The Vang Pao Files
From Marc Eisen, Isthmus editor
The transcript for a May 17, 1988, investigative report by PBS’s Frontline — “Guns, Drugs, and the CIA” — names Vang Pao as a key player in the drug trade during the Vietnam War.
The report directly connects the transport of opium and its conversion into heroin to the Hmong CIA mercenary army fighting an undeclared war against the North Vietnamese and Laotian communists.
A fuller but still troubling picture of Vang Pao emerges in the winter 2000 issue of the Hmong Studies Journal. It contains ‘Warlord,” a chapter from Keith Quincy’s book, Harvesting Pa Chay’s Wheat: The Hmong and America’s Secret War in Laos.
The Secret Team, Part III: Chaos in Laos
The Secret Team Enters South-East Asia
By John Bacher
More bombs were dropped on Laos between 1965 and ’73 than the U had dropped on Japan and Germany during World War II. More tha 350,000 people were killed. The war in Laos was a secret only from th American people and Congress. It anticipated the sordid ties between dru trafficking and repressive regimes that have been seen later in the Norieg affair
by John Bacher
AFTER THE CLOSING DOWN OF the United States’s secret war in Cuba, CIA agents Theodore Shackley and Tom Clines were sent eastward to set up a far more massive secret war in Laos. Like its previous “Operation Success,” “Mongoose” and “JM/Wave” assignments, the team was presented with another “mission impossible” — to prop up a reactionary U.S. client state with little indigenous popular support. That the mission succeeded as well as it did, from 1965 to 1973, was only possible because of massive narcotics smuggling and saturation bombing which tended to overshadow any national foreign policy objective.
Prior to the arrival of the Secret Team in Laos, the U.S. had a sordid history of the destruction of neutralist Laotian governments with broad political support, since the country received its independence from France in 1954. The CIA engineered coups in 1958, 1959, 1960, and possibly on other occasions, as William Blum has documented in his The CIA: A Forgotten History. Such manipulation had the effect of driving the Pathet Lao (Communist Party) out of the political arena and into military conflict in alliance with North Vietnam. U.S. President John F. Kennedy did have the intelligence to see the absurdity of this situation and obtained a coalition government with the Pathet Lao backed by international agreement. This neutral regime was, however, overthrown in 1964 by a right wing coup, giving effective control to reactionary generals with close ties to the CIA.To stabilize this regime with so little popular support, the CIA sent Theodore Shackley and Tom Clines to Laos in 1964.
Unlike the war in Vietnam, the secret war in Laos remained in the hands of the CIA and avoided direct deployment of U.S. troops. This lack of American casualties tended to hide its massive scale. After the war’s end, the New York Times observed that “some 350,000 men, women and children have been killed, it is estimated, and a tenth of the population of three million uprooted.” Between 1965 and 1973, more than two million tons of bombs were dropped on Laos — far more than the U.S. had dropped on both Japan and Germany during World War II. This bombing was applied to all regions controlled by the Pathet Lao. A former American community worker in Laos, Fred Branfam, described how “village after village was levelled, countless people burned alive by high explosives, or by napalm and white phosphorous, or riddled by anti-personnel bomb pellets.” In order to wreck the economy in the Pathet Lao area, the U.S. dropped millions in forged currency. At the end of the war in Laos, the Plain of Jars resembled a lunar landscape marked by bomb craters,”stark testimony to the years of war that denuded the area of people and buildings.” Irrigation works collapsed and so many water buffalo had been killed in the war that farmers had to harness themselves to the plows to till fields. Unexploded ordnance are still killing and hampering food production. Such weaponry includes fragmentation weapons with explosives and steel bits released from large canisters.
THE ROYAL LAO ARMY HAD PROVEN unreliable to prop up John Foster Dulles’s puppet American regimes in the ’50s, which were often overthrown by nationalistic officers. Therefore Shackley and Clines developed their own secret army, based on the discontented Meo tribal minority and financed by the narcotics trade. Meo villages that refused to send troops to fight in this secret army were bombed by the U.S. Air Force, as Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman point out in After the Cataclysm. To suit U.S. strategic needs, villages were relocated. Besides 15,000 Meo tribesmen, the secret army included 15,000 mercenaries from Thailand, and U.S.-trained soldiers from South Vietnam, Taiwan, South Korea and the Philippines. The New York Times quipped that the “Secret Army” was secret only from “the American people and Congress.” American advisers killed in Laos were reported to have died in Vietnam.
ONE objective of Shackley and Clines was to monopolize the opium trade in Laos for their Meo ally, Van Pao. In 1965 Van Pao’s opium trafficking competitors were assassinated.
After the end of the Indochina war, the CIA admitted that “certain elements” of its war organization had been involved in opium smuggling. As Henrick Kruger points out in The Great Heroin Coup (Black Rose, 1980), the CIA was forced to admit this because of reports of returning U.S. veterans. One report, by highly-decorated Green Beret Paul Withers, explained that one of his main tasks had been “to buy up the entire crop of opium” of the Meo tribe. About once a week an Air America (a CIA owned company) plane, he reported, “would arrive with supplies and kilo bags of opium, which were loaded on the plane. Each bag was marked with the symbol of the tribe.” Air American flights were exempted from normal customs inspections. In 1971 some 60 kilos of heroin (worth $13.5 million) were seized from the briefcase of the chief Laotian delegate of the World Anti-Communist League.
Shackley and Clines also developed a program to use their secret army for “unconventional warfare” activities, including political assassinations. This is detailed in the lawsuit of the Christic Institute. In 1966 a multi-service operation, the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam — Special Operations Group (MACV-SOG) was formed. From 1966-1968 this group supported the assassination activities of the secret army and was commanded by future World Anti-Communist League president and Contra fundraiser, General John K. Singlaub. Serving under Singlaub in Laos in 1968 was the then Second Lieutenant Oliver North.
From 1968 to 1971 Theodore Shackley and Tom Clines supervised the Special Operations Group in Laos. The secret army assassinated over 100,000 noncombatant villagers: mayors, bookkeepers, clerks and other political figures in Laos, Cambodia and Thailand. These killings established a foundation of terror for the Laotian government, undermined Prince Norodom Sihanouk’s efforts to steer a neutral course for Cambodia, and discouraged the growth of democracy in Thailand. The style of terror resembled the random killings of Colonel Kurtz’s Montagnards in the film Apocalypse Now. Unfortunately movie watchers are deceived into thinking such madness would bring official punishment instead of promotions.
The antics of the Secret Team in Laos would be a prelude to even more destructive activities in Vietnam, where their program of narcotics smuggling and assassination would develop even greater scope. This war was too massive to let the brunt of the fighting to fall to tribal minorities and foreign mercenaries, causing America to officially enter Southeast Asia.
The U.S. client state’s government became so deeply involved in illegal activities, such as the heroin trade and thievery, that it more resembled an organized crime syndicate than a coalition of conservative political parties. The terrorist operations of the Secret Team in Vietnam, such as the infamous Phoenix Program, destroyed both the “third force” and the communist-led National Liberation Front, tending to make the domination of the area by North Vietnam the inevitable outcome of the conflict.
John Bacher (Ph.D., History) is a Metro Toronto archivist.
General Van Pao Arrested
U.S. arrests 10 it says plotted to oust Laos’ govt
By Adam Tanner | June 4, 2007
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) – U.S. prosecutors charged 10 people, including an ex-Laotian general, on Monday with seeking to topple the government of Laos in what they described as a dramatic cloak-and-dagger plot thwarted by an undercover agent posing as an arms dealer.
“These defendants had developed an audacious plan to overthrow the government of Laos, and were seeking to arm themselves with automatic rifles, rockets and surface-to-air missiles,” Assistant U.S. Attorney General Kenneth Wainstein said.
Most prominent among those charged is Vang Pao, 77, a southern California resident and ethnic Hmong. A general in the Royal Lao Army before the Communists came to power in 1975, he led a U.S. Central Intelligence Agency-trained mercenary army during the war in Indochina.
Pao remains influential among the more than 100,000 Hmong in the United States; in April a Wisconsin school district voted to rename a school after him.
Many of those arrested lived in and around Fresno in central California, home to a large Hmong population.
A special agent of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives posed as a arms dealer who worked through Harrison Jack, 60, a retired U.S. officer who served a combat tour in Southeast Asia. Jack was charged for his role.
‘LIKE A MOVIE SCRIPT’
According to the U.S. Justice Department, more than 200 federal agents conducted pre-dawn raids across California. “This investigation read like a movie script, but turned out to be reality,” Michael Sullivan, acting ATF director, said in a statement.
“The individuals arrested today thought an arms dealer would provide the necessary weapons and personnel to assist them in the violent overthrow of another government. An undercover ATF agent led them to believe he could fulfill their needs.”
The complaint, filed in federal court in the California capital Sacramento, said the men sought to spend millions of dollars for Stinger missiles, mines, automatic rifles and anti-tank missiles. They are alleged to have wanted to ship them to Thailand for eventual use against Laos — where the complaint said they had planted spies to survey military and government facilities.
“The defendants have issued instructions that the mercenary force is to destroy these government facilities, to reduce them to rubble, and make them look like the results of the attack upon the World Trade Center in New York on September 11, 2001,” the complaint said.
The men face conspiracy charges, including to kill and kidnap abroad, and could face life in prison.
The undercover agent, whose name was redacted from court documents, quoted Jack in justifying the alleged plot.
“Jack told me the Laotian government was engaging in genocide against the Hmong people living in Laos, and that the Hmong community was very sensitive about protecting their people,” the agent said in an affidavit.
Laos’s resistance fighter; Gen Van Pao charged in US for Laos coup plot
San Francisco — police arrested nine people charged with plotting to use rifles and rockets to overthrow the communist government in the southeast Asian nation of Laos, a prosecutor in California said Monday.
The suspects, mostly members of the Hmong ethnic group, were seized after US authorities “interrupted a plot to overthrow the government of Laos by force and violence,” the public prosecutor in the state capital Sacramento said in a statement.
The “Hmong insurgency planned to use AK-47 automatic rifles, Stinger missiles, LAW rockets, anti-tank rockets and other arms and munitions to topple (the) Lao government and reduce government buildings in Vientiane to rubble,” it said.
Targets allegedly discussed by the plotters included the Royal Palace in the Laotian capital.
Hundreds of federal agents swooped on the suspects in pre-dawn raids across California.
Those seized include the Hmong former general Vang Pao — a veteran resistance fighter — and Harrison Jack, a retired officer of the US Army.
The nine, most aged in their fifties and sixties, were heard during the covert investigation discussing plans to buy hundreds of rifles, rockets, mines, grenades and surface-to-air missiles and ship them to Laos via Thailand.
A 10th person was arrested but not yet charged.
Vang, 77, is a prominent figure in the Hmong community in the United States, a former general in the Royal Lao army in the 1960s and 1970s who fled to the United States in 1975 after communists ousted Laos’ royal rulers.
Harrison, 60, is a graduate of the prestigious West Point US military academy, the prosecutor said. Local media said Harrison served in the Vietnam War.
The arrests followed a six-month investigation by police and anti-terrorism authorities dubbed “Operation Tarnished Eagle.”
Rights groups have accused Laos authorities of persecuting the Hmong hill tribe groups, former resistance fighters opposed to the state’s communist regime.
The scattered groups of Hmong in Laos are remnants and descendants of former fighters of a CIA-funded “secret army” who from the early 1960s fought communist Pathet Lao forces when the war spilled over from neighboring Vietnam.
“Fortunately, we were able to disrupt their activities before their plot evolved into a coup against a country with which the United States is at peace,” said one of the federal police officials who headed the probe, Michael Sullivan.
“These defendants posed a substantial threat to public safety abroad.”
They each face life imprisonment if convicted.
Agence France Presse
Vang Pao charged with Laos plot
Hmong General Vang Pao was arrested in California on Monday as the alleged mastermind of a violent plot to overthrow the Lao government with arms and equipment that were ready to be shipped to Thailand next week.
The indictments handed down in Sacramento culminated a six-month investigation that included meetings between undercover agents and the alleged conspirators to discuss transferring weapons to Thailand and Laos.
US prosecutors allege that Vang Pao was the mastermind behind the plot. Eight others were also arrested and charged; authorities believe there will be more arrests.
“We’re looking at conspiracy to murder thousands and thousands of people at one time,” Assistant US Attorney Bob Twiss said in federal court Monday.
All nine are charged with violating the federal Neutrality Act and face the possibility of life in prison.
“No matter how strongly held their beliefs, citizens of the United States cannot become involved in a plot to overthrow a sovereign government with which the United States is at peace,” Drew Parenti, FBI special agent in charge of the Sacramento region said during a news conference following the defendants’ initial court appearance.
The Associated Press says the case “reads like it was taken from the pages of a spy novel.”
Since January, the Hmong leaders and Jack inspected shipments of military equipment that were to be purchased and shipped to Thailand. Shipments were scheduled for June 12 and 19, the complaint alleged. That equipment included hundreds of machine guns, ammunition, rocket-propelled grenade launchers, anti-tank rockets, Stinger shoulder-fired missiles, mines and C-4 explosives.
During a news conference after the defendants’ court appearance, prosecutors displayed photographs of the weapons involved in the alleged plot. They showed a light anti-tank rocket system, a Stinger missile, Claymore mines and an AK-47 assault rifle.
The defendants also attempted to recruit a mercenary force that included former members of the Army Special Forces or Navy SEALs, prosecutors allege.
The planning was disrupted after a six-month investigation by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
The criminal complaint said Vang Pao and the other Hmong defendants plotted an insurgent campaign to overthrow the Laotian government “by violent means, including murder, assaults on both military and civilian officials of Laos and destruction of buildings and property.”
The defendants acted through the Lao liberation movement known as Neo Hom, led in the US by Vang Pao. It conducted extensive fundraising, directed surveillance operations and organized a force of insurgent troops within Laos, according to the complaint.
Also charged was former California National Guard Lt. Col. Harrison Ulrich Jack, a 1968 West Point graduate who was involved in covert operations during the Vietnam War. Jack acted as an arms broker and organizer of the plot, according to a criminal complaint filed in US District Court.
Vang Pao, now 77, led CIA-backed Hmong forces in Laos in the 1960s and 1970s as a general in the Royal Army of Laos. He immigrated to the US in 1975 and has been credited by thousands of Hmong refugees with helping them build new lives in the US.
Since then, however, he also has been plotting to overthrow the Laotian government, according to the federal complaint.
Seven others, all prominent members of the Hmong community from California’s Central Valley, also were charged Monday in federal court. The criminal complaint identified them as:
– Lo Cha Thao of Clovis, a suburb of Fresno
– Lo Thao of Sacramento County, who is president of United Hmong International, which the complaint says also is known as the Supreme Council of the Hmong 18 Clans
– Youa True Vang of Fresno, founder of Fresno’s Hmong International New Year
– Hue Vang, a former Clovis police officer
– Chong Yang Thao, a Fresno chiropractor
– Seng Vue of Fresno
– Chue Lo of Stockton, both of whom are clan representatives in United Hmong International
Hmong Leader Held on Coup Charges
By DON THOMPSON
The Associated Press
Monday, June 11, 2007; 11:26 PM
SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Hundreds of a Hmong leader’s supporters demonstrated outside a federal courthouse Monday as a magistrate refused to release him on bail while he awaits trial on charges of trying to overthrow the communist government of Laos.
Despite his age and deteriorating health, Vang Pao, 77, is too dangerous and too great a flight risk to be freed under any circumstances, U.S. Magistrate Judge Edmund Brennan ruled after a 30-minute hearing.
Sidebar: Thai Vang bows his head with other members of the Hmong community outside the Federal Courthouse in Sacramento, Calif., Monday, June 11, 2007, as they pray for the release of former guerilla leader Vang Pao for allegedly planning to overturn the current Laotian government. A federal magistrate ordered Van Pao who led a Hmong fighting force that helped the CIA and American forces during the Vietnam War, detained until his trial. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli) (Rich Pedroncelli – AP)
Vang Pao and eight other Hmong elders were arrested June 4 on charges that they tried to buy nearly $10 million worth of military weapons and recruit mercenaries to unseat Laos’s communist government.
A 10th defendant, retired California National Guard Lt. Col. Harrison Jack, is also charged, accused of trying to arrange the coup through an arms broker who turned out to be an undercover federal agent.
Hmong from across California and several other states packed the courtroom and filled a courthouse plaza and surrounding sidewalks for Vang Pao’s detention hearing. Court security officials estimated that 500 to 1,000 Hmong showed up.
Most of the Hmong were dressed in white to show their peacefulness and purity, said Ka Va, who helped organize the rally.
General Vang Pao
Wednesday, June 6, 2007, 1:42 PM
By Bob Hague
The school board in Madison will reportedly meet soon, to discuss whether to reconsider naming a new elementary school after Hmong leader, General Vang Pao. There was more than a little controversy surrounding the naming decision even before federal charges were filed against Vang Pao this week, alleging his involvement in a plot to overthrow the government of Laos. There were warnings from a UW professor, and reporting earlier this year on Van Pao’s controversial actvities in the Twin Cities.
Rewriting Vang Pao’s past
School name choice is an affront to historical memory
Vang Pao is linked to summary executions, forced conscription and a booming opium market.
In the 1970s, Dmitri Yurasov was a precocious Moscow schoolboy obsessed with Russian history. He began reading the imposing 16-volume Soviet Historical Encyclopedia, which put the official Communist Party stamp to the glorious advances of the Lenin and Stalin years.
Only when Yurasov came across the odd description of a dead scholar as ‘illegally repressed and rehabilitated after his death’ did he get his first inkling that Stalin had jailed and murdered millions in the Great Terror of the 1930s.
As a budding scholar, Yurasov later secured a job working in the Soviet archives and surreptiously burrowed deep into the secret records to begin recapturing the Soviet Union’s suppressed history.
As David Remnick chronicles in his magisterial Lenin’s Tomb: The Last Days of the Soviet Empire, Yurasov secretly compiled more than 100,000 index cards, each detailing the life and death of a forgotten Russian citizen caught up and killed in Stalin’s brutal purges.
I’ve been thinking of Yurasov lately, amazed at the Madison school board’s willingness to engage in its own brand of historical forgetfulness. What else can you make of the board’s decision to name a new west-side school for Hmong General Vang Pao, a tool of the Central Intelligence Agency in its bloody ‘secret war’ fought in Laos during the Vietnam conflagration?
Given this city’s rich history of often inspired (and sometimes tragically misguided) opposition to the Vietnam War, how could the Madison school board name a school for a Vietnam-era warlord associated with possible war crimes?
To do so is an affront to historical memory on more than one level.
I say this with hesitancy, having met with former Madison school board member Shwaw Vang and other local Hmong. I know they hold Vang Pao in high esteem and credit him with bringing them to safety in the United States (see accompanying story).
Certainly, Vang Pao is an extraordinary figure. He led a Hmong army of 30,000 ‘equipped, supplied and directed’ by the CIA, as The New York Times put it, that battled the communist Pathet Lao and later the Viet Cong as they traveled down the Ho Chi Minh Trail through Laos to fight the Americans and our South Vietnamese allies.
Brave, charismatic and sometimes brutal, Vang Pao is celebrated by his CIA associates as ‘probably the greatest guerrilla leader in the world’ and as the flat-out best general of the Vietnam War, according to a Minneapolis Star Tribune profile in 2005.
But singing Vang Pao’s praises doesn’t tell his entire story. He is also linked to summary executions of soldiers, the forced conscription of teenagers to fight in his army, and a booming opium market that produced a flood of cheap, high-quality heroin.
The source of many of these allegations is UW-Madison history professor Alfred McCoy and his epochal The Politics of Heroin, first published in 1972 as The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia and subsequently twice expanded to detail the CIA’s more recent covert wars in Nicaragua and Afghanistan and the related surge in cocaine and heroin production.
McCoy, in a briefing paper posted on TheDailyPage.com, cites abundant newspaper and book accounts of Vang Pao’s questionable deeds. Among them are reports from the Star Tribune and The New Republic on Vang Pao’s back-to-Laos group known as Neo Hom.
‘Bitterness grows in the Hmong community over decades of aggressive fund-raising by Neo Hom, the general’s vast and secretive operation,’ the Star Tribune reported in 2005. ‘Even one of Vang Pao’s admirers in the CIA questions Neo Hom, saying it raises funds based on the dubious premise that Vang Pao will someday lead the Hmong back to Laos to overthrow the communists.
‘Aging Hmong immigrants, many say, have given untold millions of dollars to that cause,’ the paper wrote. ‘But their American-born children question what happened to the money their parents and grandparents gave.’
Yet shaking down the true believers pales in comparison to the nasty business of the ‘secret war’ in Laos. Dissident Hmong villages that refused to turn over their boys for Vang Pao’s army saw him cut off their USAID rice shipments until they played ball, according to McCoy.
They were starved, in other words, into submission.
McCoy’s book has stood the test of time, including the CIA’s effort to stop its publication, because it’s seemingly well-sourced (McCoy claims more than 250 interviews with heroin dealers, police officials and intelligence agents in Europe and Asia) and its scholarly tone avoids the usual left-wing hyperbole about the CIA and drug-running.
For McCoy, the CIA’s complicity isn’t a product of corrupt agents or some French-like master plan to use drug proceeds to finance covert actions. Instead, it’s ‘the inadvertent consequence’ of the CIA’s cold war strategy.
In Asia, the CIA fought the communists by aligning itself with tribal clans in the rugged highlands of Burma, Laos and Afghanistan. According to McCoy, tribal warlords used the agency’s arms and protection to bolster their production of opium ‘ a traditional cash crop whose proceeds helped support tribal dependents through ‘bloody wars that ground on for years with heavy casualties.’
Nobody disputes that the Hmong raised poppies for opium as a cash crop. The opium was almost certainly cooked into heroin farther down the supply line. But the evidence is thin on whether Vang Pao ran his own heroin lab. Other Laotian and Vietnamese generals have been implicated with far more certainty.
McCoy and others build a compelling case that Air America, the CIA-controlled airline, transported opium in Laos along with armaments, food and troops. Vang Pao himself kept a large cache of opium stashed under his house as ‘insurance’ should the CIA abandon him, scholar-turned-journalist Jonathan Mirksy asserted in a 1990 piece in The New York Review of Books.
Mirsky’s source was an ex-CIA agent who also admitted that Air America was used to carry opium. Mirsky wrote that he brought up these assertions with former CIA director William Colby. ‘Colby spoke highly of this ex-agent and did not dispute what he had told me,’ Mirsky recounted. ‘He simply underlined that none of these activities were CIA policy.’
Heroin’s toll on American troops in Vietnam was horrific. A 1973 White House task force reported that 34% of American soldiers ‘commonly used’ heroin. ‘For these men, heroin was just another narcotic like marijuana, pep pills or alcohol,’ McCoy writes. The damage followed them back to the States, as did packages of Asian heroin for sale here.
I don’t fault Madison’s Hmong community for mobilizing behind the naming of the Vang Pao Elementary School. They are simply following in the steps of other emergent immigrant groups ‘ the Irish, the Jews, the Italians, the Hispanics, not to mention African Americans and Native Americans ‘ who want the broader society to acknowledge their presence and their value to the community. Such is the American dynamic.
But the impulse to honor the Hmong can’t come at the expense of historical memory. Vang Pao’s legacy shouldn’t be buffed up and altered like a fabricated entry in the Soviet Historical Encyclopedia. The school board needs to brace itself and recognize, as did Dmitri Yurasov, that history shouldn’t be rewritten to serve the political needs of the moment.