like 30,000."


Although thirty thousand sounds improbably high, the extent to which the GVN was infiltrated was revealed in a counterintelligence operation mounted by CIA officer Ralph McGehee in 1969. Begun in 1962, Operation Projectile relied on a penetration agent inside what the 1969 Phoenix End of Year Report called "a COSVN level intelligence net directed against the office of the President of South Vietnam and other ministries of the GVN."

The leader of the spy ring was Vu Nhoc Nha, President Thieu's friend and chief adviser on Catholic affairs.

Nha, a Catholic, had resettled in South Vietnam during the 1954 Lansdale-inspired exodus from North Vietnam. The spy ring's highest-ranking member was Huynh Van Trong, Thieu's special assistant for political affairs and director of the Central Intelligence School, a position that placed him at the top of the CIO.

McGehee inherited Projectile in 1969, when, after six weeks as Gia Dinh province officer in charge, he became the CIA's liaison to the Special Branch in Region V. "In this capacity," he explained, "I supervised [six] other agency case officers working with specific elements of the Special Police in and around Saigon." [7]

The principal Vietnamese player in the drive against the Cuc Nghien Cuu's strategic intelligence networks was Special Branch chief Nguyen Mau. Born in Ninh Thuan Province (where Thieu was born and reared), Mau was graduated from the Da Lat Military Academy in 1954. In 1963 Diem appointed him sector commander and province chief of Thua Thien Province and mayor of Hue, in which capacity he put down the Buddhist crisis leading up to the coup. In the reorganization after the coup, Mau was made a Montagnard task force commander with the ARVN Twenty-second Division, a job he held until 1967, when he was put in charge of Cong Tac IV. The following year he was promoted to lieutenant colonel and made director of the Special Branch of the National Police.

Soft-spoken and smart, Mau wanted nothing to do with Phoenix. In a letter to the author, he says his "great concern in taking command of the Special Branch was the unjustified arrest, false accusation and arbitrary detention. Those bad manipulations couldn't be stopped since the province chiefs, police chiefs and other officials would do anything to make Phoenix score, which assured them job security and higher regard.

They knew that Phoenix was under the supervision of an American Ambassador, and that President Nguyen Van Thieu always listened to this powerful personage. They kept the Special Branch in the provinces too busy with arrest in village, confession worksheet and charge procedure at the Provincial Security Committee, while I wanted to direct the Special Branch into professional activities: organizational penetration gathering information relating to policies and campaign plans, spotting the key leaders for neutralization. But I did not argue with them. I felt so alone I kept my mouth shut."

Mouth shut, Mau concentrated on smashing the Cuc Nghien Cuu's strategic intelligence networks within the GVN. When McGehee gathered enough evidence to convince Shackley to let him roll up Nha's net, Mau galvanized his forces, and the Special Branch sprang into action. Mau's "small secret police cadre prepared individual files on each person to be arrested," McGehee writes. "Late one afternoon he called a task force in to his office, then cut them off from outside contact: He briefed each three-man arrest team separately then passed them copies of the file on their target individual. At midnight the police fanned out through Saigon and pulled in the net." [8]

The operation was a smashing success. House searches turned up "microfilm of secret documents, document copying cameras, one-time radiop encoding and decoding pads, radios, secret ink" [9] and other tools of the trade. The Special Branch also had the good fortune of arresting a visitor of one of the targets, who "turned out to be the head of a military intelligence net" [10] in the MSS. All in all, fifty people were arrested and forty-one spies were tried and convicted. The group included businessmen, military officers, teachers, students, and two top-ranking Chieu Hoi officials.

However, showing that the GVN was "so riddled by enemy spies that they were able to operate under the nose of the President," McGehee laments, was "not the kind of success that the CIA's top officials wanted to see." That reinforced his suspicion that the CIA was unwilling to admit either the strength of the enemy or the weakness of its ally.

To McGehee "it was obvious that we were bolstering a hopelessly corrupt government that had neither the support nor respect of the Vietnamese people." [11]

Meanwhile, other CIA officers were reaching the same conclusion.

When Frank Snepp arrived in Saigon in 1969, he was assigned the task of putting together background profiles on targets for assassination by "plowing through documents" and conducting interrogations at the National Interrogation Center. "I would put together a list and I would turn it over to Mr. Colby's people," Snepp says in

The Ten Thousand Day War

. "He would feed this list out to the strike teams, and they would go to work .... And that is how you become a collaborator in the worst of the terrorist programs, in the most atrocious excesses of the US government." [12]

Others became involved in other ways. Consider the case of Bart Osborn, a Phoenix critic who enlisted in the Army in October 1966, was trained at Fort Bragg and Fort Holabird, and was classified an intelligence area specialist.

"My training was designed to prepare me as an agent handler and consisted of classes designed to teach recruitment and training of agents and management of agent networks," Osborn testified before Congress in 1973. Be added that his training included a session concerning the termination of agents through various methods, including assassination. [13]

A corporal with no knowledge of Vietnamese language, history, or culture, Osborn arrived in Da Nang in September 1967 and was assigned to the 525th Military Intelligence Group. His area of operations was south of Da Nang, outside a Marine air base in Quang Nam Province. Having been

assigned to the unilateral branch of the military intelligence team, whose activities were "extra-legal," Osborn used an alias and, for plausible denial, was provided with false identification indicating he was a civilian employee with the CORDS refugee program.

Osborn slipped into his military uniform when it was necessary for him to see military maps or documents.

Osborn's team leader put him in touch with a principal agent who was running six subagents in a single cell. The subagents were political specialists, gathering positive intelligence on VC cadres. Eager to expand his network,

Osborn hired as additional agents people whose names he got from the employment files of a local American construction company.

He sent his intelligence reports to the 1st Marine Division, the 3d Marine Amphibious Force, the 525th MIG, the American Division, and, unknown to him, the Da Nang Phoenix coordinator.

Osborn's association with Phoenix was cemented when, to his surprise, he was told that the 525th's Intelligence Contingency Fund was empty and that he would henceforth be unable to pay his agents. At this point Osborn had two principal agents, forty subagents in five cells, and operating expenses averaging half a million piasters per month -- lack of which prompted him to check his list of users for new sources of revenue. Recalled Osborn: "I was able to ascertain that the Phoenix program was receiving and utilizing my information .... I visited the Phoenix Coordinator, a US Army major, and talked to him about the information that was laterally disseminated to him. He ... told me that any information I gathered would be used in the context of the Phoenix program. In return I was guaranteed financial remuneration for my agents, use of various 'safe houses' for clandestine meetings, and access to Air America transportation." [14]

Osborn also obtained drugs, draft deferments for his agents through phony enrollment in the Civilian Irregular Defense Group program, and fifteen thousand dollars quarterly for bribing the local police. The Phoenix coordinator also offered a bonus of a hundred thousand piasters for high-ranking VCI members. In this way, regular military personnel across South Vietnam became involved in Phoenix abuses.

When asked to explain why Phoenix abuses occurred, Snepp says the program was "jerry-built" because of "the CIA's concern that the VC had penetrated the Special Branch and Military Security Service. The more fragmentation, the better the security. They didn't want it central so it could be exploited." [15]

Unfortunately, writes Snepp, "For lack of finite guidance the Phoenix strike teams opted for a scattershot approach, picking up anyone who might be a suspect, and eventually, when the jails were packed to overflowing, they began simply taking the law, such as it was, into their own hands." [16]

Explanations for why Phoenix was open to abuse depend on a person's politics. Snepp, who harbors a grudge against the CIA, says his former employer "jerry-rigged" Phoenix for its own security. Others say Phoenix was handed to the military as a cover for CIA negotiations with the VCI in Tay Ninh and Saigon. From Phoenix director John Mason's perspective, accommodation was the root cause of all Phoenix woes. In an August 19, 1969, New York Times article, Terrence Smith quotes Mason as saying, "Favoritism is a part of it. Sometimes family relationships are involved. We know very well that if one of our units picks up the district chief's brother-in-law, he's going to be released."

For Nguyen Mau, Phoenix was subject to "bad manipulations" by officials seeking job security and high regard. Likewise, South Vietnamese nationalists pointed to corrupt officials as the evil inherent in Phoenix, as was made clear in June 1969, when legislators complained that the police used Phoenix to extort money from wealthy citizens and that VCI agents supplied names of loyal citizens to the police, getting around the Colby fail-safe cross-check system by reporting through several different agencies. In this way, innocent people found their names on the dreaded Phoenix blacklist.

Mismanagement by design, ineptitude, accommodation, corruption, and double agents were reasons why Phoenix abuses occurred. However, the actual reporting of abuses fell to Third Force Vietnamese and non-career American military personnel. It is to this aspect of the Phoenix story that we now turn.


One of the first people to criticize Phoenix publicly was Ed Murphy, a native of Staten Island, New York, who spent nine months in a Catholic seminary before enlisting in the U.S. Army. Following his tour in Vietnam, Murphy, from June 1969 through January 1970, was stationed in Washington, D.C., doing background investigations and security checks for the 116th Military Intelligence Group. At the time he was one of a growing number of Vietnam veterans, almost exclusively enlisted men, who were publicly demonstrating against the war. In October 1969 Ed Murphy was also one of the few Americans acquainted with Phoenix.

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