SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Hmong leaders in the United States believed the Central Intelligence Agency was backing a plan to extract Hmong villagers from the Laos jungle, according to papers filed late Wednesday in Sacramento federal court.
The papers, filed by defense attorneys for 10 Hmong leaders and a retired U.S. Army officer, contend the defendants were not plotting to overthrow communist Laos, but were trying to get their fellow tribesmen out from under a brutal regime.
Among the charges against the 11 is one accusing them of violating the Neutrality Act by planning a coup in a country at peace with the United States.
But the papers filed Wednesday evening claim recordings of conversations between an undercover federal agent and the retired Army officer, 60-year-old Harrison Jack, belie that scenario and show that the Hmong leaders were counting on CIA support.
"Much evidence indicates the defendants thought their activities were authorized by the CIA," the defense papers say.
They cite a call between Jack and the agent on April 3 when Jack says some of his Hmong associates "met with the CIA. . . . Apparently that was a fairly positive discussion, ugh, they were meeting with a deputy director."
Jack said the Hmong were told "you can't count on the U.N., the process is too slow, you need to take care and protect yourself in the field and we'll support you in that," the papers say.
Jack went on to say the CIA promised to furnish intelligence "if they could provide a secure area to work from and they would also provide funding, but they said they would not be able to use dollars; they didn't want to have a trace on the thing," the papers say.
The papers next cite an April 12 meeting between Jack and the agent at which Jack reiterated the CIA was supportive and had offered financial assistance.
In a call two days later, the papers say, Jack told the agent "they've got internal U.S. dollars as one medium, and then they're got external dollars that are probably . . . coming in from Thailand via the agency to augment this thing."
On May 4, Jack told the agent the CIA was "standing by ready to roll," the defense papers claim.
The nationally publicized prosecution has attracted two of the top criminal defense attorneys in the nation - John Keker and James Brosnahan - both of whom are representing their respective clients without compensation.
Both men regularly work for nothing if a case features a moral issue about which they feel strongly.
Keker, a former Marine platoon leader who was wounded in Vietnam, donated his services as the special prosecutor of then-Marine Lt. Col. Oliver North during his Iran-Contra trial in the late 1980s.
Keker's cross-examination of North - hailed by many as a God-fearing patriot who was following orders - led the jury to convict him of shredding documents, failing to pay for a home security system and aiding and abetting in the obstruction of Congress.
Keker, who rarely talks to the press, declined to comment.
In the mid 1980s, Brosnahan took up residence in Tucson, Ariz., to defend without pay a group of church leaders who had given "sanctuary" to brutalized Central Americans.
Brosnahan said Wednesday he is looking forward to working with "my good friend" Keker, who he described as "a terrific lawyer." In the Sacramento case, Keker is representing 77-year-old Gen. Vang Pao, who is charged as the leader of the alleged coup plot.
Vang has a long history with the CIA, going back to at least 1961, when he was recruited by the agency to organize and lead a Hmong army against communists in Laos.
Brosnahan is representing 70-year-old Youa True Vang, who served as a colonel in Vang's army.
"These men are American heroes," Brosnahan said.
The papers, filed in an effort to win the release of the men on bail, cite a recording of a Jan. 25 conversation between the undercover agent and Jack in which Jack told the agent the alleged conspirators desired not to use force in Laos, and that "they want to do it differently."
Jack further explained that "their primary objective is to get their people (i.e., the Hmong villagers that the Lao government is massacring) out of Laos and into Thailand," according to the papers.
"They don't care about taking over the government," the papers quote Jack as saying. "They don't want to do that."
"On Feb. 7, Jack told the agent that the critical concern was `political and extraction; in other words trying to get these people out from that area that they're encircled right now, OK?'" according to the papers.
"Jack also told the agent that `the optimal situation would be if I could generate enough political, media, international leverage where they cut the genocide off, OK?'" the papers say.
They also say that at a meeting on June 2 Vang "harangued people present that they should not go forward with any plan for military action against Laos," while two Fresno County sheriff's deputies "stood at the door to the meeting room."