CIA Initiates Controversial Phoenix Program

The Phoenix Program (Vietnamese: Chiến dịch Phượng Hoàng, a word related to fenghuang, the Chinese phoenix) was a military, intelligence, and internal security program designed by the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and coordinated and executed by Republic of Vietnam's (South Vietnam) security apparatus and US Special Operations Forces such as the Navy SEALs, United States Army Special Forces and MACV-SOG (now Special Operations Group in the CIA's Special Activities Division) during the Vietnam War. The Program was in operation between 1967 and 1972, and similar efforts existed both before and after that period. The Program was designed to identify and "neutralize" (via infiltration, capture, terrorism, or assassination) the civilian infrastructure supporting the National Liberation Front of South Vietnam (NLF or Viet Cong) insurgency.

In South Vietnam during the 1960s and early 1970s there was a secret network, which the U.S. intelligence services called the Viet Cong infrastructure (VCI). This network provided the political direction and control of the Front's (and North Vietnam's) war within the villages and hamlets of the south.

By 1967 this network numbered somewhere between 70,000 and 100,000 members throughout South Vietnam. Almost every village had a cell made up of a Communist Party secretary; a finance and supply unit; and information and culture, social welfare, and proselytizing sections to gain recruits from among the civilian population. The members reported up the chain of command, which, in turn, took orders from the Lao Dong Party Central Committee in North Vietnam. A preferred NLF tactic was to kill carefully selected government officials in order to drive the Saigon regime out of the region.

The VCI laid down caches of food and equipment for regular force troops coming from border sanctuaries; it provided guides and intelligence for the People's Army of Vietnam (the North Vietnamese army); it conscripted personnel to serve in local force (militias) and main force mobile combat units of the NLF, and levied taxes to facilitate the administration of a rudimentary civil government.

In areas loyal to the Saigon government, protection against the North Vietnamese forces, or even NLF guerrillas, was often compromised because village chiefs were assassinated, terrorist bombings took place, or supporters of the government would be executed. During 1969, for example, over 6,000 South Vietnamese citizens were killed (over 1,200 in selective assassinations) and 15,000 wounded. Among the dead were some 90 village chiefs, 240 hamlet chiefs and officials.

In part because defection rates were so high in the US-created South Vietnamese army, many of those recruited were criminals or thugs who used the program to advance their own agendas. Elton Manzione, a Phoenix operative noted that the PRU’s were “a combination of ARVN deserters, VC turncoats and bad motherfuckers; criminals the South Vietnamese couldn’t deal with who were turned over to us. Some actually had an incentive plan: If they killed X number of commies, they got x number of years off their prison term.”