The Consortium

Lost History: Project X, Drugs & Death Squads

By Robert Parry

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 Guillen Davillaver. [See The Consortium, March 17, 1997]

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.

Questions Unasked

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," 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 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 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 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 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 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 Investigation

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, sodiopentathol -- "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.

(c) Copyright 1997

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