September 5, 1971
The director of central intelligence returned to his office at 0830 hours after receiving his normal set of briefings from regional operations directors and his key administrative staffers. These briefings provided a daily comprehensive view of American clandestine activities around the globe, as well as the costs, logistics, and political maneuvering needed to keep the CIA in business. The director had been appointed to this job in July of 1968 by President Johnson and, by now, had become very clinical and methodical about processing the volume of information he was given. Dealing with so many international issues, ranging from the Soviet Union nuclear threat to the continuing conduct of a war in Vietnam supported by fewer and fewer Americans, required a man who was rational, calm, and dispassionate in his decision making.
Sometimes as he sipped a scotch before retiring in the evening, he wondered if he had become too dispassionate.
His next agenda item this morning was to discuss with his key senior officers a problem that President Nixon had dumped in his lap the previous day during a meeting in the White House. In addition to the president, General Creighton Abrams, the commander of the Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV), had been present in the Oval Office. The director sensed that Abrams had been the instigator of the browbeating he had received from the president.
The director’s secretary buzzed him on the intercom and advised him that his subordinates had arrived. “Send them in,” said the director.
John “Black Jack” Rafferty, the deputy director of the CIA, entered first, followed by Evan Helms, the deputy director for Southeast Asia Operations. Black Jack was the number-two man at the CIA, while Helms was in charge of all CIA activities surrounding the war in Vietnam. Unlike the director, who was a political appointee, Rafferty and Helms were career CIA men who had gotten their starts in the spy business during World War II as agents for the Office of Strategic Service, the outfit that eventually became the CIA after the end of the war. They didn’t have the political connections or clout in Washington, DC, that the director had, but their combined knowledge of CIA operations over the previous thirty years provided a formidable database of intellectual property regarding the CIA’s successes and failures throughout the Cold War and in Vietnam.
As the three men sat down at the conference table, the director’s secretary served coffee in china emblazoned with the CIA crest. Thin strips of red, white, and blue circled the rims of the cups and saucers.
The three men skipped the informal banter that usually preceded, getting down to business. Rafferty and Helms knew this was a serious matter based on the phone message they had received from the director summoning them to his office.
As the secretary left the room, she triggered the electronic jamming system that would prevent anyone inside or outside the building from eavesdropping on the discussion.
The director took off his glasses and began to fill in his subordinates on the issue of the day. “As you both know, General Abrams has been in town for the last several days meeting with congressional committees, the secretary of defense, the National Security Council staff, and our team here at CIA. You also know that I met with him and the president in the Oval Office yesterday. That meeting didn’t go particularly well. General Abrams has a large bug up his ass about a situation he believes we are invested in, and he has the president worried about the potential political fallout.”
The director explained that, according to General Abrams, the North Vietnamese Army had not only been hauling weapons and logistical-support equipment down the Ho Chi Minh Trail through Laos into the combat areas of South Vietnam; they had also been shipping large amounts of processed heroin and opium. The drugs were distributed to middlemen who would sell them throughout South Vietnam, mainly to American and South Vietnamese soldiers. Since the previous February, there had been a noticeable increase in the amount of illegal drugs for sale to US and ARVN soldiers in the South. The result was a significant decrease in the combat readiness of US troops.
“Abrams gave the president and me a couple of real horror stories regarding this impact of these drugs,” the director explained. “Just west of Da Nang, a marine sergeant caught a lance corporal sleeping at his guard post. He threatened to have the young man court-martialed. Later that night, the corporal dropped a fragmentation grenade into the tent of the sergeant, killing him and injuring two other noncommissioned officers. When the corporal was caught, he tested positive for heroin.”
Rafferty and Helms had worked together for so long that they thought alike and even shared the same mannerisms. Both exhaled and shook their heads in tandem as the director continued with another story. “An army platoon of thirty men refused an order to advance up a ridge and engage the enemy,” the director explained. “When these men were pulled back to their base and drug tested, twenty-three of the thirty tested positive for drug use. The seven men who didn’t use drugs but refused to go up the ridge said they were afraid to be in a combat situation where their comrades were stoned and not prepared to fight.”
“There was another incident with the air force,” the director continued. “Evidently, both engines of a C-123 cargo plane failed at the same time within minutes of taking off from Bien Hoa Air Force Base outside of Saigon. It crashed, killing all four crew members. When the maintenance records were examined by an accident-review board, it was obvious that repairs to the fuel system had been screwed up big-time. Both the air-force mechanic who botched the repairs and his supervisor, who signed off on the repair, were caught smoking opium while on duty the night the maintenance actions took place.”
“I knew it was bad, but not this bad,” Helms said, shaking his head.
“Abrams estimates that as many as thirty-five percent of our guys are hooked on drugs or are active enough users that it impairs their ability to get the job done,” the director explained. “The heroin and opium our troops are smoking or ingesting is very pure and powerful. The drugs have an immediate physical impact on a user and are highly addictive. He wants the shipments to stop.”
“You said Abrams thinks we’re ‘invested’ in the situation,” Rafferty said. “In what way?”
“He thinks we’re involved in this somehow and that it’s the CIA’s responsibility to bring this drug-smuggling activity to a halt,” the director explained. “I think he’s threatening to take matters into his own hands and kick some ass in Laos if we don’t act, and that’s making the president very uncomfortable.”
“He can’t do that,” said Rafferty. “American troops are forbidden to set foot into Laos by an act of Congress. The president is his boss. If Nixon says stand down, he has to stand down.”
“Yeah, yeah, I get that,” the director replied. “But Abrams is a rare commodity in Washington. He’s a man of honor, a lifelong soldier who really believes the duty, honor, country, rah-rah bullshit. He knows he’s presiding over a war he won’t win. He knows as well as we do that Kissinger is in Paris negotiating with Le Duc Tho on a cease-fire and a withdrawal of American troops. Abrams feels that every young kid that gets shot or ends up with a needle in his arm is forfeiting his life so a politician can surrender without making it look like surrender. Young Americans serve their country and die or get screwed up, and politicians look like heroes to a war-weary public for bringing this mess to an end. This just doesn’t sit well with the senior officers in the military.”
“I sympathize with the guy, but any way you cut it, he has to follow Nixon’s orders,” said Helms.
“Right. I don’t think he’s going to screw with the president. He’s too loyal a soldier to do that,” the director agreed. “But the flip side is that he’s popular in Congress; they like him in the Pentagon and at State; and we even have a grudging respect for the guy, although he can be a horse’s ass at times. Nixon’s convinced the public that Abrams is the greatest general since MacArthur. He can’t very well fire the man for trying to protect our sons and daughters from a ruthless North Vietnamese army that’s making a profit by selling drugs to our children. The president is also very worried about this being picked up by a hostile press, which could further erode public support for the war and force him to make more concessions to the dinks. Let’s face it; Nixon’s a politician, and he wants this to go away quietly, not by having forty thousand American troops invade Laos, where they aren’t supposed to be, and laying waste to yet another Asian country.”
The three men had been quiet for a moment when Helms raised a question: “What makes Abrams think this is a problem created by CIA?”
The director chuckled. “Come on, Evan. The guy’s not stupid. The army captured two trucks that transport the drugs. The trucks were uniquely configured with some weird contraptions on the top of the hood, cab, and load area. They had no battle damage at all—kind of a surprise since the air force is bombing the hell out of eastern Laos from their bases in Thailand—and the vehicles were neatly packed with rectangular bags of heroin and processed opium. There was some writing on the bags, and the army-intelligence guys figured out that the writing wasn’t Vietnamese, or Laotian, but Hmong. Abrams knows that General Thao Kim runs a thirty-thousand-man Hmong army in Laos that the CIA finances, manages, and directs. Since we can’t put Americans in Laos, the Hmong warriors are the main reason that the northern part of Laos, including the capital of Vientiane, is still free from a Communist invasion. Abrams is also aware that the Hmong tribe primarily lives in the mountainous section of northern Laos, and their main cash crop for the last century has been opium. He managed to brief the president on all this information with me sitting there. The president looked concerned and asked me if I thought we had any involvement in this.
“I thought that was kind of a cute question. He knows damn well the CIA has been allowing the Hmong to help fund their military operations by producing and selling opium. As long as the stuff was heading west from Hmong territory to the Golden Triangle where Laos, Burma, and Thailand coincide, he was OK with that, ignoring the fact that this crap is sold to our allies in Europe, and eventually some portion of it ends up on the streets of the USA. However, now that the drugs are going southeast into Vietnam, suddenly he’s indignant about the fact that the NVA is successfully eroding our war-making capability and generating a decent profit on it as well.”
The three men sat lost in thought for a few seconds until the director asked the question both Rafferty and Helms knew was coming. “Do you think any of our guys are directly involved in this beyond the necessity of turning a blind eye to some of the things the Hmong or the Laotians are doing?”
Rafferty and Helms both knew never to be too quick or specific when talking to their boss. He was loyal to the president, the guy who’d appointed him. They were loyal to the company: the CIA.
Helms spoke first. “As you know, director, we in the CIA have had a great relationship with the Royal Lao Army and the Hmong tribe for many years. We started operating Air America, our own airline system, in Laos in 1960 with four helicopters. Now we have several hundred aircraft flying out of our secret Laotian base in Long Tieng and out of our logistics center at Udorn Royal Thai airbase in Thailand. This airborne logistics system is constantly in motion, moving personnel, weapons, supplies, and other commodities all over Laos, Thailand, Cambodia, and, of course, Vietnam. Altogether, we have over one hundred fifty CIA case officers in Laos, as well as fifty or so air-force pilots wearing civilian clothes and flying missions against Pathet Lao or North Vietnamese troops.
“I’m sure our guys understand that there is stuff being moved around in these aircraft on behalf of the Laotians or Hmong that probably shouldn’t be there, but it’s tough to deny troops as loyal and brave as the Hmong from participating in a form of commerce they’ve pursued for generations,” Helms continued. “We have the complete dedication of Hmong General Thao Kim and his senior officers, and I think we understand that his continued commitment to some degree depends on him and his key guys making a lot of money off the drug trade. Over the years, we’ve built a strong military alliance between the Royal Laotian Army and the Hmong, and they’ve been jointly successful in limiting the military advances of the Pathet Lao Communists and the NVA. But they haven’t always gotten along so well, and we suspect that some of the issues we have from time to time in getting them to cooperate on the battlefield have to do with business conflicts between the senior officers in each group relative to the drug trade.”
“I understand all that, Evan, but we are deeply imbedded with both the Laotian army and the Hmong. If both groups are actively involved in drug trafficking, it’s logical that one or both groups are selling to the North Vietnamese, and we may have an agent making a few bucks on the deal.”
Rafferty entered the conversation. “Mr. Director, I know that the secret war we’re conducting in Laos against the Communists is a real Wild West operation. And our guys, by necessity, have to be a bunch of cowboys. That can lead to guys going off the reservation, forgetting about the mission, and becoming emotionally and financially involved in some stuff they shouldn’t be involved in. But I don’t believe we have people over there profiting at the expense of American deaths in Vietnam. Our guys may be crazy, but they’re still patriots.”
“I hope you’re right, Jack. We have agents and CIA assets in every element of that operation—from shooting the enemy in the face while they’re looking at you, all the way back to the American embassy in Vientiane, where the secret war is managed by our embassy station chief.” The director paused to think for a second. “You don’t think Stansfield and Cheadle are involved in this in any way, do you?”
Rafferty and Helms glanced at each other briefly, and then Rafferty addressed the director. “Everett Cheadle, our station chief in Vientiane, is one of the finest CIA agents we have. He’s been around Asia forever. He understands the social, political, and military dynamics in Indochina as well as anyone, and he’s a stand-up guy. Having said that, he probably has much better insight into the drug trade over there than we do and is definitely someone we should talk to. As for Averill Stansfield, the American ambassador to Laos, we all puked when Nixon placed him there at the bequest of the State Department, but that’s the breaks. He’s your typical Ivy-League, white-bread, State-Department diplomat and doesn’t enjoy getting involved in the dirty stuff we’re doing in Laos. I’d be surprised if he had any insights into this.”
The director leaned back in his chair, took off his reading glasses, and looked at the trees outside his window swaying back and forth in the wind. It was a beautiful day in Northern Virginia. He would have loved to be at his country club playing golf instead of addressing drug deals on the other side of the earth.
“OK, this is what we are going to do.” The director had thought this through prior to the meeting with Rafferty and Helms and hadn’t heard anything in the last ten minutes to change his mind on the course of action he wanted to take. “I want you to find someone in this building that we can trust to figure out what’s going on over there and come up with a solution. We need someone who knows the landscape of Laos and Vietnam really well and who can put together a team of folks to help him get to the bottom of this situation. We’ll send this agent over with a phony cover story about his mission, because I don’t want anyone in Laos to know what he’s up to. If whoever is getting in bed with the NVA on transporting and selling drugs into South Vietnam gets wind of this, they may go to ground or try to eliminate our guy. I realize that Laos is really screwed up. A third of the country is run by the Communist Pathet Lao. The four-hundred-mile eastern border with South Vietnam is completely controlled by the North Vietnamese Army as they transport supplies and weaponry from the North to the South. The central and northwest parts of the country answer to a Laotian government that’s allied with the United States. There are all kinds of battles going on between each group, not to mention the constant bombing by the US Air Force trying to interdict the Ho Chi Minh Trail or support ground operations by Royal Laotians or the Hmong. If there was ever an easy place to get killed, this is it. Additionally, we don’t know what the politics are in Vientiane on this drug issue, not to mention the secret town of Long Tieng where General Thao Kim is based. We need somebody really good to handle this. He has to be smart and have the balls to venture into some difficult situations in Laos and Vietnam.”
“Giving our man the clout and bureaucratic power he’s going to need to get this done isn’t going to be easy,” offered Helms.
“I’ve already started working on that,” said the director. “We have the White House’s backing on this. I’ll make sure the National Security Council, Defense Department, and State Department grease the skids to get our agent whatever and whoever he wants. You guys will put the same word out through our own chain of command. This is going to be a little tricky because we don’t want to tip off the boys and girls in Laos that this agent has big-time backing to do what otherwise will be billed as some normal staff work. They’ll realize immediately that the cover story is bullshit, and then we could have some problems. But this is a risk we’re going to have to take.”
“How soon do you want this in motion, boss?”
“I want a name from you by tomorrow. After that, our agent will only have a day or two to put a plan together. The three of us will approve the plan, and then it’s off to the races!”
Rafferty and Helms knew there wasn’t much else to be said. They would pick the right agent and set him in motion. But this was going to be difficult and dangerous—a Herculean task.
“Did General Abrams say anything else about these trucks loaded with the drugs?” Helms asked.
“Yes, he did,” said the director. “He mentioned that the trucks had a unique marking. Both doors on the cab of each truck had a drawing in red of an elephant.”
“Yeah, an elephant.”
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