Luca Trenta, ‘Phoenix: the rise of targeted killing’

CRAM member Luca Trenta explains his research  into assassination as an instrument of US foreign policy…

In 2004, with US troops confronting a widespread insurgency in Iraq, counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen called for the creation of a ‘global Phoenix program.’ During the Vietnam War, the Phoenix Program had included the widespread use of assassination to ‘neutralise’ Viet Cong cadres and supporters in the countryside. The establishment, under the Obama Administration, of a global targeted killing program – facilitated by the use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) or drones – seemed to answer Kilcullen’s call. In the literature, the focus on the technological, legal and ethical side of drones has obscured the fact that – as Phoenix demonstrates – assassination has had a long history in US foreign policy.

My current research explores the use of assassination in three historical phases: the assassination attempts of the early Cold War to the mid-1970s; Central American counter-insurgency in the 1980s to the war on drugs in the 1990s; and counter-terrorism from the early 2000s.

The aim of the research is to explore the reasons behind the disappearance and re-emergence of practices of assassination. When and under what circumstances has assassination proven a plausible option in US foreign policy? Conversely, when have policymakers been reluctant to engage in assassinations? What strategies have been adopted? How can we interpret their disappearance and re-emergence? What implications do these dynamics have for current debates and policy-making?

This research starts with an analysis of Phoenix.  Phoenix is a heavily debated phenomenon and the literature on Phoenix reproduces the divide in the general literature on Vietnam, between orthodox accounts – critical of American policies – and revisionist ones, looking more favourably on US choices. This research takes into account the three books in the field: the orthodox The Phoenix Program (Valentine), and the revisionist Phoenix and the Birds of Prey (Moyar) and Ashes to Ashes (Andrade). The research, however, will try to go beyond the radicalised debate in the literature, by relying on archival material form Johnson Presidential Library, the Library of Congress, the National Security Archives and the Texas Tech Vietnam Archive.

Patch of the Phoenix Program

Phoenix represents the first effort in US history to adopt a scientific, computer-based and intelligence-driven approach to counter-insurgency. Diverse pieces of evidence regarding a suspect were collected by IBM computers and ‘target folders’ were maintained on the suspects. Three pieces of evidence were enough to mark the target for ‘neutralization’ (kill or capture). Often suspects were targeted based on their behaviour or on the area they lived in. Furthermore, monthly ‘kill quotas’ were established leading to widespread abuses.

In today’s drone strikes, ‘target folders’ have been substituted by ‘PowerPoint slides’ discussed in Tuesday meetings (’terror Tuesdays’) by high-level officials in the Obama Administration. The Administration conducts both strikes against High Value Targets, based on intelligence regarding a suspect, and ‘signature strikes’ based on a suspect’s ‘pattern of behaviour’ or his location in a militant-held area. Adjusted for the improvement in technology, the practices, the rationale and the strategies of targeted killing are the same. The neutralization of cadres – or so the argument goes – will weaken insurgent and terrorist groups. Assessing the origins, development and effectiveness of Phoenix is, hence, a crucial first step in exploring the reasons behind the recurrence of strategies of assassination in US foreign policy and in exposing possible fallacies in current policies and debates.


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