By Jane Futcher
California Lawyer Magazine
July 23, 2010
When federal agents arrested ten Hmong leaders in California last year, did they foil a terrorist plot—or entrap a group of delusional exiles?
Early last year, at a popular Thai restaurant in Sacramento just a few blocks from the state capitol, a trim, 60-year-old retired Army lieutenant colonel named Harrison Jack met Steve 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. Now, as they sat together at the restaurant amid an array of gold-painted Buddhas, Hoffmaster promised to get Jack everything he wanted–and more.
That conversation, along with as many as 30 others both in person and over the phone, serves as a road map to an astonishing and thoroughly implausible plot to overthrow the Communist 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.
One of the most charismatic figures in that war was Gen. Vang Pao, who for 13 years commanded an army of Hmong irregulars. Today, at age 78, the former general lives in Orange County, where he is still a revered figure. “Gen. Vang Pao is George Washington to this community,” says Blong Xiong, a Hmong activist who serves on Fresno’s city council.
However, as Jack’s remarks to Hoffmaster over the coming months would suggest, Vang Pao never completely let go of the idea of someday returning to Laos. In fact, at their first meeting in Sacramento, Jack told Hoffmaster he worked directly for Vang Pao, who wanted, along with other Hmong leaders in the immigrant community, to promote free and democratic elections in their home country.
Hoffmaster asked if the leaders were “willing to use force to try to get it.” “Preferably not,” was Jack’s response.
Eventually, Jack asked Hoffmaster for 125 M-16 rifles, smoke grenades, ammunition, and two Stinger missiles, all to be delivered to “staging areas” or “safe houses” in Thailand. But that was just the beginning of a deal that would grow to $9.8 million and include 24 special-ops mercenaries to blow up key buildings in Vientiane, the Laotian capital, and a 5 percent “finder’s fee” for Jack.
Then, on June 4, 2007, the negotiations–all surreptitiously taped–came to an abrupt end when, just before dawn, federal agents armed with guns and warrants surrounded Jack’s home and the homes of nine Hmong exiles, mostly in central California.
Needless to say, Hoffmaster–not his real name–wasn’t the friendly arms dealer he said he was. Rather, he was a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (ATF) agent working on a sting operation dubbed “Tarnished Eagle.”
Among those arrested that Monday morning were Jack’s 34-year-old confidante, Lo Cha Thao, a ambitious pilot and political consultant from Clovis; Youa True Vang, 60, the founder of the Hmong International New Year’s festival in Fresno; Hue Vang, 39, a former Clovis police officer and director of the United Lao Council for Peace, Freedom and Reconstruction; and Lo Thao, 53, of Stockton, the president of United Hmong International, a Fresno-based charity also known as the Supreme Council of the 18 Hmong clans. For the Hmong community, though, the most shocking arrest was that of Gen. Vang Pao.
The defendants, held without bail for five and a half weeks, were charged with conspiracy to violate the U.S. Neutrality Act; conspiracy to kill, kidnap, maim, and injure people in a foreign country; conspiracy to receive and possess missile systems designed to destroy aircraft; and two other weapons-related felonies. In all, the charges could put them behind bars for the rest of their lives.
“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,” observed 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.”
As news of the arrests 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,” says Pobtusa Thao, a 37-year-old Hmong nurse who lives in Sacramento. “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, goes further. “I feel very strongly that the U.S. government should immediately drop the case,” he says. “It’s a farce, a horrible farce.”
Defending Vang Pao pro bono is John Keker, the San Francisco trial lawyer who has represented such high-profile clients as investment banker Frank Quatronne, plaintiffs lawyer Bill Lerach, and former Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver. A former Marine platoon sergeant himself, Keker was wounded in Vietnam but knew little about Hmong history and politics before the general’s family sought him out. “I think the whole case is a result of a deeply foolish undercover agent and a deeply foolish U.S. Attorney’s office that permitted this agent to run wild,” he says. “If this case ever goes before a jury, they’ll jump out of the jury box and chase the prosecutors down the street for having brought it.”
Even U.S. Attorney Scott says he takes “no joy” in prosecuting this case. “In my many years as a prosecutor, there’s a certain satisfaction and almost elation when you’re able to bring charges against some very violent or notorious criminals,” he confides. “In this case I can’t say that. It’s an unfortunate set of circumstances.”
By the time of his arrest, Jack, who served two tours of duty in Vietnam, had launched a number of businesses, some of them more marginal than others. At one point he sold bottled water at traditional Hmong festivals and celebrations. He also worked with troubled Hmong kids and struggling Hmong refugees, consulted with the state on military base closures, and planned joint military-civilian natural disaster responses for the National Guard. And he founded HERO–the Hmong Emergency Relief Organization–a humanitarian group for which he hoped to raise $200,000 by putting together an air show in Fresno.
According to the indictment, Jack’s interest in supplying arms to the Hmong dates back at least to November 2006–two months before he met Hoffmaster at the Thai restaurant–when he asked about purchasing 500 AK-47 machine guns. The prosecution also alleges that, after several conversations with Hoffmaster, Jack and the Hmong exiles began to consider far-more-powerful weapons, including shoulder-mounted Stinger missiles for shooting down Laotian helicopters.
During the period leading up to the arrests, though, Hoffmaster spoke directly with Vang Pao only once. That was during a February 2007 luncheon, which included seven other Hmong leaders. According to the prosecution’s transcripts, the general said only a few words to the agent during that meeting, and he made no mention of an arms deal or a coup plot. However, after the lunch, the agent announced that he had a “surprise” waiting for the group, then led them to his parked recreational vehicle. Inside, he displayed some of the heavy metal he had to offer: AK-47 and M-16 machine guns, C-4 explosives, light antitank rockets, grenade launchers, and Claymore mines.
It was an impressive arsenal, and with the easy financing Hoffmaster promised–not to mention the mercenary soldiers–the vague outlines of a plan to take the Laotian capital by storm began to take shape.
Not that there weren’t reservations. In fact, at one point Jack asked a friend to run a background check on Hoffmaster. (The results of that check weren’t disclosed in the transcripts provided by the prosecution.) Also around then, Lo Cha Thao sought the advice of a former Wisconsin state senator named Garry George, who had been a friend to Hmong causes and who, according to the prosecution, was serving a four-year federal prison sentence for “public corruptionrelated charges.” George told Lo Cha Thao that if the arms dealer would agree to be paid overseas, he was probably legitimate.
Hoffmaster readily agreed to take payment in Bangkok–as long as Jack and Lo Cha Thao could quickly provide him with a detailed weapons order, delivery dates, locations, well-marked maps, and specific orders for his mercenaries.
The scheme the defendants ultimately came up with–code-named Operation POPCORN, for “Political Opposition Party’s Coup Operations to Rescue the Nation”–would be surprisingly easy and nearly bloodless, according to Lo Cha Thao: During the first week of June, with Hmong clan leaders in Laos ready to strike, Lo Cha Thao and the others would fly to Bangkok, where the weapons would be distributed. Hoffmaster’s mercenaries would land near Vientiane at dawn to blow up eight key government buildings, then “melt” into the jungle half an hour later. As the buildings toppled, the ruling elite would quickly flee the country, the disgruntled (if not bribed) Lao military would change allegiance almost instantly, and university students would join the rebellion as well. In short order, the Communist rulers of the Lao People’s Democratic Republic would be replaced with a democratically elected government, quite possibly led by Lo Cha Thao himself.
“Lo [Cha Thao] is not a [U.S.] citizen,” Jack told the undercover agent in March, “and neither is General Vang Pao. And the reason is, they can’t go back to Laos being U.S. citizens and expect to run things when they take it back over.” (In fact, Vang Pao is a U.S. citizen, and Lo Cha Thao has legal resident status.)
“Wow,” the undercover agent responded.
Gen. Vang Pao is a stout, bald man with military bearing and a dazzling smile that can still light up a room, even though he now has health problems (he suffers from both diabetes and heart disease). In fact, early in his incarceration at the Sacramento County Jail he had to be rushed to the UC Davis Medical Center after complaining of chest pains. Two other defendants also were hospitalized during their incarcerations–Seng Vue, 68, who suffered a stroke, and Chong Yang Thao, 54, who was treated for “stroke-like” symptoms.
Ultimately, though, when on July 13, 2007, U.S. Magistrate Dale A. Drozd ordered Vang Pao and nine other defendants released on bail after 39 days in custody, it had nothing to do with their health. Rather, Drozd concluded that the defendants weren’t as dangerous as the prosecution had claimed. (Several days later, he released the eleventh defendant, Lo Cha Thao, as well.) Under the original terms of their release, all were to be under electronically monitored home detention and could communicate only with family members, their physicians, and their lawyers. But the conditions of their bail have since been loosened substantially, and they are freer to move around.
Last April Vang Pao made a court-approved public appearance at a gala honoring Hmong veterans who had served in the CIA’s secret war in Southeast Asia. Several hundred Hmong from across the state filled Fresno’s Veterans Memorial Auditorium that day, and nearly half lined up to kneel at Vang Pao’s feet and wind strands of white yarn around his wrist–a traditional Hmong blessing of good fortune, health, and prosperity. Several others also received the blessing, including two American veterans and both of Vang Pao’s wives. (He is legally married to only one, of course, but in parts of Southeast Asia polygamy is still a common practice.)
Addressing the attentive crowd through a translator, the general seemed genuinely touched. “I want to take the time to thank each of you for the love you have bestowed on me and my family during this time of crisis,” he said. “I will remember that as long as I live life in the world.”
Vang Pao 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 July 1973.
One 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 (see “A Grim Picture Gets Grimmer,” right). In all, 40 percent of Vang Pao’s 40,000-man army was killed, and no doubt many more died trying to escape.
The story for Vang Pao himself, however, 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.
Once in the states, Vang Pao 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 seemed 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 sons.
Did Vang Pao have another change of heart in 2007, when, as the prosecution alleges, he endorsed Operation POPCORN?
No way, says Keker, his lawyer, who maintains that his client never was part of any conspiracy to retake Laos. “The general was absolutely appalled at what Lo Cha [Thao] was even talking about” in early 2007, Keker says, adding that, “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.”
While most of the attention naturally has focused on Vang Pao, in the prosecution’s taped conversations it was Lo Cha Thao and Harrison Jack who did most of the talking.
“Lo Cha does not speak for the general,” insists Jane Hamilton-Merritt, an Asian scholar and former war correspondent who has written a definitive history of the relationship between the Hmong and the United States entitled Tragic Mountains (Indiana University Press, 1993). “[Lo Cha’s] never been a soldier,” she points out. “He’s not an officer who fought with the general or worked with him on past projects.”
So what was Lo Cha Thao’s role in the alleged arms deal? According to Lo Cha Thao’s own lawyer, Mark Reichel, he’s “a hustler and a half,” though hardly a terrorist.
In fact, to explain Lo Cha Thao’s conversations with Hoffmaster, Reichel suggests that his client thought that the Bush administration actually wanted his help in overthrowing the Laotian government. And to underscore the point, Reichel hearkens back to the secret war in Laos, when Americans gave the Hmong military support that couldn’t be officially acknowledged because it violated the 1962 Geneva Accords, which affirmed Laos’s status as a neutral state. Says Reichel, “The Hmong know the CIA is capable of black operations all over the world, in Iran, in Iraq, in Afghanistan. … Now this guy [Hoffmaster] comes in and says, ‘my agency,’ and allows them to refer to him as the Navy SEAL, and as the military guy. Why would he have pitched that persona to these people? Because he knew they’d buy it. And he knew he could expand it. And if you can expand it and make a terrorism case out of this [for the government], that’s victory.”
It’s unlikely the defendants will be tried before 2010. But if and when they are brought to trial, the defense will portray the government’s sting operation as designed to ensnare a group of law-abiding refugees.
Keker emphasized this at a bail hearing last year in the U.S. District Court in Sacramento. “The coup plan was a fantasy,” he told Magistrate Drozd. “They had no weapons, no money. It’s like us sitting around planning an attack in Darfur or something.”
But as prosecutor Scott points out, a conspiracy doesn’t have to be a good or smart plan to be a crime: “The legal obligation we have is to show that there was an agreement between two or more people to launch a military or naval expedition in a foreign country or to kill, maim or injure people, or damage property in a foreign country.”
Prosecutors also dismiss out of hand any suggestion that the defendants were illegally entrapped. As Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert M. Twiss observed, “There’s no way a [former] lieutenant colonel in the United States Army could possibly think that he could buy a single AK-47, let alone 150 or 200 or 500 AK-47s, from anybody. … There can’t be a scintilla of possibility that Harrison Jack thought he was engaging in legitimate activity at this point in time.”
No matter how the case ends, the Hmong community will, no doubt, continue to wonder what the government was thinking when it authorized Operation Tarnished Eagle. But from a broader perspective, perhaps the most 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.
Philip Smith of the Lao Veterans of America thinks not. “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 adds, “It has the stench of betrayal that hangs over the Bush administration, that hangs over the CIA. Is this how America treats its friends?”