Mercy of the Wicked: The CIA’s Phoenix Program


    The CIA instituted a bloody campaign of exporting torture techniques across the world and into the hands of cruel regimes, officially known as the Phoenix Program.

    In Ash

    As the curtains fell on World War II, the modern world, militaries and governments adapted to meet the needs and want of the new era of society. The horrors of the war still reigned on the collective consciousness of the world. Footage of the Nazi death camps, the firebombing of Dresden, and the brutal but triumphant Operation Overlord landing on December 6th, 1944 were all still fresh in the minds of the war-torn but hopeful, world. 

    The Nazi regime that strangled the free world with promises of an everlasting empire, or “Third Reich” as the leader of the party and nation, Adolf Hitler, would adopt as its designation, led a campaign of systemic terror and brutality against the European continent. Using techniques adapted from the Herero genocide during the colonial period of Germany, the Nazis cruelly tortured and killed people throughout Europe with little discretion. The Nazi party is known for its cruel experiments on the mind and body within the walls of its many death camps spread across Eastern Europe. They were dabbling in eugenics, mind control, and even human genome advancement trying to create a perfect army for the Reich. 

    Smoldering Embers

    When the Reich fell in 1945, the United States realized the intellectual value of Nazi scientists, engineers, and doctors, among many other individuals. To make sure that in the post-war period the United States had the scales tipped in their favour, they unveiled “Operation Paperclip”, a project designed to recruit past Nazis into the government, giving them jobs and new identities as long as they provided their knowledge to the U.S military and government. The most well-known and in a sense, catch twenty-two with this program is Werner von Braun. Braun designed the Nazi’s most technologically advanced weapon, the V-2 rocket. Using his skills in rocket technology and propulsion, he became head of the National Air and Space Program and is highly credited with getting the United States space program to a point where it could land on the moon in 1969. Without this acquisition of intellect from the United States’ former enemies, it is not known where the space program would be.

    Wait! Who Let the Nazi’s in?

    However, while there were notable successes with the acquisition of Nazi scientists and members into the government, the grievances and cruelty they projected spread in the intelligence community like cancer.

    The Central Intelligence Agency, or CIA, is America’s leading foreign intelligence agency and was formed in 1947 in response to the growing tension between the Soviet Union and the United States. Stemming from Nazi techniques and ideology and the cruel practices in which they learned how a break a person mentally, the CIA formed a basis for psychological torture. Furthermore, it sponsored its propagation around the world, under the guise of relief and assistance programs. The most famous was the Phoenix Program by the CIA during the conflict in Vietnam.

    The Phoenix Shrieks

    The Phoenix Program was crafted by the CIA as an intelligence ladder and channel in Vietnam in 1967. It was a cumulation of all counter-insurgency operations in the country. Such as police, military intelligence, and other CIA operations in the region. Through this compression of counter-insurgency operations, the CIA was in a better position to receive and extract information from high-value targets. The key factor and edge of the Phoenix Program’s structure were that it was almost just as loose and flexible as its enemies. For example, CIA agents and plain-clothes officers would work very closely and collaborate despite the differences in training and stature. 

    One arm of the Phoenix Program, the Office of Public Safety, or OPS, was a program to help train allied police forces around the world that was created in 1962. It quickly became a key tool in disseminating CIA torture techniques and stopping communism worldwide. The OPS would take trainees from Latin America, Vietnam, and other nations to a clandestine training centre in Washington D.C, where they were taught torture techniques by U.S officials. In the case of Vietnam, trainees were trained under “stringent wartime measures designed to assist in defeating the enemy.” In 1971, a South Vietnamese trainee wrote in his thesis 

    “Despite the fact that brutal interrogation is strongly criticized by moralists, its importance must not be denied if we want to have order and security in daily life.” (McCoy, 62)  

    The Ladder of Intelligence

    The Phoenix Program had crafted a ladder of intelligence from rural Vietnam to the head intelligence office in Saigon. This was mainly due to Peter DeSilva, the CIA station chief in Saigon. DeSilva wanted to replicate the Vietcong’s brutal techniques back onto themselves and instituted an equally brutal system. Using local thugs under the guise of “Provincial Reconnaissance Units” or PRUs, systematic torture would begin to plague the Provincial Interrogation Centers in each province. (McCoy, 64) 

    K. Barton Osbourn, a military intelligence official who worked with the Phoenix Program in Vietnam from 1967 to 1968, described the insertion of a dowel into a captive’s ear until it was hammered into their brains until died, and the sexual and electric exploitation of men and women prior to their death. Osbourn testified that all these procedures were outlined to him and all other operatives, Vietnamese or American, in the Defense Collection Intelligence Manuel, which was issued to him during training.

    CIA Phoenix Program
    K. Barton Osborn and intel agent Michael Uhl (Source)

    There are chilling accounts of direct CIA atrocities in South Vietnam, particularly in the Bien Hoa Mental Hospital in Saigon. It is reported that in 1966 Dr Lloyd H. Cutter and two other psychiatrists were sent with an electroshock machine provided by the Technical Services Division of the Office of Public Safety (OPS), to test whether certain depatterning exercises worked on the brain to alter human behaviour. Utilizing the Phoenix ladder, Viet Cong prisoners were brought to the hospital and given excessive shock treatments. For one week straight, they were subjugated to 60 shock treatments every day. Not a single captive survived, and without any results, the CIA doctors packed up and flew back to the United States. 

    Then in 1968, based on a journalist’s account, a CIA team and one doctor flew to the hospital and implanted “tiny electrodes” in each captive’s brain, and at the change of a frequency could make the men defecate and vomit at will. The men were also given knives and the doctor tried to get them to enact violence upon one another. When this did not occur, Green Berets, following CIA orders, shot and killed the men, and then burned their bodies in the hospital courtyard. (McCoy, 65)

    In 1970-1971, William Colby, chief of pacification in Vietnam, testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, that the Phoenix Program had killed 6,187, or just over 12% of the 75,000 strong Viet Cong, in just 1969 alone. Several days later, Colby reaffirmed to the Senate Committee the Program had killed 20,587 Vietcong “suspects” since 1968. (Colby, 1971) The South Vietnamese government countered with the number 40,994 since 1968. (McCoy, 67) Colby’s recollection of the casualties up until 1971 is as follows, 

    “I believe that the figures in mid-1971 that were testified to at the time were some 28,000 had been captured, some 20,000 had been killed, and some 17,000 had actually rallied by that time. Obviously, the program has been going on since then, and those figures are larger today.” (Colby, 1971)

     According to the same release as Colby’s testament, the Phoenix Program was fully integrated into the South Vietnamese police forces in 1972, and all U.S assistance to the Phoenix Program through the Department of Defense has subsequently ended. (Colby, 1971)

    William Colby (Source)

    Wings of Fire

    While the U.S was fighting the Vietcong in Vietnam, U.S officials understood more must be done to combat the perceived threat of communism, and to do so counter-insurgency operations around the world would be bolstered and efforts would be increased. This resulted in the creation of the Latin American prototype of the Phoenix Program, Project X. While one can argue it is merely an extension of the Vietnamese Phoenix Program, it is rather a synthesis and revision of techniques and practices used in Vietnam. Project X began sometime in 1965-1966 and existed, as a confidential Pentagon memo states, “to develop an exportable foreign intelligence package to provide counterinsurgency techniques learned in Vietnam to Latin American countries.” (McCoy, 71) 

    The American public was first made aware of Project X and its stranglehold on Latin America in 1970 when an OPS advising officer, Dan Mitrione, was executed by Tupamaro rebels in Uruguay. It was revealed by a Cuban double agent that Mitrione, a father of nine, was a mastermind of torture and its dissemination through his role in the OPS in Uruguay. His motto was, reportedly, “The right pain in the right place at the right time”, and felt that premature death in torturing someone, meant that the technique had failed. (McCoy, 72) 

    Dan Mitrione (source)

    Starting in 1971, a congressional investigation into OPS had brought fruition to the claim it was proliferating torture manuals, programs, and training around the world. By 1975, Congress cut funding for all police and prison training abroad, which abolished the Office of Public Safety. (McCoy, 73) However, Congress never investigated who was the source of this information and training: the CIA. The CIA escaped any reform and scrutiny and had already changed its main arm of torture dissemination to the Army’s Military Advisor Program, which had just the same reach as OPS did. (McCoy, 74) The dissemination of such content came to a halt under Jimmy Carter’s humanist administration, in which he put a stop to all covert actions by the CIA and other agencies during his term as President.

     Latin America had stayed under the radar in terms of CIA-taught torture for some time until 1988 until a New York Times expose pointed to CIA-taught torture in Honduras under the command of Colonel Gustavo Alvarez Martinez. The correlation between the CIA and the Honduran government’s torture lies in the almost word for word Kubark interrogation manual produced in the 1960s as a result of MKULTRA by the CIA, and the Honduran Human Resource Manual that was drafted in 1983.

    Talons of Smoke

    In 1953, the CIA and Israeli Mossad instituted a coup in Iran to put the pro-Western Shah back to power. The CIA had to help maintain his control for the 25 years he was in power. Most importantly, in 1959, the CIA was involved in the reorganization of the Iranian secret police. The CIA is personally responsible for the Savak, the most brutal of the secret police squads, as they trained the unit and its interrogators based on Nazi torture techniques the agency inherited through Operation Paperclip, directly after WWII. (McCoy, 75) Jessie Leaf, a former CIA analyst, recalled “Although no Americans particularly participated in the torture, people who were there seeing the rooms and being told of torture. And I know the torture rooms were all toured and paid for by the U.S.A.” (McCoy, 74) 

    This is another example of the CIA’s clear dissemination of not only torture techniques but quite literally whole torture rooms and funds to do so. In the 1970s, opposition grew to the Shah, and the Savak stepped up its cruel treatment and torture of dissidents. In an interview with Le Monde, the Shah said, “Why should we not employ the same methods as you Europeans? We have learned sophisticated methods of torture from you. You use psychological methods to extract the truth: we do the same” (McCoy, 75)

    The widespread use of torture by the Shah would actually play into his own demise. Student protestors kept dissenting and protesting, so the Savak kept arresting and torturing. This cycle continued, and over time the Iranian government had over 50,000 political prisoners in its prisons. By 1979, an Islamist movement overthrew the Shah and pro-Western Iran. By resting his regime upon the arrest, torture, and forced will of the Iranian people, the Shah orchestrated his own downfall. The CIA-crafted torture that was meant to keep the peace and stop bad actors was the chisel that slowly fractured the legitimacy and reception of the Shah and the Iranian government.

    A suspected SAVAK agent after being arrested by revolutionary forces. (Source)

    Breath of Sulfur

    The Philippines and its own rendition of CIA-crafted torture provide a dark and cruel look into the psychology of the torturer and how that affects society as a whole. President Ferdinand Marco was a cruel autocrat who, from 1972 to 1986, used torture as a key tool in his all-powerful regime. (McCoy, 75) Filipino torture specifically, was very theatrical in its approach. The torturer plays a grand inquisitor, and all-powerful form of salvation, while the victim is led to believe they are nothing but a coward, and confessing to their crimes, legitimate or not, is the only salvation from the torture they brought upon themselves. (Holden, 2011) 

    This last part is very important. No matter what, the torturer would use language that points the blame on the individual, such as “you leave me no choice..” .. “because you choose to not cooperate” and “you are just making it worse for yourself” (McCoy, 97) These all play into the victim’s psychology so detrimentally they start to perceive their torturer as an omnipotent force, the only thing that can save them. 

    CIA Phoenix Program
    Ferdinand Marco (Source)

    The Priest

    Father Edgardo Kangelon was tortured by the government after a rumour that the Catholic Church was a safe haven for Communists. He was tortured for two months with minor physical pain – some punches and kicks, but mainly degrading comments on his sexuality, past and even faith. The torturers used everything they could against the priest until he finally broke and named other church officials as Communist agents. (McCoy, 79) He released a 25-page memoir, where the theatrics taken on his torturers was broadcasted to the world, and striking similarities between his torture and the CIA’s Kubark manual point to CIA involvement in the Philippine’s torture program. 

    Salvaging the Phillippines

    One cryptic reality and the well-observed case of collective trauma in a society is that of the Philippines. When the government would torture and kill somebody, they would almost always leave their bodies for display publicly. All who passed by were now part of the torture; their brains were not only tortured by the images, but the fact they are seeing the results of their own collective actions in governments and society. This surfaced a neologism in the Filipino-American dialect as “salvaging.” Now imagine America today, where every day a new unarmed person is killed by the police and society has now come to the acceptance and normality of such a barbaric practice that we brand a word or phrase like, “clean up”. For instance, “New York police “cleaned up” three men today, suspected of nothing.” That sort of trauma is hard to capitalize on and almost harder to get rid of, as everyone is affected in their own personal way by it. 

    The Colonel and the RAM

    After the fall of Saigon in 1975, the CIA stepped up counter-insurgency operations in Asia and implemented its programs and techniques within its old colony and ally, the Philippines. CIA involvement leads back to 1978 when a popular human rights newsletter reported that the top torturer for President Marco, Lieutenant Colonel Rolando Abadilla was studying at the Command and General Staff School in Kansas. Also, another newsletter claimed that Abadilla’s protege, Rodolfo Aguinaldo, was on his way to study under the CIA for one year in the United States. 

    Many of the torturers from the Philippines were young, recent graduates from the Philippine Military Academy. This would lead to implications in the government and society that will eventually lead to its overall destabilization. By being able to torture any member of society, such as priests, journalists, politicians, and even other military officials, these young officers’ view of society was a ripped veil. (Holden, 2011) Throughout their training, it was reaffirmed that anyone in their country could be an enemy, and no one was off-limits to such cruel treatment. They had this empowering feeling of authority and omnipotence that would lead some officers to form RAM or Reform the Armed Forces Movement, which would carry the country through destabilizing coups in the 1980s. (Holden, 2011)

    Torture Backfires on Marco

    By instituting this torture, Marco, like the Shah, played a key part in his own demise. These coups destabilized the country and eventually led to a guerilla like a campaign against the government by underground RAM forces, which included terror bombings and shootings. (Holden, 2011) Marco relied on this CIA-crafted and disseminated torture, and it cost him the overall stability of his regime. Due to the omnipotent and all-powerful role he prescribed his young officers, they quickly saw through the thin veil of civil society and chose to violently exert their will on it, just as they had done to so many people. 

    The Eagle Extinguished?

    The proliferation and perceived success of the Phoenix Program during the conflict in Vietnam not only led to more CIA-crafted torture programs, such as Project X but also actually furthered the deterioration of American allied governments abroad, specifically in the implementation of state terrorism and abuse by Iran prior to 1979 and the Philippines in the and 1980s.

    The CIA, first using the Office of Public Safety and wartime channels in Vietnam successfully disseminated torture techniques that were derived from the MKULTRA findings and Nazi torture techniques in World War II, throughout the country and established a ladder of intelligence that made sure no one was safe from its oversight and agents – this was called the Phoenix Program. Then, using different channels and revised techniques, the CIA unrolled Project X, the child of the Phoenix Program. This then spilt into over ten countries in Latin America, most importantly, Honduras. 

    By taking trainees from allied countries across the world, like Iran and the Philippines, CIA-crafted torture found its way across the globe still. Instead of holding up the regimes, it was taught to, it only did more to unravel and destabilize those regimes. 

    In Iran, a sort of cycle appeared to occur, where dissidence occurs, cruel torture tries to extinguish it, then more dissidence in response to that torture begins to occur, and then the torture is ramped up until the dissidence reaches a radical and revolutionary point. 

    In the case of the Philippines, CIA-crafted torture led to the creation of an exclusionary and radical military echelon that for almost a decade tormented daily life in the country.


    LOC-HAK-331-4-20-7. (2010, May 13). Retrieved from

    McCoy, A. W. (2007). A question of torture: Cia interrogation, from the Cold War to the War on Terror. New York: Metropolitan Books.

    Holden, W. (2011). Neoliberalism and state terrorism in the Philippines: the fingerprints of Phoenix. Critical Studies on Terrorism, 4(3), 331–350.

    Rosenau, W., & Long, A. (2009). The Phoenix Program and Contemporary Counterinsurgency. Ft. Belvoir: Defense Technical Information Center.


    Wes Martin
    Wes Martin
    Wesley is an alumni of The Fund for American Studies and Ronald Reagan Institute in Washington, DC. He is currently in his senior year of his undergraduate degree at Southern New Hampshire University studying Law & Politics.

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