2011-01-16 17:11:29 UTC
combat vet feels used in Laos coup sting
By Stephen Magagnini
Published: Sunday, Jan. 16, 2011 - 12:00 am | Page 1A
Lt. Col. Harrison Jack won two Bronze Stars leading teams of U.S. Army
Rangers into fierce combat in Vietnam. Last week he erupted in tears
after surviving the toughest battle of his life.
The U.S. government, whose uniform Jack wore proudly for 30 years, had
branded him a terrorist, charging him and 11 other defendants with
plotting the violent overthrow of communist Laos. If convicted, the
West Point graduate from Woodland would have spent the rest of his
life in prison.
In an exclusive interview at the office of his lawyer, Federal Public
Defender Dan Broderick, Jack, 64, explained how what began as an
effort to liberate Hmong trapped in communist Laos became an
international terrorism case.
The charges that had hung over Jack for 1,315 days were dropped
against all defendants last week "in the interests of justice," said
Benjamin Wagner, U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of California.
A dismissal order signed by U.S. District Judge Frank C. Damrell Jr.
ended the investigation known as "Tarnished Eagle," an undercover
operation led by Steve Decker, an ATF agent who told Jack and the
other defendants that he was an arms merchant.
"I appreciate that the justice system did render justice," Jack said.
He and several Hmong immigrants living in California had been
exploring ways to liberate about 5,000 Hmong hiding from communists in
the Lao jungle – the remnants of the CIA-funded guerrilla army that
battled the Lao and Vietnamese communists more than 35 years ago. Many
had been led by the late Gen. Vang Pao, who was accused of being the
leader of the Tarnished Eagle plot until charges were dropped against
him in 2009.
Amnesty International has documented families in the jungle living off
roots and bugs, without any schooling or medical care, and being shot
at by the Laotian military.
Jack, who said that he "always championed the underdog," saw
similarities between Hmong hill tribes and American Indians.
"My hero was Crazy Horse," he said. "His boys kicked Custer's butt. He
always led his men into battle and had a reputation for being immune
to bullets. Vang Pao reminded me of him."
The son of a Marine demolition specialist and a Spanish teacher, Jack
said he's known as a problem solver both in combat and back home.
He earned master's degrees in public administration and personnel
management and a doctorate in hypnotherapy. He was serving as Yolo
County's ombudsman, handling employee complaints, the day he was
Helping young Hmong
In 1984 Jack joined the California National Guard. While working with
at-risk youths, he said, he met Lo Cha Thao, who was running an after-
school cadet program for 500 Hmong youths.
A high suicide rate among Hmong American youths and the plight of the
Hmong back in Thailand and the jungles of Laos inspired Jack to create
a nonprofit group called HERO, the Hmong Emergency Relief
The nonprofit considered selling bottled water under a Hmong brand
name to raise money, and talked to Arizona entrepreneur Namon
Hawthorne, who was peddling "kinesis water," which he claimed had
special life-giving properties.
Through the nonprofit, Jack said, he also met Vang Pao, who told him
he wanted to "bury the hatchet" with Laos to save the remaining Hmong
in the jungles.
But in 2006, after word began to spread about a purported Laotian
"genocide order" against the Hmong in the jungle, Jack and several
Hmong leaders, including Lo Cha Thao, began exploring ways to get
weapons to those in the jungle.
One option would have been to buy guns from soldiers in Laos, which
wouldn't violate U.S. laws against transporting weapons, said
But Jack asked Hawthorne, the entrepreneur, if he knew anyone who
could get him some AK-47s.
In January 2007 Jack got a call from a man named "Steve," who told him
he was an arms dealer who'd heard about the "problem in East Asia."
What Jack didn't know is that Hawthorne had contacted federal
authorities and that Steve, the arms dealer, was actually undercover
agent Steve Decker of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms
Thus began a series of conversations and meetings among the agent,
Jack and the Hmong defendants who assumed Decker had ties to the CIA.
The first meeting was at Amarin Restaurant in Sacramento. Vang Pao was
there. So were Jack and Thao and a handful of others.
Decker told the men he was a Navy SEAL.
He "looked like Arnold Schwarzenegger, well-built, tall," Thao said.
He also showed them a van full of weapons.
"We thought he was the next Bill Lair," the CIA agent who had
recruited Vang Pao and the Hmong to fight the communists, Thao told
The Bee last week.
Thao, a 38-year-old pilot with no military experience, was charged as
the ringleader in the plot. He said the Hmong had no interest in the
weapons but that Decker pressed them to come up with a plan to take
They didn't have one.
So David "Dang" Vang, a struggling script writer in Fresno who was
behind on his mortgage, was promised (but never paid) $5,000 to draft
"Operation Popcorn (Political Opposition Party's Coup Operation to
Rescue the Nation)." Military expert Timothy Naccarato told The Bee
that Operation Popcorn sounded like the gang that couldn't shoot
Decker held another meeting with Thao and four other Hmong at a local
"He introduced us to Blue Moon beer," Thao said. "We drank like $200
worth of beer. He joked, 'You guys gonna rule. Lo Cha's going to be
the prime minister.' He said he would provide us with mercenaries."
Thao said he remembers waving around a Stinger missile that Decker had
in his hotel room. But when Decker asked them to come up with $1
million, the Hmong didn't think the real CIA needed to ask for money.
Jack said he later told Decker the Hmong decided they didn't want to
Decker kept calling.
A traumatic arrest
Two months before his June 7, 2007, arrest, Jack said he had a violent
post-traumatic stress disorder episode triggered by all the talk of
genocide orders and covert operations.
"I woke up with my wife in a headlock and told her I was going to
dispatch her," said Jack. "I went into combat mode and looked at the
Hmong as allies we'd left on the battlefield."
On the morning of the arrest, Jack said, he and his wife woke up to
see six agents, including Decker, "with Glocks pointed at my head."
"My wife flipped out," Jack said. "Steve kept asking, 'Where's the
"We'd been stung," Jack said he realized.
"That they would take former allies and veterans and use them for
their own gain was unconscionable," Jack said, "especially after they
were told the genocide order was the primary motivation for contact
Wagner, the U.S. attorney, said, "This case started because somebody
was shopping for arms."
The government decided to drop all charges, he said, following "a
lengthy reassessment of the case."
In court, a Justice Department attorney faced a tongue-lashing from
Damrell three months ago, for what he called vague and contradictory
aspects of the government's accusations. Then, two months ago, Damrell
threw out much of the case, saying it was not supported.
Wagner said there were two major considerations to the decision to
drop charges. One was Damrell's dismissal of a major portion of the
case, including much of the conspiracy charge.
In addition, "At the time the arrests were made, we did not have full
translation of 100 percent of the data we had," he said.
Jack, who spent 39 days in jail after his arrest, broke down as he
thought of the Hmong in hiding.
He accepts some responsibility for what transpired. "It was a hell of
an experience that I wouldn't want to go through again," he said.
"There is a Lakota Sioux expression, 'Mitakue oyasin – we are all
connected,' " Jack said. "Government officials have to listen to their
hearts, not their political agendas."
Then the old warrior came out.
"When people are backed into a corner like the Hmong are, they'll do
desperate things," Jack said, steeling his shoulders. " Anybody whose
family is threatened anywhere on this planet has a right to defend