Sunday, November 13, 2011
What Made the Spooks Disappear
They were simultaneously shadowy and larger than life—but now they’re gone.
America doesn’t make spies like Jim Thompson anymore—if that’s what he was. No one could ever be quite sure. But CIA operatives and U.S. Army commanders were prominent among the steady stream of dinner guests at his sprawling teakwood house on Bangkok’s central canal in the early 1960s, together with European counts and countesses and such A-list celebrities as the Du Ponts and Truman Capote. People who came to Thompson’s house could often remember every detail of the evening years later, down to the crab soup and the type of mangoes that were served. Once you met Jim Thompson, visitors said, you never forgot him.
Everyone at the dinner table would know his basic life story, from all the press coverage and gossip he attracted. He had arrived in Bangkok at the end of World War II, working for the CIA’s predecessor, the Office of Strategic Services. Even after his official resignation from government employment, he kept on as a freelance intelligence operative, his antiques-filled home a hub of vital information and even arms trafficking, according to a U.S. government investigation, as America became entangled in Vietnam. His legitimate business, the Thai Silk Co., was in itself enough to make him an international figure. “The Silk King,” the newspapers called him—the man who had built Thai silk from a cottage industry into a global fashion powerhouse, displayed at fashion capitals in Europe and America, and brought glamour to the Thai capital.
Thompson belonged to a now practically vanished breed: the larger-than-life American expatriates, often connected to U.S. intelligence, who held sway in odd corners of the globe back in the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s, and up until the end of the Cold War.
For better or worse, many of them have become legends. There was Anthony Poshepny, remembered these days as Tony Poe, a veteran of the secret war in Tibet who ended up living among the Hmong tribespeople in Laos—he married into one Hmong family—and collected the ears (and sometimes the heads, it’s said) of his slain enemies. He’s often said to have been the model for Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now, although its producer-director, Francis Ford Coppola, denies it. There were the flamboyant, cigar-chomping Duane (Dewey) Clarridge, a CIA operations officer during the contra war in Nicaragua; Gustav (Gust) Avrakotos,
who ran Operation Cyclone against the Soviets in Afghanistan, one of the largest covert operations in the agency’s history; and many others.
Today Thompson’s house is a museum, and his era has ended. Ordinary tourists now wander through the rooms where he once held court late into the night among his gold-lacquered bodhisattva statues and 12th-century stone Buddha heads.
Why are there no more Jim Thompsons? For one thing, the CIA has far less power now.
The end of the Cold War brought a sharp reduction in demand for intelligence gathering. The Clinton administration slashed the CIA’s operations budget, and although the George W. Bush administration scrambled to rebuild it after 9/11, Langley still has nowhere near its former reach. And despite renditions, drone attacks, waterboarding, and Guantánamo Bay, the agency’s activities are far more tightly supervised than they were in the 1950s, when Congress basically allowed the CIA and its freelancer allies to do whatever they chose. That all changed in the wake of nasty revelations like the 1975 Church Committee findings and the Iran-contra scandal. The recent allegations of torture and “extraordinary renditions” of terror suspects have only made Congress more leery of giving the agency a long leash.
And the news media have grown far more aggressive than in Thompson’s time. Back then, reporters often deferred to power—John F. Kennedy’s extramarital affairs were largely hushed up, which would be impossible today, in the era of TMZ. The newspaper reporters and magazine writers who flocked to Thompson’s home in Bangkok wrote glowing profiles, rarely digging into touchy subjects like his harsh critiques of Thailand’s sacrosanct royal family or his alleged arms trafficking to independence fighters in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and Indonesia—guerrillas who would later end up fighting against America and its allies after the colonial Europeans gave up and went home.
Compare that virtual press blackout with the storm that erupted early last year over Dewey Clarridge. Not much had been heard from him since his pardon by George H.W. Bush for his role in the Iran-contra affair. But Clarridge returned to the headlines when The New York Times exposed a privately financed intelligence operation he had launched in Afghanistan and Pakistan. (His plans reportedly included an effort to get DNA from Hamid Karzai to prove that the Afghan president was a drug addict.) The U.S. government responded by ordering an investigation into who had given contracts to Clarridge. So far at least two civilian employees of the U.S. military have resigned in the wake of the investigation.
But the biggest difference may be that the world itself has changed since Thompson’s day. His arrival in Bangkok coincided with a new era for the United States. Emerging from World War II as the dominant international power, America turned to expatriates like Thompson to make sense of the strange lands it was suddenly encountering.
According to scholar Christina Klein, only 200,000 Americans held valid passports in 1947. And yet by 1959, 7 million Americans would travel abroad, facilitated by new jet airliners and corporate employers eager to stake their claims across the developing world.
Thompson himself was a fugitive from the runaway modernization of New York, where he had lived during the 1930s before enlisting in the military and then the OSS. The Bangkok of 1945 was in many ways exactly what he craved, an exotic place where he could be someone who stood out. He wrote home to his brother: “I am afraid I like backward places that need to be developed better than all the high-powered superhighways, motels, and gigantic cities.” Few Americans were living in Thailand back then; Bangkok had scarcely changed in the previous two centuries, and most Americans knew little about Asia. Few cared about Southeast Asian art, either: in the course of two decades, Thompson would amass one of the world’s finest private collections of the region’s art and antiques. Most of the sculptures, pottery, paintings, temple hangings, and other items would reside in his house, a one-of-a-kind assemblage of antique Thai teakwood homes he collected upcountry and brought to Bangkok to be joined together beside a canal.
A few parts of Bangkok still retain the Thai charm that Thompson fell in love with, but much of the city’s center now looks just like every other metropolis on the planet. The antique teakwood houses have all but vanished, replaced by concrete condominiums. Along wide, smog-choked avenues like Rama IV Road, the government has filled in most of the canals that once made Bangkok known as the “Venice of the East.” But what can you do? The boom has also enabled ordinary Thais to escape the drudgery of rice farming, to buy the consumer goods that Americans have long enjoyed, and to get their children vaccinated.
As the world grew smaller and more homogeneous, America felt less need for cultural interlocutors like Thompson. As long ago as the 1960s, the CIA was turning more buttoned down, more centralized, and more worried about oversight. Thompson scarcely helped his case by trumpeting his view that he understood the world better than his higher-ups did. “I seem to be the only person now who can cope with this [Southeast Asian intelligence] business,” he wrote in one cable to Washington. In fact he did foresee, long before his bosses, that America would go to war in Indochina, and that the conflict was likely to turn out badly. But he brought far bigger problems upon himself by his enthusiastic support for Southeast Asia’s national-liberation movements. True, this was before America really jumped into the war in Vietnam, but Langley still didn’t like his attitude.
Although Thompson once had been extremely valuable to U.S. intelligence, the agency finally put out a “burn notice” on him, warning all employees to stay away from him—one of the most extreme warnings the CIA can issue. The FBI investigated him for “un-American activities,” quizzing everyone who had ever known him, and Langley launched an inquiry of its own. Thompson told friends his phone lines were constantly tapped and strange men began following his car through the streets of Bangkok. Close friends in Thailand suddenly stopped speaking to him, and Thai government agencies began confiscating antiquities from his personal collection. The strain showed: Thompson routinely checked into the city’s hospitals with bouts of flu, dysentery, pneumonia, gallstones, and what he called “amoebas” infesting his system.
His end was as spooky as his life. On a visit to friends in Malaysia, he went hiking by himself in the country’s Cameron Highlands on Easter Sunday, 1967. That afternoon, his friends at the house heard footsteps on the path outside. They assumed it was him leaving for his hike, but he never returned. They grew worriedwhen they noticed he had taken
almost nothing with him, not his medication or even his cigarettes—he never went anywhere without them. Later they remembered other things: he had seemed agitated that morning, and before leaving for the highlands he had interacted with at least one family member in a way that in retrospect seemed like a goodbye.
Thompson still hadn’t returned when darkness fell. The next day, his friends initiated what would become the biggest search-and-rescue operation Malaysia had ever seen, involving hundreds of men. The search was secretly followed closely by the CIA and the FBI, but neither of them would talk when Thompson’s relatives demanded information on his case. The Thai government also seemed determined to stonewall any investigation into the Silk King’s disappearance. And back at the house in Bangkok, Thompson’s servant, Yee, continued for months to set the table for dinner every evening; he simply couldn’t believe that Thompson could be gone.
But Jim Thompson was never found.
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