Burns, Episodes 4 and 5 - CIA, what CIA? Jasons, what Jasons?

These two episodes are heavy on personal reminiscences of soldiers, very light on policy. Once again, not a word is spoken about the CIA. Let's dive in:

1. The Phoenix Program (also, see ADDENDUM)

We have pictures of elections in South Vietnam, but zero mention of the beginning of the infamous Phoenix Program, which began in 1967, in the time frame of these two episodes.

In 1967 the CIA's Far East Division of Clandestine Services developed a program that came to be known as Phoenix. MACV through Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support [CORDS] supported the newly initiated CIA-sponsored Phung Hoang (All Seeing Bird) or "Phoenix" program as it was known in English, aimed at the elimination of high-ranking VC cadre.

By 1967, the US Military Assistance Command, Vietnam (MACV), had succeeded in consolidating all military and civilian pacification efforts into one entity, called Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development Support. CIA and MACV were intensely involved in CORDS, which was run in conjunction with the Saigon government...Although Phoenix was run and ostensibly controlled by the Saigon government, the CIA funded and administered it.

It didn't take long for Robert "Blowtorch" Komer to seize upon Phoenix as away to make his mark in Vietnam. He had President Lyndon B. Johnson's ear and this made him politically powerful. Anyone standing in his way would be run over with a bulldozer. If anyone could move the program forward, it was this overbearing, arrogant, mission-driven former CIA analyst. He acted as a ramrod to implement a "rifle shot" rather than a "shotgun" approach to the VCI. As the number-three man in Saigon, he vetoed various "concept" papers until a "missions andfunctions"paper finally appeared before him, which he accepted." Komer initially headed CORDS, but it was most active and successful under William E. Colby, who replaced Komer in 1968.


The interrogation centers and PRUs were developed by the CIA's Saigon station chief Peer de Silva. Originally, the PRUs were known as "Counter Terror" teams, but they were renamed to "Provincial Reconnaissance Units" after CIA officials "became wary of the adverse publicity surrounding the use of the word 'terror'".

(the Phoenix Program came) from a plan drafted by Nelson Brickham partly inspired by David Galula's Counterinsurgency Warfare (1964), a book based on Galula's experiences in the Algerian War which Brickham was "very taken" with and carried with him around Vietnam.


Great, we used the worst part of the Algerian War as inspiration. Did anyone of Mr. Burns's team ever see "The Battle of Algiers"? Just asking.

Also, one of the most consistent omissions of the entire series is the completely Ivy League makeup of the CIA leadership at the time. The true "Best and Brightest" were the CIA analysts and covert ops specialists, whom Mr. Burns scrupulously avoids mentioning. The above-mentioned Mr. Brickham's pedigree is typical:

Nelson Brickham: Brickham graduated from Yale University in 1949, and joined the Central Intelligence Agency the same year....In 1965-66 Brickham was the senior CIA officer in charge of Foreign Intelligence Field Operations throughout South Vietnam. In 1966 Saigon station chief John Limond Hart assigned Brickham to Robert Komer's staff, where in late 1966 to June 1967 Brickham developed ICEX-SIDE (later renamed the Phoenix Program)


If Mr. Burns were an honest historian, he would have invited Douglas Valentine on to discuss his book on the Phoenix Program. Mr. Valentine is quoted on the Wikipedia page for the Phonix Program:

Methods of reported torture that author Douglas Valentine wrote were used at the interrogation centers included:

Rape, gang rape, rape using eels, snakes, or hard objects, and rape followed by murder; electric shock ('the Bell Telephone Hour') rendered by attaching wires to the genitals or other sensitive parts of the body, like the tongue; the 'water treatment'; the 'airplane' in which the prisoner's arms were tied behind the back, and the rope looped over a hook on the ceiling, suspending the prisoner in midair, after which he or she was beaten; beatings with rubber hoses and whips; the use of police dogs to maul prisoners (quoted in Blakely).

Military intelligence officer K. Barton Osborne reports that he witnessed the following use of torture:

The use of the insertion of the 6-inch dowel into the canal of one of my detainee's ears, and the tapping through the brain until dead. The starvation to death (in a cage), of a Vietnamese woman who was suspected of being part of the local political education cadre in one of the local villages...The use of electronic gear such as sealed telephones attached to...both the women's vaginas and men's testicles [to] shock them into submission.

The reported torture was carried out by South Vietnamese forces with the CIA and special forces playing a supervisory role.


2. Everyday Atrocities

In Episode 5, Mr. Burns tries to cordon off the massive war crimes of run-of-the-mill US soldiers by highlighting one unit, the so-called Tiger Force, while an authoritative voiceover tells us that with the exception of these "bad apples" most US soldiers continued to behave well, that this only happened because the TF was out of communication for long periods of time. Sorry Mr. Burns. This.will.not.wash. You've sent Nick Turse down the memory hole.

Case after case in his book makes it painfully clear that soldiers and Marines deliberately maimed, abused, beat, tortured, raped, wounded or killed hundreds of thousands of unarmed civilians, including children, with impunity. Troops engaged in routine acts of sadistic violence usually associated with demented Nazi concentration camp guards. And what Turse describes is a woefully incomplete portrait, since he found that “an astonishing number of marine court-martial records of the era have apparently been destroyed or gone missing,” and “most air force and navy criminal investigation files that may have existed seem to have met the same fate.”

The few incidents of wanton killing in Vietnam — and this is also true for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — that did become public, such as My Lai, were dismissed as an aberration, the result of a few soldiers or Marines gone bad. But, as Turse makes clear, such massacres were and are, in our current imperial adventures, commonplace. The slaughters “were the inevitable outcome of deliberate policies, dictated at the highest levels of the military,” he writes. They were carried out because the dominant tactic of the war, as conceived by our politicians and generals, was centered on the concept of “overkill.”

A review of "Kill Anything That Moves" by Nick Turse

Ah, "overkill". There is a word that evokes the period to a T.

Beyond the TF, the series contradicts itself all over the place. Mr. Musgrove recounts how (paraphrase) "I didn't kill another human being in Viet Nam; I killed dinks, slopes, and gooks. To become a prisoner you had to be trasported to the rear, few made it." So much for war crimes were an aberration.

In direct contradiction to the TF narrative, ?Lieutenant Haney? recounts standing orders to burn villages and destroy food. But we were the good guys because (sometimes) we did not follow those orders?

3. The Jasons

As I said at the beginning, the series really avoids discussing the well-funded strategic military initiatives, preferring instead to characterize Johnson, McNamara, and Westmorland as nothing more than clueless blunderers. The fact is that a lot of their blundering was underpinned by promises of massive technological fixes emmanating from various top secret research establishments. One slogan recounted by Mr. Dickson (see below) was "Better Killing Through Electronics".

In that light let us turn to the massive, continuous bombing of the Ho Chi Minh trail, to which the series does give a lot of airtime. However, the series omits the massive investment in "electronic battlefield" technologies and other sophisticated weaponry that supported that assault. The most prominent of the non-electronic technology were cluster bombs and C-130 gunships ("Puff the Magic Dragon").

While we lost the war, the MIC invented technologies that have evolved into the core of today's military: drone aircraft, laser-guided bombs, remote sensing, night vision and FLIR technologies. This work was funded by the Defense Communications Planning Group(DCPG), (commonly referred to as "The Jasons") which existed from 1966 to 1972.

By all accounts the DCPG was a very special thing...(scientists were) given extraordinary rights to spend money and "task" the services - that is to assign work to regular military organizations on the highest priority basis. On this latter point a former project member says, "If the DCPG said it needed 10,000 chocolate cram pies for the Army by noon the next day, it would get them and without any questions. Having such rights annoyed other no end."

- Paul Dickson, The Electronic Battlefield (1976)

In what has grown to a ~$100B/year cancer, the DCPG began the "black budget" process of secretly repurposing expenditures:

the DCPG had been given $678 million that it never bothered to use - that is, money in addition to what it spent. These excess millions were not returned to the Treasury but passed along to the Army, Navy, and Air Force to use for whatever they saw fit. To put this into another context, the DPCG surplus was almost four times the federal cancer research budget for fiscal 1970.

- Paul Dickson, The Electronic Battlefield (1976)

Not all the DCPG initiatives were as successful as the true innovations cited above. The history Mr. Burns has missed is the obscene amount of money thrown at every cockamamie technological scheme that was floated. The infamous McNamara Line, funded in 1967 and a complete flop by mid-1968, is a case in point:

on September 7, 1967, McNamara himself called a press conference to create a 47 mile long barrier across South Vietnam just south of the DMZ and that it would rely on equipment ranging from barbed wire to highly sophisticated electronic detectors. (The "grubby, bloody" war) was given its first bit of technological glamor appropriate to a nation two summers away from landing a man on the moon.

In March (1968) US News and World Report pointed out that the Mcnamara Line was in deep trouble and told of the skepticism about it in the field turning to cynicism...(in May) an AP dispatch "$1 Billion 'McNamara Wall' Fizzles".

- Paul Dickson, The Electronic Battlefield (1976)

Some of the DCPG initiatives are too embarrassing for Mr. Burns to mention. For example:

One helicopter gunship weapon was large containers of nails that were set to explode above the ground with the effect of a gargantuan sawed-off shotgun.

- Paul Dickson, The Electronic Battlefield (1976)

Gee, don't want to mention that while we are busy condemning Assad of Syria for "barrel bombs" dropped from helicopters, do we Mr. Burns?


Clearly, at this point, the series intends to focus solely on vignettes from the battlefield, larded with conventional news reports from the period, and reminiscences by carefully screened talking heads or carefully selected snippets of White House tape recordings.

It is getting harder to document the deliberate omissions that would be necessary to oppose the propaganda narrative of "good guys in a bad situation" that Mr. Burns is building. In the end, it was the Pentagon and the CIA who were the winners of the Viet Nam war. They never were truly punished for their aggression. Ten years after the end of the war, they were back in the driver's seat, running the Afghan War and sucking down funding for the Star Wars boondoggle. I sorta doubt Mr. Burns is going to come to that conclusion.


I realized that I had assumed everyone knew what the Phoenix Program was. If my audience includes people who are reading to learn history, that is a major goof. Here is a capsule summary from a review of Douglas Valentine's book:

Under the Phoenix Program, the CIA created and directed a secret police ostensibly run by the South Vietnamese. Its objective was to destroy the Viet Cong’s infrastructure. During the course of the program’s existence, the secret police units, operating as virtual death squads, were implicated in burnings, garroting, rape, torture, and sabotage. As many as 50,000 Vietnamese were killed. The most decorated American soldier of the war, Lieutenant Colonel Anthony Herbert, later recaledl in his book, Soldier, “They wanted me to take charge of execution teams that wiped out entire families and tried to make it look as though the VC themselves had done the killing.”

Covert paramilitary operations by the CIA in Vietnam began early in the sixties, but it was not until 1965, that the U.S. began developing terrestrial deployment, when the station was established at the headquarters of the American Embassy in Saigon. It was called OSA ("Office of Special Assistace"). Throughout the 44 provinces of South Vietnam, nearly thousand OSA agents would conduct various intelligence collection programs, political and covert operations.


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Lookout's picture


Remember it is the corporation for public broadcasting.

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“Until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

arendt's picture


He brings in recent books that I was unaware of. He explains how those books debunk the dated Cold War narrative that "could have been done in the 1980s".

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The funding for independent public broadcasting, of previously relatively high quality and fearless exposes, was cut specifically so that they'd become dependent upon such as the Koch brothers for funding.

As with other once-independent institutions, hire-purchase propaganda and donor censorship became the norm, as in US politics and many universities.

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Psychopathy is not a political position, whether labeled 'conservatism', 'centrism' or 'left'.

A tin labeled 'coffee' may be a can of worms or pathology identified by a lack of empathy/willingness to harm others to achieve personal desires.

arendt's picture

@Ellen North

Kill them and grab their assets. Whether it is Third World countries like the Congo, or Second World Countries like Chile, or lesser First World countries like Greece, or core First World countries like, lately, the US, the game is to bleed their assets to the point where their social structures disintegrate. At that point, the neoliberal looting machine can be fastened to them.

Ever since Reagan, the ruling class has been "starving the beast". PBS was one of the first targets. They surrendered decades ago. Their hasn't been any honest/unbiased (i.e., potentially embarrasing to the ruling class0 programming since then. Knowing that, I had little hope for Mr. Burns's propaganda exercise.

As I said in the first sentence of the first post in the series, "I was certainly not expecting real history".

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ggersh's picture

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“We now live in a nation where doctors destroy health, lawyers destroy justice, universities destroy knowledge, governments destroy freedom, the press destroys information, religion destroys morals, and our banks destroy the economy”
Chris Hedges

please send your essays to Ken Burns. He needs to read them and to know people like you are aware of reality and able to publish it immediately.

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arendt's picture

@Linda Wood

It wastes your time and annoys the pig. Sad

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thank you for your efforts correcting this whitewash of war.

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arendt's picture


I know what I lived through, and Mr. Burns is doctoring reality.

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arendt's picture

I bring this up to emphasize that all this covert terror stuff was going on long before 1967. The Phoenix Program was not the begining of terror; it was simply the rationalization of terror.

Word of warning. The snip below is from a website with fractured English, a website that confusingly mixes quotes with commentary. So, I would double check these facts. But, they are highly likely to be valid.

Nelson H. Brickham, Chief of Field Operations Section intelligence liaison, and authentic creator of Phoenix, was the man who launched the following projects within CORDS:

- HIP ("Hamlet Informant Project"): The CIA and Special Branch (Vietnamese officials not operating as intelligence agents but as detectives) were engaged in recruiting informants throughout South Vietnam. The CIA informants paid only if the accused confessed that he was part of the Vietcong infrastructure (IVC).

- PIC ("Province Interrogation Center"): The CIA abducted political leaders, students, trade unionists and journalists close to the communist ideologies and recruit PIC centers that were built torture chambers in all provinces of South Vietnam by the architectural firm specializing in the construction of bunkers and prisons "Pacific Architects & Enginners".

- PVI ("Vietcong Infrastructure Penetrations"): The IVC was attacked putting pressure on family members or on their people. Once arrested a member of VC, was tortured until he gave the name of his people and their families. Once done, the members of the Special Division conducted a raid, the captured (most were usually women) and were raped in front of the detainee This program was directed personally by Brickham.

Meanwhile, the head of the CIA station in Saigon, John Limond Hart, had its own covert action program, which was coordinated by his deputy, Tom Donahue. This program clashed often with that of Brickham, despite having much larger budget was less effective, partly because Hart used paramilitary Cubans from the Bay of Pigs, rather than South Vietnamese staff.

To end this competition, Colby decided on arrival to unify all covert CIA operations programs in South Vietnam under the name of PHOENIX. It was necessary to unite the efforts of the CIA, the FAS of the U.S., South Vietnamese Special Branch, and the Central Intelligence Organization of Vietnam.

The Phoenix program in its infancy was called ICEX ("Intelligence Coordination and Explotation"), and although it was under command of the army, it had its own chain of command, directed by William Colby himself.

The first step by the CIA was the creation of the PRU ("Provincial Reconnaissance Units") paramilitary units comprising of volunteers South Vietnamese soldiers and Americans SEALS , whose mission was to attack the enemy in their territory, in rural areas.


Dog save us - Cuban paramilitaries running torture programs.

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