In January 2007, a Californian named Harrison Jack got a call from a man who introduced himself as Steve Hoffmaster, arms dealer. Jack was a West Point graduate and Vietnam veteran whose war tours had involved work with Southeast Asian indigenous groups. He had become frantic about reports of an extermination campaign in the jungles of Laos. The alleged targets were the Hmong, a tribe who had teamed up with the CIA during the Vietnam war to wage a guerilla struggle against the region’s communists. Now, 30 years later, the communist regime in Laos had decided to wipe out any lingering Hmong resistance. “There’s a tenet you don’t leave your comrades on the battlefield,” Jack told me. “That includes the Hmong.”
Jack had been asking around about getting the Hmong guns for self-defense. Hoffmaster was offering to help. In fact, he had a more ambitious proposal: How about arming the Hmong to overthrow the Laotian regime? “No. No. No,” Jack replied. “They’re trying to survive.” But the two men kept in touch. Jack recalled, “He seemed to have an understanding of what was going on.”
Hoffmaster, however, wasn’t really an arms dealer. Nor was his name Hoffmaster. He was a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) agent named Steve Decker, and he was about to set in motion one of the more peculiar—if not outright brain-dead—anti-terrorism efforts of the past decade, one that finally reached an ignominious conclusion last month.
Decker’s ultimate target was a Hmong leader named Vang Pao. During the Vietnam war, Vang Pao had assembled a guerrilla army of 39,000 men. They were known for loyalty, sparing no effort to save downed American pilots. Some 35,000 are believed to have died in the conflict.
After Laos fell to the communists in 1975, Vang Pao fled to the United States, along with the luckiest Hmong. But others faced only terrible choices: Laotian reeducation camps, Thai refugee camps, or a life of hiding and resistance. A few thousand picked the latter fate, fleeing to the remote Laotian mountains.
For years, Vang Pao had plotted to return home and expel the communists, but this dream had faded, and in 2003 he had called for peace. Meanwhile, he enjoyed an almost god-like status in the U.S. Hmong community. Rumors trailed him—that he was extorting money, that he had been involved in war crimes—but it was hard to separate the tall tales from the truth.
Like Jack, Vang Pao was desperate to do something about the rumored atrocities in Laos, but he couldn’t get American politicians to pay much attention. Now, he was being told by Jack and others that a fellow called Hoffmaster could help. They met at a Thai restaurant, and Decker showed Vang Pao and his associates a recreational vehicle full of weapons—mines, machine guns, rockets. “Good selection,” Vang Pao remarked, although he apparently said little else.
As the weeks passed, Decker hinted to Jack that the United States might secretly assist the Hmong. “I’m willing to bet, Harrison, that the CIA is aware of what’s going on there,” Decker said. “If Vang Pao goes in there and takes over the freaking country and then ... wants to have democratic elections, that’s gonna be like that.” Decker even said the weapons would be flown out of Beale Air Force Base.
In June 2007, the government did intervene—when 200 federal, state, and local agents arrested Jack, Vang Pao, and nine Hmong associates. The eleven men were charged with a terrorist plot to “murder thousands and thousands of people” and overthrow the Laotian government. Their supposed ringleader was Vang Pao, who was then 77 years old.
I read about the arrests in The New York Times, and I found the circumstances so bizarre that I flew to Sacramento to attend a bail hearing on July 12, 2007. The streets were packed with thousands of Hmong protesters. The defendants shuffled into the courtroom in handcuffs, leg braces, and orange jumpsuits. “No waving!” a guard barked at the spectators. Most of the men were old and frail. After they were seated, 68-year-old Seng Vue collapsed. A woman ran toward him in tears. Guards warned her to stay back. Both Seng Vue and another defendant would suffer strokes in custody.
The case was very strange, but that it happened during the Bush administration was stranger: Vang Pao was a darling of cold war hawks. And, when it came to internal security, Laos hardly required U.S. help. A 2004 State Department report described violent government crackdowns and prisoners who were “abused and tortured.”
The U.S. attorney who brought the case, McGregor Scott, declined to comment, so it’s hard to say what motivated prosecutors. But the operation bore the hallmarks of a new breed of preemptive prosecution that sprang up after 9/11. These operations use undercover operatives to bait potential terrorists—even unlikely ones—into criminal acts, like buying explosives, and then put them away for life. While such preemption is controversial because of the entrapment factor, it at least has a plausible deterrent effect, sowing paranoia among potential collaborators. But the defendants had no plans to attack the United States. In fact, it’s doubtful they had plans to attack anyone at all. “I don’t think [Scott’s] decision to prosecute was affected by political pressure,” says Tom Heffelfinger, who assisted Vang Pao’s defense and was a U.S. attorney from 2001 to 2006. “But there is institutional pressure to aggressively pursue any cases of terrorism.”
As the trial dragged on, the case began to look flimsier. There was no evidence that Vang Pao had agreed to any plan, much less devised one. And, in the bigger picture, it was beside the point. The main charge—attempting to overthrow the Laotian government in violation of the Neutrality Act—was a bizarre appellation for an effort to save some kinsmen in the Laotian jungle.
In September 2009, the feds dropped their case against Vang Pao, instead redoubling their efforts against the other defendants. But last October, the judge, Frank Damrell, strongly suggested that the prosecutors had no case. “They sent this guy from Justice, and he got his head handed to him,” recalls Federal Defender Daniel Broderick, who represented Jack. On January 10, the case was dismissed.
The Justice Department’s Sacramento office issued only a blanket statement: “After considering all aspects of the case, we decided that under the totality of circumstances, it is not in the government’s interest to continue this prosecution,” said U.S. Attorney Benjamin Wagner. “While some defense attorneys have raised claims of misconduct, I believe the case was investigated and prosecuted properly and professionally.”
The entire saga had lasted nearly four years, and cost tens of millions of dollars. “Why would it take the government so long to figure out that the case had a problem?” asks Mike McKay, a former U.S. attorney. “What one goes through as a target in a federal criminal investigation is sheer agony. I don’t know if there’s anything worse.” Attorney Mark Reichel, who represented one of the defendants, says the case underscores Henry Kissinger’s grim assessment that to be an enemy of the United States might be dangerous, but to be its friend is fatal. Vang Pao’s health deteriorated during the trial. He died on January 6, less than a week before the remaining charges against his co-defendants were finally dropped.
T.A. Frank is a special correspondent for The New Republic. This article ran in the March 3, 2011, issue of the magazine.