Author interview: ‘America in Laos and the Birth of a Military CIA’

Author interview: ‘America in Laos and the Birth of a Military CIA’

Joshua Kurlantzick, author of "A Great Place to Have a War: America in Laos and the Birth of a Military CIA." (Photo: Council on Foreign Relations/ Courtesy)

While the United States waged a public war against Vietnam and Cambodia during the 1960s and 1970s, the CIA had its own covert operation in Laos fighting communist expansion, codenamed “Operation Momentum.”

It was the war, Joshua Kurlantzick writes in his new book, A Great Place to Have a War: America in Laos and the Birth of a Military CIA, that transformed the CIA from having a primary role of intelligence gathering to paramilitary operations.

“Over the course of the war, U.S. bombing of Laos would become so intense that it averaged one attack every eight minutes for nearly a decade,” Kurlantzick, a Council on Foreign Relations senior fellow for Southeast Asia, writes.

Kurlantzick, whose account mines extensive interviews and recently declassified CIA records to give a definitive account of the secret war in Laos, spoke to Talk Media News about his new book. 

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

TMN: You assess that this war in Laos was arguably transformed the primary role of the CIA from intelligence gathering to paramilitary operations — how intentional was this?

JK: Like a lot of things that happen with government and bureaucracy, there was some intention. I think that some people within the government and the CIA at that point thought that by picking up more of a military role it would make the CIA more powerful in Washington, and they wanted that. And, just like often happens in government and bureaucracy, even though the war didn’t turn out actually that well for the U.S. and it’s allies, it did turn out well for the CIA. It gave the CIA a bigger budget and more power, and so once it had gone in that direction, even though there were some reforms that rolled back the power of the CIA in the ‘70s, like a lot of times happens with government it’s really hard to roll back things once they’ve happened and then they continue in that direction — into the ‘90s and even more today, to the point that there is a war on terror that is conducted mostly in the shadows. The role of the CIA and special forces have become pretty much indispensable to the conflict.

TMN: Can you frame the role of the CIA in today’s conflicts, as President Barack Obama readies to leave office and President-elect Donald Trump prepares to enter? You discuss this towards the end of the book.

JK: In the war on terror, increasingly since 9/11 and increasingly even more so under Obama, the U.S. public after the Iraq War and Afghanistan War, there’s a very high level of disinterest among the American public in a conventional war. And, at the same time, there’s a high level of concern about terrorism and terrorism has kind of splinted — so U.S. forces are in a kind of low level war in a lot of places — Pakistan, Afghanistan, West Africa, Somalia, Yemen, Iraq — a lot of places. The Obama administration has increasingly relied on special forces and, what I call in the book, the CIA paramilitary, which is people who work for the CIA, but aren’t who you think of as spies or analysts. They’re essentially special forces. These groups have become the tip of the war on terror — the actors, the ones who managed the drone program, managed some targeted killings, who managed operations in a number of places.

The new administration is coming in, and obviously has had conflict with the senior leadership of our intelligence community, but the thing is that people without knowing that much more could think it’s going to be a terrible time for the CIA. But, that’s not totally true. What the new administration has made clear is that they want to reduce the power and oversight of some CIA leaders and analysts in Washington, but they want to actually increase the power of those working in the field, especially these paramilitary officers and special forces. They want to utilize them more.

A Great Place to Have a War: America in Laos and the Birth of a Military CIA. By Joshua Kurlantzick.

TMN: Does this mean a future the includes more wars fought in the shadows? You note in the book that even after the U.S. conflict in Laos ceased to be secret, the devastating engagement there continued.

JK: I think Laos is very similar to, in some ways, what you have today in operations in the war on terror. It started out pretty secret, a few members of Congress were briefed on it. For a number, of years, beginning in 1961 the public knew nothing about it. Then, by the mid-1960s, more members of Congress knew about it and there were reports in the major news outlets. But, there was no one definitive report to launch it into the public’s consciousness — there was no Abu Ghraib story that catalyzed everything.

And, because it was mostly CIA operatives and the number of Americans dying was pretty small, it didn’t have the same impact on the public as the Vietnam War — where tens of thousands of Americans died, showing that the war really wasn’t going well. I think you have a similar situation today.

There have been stories about the good and bad aspects of using CIA, or conducting mostly a secret war in the war on terror. There have been reports in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Fox News, in the Intercept about Seal Team 6 and the drone program. Some of the operations are secret, but even some of the most secret operation have been discussed. There’s a major movie made about killing Osma bin Laden. The thing is that there isn’t a massive thing involving American soldiers or one massive story that seems so problematic that people respond to it, so it just goes on. It’s similar to Laos — you can read about it, but the level of interest by the public is less than it can be if it was a conventional war.

With the high level of American isolationism, you can expect to see this sort of war continue.

TMN: In September, the Obama administration gave $90 million to Laos for unexploded ordnance (UXO) cleanup efforts. At the time, the president offered an admission of the war and visited a rehabilitation center for victims of UXOs. Is the reality of the war entering the public consciousness?

JK: Obama also decorated some American veterans of the secret war. They did offer some money to clean up the UXOs — Laos still has a major problem with unexploded bombs, they really limit people’s movement. It’s going to take decades to clear the bombs from Laos, but it has been acknowledged more by the U.S. government.

TMN: You interviewed some pretty incredible people and reviewed recently declassified documents. Can you tell me about the research process and what inspired you to write the book?

JK: Laos was the first major CIA paramilitary operation, so it drew a lot of characters. And, you have to remember the CIA was still a fairly small agency at the time — it had only been around for about 15 years. A paramilitary organization is going to draw a lot of characters and then there was even less oversight over it than there is today, so you have some major characters.

I’ve been interested in this story for more that 20 years. I was a foreign correspondent and I went to Laos a number of times and was intrigued that there had been this major war where the U.S. played a central role, but it had been pretty much forgotten. I was intrigued by that.

In terms of the declassification, although the CIA take a long time to declassify things and can be challenging, when they actually do, they have a history department that puts together reports on some of the activities and they actually do a pretty good job of declassifying what they’ve done. So, I was pretty fortunate to have been around when they got around to declassifying it.

The opportune nature of it comes from me and other filing for freedom of information act requests, and then others suing the government to get them to release it. It was a combination of created opportunity and just opportunity.

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