Although Phoenix (Phung Hoang) Program was a crucial element of the post Tet 1968 pacification plan, it has subsequently been considered among the most controversial CIA’s activities during the Vietnam War.
Phoenix Program had the prime objective of gathering information on the VCI, which were then used to target and neutralize VCI members. Phoenix operations involved local militia and police instead of military as the main operational arm.
As Phoenix operations targeted civilians rather than militants, there were special laws called “An Tri” that allowed the capture and prosecution of any suspected Viet Cong members and their sympathizers. In order to avoid personal abuses and protect innocent civilians, the laws required three distinct evidences against an individual so as to target him or her to neutralization. If a suspected VCI was found guilty, they could be kept behind bars for at least two years and a maximum of six years.
Phoenix operations usually aimed to kill VC suspects in one way or the other. Oftentimes when PRUs were sent to a specific target located in disputed areas, they mostly gave priority to the “shoot first” policy.
Although the program never allowed premeditated murder of civilians in non-combat situations, many were killed. As the program supported capturing as many VC members and suspects as possible so that they could question them, more and more people were added to the “blacklist”. The normal procedure of capturing people on the “blacklist” would involve going into a village, grabbing a bystander and demanding the location of a “target” person. As most people were so afraid that they could not speak, the PRUs would put a sandbag over the “informant’s” head, adding holes for him or her to be able to see. They would then put a “commo” wire over the person’s neck to use as a leash and drag him or her through the village, asking the person to shake his head when the unit passed the target’s house. After this, once night fell, the PRUs would return and knock on the door. Whoever answered the door would be blasted with gunfire. It didn’t matter to the group who it was because in their definition, every person in that house was a communist.
The whole procedure led to the deaths of many innocent civilians who were arbitrarily considered Viet Cong members and sympathizers. MACV Directives 381-41 also suggest that the Phoenix Program indented to target the Viet Cong leaders and activists by using a rifle instead of a shotgun.
The forms of torture used to extract information during interrogation at PICs included rape, gang rape, rape using snakes, eels and other hard objects, rape followed by murder. Other torture techniques included “the airplane”, “the water treatment”. Sometimes the suspects were suspended upside down and then beaten harshly by rubber hoses, nightsticks and whips.
Some reports revealed that the interrogation process also featured the use of electric shocks (“the Bell Telephone Hour”) which was rendered by attaching military field telephone wires to the genitals and other sensitive organs of the body. In some cases, the suspects were subjected to police dog attacks as well as having dowels forced into their ear canals and the tapping through brain until the victim died.
Most of the individuals who went through these tortures die during the interrogation. There are a few who managed to survive, but often were killed later anyway. These tortures were carried out by South Vietnamese officers while CIA and other special forces supervised the whole act behind the scenes.
With the passage of time, the possibility of being considered an informant for the Viet Cong became very frightening for the general population. No one wanted to be imprisoned where they may face torture and death.
Within four years from 1968 to 1972, the Phoenix program neutralized 81,740 suspects, of whom 26,369 were killed. As a result, the program managed to destroy the VCI in many important areas quite successfully. CIA also claimed that Phoenix enabled them to know about the structure and identity of VCI in every province of South Vietnam.
By 1970, acknowledging the effectiveness of the Phoenix program, several North Vietnamese officials continuously emphasized on attacking South Vietnamese government’s pacification programs and assassinating District, village and Phoenix’s officials given an imposed quota as well. William Colby, the head of CORDS from 1968-1972, claimed that Vietnamese Communists’s toughest period of their entire struggle was from 1968 to 1972 when the Phoenix program was at work.
Despite its major contributions and impact on the VCI, Phoenix Program whose operations were described as “assassination campaigns” remains highly controversial.
The major criticism of the program was the use of torture and assassination which were considered undermining the U.S. tactics during the conflict. However, William Colby argued that most of those who died were actually killed in combat, not tortured or executed. Moreover, two-thirds of neutralized VC were captured not killed. In fact, imprisonment and defection were the preferred methods of neutralization as that would enable them to get valuable information about the VCI, he claimed.
Colby likewise denied torture was part of the interrogation at Province Interrogation Centers. It is suggested that torture was only used in order to deal with the die hard and stubborn prisoners to get more accurate information from them. The military command in Vietnam issued the directive in 1971 suggesting that the campaign against VCI remained within the South Vietnamese law. The program respected the laws regarding the warfare in the country. U.S officials were held responsible for reporting the breach of law at any stage.
Other criticism of Phoenix was that low- and middle-level VCI members or villagers were usually captured or killed in order to meet neutralization quotas while most senior and high level officials eluded capture. This, however, was improved by March 1969 when only high-ranking VC and party-level cadre were to be targeted by Phoenix Program. Although only 3% of neutralization in 1970-71 were high level VC, it did prove the effectiveness of Phoenix where ranking VC were forced to leave the general population for their safety.
Furthermore, abuses were common during the Phoenix Program. In many cases, rival South Vietnamese reported their enemies as “VC” in order to get the PRUs to kill them. What is more, many Phung Hoang chiefs used the authority to meet their own ends and enrich themselves. Likewise, corrupt District officials took bribes from VC members to release many suspects. To address this problem, each province was given a monthly quota of VC to neutralize, depending on the size of VCI of that particular province during the first 2 years of Phoenix. However, this led to another problem of false reports and arrests. Many innocent civilians became victims in the process of fulfilling the often unrealistic quota of neutralization imposed by the CIA.