By Trowbridge H. Ford
A History of America’s National Reconnaissance Office – part 34 06 2012
The trouble with the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) taking on heavy responsibilities in the covert war in Vietnam, and trying to shore up support domestically for its continuance is that it had the most shadowy existence and legitimacy which were highly likely to be exposed as the operations involved so many personnel, and caused so much damage, both physically and psychologically. Operation Phoenix was an intense effort to break the political will of the Viet Cong and the North Vietnamese – what had started with Operation Plan 34A in February 1964 in the North – throughout the area by targeting their leadership, while NRO intercepts of communications with Cuba were intended to reveal how Americans were using enemy funds, especially from Hanoi, to undermine the nation’s will in the war.
The shaky basis upon which the NRO was operating on was well demonstrated when the Pentagon finally released the Department of Defense Directive upon which it was based - a mere updating of a most short 1962 one on March 17, 1964 - what was a consequence of National Security Action Memorandum 288, issued the same day, and was intended to carry out the recommendations of Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, who had just come back from Vietnam, a day earlier. They were all seen as necessary steps of a last-ditch effort to prevent all of Southeast Asia from falling to the communists.
It was McNamara who recommended retaliatory actions against North Vietnam – overt high and/or low-level reconnaissance flights to locate the Viet Cong’s sources of supply, the bombing of strategic targets, commando raids on installations of tactical importance, and the mining of North Vietnamese ports – in order to insure South Vietnam’s independence. “That objective, while being cast in terms of eliminating North Vietnamese control and direction of the insurgency, would in practical terms be directed toward collapsing the morale and self-assurance of the Viet Cong cadres now operating in South Vietnam and bolstering the morale of the Khanh regime.” (Quoted from The Pentagon Papers, paperback ed., p. 280.)
To facilitate the implementation of these recommendations, the NSAM 288 was agreed to, and the DoD Directive issued. The Directive’s legality was based upon provisions regarding maintaining the security of the CIA in the 1947 National Security Act, and as amended by the Department of Defense Reorganization Act of 1958. The Top Secret document did little more than recognize the NRO’s existence, and the duty of its director to coordinate and consolidate all the government’s satellite operations into one program, and to perform some other function whose nature was blackened out by the censor’s pen when it was declassified but whose content must have been about aerial reconnaissance necessary for McNamara’s plans.
This assumption is furthered by the fact that the agencies the NRO was to work with - apparently NSA, the CIA, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, especially the Office of the Special Assistant for Counterinsurgency and Special Activities headed by Major General Rollen Anthis, the Military Assistance Command in Saigon, the State Department, and other intelligence agencies – were somehow missing when the document was released. The administration firmly believed that the Viet Cong was controlled and directed from Hanoi, and once its infrastructure and will was broken, the insurgency in the South would collapse.
Three years of Rolling Thunder air attacks in the North while increasing American ground troops in the South to protect the most fragile government in Saigon proved these assumptions unfounded – as the Tet offensive of February 1968 proved - and leading hawks in Washington, starting with SOD McNamara, began reassessing their positions, and leaving the government when their revised views went unheeded. The still committed hawks would not tolerate any idea of settling for anything but victory, and they secretly worked behind the scenes to extend covert operations throughout the whole area because of the shortage of troops to launch a conventional offensive in the hope of breaking the infrastructure and will of the Viet Cong itself – Operation Phoenix.
The Operation has often been confused with other kinds of military actions – SWIFT boat patrols which encountered resistance, the results of ‘search and destroy’ campaigns by organized military forces, patrols which ended in wild firefights, and the like. The confusion regarding naval patrols was well demonstrated when former SWIFT boat sailors challenged Senator John F. Kerry when he charged during the 2004 presidential campaign that they had engaged in war crimes – what Kerry could not substantiate. The same confusion surrounds the My Lai massacre in 1968 when Lt. William Calley’s platoon was caught shooting up a village while in pursuit of a Viet Cong force – what helicopter pilot Hugh Thompson, who died during the campaign too, stopped at gun point, and ferried the survivors to safety.
Operation Phoenix is usually sanitized into merely an overly aggressive search for intelligence about insurgents where torture was even resorted to. William Blum, citing David Wise’s article “Colby of the CIA – CIA of Colby” in a 1973 issue of The New York Times Magazine, wrote this in Rogue State: “The notorious Operation Phoenix, set up by the CIA to wipe out the Viet Cong infrastructure, subjected suspects to torture such as electric shock to the genitals of both men and women, and the insertion into the ear of a six-inch dowel, which was tapped through the brain until the victim died; suspects were also thrown out of airborne helicopters to persuade the more important suspects to talk, although this should probably be categorized as murder of the ones thrown out, and a form of torture for those not.” (p. 52)
Actually, Operation Phoenix was a most sophisticated system of terror where violations of international law often took place: aassaults, ambushes and assassinations, generally at night, regularly occurred; renditions of those surviving routinely followed to places where comprehensive torture was carried out until the suspects were considered spent; and then they were simply executed. Aerial intelligence by the NRO was absolutely essential in all its operations as it was only after it had been taken, collected and analyzed could covert operators decide what targets to assault, and how. The instrument used was increasingly satellites as their passage overhead of any possible target would not tip-off the inhabitants of what was possibly afoot. Operation Phoenix, in short, was the ultimate when it came to death squads.
If anyone is still in any doubt about the brutality of Operation Phoenix, he should consider the people who really ran it, and the evaluations by competent judges of its character. British covert operators, especially those in the dreaded SAS, considered American special forces, especially the Green Berets and Navy Seals, unnecessarily vicious in carrying out their missions. For example, Ken Connor, in Ghost Force: The Secret History of the SAS, noted that they did not live and learn from the people they were trying to pacify, preferring to “get them by the balls” when it came to winning their hearts and minds. “The American inability – or refusal – to distinguish between combatants and civilians led,” he concluded, “to the brutal treatment of whole sectors of the population…” (p. 145)
This result was hardly unexpected since the CIA operative conducting Phoenix was Ted ‘Blond Ghost’ Shackley who had been William King Harvey’s boss in Berlin during the tunnel operation in the 1950s, and in Miami during the Missile Crisis before he became station chief in Vientiane, Laos. It was while leading a guerrilla force of 20,000 Hmong tribesmen against the Pathet Lao, allies of the North Vietnamese, that he built up the skills considered necessary for running the operation, and he spared no option in terror when making up for not having stopped communism during the Missile Crisis. Shackley was successful enough in his efforts to become Saigon station chief after the containment of the Tet offensive in 1968.
The only trouble in using such an operation in saving the war in Vietnam was that it might be completely upset in Washington by the election of a peace platform, headed by a different President. In that case, everything would be for naught, so Phoenix’s domestic side, headed by Harvey in New Orleans, prepared for the worst. He aka William Wood and Bill Boxley had been in a tailspin ever since the Dallas cock-up, and had been activated by DDCI Helms to make sure that Jim Garrison’s hunt for JFK’s killers did not get anywhere. Of course, Harvey, the massive, pistol-packing operator, had all the right connections with the Agency’s Science and Technology Division, the Mafia, especially Sam Giancana’s and Carlos Marcello’s people, and hardliners in Hoover’s FBI.
Hardly had Senator Robert Kennedy declared that the war was unwinnable, and Martin Luther King organized his Poor People’s Campaign, highlighted by a march on Washington to protest LBJ’s failure to follow through on his 1964 Great Society promises – what helped lead the beleaguered President to announce a bombing halt in Vietnam, and that he would not seek re-election - than Harvey maneuvered a programmed James Earl Ray into position in Memphis to assassinate him. Then when Kennedy picked up the peace mantle, and as President would appoint an independent commission to investigate the plot which assassinated his brother, Harvey had Sirhan Sirhan programmed as a decoy in his murder while security guard Thane Cesar killed him after his crucial victory in the California primary. (For more on this, see my article in Issue Eight of Eye Spy magazine, “Manchurian Candidates: Mind-Control Experiments and The Deadliest Secrets of the Cold War,” pp. 50-55, and my articles* about Harvey, Helms, and Peter Wright in codshit.com’sTrowbridge Archive.)
Of course, Harvey’s tasks were to recruit people like Ray and Sirhan – persons with disassociated personalities which could be manipulated unconsciously by drugs and hypnosis – in ways which would involve no suspicions that the CIA was involved, to see that they were programmed to do what was required without any recall, and leave no tracks which could be retraced back to him and the Agency if the assassinations resulted in anything more than usual murder investigations. The essential responsibility was to get other agencies, especially the Secret Service, the FBI and other agencies - with input from the NRO – involved in ways which would keep Harvey and his colleagues informed of how affairs were developing, and at the same time providing a firewall against any blowback if plans went awry again, or serious concerns were raised about these assassinations.
Given MLK’s campaign against Giancana’s exploitation of blacks in Chicago, it was easy for Momo’s lieutenant Johnny Rosselli to recruit Ray after he escaped from the Missouri State Penitentiary in Jefferson City, and made his way slowly with Raoul apparently aka Jules Ricco Kimble to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico as a Momo bagman. In doing so, he alerted Mexican federal police that he might be involved in drug-trafficking, but they made no attempt to arrest the fugitive - indicating that he was under surveillance in a Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs (BNDD) sting. In the resort, Ray was re-directed back to LA by Giancana’s people where he was checked out by Agency consultant Dr. Mark O. Freeman as to his suitability in being made a programmed assassin.
Then Ray was taken by Charles Stein, a criminal well-connected to Marcello, and a former resident of New Orleans, where he was checked out by Harvey for the MLK job after the operator had provided a complete cover up of the meeting as David E. Scheim indicated in Contract America: “According to the House Assassinations Committee, Ray took the ‘possibly sinister’ trip with a specific important objective, accomplished it rapidly, met with someone in New Orleans and received money on the trip.” (p. 317)
While the HAC would have us believe that Ray met some subordinates of Marcello in the Provincial Hotel to arrange MLK’s killing – what it was unable to find any evidence of - he actually met Harvey in his safe house where he was okayed for the operation. This was proven when he got back to LA, and Rev. Xavier von Koss hypnotized him to kill King under certain specific circumstances, and subjected him to a program of psychic driving to help induce it. (For a completely false explanation of the meeting - one which provides all kinds of evidence to refute its own conclusion, see Gerald Posner, Killing the Dream: James Earl Ray and the Assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., p. 208ff.)
While this article is not a detailed explanation of either the MLK or the RFK assassination, I think that what I have written so far indicates why the FBI, BNDD, and Secret Service – and ultimately the NRO – got involved in monitoring the activities of both Ray and Sirhan. He had similar connections with the Mafia, problems with the authorities in New York and Miami because of the criminal activities by his boss Frank Donneroummas aka Henry Ramistella, and experience with drugs and hypnotists in LA too – what is grounds for thinking Harvey made him into a Manchurian candidate because of his hatred of RFK, and what he apparently did to MLK.
Stein’s driving Ray to New Orelans would obviously get the BNDD involved, as he was reputedly selling narcotics in the city at the time. Ray’s own escape from the American and Mexican authorities while on the run indicates quite clearly that they were hunting bigger game, especially Marcello. And the Secret Service, after the fiasco in Dallas, was almost paranoid about the same thing happening to LBJ – what would make it most concerned about how the activities of Cubans, pro and con Fidel, fitted into all this.
And Sirhan was programmed behind a similar smokescreen. Instead of a Mafioso like Marcello seeing, it seems, to his hiring, it was a Southern California rancher who put out a contract on Kennedy because of his support of Cesar Chavez’s farm workers, and someone overheard a subordinate of Jimmy Hoffa’s, apparently Carmine Galente, in the Lewisburg (Pa.) federal penitentiary discussing his execution in a way reminiscent to how Ray was hired and sprung by Giancana’s people to get MLK while in the Missouri one.
RFK, considered America’s worst turncoat by its covert leadership, suspected that Hoffa was behind his brother’s assassination, and had had an aide recklessly inform Jim Garrison of his suspicions! This obviously became most dangerous to RFK, increasingly seen as the next President, when Harvey infiltrated the investigation, and kept the Agency informed about developments in New Orleans, as Vincent Salandria, one of the few respectable critics of the Warren Report who claimed that the JFK assassination was the result of a government conspiracy, belatedly informed the District Attorney: “Jim, I’m afraid your friend, Bill Boxley, works for the federal government.” (Quoted from Jim Garrison, On the Trail of the Assassins, p. 221.)
Sirhan suffered from compulsive gambling, constantly involved in shady deals to pay off the consequent debts. More important, Sirhan, being a Christian refugee from Palestine who could barely speak Arabic, emigrated to the States in 1956 after a terrifying childhood, and was often complaining about their plight to the folks back home, especially to his father who had returned causing security officials concerned about where his pan-Arabism may lead, especially after Nasser’s forces had been humiliated in the 1967 Six Day War. While he was compulsively writing and saying threats about RKF – part of his programming – officialdom apparently only thought that they pertained to LBJ since the President was responsible for the help to Israel that so angered Sirhan.
The growing connection between what was going on in Vietnam with developments back home was enhanced by things which had nothing to do with the assassinations of MLK and RFK – just information leaking out which could cause people to make the association. In the June 1966 issue of Ramparts magazine, Stanley Sheinbaum, who had been the coordinator of a Michigan State University project to assist the economic development of South Vietnam, provided an exposé of how the CIA had manipulated the program to serve its covert agenda, and threatened to expose more Agency interference in domestic organizations.
In investigating the magazine, hoping to find communist infiltration of the organization, the CIA discovered that its most outspoken author was former Green Beret Donald Duncan - whose book The New Legions, condemning the training and operations of his former colleagues, caused some of them and many citizens to gain a new political consciousness - who only promised more. “We will continue to be in danger,” he wrote to DCI Helms, “as long as the CIA is deciding policy and manipulating nations.” (Quoted from Angus MacKenzie, Secrets, p. 17.)
It was Ramparts which even got Dr. King concerned about the plight of the Vietnamese, his close associate, and later public defender William F. Pepper writing an article, entitled “The Children of Vietnam,” in the January 1967 issue about the US Army’s brutal treatment of their offspring. As Pepper wrote recently in An Act of State: The Execution of Martin Luther King, it was his files that induced King “…not only to formally announce his opposition to that war but to actively work and organize against it in every corner of America he visited.” (p. 5)
It was in this context that the NRO was brought into the hunt for the communists, traitors, and drug lords by the BNDD, the Secret Service, and the FBI who were thought to be undermining the national will in Vietnam. As NSA director Lt. Gen. Lew Allen testified in 1975 before the Senate Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with Respect to Intelligence Activities aka Church Committee, in 1967 the United States Intelligence Board tasked it to intercept all communications that Americans had overseas regarding drug trafficking, Executive protection, and foreign influence over US groups. In the six-year period the program was working, the NRO supplied 2,000 reports regarding drug trafficking, and 1,900 ones regarding possible terrorism and foreign manipulation of domestic political activity.
While James Bamford has portrayed the program in Body of Secrets: How America’s NSA and Britain’s GCHQ Eavesdrop on the World as a rogue one, conceived by its paranoid deputy director Louis Tordella, which was essentially concerned with making watch lists of subversives (p. 428ff), it was authorized by the White House, and it concerned primarily what people were saying and doing about all these things. While Bamford was most concerned with what the CIA, Bureau, and the DIA were doing about the reported activities of people like MLK, Dr. Benjamin Spock, actress Jane Fonda, and singer Joan Baez, he made no mention of the BNDD, and what its requested intercepts involved – what led to all kinds disinformation which Harvey and his agents took cruel advantage of in the assassinations of MLK and RFK.
Of course, by the time that Watergate occurred, and covert activities by the Nixon White House started leaking out, what the NRO had supplied to the process was ancient history, and by the time the NSA was obliged to testify about its role, what its reconnaissance agency had done seemed of little consequence. When General Allen was obliged to testify before the Church Committee, he mentioned this without the slightest response from committee members. “NSA did not retain any of the BNDD watch lists or product. It was destroyed in the fall of 1973, since there seemed no purpose or requirement to retain it.” (For more, see Bamford, p. 428ff.) Independent investigators might have had different ideas, once they saw how deeply involved the BNDD was in following all the activities of the leading Mafiosos, and anti-Castro Cubans – what had cleared the way for Harvey.
By then, NRO director Dr. Alexander Flax, its public face, had long departed the scene. He retired with the arrival of the new Nixon administration back in March 1969. Apollo 8, the Lunar Orbit and Return, had safely been completed just before Christmas, and with the election of a candidate allegedly committed to achieving peace in Vietnam, it was an ideal time to go.