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As a result of Phoenix placing interrogation centers in the districts, the GVN soon gained the reputation as a prison regime. The catchphrase of its jailers was khong, dank cko co (if they're innocent, beat them until they're guilty), bringing to mind the Salem witch trials.

But whereas in Salem the motive for torture was an ingrown libido, the motive for torture in Vietnam was an ingrown ideology. Tran Van Truong, mentioned in Chapter 10, explains:

"It was part of the regime's ideology that anyone who opposed them must be a Communist. They could not accept the fact that there might be people who hated them for the travesty they had made of the country's life, for their intolerance and corruption and cold indifference to the lot of their countrymen."

[20]

Truong writes from experience. By bribing "a high National Police official for the information," Truong's wife discovered that her husband was being held in a secret prison. Fearing her husband would be killed there, "and nobody would ever know," she persuaded Truong to sign a full confession. "About ten days later," Truong writes "I was bundled into a car and driven to National Police headquarters. My wife had indeed found someone else to bribe. I found out later it was the butcher himself. His price had been $6,000." [21]

Truong's wife paid two bribes -- one to locate him, and one to have him transferred from the secret jail to the NPIC.

Truong adds ruefully, "Had she known about conditions at the [NPIC], it isn't likely that my wife would have paid anything to anyone." He describes six months of solitary confinement and "sensory deprivation" in a pitch-dark cement cell with a steel door and no windows. "I was like an animal in a cave .... I thought of my cell as my coffin." [22]

The CIA treated its prisoners at the National Interrogation Center no better. In Decent Interval, former CIA officer Frank Snepp cites the case of Nguyen Van Tai, the Cuc Nghien Cuu agent who organized the attack on the U.S. Embassy during Tet. Tai was captured in 1970 and, "With American help the South Vietnamese built him his own prison cell and interrogation room, both totally white, totally bare except for a table, chair, an open hole for a toilet -- and ubiquitous hidden television cameras and microphones to record his every waking and sleeping moment. His jailers soon discovered one essential psychic-physical flaw in him. Like many Vietnamese, he believed his blood vessels contracted when he was exposed to frigid air. His quarters and interrogation room were thus outfitted with heavy-duty air conditioners and kept thoroughly chilled." [23]

In April 1975, Snepp notes, "Tai was loaded onto an airplane and thrown out at ten thousand feet over the South China Sea. At that point he had spent over four years in solitary confinement, in a snow-white cell, without ever having fully admitted who he was." [24] As perverse as anything done in Salem, Tai was disposed of like a bag of garbage simply because he would not confess.

But unlike Truong and Tai, most Vietnamese jailed under Phoenix were anonymous pawns whose only value was the small bribe their families offered for their release. Anyone confined in a PIC or province or district prison was in the belly of the beast.

The range and extent of torture are beyond the comprehension of the average middle-class American but are well documented, as is the fact that American advisers rarely intervened to reduce the level of abuse.

So the question then becomes, Who were these American advisers?

CHAPTER 16: Advisers

By 1968, half a million American soldiers were in South Vietnam, supported by sailors on aircraft carriers in the South China Sea, airmen maintaining B-52's on Guam, and free world forces from Korea, Australia, the Philippines, and Thailand. Many thousand more civilians were advising the GVN on every conceivable facet of its operations, from police and public administration to engineering and agriculture. All were joined with the government and the Armed Forces of South Vietnam in a war against a well-organized, well-disciplined insurgency supported by North Vietnam and other nonaligned third world, socialist, and Communist nations.

With nearly one thousand NVA and VC soldiers dying each week, and no one keeping count of civilian deaths, the undeclared war in Vietnam had reached epic proportions, but its meaning was shrouded in ambiguities and contradictions

. The insurgency was said to be managed along a single chain of command emanating from Hanoi, but the insurgent leadership was elusive, its numbers impossible to gauge. And while the enemy was unified but illusory, the allied effort was clearly defined but hopelessly discombobulated. Something had to be done, and that something fell to several hundred Phoenix advisers, each serving a one-year tour.

"This was moving so fast in early 1968," Doug Dillard recalled, "that young lieutenants and captains coming through the MACV advisory assignment system began arriving in-country, receiving orders, and going right out to the district or province. People didn't even know they were getting a Phoenix assignment at this stage of the game. But the program had one of the highest priorities in MACV for personnel, and as fast as they arrived in-country, they were assigned out directly to the province and district. In Four Corps we tried to intercept them, if I could find out about it in time and coordinate earlier with Saigon. Others we had to pull back from the field. We' d arrange to have them stay in Can Tho from two to three days so we could give them an orientation and tell them what we expected of them as Phoenix coordinators." [1]

At this orientation, according to Dillard, "We outlined their mission, which was to be aware of the entities operating in their area of responsibility, to establish contact with the personalities, to develop a rapport ... and to try to convince them that the only thing we were trying to do in Phoenix was to focus all our resources on the VCI. And to report directly to me any obstacles they were encountering, to see if there was anything we could do about it. I made an effort to establish direct one-to-one relationships with them so they knew ... that I was their friend and truly meant what I said in trying to help them. And time and time again it paid off. They would come in demoralized, and I'd find out about it and work it out with the district adviser to let the guy come in to Can Tho. We'd put him up in our own facility and take him over to the club so he could have a decent meal."

Nor did Doug Dillard sit in Can Tho and wait for problems to come to him. "Phuoc and I tried very hard to breathe some life into the coordination process," he said. "We tried to hit one or two districts every day. I would get the U.S. people together and really give them the hard sell on making Phoenix work. 'What are the problems? Do they have resources? How can I help?' And while I was doing that, Phuoc would get the Vietnamese district people together out in the district compound and give them a patriotic lecture. We did that day after day.

"I remember going to Phong Hiep District." Dillard cited as an example. "That was a bad district for VC activity, and Colonel Phuoc and I went down there, and we were walking from the helicopter pad toward the district compound when this kid came out shouting, 'He's just no good!' and 'I almost killed him myself!'

"I said, 'Calm down, Captain. Let's go have a drink and you tell me what happened.'

"Well, they'd been out on an operation that morning to zap some VCI, and as I recall, one of the VCI was the leader of the communications cadre, and they ran into him on the canal and had a fire fight and captured this guy. They were trying to subdue him, but he kept on resisting, violently, so the Vietnamese S-two pulled out his pistol and shot him. My captain almost went out of his mind. He said, 'For Christ's sake, you just killed the best source of information for VC activity in the district. Why'd you do that?' And the S-two said, 'Well, he obviously wanted to die, the way he was resisting.'

"So, you see" -- Dillard sighed -- "you had a mentality problem."

But there was another side of the "mentality problem." "Down in Bac Lieu," Dillard said, "one of the district chiefs had a group, and they went out and ran an ambush. The district chief stepped on a land mine and had a leg blown off and bled to death before the medevac chopper got there. So I got a report on this and told Jim Ward, and we got it into the system so the corps commander could address the problem, the problem being if these guys see they're not going to be medevaced when they're seriously wounded, they're not going to go out."

To show success to his evaluators in the Saigon Directorate, a Phoenix adviser needed a competent Vietnamese counterpart. But it is wrong to blame the failure of the program solely on the Vietnamese "mentality." To do so is to assume that Phoenix advisers understood the purpose of the program and the intelligence process and that all were mature enough to work with interpreters in a foreign culture. Many were not. As Jim Ward noted,

"Very few had the proper training or experience for their work ...."

[2]

Ward did not blame any one individual. "The effectiveness of a Province or District Intelligence and Operations Coordination Center," he said, "generally depended on three people: the American adviser and the senior South Vietnamese army and police official assigned to the center. When all three were good and had a harmonious working relationship, the DIOCC functioned effectively." But

harmony was the exception, and as in most groups, the strongest personality dominated the others

. If it was the Vietnamese army intelligence officer, then DIOCC operations focused on gathering tactical military intelligence. If the Vietnamese policeman was dominant, then the DIOCC concentrated on the VCI. But because the ARVN S2 generally prevailed, the overall impact of Phoenix in the Delta, according to Ward, "was spotty. Really effective in some districts, partially successful in half, and ineffective in the rest."

Contributing to the misdirection of Phoenix operations away from the VCI toward military targets was the widening gap between Province and District Intelligence and Operations Coordination Centers. Explained Ward: "Because most Phoenix-Phung Hoang planning took place at province [where the CIA Special Branch adviser was based], and because the DIOCC was run by the ARVN S2 advised by U.S. Army officers as part of the MACV district advisory team, the CIA Special Branch adviser was not going to share his intelligence or dossiers with these people." This lack of cooperation reinforced the tendency on the part of military intelligence officers to do what they could: to gather information on impending guerrilla attacks, not the VCI.

For this reason, said Colonel George Dexter, who organized Special Forces A teams in Vietnam in the early 1960's and served as the CORDS assistant chief of staff in IV Corps in 1972,

"It would seem that Army Intelligence Corps officers were not a good choice for this role since they were basically oriented toward combat intelligence rather than police intelligence. However, U.S. civilians [meaning CIA officers] were almost never assigned at district level because the risk of combat was too high." [3]

Warren Milberg suggests that

"the biggest deficiency in the advisory program was the lack of an 'institutional memory.' Phoenix advisers did not know the history of their provinces [or] how the insurgents operated there."

Moreover, "Nothing was done to improve the situation ....

Not being able to speak the language of their counterparts, and knowing they were only going to stay in Vietnam for a relatively short period of time, most advisers tended to neglect the political and social aspects of the situation in which they found themselves. Unable to cope with, or accept, the people of the RVN, many advisers became ineffective, and the overall result was the degradation of the Phoenix-Phung Hoang program."

[4]

Colonel Dexter was more forgiving: "The lieutenant spent his whole tour in Vietnam as a member of a five or six-man district advisory team in a small town in the middle of nowhere, 'advising' a Vietnamese counterpart (who was probably several years older and surely many more years experienced in the war) and holding down any number of additional duties within the advisory team." Said Dexter: "His success depended primarily on the competence of his counterpart and, to a lesser degree, on his own energy and imagination.

His major handicap was the inability to speak Vietnamese with any degree of fluency."

A difficult language and an inscrutable culture; lack of training and experience; institutional rivalries and personal vendettas; isolation and alienation: all were obstacles the typical Phoenix district adviser had to face. All in all, it was not an enviable job.

***


Colonel Dillard's fatherly concern for his young district advisers, "fresh out of college and through the basic course at Fort Holabird," was as exceptional as the harmony he had achieved with the CIA in the Delta. More often than not, Phoenix advisers received little guidance or support from cynical region and province officers. Nor were the first Phoenix advisers even minimally prepared for the intrigues they encountered. The first batch of junior officers sent to Vietnam in February 1968 -- specifically as Phoenix advisers -- consisted of forty second lieutenants trained in the art of air defense artillery -- of which there was no need in South Vietnam insofar as the Viet cong had no aircraft. In addition, most were Reserve Officer Training Corps graduates who had been called upon to meet the unanticipated personnel requirements imposed on the Army Intelligence Corps after the deeply resented troop limit had been imposed on the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Such was the case with Henry McWade. A 1965 graduate of East Tennessee State, McWade was commissioned a second lieutenant in 1966 and called to active duty in 1967. In December 1967 he attended Fort Holabird, where, in his words,

"we were trained in European methods for the cold war."

[5] In May 1968 McWade and twenty-one other second lieutenants, a group he referred to as "the last idealists," were sent to South Vietnam as Phoenix district advisers. Now a realist, McWade told me wearily,

"They needed seven-year captains."

Following a week's orientation at the Combined Intelligence Center, McWade was assigned to Go Vap District in Gia Dinh Province as part of CORDS Advisory Team 44.

He resided in a prefab facility with other members of the district team, while the province Phoenix coordinator, Major James K. Damron, lived in opulent splendor in the CIA's lavish embassy house, "a cathedral" complete with a helicopter landing pad on the roof and a contingent of PRU bodyguards -- a "goon squad" whom "the Vietnamese feared and considered criminals."

"He gave us no direction at all," McWade said of Damron. "The people at the PIOCC ... located five miles away in the old Special Branch headquarters ... kept us at arm's length. The few times we drove up there, they gave us no guidance or advice at all. Only money."

For McWade, this was a big disappointment. "As a green second lieutenant I needed that operational guidance. But I didn't get it ....

And the Company man, the Special Branch adviser, just didn't deal with us at all.

They had their own advisory system compartmented away from Phoenix.

"The program had been more autonomous, flexible, and experimental under the agency," McWade continued. "But as Army advisers -- whom CIA officers consider amateurs -- filtered in at every level, the program shifted under the CORDS province senior advisers or their deputies.

And if the CIA can't control it," McWade explained, "they get rid of it."

From his DIOCC in Go Vap, McWade observed that Major Damron was "an empire builder.

The life-styles were incredible. Damron contracted with an American construction company to build safe houses, where he entertained and kept women.

He had civilian identification that allowed him to go anywhere. He carried a CAR-15 until the Uzi became fashionable. Then he carried that.

And Damron was shrewd. When the province senior adviser or his deputy was around, he talked intelligence jargon. He had files and computers. But when they were gone" -- McWade winked -- "the conversation was all construction. Damron was the best at building buildings. He built great DIOCCs and safe houses. But he couldn't catch any VCI."

The Phoenix program had begun in 1967 under the management of CIA province officers, but

as junior grade army officers like Henry McWade mounted the Phoenix ramparts in 1968, the CIA instructed its officers to retreat to the safety and seclusion of the embassy houses." And once they found out I was against physical torture," McWade added, "they preferred that I stay away from the province interrogation center altogether." Thereafter, whenever the Go Vap DIOCC produced a VCI suspect, "they removed the prisoner from our sight. They solved the problem by taking it out of sight."

Complicating matters, McWade said, was the fact that "the Special Branch was playing us against the CIA." In other words, in order to meet Phoenix quotas, the Vietnamese Special Branch would arrest common criminals and present them as VCI, while behind the scenes they were extorting money from genuine VCI in exchange for not arresting them." And the CIA," McWade sighed, "was stretched too thin to know."

As for oversight from the Phoenix Directorate, McWade said it was negligible. "They'd send down a computer printout [containing biographical information on known VCI]. We got them sporadically. Fifty names per page, six inches thick. But we couldn't use them because they lacked the diacritical marks which were necessary for proper identification." And that pretty much left McWade on his own to manage Phoenix operations in Go Vap.

Vietnamese assigned to the Go Vap DIOCC included PRU, a Regional and Popular Forces company, Census Grievance cadre, National Police, and Field Policemen. McWade's counterpart was the ARVN S2, "a weak person I put too many demands on. The only time he moved was the time a ranger brigade came to Go Vap to conduct cordon and search operations with the police. When Saigon units, which were there to prevent coups, came out to our area, things happened. Then it was a genuine Phoenix operation."

Otherwise, said McWade, "We ran every conceivable type of operation, from night ambushes in the rural areas north of Go Vap, to Rambo-style counterintelligence operations in the city -- the kind where you personally had to react." McWade went on village sweeps with the local Regional and Popular Forces company, checking .hundreds of IDs with the police. Based on tips gotten from informers, he would also surveil and target houses in Go Vap where VCI suspects lived, contact points where VCI met, and places where commo-liaison cadres crossed the river. He took photographs, submitted reports, and "fed the computer in Saigon."

"We were going out every other day, sometimes every day," he recalled. "I worked eighteen hours a day, six or seven days a week." And yet, he was never really in control. "I had no operational control over any units, and I had to rely one hundred percent on my counterpart," he said. "So every operation had to be simple," primarily because of language. "I was at the mercy of an interpreter with a five-hundred-word vocabulary," McWade sighed. "It was like being deaf and dumb. And I just assumed every operation was compromised, at a minimum because my interpreter was an undercover Military Security Service agent." And even though he monitored agent nets, "No one reported directly to me; it would have been impossible to try, if you can't speak the language. There was no such thing as a secure agent, and we didn't have walk-ins because the people couldn't trust the police." Making matters worse, there were at least a dozen intelligence agencies operating in the area, each with what it assumed were its own unilateral agents in the field. But because the various intelligence agencies refused to share their files with one another, they never realized that each agent, as McWade put it, "was selling information to everybody."

The picture is one of total chaos. Indeed, most of McWade's initial operations were conducted -- without his realizing it -- by his police counterparts against common criminals or dissidents.

He recalled his first day on the job, which coincided with the beginning of the second Tet offensive. "The first one in February came through Cholon," McWade said. "This one came through Go Vap. We were out with the Regional and Popular Forces company, picking up anyone who looked like an ARVN draft dodger. Meanwhile the Vietnamese police were shaking them down, although I didn't learn about it till much later."

There were other surprises.

In an area outside Go Vap, for example, over thirty thousand refugees lived in a sprawling ghetto. McWade told me, "They were mostly prostitutes working for organized crime -- meaning the police. I thought we were investigating the VCI, but actually I was used by my police counterpart to raid the madams who hadn't paid him off."

When he figured out what was really going on, McWade said, "I developed what I called 'McWade's Rule'; fifteen percent for graft, eighty-five percent for the program. And this was a complete reversal of what was happening when I arrived!"

But Henry McWade did not become bitter, nor was he unable to cope with Vietnamese culture. Unlike many of his colleagues, he did not interpret Vietnamese customs as insidious schemes designed to deceive him.

"The Vietnamese had a different vocabulary and different goals. They were

not

interested in acquiring bodies," he said. "They were interested in acquiring money and items on the black market." In other words, their motives were practical, geared toward surviving in the present, while it was generally only their American advisers who were obsessed with eliminating Communists from the face of the earth.

***


As a means of bringing Vietnamese and American procedures into closer sync, the Phoenix Directorate in July 1968 issued its first standard operating procedures (SOP 1) manual. SOP 1 stressed the leadership role of the police and the need for paramilitary forces to support the police in the attack on the VCI. It subdivided Intelligence and Operations Coordination Centers (IOCCs) into three areas. The Plans and Operations Center devised plans and organized available forces in operations against guerrilla units and individual VCI. The Situation Center maintained files, handled agent security and operations, produced reports, and set requirements. It had a military order of battle section under the Vietnamese army intelligence officer, the S2, gathering intelligence on and targeting guerrilla units, and a political order of battle section under the Special Branch, targeting VCI. The Message Section communicated with the district or province chief, who exercised overall responsibility for any particular IOCC.

In practice, SOP 1 had little effect. "It didn't do any harm," Henry McWade observed; but it was issued only to Americans, and the Vietnamese continued to organize the IOCCs according to their own "separate goals and missions. The double standard persisted, even after a translation (minus diacritical marks) was circulated."

Ralph Johnson acknowledges this, noting that the GVN's instructions to its own people -- by making no reference to the role of U.S. Phoenix advisers in the IOCCs -- widened the gap between Americans and Vietnamese. At first only the CIA, which "controlled the salaries, training and support of critical elements in Phung Hoang," was able to exert influence, by parceling out resources and funds. Otherwise, when Phoenix advisers received adequate funds through CORDS, they, too, "were able and willing to use monetary leverage to drive home needed advice and guidance.

And a CORDS agreement with President Thieu gave CORDS the right to call attention to officials who should be replaced." [6]




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