Down and Out in Thailand

Light at the End of the Tunnel


excerpted from the book

Deadly Deceits

by Ralph McGehee

Ocean Press, 1999

(originally published 1983)


Down and Out in Thailand

Under normal circumstances my job would have been an outstanding opportunity and challenge. But my earlier motivation no longer existed. I had once believed that although the United States followed self-interest in our overseas programs, we matched this interest with a concern for the people in the foreign countries. Now I did not know what to believe. I doubted the Agency's intelligence, its personnel, and even its integrity. Furthermore, my simplistic view of communists as the incarnation of evil and the United States as all good was slowly beginning to change. I seemed to be the only one around who realized we couldn't win. I knew by now that any careful examination of available information, let alone the survey, would prove that the vast majority of the Vietnamese people were fighting against the U.S. troops and for the NLF. They had chosen the kind of government they wanted, and all American war efforts were aimed at postponing the inevitable

... in the 1971 -1972 school year, six students died from overdoses. More than 20 percent of all official American families in Thailand had to return to the States before the end of their tours because of drug problems.

We were doing the same old things as before, collecting intelligence designed to support U.S. policy goals in Thailand. This meant, of course, supporting the military dictatorship in power and ignoring problems caused by it. For the most part we got our intelligence directly from the leaders themselves or our liaison counterparts, who never, never reported derogatory information about the regime. We lived in a fantasy world; conversations sounded like the movies. We all had assigned roles and lines. To speak outside of the script was to bring down the wrath of all. Even now I have difficulty understanding how we played the game.

As in Iran, Vietnam, Latin America, and other areas of the world, we only wanted intelligence that told us our policies were correct. We did not want to know that the U.S.-backed dictators brutalized their people and that those people were angry.

To avoid hearing such news, the Agency did not allow its case officers to maintain direct contact with the general population. We sent case officers-only a few of whom knew the native language -on two-year tours. The case officers worked with the English-speaking members of the society's elite, never with the grubby working class. Although more than 80 percent of the Thai population are farmers, in 30 years there the Agency virtually never wrote an intelligence report based on an interview with a farmer ... Instead it wrote reports on the problems government leaders-dictators were having with the rebellious people. If a language-qualified officer did develop contacts with the working classes and began getting information from them, he was immediately labeled derisively as having "gone native" and was soon on his way back to the States. I had seen the same pattern in Taiwan years before, but it hadn't occurred to me that anything was wrong. And we continue to see the same pattern today, as Agency bungling of intelligence in, among others, Iran and El Salvador in recent years have shown.

Thailand station was a large installation and its activities demonstrate many of the things that were wrong with the CIA. The station conducted a wide range of covert operations: counterinsurgency, psychological, paramilitary, external political and others. Here are some examples.

Counterinsurgency. Thailand station in 1970 performed as I expected in this field... Neither the station's operational efforts nor its reporting acknowledged the main focus of communist activity -the secret development of a massive rural political organization among the peasantry. No one seemed to know anything about the communist village organization.

Paramilitary. In the early 1950s the CIA's creation and support of the Police Aerial Reconnaissance Unit (PARU) in Thailand was a model for paramilitary operations. General Edward Lansdale's 1961 memorandum on unconventional warfare explained: "The PARU has a mission of undertaking clandestine operations in denied areas. 99 PARU personnel have been introduced covertly to assist the Meos [Hmong] in operations in Laos.... This is a special police unit supported by CIA . . . with a current strength of 300 being increased to 550 as rapidly as possible.... There are presently 13 PARU teams, totaling 99 men, operating with the Meo guerrillas in Laos."

From Lansdale's description it is evident that the CIA used PARU as an extension of its own paramilitary officers and to conceal its own role. The CIA apparently could not motivate Laotians to fight for us, so it substituted the Hmong hill tribers. The CIA recruited those mountain tribesmen and used PARU to lead them in fighting the Communist Pathet Lao forces.

Over the years this "secret war" grew into a major conflagration. It became more a conventional war with artillery bombardments, aerial bombing, and big unit movements. All that effort was linked by a massive CIA support and transportation complex.

As in Vietnam the CIA refused to acknowledge the real nature of the Communist Pathet Lao. Through PARU and the Hmong it developed an army loyal to the United States and dependent upon the CIA. But without a commitment by the Laotians, the CIA's private army finally in 1975 succumbed to the reality of the overwhelmingly superior Pathet Lao forces. The Hmong who cooperated with the CIA are now a dying tribe. The war destroyed their young men. Remnants of their tribe now live an impoverished, uncertain existence in refugee camps in Thailand.


Light at the End of the Tunnel

East Asia division ... placed me as its referent (representative) to the international communism branch (ICB) of the then infamous counterintelligence staff of the Directorate for Operations... I remained with the Agency because all other options seemed closed. I needed the money, and I knew I might soon qualify for early retirement...

All I was required to do at ICB was to review incoming material: Agency, State Department, and military cables, newspapers, and communist publications. Cabled intelligence reports covered general worldwide political developments. We selected the most relevant of these for inclusion in a daily clipboard that circulated to all officers. Communist publications received included English-language newspapers and journals and the United States Information Agency's daily booklets containing transcripts of communist radio broadcasts. Other material routed to ICB consisted of a booklet of daily news clippings and copies of The Washington Post and The New York Times.

One of the first things I noticed was that CIA intelligence reports and news reports were frequently similar. Sometimes a newspaper article preceded the intelligence report; sometimes the intelligence report came first; sometimes the two arrived simultaneously. Completeness of detail and accuracy of observation showed the same mixed results. Occasionally and ominously, a cabled intelligence report was identical to a newspaper item. My review of that variegated source material over the four years spent with the ICB indicated that the CIA, apart from its vast covert operations, had transformed itself largely into a government news service reporting only that information which justified those covert operations. In reporting on host country political developments, it not only competed with news correspondents, but also with State Department officers who through their official contacts possibly were more qualified to gather information on developments in the local government. To me, perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the CIA transforming itself into a government news service was that its true intelligence-gathering and analytical functions were relegated to distant secondary importance.

The Agency had hundreds of people working in various capacities in the world's news media from executives to stringers. Through them it disseminated propaganda designed to shape world opinion. Unfortunately there was no mechanism that prevented that disinformation from contaminating and spoiling the CIA's own information files. In my experience with ICB, where we had unusually widespread access to propaganda themes, I often read cabled instructions from Headquarters to the field on articles or themes to be placed by our local agents in foreign newspapers. Occasionally I could recognize and separate out the CIA-generated articles from others, but more often it was impossible to tell positively whether an item was genuine or planted. Many articles that I kept and filed, that served as background for studies I wrote, later turned out to be CIA propaganda.

As an example of this kind of disinformation operation, during the Cultural Revolution in China, the Agency's huge radio transmitters on Taiwan broadcast items as if they were continuations of mainland programs. Their broadcasts indicated the revolution was getting out of hand and was much more serious than it actually was. These broadcasts were picked up by the Agency's Foreign Broadcast Information Service and included in its daily booklets of transcriptions from the mainland. From there the information was picked up by other offices of the Agency and reported as hard intelligence.

Planting a weapons shipment in Vietnam in February 1965 to prove outside support to the Viet Cong was another classic Agency disinformation operation. As noted earlier, after a staged firefight the shipment was "discovered," and the American press and the International Control Commission were called in to see the "proof." That event was picked up and replayed in a State Department White Paper. Immediately after the White Paper was published, President Johnson sent Marines into Vietnam. The U.S. military apparently believed the Agency disinformation and began patrolling off the shores of South Vietnam, looking for other shipments.

Here was a dangerous cycle. Agency disinformation, mistaken as fact, seeped into the files of U.S. government agencies and the CIA itself. It became fixed as fact in the minds of employees who had no idea where it had originated. That cycle in part created the disaster of Vietnam, especially when the Agency could not see through its own propaganda. That cycle continues today in El Salvador. The State Department, using documents "found" in El Salvador as its basis, issued in early 1981 a White Paper "proving" outside assistance to those opposed to the murderous government. Policymakers, the news media, and the Agency itself apparently believed these documents were real. Policy and public opinion were then molded on that assumption. Fortunately, some members of the public and the press are more skeptical now than they were during the Vietnam War, and the El Salvador White Paper was exposed in several publications, including The Wall Street Journal, as a sham. I suspect, though I cannot prove it, that those documents on which the White Paper was based were forged and planted by the CIA.

Although I had been in the CIA for 20 years, I really never had attempted to understand communism on its own terms. Instead I relied on United States news organizations and CIA reporting for information about communist movements. This was true of everyone in the CIA. The limited two-year tours, the reliance on Agency "inside" information, and the prevailing fiercely anti-communist atmosphere all tended to give a distorted, one-sided view of any situation.

Early in my assignment to ICB a garrulous, friendly, energetic man in his late forties, whom I shall call John, contacted me. John had handled one of the Directorate for Operations' illegal domestic projects. He had recruited, briefed, trained, and indoctrinated young American university students and used them to infiltrate leftist organizations on U.S. campuses. In what is called a "dangle operation," the students were to build up leftist credentials at home, so that when they were sent overseas by the Agency they would appear to foreign Communist parties to be genuinely leftist-good bait. These parties then might recruit them or confide in them. While building their leftist credentials in the United States, these young students were asked by John to gather information on U.S. Ieftist organizations-an activity then expressly forbidden by law.

John was now on the staff of East Asia division and wanted to brief me on his theories concerning the Sino-Soviet split. John would comer me and pitch his weird theories, but he was such a likable person I could not object. I found out that John knew more about Soviet and Chinese communism than almost anybody else in the Agency, and had a broad knowledge of communist terminology. Using primarily the dialectical methods and themes of Mao Tse-tung's brief thesis, "On Contradiction," John tried to convince me that the Chinese and the Soviets had secretly agreed to split in order to lull and conquer the rest of the world.

I liked to bait John. I asked him, if the Russians and Chinese were involved in a huge conspiracy, why had they been fighting each other on their border. "Everybody asks about that," he responded, "but you know the deception is more important than the fighting. So what if a few soldiers get killed if they can convince the rest of the world that they have really split? What's the loss?"

John's energy and enthusiasm outpaced his good sense. But the truth was that his theories were no crazier than what the entire U.S. intelligence community was saying about Vietnam.

Despite their skewed perspective, John's lectures provided the first break in my mental block. In those lectures John used communist writings, primarily Mao Tse-tung's, to explain their terms and the historical context from which they sprang With his definitions I began to read and comprehend communist newspapers, journals, and broadcast transcripts. Then I began reading historical works and Chinese and Vietnamese revolutionary writings. Gradually, in an almost physically painful process, the accumulated facts and knowledge forced - my mind to open to look at reality from the communists' perspective. To my amazement they had a case to make. Vietnam, of course, was the most dramatic example of this. For the first time now I had a chance to read the history of that war and for the first time I became aware that the Agency, in conjunction with the U.S. military and other elements of the U.S. government, had for 21 years attempted to deny the communists their legitimate claim to govern the people who overwhelmingly supported them.

The 1967 survey operation in Northeast Thailand had taught me there were aspects of Asian communism about which the CIA dissembled. I now began to see that its ability to hide from reality went far beyond pretending not to notice in those areas. I began to realize that the CIA had a charter for action regarding Vietnam similar to 1984's Ministry of Truth. The Agency, however, unlike George Orwell's ministry, tried not only to obliterate and rewrite the past through its National Intelligence Estimates (supposedly the highest form of intelligence), but it also attempted via its covert operations to create the future.

I did not comprehend the CIA's deceits in a sudden burst of enlightenment; that knowledge came to me gradually over a period of years through direct, intense study and involvement. My final rejection of Agency "newspeak," however, was sudden. One day I came across an article by Sam Adams in the May 1975 issue of Harper's magazine. Entitled "Vietnam Cover-up: Playing War with Numbers, A CIA Conspiracy Against Its Own Intelligence," the article described a captured document from the Viet Cong high command showing that the VC controlled six million people! Adams had routed that report, and others, to the Agency's upper echelons-and had received no response. Adams, who had been the sole Agency analyst responsible for counting the number of armed communists in South Vietnam, described his long, unsuccessful battles with Agency authorities to force them to stop issuing false, low estimates of armed communists in South Vietnam. His battles earned him 30 threats of firing-finally in disgust he quit.

Here was someone else saying the same things that I had been saying. I was not alone. I was not crazy. Someone else had seen, had struggled, and had fought. But more importantly, here was the clue solving the mystery that had plagued me for years: why I had been dismissed from Thailand in 1967, why the survey operation had been canceled, and why the information from the surveys had been muzzled.

Adams' article described a bitter battle being fought within the upper echelons of the CIA and U.S. military intelligence about the numbers of armed communists that we were up against in South Vietnam. In September 1967, just about the time Colby came to see me in Northeast Thailand, Adams - following numerous struggles within the Agency's hierarchy - was finally allowed, alone of the Agency's legions, to try to persuade the U.S. military that its estimates of the number of armed communists in South Vietnam were ridiculously low. This fact, if acknowledged, would of course have shattered the basis for our entire policy. While Sam was fighting alone in Saigon and Washington without any real support from the CIA leadership, my survey reports were circulating at Langley. They showed that the armed element was only one facet of the many-sided Asian communist revolutionary organization. If the Agency would not tolerate Adams' figures on armed communists, it certainly could not acknowledge my revelations, which went a giant step further and assessed enemy strength as far greater than the mere number of armed units would ever lead anyone to believe.

Now I knew the answer to the puzzle. My survey reports had arrived at Langley at precisely the moment when the battle over the numbers of communists was coming to a climax. The reports proved exactly what the designers of U.S. policy in Vietnam refused to see or hear-that we had lost the war years before. To support their specious position, Agency leaders had to suppress the facts contained in the reports that contradicted it and had to make certain that neither I nor anyone else within the CIA could ever gather such information again.

The wave of exposures of illegal Agency operations peaked in 1975 with investigations by the House of Representatives' Pike Committee and the Senate's Church Committee. The Pike Committee's final report was classified and not released to the public. Portions of it were leaked, however, and appeared in the February 16, 1976 issue of the Village Voice. The report recorded the Agency's intelligence performance in six major crises, and in each situation the CIA's intelligence ranged from seriously flawed to non-existent. The report noted that during Tet 1968, the CIA failed to predict the communist attack throughout all of South Vietnam. In August 1968 in Czechoslovakia the Agency "lost" an invading Russian army for two weeks. On October 6, 1973 Egypt and Syria launched an attack on Israel that the Agency failed to predict. It concentrated all of its efforts on following the progress of the war, yet it so miscalculated subsequent events that it "contributed to a U.S.-Soviet confrontation . . . on October 24, 1973.... Poor intelligence had brought America to the brink of war." The Pike Committee also cited flawed Agency information concerning a coup in Portugal in 1974, India's detonation of a nuclear device the same year, and the confrontation between Greece and Turkey over Cyprus in July 1974.

The Church Committee, after an exhaustive review, concluded that the Agency acted more as the covert action arm ( of the Presidency than as an intelligence gatherer and collator. Its final report said the CIA was heavily involved in covertly sponsoring the publication of books and that over the years until 1967 it had in some way been responsible for the publication of well over 1,000 books-a fifth of these in the English language. According to the Church Committee, the Agency was running news services, had employees working for major press organizations, and was illegally releasing and planting stories directly into the U.S. media. Frequently these stories were false and were designed to support the Agency's covert action goals.

Pictures of CIA director William Colby testifying and holding up a poison dart gun, details of CIA failures to destroy biological warfare chemicals under direct orders, information on the Agency's illegal opening of the mail of U.S. citizens, specifics of the Agency's years-long preoccupation with trying to overthrow the government of Chile, sordid details of Agency officers providing drugs to customers of prostitutes in order to film their reactions, and facts about numerous other illegal operations revealed during the congressional investigations all created a depressing atmosphere around Langley.

The morale of CIA employees in this period was at an all-time low. Surprisingly, few seemed particularly bothered by the activities themselves, just upset at having them exposed. There was no remorse, just bitterness. The true believers held to the position that if the general public knew what we knew, then it would understand and support the Agency's activities.

The Church Committee's observation that the Agency was more the covert action arm of the President than an intelligence gatherer confirmed all my suspicions about the true purpose of the Agency: it existed under the name of the Central Intelligence Agency only as a cover for its covert operations. Its intelligence was not much more than one weapon in its arsenal of disinformation-a difficult concept to accept. But with these revelations I began to see where my experience in Southeast Asia had broader ramifications. The Agency refused or was unable to report the truth not only about Asian revolutions; it was doing the same wherever it operated.

To confirm this observation I began reviewing current events in Latin America, the Middle East, and Africa and saw the same patterns of Agency disinformation operations, including its intelligence supporting its covert operations. This convinced me. The Agency is not, nor was it ever meant to have been, an intelligence agency. It was created slightly after the United Nations. It was the United States' substitute for gun-boat diplomacy that was no longer feasible under the scrutiny of that world organization. The Agency was to do covertly that which was once done openly with the Army, the Navy, and the Marines. The Central Intelligence Agency, I now knew, was in truth a Central Covert Action Agency.




The CIA is not now nor has it ever been a central intelligence agency. It is the covert action arm of the President's foreign policy advisers. In that capacity it overthrows or supports foreign governments while reporting "intelligence" justifying those activities. It shapes its intelligence, even in such critical areas as Soviet nuclear weapon capability) to support presidential policy. Disinformation is a large part of its covert action responsibility, and the American people are the primary target audience of its lies.

As noted in the Church Committee's final report, the Agency's task is to develop an international anti-communist ideology. The CIA then links every egalitarian political movement to the scourge of international communism. This then prepares the American people and many in the world community for the second stage, the destruction of those movements. For egalitarianism is the enemy and it must not be allowed to exist.

The Vietnam War was the Agency's greatest and longest disinformation operation. From 1954 until we were ejected in 1975, the Agency lied in its intelligence while propagandizing the American people. It planted a weapons shipment, forged documents, deceived everyone about the Tonkin Gulf incident, and lied continually about the composition and motivation of the South Vietnamese communists. Even now Agency historians and ex-employees try to perpetuate the propaganda themes through which it tried first to win and later to maintain American support for the war. As recently as April 22, 1981, former CIA director William Colby wrote an article for The Washington Post, portraying the Vietnam War-even in light of the Pentagon Papers disclosures-as the altruistic U.S. coming to the assistance of the South Vietnamese people. He had the audacity to recommend the period from 1968 to 1972-the era of CIA assassination teams-as a model for use in El Salvador.

Not much has changed since I left the Agency. It follows all the same patterns and uses the same techniques. We have seen this in relation to El Salvador, where it fabricated evidence for a White Paper, the same way it did in Vietnam in 1961 and 1965. We have seen it in Iran, where it cut itself off from all contact with potential revolutionary groups to support the Shah. We have seen it in the recruitment ads seeking ex-military personnel to man its paramilitary programs. We have seen it in relation to Nicaragua, where it arms Miskito Indians in an attempt to overthrow the Nicaraguan government. In this case it again exploits a naive minority people who will be discarded as soon as their usefulness ends, as happened with the Hmong in Laos. We have seen it in its attempts , to rewrite and censor the truth personally have experienced , this kind of Agency effort recently when it censored an article.

I wrote about its successful operation to overthrow the government of Achmed Sukarno of Indonesia in 1965.5 Its operations under President Reagan have become so outrageous that even the House of Representatives Intelligence Committee protested its plans to overthrow Qaddafi of Libya.

As long as the CIA continues to run these kinds of operations, it will not and cannot gather and collate intelligence as its charter says it must do. This leaves our government without that essential service. The most powerful and potentially most dangerous nation in the world is forced to rely on CIA disinformation rather than genuine intelligence because currently there is no alternative. This situation in today's world of poised doomsday weapons is not acceptable.

But the danger looms even greater. The Reagan Administration has taken steps to strengthen the Agency's position. On December 4, 1981, in Executive Order 12333 entitled "United States Intelligence Activities," the President gave the CIA the right to conduct its illegal operations in the United States, and on April 2, 1982, in Executive Order 12356 entitled "National Security Information," he limited the public's access to government documents, thereby increasing the CIA's ability to hide from public scrutiny. The President wants the Agency free of the constraints of public exposure so that it can gather and fabricate its disinformation unharried by criticisms and so that it can overthrow governments without the knowledge of the American people. Such activities, of course, are not in the best interests of the vast majority of Americans. For example, whenever another factory moves to a foreign country whose leader is kept in power through Agency operations, more American jobs are lost. Only the rich American increases his profits. It is for this reason that I believe that President Reagan acts as the representative of wealthy America and, as his executive agency, the CIA acts to benefit the rich.

Even after the Agency's conspicuous failures in Vietnam, Cuba, the Middle East, and elsewhere, the fable that the CIA gathers real intelligence dies hard. But if the Agency actually reported the truth about the Third World, what would it say? It would say that the United States installs foreign leaders, arms their armies, and empowers their police all to help those leaders repress an angry, defiant people; that the CIA-empowered leaders represent only a small faction who kill, torture, and impoverish their own people to maintain their position of privilege. This is true intelligence, but who wants it? So instead of providing true intelligence the Agency, often ignorant of its real role, labels the oppressed as lackeys of Soviet or Cuban or Vietnamese communism fighting not for their lives but for their communist masters. It is difficult to sell this story when the facts are otherwise, so the Agency plants weapons shipments, forges documents, broadcasts false propaganda, and transforms reality. Thus it creates a new reality that it then believes.

Efforts to create a workable intelligence service must begin by abolishing the CIA. For a host of reasons I believe the CIA as it now exists cannot be salvaged. The fundamental problem is that Presidents and their National Security Councils want the CIA as a covert action agency, not an intelligence agency. As long as the CIA is subject to such politically oriented control, it cannot produce accurate intelligence. Because the CIA has been and is a covert action agency, all of its operating practices have been adopted to facilitate such operations while its intelligence-collection activities have been tailored to the requirements of these covert efforts. The Agency's difficulties begin with the selection of personnel who are chosen based on personality characteristics essential for covert operations, not intelligence. The problem continues with the formation of operating rules that serve to foil the production of accurate intelligence while facilitating the implementation of covert operations. Until those factors are altered, the CIA cannot function as an intelligence agency.

Covert operations must be removed from the CIA and placed in an entirely separate government agency. I would prefer recommending the total abolishment of covert operations, but that is impossible given the current world political realities. However, if a new covert action agency consisted of a handful of knowledgeable people who could, in emergency situations, pull together the necessary manpower to conduct a specific covert operation, then the chance of its duplicating the abuses of the CIA would be lessened.

If an administration at any point decided it wanted a true intelligence service, it could be easily created. But it would not be enough merely to separate covert operations from intelligence. Accurate intelligence demands an atmosphere free of political pressure. One obvious solution revolves around identifying individuals possessing recognized ability, integrity, and flexibility and giving such individuals lifetime or long-term non-renewable appointments to a board controlling intelligence requirements and production. That board, augmented by top graduates of political science schools in one-year clerkships, would provide the independent analytical judgment necessary for valid intelligence. Expecting our system to grant that independent authority may be unrealistic. But trained analysts, working with all-source information, overseen by a "Supreme Court" of intelligence, would help to guarantee the production of accurate intelligence. Establishing a truly effective intelligence agency is no problem. The only problem is getting our leaders to want one, and that problem may be insurmountable.

Deadly Deceits

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