Lost History: Project X,
Drugs & Death Squads
by Robert Parry
The Consortium magazine
March 31, 1997
WASHINGTON -- "The C.I.A. Cleanses Itself," declared
a mostly upbeat lead editorial in The New York Times on March
4. The U.S. spy agency had severed its ties to about 100 foreign
agents who were "killers, torturers, terrorists and other
assorted miscreants," the editorial observed with satisfaction:
"The Central Intelligence Agency's purge of foreign agents
with criminal histories is an important milestone in the organization's
effort to discard the bad habits of the Cold War."
Two days later, a front-page story in The Washington Post
described the Pentagon's release of long-withheld documents that
described how, for decades, the U.S. Army had been training soldiers
around the world in techniques of blackmail, kidnapping, murder
and spying on non-violent political opponents. That mysterious
training program went by the spooky code name "Project X."
A day after that, a federal grand jury in Miami returned a
narcotics indictment against Joseph Michel Francois, the military
police chief who had led the coup in Haiti which ousted elected
president Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 1991. Francois and his military
allies held power for the next three years, while Francois ran
a U.S.-trained counter-narcotics unit that managed to arrest fewer
and fewer drug traffickers.
Meanwhile, in Washington, senior national security officials
mocked Aristide's repeated charge that the military government
was deeply implicated in drug trafficking. And when President
Clinton pressed to restore Aristide to power in 1993, the CIA
undercut that strategy by sending a classified report to Congress
that portrayed the exiled president as a psychopath. With its
well-placed allies in Washington, Haiti's military government
held on for another year before Clinton finally ordered an invasion
that ousted Francois and Haiti's generals.
The indictment in Miami accuses Francois of collaborating
with Colombian drug cartels to smuggle 33 tons of cocaine and
heroin into the United States over a nine-year period. The Francois
indictment came only two months after the indictment of another
U.S. "counter-narcotics" ally, Venezuelan Gen. Ramon
This string of stories, tumbling out one on top of another,
left a troubling image of an American foreign policy that had
collaborated with a very foul cast of criminals.
But it was equally troubling that these remarkable admissions
had an ephemeral one-day-story quality about them. They had almost
no "bounce" onto the talk shows, the op-ed pages and
the evening news.
While the Washington press corps continued to obsess over
every detail of the scandal du jour -- political fund-raising
-- the U.S. government's admission that it had acted as something
akin to an international terrorist state and had protected drug
dealers just didn't make the grade.
But the cumulative stories amounted to official acknowledgement
that the United States had put a large number of criminals on
the CIA payroll and counseled Third World militaries in grisly
"death squad" tactics. The new evidence established
that, to a disturbing degree, the bloody mayhem in the Third World
meshed with a worldwide American counter-insurgency strategy.
Indeed, the United States may have supplied, in Project X, one
of the key blueprints for the mass anti-communist slaughters that
have claimed hundreds of thousands of civilian lives, from Asia
to Latin America.
Still, in the days that followed the government's admissions,
the Washington press corps didn't ask the obvious questions: Who
were the CIA's murderous agents? What crimes had they committed?
Which U.S. officials were responsible? How many other dirty operatives
had been on the CIA's employment rolls in earlier eras? Hundreds
more? Thousands? How many of these operatives were implicated
in smuggling drugs into the United States? And how many murderers
and criminals were retained on the payroll because their information
was considered vital to national security?
What little press attention there was to the CIA "cleansing"
mostly spun in the same positive direction as the Times editorial:
The CIA's admission had been a courageous purgative that merited
credit, more than questions, reflection and condemnation.
There was little criticism, either, of the Pentagon's partial
release of documents from Project X, the worldwide counter-insurgency
training program. As The Consortium reported in the Oct. 14, 1996,
issue, the full story of Project X might remain cloaked in secrecy
for all time because of an apparently illegal destruction of the
most embarrassing documents.
In 1992, in the last year of the Bush administration, Defense
Secretary Dick Cheney ordered all copies of the most objectionable
sections of Project X destroyed. The ostensible reason was to
prevent them ever being copied and taught again. But a more plausible
explanation was to keep the details out of the hands of historians.
The National Archives has begun an investigation to see if
the document destruction violated federal laws that protect historical
records. But there was no hue and cry from the media about a government
cover-up. Cheney was not swamped with interview requests. Senators
did not make headlines demanding congressional hearings. Longtime
CIA critics were not consulted as talking heads on television
Bad Old Days
To Noam Chomsky, an MIT professor and one of those critical
voices, the media's handling of the admissions was no big surprise.
"We can say that was the Cold War, the bad old days,"
Chomsky told The Consortium. "But it was not the Cold War.
The Russians were no where in Latin America."
Chomsky also sees the same violent counter-insurgency strategies
continuing into the post-Cold War period, especially in Colombia
where a vicious drug war has replaced anti-communism as the rationale
for the killing. "Even the State Department reports concede
that two-thirds of the killings -- about 10 a day -- can be traced
to the government troops and the paramilitary," Chomsky noted.
Edward Herman, another prominent critic of national security
abuses, also saw the tepid media response as par for the course.
"They tend to feature these CIA admissions in the context
of these things being allegedly ended," Herman said in an
interview. "These belated admissions ... make us the good
guys again. We see the error of our ways and we're now on a new
But Herman added that these recent semi-mea-culpas do not
stop the United States from continuing relationships with prominent
mass murderers, such as Indonesia's President Suharto and the
communist Chinese leadership. "We've moved to a higher plane,"
Herman said. "Now we're dealing with the wholesale terrorists."
Project X took shape in the 1960s amid the excitement that
President John Kennedy brought to the concepts of counter-insurgency
warfare, by mixing "hearts-and-minds" civic projects
and Green Beret esprit de corps with ruthless suppression of leftist
uprisings demanding basic social, political and economic changes.
As early as 1962, Kennedy dispatched Army Gen. William P.
Yarborough from Fort Bragg to South America. There, he urged Colombia
to mount "paramilitary, sabotage and/or terrorist activities
against ... communist proponents," according to Pentagon
The anything-goes mentality pervaded U.S. strategy throughout
the world, but it resonated with special intensity in America's
"back yard" of Central and South America. In a Los Angeles
Times article [March 18, 1982], Charles Maechling, who oversaw
the U.S. counter-insurgency strategies from 1961-66, despaired
over the devastating effects of those policies on Latin America.
In the 1960s, Maechling said, the United States shifted from a
policy of tolerance of "the rapacity and cruelty of the Latin
American military" to "direct complicity" in "the
methods of Heinrich Himmler's extermination squads." [Quotes
often cited by Chomsky]
Birth of Project X
Though the counter-insurgency strategies took shape in the
1950s and early 1960s, the U.S. intelligence community moved to
formalize those lessons in 1965 by commissioning Project X. Based
at the U.S. Army Intelligence Center and School at Fort Holabird,
Maryland, the project was tasked with the development of lesson
plans which would "provide intelligence training to friendly
foreign countries," according to a brief history, which was
prepared in 1991.
Called "a guide for the conduct of clandestine operations,"
Project X "was first used by the U.S. Intelligence School
on Okinawa to train Vietnamese and, presumably, other foreign
nationals," the history stated.
Linda Matthews of the Pentagon's Counterintelligence Division
recalled that in 1967-68, some of the Project X training material
was prepared by officers connected to the so-called Phoenix program
in Vietnam, an operation that included assassination of suspected
communists. "She suggested the possibility that some offending
material from the Phoenix program may have found its way into
the Project X materials at that time," according to the Pentagon
In the 1970s, the U.S. Army Intelligence Center and School
moved to Fort Huachuca in Arizona and began exporting Project
X material to U.S. military assistance groups working with "friendly
foreign countries." By the mid-1970s, the Project X material
was going to military forces all over the world.
In 1982, the Pentagon's Office of the Assistant Chief of Staff
for Intelligence ordered the Fort Huachuca center to supply lesson
plans to the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Ga. "The
working group decided to use Project X material because it had
previously been cleared for foreign disclosure," the Pentagon
According to surviving documents released under a Freedom
of Information Act request, the Project X lessons contained a
full range of intelligence activities. A 1972 listing of Project
X lesson plans covered aerial surveillance, electronic eavesdropping,
interrogation, counter-sabotage measures, counter-intelligence,
handling of informants, break-ins and censorship.
One manual warned that insurgents might even "resort
to subversion of the government by means of elections [in which]
insurgent leaders participate in political contests as candidates
for government office." Citizens were put on "'black,
gray or white lists' for the purpose of identifying and prioritizing
adversary targets." The lessons suggested, too, creation
of block-by-block inventories of families and their assets to
keep tabs on the population.
The internal review of Project X began in 1991 when the Pentagon
discovered that the Spanish-language manuals were advising Latin
American trainees on assassinations, torture and other "objectionable"
counter-insurgency techniques. The manuals suggested coercive
methods for recruiting counter-intelligence operatives, including
arresting the target's parents or beating him until he agreed
to infiltrate a guerrilla organization. To undermine guerrilla
forces, the training manuals countenanced "executions"
and operations "to eliminate a potential rival among the
According to another passage, sodium pentathol -- "could
be used under certain extenuating circumstances. ...It could be
intravenously injected and would have results of a truth serum."
The U.S. training manuals declared as "essential" the
penetration of political parties that might sympathize with or
support a guerrilla movement. Targets, whether "hostile or
not," should be put under surveillance and subjected to "ways
to diminish [their] influence and image," another passage
stated. "Some examples of these targets are governmental
officials, political leaders and members of the infrastructure."
By summer 1991, Cheney's office had ordered all relevant material
collected. Then, Werner E. Michel, the intelligence oversight
assistant to the defense secretary, recommended that one copy
of the seven manuals be retained for record purposes. But Michel
then added, "all other copies of the manuals and associated
instructional materials, including computer disks, lesson plans
and 'Project X' documents, should be destroyed."
The recommendation received approval from senior Pentagon
officials. Some of the more innocuous Project X lesson plans were
spared. But those Project X manuals that dealt with the sensitive
human rights violations were destroyed in 1992, the Pentagon reported.
The full history might have been lost in the shredder.
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