CIA Operations in Laos – Prisoner Interrogations during the Vietnam War.
Above Photo: Long Tieng, The CIA’s secret airbase in Laos during the Vietnam War.
Jack Jolis served as a case officer in the CIA, operating the Rascal program out of Lima Site-20 Alternate, or Long Tieng, throughout much of 1970. These are his recollections, in an interview with Peter Alan Lloyd, conducted as part of his research for BACK.
PL. Before we start, what can you tell me about the above photograph?
JJ. It was taken in 1970, off the main ramp at 20-A. I remember it was a miserable, cold, rainy day, which is why I’m wearing a Thai army field jacket.
I am sitting on one of the jeeps I had to share, after my captured Soviet GAZ jeep that our guys had scarfed up on the PDJ, fell apart on me – what a piece of Russian-made crap that had revealed itself to be, with the engine literally falling out of it, during a bumpy ride in the hills around Alternate.
PL. One of your roles at Long Tieng was to act as an Interrogations Officer. How did that come about?
JJ. We SKY/CAS case officers didn’t really get enough prisoners to warrant using up any of our valuable 55 personnel “slots” with a proper Agency interrogator, so we each took on the role on an ad hoc basis.
PL. Were you any good at it?
JJ. Although I was certainly no worse at interrogation than the other guys, I didn’t enjoy it much. I didn’t — and don’t — particularly relish bullying and intimidating frightened and bound-up people, even if they were sworn enemies who would gladly have done considerably worse to me if they’d had the chance. But I must say I grew tolerably good at it, with experience.
PL. Why were there so few NVA prisoners captured and interrogated at Long Tieng?
JJ. For one thing, the NVA were very diligent – and courageous – about not leaving their wounded behind after a hostile engagement.
I also suspect they were very ruthless about it, too — although I personally didn’t have any hard evidence of this, it was generally “understood” by us that if you were an NVA wounded and they couldn’t take you with them, your comrades finished you off on the spot.
But the main reason we had so few NVA prisoners to interrogate was because the Hmong were not the sort of fighters who entertained a very elevated “P.O.W. honor ethic”, to put it mildly — in fact, the whole notion of taking prisoners was about as strange to them as the idea of north, south east and west, to which I alluded in the previous interview.
Also, being basically an outnumbered and outgunned army of guerrilla fighters, Hmong offensive operations were almost exclusively of the surprise-ambush, hit-and-run variety — not the sort of action in which you typically take many enemy prisoners.
PL. Did the Agency ever go out to snatch NVA prisoners for intelligence purposes, like some SOG teams? If not, why not?
JJ. No, not that I know of, at least not while I was there.
Look, trust me, we painfully few Agency bodies were already stretched pretty thin – it was all we could do to keep Vang Pao’s rather threadbare and ramshackle operation up and running, without our courting additional risk and using up valuable time and assets on such dubiously cost-effective ventures.
PL. So how did the prisoners usually come into your hands?
JJ. The Hmong would sometimes take prisoners, but for the reasons I mentioned above, they tended not to be regular NVA soldiers but instead NVA “political officers” who would come into remote Hmong hamlets, dressed in civilian clothes (like us, funnily enough), for propaganda, proselytizing and intimidation purposes.
So, in the villages, these sinister characters were occasionally “snatched” by particularly courageous little groups of civilian Hmongs, regardless of the risks and possible consequences.
PL. Where were the interrogations carried out?
JJ. Locally, in any available hooch in whatever Hmong village was nearest to where the incident had occurred. I have to stress that the whole P.O.W. “situation” up there was very jerry-built, impromptu and spur-of-the-moment – there was nothing “structured” about it at all. All seat-of-the-pants “field expediency” stuff.
PL. Were the prisoners under CIA, Army or Hmong guard?
JJ. Hmong. We case officers didn’t have the numbers for anything like that, and we only took physical control of these guys if and when we shipped them off to Udorn.
PL. When you were interrogating in the field, did you overnight in the villages or “commute” from Long Tieng each day?
JJ. Well, occasionally I/we’d overnight in the outlying village/LS, (if our Air America assets were more urgently needed elsewhere), in which case the Hmong would find a spare cot for us and we’d set it up in some corner not too far from their radio, but usually we’d return to Alternate with AA.
Remember, prisoner “de-briefing” was a secondary role for us, almost a side-line — we all had other, primary duties to attend to. But we’d leave the prisoners in the capable hands of the Hmong, who were “strongly” advised by us not to gratuitously mistreat them, advice which they generally followed. The Hmong also proved themselves quite adept at getting the hang of, and administering, the sleep deprivation regime in my/our absences. All in all it was a pretty efficient use of everyone’s time.
PL. What kind of interrogation techniques were used on the prisoners?
JJ. Well, it has to be said that every one of those prisoners was convinced that he’d be summarily executed, so some of them – the more junior ones — just quickly became terrified babbling machines, who needed to be turned off rather than prodded.
But for those who were more stoic, and made of sterner stuff, we used some techniques, usually (but not always) successfully, such as sleep deprivation and threats to life and limb, which are perhaps held in hypocritical distaste in today’s hysterically delicate climate, but which didn’t, in my — and our — thinking, even approach ‘torture’, and were infinitely more benign than the methods being used by the enemy against our prisoners, both in Hanoi and in other NVA prison camps here and there in Laos.
In fact, I clearly remember thinking to myself how sleep deprivation, in particular, was a much more humane way of getting information than the banal old “smacking around” that routinely takes place in the worlds’ police stations.
PL. How does sleep deprivation work?
JJ. There’s a little more to it than just keeping a chap awake around the clock until he becomes senseless — it’s slightly more nuanced than that: what you do is you allow him to fall asleep, but only for about 10-15 minutes — then you wake him up brusquely and keep him awake for another 5-6 hours or so. Then let him nod off again, and bim!, wake him again after another 10-15 minutes. You repeat this little scenario over a 24-36 hour period, and you’ll find that (compounded by the fellow’s already pre-existing conviction that he’s gonna be executed), you’ve got a pretty thoroughly disoriented subject on your hands. No fuss, no muss, and in no sane world can that be construed as “torture”.
PL. Were you at any time mindful of any of the Geneva Conventions governing the treatment of P.O.W.s up there?
JJ. No, not really. In fact, not at all. Look, I’m going along here with the very use of the phrase “P.O.W.”s purely for the sake of the convenience of this interview, but the brutal fact of the matter is that even the phrase P.O.W. was not germane to any of our situations in northern Laos. None of us — not us Agency guys, not the North Vietnamese, not even (I don’t think) the Hmong themselves, whose actual home it was — qualified as “legitimate” combatants under those Geneva conventions. None of us, according to the 1962 Laos Treaty, (except the Hmong), were supposed to even be there, much less involved in hostile action and out of any recognizable uniform — none of the NVA prisoners was ever in any “uniform” — in fact the whole thing was about as “extra-legal” as you could possibly get.
So no, Geneva, (to paraphrase Basil Fawlty), just didn’t enter into it, mate. But still, we endeavored to remain (and, I’m confident, succeeded in remaining) within the bounds of civilized behavior.
PL. How did they hold up under interrogation? And what kind of information were you trying to obtain from them?
JJ. Even though most of these NVA “political cadre” types were pretty tough customers — they were all, as I said, convinced they were going to be summarily shot, if not by Vang Pao’s guys, then certainly by the “CIA devils” — they nevertheless usually succumbed to our 18-36 hours of cleverly-applied sleep deprivation and “good cop/bad cop” interrogation.
Problem was, for us, there wasn’t really all that much information that we needed to get out of them — basically all we really wanted to know was where the HQs were, at any particular time, of the 305th and 324th NVA Divisions, (which were in our AO at the time), and as those HQs were always shifting, more often than not our prisoners weren’t even sure of the current coordinates.
PL. What was your toughest interrogation case?
JJ. My hardest case was a young guy who turned out to be an NVA captain (I only learned this when we discovered a letter from his wife back in Vinh which he kept in an oily plastic bag which also contained loose AK rounds, which he had hidden in his rice roll).
He was the highest-ranking guy we’d had in a long time and I had been told by “Clean” (Bob “Burr” Smith, our XO) to “go hard” on him in order to get the coordinates not only of those divisional HQs, but also the location of their mobile propaganda radio-transmitter.
However, even despite the routine sleep deprivation, he continued to lie to me to questions that I already knew the correct answers to, and the whole session was growing more and more fraught.
Finally, after a couple of increasingly frustrating days, in near-desperation I pulled my 9mm out, cocked it and held it to his head and told him I was going to ask him one more question to which I already knew the correct answer, and if he persisted in lying one more time I was going to blow his brains out.
PL. What happened next?
JJ. He started to shake like a maracas and he squeezed his eyes shut, but when I asked the question he still lied to me.
At that point I knew the game was up — I uncocked and holstered my pistol, sat down, ordered his hands to be untied, and offered him a cigarette, which he took with extremely shaky hands. That night I personally saw to it that he was safely on an Air America C-119, under armed escort, and destined to “rehabilitation school”
PL. What happened to the prisoners after the interrogations had finished?
JJ. After we’d finish getting whatever meager intel they had, we’d ship them down to Udorn Thani in Thailand, where we’d turn them over to the Thais, for “rehabilitation” in an attempt to “turn” them and get them to join the “Chieu Hoi” (“Open Arms”) program back in South Vietnam.
PL. What was the Open Arms program?
JJ. It was a program to persuade NVA soldiers to defect to the South Vietnamese army.
Despite being trashed and ridiculed by the leftist press in the US, that “Chieu Hoi” program, was, on balance, a pretty successful one. Like all “rehab” programs, its failures probably outnumbered its successes, but, run as it was by the South Vietnamese Ministry of Defense with US military intel input, it resulted in the quite successful “Kit Carson” scout program, with ex-NVA guys being assigned to US military units for obvious purposes – think back to those Indian scouts used by the US Cavalry in those old western movies.
PL. After you sent them to Thailand, what happened to them?
JJ. The idea – at least as I understood it – was to get their asses back to Vietnam ASAP. Only difference for them was, it was South Vietnam, rather than North.
Heh, I’d like to think that some of them even went on to become, today, retired liquor-store owners in California.
PL. What were the Hmong’s interrogation methods like?
JJ. The Hmong “interrogation methods” were stark and biblical in their simplicity.
They had a special “pit”, which was just a deep shaft — a bit like a dry well — into which they’d lower (or sometimes just toss) such prisoners as escaped our custody and who might haveparticularly pissed them off.
The “subjects” just stayed down there at the bottom of the pit until they signaled their willingness to “talk”. And if, once pulled up, their “talk” didn’t seem satisfactory, back down into the pit they went. Far as I know, it always worked pretty well.
PL. Can you recall any other noteworthy incidents with prisoners at Long Tieng?
JJ. One particularly springs to mind.
I once came back to 20-A to discover that they’d thrown an “American spy” into the pit. (“American spy??” I remember wondering, “What the fuck — we’re all American spies!…”) Anyway, it turned out it was somebody claiming now rather plaintively to be with NEWSWEEK, but who’d hitched a ride with a Royal Lao Air Force C-47 re-supply flight from Vientiane using false USAID papers.
Anyway, I was the only case officer around at the time and so I had to reluctantly prevail on my pal the Hmong S-2, Major Hang Sao, to have his sniveling ass pulled out and sent back on the “first available”.
Suffice it to say the NEWSWEEK fucker, who I would have been happy to leave down there, never even bothered to thank me. Bastard just kept muttering about “You people…..!”)
PL. When did this happen?
JJ. This happened in November 1970, and to this day I kick myself for not having made a more lasting note of the bastard’s name. Mind you, we were even then already reading accounts (if highly fanciful ones) of our “secret war” in such publications as THE NEW YORKER, so our “secrecy” was more aspirational than realistic, but still…. this guy’s brazenness struck me, (if I can borrow from Churchill), as arrant effrontery up with which I felt disinclined to put.
In Part 3 – Life at Long Tieng.
Jack Jolis can be contacted at email@example.com
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