The Secret Team Enters South-East Asia
More bombs were dropped on Laos between 1965 and '73 than the US had dropped on Japan and Germany during World War II. More than 350,000 people were killed. The war in Laos was a secret only from the American people and Congress. It anticipated the sordid ties between drug trafficking and repressive regimes that have been seen later in the Noriega affair.
by John Bacher
AFTER THE CLOSING DOWN OF the United States's secret war in Cuba, CIA agents Theodore Shackley and Tom Clines were sent eastward to set up a far more massive secret war in Laos. Like its previous "Operation Success," "Mongoose" and "JM/Wave" assignments, the team was presented with another "mission impossible" -- to prop up a reactionary U.S. client state with little indigenous popular support. That the mission succeeded as well as it did, from 1965 to 1973, was only possible because of massive narcotics smuggling and saturation bombing which tended to overshadow any national foreign policy objective.
Prior to the arrival of the Secret Team in Laos, the U.S. had a sordid history of the destruction of neutralist Laotian governments with broad political support, since the country received its independence from France in 1954. The CIA engineered coups in 1958, 1959, 1960, and possibly on other occasions, as William Blum has documented in his The CIA: A Forgotten History. Such manipulation had the effect of driving the Pathet Lao (Communist Party) out of the political arena and into military conflict in alliance with North Vietnam. U.S. President John F. Kennedy did have the intelligence to see the absurdity of this situation and obtained a coalition government with the Pathet Lao backed by international agreement. This neutral regime was, however, overthrown in 1964 by a right wing coup, giving effective control to reactionary generals with close ties to the CIA.To stabilize this regime with so little popular support, the CIA sent Theodore Shackley and Tom Clines to Laos in 1964.
Unlike the war in Vietnam, the secret war in Laos remained in the hands of the CIA and avoided direct deployment of U.S. troops. This lack of American casualties tended to hide its massive scale. After the war's end, the New York Times observed that "some 350,000 men, women and children have been killed, it is estimated, and a tenth of the population of three million uprooted." Between 1965 and 1973, more than two million tons of bombs were dropped on Laos -- far more than the U.S. had dropped on both Japan and Germany during World War II. This bombing was applied to all regions controlled by the Pathet Lao. A former American community worker in Laos, Fred Branfam, described how "village after village was levelled, countless people burned alive by high explosives, or by napalm and white phosphorous, or riddled by anti-personnel bomb pellets." In order to wreck the economy in the Pathet Lao area, the U.S. dropped millions in forged currency. At the end of the war in Laos, the Plain of Jars resembled a lunar landscape marked by bomb craters,"stark testimony to the years of war that denuded the area of people and buildings." Irrigation works collapsed and so many water buffalo had been killed in the war that farmers had to harness themselves to the plows to till fields. Unexploded ordnance are still killing and hampering food production. Such weaponry includes fragmentation weapons with explosives and steel bits released from large canisters.
THE ROYAL LAO ARMY HAD PROVEN unreliable to prop up John Foster Dulles's puppet American regimes in the '50s, which were often overthrown by nationalistic officers. Therefore Shackley and Clines developed their own secret army, based on the discontented Meo tribal minority and financed by the narcotics trade. Meo villages that refused to send troops to fight in this secret army were bombed by the U.S. Air Force, as Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman point out in After the Cataclysm. To suit U.S. strategic needs, villages were relocated. Besides 15,000 Meo tribesmen, the secret army included 15,000 mercenaries from Thailand, and U.S.-trained soldiers from South Vietnam, Taiwan, South Korea and the Philippines. The New York Times quipped that the "Secret Army" was secret only from "the American people and Congress." American advisers killed in Laos were reported to have died in Vietnam.
ONE objective of Shackley and Clines was to monopolize the opium trade in Laos for their Meo ally, Van Pao. In 1965 Van Pao's opium trafficking competitors were assassinated.
After the end of the Indochina war, the CIA admitted that "certain elements" of its war organization had been involved in opium smuggling. As Henrick Kruger points out in The Great Heroin Coup (Black Rose, 1980), the CIA was forced to admit this because of reports of returning U.S. veterans. One report, by highly-decorated Green Beret Paul Withers, explained that one of his main tasks had been "to buy up the entire crop of opium" of the Meo tribe. About once a week an Air America (a CIA owned company) plane, he reported, "would arrive with supplies and kilo bags of opium, which were loaded on the plane. Each bag was marked with the symbol of the tribe." Air American flights were exempted from normal customs inspections. In 1971 some 60 kilos of heroin (worth $13.5 million) were seized from the briefcase of the chief Laotian delegate of the World Anti-Communist League.
Shackley and Clines also developed a program to use their secret army for "unconventional warfare" activities, including political assassinations. This is detailed in the lawsuit of the Christic Institute. In 1966 a multi-service operation, the Military Assistance Command, Vietnam -- Special Operations Group (MACV-SOG) was formed. From 1966-1968 this group supported the assassination activities of the secret army and was commanded by future World Anti-Communist League president and Contra fundraiser, General John K. Singlaub. Serving under Singlaub in Laos in 1968 was the then Second Lieutenant Oliver North.
From 1968 to 1971 Theodore Shackley and Tom Clines supervised the Special Operations Group in Laos. The secret army assassinated over 100,000 noncombatant villagers: mayors, bookkeepers, clerks and other political figures in Laos, Cambodia and Thailand. These killings established a foundation of terror for the Laotian government, undermined Prince Norodom Sihanouk's efforts to steer a neutral course for Cambodia, and discouraged the growth of democracy in Thailand. The style of terror resembled the random killings of Colonel Kurtz's Montagnards in the film Apocalypse Now. Unfortunately movie watchers are deceived into thinking such madness would bring official punishment instead of promotions.
The antics of the Secret Team in Laos would be a prelude to even more destructive activities in Vietnam, where their program of narcotics smuggling and assassination would develop even greater scope. This war was too massive to let the brunt of the fighting to fall to tribal minorities and foreign mercenaries, causing America to officially enter Southeast Asia.
The U.S. client state's government became so deeply involved in illegal activities, such as the heroin trade and thievery, that it more resembled an organized crime syndicate than a coalition of conservative political parties. The terrorist operations of the Secret Team in Vietnam, such as the infamous Phoenix Program, destroyed both the "third force" and the communist-led National Liberation Front, tending to make the domination of the area by North Vietnam the inevitable outcome of the conflict.
John Bacher (Ph.D., History) is a Metro Toronto archivist.