When a prominent Laotian exile, Vang Pao, was arrested this month in Orange County and accused, with nine others, of plotting a coup to overthrow the communist government of Laos, some of us paused over our morning coffee, then shrugged and flipped to the comics.

But this bit of news sent shockwaves through the refugee Hmong community. Why? Pao is a revered war hero to many Hmong refugees for his role in the “Secret War” — a covert operation during the Vietnam War in which the CIA enlisted Hmong in Laos to fight communists and attack Vietnamese supply lines.

Pao’s link to the CIA is briefly mentioned in news reports about his recent arrest. What isn’t mentioned is the way he allegedly used his CIA connections to sell vast amounts of opium and jumpstart Southeast Asia’s underground heroin trade. It seems only the OC Weekly picked up on that angle.

A fascinating 1988 investigative report by FRONTLINE shows just how messy the situation between the CIA and Pao really was. According to FRONTLINE, while the CIA was using Pao to lead a guerrilla army against Communist forces, Pao “used the CIA airline, Air America, to send narcotics to a CIA-run base in Laos and on to other distribution points in Asia; opium was a primary source of funding for the Laotian army.”

And of course, there were serious consequences to Pao’s actions. In the FRONTLINE report, CIA member Victor Marchetti says in an interview: “I doubt that they had any strong deep understanding of what they were allowing to happen by turning their head the other way and letting Vang Pao ship his dope out which was made into heroin, which was going to our troops, which was corrupting people throughout Southeast Asia and back here, the effect it had on crime, I doubt that any one of them really thought in those terms at the time.”

Another highlight from this investigation includes a snippet from a 1972 secret field report which describes the hypocrisy of the CIA involvement in drug monitoring during the Vietnam era: “It was ironic that the CIA should be given the responsibility of narcotics intelligence, particularly since they were supporting the prime movers. Even though the CIA was, in fact, facilitating the movement of opiates to the U.S., they steadfastly hid behind the shield of secrecy and said that all was done in the interest of national security.”

Given that Pao and the others’ arrests are so serious — the charges include conspiring to gather “scores of AK-47 assault rifles, ground-to-air Stinger missiles, anti-tank weapons, mines, rockets, explosives and smoke grenades with which to oust the Laotian communist regime” — it’s only fair to take a look back in time and see how Pao originally got to the position that allowed him to be involved with such an endeavor in the first place.

P.S. Oh yeah, and Pao might have an elementary school named after him.

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