Hmong out to dry

Defendants allege CIA knew of Laos coup plot and ATF entrapped them

Squirming in his seat as he faces the possibility of life behind bars, General Vang Pao has now been screwed twice by the CIA, his attorney alleges.

Squirming in his seat as he faces the possibility of life behind bars, General Vang Pao has now been screwed twice by the CIA, his attorney alleges.

Photo By Manny Crisostomo / Sacramento Bee / ZUMA Press

A version of this story originally appeared in OC Weekly, where Schou is a news and investigations editor.

On July 12, thousands of Hmong American protesters gathered outside the U.S. District Courthouse in Sacramento chanting “Free Vang Pao!” Several hours later, as if in direct response to their plea, a federal judge ordered that General Vang, the 77-year-old former leader of the CIA’s “Secret Army” in Laos during the Vietnam War, and 10 other defendants be released on bail. Now Vang and his pals can stay at home contemplating the possibility of life behind bars if ultimately convicted of attempting to purchase machine guns, explosives and Stinger missiles and smuggling them (along with hundreds of mercenaries) into Laos to help jungle-based Hmong rebels overthrow the Communist regime in Vientiane.

It wasn’t really the chanting that worked magic inside the courtroom. The judge’s decision was more likely influenced by the fact that Vang attended the hearing in a wheelchair, and two other alleged coup plotters, Chong Yang Thao and Seng Vue, had to be hospitalized that day for stroke complications. But there may have been an additional factor that swayed the judge: an eyebrow-raising claim by defense attorneys alleging that the CIA knew about the alleged Laotian coup plot all along and did nothing to stop Vang and his cohorts from going forward, or to warn him that he could end up in jail if he got caught. Wait, don’t put those eyebrows down just yet: The defense is also alleging that this is also a case of entrapment by a different federal agency, the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms.

If true, this would apparently mark Gen. Vang’s first bad encounter with the ATF, but it wouldn’t be the first time the CIA has screwed him over. The last time was in 1973, when, after hiring him to fight the North Vietnamese Army and Pathet Lao guerillas for 10 years during the Vietnam War, the U.S. government pulled out of Southeast Asia and left Vang and tens of thousands of his soldiers to rot in the jungle.

Vang’s lawyers claim the Langley, Virginia-based spook house reamed Vang again and complain that prosecutors are unfairly preventing them from proving it. Their claim of CIA complicity is stated in a 12-page brief filed on July 11, in which lawyers for all 11 coup plotters also told the judge that the government is unfairly preventing them from questioning an undercover ATF agent who posed as a gun dealer willing to help the plotters obtain weapons and mercenaries for the attempted coup. That informant, whose name is blocked out in government documents, was known to the alleged plotters as an ex-U.S. Navy SEAL named “Steve.”

A 64-page attachment to the defense brief, also filed in court July 11, includes lengthy excerpts of tape-recorded conversations between alleged coup plotter Harrison Jack, a special-forces U.S. Army Ranger in Vietnam and, more recently, a retired colonel in the California National Guard, and “Steve.” Those excerpts include dozens of references to the “CIA” and the “Agency” as being aware of the plot and suggest that the plotters felt the agency wished them the best of luck.

For example, in an April 3 telephone call, Jack, according to the transcript, told the informant that the alleged plotters already had held at least one meeting with CIA officials. “Apparently that was a fairly positive discussion. … They were meeting with a deputy director,” Jack said. “But what they offered was … well, their comments were something along the lines, you can’t count on the [United Nations], the process is too slow, you need to take care and protect yourself in the field and we’ll support you in that.”

“You know what they mean by ‘We’ll support you in that'?” asked “Steve,” the ATF agent.

“Combination, they said they would provide intel[ligence] if they could provide a secure area to work from, and they would also provide funding, but they said they would not be able to use dollars; they didn’t want to have a trace on the thing,” Jack replied. He added that the meeting was a “positive indication” the plot would have CIA “endorsement support.”

On April 12, when Jack and “Steve” met in person to discuss obtaining weapons, Jack told the agent that the CIA recently had endorsed the plot. “We can’t become overly involved,” Jack claimed the agency had told the plotters. “We’ll support and facilitate whatever else you got going on, to include funding.” Less than a week later, Jack updated the agent again, saying the alleged plotters had raised money from Rolling Thunder, a group of Harley Davidson-riding Vietnam veterans, with the promise that the mission to overthrow the Laotian government also would liberate American prisoners of war, whom Jack believed still were languishing in secret prisons.

“Money will not be an issue,” Jack claimed. “The CIA has offered to contribute. … I’ve mentioned that before.” Later, on May 4, Jack told the agent that the CIA was “standing by and ready to roll.”

Although most of the references to the CIA were statements made by Jack to the ATF informant, the transcripts of those conversations show that as early as March 7, “Steve” told Jack that he believed the U.S. government would support the Laotian coup if the alleged plotters succeeded. “Well, the U.S. has no choice but to support a democratic government,” the agent said. “They will support it. … There’s no doubt in my mind. They need a stronghold in that area.”

Through its general counsel, the CIA already has filed a sworn affidavit against Vang, Jack and the other alleged coup plotters, swearing the agency had no knowledge of the plot. Rosemary Shaul, a spokeswoman for the U.S. attorneys office, refused to comment on the case, and John Balazs, Vang’s attorney, did not respond to interview requests.

But Mark Reichel, an attorney for alleged coup plotter Lo Cha Thao, says he firmly believes the CIA was aware of the plot. “The government says there’s no CIA connection,” Reichel said. “But the CIA isn’t going to tell the U.S. attorney’s office in Sacramento that they were involved. … They are probably shredding documents left and right, but we’re going to pursue every possible aspect to get to the truth.”