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Brickham also directed his province officers "to run the PICs from a distance. It's a Special Branch operation; Americans are not to be identified with the program. These guys were not to go near the PICs on a day-to-day basis. They were not to participate in interrogations there or anything like that."

Brickham's directive was ignored. Warren Milberg, for example, spent "15 percent" of his time in the Quang Tri PIC, supervising interrogations and advising on questions and topics to pursue.

His experience is typical; an earnest Phoenix officer had to be at the interrogation center to obtain intelligence quickly. Indeed, in the final analysis, interrogation practices were judged on the quality of the reports they produced, not on their humanity. "Phoenix advisers who took an interest in PIC operations," Milberg writes, "normally attempted to improve the quality of interrogation techniques by carefully going over reports and pointing out leads that were missed and other items which should have been explored in greater detail." [15]

As for torture, "While the brutalization of prisoners did occur, interested Phoenix personnel could curtail support for the PIC unless such unauthorized activities ceased." However, Milberg adds, "Since most advisers were neither intelligence nor interrogation experts, the tendency existed to provide passive support and not to try and improve PIC operations." [16]

According to Robert Slater, director of the Province Interrogation Center program from July 1967 until April 1969, "The first thing the Vietnamese wanted to do was tie the guy up to a Double E-eight."

As advisers, however, there was little he and his training team could do to prevent this

use of an electric generator, other than to try to raise the professional standards of PIC personnel. Slater and his team (augmented and eventually replaced by a Vietnamese team) taught Special Branch employees how to track VCI suspects on maps, how to keep files and statistics on suspects, and how to take and process photos properly. They did not teach agent handling; that was done in Saigon by CIA experts imported from Washington.

"The whole concept of the PIC," according to Slater, "was to get them in and turn them around. Make them our agents. It didn't work for us, though, because we didn't reward them well enough." [17]

The major "procedural" problem in the Phoenix interrogation program concerned the disposition of high-ranking VCI suspects. According to Parker, "High-level prisoners and Hoi Chanhs were invariably taken to higher headquarters and never heard from again." Milberg agrees:

"People [at region or in Saigon] grabbed our best detainees on a regular basis, so you tended not to report that you had one. You'd keep him for two or three days," to get whatever intelligence he had on other VCI agents in the province,


report that you had him in custody."

Milberg writes that when "prisoners of high position in the VCI were removed from local PICs for exploitation at other levels, morale of PIC personnel decreased. Often the result was that the PICs became auxiliary jails and were used to house common criminals." [18]

For Robert Slater, the transfer of important VCI prisoners to higher headquarters was merely standard operating procedure. "We trained Special Branch people how to properly keep statistics and files, how to use a board in the office to track cases, but most important, to send hot prospects from province to region to the National Police Interrogation Center [NPIC]." In other words, Phoenix interrogation procedures at the province (tactical) level were superseded by interrogation procedures at the national level -- the political-level Phoenix seeking strategic intelligence.

Having been the CIA's senior adviser at the National Police Interrogation Center, Slater had valuable insights into the interrogation system at its summit. His story began at Camp Pendleton in early 1967, when he was asked to join a presidentially directed counterinsurgency program that trained and sent fifty Vietnam veterans from the various military services back to Vietnam to serve as province officers and Phoenix coordinators. "But I was a separate entity," he noted in a conversation with the author, "... although we went over at the same time." A Vietnamese linguist with three years of interrogation experience in-country, Slater was assigned to the NPIC "on the basis of a decision made in Saigon. Dave West said he won me in the lottery, when the station people sat around and reviewed the resumes of the people coming over."

Slater's cover desk was in USAID II, where he sat beside his boss, a tall, muscular, blond CIA officer named Ron Radda, who served as an adviser to Dang Van Minh. Slater attended briefings given by Minh every morning at the NPIC on Vo Thanh Street, where he had his covert office. "When a prisoner came in from, say, Da Nang," Slater explained, "the reports would come over to my section. I'd put them on an eight-foot-long blackboard and report anything hot to Ron." At that point Radda and Minh's interrogators went to work.

Headquarters for both the Special Branch and the National Police, the NPIC was "a monstrous French compound with a separate, restricted wing for the Special Branch. We cleaned it up," Stater said. "Actually whitewashed it."

After Tet, the CIA also built the Special Branch social club, the Co Lac Bo, on the gravesite of the VC killed during Tet.

The NPIC held between three and four hundred prisoners, most of whom, Slater says, "were packed forty or fifty in little black holes of Calcutta."

The fact is that prison conditions and interrogation practices in Vietnam were brutal -- especially those taken out of sight. Case in point: "At a quarter after twelve on June 16, 1967, I was driving home from work to have lunch with my wife," writes Tran Van Truong in A Vietcong Memoir. Suddenly a car cut him off. Two men jumped out, pushed their way into his car, and told him that General Loan had "invited him to come in for a talk." Instead of going to the NPIC, however, Truong's captors took him to the old Binh Xuyen headquarters in Cholon. As he was led into the reception room, he found himself "face to face with a burly, uniformed man whose slit eyes and brutal expression were fixed on me in concentrated hatred ... a professional torturer who had personally done in many people." The interrogator said to Truong, "I have the right to beat you to death. You and all the other Vietcong they bring in here. There aren't any laws here to protect you. In this place you are mine." [19]

Truong describes this secret interrogation center. "Sprawled out on the floor the whole length of the corridor were people chained together by the ankles. Many of their faces were bloody and swollen; here and there, limbs jutted out at unnatural angles. Some writhed in agony, others just lay and stared dully. From the tangle of bodies came groans and the sound of weeping, and the air was filled with a low, continuous wail. My heart began to race. On one side of the hallway were the doors that apparently led to the interrogation rooms. From behind these came curses and spasmodic screams of pain." [20]

Later Truong was invited inside one of these rooms; it "looked like a medieval torture chamber," he writes. "Iron hooks and ropes hung from the ceiling, as did chains with ankle and wrist rings. These latter devices were well known among the activists and Front prisoners, who called them the Airplane. In one corner was a dynamo. Several tables and benches stood in the middle of the floor or were pushed up against the walls." What happened next, you can imagine.

The last tab of "Action Program," Tab 12, directed Evan Parker and his staff to establish "requisite" reporting systems, "for purposes of program management and evaluation, and for support to field collection and collation activities and operations against infrastructure." [21] At first, each agency used its existing system. Province officers gathered information on the VCI from the collation sections of PICs. They then sent this information to region officers, who used liaison branch reporting formats to relay the information to RDC headquarters in Saigon. There it was analyzed and plugged into a data base "against which future developments and progress may be measured." MACV sector personnel sent their reports on the VCI through military channels to the MACV Joint Operations Office in Saigon, which then coordinated with ICEX.

As MACV and CIA Phoenix personnel were gradually incorporated within CORDS province advisory teams and assigned to PIOCCs and DIOCCs, monthly narrative reports were sent directly to the Phoenix staff in Saigon; meanwhile, the Vietnamese used their own parallel, uncoordinated reporting systems.

Standardized reporting was fully authorized on November 25, 1967, and focused on three things: (1) the number of significant VCI agents eliminated; (2) the names of those eliminated; and (3) significant acquisition, utilization, and other remarks. Until mid-1968 reports about the DIOCCs would occupy as much time as reports generated by the 103 DIOCCs in business at the time. Ultimately information gathered on individual VCI suspects in the DIOCCs became the grist of the Phoenix paper mill.


In early 1967 Frank Scotton left his post in Taiwan and returned to Saigon to help set up CORDS. Upon arriving in-country, Scotton found Colonel Nguyen Be, who was investigating corruption within RD units, "in Qui Nhon being set up for assassination. While the hit team [dispatched by General Lu Lam, the II Corps commander] was hunting him down," Scotton told me, "I flew him to safety in Pleiku." [1] In the meantime, Ed Lansdale arranged with the RD minister, General Nguyen Duc Thang, for Be to assume control of Vung Tau from Tran Ngoc Chau. Chau went on to campaign for a seat in the National Assembly, itself recently instituted under South Vietnam's new constitution.

Soon after this changing of the guard, Tom Donohue (then George Carver's deputy at SAVA), paid a visit to Vung Tau. Robert Eschbach had replaced Ace Ellis as director of the National Training Center; Jean Sauvageot had taken over the Revolutionary Development Cadre training program; and Tucker Gougleman managed the PRU. On the Vietnamese side, Donohue told me, "Be was in charge. But he wasn't in the same league as Mai," who "was in the Saigon office cutting paper dolls." [2]

Under the tutelage of Nguyen Be, according to Jim Ward, "the RD teams no longer had a security mission." [3]

In order to foster a democratic society, Be had transformed RD from the "intelligence and displacement" program Frank Scotton had started three years earlier in Quang Ngai Province into one that emphasized "nation building." But with little success. Of South Vietnam's fifteen thousand-odd villages, only a few hundred were secure enough to hold elections in 1967. And where elections were held, they were typically a sham. The RD teams had nominated all the "elected" village chiefs after the chiefs had been recruited by the CIA and trained at Vung Tau.

Nevertheless, the village chiefs really didn't know what they were supposed to do or represent, and, as a matter of practicality, their top priority often was accommodating the local VC. And so with the Revolutionary Development teams on the defensive, the attack against the VCI fell to Phoenix or was contracted out.

For example, in order to ferret out the VCI in critical Tay Ninh Province, President Johnson hired, at the cost of thirty-nine million dollars, the services of a Filipino Civic Action team. [4]

Meanwhile, in Saigon fantastic amounts of money were being spent (seventy-five million dollars in 1967) in support of RD. But corruption was rife, and much of the money was diverted into people's pockets.

For example, while inspecting Quang Ngai Province in mid-1967, RDC/O chief Renz Hoeksema found eight hundred "ghost" employees out of a total of thirteen hundred cadres on the province RD Cadre payroll. Hoeksema set up a fingerprinting system to prevent further abuses, which, considering that each cadre was paid the equivalent of ten dollars a month, continued unabated.

Despite the problems of corruption and accommodation, the RD program continued to have "intelligence potential," mainly through its static and mobile Census Grievance elements. According to Robert Peartt, who in late 1967 replaced Renz Hoeksema, the RD program's primary mission was still to "put eyes and ears in districts where there were none before." [5] To this end, Peartt managed 284 paramilitary officers in the provinces, each of whom fed information on the VCI into DIOCCs and PIOCCs, while passing information gotten from unilateral sources to the CIA station in Saigon through secure agency channels. On the Vietnamese side, information on the VCI was fed to the province chiefs, who, according to Jim Ward, "may or may not turn this over to Phoenix."

In any event, the political war was not going well in late 1967, and with the shift in emphasis to "nation building," Phoenix emerged from the RD matrix as the CIA's main weapon against the VCI. Its two major action arms, as stated in MACV Directive 381 and Action Program Tab 9, were the PRU and Field Police. Of the two, the PRU were "by far the most effective and suffered the lowest casualties," according to the 1966 Combined Campaign Plan, which also noted that "the type of target attacked by the PRU was strategically most significant." [6]

This chapter focuses on the PRU, which more than any other program is associated with Phoenix. But first a quick review of the Field Police, which at the behest of Robert Komer was to be "redirected" against the infrastructure, ''as its main function."

Naturally Colonel William "Pappy" Grieves did not respond favorably to this "redirection" of the Field Police, calling it "a misreading of its mission" and calling Phoenix "a phase that set us back."

[7] As an example of the proper use of Field Police, Grieves, in a briefing for General Abrams, cited Operation Dragnet in Binh Dinh Province, "in which three companies of Field Police at a time, for two four-month cycles, worked with the 1st Cavalry Division in Cordon and Search operations." As another example of the proper use of Field Police, Grieves cited CT IV and Operation Fairfax, in which Field Police "search" teams operated under the protection of security squads provided by the 199th Light Infantry Brigade. Working in six-man teams, the Field Police searched hooches for hidden documents and weapons and set up screening centers for suspects, where they checked names against blacklists and faces against photos obtained from the Family Census program. Field policemen also checked ID, voter registration, and draft cards. Such were the functions Grieves believed were appropriate for a law enforcement organization dedicated to providing police services to the public. He complained to Abrams:

Then Phoenix was upon us. At the direction and insistence of Ambassador Komer, the Field Police SOP was drastically reoriented and reworded, with new emphasis on the anti-subversive mission, which was the only mission which was spelled out, and which was emphasized as the first priority mission.

This mission statement resulted in the tremendous under-utilization of the Field Police. Proper Field Police missions, other than anti-subversive, were ignored.

Police commanders, local officials, and US advisors considered the job done when a Field Police platoon was given carte blanche to a DIOCC, completely ignoring the fact that Phoenix agencies were not producing enough real targets to keep any of the multiplicity of reaction forces available to them fully occupied on this single mission.

Perfectly appropriate and suitable missions assigned to Field Police units, not fully in use by Phoenix were constantly reported by US advisers and observers, including Komer, as misuse of Field Police.

In other words, in the rush to destroy the VCI, a successful police program was derailed.

Likewise, with the redirection of the Field Police against the VCI, much to Grieves's dismay,

Public Safety advisers like Doug McCollum found themselves working more closely than ever with the Special Branch and its CIA advisers.

In accordance with procedures instituted by Robert Komer, McCollum began receiving Aid-in-Kind funds through the province senior adviser. "I was given twenty thousand dollars a month," he recalled, "which I had to spend, to develop agent networks in Darlac Province." [8]

McCollum developed three nets, comprised 90 percent of Montagnards, and presented the intelligence these nets produced at weekly meetings among himself, the CIA's province officer, and the MACV sector intelligence officer. These meetings compared notes on enemy troop movements, VCI suspects, double agents, and double dippers -- agents who were working for more than one U.S. agency. The CIA's province officer, according to McCollum, got his intelligence from the PRU and the Truong Son Montagnard RD program. When VCI members were identified, individual or joint operations were mounted. When called upon to contribute, McCollum dispatched his Field Police company under former Special Forces Sergeant Babe Ruth Anderson. The PRU adviser, Roger, was a mercenary hired by and reporting only to the province officer.

"It was two halves of the apple," McCollum recalled. "Collection and operations. We would get blacklists from the province officer with names of people in villages or hamlets. The Field Police went out with ARVN units or elements of the U.S. Fourth Division, usually on cordon and search operations. We'd select a target. The day before we were going to hit it, we'd get picked up in the morning by

white Air America choppers.

I'd take twenty-five or thirty Field Police, and we'd land about ten miles away and set up a base camp with elements of the Fourth Division.

"We'd get up at three A.M., surround the village, and at daybreak send in a squad to check for booby traps. Then we'd go in, search the place, segregate women and children from men, check people against the blacklist, and take them into custody. We'd get money, boots, and medicine and sometimes NVA. If the VCI were classified A or B, hard core, they were sent to the PIC. At that point it was out of my hands. We'd take the other prisoners back to Ban Me Thuot in police custody; we did not give them to the military. Coming back to camp, the U.S. Fourth Division would use the Field Police as point men."

As McCollum described them, the Field Police were used (as Grieves intended) as roving patrols outside Ban Me Thuot more often than they were used against the VCI. However, because they did on occasion go after the VCI, by 1967 the Field Police were being compared with the PRU. In an October 1967 article in Ramparts,

David Welch quotes the Khanh Hoa Province psychological warfare officer as saying that the Field Police "work just like the PRU boys. Their main job is to zap the in-betweeners -- you know, the people who aren't all the way with the government and aren't all the way with the Viet Cong either. They figure if you zap enough in-betweeners, people will begin to get the idea." [9]

"Just like the PRU boys"? Unlikely. On February 18,1967, Chalmers Roberts, reporting for the Washington Post on the subject of counterterror, wrote that "one form of psychological pressure on the guerrillas which the Americans do not advertise is the PRU.

The PRU work on the theory of giving back what the Viet Cong deals out -- assassination and butchery. Accordingly, a Viet Cong unit on occasion will find the disemboweled remains of its fellows along a well trod canal bank path, an effective message to guerrillas and to non-committed Vietnamese that two can play the same bloody game."

Komer may have wished that the Field Police would operate like the PRU, and in some cases it did, but the PRU had counterterror and intelligence collection missions which the Field Police never had, even under Phoenix. Moreover, the PRU were not a law enforcement organization; in fact, as CIA assets they operated outside the law and had no legal powers of arrest. The PRU were the personification of the Special Forces' behind-the-lines mentality, which in a counterinsurgency meant getting the VCI in its own villages.

Jim Ward put it this way: "To get a guy in enemy territory, you've got to get an armed intelligence collection unit where the guy's got the balls to go into an area to perform the mission. You're not going to get police officers who are walking a beat in town or the Special Branch guy who deals with agents. Generally, the PRU is the outfit that's best equipped."

The problem with the PRU, writes Warren Milberg, was that

"the idea of going out after one particular individual was generally not very appealing, since even if the individual was captured, the headlines would not be very great in terms of body counts, weapons captured, or some other measure of success." As Milberg observes, "careers were at stake ... and impressive results were expected." [10]


In view of these conflicting pressures -- the official call for small-unit operations against the VCI and the dirth of "impressive results" the job afforded -- by 1967 a new breed of officer was being introduced to the Vietnam War. While conventional warriors continued to search for big battles, highly trained and motivated unconventional warfare officers, with an abiding appreciation for public relations, were called upon to manage the counterinsurgency.

One of the new breed was Navy Lieutenant John Wilbur, a tall, husky, sensitive Yale graduate. In April 1967 Wilbur journeyed to Vietnam as deputy commander of SEAL Team 2, a twelve-man detachment, with no combat veterans in its ranks, which was assigned to a naval riverine warfare group and quartered in a Quonset hut at the My Tho River dock facility in the middle of the Mekong Delta.

"Frankly," Wilbur (now an attorney in Palm Beach) told me, "the Navy didn't know what to do with us. They didn't know how to target us or how to operationally control us. So basically they said, 'You guys are to go out and interdict supply lines and conduct harassing ambushes and create destruction upon the enemy however you can.' Mostly, we were to be reactive to, and protective of, the Navy's PBRs [river patrol boats]. That was probably our most understandable and direct mission. The PBR squadron leaders would bring us intelligence from the PBR patrols. They would report where they saw enemy troops or if there was an ambush of a PBR. Then we'd go out and get the guys who did it." [11]

Knowing what to do and doing it, however, were two vastly different things. Despite their being highly trained and disciplined, Wilbur confessed,

"That first month we started out with the typical disastrous screw-up operations. In our first operation ... we went out at low tide and ended up getting stuck in mud flats in broad daylight for six hours before we could be extracted .... We didn't have any Vietnamese with us, and we didn't understand very basic things ....We didn't know whether it was a VC cadre or a guy trying to pick up a piece of ass late at night. The only things we had were curfews and free fire zones. And what a curfew was, and what a free fire zone was, became sort of an administrative-political decision. For all we knew, everybody there was terrible.

"We got lost. We got hurt. People were shooting back at us, and other times we never got to a place where we could find people to shoot at .... There was a lot of frustration," Wilbur said, "of having no assurance that the information you got was at all reliable and timely."

As an example, Wilbur cited the time "we raided an island across from where the U.S. Ninth Infantry Division was based. We surrounded the settlement that morning and came in with our guns blazing ....

I remember crawling into a hut -- which in Vietnam was a sort of shed encompassing a mud pillbox where people would hide from attacks -- looking for a VC field hospital. There I was with a hand grenade with the pin pulled, my hand on my automatic, guys running around, adrenaline going crazy, people screaming -- and I didn't know who the hell was shooting at who. I can remember that I just wanted to throw the goddamned grenade in the hut, and screw whoever was in it. And all of a sudden discovering there was nothing but women and children in there. It was a very poignant experience.

"This was during that first two-month period," Wilbur said, shaking his head. "Then one day a SEAL Team One enlisted man who was assigned to the CIA came down to My Tho. His name was Dave, and he was one of two advisers to the PRU, whom we vaguely knew to be independent. Dave presented us with a whole new perspective. He was dressed in blue jeans and a khaki shirt, he had his own jeep, and he went where he wanted and did what he wanted to do. He had a sense of place. He gave me a fairly broad brief, which attracted the hell out of me. Then he said, 'I've got some people, and I'd like to run some operations with you.'"

In exchange, the SEAL team provided the PRU with increased firepower. Explained Wilbur: "We had all the toys: M-seventy-nines, CAR fifteens, Swedish Ks, grease guns, and grenades. Not only that, we had tremendous support capabilities through the Navy chopper squadron [the Sea Wolves] and the PBRs. And we got immediate reaction through the Navy chain of command. So it was advisable for the PRU to work with us. The Vietnamese wanted helicopter rides and that reaction requirement. In exchange, they had the skills, the intelligence, and the experience to know where the bad guys were -- who to shoot at and who not to shoot at. It had the potential for a very beneficial relationship."

One of the attributes of the PRU was that they were required to be from the province in which they operated. "So they had relatives and friends in the area," Wilbur explained, and "they had their own intelligence network set up. They'd go back to their hometown for a couple of days, sit around and drink tea and say, 'What's happening?' And a friend would say, 'Tran's a buddy of mine; I'll tell him about the VC district chief meeting.'" Tran would then tell the PRU adviser and, Wilbur said, "Dave, would come down and say, 'My guy says there's a VC district chief meeting. We need some helicopter gunship support. We want to be able to air-evac. You give us the Sea Wolves, we'll give you the operation, and together we'll score a victory.'"

At first Dave assigned one of the PRU to Wilbur as a scout, so the the SEALs could adjust to working with a Vietnamese. The teenage scout "could more or less indicate where the VC were set up, when they might come by, and where we might ambush them," Wilbur told me. "He was the kind of person to say, 'We aren't going to go on a PBR into this town. We'll take a little water taxi, and we'll hide on the river till night, then go in at three A.M. and ... go there.'"

"He helped us chart a course for the war," Wilbur added respectfully. "He gave me a sense of confidence and made us feel that we weren't spinning our self-destructive wheels.

I was very aware of how minimally trained most Americans were. I remember being in the Sea Wolf helicopters, and people shooting at peasants on water buffaloes, or at fishermen in dugouts because they happened to be in free fire zones, or rocketing huts and burning things down.

But with the PRU, I had the ability to control things better than the William Calleys did. I was a professional officer in an elite organization that had a lot of pride, and we were not going to mess up.

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