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As one CIA officer recalled, "When the so-called Vietnamization of the war began, everyone knew that even though the Company would still be running CORDS, it was the beginning of the end. The contract employees began getting laid off, especially those running operations in Laos. The others, mostly ex-Army types, knew their turn was coming, so they began trying to make as much money as they could. Air America pilots doubled the amount of opium they carried. [i] The Americans in CORDS, with the help of the PRU, began shaking down the Vietnamese, arresting them if they didn't pay protection money, even taking bribes to free suspects they'd already arrested. Everyone went crazy for a buck."

"Here you have a very corrupt environment, a culture that tolerates corruption," Ed Brady observed, "and now you're going to run covert operations." [1]

Considering that the Special Branch -- which had cognizance over Phoenix -- was responsible for investigating corruption, it was inevitable that some Phoenix coordinators would abuse the system.

Much of that abuse occurred in Saigon under the nose of John O'Keefe, the CIA officer in charge of the Capital Military District.

Described by Nelson Brickham as a "very capable officer" [2] and a "raconteur" who spoke excellent Parisian French, O'Keefe was a veteran case officer with years of experience in Europe. In Vietnam he had served as the officer in charge of Chau Doc Province and Hue before being transferred to Saigon in September 1968.

Headquartered on the second floor of the three-story building behind City Hall on Nguyen Hue Boulevard,

O'Keefe on paper reported to Hatcher James, the senior USAID adviser to Saigon Mayor Do Kin Nhieu, whose deputy "really ran things" (foremost among those things being the loan and default payments the GVN owed the "five communes," the principal Chinese families in Cholon who served as South Vietnam's major moneylenders). Tall, with sandy hair and a fondness for drinking scotch with the CIA's notorious finance officer, alias General Monopoly, at the Cosmos, O'Keefe supervised Special Branch and Phoenix operations in Saigon beginning in September 1968.

Also arriving in Saigon in September 1968 was Captain Shelby Roberts. In 1965 Roberts had been a warrant officer flying photoreconnaissance missions for MACV's Target Research and Analysis Division, locating targets for B-52 strikes. Another creation of Bill Tidwell's, TRAC was used by General McChristian as the nucleus for the Combined Intelligence Center . In 1966 Roberts was commissioned an officer and, after completing the military adviser training program at Fort Bragg, returned to Vietnam and was assigned as Phoenix coordinator to Saigon's high-rent neighborhood, Precinct 1. Snuggled on the east side of Saigon, far from the squalor of Cholon and Tan Son Nhut's sprawling shantytowns,

Precinct 1 had been the private domain of the French colonialists. By 1969 many of those rambling villas were occupied by Americans, including John O'Keefe, Hatcher James, and William Colby, who lived on tree-lined Hong Tap Thu Street.

Abutting Precinct 1 on the east was Gia Dinh Province, fiefdom of Major James K. Damron, whom Roberts described in an interview with the author as "the agency's man in Gia Dinh" and "a warlord who went overboard and built a tremendous building. But he played from a position of power," Roberts said. "He demanded total loyalty from his people, and the Vietnamese respected that and were terribly loyal to him." Majors James Damron and Danny Pierce -- who served as deputy coordinator of the Capital Phung Hoang Committee -- were "business partners." [3]

Roberts described Danny Pierce as "an operator" who "abused the system." An officer in the Mormon Church, Pierce was linked to the black-market supply and service industry through a secret "ring-knock" identification system.

Pierce was allegedly fired for possession of a stolen jeep traced to the SOG motor pool located at 10 Hoang Hoa Tam Street, where the Army Counterintelligence Corps had originally set up shop in Vietnam in 1962.

In early 1969 Captain Roberts replaced Major Danny Pierce as the Capital Phung Hoang Committee deputy coordinator. Thereafter once a month Roberts visited the Gia Dinh Province embassy house to exchange information with warlord Damron, until Damron himself was reassigned by William Colby in early 1969 to an administrative post in the IV Corps Phoenix program.

Unlike his freewheeling predecessor, who had fallen under the influence of the CIA, Shelby Roberts was not a member of the Phoenix Directorate. In an effort to achieve greater control over the program, MACV had Roberts report to John O'Keefe on operational matters, while reporting administratively to the chief of MACV's Saigon Capital Advisory Group (SCAG). As a result, Roberts was not as closely involved in CIA operations in Saigon as Pierce had been. But he was collocated with O'Keefe, and he did have insights into the CIA side of Phoenix operations in Saigon.

"My office was behind City Hall, on the floor below O'Keefe's office," Roberts recalled. "We had about twenty Vietnamese employees, eight in the translation section, the rest doing clerical work." The officer representing the Phoenix Directorate in Saigon was Lieutenant Colonel William Singleton, whom Roberts described as "working on the operations side, in covert activities. He had safe houses and a plantation house with a small staff." A tall man from Tennessee, Singleton was "particularly interested in Cholon." The Special Branch officer running Phoenix operations in Saigon was Captain Pham Quat Tan, a former ARVN intelligence and psywar officer featured in a January 12, 1968, Life magazine article.

According to Roberts, Phoenix in the Capital Military District was entirely a CIA operation run out of Special Branch headquarters. "We fed nothing to the Phoenix Directorate," Roberts said. "The reports all went back to the Combined Intelligence Center, or I would give a briefing to O'Keefe, and he'd go to the embassy, to the sixth floor" -- here analysts in the station's special unit sifted through names and chose candidates for penetration.

Anti-infrastructure operations in Saigon were difficult at best. The city had ten precincts, with those outside downtown Saigon resembling the suburbs in Go Vap District, as described by Henry McWade. Security in outlying precincts was maintained not by the Metropolitan Police but by the paramilitary Order Police patrolling in armored cars, American infantry brigades, and ranger battalions. There was a strict curfew, and in the aftermath of Tet new interrogation centers were built in all of Saigon's precincts. In Precinct 1 a large interrogation center was built by

Pacific Architects and Engineers

directly behind the U.S. Embassy. In other precincts interrogation centers were constructed "under existing roofs." In either case Roberts tended to avoid them. "I was reluctant to get involved because the Special Branch tried to use me during interrogations. They'd say, 'If you think we're bad, he'll cook you and eat you!' So I didn't care to participate."

Each precinct had wards called phung, which were further subdivided into khung, a group of families, usually ten, which the Special Branch monitored through "family books" maintained by the Metropolitan Police.

The finished product of the Family Census program, family books contained biographical information and a photograph of every family member. One of the

khung

families was responsible for keeping track of visitors to the other families, and on the basis of these family books, the Special Branch compiled blacklists of suspected VCI members."

In discussing the tactics of the Special Branch, Shelby Roberts said, "They ran all their operations at night. They'd turn the floodlights on, tear down entire neighborhoods ... and arrest entire families. They were mainly interested in shakedowns. The 'Send your daughter to my office'-type harassment. And making money on the side. Everyone," Roberts added, "was in the black market."

There were other intrigues.

"We chased commo-liaison people," Roberts explained, "and if we caught them, the police would get reward money and money for their captured weapons. This led to the same weapons being turned in over and over again. Over half a million were paid for, but there were less than a quarter million at the armory."

Meanwhile, "The Special Branch hid information from us so it wouldn't go up to O'Keefe and the CIA. It was common knowledge that if you gave good information to Phoenix, you wouldn't get the reward money." And that, according to Roberts, "was the death of the program."

Despite its heavy-handed methods, "The Special Branch was considered a white-collar job," Roberts explained, "whereas the Saigon Metropolitan Police ... were looked down upon." So out of spite the Metropolitan Police turned from law enforcement to graft. Precinct chiefs sold licenses for every conceivable enterprise, from market stalls to restaurants and hotels, and managed prostitution, gambling, and narcotics rackets. The police were paid off by the crooks and the Vietcong alike. As a result, according to Roberts, "They "got no respect. They were so corrupt they tried to corrupt the Phoenix coordinators."

Making matters worse, Roberts said, was the fact that when information on suspected VCI members was forthcoming, Phoenix coordinators -- reflecting the CIA's desire to have total control over sources that might generate strategic intelligence -- were told to ignore it. This prohibition and the frustration it caused, plus the fact that the police tried to bribe the precinct coordinators, resulted in more than twenty Phoenix advisers passing through Saigon's ten precincts in 1969. Most lasted only a few weeks, although those who were suborned by the CIA held their jobs for years.

For example, Captain Keith Lange, who replaced Roberts in Precinct 1, was "pulling off national-level operations" for two and a half years. On the other hand, Roberts put Captain Daniel Moynihan in Precinct 2, "so I could watch him, because he had trouble with finance."

Indeed, money was the answer to, and cause of, all problems in Saigon. Insofar as AID withdrew its Public Safety advisers from Saigon after Tet, Roberts said, "We, the Phoenix coordinators, were the only Americans in the precincts. Some guys were so busy they slept in their offices." And because the CIA was no longer disbursing funds through AID, Phoenix coordinators by default became the conduit of monetary aid to the National Police and the Special Branch. "So the police chiefs really liked us a lot," Roberts added.

Phoenix coordinators also became the conduit for AID funds ostensibly destined for community development, refugee, and health programs. In reality, the money bought information and influence.

Roberts recalled one housing project in an area of Cholon that had been leveled during Tet. The cost was $150,000. Roberts got the money from CIA finance officer General Monopoly at the embassy annex.

"Short, potbellied, and in his sixties," General Monopoly "sat in the same seat every night at the Cosmos. He was there at three o'clock every day drinking scotches with Damron, Singleton, and O'Keefe."

As the pursuit of money began to rival the pursuit of intelligence, a new twist was added to

The Game, as the competition for intelligence sources was called

. "Especially in Precinct Five [which encompassed Cholon]," Roberts said, "we'd get U.S. deserters working with the VCI through the black market. They were dealing arms and supplies from the PX. We knew of five deserters in Cholon. Each one was operating with several IDs. The MPs and CID ran a number of operations to get one guy in particular. He would sneak past guards, masquerading as an enlisted man. And he was actually detained several times. But because he had phony ID, he was always released."

There may be another reason why this traitor was never caught. It has to do with the CIA's practice of nurturing deviant communities as a source of assassins.

John Berry quotes one such "contractor" in his book Those Gallant Men on Trial in Vietnam:

"Well, I walk behind this screen and I don't see this guy's face, but he give me 5,000 piasters and a picture and an address, and I go kill the dude and then go get my other 5,000." [4]

***


With Vietnamization, Phoenix came under closer scrutiny. The repercussions were evident everywhere. Toward the end of 1968, Henry McWade recalled, "Major Damron got into a power play for intelligence resources" [5] and Damron's bosses reached the conclusion that he was all smoke and mirrors.

"Damron was losing control," McWade explained. "So he put the blame on us, the DIOCC advisers, to gain time and space for himself. We were sacrificed."

A few days later McWade and a group of scapegoats (not including John Cook) were transferred out of Gia Dinh to other provinces. McWade landed in Hau Nghia in III Corps as deputy to the province Phoenix coordinator, Captain Daniel L. Smith.

Back in Gia Dinh, Damron and his loyalists were hunkering down, But Colby was intent on cleaning house, and Damron was transferred out of Gia Dinh. Doug Dillard recalled the scandal precipitated by Damron's infamous excesses: "I'll never forget Colby's admonition to us on one of his visits down in the Delta. Up in Three Corps there was an agency guy who had built a magnificent building with a helicopter landing pad on the roof. And Colby said, 'There ain't gonna be any more monuments built in Vietnam. I'm glad to see you guys have a conservative program for just getting the job done.'" [6]

Ironically, the new Gia Dinh province officer in charge proved more troublesome for Colby than Damron.

For whereas Damron was guilty of mere greed, the new province officer was prey to a far more dangerous master: his conscience. A veteran CIA paramilitary officer, Ralph McGehee had already spent fifteen years fighting the Holy War in a number of Asian countries when he arrived in Vietnam in October 1968. His biggest success had been in Thailand, where he had developed survey teams for rooting out the Communist infrastructure.

McGehee's survey teams consisted of police, military, and security officials who entered Thai border towns to "interrogate anyone over ten years old" [7] about Communist efforts to organize secret political cells. However, in a cruel twist of fate which engendered his crisis of faith and his fall from grace, McGehee naively relayed information uncovered by his survey teams indicating that the Communist insurgency had overwhelming popular support. Although accurate in their assessment of the situation, his reports defied policy and were summarily dismissed by his bosses in Washington. Feeling rejected, McGehee arrived in Saigon teetering on the brink of heresy. What he saw of Phoenix pushed him over the edge.

As the CIA's Gia Dinh province officer in charge, McGehee reported to the CIA's III Corps ROIC; as the Gia Dinh Province Phoenix coordinator, he reported to the CORDS province senior adviser. In his book Deadly Deceits, he writes that "the primary CORDS program was the Phoenix operation" and that "CIA money was the catalyst." [8] But McGehee's problem with Phoenix had nothing to do with the attack on the infrastructure; in an interview for this book, he said the PRU program "was admirable." McGehee's gripe was that "the agency was not allowed to report the truth."

Writes McGehee: "The assignment to Gia Dinh gave me the opportunity to see how the agency's intelligence program worked, or more accurately how it did not work at that level.

One or two sentence intelligence reports poured in, were translated, and were filed or thrown away. A typical report, one of hundreds like it received each week, said: 'Two armed VC were seen moving south of the village of ... this morning.' A massive agency/CORDS/Phoenix file system processed this daily flow of nonsense. Collation and analysis never applied. I wondered how this intelligence effort could possibly give our leaders and generals anything even approaching an accurate picture of what was going on. [9]

"Our policy," McGehee deduced, "was based on 'intelligence' reports of the numbers of communists in Vietnam that had nothing to do with reality. Either they were the result of unbelievable incompetence or they were deliberate lies created to dupe the American people." [10]

McGehee settled on the second explanation, a belief he shares with Sam Adams, the controversial CIA analyst who quit the agency in 1973 in protest over what he claimed was "the sloppy and often dishonest way U.S. intelligence conducted research on the struggle in Indochina." [11]

A member of George Carver's SAVA staff, Adams wrote the CIA's handbook on the VCI and for five years taught a class on the VCI to CIA case officers bound for Vietnam. After quitting the agency, Adams claimed that the CIA had falsified statistics, and

in 1982 in a CBS documentary called

The Uncounted Enemy: A Vietnam Deception

, he accused General William Westmoreland of a deliberate cover-up. Humiliated, Westmoreland filed his famous $120 million libel suit against CBS.

The origins of the "Vietnam deception" date back to January 11, 1967, when SAVA director Carver wrote a memo, introduced as evidence at the Westmoreland trial, indicating that the number of confirmed Vietcong, put at over a quarter of a million by MACV, was "far too low and should be raised, perhaps doubled."

Despite indications presented by General McChristian substantiating the CIA estimate, MACV rejected it and instead, by excluding Vietcong Self-Defense Forces from its order of battle, contrived a lower number. CIA analysts persisted in arguing for an estimate approaching half a million, and a stalemate ensued until August 30, 1967, when Director of Central Intelligence

Richard Helms, describing the issue as "charged with political and public relations overtones," [12] arranged for Carver to lead a delegation of senior intelligence officers to Saigon to negotiate an agreement on the exact size of NVA and VC forces.

Two days after arriving in Saigon and meeting with McChristian's replacement, General Davidson, Carver notified Helms that MACV was "stonewalling" and that

"circumstantial indicators ... point to inescapable conclusion that Westmoreland ... has given instructions tantamount to direct order that strength total will not exceed 300,000 ceiling. Rationale seems to be that higher figure would not be sufficiently optimistic and would generate unacceptable level of criticism from the press." [13]

Although the CIA knew that the estimated 120,000 VC Self-Defense Forces (which Westmoreland described as "old men, old women and children") were the integral element of the insurgency, Carver, after being shown "evidence that I hadn't heard before," cut a deal on September 13. He sent a cable to Helms saying:

"Circle now squared

.... We have agreed set of figures Westmoreland endorsed." [14] In November National Security Adviser Walt Rostow showed President Johnson a chart indicating that enemy strength had dropped from 285,000 in late 1966 to 242,000 in late 1967. President Johnson got the success he wanted to show, and Vietnam got Tet.

Sam Adams's claim that the agency had "misinformed policymakers of the strength of the enemy" was backed at the CBS libel trial by Carver's deputy, George W. Allen, who claimed that Westmoreland "was ultimately responsible" for "this prostitution" and that the CIA, "by going along with it," had "sacrificed its integrity on the altar of public relations and political expediency."

Allen added that the end result of the deception was that Washington was left "essentially with an inadequate understanding of what we were up against" in Vietnam. According to Allen, the Self-Defense Forces were not old women and children but hardened guerrillas who were responsible for 40 percent of all U.S. combat casualties in Vietnam.

As a result of Adams's claims, a congressional inquiry was conducted in 1975. The investigating committee, chaired by Otis Pike, concluded that juggling of numbers "created false perceptions of the enemy U.S. forces faced, and prevented measurement of changes over time. Second, pressure from policymaking officials to produce positive intelligence indicators reinforced erroneous assessments of allied progress and enemy capabilities." [15]

***

Sam Adams has said that "the reason [Phoenix] did not work was that its needs, although recognized in theory, were never fulfilled in practice.

The divorce between hope and reality became so wide that the program degenerated into a game of statistics, in which numbers were paramount, and the object of the exercise -- the crippling of the Communist Party -- was never even approached." [16]

Likewise, Ralph McGehee found the CIA squaring statistical facts with ideological preconceptions in Vietnam, just as it had in Thailand. "The station's intelligence briefings on the situation in South Vietnam confirmed all my fears," he writes. The briefers "talked only about the numbers of armed Viet Cong, the slowly increasing North Vietnamese regular army, and the occasional member of the Communist infrastructure. They made no mention of the mass-based Farmer's Liberation Association, or the Communist youth organization, all of which in some areas certainly included entire populations." [17]

The reason for this deception, McGehee contends, was that "U.S. policymakers had to sell the idea that the war in the South was being fought by a small minority of Communists opposed to the majority-supported democratic government of Nguyen Van Thieu. The situation, however, was the opposite .... The U.S. was supporting Thieu's tiny oligarchy against a population largely organized, committed, and dedicated to a communist victory." [18]

McGehee blames the American defeat in Vietnam on "policy being decided from the top in advance, then intelligence being selected or created to support it afterwards." In particular, he singles out William Colby as the principal apostle of the Big Lie. A veteran of the Far East Division, McGehee at one point served as Colby's acolyte at Langley headquarters and bases his accusations on firsthand observations of Colby in action -- of watching Colby deliver briefings which were "a complete hoax contrived to deceive Congress." [19] Writes McGehee of Colby: "I have watched him when I knew he was lying, and not the least flicker of emotion ever crosses his face." But what made Colby even more dangerous, in McGehee's opinion, was his manipulation of language. "Colby emphasized the importance of selecting just the right words and charts to convey the desired impression to Congress. He regarded word usage as an art form, and he was a master at it." [20]

Years later they met again in Gia Dinh Province, at which point McGehee describes Colby as "a harried, self-important, distracted bureaucrat" who "began calling for statistics. 'How many VC killed this month? How many captured? How many firefights?' Each unit chief answered. Colby checked the replies against the figures in his books, and questioned each chief about discrepancies or outstanding figures." All this was a waste of time, McGehee contends.

"Here the U.S. was trying to fight an enemy it only slightly acknowledged. Why? What had happened to all the idealism, all the rules of getting and reporting intelligence? Why did the agency blind itself while pretending to look for intelligence? Why did we insist on killing people instead of talking to them? How long would this insanity go on?" [21]

In his defense Colby said to me, "We were getting all the statistics, and if you could get them on the computer, you could play them back and forth a little better, and see things you couldn't see otherwise. It was really quite interesting. I never really believed the numbers as absolute, but they helped you think about the problems. We would use it for control of how local people were doing," he explained, "how if one province reported they had captured a lot of category Cs, but no As, and another province said it captured 15 category As, first you'd check if there were any truth to the second story, and if it is true, you know the second province is doing better then the first one. You don't believe the numbers off-hand, you use them as a basis for questions." [22]

Numbers as a basis for questions were a management tool, but they were also a way of manipulating facts. And William Colby is a scion of the gray area in between.

In his autobiography,

Honorable Men

, Colby explains how his father converted to Catholicism, and how Colby himself, when he entered Princeton, was excluded from the in crowd as a result.

An articulate man trained as a lawyer and spy, but with only one foot in the door, Colby embraced "the art of the possible" and cultivated his "grey man" mentality to achieve success in the CIA bureaucracy, as well as to dissolve the lines between right and wrong, enabling him to give Phoenix a clean bill of health.

"I have no qualms about accepting responsibility for it," he writes. [23]

So it was in Vietnam, that just as criticism of Phoenix was building, within the program, the press began turning its attention toward the subject. The calamity called Tet had subsided, the elections were over, and the Paris-Peace Talks were about to start.

The Communist shadow government was emerging into the light of day, and U.S. efforts to deal with it became the pressing concern.

Glimpses of Phoenix began appearing in print.

On June 29, 1968, in his "Letter from Saigon" column in

The New Yorker

, Robert Shaplen identified the program by its Vietnamese name, Phung Hoang, calling it the "all-seeing bird."

Shaplen rehashes the thrust of the program, citing statistics and quoting Robert Komer as saying "some 5,000 arrests have been made of alleged members of the [VC] command structure." According to Shaplen, the program's major weakness was "a tendency on the part of the Vietnamese to build up a massive dossier on a suspect until he gets wind of what is happening and disappears." Shaplen notes that "district and village chiefs are sometimes loath to furnish or act on intelligence on the grounds that the war may soon be over."

Indeed, the possibility of a negotiated settlement raised the specter of those in the VCI -- the people Phoenix was arresting and killing -- gaining legal status. And that scenario sent chills running up and down every war manager's spine.

But the transition from supporter to critic of American conduct of the war did not come easily to reporters used to acting as cheerleaders. Reasons for withdrawing support had yet to be uncovered. However, sensing momentum in that direction, the information managers began to search for scapegoats. And who better to blame than the Vietnamese themselves? GVN shortcomings, which were previously swept under the carpet, were suddenly being aired. Suddenly the Vietnamese were corrupt and incompetent, and that, not any fault on the part of the Americans, explained why the insurgency was growing.




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