The Secret War in Laos and the Role of the CIA

Feb 10, 2017

Josh Kurlantzick, author of a new book on the U.S. secret war in Laos from 1961-73, notes that the war was responsible for greatly increasing the power of the CIA. "Today the CIA, together with Special Forces, has become the tip of the spear in the U.S. war on terror," he continues, and it's very unlikely that it will be "de-fanged" under the new administration.

DEVIN STEWART: Hi. I'm Devin Stewart here at Carnegie Council in New York City. Today I'm speaking with Joshua Kurlantzick. He is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of the new book, A Great Place to Have a War: America in Laos and the Birth of a Military CIA.

Josh, great to have you with us today. Thanks for talking with us.

JOSHUA KURLANTZICK: Thank you for having me.

DEVIN STEWART: You've put out an incredibly researched book here, A Great Place to Have a War. It's about the secret war in Laos from 1961 to 1973. How did this war come about? What was the United States trying to do?

JOSHUA KURLANTZICK: The United States was involved in Laos before 1961. During the Eisenhower administration in 1960, there was a coup in Laos and increasing instability. There was growing concern in the Eisenhower administration, and also in their friends in the Thai government, that although the coup leader was not necessarily a communist, communist groups who were allied with North Vietnam were going to take over the government in Laos.

Remember that American foreign policy leaders had already seen China become communist, and there was a deep fear that many countries in East Asia were going to become communist. There was a failure at that time—looking back in hindsight—to differentiate between the different communist and nationalist movements and to understand what countries were threatened and how serious the theory of one domino falling after another was. In any respect, that was the fear in Laos.

In fact, it was a very important foreign policy issue to the Eisenhower administration and the incoming Kennedy administration—which seems shocking today to think that it could have been a prominent national security interest to the United States, given that Laos is a very small country, very far, very remote, but that is indeed what it was in 1960 and early 1961.

The United States had already been involved, but in early 1961 it was decided, working through the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and with the Thais, to launch and ramp up an operation to arm and train local forces in Laos.

DEVIN STEWART: How did the CIA get involved with this?

JOSHUA KURLANTZICK: The CIA was already involved in Laos insofar that it was collecting information and was involved in trying to help sustain conservative and anti-communist governments. The CIA saw this as a way to train and support anti-communist forces, mostly from the minority Hmong group, some of whom were experienced and dedicated guerrilla fighters. They wanted to help them—at the beginning at least—defend their villages and areas from communist forces and build up an effective guerrilla force.

Although there was some internal discussion in the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations initially of introducing a conventional U.S. force in Laos, that was quickly dismissed. So the idea was that operating through arming and aiding, a more covert strategy, would be much more effective and politically palatable in the United States.

DEVIN STEWART: So it was a decision to make it easier to train these forces over having the American military do so?

JOSHUA KURLANTZICK: Right. There was some consideration; Kennedy pretty quickly shot that down. But in terms of options being on the table, there was some discussion or options being put on the table of an actual U.S. conventional force fighting in Laos, as opposed to what happened, which was funding and training, bombing, and some U.S. incursions into Laos, but mostly supporting the local army.

I think part of what was happening at that time was that it was only a few years after the Korean War ended in essentially a stalemate, and one that did not make anyone fully happy. Kennedy thought that Laos was an inappropriate place for direct involvement. He was still skeptical, I think, of the idea that the United States should be involved directly in Southeast Asia at all, although he did put the United States on a further path toward direct involvement in Vietnam.

He was maybe also skeptical that the U.S. public was going to tolerate another large conventional war so soon after Korea, so this was more politically palatable. Of course, we did get involved in another large conventional war in Vietnam, but at that time, 1960-1961, that was still seen as not necessarily the course we were going down.

DEVIN STEWART: Tell me what inspired you to do this book. I understand there was some declassified information, and there was also another book about this topic earlier, Shooting at the Moon: The Story of America's Clandestine War in Laos.

JOSHUA KURLANTZICK: I've always been interested in Laos. I lived in Southeast Asia in the late 1990s and early 2000s. I think the main thing was that I was really intrigued when I was living in Southeast Asia and visited Laos a lot and I was freelancing for different publications. I worked for TheNewswire for a while.

Laos has opened up their economy somewhat in recent years, but at that time they had begun opening up the economy it was still more isolated economically and diplomatically than it is today. Laos is still one of the most repressive countries in the world and is still very poor.

It was very sleepy at that time. The more I learned about the Laos War, combined with my experience at that time of how remote and sleepy it seemed, it just seemed shocking that this country could have been in any way a priority, let alone that it was a top priority during the Eisenhower-Kennedy transition period. That it was a priority at all seemed shocking to me, and I was interested in learning more about how this could have happened and what it tells us about U.S. national security strategy as well as the CIA that it should be a priority. By the early 1970s, and then basically up to the present day, it fell off the radar of U.S. policymakers.

DEVIN STEWART: Your book weaves around four main characters who are key to this war. Do you want to tell us about those four characters?

JOSHUA KURLANTZICK:The four characters who the book is structured around are:

    • Bill Lair, who was a CIA operative and who was in charge at the beginning of the operation, starting in 1961, and had a fair amount of Southeast Asia experience. He saw the operation as one to help the Hmong—and others, but mostly the Hmong—defend their way of life and their villages. The operation would not have been successful if it was led by the Hmong, and the goals of the Hmong were not shared with the United States. It could not be a U.S. operation, but ultimately that is what it turned into. It may have helped U.S. aims, although I am not sure about that in the long run, but it definitely did not in the long run help the aims of those fighting communism in Laos.

    • Bill Sullivan, who was the U.S. ambassador in Laos for part of this time and really played a unique role in U.S. State Department history, in that he was much more intimately involved with conflict management than a U.S. ambassador had been and has been since then.

    • Vang Pao, who was the leader of the Hmong forces who were being trained. He was the one who really oversaw the buildup and the management of the Hmong forces, but ultimately was caught between the United States' aims for the war, which turned into using the Laos War to basically just kill as many Vietnamese, or bloodletting of the North Vietnamese, as possible. Vang Pao became trapped into fighting bigger and bigger battles that were not helping him. Ultimately they lost, and he wound up fleeing to Thailand and then the United States.

  • Finally, Tony Poe, who was an operative there, who progressively went more crazy. To me he exemplifies some of the problems with lack of oversight of such a large-scale covert operation that you can have—actors like that who were increasing going crazy without reeling them in very effectively.

DEVIN STEWART: Why wasn't there much oversight?

JOSHUA KURLANTZICK: There was some oversight, in that there were congresspeople who in theory were overseeing it; and there was some knowledge in the media about the Laos operation, but much less than there could have been. For most of the time until the late 1960s and early 1970s, congresspeople and senators did not exercise very effective oversight. They mostly did not want to know; or if they did, they did not want to know much about it.

There was no real U.S. public outcry over Laos. It was maybe overshadowed by Vietnam and Cambodia. Just like today, most of the Americans in Laos were contractors, CIA folks, or other folks, not many conventional military. So, although there was a significant number of casualties, it did not ripple through the U.S. population in the same way casualties from conventional forces did. Some of them were also sworn to keep their stories secret.

Many of the places where operations were based in Laos were physically remote for journalists and hard or impossisble to access, so a lot of details about the war did not leak out until the late 1960s or early 1970s. It was somewhat similar in some ways today to counterterrorism operations, where some information leaks out. The public gets some idea about some operations that happen, some idea, for example, about drone strikes. Sometimes a lot of information comes out, sometimes less, but it is hard to get the overall picture. And Congress is limited in what it oversees and what it publishes about it. So it is murky.

DEVIN STEWART: It sounds like the experience in Laos helped lay the foundation of the CIA's role in the global war on terror today. Do you want to talk about how that evolution took place?

JOSHUA KURLANTZICK: It wasn't a direct evolution. After the 1960s and 1970s, the CIA's role in overseas paramilitary operations and targeted killings was restrained and cut back significantly in the 1970s. But the war did change a fair amount of the focus of the CIA, and the CIA focused more on paramilitary operations. That was never completely eliminated, and that focus continued into the 1980s, and even into the 1990s, when there was further reforms.

After 9/11, the focus dramatically shifted to less on traditional intelligence analysis and much more on paramilitary operations and targeted killings. The CIA increasingly blended—some of the these operations became much more similar to Special Forces than to what traditional intelligence would have been. You saw many of the same trends in the Laos War.

Again, when you move toward a long, sustained conflict like the global war on terror, especially since 2002, under the Obama administration, relying so heavily on the CIA and Special Forces, it is very hard to oversee and for the public to have any idea of what's going on. To some extent, that allows the war to be more sustainable from the U.S. side, which is in some way why presidents have liked it, but it is dangerous for the long term.

Although this has only started to be talked about recently—there have been some good articles about it in The New York Times and The Washington Post—by relying so heavily on Special Forces and a small group of CIA, you wind up potentially trashing those people too, because over and over they are being called on to do these jobs, and they wind up physically and mentally trashed.

DEVIN STEWART: Is it psychological problems from warfare?

JOSHUA KURLANTZICK: Psychological and physical. There have been a number of stories about Navy Seals and some about CIA operatives. The pace of their operations picked up so much, particularly since Obama became president and wound down the actual conventional wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and it trashes their—there are many problems, including the lack of oversight leading to potentially abusive behaviors, less scrutiny of civilian casualties. But another challenge is that it can trash the minds and bodies of the people involved in it in a way that does not get enough attention.

DEVIN STEWART: Having done all this research and following the CIA, how would you describe the importance of the CIA in the arsenal of American foreign policy today?

JOSHUA KURLANTZICK: I think today it is very important. The Laos War also, for the first time, put the CIA on more of an equal footing with the State Department and the Defense Department in the policy apparatus.

Today the CIA, together with Special Forces, has become the tip of the spear in the U.S. war on terror. There has been some discussion under the new administration, because of their public clash with the CIA over some intelligence analysis over the election and over Russia, that the CIA would somehow be de-fanged. But I see that as very unlikely.

It is possible that some of the CIA's analysis branch will be de-fanged perhaps. As well, there is some continuing question over—the previous CIA Director Brennan initiated some substantial reforms of the CIA designed to blend many departments that had been kept separate.

But what I'm talking about, which is basically the paramilitary operations of the CIA, which increasingly resemble Special Forces, are not going to be de-fanged. I think, if anything, they will be strengthened because the new administration seems to want to ramp up the global war on terror in some places, and absent using conventional forces, this is what is left at their disposal.

DEVIN STEWART: So those paramilitary forces will be under the management of the CIA, or will it go to a different part of the government?

JOSHUA KURLANTZICK: No. The CIA still has their paramilitary capacities. The reforms that were being implemented by Brennan don't limit the paramilitary capacities of the CIA. They are more a blending of other departments and streamlining. They were resisted by some in the CIA, but it is not about reducing the power of paramilitary operations.

What I am saying is that there was this narrative that took place in the media since November that the CIA was going to be destroyed because they were at war with the president over analysis of Russia's potential involvement in the election and his role. We're talking about him railing against certain aspects of the intelligence community. We're talking about him railing about analysts, as well as some he believed in the analyst department, who were involved in assessing Russia, but he is not railing against the CIA's or Special Forces' ability to engage in conflict abroad or targeted killings.

There has even been some discussion—now it has supposedly been stopped—of restoring the idea of the CIA rendering people and keeping them in black-site prisons overseas.

So the discussion has gone on, the narrative that has taken place in the media, falsely conflates a possible war on CIA's analysts with the overall destruction of the CIA, including its paramilitary capacities, which is not going to happen, I don't think.

DEVIN STEWART: That is a very important distinction.

Going back to looking at Washington politics and the CIA as a bureaucracy, how would you describe the relationship between the CIA analysts and the Trump administration, and could this create any kind of turmoil within the White House?

JOSHUA KURLANTZICK: I am not enough of a reporter on the day-to-day aspects of the CIA today to offer any insight that one can't already pick up from the reporting about CIA's analysts.

Yes, sure, if you want to stop Brennan's reforms, that could be a problem. Brennan's reforms, as they were, caused a lot of concern in the CIA.

Then, if he wants to somehow fiddle around with analysis of countries that have been adversaries of the United States but he seems to like their leaders, like Russia, that is certainly going to cause some really problematic, serious concern at the CIA. But I am not any more knowledgeable about that than the regular news. My point is that the narrative that the whole CIA is going to be somehow de-fanged is wrong.

It is certainly possible that the United States will have another conventional war. I am not suggesting that is a good idea. But absent that, the tools that he has available are expanding the power of the CIA's overseas essentially conflict operations and Special Forces. I think we have already seen it being put out there, that maybe—"Let's bring back CIA's ability to render and detain people in black sites"—that there is no deficit of interest in expanding some powers of the CIA. So the meta-narrative that the CIA is going to be destroyed is wrong.

In terms of the CIA's analysts and how they might be impacted by the administration, I do not have any novel insight. Sorry.

DEVIN STEWART: Thank you very much, Josh.

In terms of a final comment, it sounded like you were somewhat concerned about the public oversight of CIA paramilitary operations. Do you have any advice for the attentive, educated public on what to look out for, and maybe to have a positive impact?

JOSHUA KURLANTZICK: I think the main thing is that there is really only—unless you're going to rely on leaks and good reporting—but that reporting like you see in The New York Times or The Intercept about CIA operations takes time, years. It is fine to do good reporting.

But really the oversight of these operations should be done by—first of all, you have to question the long-term strategy of relying for so long on a covert war, and that should be a general question put up by Americans and discussed.

In addition to that, there should be pressure put on congresspeople and senators who are on the Intelligence and Foreign Relations Committees to aggressively question and demand information about these operations and not let them be totally opaque. For example, there are some people who have—and have done so regardless of who the president is—Rand Paul has done that—but very few have.

I don't personally agree with Rand Paul about a lot of domestic issues, and I don't even necessarily agree with his worldview about the role of the United States or his semi-isolationist worldview at all. But in terms of simply purely demanding that there should be oversight and that the CIA director and other intelligence officials have to answer some questions about how they structure their operations—both the reality of them, how long they go on, and how they're funded, etc.—he has offered probing questions. I think if there were more questions like that, that would at least force the CIA director and others to make on-the-record statements and provide more oversight of these types of activities.

DEVIN STEWART: So ask questions and call your congressperson. Sounds like good advice.

Josh Kurlantzick, author of A Great Place to Have a War, thanks for speaking with us today.


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