[Part 1 in a series: The Strange New Life of an Old Secret War]
Good and bad news this week in the weirdest terrorism court case in the country -- a case that, if it goes to trial, would bring CIA veterans to the witness stand to testify against Justice Department agents.
On Monday, the chances of that government nightmare becoming a reality -- spooks vs. gumshoes! at war with each other! -- subsided a bit. The lead lawyer for the defendants, John Keker, filed a motion to dismiss the case for "outrageous government conduct," alleging that the prosecution alternately fabricated, suppressed, and distorted crucial evidence.
Hoping to connect with the new Obama administration, Keker also has asked Eric Holder's Justice Department to give the case an independent review. However, Justice's National Security division has hinted that it may bring additional charges in the future. So maybe the nightmare will come to pass after all, reopening the age-old split between overseas and domestic security agencies, and between the intelligence-gathering and law enforcement professionals.
Though maybe calling some of these guys professionals is stretching it.
The case, known as USA vs. Harrison U. Jack, et. al., was brought in Sacramento, California during the dark days of Alberto Gonzales's tenure as Attorney General. From what I can tell, it was generated by field men in the federal anti-terrorism bureaucracy who couldn't find any al Queda sleeper cells to bust and wanted to make their numbers. The prosecutors, going along with the field men's ambitions, have accused one Caucasian American and ten Asian Americans of planning to overthrow the government of Laos, in Southeast Asia, in a spectacular coup, complete with mercenaries, heavy weapons, and Stinger missiles. The prosecutors' mistakes? Not checking their underlings' work, and not knowing that the Asian American defendants had friends.
The Asian Americans are all from the Hmong tribe of Laos, which was recruited to fight by the CIA during the Vietnam war era.
Veterans of the CIA's operation in Laos (1961-1973) have jumped in the case on the side of the Hmong. The best-known of them is Bill Lair, the original architect of the CIA's Hmong operation (profiled in an admiring op-ed piece in Tuesday's New York Times). Lair and his former colleagues, authentic experts in the realities of warfare in Laos, have studied the court documents and have concluded that the so-called coup plan on which the prosecutors base their case reads like a bad adventure movie synopsis -- "not a serious plan by any stretch of the imagination," as Lair put it in a court affidavit. The defense lawyers agree and explain the coup was actually the brainchild of the Justice Department's undercover agent, who posed as an arms dealer with CIA connections.
In other words, the undercover agent created the conspiracy for which the Hmong were arrested. Some serious dirty work -- and, for a change, real C.I.A. guys are not being accused, but are trying to hold the government to higher standards of ethics and professionalism. The world is full of wonders ...
The core of the case is that 200,000 Hmong are living in America as U.S. citizens. They came here as refugees after the CIA war that Bill Lair once led (though his role as founder of that operation makes him a controversial figure, too). Unfortunately, the fighting in the Hmong home country of Laos didn't end when it was supposed to, in 1975, when their old Vietnam-era opponents -- Laotian quasi-communists -- took control over what is officially known as the Lao People's Democratic Republic. A few Hmong in Laos are still fighting -- a third of a century after the war was supposed to have ended -- and a few Hmong-Americans support them, sometimes by sending money, more often by encouraging them to stay and fight. It's a strange, stubborn conflict, part Iron Age, part 21st century. Though the Hmong resistance bands live on the run in the jungles and subsist on bark, roots, and insects, most have satellite phones. They talk often with their American relatives.
Though the C.I.A. has been out of the Laos picture for decades -- not counting the long-retired Bill Lair's social visits and private factfinding trips -- from time to time American private citizens attach themselves to the lost cause of the Hmong. Most of them are Lawrence of Arabia wannabees who know little about the cultural or historical reality of the Hmong, and Col. Harrison Jack fits within that sorry tradition. I met Col. Jack once, at his arraignment hearing. Seems like a nice guy -- but just as over his head as the law enforcement team trying to frame him.
This case is farcical when it isn't tragic. In his motion to dismiss, the defense lawyer John Keker points out that Harrison Jack himself is a New Age mystic who tried to raise money for the Hmong cause by selling "kinetically-charged" bottled water with alleged healing properties. When Harrison Jack offhandedly mentioned to his healing water water wholesaler that some of the Hmong still in Laos wanted rifles for self-defense, the wholesaler ratted on him to law enforcement authorities.
Months later, when a smoky character who claimed to be an arms dealer materialized, and offered much heavier weapons, and the use of mercenaries, Col. Jack had forgotten about the rifle idea entirely, and had to be reminded. He was also worried about the new man being an undercover agent. So he went to a Sacramento lady friend who gazed into a crystal and told him not to worry, that everything was going to be okay. (The prosecution itself provided documentation of all this, in papers it filed with the court case.) And yet if convicted on all charges and sentenced to the max, this "fool" -- as Keker called Harrison Jack in court -- would face two consecutive life prison terms plus 38 years. And so would most of the Hmong who were swept up with him in this sorry, contrived government-fuelled plot.
But the big tragedy of the U.S. vs.. Harrison Jack case isn't whether a few people go to prison who might or might not deserve to. And it is not even whether the mistakes and intramural feuds of the U.S. national security apparatus gets exposed if the case goes to trial. The real tragedy is that, whatever happens or doesn't happen with this misguided federal court case, some innocent tribal people are being killed. Why? In part because the U.S. government's labeling the Hmong "terrorists" has given a couple of Southeast Asian governments all the excuse they ever wanted to treat the Hmong as badly or worse than we've treated anyone in Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo. Here is my prediction: in the weeks or months ahead, you will hear about rioting or deaths in refugee camps for what used to be the C.I.A.'s favorite tribe.
And morality aside, for the moment looking only the practical effects, this -- like Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo - is seriously bad P.R. Stay tuned.
Next posting: Bill Lair, a retired C.I.A. operative, returns to Southeast Asia to look for the remnants of the tribal force he once led, and finds a snake's nest of forgotten warriors, real and phony refugees -- and massive U.S. government indifference.