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The C.I.A.'s tribe in danger

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[Part 3 in a series: The Strange New Life of an Old Secret War]

It wasn't the usual kind of Agency interrogation.

At a table under a tree, in the yard of a locked detention center, in the city of Nong Khai, in the country of Thailand, across the wide Mekong river from the country of Laos, in the interior of Southeast Asia, sat two men.

They had never met before, but they were connected by history.

One of them was Bill Lair, an American in his early eighties, retired from the C.I.A. During the 1960s, back during the Vietnam war era, Lair himself had started and led an enormous covert operation in the mountains of northeastern Laos. At the core of Lair's operation was a Laotian hilltribe, the Hmong.

The other man at the table was a Hmong named Blia Shoua Her. After the Americans left Indochina in 1975, and after Laos was taken over by their communist enemies, many Hmong kept on fighting instead of leaving for refugee camps in Thailand and then going to America. Those who stayed in the resistance in Laos became known as the "jungle' Hmong. Until recently, Blia Shoua Her had been a "jungle" Hmong leader. (see video)

Bill Lair was on a private fact-finding mission, looking into a multi-nation Hmong crisis. In Thailand, he already had discovered an outer layer of fake refugees, hoping for free rides to America. Now he was looking for the inner core, the real refugees fleeing from Laos. These were the tribespeople who had fought for the C.I.A. back in the Vietnam war years, who somehow had stayed loyal after the Americans left, and who had suffered because of it. These were the Hmong who deserved U.S. government help.

In the locked detention center, the old spook and the tribesman spoke in their common language, which was Thai. Gently, Lair asked the Hmong leader about his life, about his training in the American war years, and what it was like after the Americans left and the communists took over. Lair knew the Hmong well, and knew Laos well, and by talking directly without interpreters would know if he was hearing the truth.

The Hmong man said he had gotten military training as an adolescent, in a program that Lair personally had set up, back in the 1960s. But then he had returned to his village to become a civilian leader. In the year that everything changed -- 1975, when the Hmong military commander, Gen. Vang Pao, left with the Americans -- Blia Shoua Her said he was asked to stay by "Vang Pao," (apparently, one of the general's supporters). For more than thirty years after that, he and the people of his village farmed until they were attacked, then retreated into the forests, farming and fleeing, again and again in a cycle.

His band of "jungle" Hmong only fought to defend themselves from the soldiers of the Lao People's Democratic Republic. They ate bark and bugs, hid from government planes, and raised children and grandchildren without the help of teachers or doctors. After his wife was shot and killed by government soldiers while foraging for wild foods in 2006, Blia Shoua Her decided to get out. He considered surrendering, but the Laotian secret police have a history of torturing "jungle" Hmong. So he escaped from Laos across the Mekong river with part of his band to what he hoped was safety in neighboring Thailand. He told Bill Lair he had one son in Sacramento, California who was an American citizen. Maybe the Thais would let him go to America.

Or maybe not. Turns out, there was a problem, a change in Thai policies. Out of the frying pan, into the fire.

By the time of Lair's visit, in 2007, the Thai and Lao governments had agreed in principle to repatriate the 150 Hmong in the Nong Khai detention center, and another 8,000 in a Thai refugee camp. (This policy was hardened when Vang Pao was arrested on trumped-up U.S. government charges in June 2007). A short time before our arrival, there had been an attempt to forcibly repatriate the Nong Khai group. It had only been thwarted when Blia Shoua Her and his people barricaded themselves in their cells and threatened to commit suicide.

As Lair put it, "If they are repatriated -- because they have caused so much trouble for the Lao government -- my own feeling is that they will be executed. If not, they will be held in detention centers in Laos and probably won't live very long." The Hmong imprisoned in Thailand felt that if they were going to die anyway, why give their old enemies the satisfaction of killing them? Suicide seemed a rational option.

One after another, the Hmong inside the Thai detention center lifted their shirts or the bottoms of their trousers to show us their bullet scars. One of Blia Shoua Her's younger sons had lost an eye to shrapnel, his face disfigured.

They were the real thing. Living fossils of a long-ago covert war. And they had suffered because of their loyalty to an old American cause that few Americans today know anything about.

By visiting these "jungle" Hmong, by speaking with them directly, Lair had confirmed that there was an inner core of legitimate refugees whom the U.S. government should help. But he couldn't do much to solve their dilemma himself. Not the way he could have in the old days, when he was running the C.I.A.'s covert war. Back then, at the height of his powers in the 1960s, he could have freed anyone he wanted from a prison or a detention center in either Thailand or Laos. And if Hmong in the jungle needed to be rescued, Lair could send a helicopter to get them, with soldiers on the ground or planes in the air to provide armed escort.

But that was then. This was now. He was long retired, and the C.I.A. was out of Laos entirely, and didn't have the clout it once had in Thailand.

So he would have to go to the U.S. embassy in Bangkok, Thailand, to see what the diplomats could do about the jungle Hmong dilemma. It was the next step. The State Department was in charge.

Or, at least, it was supposed to be.

Next in this series: The State Department's human rights disgrace.

Note: Lair made his visit to Nong Khai in March 2007. Two years later, as these words are written, Blia Shoua Her and the 150-plus Hmong in Nong Khai are still in danger. They've been kept indoors, jammed in cells, and subjected to harassment that is very nearly torture. Whether they will be forcibly repatriated, and killed, or resettled in the West is anybody's guess.

Click here for a brief video of Lair's visit to Nong Khai. And a tip of the hat to my colleague, Roger Arnold, who photographed Blia Shoua Her in the jungles of Laos, and who has visited him in Nong Khai many times since. I edited the video, but it combines footage and imagery that both Roger Arnold and I (Roger Warner) shot and collected.

Previous installments in this series:
Part 1: The Weirdest Terrorism Court Case in America
Part 2: The C.I.A. Man Returns
More video: An overview of the Sacramento terrorism case and its Southeast Asian context