CIA activities in Laos

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The CIA organized Hmong tribes to fight against the North Vietnamese-backed Pathet Lao communists in Laos, and used Air America to "drop 46 million pounds of foodstuffs....transport tens of thousands of troops, conduct a highly successful photoreconnaissance program, and engage in numerous clandestine missions using night-vision glasses and state-of-the-art electronic equipment."[1]


Politics of Laos and the CIA[edit]

A 1962 Time Magazine article about Laos makes some points that help understand the context of the overt and covert actions of all sides in Laos before the Vietnam War. [2] One of its first points is that a Laotian national identity, especially in the fifties and sixties, was a rare thing. Communist groups and those from outside, including the French colonial administration and the Central Intelligence Agency, often exploited power vacuums.

Though it has a king, a government and an army and can be found on a map, Laos does not really exist. Many of its estimated 2,000,000 people would be astonished to be called Laotians, since they know themselves to be Meo or Black Thai or Khalom tribesmen. It is a land without a railroad, a single paved highway or a newspaper. Its chief cash crop is opium.

Laos was dreamed up by French Diplomat Jean Chauvel, who in 1946 was France's Secretary-General of Foreign Affairs. At the time, France was trying to reassert its authority in Indo-China, whose rebellious inhabitants had no desire to return to their prewar status as colonial subjects. In place of original Indo-China, consisting of various kingdoms and principalities, Paris put together three new autonomous states within the French Union: Viet Nam, Cambodia and Laos. Drawing lines on a map, Chauvel created Laos by merging the rival kingdoms of Luangprabang, whose monarch became King of Laos, with Champassak, whose pretender was consoled by being made permanent Inspector General of the new state.

French influence did not survive long after the 1954 defeat at Dien Bien Phu. When the French declared Laos independent, it did not have cohesive government: two Laotian provinces were run by the communist Pathet Lao under Prince Souphanouvong. His halfbrother, Prince Souvanna Phouma, was chosen Premier in 1956, and Souphanouvong and his provinces under the fledgling central government. A subsequent national election increased communist strength in the National Assembly to nine of the 21 seats, which aroused the ire of the US government, which distrusted Souvanna Phouma, "both as a neutralist and a compromiser with the Reds." [2] Regime change to the right-wing General Phoumi Nosavan came not from a coup, but from stopping US economic aid, which was the responsibility, subordinate to the White House, of the US Agency for International Development. The new dictator invited U.S. military advisors, who came with both US Defense Department and CIA personnel.

CIA operations in Laos, proprietary airlines, and the drug trade[edit]

According to William M. Leary, a University of Georgia historian who analyzed Laotian operations for the CIA Center for the Study of Intelligence, CIA-led covert action in Laos was the largest paramilitary operation in the history of the Agency. There has been much controversy about Agency involvement in the Southeast Asia drug trade, and Leary takes an intermediate position. See CIA activities by transnational topic: crime and illicit drug trade.

For more than 13 years, the Agency directed native forces that fought major North Vietnamese units to a standstill.... As Joseph Westermeyer, who spent the years 1965 to 1975 in Laos as a physician, public health worker, and researcher, wrote in Poppies, Pipes, and People: "American-owned airlines never knowingly transported opium in or out of Laos, nor did their American pilots ever profit from its transport. Yet every plane in Laos undoubtedly carried opium at some time, unknown to the pilot and his superiors--just as had virtually every pedicab, every Mekong River sampan, and every missionary jeep between China and the Gulf of Siam."

If the CIA was not involved in the drug trade, it did know about it. As former DCI William Colby acknowledged, the Agency did little about it during the 1960s, but later took action against the traders as drugs became a problem among American troops in Vietnam. The CIA's main focus in Laos remained on fighting the war, not on policing the drug trade.[3]

In 1950, the CIA, which supported but did not command covert action (until 1952), CIA determined that it could best meet its support responsibilities with a proprietary airline under its clandestine control. "In August 1950, the Agency secretly purchased the assets of Civil Air Transport (CAT), an airline that had been started in China after World War II by Gen. Claire L. Chennault and Whiting Willauer. CAT would continue to fly commercial routes throughout Asia, acting in every way as a privately owned commercial airline. At the same time, under the corporate guise of CAT Incorporated, it provided airplanes and crews for secret intelligence operations. During the Korean War, for example, it made more than 100 hazardous overflights of mainland China, airdropping agents and supplies."

Laos 1953[edit]

In April 1953, the French colonial forces in Indochina requested US air transport "to fly tanks and heavy equipment to their hard-pressed forces in Laos. "Having such equipment," the French emphasized, "might mean the difference between holding and losing Laos." "

At this point, the CAT role evolved from clandestine to covert. The Eisenhower Administration, unwilling to give overt support, decided to use CAT to fulfill the French request, in Operation SQUAW. The US Air Force provided CAT with "sterile" (i.e., with American military identification removed) C-119 transports, capable of carrying the heavy loads required by the French. CAT personnel were unfamiliar with the C-119, and the Air Force held a short but intense training course for them at Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines. On 5 May, they flew six of the transports, repainted with French insignia, to Gia Lam airbase, outside Hanoi, and parachuted supplies and equipment to French forces in Laos until 16 July.[3]

SQUAW began the next day. It continued until 16 July, with CAT pilots making numerous airdrops to French troops in Laos.

Laos (and Vietnam) 1954[edit]

Again, the French asked for help, in supporting their isolated base at Dien Bien Phu. CAT contracted with the French, in January 1954, to provide 24 pilots to fly 12 C-119 aircraft, to be maintained by USAF ground crews at Hanoi's Cat Bi airfield, to support Dien Bien Phu. Flights started in March, as the Viet Minh began their assault, and continued until Dien Bien Phu fell on 7 May. Two CAT pilots were killed and one wounded.

CAT operations continued after the fall of Dien Bien Phu. The C-119s supported isolated French outposts, and CAT also provided 12 C-46 transports to evacuate civilians from North to South Vietnam.

CAT also carried members of the CIA's Saigon Military Mission[4](see Vietnam 1954) north of the 17th parallel, in a futile attempt to set up stay-behind networks.

Laos 1955[edit]

In January 1955, the US created the United States Operations Mission (USOM) in Vientiane, Laos, to provide foreign aid. By the end of the year, a Programs Evaluation Office (PEO), staffed by retired military personnel or military officers covertly seconded to the CIA. The PEO was a covert equivalent to a Military Assistance Advisory Group (MAAG), organized within USOM to handle military aid, which was not usually within the scope of USOM. CIA was involved with the PEO until US military involvement was acknowledged and a MAAG established.

In July 1955, USOM officials learned that a rice failure threatened famine in several provinces in Laos. Because a number of these areas were in remote, mountainous regions, airdrops would be the only feasible means to delivering essential supplies of rice and salt. Three CAT C-46s arrived at the northeastern railhead of Udon Thani, Thailand, on 11 September to begin the airlift. By the end of the month, CAT had flown more than 200 missions to 25 reception areas, delivering 1,000 tons of emergency food. Conducted smoothly and efficiently, this airdrop relief operation marked the beginning of CAT's--and later Air America's--support of US assistance programs in Laos.[3]

Laos 1957[edit]

A new CAT contract was signed in 1957, and Bruce Blevins flew a C-47 to Vientiane, to service the US Embassy. When he flew elsewhere in the country, conditions were primitive; Vientiane had the only control tower, radio navigational aid, and non-dirt runway in Laos. The US, again covertly, increased its level of support.

Laos 1958[edit]

As the civil war became more intense, CAT C-47s and C-46s passed more frequently through Vientiane to fulfill urgent airdrop requests. Blevins also was kept busy, landing throughout the country and making numerous airdrops to isolated FAR posts. He developed an especially close relationship with a CIA case officer who had arrived in October 1958 and who was assigned to support neutralist Capt. Kong Le's parachute battalion, a Laotian officer who would rise to the highest ranks.[3]

Laos 1959[edit]

Air America—the name changed on 26 March 1959, primarily to avoid confusion about the air proprietary's operations in Japan 16—provided essential transportation for the expanding American effort in Laos.[3]

As the Laotian government did not want it known that it was being assisted by the US in the Laotian Civil War against the Pathet Lao, CIA established a unit from United States Army Special Forces, who arrived on CIA proprietary airline Air America, wearing civilian clothes and having no obvious US connection. These soldiers led Meo and Hmong tribesmen against Communist forces. The covert program was called Operation Hotfoot. At the US Embassy, BG John Heintges was called the head of the "Program Evaluation Office."[5]

CIA directed Air America, in August 1959, to train two helicopter pilots. Originally, this was believed to be a short-term requirement, but this would be the beginning of a major rotary-wing operation in Laos.

Laos 1960[edit]

Eventually, four CAT pilots were trained on US Air Force H-19A helicopters in Japan and the Philippines. The CAT contingent did not reach Laos until March 1960. Due to the operating limitations of the H-19s, the underpowered helicopters could fly only at lower elevations in the country. "Generally, they were used to carry CIA case officers to meetings in outlying areas and to distribute leaflets during elections. By June 1960, it had become clear that helicopters would form a permanent part of Air America's operations in Laos. "[3]

Air America hired four experienced US Marine Corps helicopter pilots who obtained their discharges in Okinawa to fly the H-19s. Later in the year, the CIA arranged for the Marine Corps to transfer four UH-34 helicopters to Air America to replace the H-19s.

Also in 1960 was a national election of questionable honesty. "Phoumi's group gained a sweeping majority. On the surface, a relatively tough U.S. policy of containing Communism seemed to be an overwhelming success... $250 million in U.S. economic and military aid had too heady an effect on the Laotian government, which was soon reeling with corruption. Promised reforms never materialized, and practically no funds reached the peasants and forest tribes. The Communist Pathet Lao guerrilla bands began raiding in the north. Red Prince Souphanouvong not only walked out of jail, but took most of his prison guards with him."[2]

In August 1960, Kong Le, who had formed a friendship with a CIA officer in 1958, still returned neutralist Souvanna Phouma to power with a military coup. Phoumi Nosavan, who had much closer CIA relations, took refuge in his base in Savannakhet, in southern Laos.

The US encouraged Phoumi Nosavan, in December, to attack Kong Le's battalion in Vientiane.

Kong Le retreated to the strategic Plaine des Jarres, joining forces with the Pathet Lao. The Soviet Union poured in supplies by air, and Communist North Viet Nam contributed tough guerrilla cadres. When Phoumi's army advanced, it was badly beaten in a series of noisy but largely bloodless battles. Phoumi got a breathing space when, in the spring of 1961, the government eagerly agreed to a ceasefire.[2]

Laos 1961[edit]

According to Time,

In an effort to force him to accept a coalition government, the U.S. stopped paying Laos $3 million a month in economic aid, but there has never been any skimping in U.S. equipment and the training of Phoumi's Royal Laotian Army. The grim truth—as shown again last month at Nam Tha—is that Phoumi's men simply will not fight. Some observers suggest Phoumi actually wanted his army to collapse in order to force U.S. intervention—perhaps relying on President Kennedy's March 1961 telecast, when he said that a Red takeover in Laos would "quite obviously affect the security of the U.S."

American visibility increased in 1961, possibly as a signal to Phoumi. The covert advisory group was acknowledged, and called the White Star organization, commanded by Arthur D. Simons[6] In addition to operating against the Pathet Lao, the White Star teams harassed the North Vietnamese on the Ho Chi Minh trail, which had been formed in May 1959 under the North Vietnamese Army's 559th Transportation Group, whose unit number reflected its creation date.[7] Many of the White Star personnel would move into the Studies and Observation Group, which operated from South Vietnam but ran cross-border operations into North Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.

Laos 1962[edit]

The CIA-organized group of Hmong and Meo tribesmen fighting in the Vietnam War are known as the "Secret Army", and their participation is called the Secret War, where the Secret War is meant to denote the Laotian Civil War (1960–1975) and the Laotian front of the Vietnam War.

Laos 1964[edit]

In May 1964, the U.S. Air Force began flying reconnaissance missions over the Laotian panhandle to obtain target information on men and materiel being moved into South Vietnam over the Ho Chi Minh Trail.

The problem addressed by the Special National Intelligence Estimate (SNIE) of May 25 was to determine if there was a set of actions that would cause the Democratic (i.e., North) Republic of Vietnam (DRV) to reduce activities in the Republic (i.e., South) of Vietnam (RVN), and to respect the 1962 Geneva agreements on Laos. It assumed primarily air and naval action, without attacks on population centers or the use of nuclear weapons. The DRV, China, and USSR would be told that US intentions were limited.

It was projected that the DRV would wait on military action while stirring diplomatic opinion against the US. In the absence of US forces in Laos, however, it was judged capable of taking control of the country. While the DRV could resist a RVN ground attack, its air defenses were primitive and it would be unlikely to accept Chinese assistance, other than perhaps antiaircraft guns but not fighters. The estimate did suggest that a campaign against the North would have to be quick and intense, not the gradual escalation that actually was used. [8]

Laos 1969[edit]

A memorandum of November 12, from Kissinger to Nixon. reviewed the procedure for attacks in Laos.[9] Kissinger raised several questions in response to a CIA memorandum on Vang Pao’s offensive in the Plain of Jars... A joint response from the CIA and the Departments of Defense and State said:

  • U.S. ability to control (including veto) a Lao operation is to all practical purposes complete because U.S. matériel and air support are vital.
  • In practice, most operations are conceived by commanders of individual Military Regions in close conjunction with U.S. Military Attachés, or in the case of Vang Pao and the other irregulars, with the local CIA Area Chief.
  • In brief, the following U.S. clearance procedures are followed:
  • The cognizant U.S. military attaché or CIA Area Chief forwards the request to U.S. Country Team, consisting of Ambassador, DCM, Military Attachés and CIA Station Chief.
  • Vang Pao’s operations are also cleared by the CIA base at Udom, Thailand which assesses the Agency’s ability to provide necessary support.
  • The Ambassador requests authorization from State for politically sensitive operations or activities exceeding established operating procedures and refers requests for air support to MACV.

Laos 2007[edit]

There are conflicting reports on whether or not repatriation has been agreed for Hmong tribesmen who aided the CIA in 1962-1975.[10] See Thailand 2007 for an agreement, without an implementation date, apparently reached on December 9, 2007.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Leary, William M. "CIA Air Operations in Laos, 1955-1974." CIA. June 27, 2008.
  2. ^ a b c d "LAOS: Four Phases to Nonexistence", Time, 8 June 1962 
  3. ^ a b c d e f Leary, William M., Supporting the "Secret War": CIA Air Operations in Laos, 1955-1974, Center for the Study of Intelligence, Central Intelligence Agency 
  4. ^ "Document 95, Lansdale Team's Report on Covert Saigon Mission in 1954 and 1955,", The Pentagon Papers, Gravel Edition, Volume 1: 573–83 
  5. ^ Holman, Victor (1995), Seminole Negro Indianss, Macabebes, and Civilian Irregulars: Models for the Future Employment of Indigenous Forces, US Army Command and General Staff College 
  6. ^ Arthur D. (Bull) Simons 
  7. ^ Shultz, Richard H. (2000), The Secret War Against Hanoi: The Untold Story of Spies, Saboteurs, and Covert Warriors in North Vietnam, HarperCollins 
  8. ^ Central Intelligence Agency (25 May 1964), SNIE 50-2-64 Probable Consequences of Certain US Actions with Respect to Vietnam and Laos 
  9. ^ Planning of Military Operations in Laos, Foreign Relations of the United States, Nixon-Ford Administrations. Volume VI. Foreign Relations, 1969-1976. Vietnam, January 1969-July 1970, United States Department of State, 12 November 1969, FRUS Document 146 [dead link]
  10. ^ Fuller, Thomas (December 17, 2007), "Old U.S. Allies, Still Hiding in Laos", New York Times, retrieved 2007-12-17 

BOHICA written by Scott Barnes 1987, Sworn testimony before US Federal Grand Juries and two Senate and Congressional Testimonies. ISA or USISA was one of many covert arms of the CIA