The code name for an operation conducted during the Vietnam War between 1967 and 1971 to infiltrate, identify, and neutralize the Vietcong infrastructure in rural villages. Sponsored by the Central Intelligence Agency’s Provincial Reconnaissance Units but managed by the Army of the Republic of Vietnam, teams of Vietcong defectors were granted amnesty in return for their assistance in penetrating the Communist cells across South Vietnam. Their objective was to offer further amnesties and gain more defectors, especially from the elite Ban-an-ninh, and although an estimated 17,000 took advantage of the scheme, and another 28,000 were taken prisoner, approximately 20,587 refused to surrender and died in firefights. An unknown number of PHOENIX members and their families were abducted, tortured, and murdered by the equally ruthless Ban-an-ninh.
Although often characterized by critics as an assassination program, achieving notoriety when William Colby was appointed director of central intelligence after having supervised the operation, PHOENIX is recognized as having been an exceptionally effective counterinsurgency measure, based upon British-inspired countergang principles, dependent on defectors denouncing their former comrades. In such circumstances, there is inevitably an element of personal score-settling and unreliable denunciations motivated by other reasons, but intelligence suggested that PHOENIX was the most significant factor in undermining Vietcong morale and isolating its cadres from the village headmen, and given more time, it might have prevented the final massed assault on Saigon.