The Phoenix Program and the Vietnam War

June 10, 2014–Back in print today is a book that, if you’re interested in the Phoenix Program, is a must read. During the Vietnam war Phoenix was a U.S. effort to aim directly at the leadership of the Vietnamese insurgency, what American officials called the “Viet Cong Infrastructure.” There have been few books that zeroed in directly on this subject, and of them, Douglas Valentine’s The Phoenix Program is the only book based on extensive interviews with Phoenix operatives. Indeed, the CIA, which furnished much of the staff for the program, tried to suppress this book when it was written in the 1980s.

You should read that story in my own work The Family Jewels. It is among the actions which show how the CIA, for its parochial purposes of the moment, has so thoroughly manipulated the standard rules for secrecy that it is not to be trusted as an honest broker in a legitimate process. In the case of the Valentine book the CIA used its Publications Review Board, which–as the name indicates–is an entity supposed to approve the writings of CIA employees, in an effort to prevent Valentine from obtaining information for his book.

This maneuver fails the smell test on at least two counts. First, Valentine was not an agency employee and its Review Board had no jurisdiction over him whatever. Second, the Board exists to approve written works and has no authority over speech. CIA officials exhorted colleagues to come to them if approached by Valentine, and congratulated those who did so. To give their intervention a patina of legality they encouraged employees to write down Valentine’s questions and the employees’ proposed answers–which could then be considered written materials that the Board could reject.

Just to add insult to injury, the CIA had initially assisted Valentine, with its personnel retiree section forwarding letters from him to former agency officers as he sought interviews. It was when one of the interviewees, unsure of which particular Phoenix-related issues were classified, asked the agency’s general counsel’s office, that the latter involved the Publications Review Board. From that moment forward CIA’s whole approach changed. In his initial note on the subject, by the way, the lawyer dealing with it acknowledged the CIA had no standing in the matter.

Doug Valentine eventually discovered that the CIA was actively dissuading its former employees from talking to him. At that point Valentine used the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to request the agency release the documentation that covered how it had handled his case. The CIA denied the FOIA request.

Let me just emphasize that for a moment– there was a category of information about the Phoenix program that was secret and could be denied under FOIA. But Doug Valentine’s approaches to retirees for interviews were, by definition, not secret. Derivatively, talks inside CIA about how to deal with Valentine’s interviews were also not secret. But CIA rejected the FOIA on national security grounds. You can see why I talk about the agency’s parochial interest.

I first became acquainted with Valentine’s Phoenix program book when a publisher asked me to take a look at the draft manuscript. I saw immediately that it was a major advance in our knowledge. As it happened, in my own research I had taken a long look at French pacification methods during the French war. I knew things about that which I saw Valentine here relate. He was the only writer who had taken the trouble to include that.

Valentine’s text on the French did not survive into the published work, but it does serve as an example of the thoroughness of this book, which I commend to you. –And despite CIA’s obstacles, Douglas Valentine’s interviews yielded a plethora of material which permitted him to tell the Phoenix story in great detail. The National Security Archive was happy to accept the donation of his papers, which are available there to scholars. In the meantime you can read his e-book.