(by Josh Gerstein, NYSun.com) SAN FRANCISCO — A federal grand jury in California indicted a legendary Hmong resistance leader and 10 other men yesterday on charges that they conspired to obtain weapons and mercenaries to overthrow the communist regime in Laos.

Prosecutors also released what they said were blueprints for the coup, including one “top-secret” plan dubbed, “Political Opposition Party’s Coup Operation to Rescue the Nation,” or Popcorn.

The plan predicted that 75% or 80% of Laos’s population would support an overthrow of the government.

However, the papers indicate the coup was unlikely to be bloodless. “Those who will not be able to neutralize, will be in-house arrests or assassination,” one document reads in broken English. It is suggested that at least five sharpshooters target each senior Lao official.

The plans also discuss assigning Special Forces personnel to take over radio and television stations, newspapers, hospitals, airports, and other transportation hubs. The documents indicate plans to establish a transitional government and to hold democratic elections two years after the coup.

A budget for the takeover, which lists costs for automatic weapons, special forces, foot soldiers, food, and uniforms, projected total expenses of $27.9 million for the operation and the first 90 days after the coup. It is unclear who was to provide the funds.

The planning documents also indicate the humanitarian motivations behind the operation. An intelligence report from inside Laos talks of discovering “military mop-up plans to exterminate the Hmong-in-hiding (Freedom Fighters) completely.” Groups such as Amnesty International have accused the Lao government of widespread human-rights violations against Hmong and other groups who take refuge in Laos’s mountainous areas.

The 11 defendants, who face sentences in excess of life in prison if convicted, include a Hmong leader, General Vang Pao, 77, and a West Point graduate who served as an Army Ranger in the Vietnam War, Harrison Jack, 60. All of those charged are in federal custody and have been denied bail. Arraignments on the new indictment are scheduled for Monday in Sacramento.

Federal prosecutors have pressed forward with the case despite an outcry from the Hmong community, which took root in America after fleeing Laos in the wake of the Vietnam conflict. During that era, Hmong forces fought alongside CIA operatives as part of a secret army intended to put pressure on the communists in Laos, as well as their close allies in Vietnam.

“This is rotten,” a defense attorney involved in the case, Mark Reichel, said yesterday. He said prosecutors had endangered Hmong communities in Thailand and Laos by publicly releasing details of the alleged plot.

“People actually die when they fool around like this,” Mr. Reichel said. “It seems that a bunch of young men were waiting for weapons to come from America. … They’ve provided all the documentation to the Lao government. That’s a fine thing to do,” he said sarcastically.

The defense attorney said his client and other defendants, many of whom claim to have ties to the CIA, are likely to assert that they thought the operation had the blessing of the American government.

But the person they thought they were buying weapons from was an undercover agent of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms.

“Who’s the last people who gave these guys arms? The CIA,” Mr. Reichel said. He said the agent’s representations that he was a Navy Seal with access to military weapons may have underscored that assumption.

“These are not criminals,” another defense lawyer, William Portanova, said. “Whatever happened was for a higher purpose, and under these facts, it is very, very difficult to imagine a small group would think they could do something like this alone.”

A spokeswoman for the prosecutors could not be contacted after business hours yesterday.

In the 1970s, two Cuban Americans with ties to the CIA used the so-called apparent public authority defense to reverse convictions stemming from the Watergate break-in. A federal appeals court ruled that the men, Eugenio Martinez and Bernard Barker, had the right to argue that they thought the Watergate mission was an authorized part of their duties.

A lawyer for the pair, Daniel Schultz, said yesterday that the Hmong might be able to make similar arguments. “I see the analogy, and I think it’s comparable,” he said. “I think it remains a valid defense.”

Mr. Schultz said the argument tends to be more effective on the behalf of lower-level operatives than on behalf of plot leaders, who could be expected to know what was and was not authorized by the government. “It’s a view-from-the-bottom-up defense,” the lawyer said.

Mr. Schultz said the Laos coup case is likely to become caught up in protracted rounds of litigation as defense lawyers attempt to pry out details of their clients’ connections with the CIA. “You’re going to have levels of resistance to disclosing,” he said. “It gets zoo-y.”

Reprinted here with permission from The New York Sun. Visit the website at NYSun.com.


1.  Why has a federal grand jury in California indicted a famous Hmong resistance leader and 10 other men?

2.  How did U.S. authorities discover the Hmong plans for Laos?

3.  What percent of Laos’s population was predicted to support the plan?

4.  What was estimated to be the cost of the operation?  Who would fund the operation?

5.  Define coup.  What were General Pao and his co-defendants’ motives for the coup?

6.  What defense are the accused likely to use?

7.  Read the excerpt below, “POLITICAL RIGHTS AND CIVIL LIBERTIES IN COMMUNIST LAOS”.  Then answer these questions based on this information, the assumption of the coup conspirators that 75-80% of Laos’s population would support an overthrow of the government and that communist party leaders of Laos would be killed in the takeover:
a) Do you support General Pao’s attempt to lead a coup in Laos?
b) Do you support the grand jury’s indictment against the conspirators?
c) Do you think the conspirators should go to prison?
Explain your answers.



Laotians cannot change their government democratically. The 1991 constitution makes the LPRP (the Communist party) the sole legal political party and grants it a leading role at all levels of government….

Corruption and abuses by government officials are widespread. …Government regulation of virtually every facet of life provides corrupt officials with many opportunities to demand bribes. 

Freedom of the press is denied in Laos. … Any journalist who criticizes the government or discusses controversial political topics faces legal punishment.

Religious freedom is tightly restricted. Dozens of Christians have been detained on religious grounds,  … The government forces Christians to renounce their faith, deprives them of their property, and bars them from celebrating Christian holidays. The majority Buddhist population is restricted by LPRP control of clergy training and oversight of temples and other religious sites.

Academic freedom is highly restricted. University professors cannot teach or write about democracy, human rights, or other politically sensitive topics. …

…. workers do not have the right to bargain collectively.

The courts are corrupt and are controlled by the LPRP. Long delays in court hearings are common, particularly for cases dealing with public grievances and complaints against government abuses. Security forces often illegally detain suspects, and some Laotians have allegedly spent more than a decade in jail without trial. Hundreds of political activists have also been held for months or years without trial. Prisoners are often tortured and must bribe prison officials to obtain better food, medicine, visits from family, and more humane treatment.

…Discrimination against members of minority tribes is common at many levels.
(EXCERPTED FROM FreedomHouse.org)


For a map and background information on Laos, go to the CIA World FactBook at cia.gov/library/publications/the-world-factbook/geos/la.html

For information on the Communist government of Laos, go to the Freedom House website at freedomhouse.org

Who are the Hmong? Click here for a general overview.

For previous NY Sun articles on this case, click here, here and here.

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