Armies, addicts and spooks: The CIA in Vietnam and Laos


At 7:30 a.m., on March 16, 1968, Task Force Barker descended on the small hamlet of My Lai in the Quang Nai province of South Vietnam. Two squads cordoned off the village and one, led by Lieutenant William Calley, moved in and, accompanied by US Army Intelligence officers, began to slaughter all the inhabitants. Over the next eight hours US soldiers methodically killed 504 men, women and children.

As the late Ron Ridenhour, who first exposed the massacre, said years later to one of the present authors, “Above My Lai were helicopters filled with the entire command staff of the brigade, division and task force. All three tiers in the chain of command were literally flying overhead while it was going on. It takes a long time to kill 600 people. It’s a dirty job, you might say. These guys were flying overhead from 7:30 in the morning, when the unit first landed and began to move into those hamlets. They were there at least two hours, at 500 feet, 1000 feet and 1500 feet.”

The cover-up of this operation began almost from the start. The problem wasn’t the massacre itself: polls right after the event showed 65 percent of Americans approved of the US action. The cover-up was instead to disguise the fact that My Lai was part of the CIA killing program called Operation Phoenix. As Douglas Valentine writes in his brilliant book, The Phoenix Program,

the My Lai massacre was a result of Phoenix, the ‘jerry-built’ counter-terror program that provided an outlet for the repressed fears and anger of the psyched-up men of Task Force Barker. Under the aegis of neutralizing the infrastructure, old men, women and children became the enemy. Phoenix made it as easy to shoot a Vietnamese child as it was to shoot a sparrow in a tree. The ammunition was faulty intelligence provided by secret agents harboring grudges – in violation of the agreement that Census Grievance intelligence would not be provided to the police. The trigger was the blacklist.

The My Lai operation was principally developed by two men, the CIA’s Paul Ramsdell and a Colonel Khien, the Quang Nai province chief. Operating under cover of the US Agency for International Development, Ramsdell headed the Phoenix program in Quang Nai province, where it was his task to prepare lists of suspected NLF (called by the Americans “Viet Cong”) leaders, organizers and sympathizers. Ramsdell would then pass these lists on to the US Army units that were carrying out the killings. In the case of My Lai, Ramsdell told Task Force Barker’s intelligence officer, Captain Koutac, that “anyone in that area was considered a VC sympathizer because they couldn’t survive in that area unless they were sympathizers.”

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