A total of 10 people are in custody in California, accused of plotting to overthrow the government of Laos. Mike O'Sullivan reports from Los Angeles, the alleged plotters include a former Laotian general and a retired US military officer.
A six-month undercover investigation, dubbed "Operation Tarnished Eagle," led to charges against nine people Monday, with charges pending against a tenth. Investigators say the accused met in hotel rooms and restaurants in California's Central Valley, where they plotted to buy hundreds of automatic rifles, antitank missiles, rockets, mines, C-4 explosive and smoke grenades.
Authorities say the conspirators were planning to ship the arms by way of safe houses and drop zones in Thailand and Laos. Mercenaries would retrieve the weapons, then blow up government buildings and assassinate officials in Laos in an attempt to overthrow the country's communist government.
The accused include Vang Pao, 77, a former Laotian general who is a leader in California's ethnic Hmong community. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Pao led Hmong tribesmen, backed by the United States, in fighting against communist guerillas. He now lives in Orange County, near Los Angeles, which is home to many Southeast Asian immigrants.
Also charged is Harrison Jack, 60, a U.S. army veteran and former Lieutenant Colonel in the California National Guard. Jack is a 1968 graduate of the U.S Military Academy at West Point.
Steve Martin, special agent in charge for the San Francisco office of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives says authorities know little about Jack's motivation.
"We do know that he did spend tours over in Vietnam in the late 1960s, early '70s," he noted. "And as a part of that, we believe, he was connected to some of the Hmong people."
All of the other accused are ethnic Hmong, but a prosecutor said most, if not all, are U.S. citizens.
One official said the investigation read like a movie script, but turned out to be real. The case involved two federal law enforcement agencies and the Joint Terrorism Task Force. An undercover federal agent posed as an arms dealer to gather evidence in the case, and then 200 agents made nine arrests in pre-dawn raids Monday. Based on information from the raids, the 10th suspect was arrested late Monday morning.
Prosecutor Robert Twiss, an assistant U.S. attorney for eastern California, says the conspirators hoped to put the plot into action this month.
"The initial installment of arms to be delivered into Southeast Asia was 125 AK-47s, 20,000 rounds of ammunition and some smoke grenades. That very first installment was to be delivered on June 12. The payment price was $100,000."
A second delivery, which would include Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, was set to arrive June 19. Twiss says the undercover federal agent was asked to provide 24 mercenaries to lead the operation.
All of the defendants are charged with conspiracy to violate the U.S. Neutrality Act, conspiracy to kill and kidnap foreign nationals and damage foreign government buildings, and also with weapons charges. If convicted, they could face terms of life in prison. Six defendants also face charges of conspiracy to acquire Stinger missiles, which carry a mandatory sentence of at least 25 years.
Authorities say the defendants claimed to have many confederates on the ground in Southeast Asia, and that some had conducted reconnaissance of targets in Laos. U.S. authorities say they are studying evidence obtained through search warrants Monday, and that more arrests may follow.