CIA's Lao ally faces 'outrageous' charge
By Nelson Rand
BANGKOK - Defense attorneys for a group of 11 American citizens accused of
plotting to overthrow the Lao government are set to file a motion to dismiss
the case on the grounds of outrageous US government conduct. The highly
anticipated case comes as Washington bids to rebuild bilateral relations with
its former Cold War adversary, including the passage in recent years of a
bilateral trade agreement and US military offers to assist with development
The accused group, which includes Vang Pao, a legendary ethnic Hmong general
who led a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)-backed secret army in Laos during
the Vietnam War, was arrested in California in an elaborate sting operation in
June 2007. They were allegedly trying to purchase US$9.8 million worth of
weapons - including Stinger missiles - to launch a coup against Vientiane's
The motion is scheduled to be heard on May 11 before a US District Judge in
Sacramento, California. "[The government] has fundamentally mischaracterized
the defendants' alleged conduct," reads the 17-page defense motion which Asia
Times Online reviewed. " ... [I]n reality - even according to the government's
own evidence - there was no 'audacious plan to overthrow the government of
Laos' until the government launched it, and the so-called 'conspirators' were
incapable of formulating any plan, obtaining weapons, paying for them,
delivering them to Laos, or otherwise carrying out the alleged crimes in this
case without the government leading their efforts."
The case against the group, which reads more like a B-movie script than a
real-life investigation, goes back to January 2007 when a 60-year-old retired
US army officer received an unexpected phone call at his home in Woodland,
California. Harrison Ulrich Jack, a West Point graduate and Vietnam War
veteran, picked up the phone to an unfamiliar caller who allegedly said, "I
have the answer to your problem."
The so-called "problem" the caller was referring to was Jack's alleged attempts
to purchase 500 AK-47 assault rifles. The call was in response to an inquiry
that Jack had allegedly made to a defense contractor the previous November to
try and set up an arms deal for his Hmong friends in California, who allegedly
wanted to send weapons back to their homeland in Laos. The weapons were
apparently intended for the last remnants of Vang Pao's secret army, known to
be still holding out in the remote mountains of northern Laos.
Jack's alleged call to the defense contractor in November 2006 has been
scrutinized by attorneys. Defense lawyers now argue the man Jack allegedly
spoke to was Namon Hawthorne who "sells specially processed water that he
claims has miraculous healing powers", and that his only defense connections
relate to a device he invented to initiate explosions of improvised explosive
devices, or IEDs.
Hawthorne apparently tipped off authorities at the US Bureau of Alcohol,
Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) about Jack's request to purchase arms.
Unbeknownst to Jack, the unexpected caller that January day was not an arms
dealer, but an undercover ATF agent. The recorded call began a five-month sting
operation that eventually led to the arrest of Jack, General Vang Pao and nine
other Hmong-Americans for allegedly trying to overthrow the Lao government.
According to the criminal complaint filed by the prosecution in June 2007, the
defendants were engaged in an elaborate plan to purchase a total of US$9.8
million worth of weapons and ammunition that included automatic rifles, Stinger
missiles, light anti-tank weapon (LAW) rockets, AT-4 anti-tank rockets,
Claymore mines, C4-explosives, and smoke grenades.
An operational plan was drawn up in February 2007 that detailed how they were
going to overthrow the Lao government, which involved arming Hmong insurgents
in the countryside and hiring a mercenary force of ex-US Special Forces and
Navy Seals to enter the capital of Vientiane and blow up several government
As impressive as the plot may sound, defense lawyers are quick to point out
that the plan had absolutely no chance of succeeding and was written not by a
military strategist, but by Hmong-American David Vang, an out-of-work drafter
of business proposals who was promised $5,000 for the job by the accused group.
"[W]hile the [prosecution] tries to portray the 'conspiracy' as a dangerous and
sophisticated military plan, it cannot refute the extensive evidence
demonstrating otherwise - from the agent's informing the so-called conspirators
that they would need an operational plan; to his providing a map of the region
when they couldn't procure a useful one; to his explanation of what GPS was
(including that it requires batteries); to the so-called conspirators'
inability to finance the operation ... ," defense lawyers argue in their
According to the defense, the undercover ATF agent assigned to the case
exhorted Jack and his associates to purchase more sophisticated weapons and to
devise an elaborate scheme to try and topple the Lao government. "[T]he
government - not the defendants - breathed life into the alleged scheme, and
orchestrated its every step," said the defense motion.
"The case cannot proceed [because] the process has been so corrupted by the
government's misconduct that there can never be any confidence in the validity
of the charge," said Mark Reichel, one of the defense attorneys involved in the
For their part, prosecutors deny the allegations of government misconduct. In a
document filed to the court last month, the prosecution declares that the
defendants have "failed to demonstrate that law enforcement agents or
prosecutors in this case engaged in any sort of misconduct, much less conduct
that would violate due process standards".
But according to case documents, including the affidavit given by an undercover
ATF agent known only as "Steve", in the sting operation's first meeting with
Jack there was no mention of overthrowing the Lao government or obtaining any
weapons other than 500 AK-47 assault rifles. These weapons were intended only
for self-defense to stop "the Lao government's brutal campaign of ethnic
cleansing against the defenseless Hmong villagers", according to the defense
motion to dismiss the case.
"This plan initially started out as a way of providing assistance to the Hmong
in the jungles of Laos," said Thua Vang, a researcher and associate member of
the California-based Fact Finding Commission (FFC), an organization established
in 2002 to raise awareness about the plight of the Hmong in Laos. It was the
undercover agent that offered them more weapons and inspired the defendants to
turn the plan into something much more, he contends.
The FFC has in the past received funds from Vang Pao, but insists upon its
independence and that it receives funding from many other sources. Since 2002,
the FFC has provided documented evidence, including video footage, of gross
human rights violations committed by the Lao military against the Hmong. The
group has also facilitated trips for a handful of foreign journalists,
including this reporter, to remote groups of Hmong guerrillas and their family
members still holding out against the communist regime - remnants of Vang Pao's
army that never surrendered after the 1975 communist takeover.
In the early 1960s, Vang Pao was recruited by the CIA to command an army of
mainly Hmong tribesmen in Laos to help fight the Communist Pathet Lao and the
North Vietnamese guerilla forces. While a staunch American ally and
accomplished battlefield commander, Vang Pao was also complicit in the drug
trade which helped to partially fund the CIA's so-called secret war in Laos.
The Hmong paid a heavy human price for helping the US - more than 17,000 of
Vang Pao's soldiers were killed or unaccounted for and an estimated 50,000
Hmong civilians died in the jungle conflict. Thousands more fled to neighboring
Thailand and by 2007 there were some 8,000 Hmong at Petchabun province's Huay
Nam Khao refugee camp. The Thai government agreed earlier this year to
repatriate 5,000 Hmong refugees to Laos within this year and has held since
2007 a group of over 150 former Hmong resistance leaders and their families in
a detention center in Nong Khai province.
When Vang Pao disbanded his army in the spring of 1975, prior to the Pathet
Lao's imminent takeover of the country, about 15,000 of his soldiers and their
family members - by some estimates numbering around 75,000 - fled into the
jungles to fight on.
Today about 1,600 on-the-run guerillas still remain, according to the FFC.
The irony of the contentious criminal case against Vang Pao and his ten
associates is that the US has allegedly turned against one of its most loyal
Cold War allies for trying to overthrow the same communist elements he was
first recruited by the CIA to fight against over four decades ago. According to
Reichel, one of the defense attorneys who will argue on May 11, the case should
be dismissed not just for government misconduct in carrying out the
investigation, but also to set the US's foreign policy straight.
"As the world watches how we carry ourselves in two separate wars, where we
rely on the assistance of indigenous peoples to help us reach our objectives
and to save American lives, allowing this case to go forward will and should
cause no one to ever assist an American overseas," he said.
Nelson Rand is a journalist based in Bangkok. He is the author of the
book Conflict: Journeys through war and terror in Southeast Asia, which
features a section on the plight of the Hmong in Laos.