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
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 Guillen Davillaver.
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 news shows.
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,"
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 course."
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
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
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 records.
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 report.
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
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 history stated.
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 guerrillas."
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.
US and Third World