Down and Out in Thailand
Light at the End of the Tunnel
excerpted from the book
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.