Thursday, May 7, 2009
Plot to overthrow Laotian Government
Plot to overthrow Laotian Government - CIA's Lao Ally Faces 'Outrageous' Charge
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
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 communist-led government.
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
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
"[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 motion.
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 case.
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
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
"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.
Friday, May 8, 2009