Drawing from his experiences in the United States Air Force flying support missions in Laos during the Vietnam War, author Michael Ferrara makes his fiction debut with The Land of the Million Elephants—a thrilling spy novel that mixes action, adventure, and mystery in the Laotian theater of the Vietnam War.
Acting on orders from President Nixon and the head of the CIA himself, young agency operative Mark Knight sets out to stop the North Vietnamese drug trade in Laos and neutralize its catastrophic impact on US forces. He works with a team that includes a Hmong warrior, a Pentagon intelligence whiz, two decorated fighter pilots, and a very beautiful Laotian woman who acts as an assistant to the US ambassador.
As Knight and his team get closer to unraveling the mystery, they discover the existence of a spy and a traitor to American war efforts—someone who will go to any length to protect their identity and secrets.
Intriguing and intelligent, The Land of the Million Elephants sheds light on a little-known part of the Vietnam War, providing insightful social commentary in the form of a thrilling spy novel.
September 5, 1971
The Director of Central Intelligence returned to his office at 0830 hours after receiving his normal set of briefings from regional operations directors and his key administrative staffers. These briefings provided a daily comprehensive view of American clandestine activities around the globe, as well as the costs, logistics and political maneuvering needed to keep the CIA in business. The director had been appointed to this job in July of 1968 by President Johnson and, by now, had become very clinical and methodical about processing the volume of information he was given. Dealing with so many international issues, ranging from the Soviet Union nuclear threat to the continuing conduct of a war in Vietnam supported by fewer and fewer Americans, required a man who was rational, calm and dispassionate in his decision-making.
Sometimes as he sipped a scotch before retiring in the evening, he wondered if he had become too dispassionate.
His next agenda item this morning was to discuss with his key senior officers a problem that President Nixon had dumped in his lap the previous day during a meeting in the White House. In addition to the president, General Creighton Abrams, the Commander of the Military Assistance Command Vietnam (MACV), had been present in the Oval Office. The director sensed that Abrams had been the instigator of the brow beating he had received from the president.
The director’s secretary buzzed him on the intercom and advised him that his subordinates had arrived. “Send them in,” said the director.
John “Black Jack” Rafferty, the Deputy Director of the CIA, entered first, followed by Evan Helms, the Deputy Director for Southeast Asia Operations. Black Jack was the number two man at the CIA, while Helms was in charge of all CIA activities surrounding the war in Vietnam. Unlike the director, who was a political appointee, Rafferty and Helms were career CIA men who had gotten their starts in the spy business during World War II as agents for the Office of Strategic Service, the outfit that eventually became the CIA after the end of the war. They didn’t have the political connections or clout in Washington, D.C., that the Director had, but their combined knowledge of CIA operations over the previous 30 years provided a formidable database of intellectual property regarding the CIA’s successes and failures throughout the Cold War and in Vietnam.
As the three men sat down at the conference table, the director’s secretary served coffee in china emblazoned with the CIA crest. Thin strips of red, white and blue circled the rims of the cups and saucers.
The three men skipped the informal banter that usually preceded getting down to business. Rafferty and Helms knew this was a serious matter based on the phone message they had received from the director summoning them to his office.
As the secretary left the room, she triggered the electronic jamming system that would prevent anyone inside or outside the building from eavesdropping on the discussion.
The director took off his glasses and began to fill in his subordinates on the issue of the day. “As you both know, General Abrams has been in town for the last several days meeting with Congressional Committees, the Secretary of Defense, the National Security Council staff and our team here at CIA. You also know that I met with him and the President in the Oval Office yesterday. That meeting didn’t go particularly well. General Abrams has a large bug up his ass about a situation he believes we are invested in, and he has the President worried about the potential political fallout.”
The director explained that, according to General Abrams, the North Vietnamese Army had not only been hauling weapons and logistical support equipment down the Ho Chi Minh Trail through Laos into the combat areas of South Vietnam, but also shipping large amounts of processed heroin and opium. The drugs were distributed to middlemen who would sell them throughout South Vietnam, mainly to American and South Vietnamese soldiers. Since the previous February, there had been a noticeable increase in the amount of illegal drugs for sale to U.S. and ARVN soldiers in the South. The result is a significant decrease in the combat readiness of U.S. troops.
“Abrams gave the president and me a couple of real horror stories regarding this impact of these drugs,” the director explained. “Just west of Da Nang, a Marine sergeant caught a lance corporal sleeping at his guard post. He threatened to have the young man court martialed. Later that night, the corporal dropped a fragmentation grenade into the tent of the sergeant, killing him and injuring two other non-commissioned officers. When the Corporal was caught he tested positive for heroin.”
Rafferty and Helms had worked together for so long that they thought alike and even shared the same mannerisms. Both exhaled and shook their heads in tandem as the director continued with another story. “An army platoon of 30 men refused an order to advance up a ridge and engage the enemy,” the director explained. “When these men were pulled back to their base and drug tested, 23 of the 30 tested positive for drug use. The seven men who didn’t use drugs but refused to go up the ridge said they were afraid to be in a combat situation where their comrades were stoned and not prepared to fight.”
“There was another incident with the Air Force,” the director continued. “Evidently, both engines of a C-123 cargo plane failed at the same time within minutes of taking off from Bien Hoa Air Force Base outside of Saigon. It crashed, killing all four crew members. When the maintenance records were examined by an accident review board, it was obvious that repairs to the fuel system had been screwed up big time. Both the Air Force mechanic who botched the repairs and his supervisor, who signed off on the repair, were caught smoking opium while on duty the night the maintenance actions took place.”
“I knew it was bad, but not this bad,” Helms said, shaking his head.
“Abrams estimates that as many as 35% of our guys are hooked on drugs or are active enough users that it impairs their ability to get the job done,” the director explained. “The heroin and opium our troops are smoking or ingesting is very pure and powerful. The drugs have an immediate physical impact on a user and are highly addictive. He wants the shipments to stop.”
“You said Abrams thinks we’re ‘invested’ in the situation,” Rafferty said. “In what way?”
“He thinks we’re involved in this somehow and that it’s the CIA’s responsibility to bring this drug smuggling activity to a halt,” the director explained. “I think he’s threatening to take matters into his own hands and kick some ass in Laos if we don’t act, and that’s making the president very uncomfortable.”
“He can’t do that,” said Rafferty. “American troops are forbidden to set foot into Laos by an act of congress. The president is his boss. If Nixon says stand down, he has to stand down.”
“Yeah, yeah, I get that,” the director replied, “But Abrams is a rare commodity in Washington. He’s a man of honor, a lifelong soldier who really believes the duty, honor, country, rah-rah bullshit. He knows he’s presiding over a war he won’t win. He knows as well as we do that Kissinger is in Paris negotiating with Le Duc Tho on a ceasefire and a withdrawal of American troops. Abrams feels that every young kid that gets shot or ends up with a needle in his arm is forfeiting his life so a politician can surrender without making it look like surrender. Young Americans serve their country and die or get screwed up, and politicians look like heroes to a war weary public for bringing this mess to an end. This just doesn’t sit well with the senior officers in the military. “
“I sympathize with the guy, but any way you cut it, he has to follow Nixon’s orders,” said Helms.
“Right. I don’t think he’s going to screw with the president. He’s too loyal a soldier to do that,” the director agreed. “But the flip side is that he’s popular in Congress; they like him in the Pentagon and at State; and we even have a grudging respect for the guy, although he can be a horse’s ass at times. Nixon’s convinced the public that Abrams is the greatest General since MacArthur. He can’t very well fire the man for trying to protect our sons and daughters from a ruthless North Vietnamese army that’s making a profit by selling drugs to our children. The president is also very worried about this being picked up by a hostile press, which could further erode public support for the war and force him to make more concessions to the dinks. Let’s face it, Nixon’s a politician and he wants this to go away quietly, not by having 40,000 American troops invade Laos, where they aren’t supposed to be, and laying waste to yet another Asian country.”
The three men had been quiet for a moment when Helms raised a question: “What makes Abrams think this is a problem created by CIA?”
The director chuckled. “Come on, Evan. The guy’s not stupid. The Army captured two trucks that transport the drugs. The trucks were uniquely configured with some weird contraptions on the top of the hood, cab and load area. They had no battle damage at all – kind of a surprise since the Air Force is bombing the hell out of eastern Laos from their bases in Thailand – and the vehicles were neatly packed with rectangular bags of heroin and processed opium. There was some writing on the bags and the Army intelligence guys figured out that the writing wasn’t Vietnamese, or Laotian, but Hmong. Abrams knows that General Thao Kim runs a 30,000-man Hmong army in Laos that the CIA finances, manages and directs. Since we can’t put Americans in Laos, the Hmong warriors are the main reason that the northern part of Laos, including the capital of Vientiane, is still free from a communist invasion. Abrams is also aware of the fact that the Hmong tribe primarily lives in the mountainous section of northern Laos and their main cash crop for the last century has been opium. He managed to brief the president on all this information with me sitting there. The president looked concerned and asked me if I thought we had any involvement in this.”
“I thought that was kind of a cute question. He knows damn well the CIA has been allowing the Hmong to help fund their military operations by producing and selling opium. As long as the stuff was heading west from Hmong territory to the Golden Triangle where Laos, Burma and Thailand coincide, he was okay with that, ignoring the fact that this crap is sold to our allies in Europe and eventually some portion of it ends up on the streets of the USA. However, now that the drugs are going southeast into Vietnam, suddenly he’s indignant about the fact that the NVA is successfully eroding our war-making capability and generating a decent profit on it as well. “
The three men sat lost in thought for a few seconds until the director asked the question both Rafferty and Helms knew was coming. “Do you think any of our guys are directly involved in this beyond the necessity of turning a blind eye to some of the things the Hmong or the Laotians are doing?”
Rafferty and Helms both knew never to be too quick or specific when talking to their boss. He was loyal to the president, the guy who’d appointed him. They were loyal to the company: the CIA.
Helms spoke first. “As you know, director, we in the CIA have had a great relationship with the Royal Lao Army and the Hmong tribe for many years. We started operating Air America, our own airline system, in Laos in 1960 with four helicopters. Now we have several hundred aircraft flying out of our secret Laotian base in Long Tieng, or out of our logistics center at Udorn Royal Thai airbase in Thailand. This airborne logistics system is constantly in motion moving personnel, weapons, supplies and other commodities all over Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and, of course, Vietnam. All together, we have over 150 CIA case officers in Laos, as well as 50 or so Air Force pilots wearing civilian clothes and flying missions against Pathet Lao or North Vietnamese troops.”
“I’m sure our guys understand that there is stuff being moved around in these aircraft on behalf of the Laotians or Hmong that probably shouldn’t be there, but it’s tough to deny troops as loyal and brave as the Hmong from participating in a form of commerce they’ve pursued for generations,” Helms continued. “We have the complete dedication of Hmong General Thao Kim and his senior officers, and I think we understand that his continued commitment to some degree depends on him and his key guys making a lot of money off the drug trade. Over the years, we’ve built a strong military alliance between the Royal Laotian army and the Hmong, and they’ve been jointly successful in limiting the military advances of the Pathet Lao communists and the NVA. But they haven’t always gotten along so well, and we suspect that some of the issues we have from time to time in getting them to cooperate on the battlefield have to do with business conflicts between the senior officers in each group relative to the drug trade. “
“I understand all that, Evan, but we are deeply imbedded with both the Laotian Army and the Hmong. If both groups are actively involved in drug trafficking, it’s logical that one or both groups are selling to the North Vietnamese and we may have an agent making a few bucks on the deal.”
Rafferty entered the conversation. “Mr. Director, I know the secret war we’re conducting in Laos against the communists is a real Wild West operation. And our guys, by necessity, have to be a bunch of cowboys. That can lead to guys going off the reservation, forgetting about the mission, and becoming emotionally and financially involved in some stuff they shouldn’t be involved in. But I don’t believe we have people over there profiting at the expense of American deaths in Vietnam. Our guys may be crazy, but they’re still patriots.”
“I hope you’re right, Jack. We have agents and CIA assets in every element of that operation. From shooting the enemy in the face while they’re looking at you, all the way back to the American embassy in Vientiane, where the secret war is managed by our embassy station chief.” The director paused to think for a second. “You don’t think Stansfield and Cheadle are involved in this in any way, do you?”
Rafferty and Helms glanced at each other briefly, and then Rafferty addressed the director. “Everett Cheadle, our station chief in Vientiane, is one of the finest CIA agents we have. He’s been around Asia forever. He understands the social, political and military dynamics in Indochina as well as anyone, and he’s a stand-up guy. Having said that, he probably has much better insight into the drug trade over there than we do and is definitely someone we should talk to. As for Averill Stansfield, the American ambassador to Laos, we all puked when Nixon placed him there at the bequest of the State Department, but that’s the breaks. He’s your typical Ivy League, white bread, State Department diplomat and doesn’t enjoy getting involved in the dirty stuff we’re doing in Laos. I’d be surprised if he had any insights into this.”
The director leaned back in his chair, took off his reading glasses, and looked at the trees outside his window swaying back and forth in the wind. It was a beautiful day in northern Virginia. He would have loved to be at his country club playing golf instead of addressing drug deals on the other side of the earth.
“Okay, this is what we are going to do.” The director had thought this through prior to the meeting with Rafferty and Helms and hadn’t heard anything in the last ten minutes to change his mind on the course of action he wanted to take. “I want you to find someone in this building that we can trust to figure out what’s going on over there and come up with a solution. We need someone who knows the landscape of Laos and Vietnam really well and who can put together a team of folks to help him get to the bottom of this situation. We’ll send this agent over with a phony cover story about his mission because I don’t want anyone in Laos to know what he’s up to. If whoever is getting in bed with the NVA on transporting and selling drugs into South Vietnam gets wind of this, they may go to ground or try to eliminate our guy. I realize that Laos is really screwed up. A third of the country is run by the communist Pathet Lao. The 400-mile eastern border with South Vietnam is completely controlled by the North Vietnamese Army as they transport supplies and weaponry from the north to the south. The central and northwest parts of the country answer to a Laotian government that’s allied with the United States. There are all kinds of battles going on between each group, not to mention the constant bombing by the U.S. Air Force trying to interdict the Ho Chi Minh Trail or support ground operations by Royal Laotians or the Hmong. If there was ever an easy place to get killed, this is it. Additionally, we don’t know what the politics are in Vientiane on this drug issue, not to mention the secret town of Long Tieng where General Thao Kim is based. We need somebody really good to handle this. He has to be smart and have the balls to venture into some difficult situations in Laos and Vietnam.”
“Giving our man the clout and bureaucratic power he’s going to need to get this done isn’t going to be easy,” offered Helms.
“I’ve already started working on that,” said the director. “We have the White House’s backing on this. I’ll make sure the National Security Council, Defense Department, and State Department grease the skids to get our agent whatever and whoever he wants. You guys will put the same word out through our own chain of command. This is going to be a little tricky because we don’t want to tip off the boys and girls in Laos that this agent has big time backing to do what otherwise will be billed as some normal staff work. They’ll realize immediately that the cover story is bullshit, and then we could have some problems. But, this is a risk we’re going to have to take.”
“How soon do you want this in motion, boss?”
“I want a name from you by tomorrow. After that, our agent will only have a day or two to put a plan together. The three of us will approve the plan and then it’s off to the races!”
Rafferty and Helms knew there wasn’t much else to be said. They would pick the right agent and set him in motion. But this was going to be difficult and dangerous – a Herculean task.
“Did General Abrams say anything else about these trucks loaded with the drugs?” Helms asked.
“Yes, he did,” said the director. “He mentioned that the trucks had a unique marking. Both doors on the cab of each truck had a drawing in red of an elephant.”
“Yeah, an elephant.”
SEPTEMBER 6, 1971
Mark Knight flashed his credentials and was waved through the guard checkpoint at the entrance to the campus of CIA headquarters. It was 0700 hours as he made his way to the basement gym in the main building for his daily workout. After greeting most of the regulars in the fitness center with a nod and a smile, he began his normal routine of stretching, lifting weights, and 35 minutes of aerobic exercise on the elliptical trainer. He finished the workout with 15 minutes of therapy exercises he had been given by the Navy doctors who had rebuilt his shattered right knee. By following this regimen over the last six months, he had finally reached the point at which he no longer walked with a limp from a traumatic knee injury and the subsequent surgery to repair it.
After a quick shower and a shave, Mark dressed in khaki pants, a blue button-down oxford shirt, a club tie, and blue blazer. He laughed as he looked at himself in the mirror. He would look just like 40 or 50 other analysts and agents in the building that day. “We are a conservative, orderly bunch, aren’t we?” he thought.
Mark had been with “The Company” for over seven years since graduating in 1964 from Georgetown University with a degree in international affairs. His original plan had been to join the State Department Diplomatic Corps, but a recruiter from the CIA had convinced the former lacrosse player and dean’s List student that there was a more exciting way to see the world. Fresh out of college, he had gone to the CIA training farm in northern Virginia to learn the basics of how to be a spy.
Mark was subsequently assigned to the CIA detachment domiciled within the American embassy in Bangkok, Thailand, where he was put in charge of coordinating operations between the Thai Army and CIA assets in Laos. The pro-western government of Thailand had agreed to support the American buildup in Vietnam by providing troops to fight in places where American soldiers were prohibited by treaty or congressional action. Laos and Cambodia were two such places and Mark was given the task of setting up Thai Army involvement in Laos.
When that task had been completed, he moved on to a project that entailed the compilation of intelligence information on the North Vietnamese effort to set up a logistics system along the eastern border of Laos. This system was eventually dubbed the Ho Chi Minh Trail. In this role Mark consolidated and analyzed information generated by Air Force pilots and intelligence officers which was used to determine how much war-making materiel the NVA were able to move down the Trail, and how best to attack and disrupt that flow of equipment. His Air Force contacts were stationed at six Thai bases scattered around Thailand. Each base hosted a number of US Air Force squadrons flying fighters, bombers, reconnaissance, and special operations aircraft.
Over the course of two years, Mark had built valuable connections within the Thai Army as well as the American Air Force intelligence apparatus, and his success had impressed his bosses in Thailand. Consequently, he was promoted to a field agent job based in Long Tieng, the CIA’s secret city in Laos. This military base, surrounded by mountains, had been built on the periphery of the Plain of Jars. By 1966, it had grown to a population of nearly 40,000 people. The base was formed around a 4,000-foot runway, which served as a hub for the CIA airline, Air America. By the time Mark arrived, it had become one of the busiest airports in the world.
Long Tieng served as the headquarters for the Hmong guerilla army, which was funded by the CIA and under the command of General Thao Kim. The majority of Long Tieng’s residents were Hmong troops and their families, but there was also a detachment of Thai Army soldiers, as well as Royal Laotian troops, garrisoned at the facility. There was only one paved road running through Long Tieng. Along this road, the Hmong had created a makeshift city of tin shacks that served as living quarters, noodle stalls, repair shops and other services that supported their own soldiers, as well as the American CIA contingent. Since there were no sewers and most roads were always a muddy mess, the place didn’t have a lot of charm, but it was a hive of activity that supported the secret war in Laos.
Mark’s job in Long Tieng was to refocus on the Ho Chi Minh Trail and determine the best methods and locations for attacking it to halt the movement of war supplies from North to South Vietnam. In this role, he worked closely with the Raven Forward Air Controllers (FACS), a squadron of CIA pilots or Air Force fighter pilots specifically recruited to fly as battleground observers in the Laotian field of operations. Flying just above the treetops in Cessna O-1 Bird Dogs that had no military or civilian markings, the Ravens would identify targets and call in air strikes from American fighters or bombers. This method of flying “low and slow” was effective for locating communist forces, trucks, tanks or other assets moving along the Trail, but made the Ravens an easy target for small arms fire, as well as anti-aircraft guns. Raven FACS were routinely shot down and if they weren’t immediately picked up by a CIA rescue team, they were killed by Pathet Lao or North Vietnamese soldiers who had neither the time nor inclination to take prisoners.
Mark liked working with the Raven FACS. When he would fly along, packed into the tiny back seat of the Bird Dog, he was usually terrified as they got close to the Trail and started taking on ground fire. But these pilots were used to it and even seemed to enjoy bouncing around the sky, avoiding enemy bullets and looking for targets of opportunity. Their John Wayne attitude made them seem invincible.
After 25 months at Long Tieng, Mark was reassigned to CIA operations in Da Nang, Vietnam, where he began work on a project that ultimately failed and almost got him killed. The CIA spymaster in Da Nang was a career spy named Alain Comeau. Comeau had been in Vietnam since 1960 when Eisenhower had allowed the agency to move more people into the country to get a fix on what the North Vietnamese really wanted to achieve and to figure out if the formation of a viable pro-western government in the South was realistic. Comeau spoke fluent French and, after so many years in Vietnam, was also fluent in Vietnamese. His task in 1968 was to execute Operation Spooks and Commandoes, which was referred to in CIA lingo as “OSC”. The premise of the program was to recruit former North Vietnamese residents who had fled to the South to escape the communists and train them to return to the North as spies or saboteurs. It seemed like a logical plan, but in a police state like North Vietnam where the average citizen was very committed to the revolution, ferreting out spies was much easier than in a free and open society where spies could easily move around undetected.
As Mark worked with Comeau on the project, he became convinced that it was a total disaster. Commandoes who were given specific tasks like blowing up a target or assassinating an NVA official rarely succeeded and, more often than not, were never heard from again. Somehow the North Vietnamese would typically discover who they were and kill them before they could carry out the mission. The men sent back to be spies fared much the same. Either they would suddenly stop communicating with the office in Da Nang, or they wouldn’t show up at their pre-determined checkpoints. The North Vietnamese secret police were very efficient at hunting the spies down. On the rare occasions when a spy did provide information to the CIA, it would ultimately turn out to be inaccurate or not useful. Mark suspected those spies had been compromised and were now double agents.
Only one spy had ever conveyed useful information, reporting when large convoys of trucks were moving from Haiphong Harbor on the Gulf of Tonkin towards the western border with Laos where the Ho Chi Min Trail began. The spy had secured a job with a company that serviced and repaired NVA trucks at a service center on that route, which enabled him to track trucks and other vehicle movements. Unfortunately, he had been compromised by the secret police and sent out an urgent radio call to Da Nang asking to be extracted from the North.
Since Mark had helped to recruit and train the man, he volunteered to go on the extraction mission. He boarded a Huey UH-1D helicopter, accompanied by another CIA agent and two Army Green Berets who were sent along as security. A pair of Air America veterans who had slipped in and out of North Vietnam by air several times before piloted the chopper. They flew at night at an altitude just above the trees to evade radar detection, taking a zig-zag course to avoid populated areas.
The aircraft reached the landing zone in the rendezvous location at daybreak. Mark, the other agent, and one Green Beret jumped off the skid of the helicopter while the second Green Beret manned the machine gun attached to the side of the chopper. When they hit the ground, they could not initially see the spy they had been sent in to extract. Slowly moving out of the dust and dirt kicked up by the whirling blades of the chopper, they gradually got a better view of their surroundings.
They moved about thirty yards from the aircraft when they spotted the man they were looking for. He was nailed to a tree with spikes driven through his stomach, hands and legs. He was still alive, but clearly down to his final breaths. Mark moved toward him, but the other agent grabbed his arm and said, “He’s done! Let’s get the hell out of here!”
As they turned back to the chopper, gunshots rang out, and the agent next to Mark was immediately hit in the back of his left thigh. The Green Beret by Mark’s side began spraying the trees with automatic fire from his M-16, while the gunner on the helicopter laid down heavy fire into the area where the shots had originated. Mark grabbed the other agent under the arm and ran for the helicopter. When the two agents and the Green Beret re-boarded, the Huey began lifting off. An AK-47 round shot by an unseen NVA soldier ricocheted off the frame of the door to the back of the helicopter, lodging in Mark’s knee. One of the Green Berets applied a tourniquet to the wounded leg of each CIA agent, and the pilots flew back to Da Nang at the highest rate of speed they could coax from the aircraft.
Air Force doctors at Da Nang removed the bullet from Mark’s knee, but the necessary reconstructive surgery couldn’t be done in Vietnam, so he was reassigned to CIA Headquarters in Langley in order to be treated at Bethesda Naval Hospital.
After seven crazy years, Mark was grateful to still be in one piece and able to once again live a reasonably normal life as an analyst in the Southeast Asia Operations group at CIA headquarters.
Working his way from the gym in the basement of the building to his cubicle on the third floor, Mark showed his I.D. to a guard at the entrance to the elevator lobby, then to another guard as he left the elevator lobby on the third floor. He passed through several sets of doors that unlocked when he pressed the barcode on his badge against a scanner. When he reached the Southeast Asia Operations office, he punched five digits into a keypad, which released the lock on the door. As always, he smiled into the security camera above the door as he passed through.
The office space for the Southeast Asia Operations Group was a very large open room filled with cubicles populated by various analysts and data management specialists. The cubicle walls were only five feet high, so an analyst could stand up and shout over the wall to the person in the adjacent cubicle if he wanted to get his attention. Although the cubicle walls were covered with a soft textured fabric designed to absorb sound, the room still had a chaotic feel that had taken Mark a bit of time to get used to.
Along the back wall of the large open room was a series of offices where the team leaders sat. The Deputy Director for SEAO, Evan Helms, held court in a lovely corner office looking out on the bucolic campus of CIA headquarters.
Mark arrived at his cubicle and began to spin the tumbler on the safe to remove the classified files he would use that day to collect information telexed in from Vietnam. Just as he was beginning to organize his thoughts for his first meeting, the intercom light began to blink on his desk phone. He answered and was surprised to hear Helms’ secretary on the other end of the line.
“Mr. Knight? This is Mary in Mr. Helm’s office. Mr. Helms would like you to come to his office right away for an important meeting.”
“Oh, sure. No problem, Mary. I don’t have this meeting on my calendar. Did I miss something?”
“No, not at all. Mr. Helms would just like to speak with you individually. He asks that you come straight to his office and not inform your team leader or any of your colleagues about this meeting. Is that understood?”
“Yes, ma’am, I understand. I’ll be right there.”
He left his cubicle and made his way around the maze of work spaces, thinking how strange it was that he would be ordered to see his team leader’s boss without the team lead being there. Even though the CIA is an outfit that trades in secrets, communication within teams was encouraged rather than discouraged.
The row of offices at the back of the room was illuminated by sunlight in addition to fluorescent bulbs. As Mark approached the corner office, Mary smiled from her desk outside the door and motioned for him to enter. As he walked into the room, he received his second surprise of the morning. Seated next to Evan Helms was Black Jack Rafferty, the Deputy Director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Mark’s previous interactions with Rafferty had been limited to a couple of ten-minute briefings.
“Hello, Mark,” said Helms. “Please have a seat.”
Mark sat in an over-stuffed chair facing Evan Helms’ desk. Rafferty, a dark, quiet man who seemed to be able to look right through you, sat in a matching chair to his left.
“Mark, you know Director Rafferty, don’t you?”
“Yes, sir, we’ve met twice, I believe.” Mark reached over and shook Rafferty’s hand.
“Mark, let me get right to the point. We have an important assignment that requires someone with your background. I know you’ve recovered quite well from the wound you received in ‘Nam, and I’m hoping you’re ready to get back into some action that’s a little more exciting than flying a desk here at headquarters. Are you interested in hearing about it?”
“Yes, sir,” Mark answered, knowing full well that he was being told – not asked – to volunteer. Having just started dating a very attractive congressional staffer, he really didn’t mind flying a desk in Langley, Virginia, at this point in his life. To his knowledge, no one had ever been shot on the third floor of CIA headquarters.
Black Jack leaned toward him. “Mark, we have a serious problem in South Vietnam with the proliferation of drug availability and drug use by our troops. General Abrams, the commander of MACV, thinks the problem is degrading our operational capabilities in the South. He’s so concerned about it that he recently escalated the issue to the president.”
Mark remembered drugs being very accessible to American G.I.s during his time in Vietnam, but hadn’t realized that the problem had become big enough to impact operational readiness. His CIA buddies in Da Nang had stuck to beer, liquor and massage parlors to wash away the physical and psychological grime of war. He really hadn’t known anyone who had gotten screwed up on heroin or opium in the war zone.
Rafferty continued to outline the information the Army had uncovered in South Vietnam regarding the transfer of large quantities of powerful drugs from CIA-controlled Laos, down the Ho Chi Minh Trail and into the Republic of South Vietnam. He emphasized the MACV commander’s suspicion that this was a conscious effort by the North Vietnamese to degrade American and ARVN fighting capabilities, as well as a method for the North to raise large amounts of cash to fund its war effort. He handed Mark a dossier of documents collected or written by Army Intelligence and provided to the CIA by General Abrams. He concluded by mentioning the implied connection of the CIA or a CIA asset to the North Vietnamese Army, and he also described the elephant markings on the trucks carrying the drugs.
At that point, Helms took over the conversation. “Here’s the deal, Mark. We want you to go over to Laos and figure out what the hell is going on. We’ll provide you with a cover story that says you’re there to re-evaluate the methods, tactics and success that the CIA and the Air Force have had interdicting the war supplies coming down the Trail. You’re an expert in that subject, so it’s a believable story. In reality, your job is to figure out who’s doing business with the North Vietnamese, how they’re getting the drugs to the north end of the Trail for transport south, and how the trucks are so successfully evading detection by our intelligence systems.”
“The Army Intelligence guys tell us that the drug running trucks are virtually untouched by any kind of battle damage,” Helms continued. “That’s a little unusual since most of the vehicles the NVA use on the Trail get shot up sooner or later by AC-130 gunships or F-4 Phantoms deployed from Thailand, or by the other delayed action ordinance we drop and leave all over the Trail. I mean, it’s really crazy over there. We blow some truck in half and the gooks weld it back together and somehow keep it running. Based on the battle damage assessments we get from the Air Force, it’s almost impossible to get a vehicle down the 400-mile length of the Trail without some kind of damage being inflicted on the transportation equipment.”
Mark was skeptical about that assertion. The research he had conducted since being back in Langley didn’t jibe with the party line from the Pentagon. He thought he had enough information to challenge the Air Force premise but didn’t think this was an appropriate time to press the issue given the political firestorm that could ensue between the Pentagon and CIA.
“Mark, we’ll give you a blank check on this operation,” Rafferty said, picking up the discussion. “The director of the CIA has already cleared it at the highest levels of the Pentagon, State Department and White House National Security Staff. Key people in each of those places know who you are, and although they don’t know what you’re doing, they know they have to cooperate with you on any request you’ll make for people, money, or special military missions… basically anything you want or need to get the job done.”
Mark noted that he hadn’t yet agreed to “volunteer” for the mission, yet the high-level folks at the Pentagon, State and the NSC already knew who he was. “So much for the cute girl on Capitol Hill,” he thought. He was in this whether he wanted to be or not.
“Remember, Mark,” said Helms, “Support through our organization is going to be a little trickier. It has to appear to our folks in Laos that you’re on a fact-finding mission regarding the Trail. So anything you need from us will have to be delivered within that context. Since we don’t know if any of our agents or assets are in on this, we can’t tip anyone off as to what you’re really doing. Let’s face it, we’re talking about drug dealing and consorting with the enemy, so anyone with a vested interest in the drug operation is probably not going to have any problem with your disappearance if they know why you’re really in the country. As you know, anything can happen in Laos, and it can happen quickly.”
“How high up the chain of command will I be able to work in Laos?” Mark asked.
“All the way,” said Rafferty. “We want you to check out Ambassador Stansfield in Vientiane, and also Everett Cheadle, our Station Chief. We have no reason to think these guys are involved, but they may have information that would be useful to your investigation, so we want you to get in front of them. The State Department will advise Stansfield you’re coming and we’ll coordinate with Cheadle. But they’re not on the “need to know” list, so they won’t be informed as to the true nature of your visit.”
“How about the people I recruit to work with me on the mission? How much can I tell them?”
“Mark, you’ll have to use your own judgment on that,” said Helms. “You understand how to silo information when working on a project with various sets of people. Let them know as much as they need to know and nothing more. The biggest risk is that someone in CIA, or a CIA asset associated with the drug deal, gets tipped off and blows your cover. At that point, they may adjust tactics to elude detection, or worse yet, decide that you’re a liability they can erase.”
Mark began to think through the ramifications of the information he had just been given. Instead of going through all the bureaucratic crap and palace politics you normally had to endure to scope a mission within the CIA, he had just been handed the keys to the kingdom. He could go anywhere he wanted and get any type of help he wanted, wherever and whenever he wanted it. And he got to spy on the most powerful and sophisticated spy organization in the history of clandestine activities. For a CIA agent, this was like Christmas in July.
His excitement was tempered by a last remark from Black Jack Rafferty. “You will report directly to Helms and me on this mission. If and when you find out what is going on over there and come up with a potential solution, you will provide that information solely to Evan and me. You will take no action to rectify the situation in Laos unless you receive explicit approval from me. Do you understand that?”
Mark knew that he was going to do the dirty work on this mission, but the ultimate decision on how to fix the problem wouldn’t be up to him. The political, military and diplomatic impact would have to be dealt with by people well above his pay grade.