The Death of Lao General Vang Pao

by Jane Futcher
April 10, 2011

How America Treats Its Friends

I learned recently that General Vang Pao, a former Laotian Hmong military leader and staunch American ally during the Vietnam War, died in January of pneumonia in Clovis, Calif. He was 81.

The general was revered by many of this country’s nearly 200,000 ethnic Hmong, whose first-generation elders here fled the mountains of Laos to escape the Lao Communists’ genocidal persecution of the Hmong that began when the United States pulled out of Vietnam in 1973. That persecution continues today.

The U.S. Army declined to bury Vang at Arlington National Cemetery despite requests from his family and supporters, who believed he deserved the honor for having fought for13 years with the U.S. in the CIA’s covert war in Laos. Vang Pao led his army of 40,000 Hmong soldiers against the Viet Cong, attacking their supply lines from North Vietnam to the south, through Laos, along the Ho Chi Min Trail.

Despite Vang Pao’s heroic status in the American Hmong community, his life took a shocking turn in 2007, when he, along with 11 others, was arrested by U.S. marshals for allegedly plotting to overthrow the Communist government of Laos.

The charges were a stunning rebuke for Gen. Vang Pao, who had long enjoyed an exalted status among the Hmong, an ethnic minority in Laos. He raised money for Hmong causes in the United States and had been outspoken in his desire for a democratic government in Laos. His arrest set off protests, including demonstrations in Sacramento and Fresno, which have large Hmong communities.

Three years ago, when California Lawyer Magazine asked me to write a story about Vang Pao and the events that led to his arrest, I’d never heard of him and knew nothing about the Hmong role in the Vietnam War.

The project meant delving into what was for me an irresistible combination: the defining military engagement of my generation, the ever-maddening Central Intelligence Agency, and an improbable ATF sting that was stranger than fiction.

Like a lot of Baby Boomers, I’d opposed the war in Vietnam, believing it to be illegal, wrong-headed and hopeless. I’d marched on Washington to bring the troops home, demonstrated at the American Embassy in London when I was a student there, and got myself arrested in Boston with dozens of other college kids for blocking buses taking Army recruits to their induction physicals.

My feelings about the CIA were just as negative. I hated the fact that the agency spent billions of taxpayer dollars interfering with other countries’ governments and conducting far-flung wars hidden from the American public and over which we had no control.

Learning of Gen. Vang Pao’s death last month triggered memories not only of those tumultuous days protesting the Vietnam War but of the general and the Hmong Americans I met while reporting the story. Theirs is a traumatizing tale, from brutal persecution at the hands of the Lao Communists to the challenges of transitioning from their nomadic tribal life in Asia to the alien, high-tech, English-only culture of cities such as Minneapolis, Fresno and Sacramento, where there are large Hmong communities.

The court documents in the government’s case against. Gen. Vang Pao et al. read like the script of an action thriller. “Operation Tarnished Eagle” was the name the federal department of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms gave its sting against the general and his alleged co-conspirators. Most of the government’s evidence for its charge –that the defendants had violated the Neutrality Act by planning a military attack on a country with whom the U.S. was neutral — came from that sting and conversations in 2007 that Vang Pao and eleven other defendants had with an undercover agent from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

In those conversations, the government argued, the defendants outlined a $25-million dollar plan to provide the means and manpower for insurgents to bomb government buildings in the Laotian capital, Vientiane, and shoot down Laotian military planes with Stinger missiles.

The indictment listed a raft of weapons and equipment that defendants plotted to supply to insurgents, including antitank rockets, mines, explosives, night-vision goggles and medical kits.

Several of the most damning conversations with the ATF agent, who went by the alias of Steve Hoffmaster, were tape recorded at a popular Thai restaurant in Sacramento a few blocks from the state capitol. It was there that Harrison Jack, a trim, 60-year-old retired Army lieutenant colonel with deep sympathy for the Hmong, met Hoffmaster, a former Navy SEAL, for the first time. A seemingly pleasant guy in his 40s, Hoffmaster described himself as a part-time arms dealer, and said he was following up on a call that Jack had made to a private defense contractor in Arizona about buying hundreds of AK-47s for a group of insurgents halfway around the world. As they sat together at the restaurant amid an array of gold-painted Buddhas, Hoffmaster promised to get Jack everything he wanted–and more — to overthrow the Communist government of Laos.

That conversation, along with as many as 30 others both in person and over the phone, served as a road map to an astonishing and thoroughly implausible plot to overthrow the government of Laos– a government toward which the United States is officially neutral, despite its deplorable record of abuse of the native Hmong. These fiercely independent people, who still live in the mountain jungles of Laos and who, historically, have had little to do with the lowland Lao, are now said to number less than 15,000. They are also said to be the target of a brutal military campaign that can be traced back to the 1960s, when the Hmong sided with the Americans in a CIA-supported “secret” war against both the Laotian and North Vietnamese Communists. 

As news of the arrests of Vang Pao and the other defendants spread, the tens of thousands of Hmong whose families had come to the United States via refugee camps in Thailand, mostly under the Refugee Act of 1980, expressed shock and disbelief. Who could have authorized such a sting? they asked. Was the Bush administration trying to curry favor and good trade relations with the government of Laos–human rights be damned? And if the motive wasn’t political, why didn’t the Justice Department simply pick up the phone and call Jack or the general to explain that sending arms to Laos was against the law? That might have nipped the whole scheme in the bud, saved hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars, and freed the ATF to pursue real terrorists. But, of course, that’s not the way sting operations work. 
 
“The arrest of General Vang Pao is unjust because half of his people died for this country during the Vietnam War,” said Pobtusa Thao, a 37-year-old Hmong nurse whom I interviewed in 2008 at a Sacramento rally in support of the defendants. “No matter what he did, they cannot put this guy in jail and lock him up until he dies.”
 
Philip Smith, the director of Lao Veterans of America in Washington, D.C., whose wife is Hmong, went further. “I feel very strongly that the U.S. government should immediately drop the case,” he told me. “It’s a farce, a horrible farce.”

The feds weren’t buying. Not then, anyway.

“The simple fact of the matter is that the law of the United States, going back nearly to the founding of the Republic, is that private citizens cannot lawfully undertake [hostile] actions in foreign countries,” said McGregor W. Scott, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of California, whose office worked closely with the ATF on the sting operation. “In other words, foreign policy is the province exclusively of the federal government. It is not the province of private citizens. And these folks–of their own volition — developed a plan, contacted persons who could help them carry out the plan, and took very real steps in furtherance of that plan, all of which is in violation of federal law.”

Despite McGregor’s stance, a year later, for reasons the feds did not disclose, the government dropped all charges against Gen. Vang Pao, who had spoken only once to Hoffmaster, when the agent had taken him and several other alleged conspirators to see some sample weapons Hoffmaster had stored in his van, parked near the Thai restaurant in Sacramento.

Gen. Vang Pao’s lawyer, John Keker, told another reporter in 2009 that the decision to drop the charges was a full retreat by government. “It’s a reflection that the government recognized this was a deeply flawed prosecution,” Mr. Keker said.

According to that reporter, Gen. Vang Pao, who was 79 at the time the case was dropped and had been living in Southern California, under house arrest, told his lawyer that he was grateful and relieved that the government finally recognized his innocence but was concerned that several of his friends — and former co-fighters in Laos — were still under indictment.

Several of the defendants named in the new indictment work with Laotian-American groups in the Central Valley of California.

Harrison Ulrich Jack, a West Point graduate and retired lieutenant colonel from the California National Guard, is still under indictment.

But the big kahuna in the case, the one the feds hoped to nail, was Vang Pao, who began his storied military career as a teenager, carrying messages during World War II for the Free French resistance in Indochina. Later, he trained as an officer for the Royal Lao Army to fight alongside the French against Hanoi’s Viet Minh invasion of his country. He rose quickly through the ranks, and by the early 1960s, with American troops starting to pour into the region, he had achieved enough prominence to become the CIA’s point man in Laos. A brilliant tactician and military strategist, he and his soldiers–some as young as ten years old–kept the Communists at bay until U.S. forces pulled out of Laos in June 1973.
 
A year later, with the Communists closing in, more than 10,000 Hmong flocked to Vang Pao’s key air base at Long Chien, desperate to board planes that would take them to safety. But there was no evacuation plan. After the government fell, the Communists promised to abide by a 1973 cease-fire agreement forbidding “acts of revenge and discrimination” against those who had cooperated with the Americans. But it wasn’t long before the Communists openly declared their intent to wipe out the Hmong. To escape, thousands of Hmong risked the dangerous climb over rugged mountains surrounding the Plain of Jarres region to reach refugee camps across the Mekong River in Thailand. In all, 40 percent of Vang Pao’s 40,000-man army was killed, and no doubt many more died trying to escape.
 
Vang Pao’s own departure was quite different: Because of his relationship with the CIA, he was whisked away on a special flight out of Laos. He had already sent two of his wives and their children to Thailand; the rest of his family would come later. After spending a number of harsh, cold winters in Montana, he eventually ended up in Orange County, with additional homes in Fresno and Minneapolis.
 
Once in the states, Vang Pao, who seemed to have plenty of money, helped create a chain of Lao Family Community centers to assist the thousands of Hmong refugees who flocked to America. He also used his influence to mediate clan disputes and to pressure both the federal and local governments to provide more services to his people. Most of the refugees were penniless when they arrived in the United States, spoke no English, and were traumatized by years of war. Meanwhile, at traditional Hmong festivals and celebrations, Vang Pao continued to express hope for a return to a democratic Laos someday. According to news accounts, he even tried to raise money by offering for sale prospective commissions and political appointments to the democratically elected government he envisioned.
 
But Vang Pao appeared to have a major change of heart in 2003, when he offered to establish economic ties with the Laotian government–at least implicitly recognizing its rule. The decision set off intense debate within the Hmong community in America–and it may have led to the torching of the Minnesota home of one of the general’s many sons. 

Did Vang Pao have another change of heart in 2007, when, as the prosecution alleges, he endorsed the overthrow plans, dubbed Operation POPCORN?
 
No way, said Keker, Vang’s lawyer, who maintained that his client never was part of any conspiracy to retake Laos. “The general was absolutely appalled at what Lo Cha [Thao — one of the alleged conspirators] was even talking about” in early 2007. Keker added: “I think Harrison Jack was a seriously deluded man. The stuff about how they’re going to walk into Laos without firing [a shot] was just ridiculous. It was bar talk. But what’s offensive about it was they arrested a bunch of people who weren’t even in the bar. [Vang Pao and others] didn’t have anything to do with [the plot], and disapproved of it, and thought it was nuts and thought the guys were nuts. And they were nuts.”

Be that as it may, Vang Pao’s arrest and legal battle against the charges took a toll on his health. Already suffering from diabetes and heart disease, after his initial release he endured electronically monitored home detention, allowed to communicate only with family members, physicians, and lawyers. Although the conditions of his and the other co-defendants’ bail were loosened substantially, the humiliation and sense of betrayal by the American government was profound.

Some of those feelings changed when the government dropped its charges against him.

“He was just overwhelmed and there were tears of joy, of course,” Chi Neng Vang, the youngest of Vang Pao’s 25 children, told a Twin Cities StarTribune reporter. “You could see it was a rebirth for him at that moment. We all hugged. He was acting like he was somebody again instead of someone who he knew he wasn’t. He’s been living in this dark period of time, and now we can finally move on with our lives.”

Gen. Vang Pao was a free man and an American citizen when he died on Jan. 6 of this year.

We’ll probably never know what, if any, his role was in the alleged plot to overthrow the government of Laos, a plot that most likely would have been quickly forgotten had it not been encouraged by the ATF sting designed to send the alleged plotters to jail.

But the Hmong community will, no doubt, continue to wonder what the government was thinking when it authorized Operation Tarnished Eagle.

From a broader perspective, one important question suggested by this case is whether operations such as Tarnished Eagle send the right signal to our allies abroad, especially in a time of war, when, in countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan and beyond, the U.S. government regularly enlists ethnic minorities to fight with it to bring about peace and democracy.
 
Do operations such as Tarnished Eagle generate trust of the USA?

Philip Smith of the Lao Veterans of America thought not in 2008.

“How can they trust the CIA or the National Security Council to be sincere if this is how America treats the Hmong and is treating General Vang Pao?” He added, “It has the stench of betrayal that hangs over the Bush administration, that hangs over the CIA. Is this how America treats its friends?”

Vang Pao is not MY hero, and I wish he’d told the CIA in the 1960s to look elsewhere for help in fighting its secret and doomed war in Laos. That didn’t happen. He did help, and thousands of his people died because of it. So why, thirty-some years after the war did the American government run a sting on the man who did its bidding for 13 years? As I’ve said, it would have been far cheaper, not to mention compassionate, for the ATF to call Vang Pao or Harrison Jack or the other Hmong “plotters,” thank them for their service to this country in the Vietnam War and tell them to drop their improbable overthrow plot.

In the meantime, Hmong in Laos people are still being persecuted by the Lao government. And Hmong Americans continue to face incredible challenges making it in the U.S.A. Poverty, illiteracy and racism hold back many Hmong Americans.

It’s a strange story and a sad story. It’s an American story. And the beat goes on.

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