In 1991, during the 1st Persian Gulf War, investigative journalist Douglas Valentine traveled to Thailand and interviewed a group of legendary CIA officers who had helped run the secret war in Laos and other clandestine operations in the Indochina Wars.
Among them was Anthony Poshepny (aka Tony Poe), the prototype for Colonel Kurtz in Francis Ford Coppola’s epic 1979 film Apocalypse Now—a covert warrior who went off the deep end and established a secret jungle enclave where enemy body parts were displayed.
Now 66, Poshepny lived at the time in a big, beautiful home in a fancy neighborhood in Udon Thani, Thailand, home of a major U.S. air base during the Indochina Wars used for carrying out secret bombing missions over Laos.
Poshepny owned a lumber and security consultant business and a sugar and tapioca farm; he was considered around town to be a friendly guy but a belligerent drunk.
Poshepny’s father had been a naval officer and he had become desensitized to violence serving with the Marines in the Battle of Iwo Jima during World War II.
During a meeting with Poshepny, who suffered from diabetes and cirrhosis from years of heavy drinking, Valentine noticed that he was missing two middle fingers. Poshepny also liked to tell obscene jokes.
He told Valentine that he was proud of things he had done with political implications, notably his involvement in a failed CIA coup against Indonesian socialist leader Sukarno in 1958, where he and CIA officer “Pat” Landry supplied mutinous military forces in oil-rich Sumatra with M16s and thousands of rounds of ammunition. “It was an adventure,” Poshepny said.
Poshepny, around the same time, told Valentine that he had created a guerrilla army in Thailand to try to destabilize Cambodia, which was then ruled by neutralist Prince Norodom Sihanouk, who was seen as too friendly to the North Vietnamese communists.
After Cambodia, Poshepny went on to Tibet, where he was awarded a coveted intelligence medal for his role in a CIA operation to support the Dalai Lama and recruit his supporters into a guerrilla army that waged war against the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
During the Korean War (1950-1953), Poshepny worked under station chief John Hart in South Korea, training guerrillas and running operations up the eastern coast to the Soviet border near Vladivostok.
Subsequently, he was sent to Thailand with Hart—whom a colleague described as a “guy who has strong criminal tendencies—but was too much of a coward to be one [a criminal].” Poshepny worked under the cover of Sea Supply (a military contractor run by OSS veteran Willis Bird) with the Thai Border Patrol Police (BPP) in Chung Mai.
In 1961, Poshepny was sent to Laos where, for the next 12 years, he helped run the CIA’s secret war. The CIA financed a mercenary arm of Hmong guerrillas who served as cannon fodder in the fight against the pro-communist Pathet Lao.
Poshepny told Valentine that he was “not proud of his service in Laos.” For one thing, he said that he “chopped up a lot of prisoners.” He and his friends would line up three prisoners, wrap cord around their necks, and then blow the heads off the first two prisoners as an inducement to get the last guy to talk.
Poshepny was one of the CIA liaisons to Vang Pao, a leader of the ethnic Hmong. The CIA molded them into a guerrilla army to fight the communist Pathet Lao after the Royal Lao army proved unable to fight. Poshepny said that Vang Pao “was a bastard who should have been arrested for extortion,” as he was “pocketing” CIA money.
Poshepny added that he “paid the Meos [Hmong] directly for three years” but that, when Vang Pao got control of finances in 1965, he “cut salaries by fifty percent. He said he needed the money for supplies and air transport, but put most of it in his pocket.”
Poshepny continued: “Through his underlings, Vang Pao was selling guns to [Burmese] drug trafficker Khun Sa and his boss Li. We were penetrated by crooks.”
Poshepny noted further that, when he tried to discipline one of the underlings, Vang Pao promoted him. “And the bastards in Bangkok” (meaning the commander of the U.S. Military Advisory Group, Major General Richard G. Stilwell, CIA Station Chief Robert “Red” Jantzen, and Ambassador Graham Martin) “didn’t back me.”
According to Poshepny, Vang Pao “made millions dealing drugs,” drove a Mercedes-Benz and “enjoyed the high life at his villa in Vientiane, where he a made illicit deals under the gaze of CIA officers. The CIA even gave him his own D-3 with a crew of KMT [Chinese Guomindang] mercenaries that flew narcotics to cash customers around Southeast Asia.”
Valentine had previously reported in his book, The Strength of the Wolf: The Secret History of America’s War on Drugs (Verso, 2004), that Federal Bureau of Narcotics (FBN) officer Bowman Taylor had busted Vang Pao in 1963 for drug smuggling in the Laotian capital, Vientiane, during an undercover sting operation.
Taylor told Valentine that, after he made the case on Vang Pao, he was thrown out of Laos as a result. The CIA in turn “gave Vang Pao back his Mercedes-Benz and fifty kilos of morphine base. I wrote a report to FBN Commissioner Henry Giordano, but when he confronted the CIA, they said the incident never happened.”
In his interview with Valentine, Poshepny described the arrangement by which “the KMT managed, from Nam Yu, units in Burma that sent spies into China. In return, the CIA allowed the KMT to traffic in narcotics.”
According to Poshepny, “wet-wing C47s (with auxiliary tanks) flown by Taiwanese pilots” with Chinese technicians on board “would fly for thirteen hours out of (the Thai-Laos border town) Houei Sai with opium packed in Styrofoam drums and free drop them into flaming T’s in the Gulf of Siam. Receivers would gather the floating drums into boats (one was equipped with machine guns, a 40mm cannon, and the latest radio equipment) bound for Taiwan where the opium was processed into heroin and sold to traffickers in Hong Kong for sale in America.”
Poshepny said he knew it was wrong for America’s allies to sell U.S. government weapons on the black market and for the CIA to engage in drug trafficking. He wanted everyone to know, and he told anyone who would listen.
According to Poshepny, CIA officers who worked with Vang Pao directly oversaw and profited from the drug trade. Laotian CIA Station Chief Ted Shackley’s “pet from Miami,” David Morales, for example, “built a castle in Pakse from drug money.”
Poshepny also told Valentine that the huge campaign to publicize the search for American prisoners of war in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia after the war was a “CIA psychological warfare operation that provided a cover for CIA efforts to track and try [to] assassinate 55 U.S. deserters who had escaped from military prisons, mostly Negroes and Hispanics guilty of fraggings, and had gone into tunnels and onto farms with the Vietcong.”
The CIA used the MIA-POW mission, Poshepny said, “as a cover to gather intelligence and conduct its manhunt [in Indochina].”
Valentine’s interview with Poshepny is one of the highlights from his new memoir, Pisces Moon: The Dark Arts of Empire (Walterville, OR: Trine Day, 2023).
The book in essence recounts Valentine’s journey of discovery—as if in a Joseph Conrad novel—about the dark side of the U.S. empire.
Valentine’s political awakening occurred at the age of fourteen on the day JFK was assassinated when he told his father excitedly that they had caught the culprit. Douglas Valentine, Sr., responded in a rather kindly voice: “The guy they got didn’t do it, Doug. You can count on that.”
Valentine’s first book, The Hotel Tacloban (1987), told the story of his father, whose Army records were doctored in order to cover up a mutiny that took place in the POW camp where he was detained during the Pacific War in the Philippines. The rest of his unit had been wiped out on a secret U.S. Army mission in New Guinea.
Former CIA Director William Colby read The Hotel Tacloban and gave Valentine “the keys to the CIA kingdom”—top-secret documents and access to CIA veterans who participated in the Phoenix Program in South Vietnam, which Colby ran.
Phoenix was a counter-terror operation designed to wipe out the leadership of the National Liberation Front (NLF—South Vietnam resistance organization to U.S. invaders) that resulted in the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians.
Published in 1990, Valentine’s book exposed the murderous methods of Phoenix, which later guided the Department of Homeland Security during the age of the War on Terror. William Colby, whom Valentine characterizes as a “homicidal maniac,” said that Phoenix was also a model for the 1965-1966 Indonesian massacres, where more than one million suspected communists were killed, many of them identified by CIA blacklists, after a CIA-backed coup.
The CIA Station Chief at the time, Hugh Tovar, also helped run the secret war in Laos.
In the 2000s, Valentine published a two-part history of the CIA’s complicity in the drug trade—The Strength of the Wolf and The Strength of the Pack—and another book entitled The CIA as Organized Crime.
Pisces Moon provides some key back story and further rich insights into the workings of the CIA. After years of research, Valentine came to the realization that the CIA was the dark shadow of the U.S.: Its officers fit with the observation of English writer D.H. Lawrence that “democracy was a sort of by-play” and that “the American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer.”
One OSS officer told Valentine about a scenario where an eight-year-old boy was found listening to a secret meeting, and the OSS men knew what they had to do—because otherwise he could give away their plans to the enemy.
Many of the CIA officers who Valentine came across were outright psychopaths who had found in the CIA a way of attaining social respectability and making a good living while engaging in a life of crime.
Contrary to popular illusions cultivated in Hollywood films, the craft of intelligence, Valentine tells us, is not a noble one.
Agents lie and deceive on a daily basis. They amass information so that the U.S. government—following the precedent of previous colonial powers like Britain, which it learned from—can manipulate people, and in many cases destroy them, like it did with the Hmong in Laos.
Interviews with More Legendary Spooks
Valentine’s memoir is most riveting when he recounts the interviews that he carried out with CIA legends who ran secret operations during the Indochina War.
Among them was Jack Shirley, who coordinated training of the Thai Border Patrol Police and Police Aerial Reconnaissance Unit (PARU), oversaw creation of an unconventional warfare center in Thailand, served a tour in Vietnam, worked with Vang Pao in Laos, and ran Khmer mercenaries into Cambodia in an attempt to destabilize Prince Sihanouk’s neutralist government.
Characterized by Poshepny as a “c—sucker,” Shirley was hostile to Valentine when they met at a bar in Bangkok’s famous red-light district. Valentine described Shirley as “physically repellent; short and fat with a long nose that nearly touched his upper lip. The more he drank, the more he ranted about how liberals, the media and the peace movement lost the war.”
When Valentine asked Shirley about CIA drug smuggling, Shirley sat back, glared at him and said, “I knew that’s what you were after. The conversation ends here,” adding: “Why are you biting your lower lip? You’re not so tough now, are you? Buy me a beer, then go.”
To Valentine, Shirley embodied a macho Christianity and racist imperialist worldview that led ultimately to the election of Donald Trump.
Valentine wrote that “a famous writer once described spies as ‘a bunch of seedy, squalid bastards—little men, drunkards, queers, henpecked husbands, civil servants playing cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten little lives.’ Shirley pretty much fit the bill.”
Valentine had a friendlier interview in Chiang Mai with William Young, a CIA paramilitary specialist who had run intelligence operations into China while working with Hmong guerrillas in the Laos secret war.
Young’s brother Gordon was also a CIA officer who worked undercover in Laos as a narcotics officer and was sent to Con Son prison in South Vietnam to make sure that political prisoners being held in the infamous Tiger Cages did not build any escape tunnels.
The brothers had grown up in a missionary family in Burma and spoke Lahu, Wa, Shan and Yunnan Chinese. They set up a radio post on mountaintops outside Chiang Mai so they could communicate with KMT assets and with their father helped facilitate the indigenous and KMT drug trade beginning around 1951.
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