Did You Hear the One about U.S. Internment Camps?

A leaked Army document on mass detentions has extremists boiling over on both the right and the left.


As soon as you see the title, you know you’re in trouble — "Army Field Manual 3-39.40: Internment and Resettlement Operations."

When you click on the link, as thousands already have, you get a 326-page PDF describing how the U.S. military would go about imprisoning and relocating massive populations — it’s a best-practice document for rounding up thousands of militants in a foreign country or in the event of a massive terrorist attack or natural disaster on U.S. soil.

Wait, what was that last part?

A handful of references to domestic applications — the prospective internment and resettlement of U.S. citizens — have fueled the spread of FM 3-39.40 like wildfire through the world of online political dissent, where it is being discussed by everyone from the Patriot movement on the right to Occupy on the left to Anonymous, anarchists, organized racists, survivalists, and plain old conspiracy theorists in between.

The document responsible for this perfect storm of radical chatter appears to have first leaked on the website, which is similar to WikiLeaks but has until now maintained a lower profile. From there, it was picked up by the conspiracy-oriented news site Prison Planet, and after that there was no stopping it.

FM 3-39.40 is an Army operations guide dated February 2010 with headings that include "Capture, Detention, and Initial Screening," "Detainee Flow," "Theater Internment Facility," "Strategic Internment Facility," "Detainee Rehabilitation Programs," and much, much more.

The manual has been around in one form or another since 1978, when it was first written to assimilate lessons learned from the resettlement of tens of thousands of Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees to the United States after the Vietnam War. It has been substantially rewritten since then, most recently to include scenarios encountered in Iraq and Afghanistan.

FM 3-39.40 is, essentially, a how-to guide for taking control of thousands or tens of thousands of people in a specific area, sorting them out afterward, and controlling them while in detention or in the midst of a resettlement.

For domestic extremists and radicals in search of evidence to support their forgone conclusion that the government is on the verge of declaring a police state, the field manual is a rhetorical gold mine — even if it didn’t specifically discuss how to apply these techniques to American citizens on U.S. soil.

Unfortunately, FM 3-39.40 discusses exactly that. Here are a few choice excerpts:


2-39. Civil support is the DOD support to U.S. civil authorities for domestic emergencies, and for designated law enforcement and other activities. (JP 3-28) Civil support includes operations that address the consequences of natural or man-made disasters, accidents, terrorist attacks, and incidents in the U.S. and its territories.

2-40. The I/R [internment/resettlement] tasks performed in support of civil support operations are similar to those during combat operations, but the techniques and procedures are modified based on the special [operating environment] associated with operating within U.S. territory and according to the categories of individuals (primarily DCs [dislocated civilians]) to be housed in I/R [internment/resettlement] facilities. […]


10-33. Military police will typically be required to account for DCs and report to higher headquarters. This may require the issuance of ISNs [internment serial numbers] or control numbers that are specific to DCs. Commanders conducting resettlement operations ensure a proper understanding of the ISN issuance policy before assigning an ISN to a DC. Even in civil support operations where social security numbers may be used, a supporting system will be required for those without social security numbers. […]

The field manual also broadly discusses a variety of psychological operations for use in managing detainees, including identifying "malcontents, trained agitators, and political leaders" in detainee communities in order "to reduce or remove antagonistic attitudes."

Passages like these reflect lessons learned from the operation of internment facilities in Iraq, where psychological operations officers performed an intelligence function in managing camps that held as many as tens of thousands of detainees at their peak.

At the beginning of the Iraq war and even through the 2008 surge, there were few guidelines and regulations to help soldiers conduct these massive detention operations, according to a former military officer who conducted detainee operations in internment facilities in Iraq.

"I would have loved to have this [field manual] five years ago," he said. The vast majority of guidance in the manual is intended for use in foreign theaters, he said, noting that only a handful of paragraphs from the 326-page manual address domestic operations of any kind.

An Army spokesman, speaking on background, said the current spate of online postings had taken passages from the manual significantly out of context, conflating wartime operational guidance (such as psychological operations) with peacetime operations in which a limited number of the manual’s principals would be applied on U.S. soil, in exceptional cases such as during relief efforts after Hurricane Katrina.

Not that the folks most outraged by this document see the handling of Katrina relief as benign. FM 3-39.40 lands during a time of skyrocketing paranoia and grievance among domestic radicals of virtually every stripe, in many cases fueled by their interpretations of real government actions, from the use of informants and undercover operations against would-be terrorists to the Patriot Act to the 2012 National Defense Authorization Act and its provisions for the military detention of American citizens.

Some of their talking points have even spilled over into mainstream politics, as in the case of the Kansas state legislature’s condemnation of the U.N.’s Agenda 21 sustainable energy initiative, which many radicals see as undermining U.S. sovereignty.

Because of its content and authenticity, FM 3-39.40 has a bit more tooth than some of its predecessors in conspiracyland. Within two weeks of its first appearance online, the document has produced more than 237,000 hits on Google.

Radicalization is driven in large part by victimization narratives, whether it’s a fear of Big Brother watching, big banks looting, big government seizing one’s guns, or a big, global war on Islam. A document like FM 3-39.40 is read as confirming the worst fears of an unusually wide spectrum of political dissenters, radicals, and would-be violent extremists from the right, left, and "other." Gasoline, meet match.

J.M. Berger is co-author of ISIS: The State of Terror and is a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution.

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