Watch who you trust, warned Gary George. They sat in the upscale Grafton home of the once-formidable Milwaukee lawmaker, with its scenic view of Lake Michigan. They made an unusual pair. George was then on parole, still finishing out a federal sentence. Lo Cha Thao was a Hmong political operative who was allegedly plotting to […]

Watch who you trust, warned Gary George.

They sat in the upscale Grafton home of the once-formidable Milwaukee lawmaker, with its scenic view of Lake Michigan. They made an unusual pair. George was then on parole, still finishing out a federal sentence. Lo Cha Thao was a Hmong political operative who was allegedly plotting to violently overthrow the communist government of Laos.

Thao wanted advice from his old mentor, who had employed him as a state-paid legislative aide back when George was a Democratic state senator. Throughout the spring of 2007, Thao had been meeting with an arms dealer who might provide weapons to a group interested in waging this surreal, overseas revolution.

But could they trust the dealer? Would he tip off federal law enforcement agents? Or was the arms dealer himself a covert CIA operative, suggesting the CIA secretly approved of the Hmong action.

George doubted the latter. He knew how government sting operations worked. He had, after all, been nabbed by one, convicted for a complicated kickback scheme involving state funding and accused of having his Senate staffers do work for a Virgin Islands TV station owned by his relatives. It would be wiser to exchange any money with the seller in international waters, George advised Thao.

And if the arms dealer was a federal agent? They make you feel comfortable, George warned. Then, they get you.

Undeterred, Thao rendezvoused again a few weeks later with the arms dealer in a Sacramento, Calif., bar-and-grill. The plan was to support remaining Hmong resistance fighters in Laos. They were on the run from Communists, the atrocities against them chronicled on YouTube – women raped and hanged from trees, children disemboweled.

Two other Hmong and a 60-year-old Vietnam veteran named Harrison Ulrich Jack, a retired lieutenant colonel in the California National Guard and a Homeland Security contractor, joined them. Jack seemed an unlikely warrior, with his bland beige suits and wire-rimmed glasses. But he owed the Hmong from back in his fighting days in Vietnam.

The dealer pulled out satellite images of Laos, downloaded from Google. Twenty-four mercenaries stood ready, he said. Thao displayed maps. They’d previously discussed the needs: AK-47s, light anti-tank weapons, Claymore mines. He wanted seven or eight buildings blown up, like “September 11th,” Thao said.

“Colonel Jack can be my prime minister,” he joked.

Although some of the plotters suspected the agent worked for the government, that gave them comfort. The Hmong, after all, had been secret allies of the U.S. in the Vietnam War days, and they expected sympathy for another covert anti-communist effort to bring democracy to Laos.

But this was a different era, rife with hostility to anything suggestive of terrorism, and the men who had once been American freedom fighters, or whose fathers had been, were about to be arrested as terrorists.

As George had suspected, Thao and his confederates had walked into a trap. It was a sting operation by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives; the arms dealer was one of theirs. The meetings had been taped and the phones tapped. In an 88-page indictment, the government alleges that Thao, Jack and eight other Hmong-Americans – including Gen. Vang Pao, a revered former general in the Laotian army who’d led the secret CIA war in the 1960s and ’70s – violated the U.S. Neutrality Act and conspired to kill, maim or injure persons in a foreign country. George was named (but not indicted) in a federal affidavit that details his alleged conversations with Thao.

It was a “shocking” story, some news accounts suggested. There is talk of getting Clint Eastwood interested in a movie. And some are now calling Thao the “Hmong Jack Bauer,” alluding to the heroic counterterrorism operative in the TV series “24.”

But why the connection to Wisconsin? It was perhaps inevitable, given this state has the nation’s third-largest Hmong population. But it’s surely one of the oddest political stories the state has ever found itself party to, a cloak-and-dagger intrigue worthy of a Robert Ludlum novel.

For Lo Cha Thao was more than simply a protégé of Gary George. He had bipartisan allies, having worked for former Republican state Sen. Robert Welch as well as car dealer Russ Darrow when Darrow ran for U.S. Senate. His paramilitary youth group received funding from then-Attorney General Jim Doyle, now Wisconsin’s Democratic governor, and Thao claims associations with former Republican congressman and current Ambassador Mark Green, which Green’s spokesman denies.

Thao was also close to former state Sen. Dave Zien, the madcap Eau Claire Republican known for his motorcycle riding and underground home shooting range. Zien insists he’s the one who first suggested Thao should bring weapons into his overseas effort during a meeting the two had at a McDonald’s parking lot in Eau Claire.

The 34-year-old Thao, it seems, well understood a fundamental principle of American politics: Association to power often matters as much as power itself. Indeed, as he sits under house arrest, released on more than $2 million bail posted by fellow Hmong who pooled their houses as collateral, Wisconsin observers are asking about this political Zelig: Who didn’t Lo Cha Thao know? And just how much did these officials know about him? It may well be the political question of the year. It’s certainly the strangest.

It was back in the mid-1970s,immediately after the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam, that Hmong began immigrating in large numbers to this country. The connection between the Hmong and the United States goes back more than four decades.

In the early 1960s, President John F. Kennedy and the U.S. military, then officially serving only as advisers to South Vietnam, were looking for ways to covertly disrupt the supply lines of communist North Vietnam. The U.S. was also concerned about North Vietnamese encroachment on Laos, the land-locked country next door to Vietnam, which was then ruled by a non-communist government.

The regular army of Laos had proved ineffective against the North Vietnamese. So the CIA turned to the Hmong in Laos. The word Hmong literally means “free.” In Laos, the Hmong, who had migrated from China, had no written language, prayed to shamans and used horses as primary transportation.

Though America had signed an international accord promising to stay out of Laos, the CIA’s Bill Lair secretly recruited Vang Pao to lead the irregular army of about 30,000 – including child fighters – trained and funded by America.

Hugh Tovar, the CIA station chief in Laos from 1970 to 1973, offered a slightly different chronology in a rare e-mail interview: “The prime minister of Laos asked President Kennedy to provide clandestine assistance to Vang Pao’s irregulars. Kennedy assigned the task to CIA.”

Pao’s army would go on to fight for almost 15 years, helping to rescue downed American pilots, block North Vietnamese supply lines down the Ho Chi Minh trail and protect American radar sites.

“As the undisputed leader of the Hmong population in Laos, General Pao was uniquely effective, both militarily and politically,” Tovar notes. “They were expert guerrilla fighters, organized chiefly in small units, specializing in ambush, night maneuvers, hit-and-run strikes, and intelligence collection.”

Among those whose lives they saved was that of Harrison Jack, an Army ranger who would later be asked to return the favor by joining the conspiracy with Thao to overthrow present-day Laos.

Thao’s father served as a military lieutenant for Pao in Laos. “My dad got shot. He’s 76 years old now. He still has scars on his face and his legs,” says Thao.

A mythology grew up around Pao among the Hmong: Pao was shot by an assassin; Pao survived a plane crash; Pao didn’t fear death; Pao was the savior of the Hmong people. “He was many times shot,” says Hmong scholar Yang Dao. Over time, he became known as “the George Washington of the Hmong.”

The Hmong sacrifice for America was enormous. Half of its army died, says Dao.

Bill Fortier, a retired military man and friend of Jack, recently attended a dinner party where Pao’s brother recalled the Hmong losses in that war: “He was in tears when he told us he lost 99 of his men and was a sole survivor when his unit was fighting to save one American downed pilot. He was so emotional that everyone was in tears. He said the Hmong people loved America and were willing to sacrifice whatever it took to save the Americans.”

In 1975, when the Americans retreated from Southeast Asia, the Communists finally took over Laos, and slaughtered thousands of Hmong. “His (Pao’s) personal commitment to the United States resulted in the tragedy of his own exile and the total disruption of the Hmong community,” Tovar notes.

Thousands of Hmong fled to Thai refugee camps. Thao’s brother carried him, at age 3, through the mountains. The American government airlifted Pao out. Others were left behind. Ultimately, some 200,000 Hmong fled Laos.

The U.S. Catholic Conference and Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services helped to sponsor Hmong immigration to the U.S. beginning in 1975. Heavily Catholic and Lutheran, Wisconsin became a prime recruiter, after only Minnesota and California. Today, the largest Hmong communities in the state are in La Crosse, Sheboygan, Green Bay, Wausau and Milwaukee.

For some, there was a dark side to the almost legendary tale of the Hmong warriors. UW-Madison history professor Alfred McCoy published a 1972 book making the controversial claim that Pao was a warlord and heroin trafficker. McCoy says he interviewed French intelligence officers and traced smuggling trails.

Other scholars – notably the author Jane Hamilton-Merritt – dispute his findings. She says the Hmong used opium as a medicine, but didn’t have the technical knowledge to turn it into Heroin. Hamilton-Merritt interviewed more than 1,000 people – Lao, Hmong, French, Americans – and says “no one could
provide any evidence to support McCoy.”

For the Hmong who settled in America, Gen. Pao became a revered, almost godlike figure. “There were many widows and mothers who had lost their children (during Vietnam),” says Shwaw Vang, a Madison School Board member who tried and failed to get a school permanently named after Pao. “In a way, he (Pao) became the protector of families. In the Hmong community, they talk of him as a father figure.”

Most Americans know nothing about the bullet-scarred secret warriors now living among them. The U.S. government finally acknowledged the covert CIA army in 1994, erecting a memorial in Arlington National Cemetery honoring the mostly-Hmong soldiers for serving “freedom’s cause… Their patriotic valor and loyalty in the defense of liberty and democracy will never be forgotten.”

By then, Thao was 24 and about to make his mark in American politics.

Lo Cha Thao’s familymigrated to Illinois from a Thai refugee camp when he was 8. His parents worked in a sewing factory before moving to Stockton, Calif., where he graduated from high school, college and then commercial flight school.

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Thao founded a paramilitary program to stop youth gang involvement a couple years later, which he says was supported by the California National Guard (whose representatives did not respond to interview requests). But Thue Vang, a Hmong activist who is filming a documentary on Gen. Pao, says Thao’s program charged $200 per participant, and families wondered where the money went.

“The community was not happy with Lo Cha and that is why he fled to Minnesota,” Thue Vang says.

Thao brought his program to Minnesota in 2000 – where he befriended Gen. Vang Pao’s controversial son, Cha Vang, who was working for then-St. Paul Mayor Norm Coleman, now a Republican U.S. Senator.

Not long after that, Thao moved to Wisconsin, bringing his paramilitary program, called America’s Youth 2000. “All of the troubled Hmong youth could get free paramilitary training; all they had to do is buy a uniform for $100,” says McCoy, who considered it a scam.

Hmong leaders in Appleton say Thao bypassed them, going directly to families. According to a flattering Associated Press article at the time, the Hmong youths gathered at a National Guard armory in Wausau, wearing camouflage uniforms and combat boots, for military drills. Thao was allowed to hold training in Wisconsin National Guard armories but received no financial support from the group, a guard spokesman says.

Meanwhile, Thao was gaining the attention of state politicians for other reasons. Wisconsin had a Hmong population of 45,000, and they were not politically aligned. They might be convinced to vote in a block out of deference to Gen. Pao, should he say the word. And Thao, whose father fought for the general and who was friends with Pao’s son, made much of these connections

“Lo was viewed as Vang Pao’s go-to guy,” says one political insider, “as someone with deep connections in the Hmong community, with the ability to organize them for political rallies and events.”

Eric Schutt, former executive director of the Wisconsin Republican Party, says political strategists from both parties first began actively recruiting the Hmong vote in 2002.

Thao’s group caught the attention of then-Attorney General Jim Doyle, who was preparing to run for governor. Doyle had been part of a multistate suit against several European vitamin companies for price-fixing. Wisconsin was awarded some $6 million that was then to be distributed by Doyle’s office to improve the health and nutrition of state residents.

Doyle awarded $25,000 to America’s Youth 2000 early in 2002. Just how would a paramilitary group improve health and nutrition? Doyle’s spokesman, Matt Canter, says the grants could provide youth “with alternatives to drugs and violence.” Thao says the vitamin money funded “color guards, flag tools and other materials.”

Doyle was accused of using grants won from several legal settlements to build constituencies that might support him for governor. State politicos recall seeing
buses full of Hmong activists showing up to support him in the Democratic straw poll for governor. “A lot of people argue the Hmong voted in large blocks for Jim Doyle” in the 2002 general election, Schutt says.

But it couldn’t have been Thao who delivered that vote for Doyle. Thao had chosen to work for state Sen. Gary George, who briefly ran against Doyle in the Democratic primary. George was impressed by Thao’s youth program, Thao says, and hired him as a legislative assistant in 2002.

Now that Thao has been indicted, most Republicans and Democrats won’t discuss him on the record. But they portray him as a disarmingly friendly man who drove an expensive red sports car. Some observers say Thao had a reputation for slipperiness and a taste for easy cash.

“He came here asking people to vote for George,” recalls Mark Xiong, who runs Lao Family Community Inc. in Milwaukee. “His personal style was too aggressive. He didn’t know the community. He only worked for himself.”

Thao was a central figure in the scandal involving forged signatures on George’s gubernatorial nomination papers. Many forged names were Hmong, and Thao and his future wife had certified some of the papers.

State prosecutors launched an investigation. They alleged that Thao admitted certifying pages he didn’t circulate, a potential felony. “A lot of it was already signed” when he was asked to certify the nomination papers, Thao now says. He didn’t know this was illegal, he adds.

No charges were ever filed. Prosecu-tors couldn’t prove who’d forged the documents. But George was kicked off the ballot.

Thao, meanwhile, was forging other political connections. He had assumed a seat on the Madison park commission and proposed naming a park after Pao. “He’s a great Hmong leader,” explains Thao. “The father of the Hmong.”

At some of the commission meetings, ex-Hmong soldiers showed up in “dark military suits, almost as if wanting to intimidate,” recalls then-Commissioner Alfonso Zepeda-Capistran.

Thao invited Zepeda-Capistran and a fellow commissioner, then-Madison Alderwoman Dorothy Borchardt, to George’s state offices. Both commissioners opposed renaming the park.

“It was very uncomfortable,” says Zepeda-Capistran. “It appeared he was doing business that did not necessarily relate to the senator’s business.”

Borchardt was struck by Thao’s style. “He did it so cool. He was nice, likable. He brought spring rolls. Everyone knows I want a pool at Warner Park. He said if I could support the park they wanted, they have people with money (to help pay for the pool). I said, ‘Sorry. We just don’t do that.’ He said in his country that’s what they do to get things done.”

Thao denies it. “I did bring spring rolls,” he laughs.

As the proposed park renaming generated controversy, McCoy’s book calling the general a drug trafficker re-emerged in the news. George responded by calling for a UW-Madison investigation into McCoy.

McCoy claims Thao attended a demonstration protesting McCoy’s book and spoke through a bullhorn. “I wasn’t at the protests,” denies Thao. “They were on state time.”

McCoy saw a design behind the controversies. “Every time the general gets attacked, that becomes a fundraising opportunity from elderly Hmong.”

By then, Pao was a frequent visitor to Wisconsin, although his base was solidly in Minnesota and California. Amid such controversy, the general’s reputation was becoming as gray as the “fog of war,” writes photojournalist Roger Arnold.

“(Thao) brought a presentation lauding the activities the general was involved in, particularly working with youth and getting them involved in a paramilitary group,” says Peter Muñoz, mayoral liaison to the park commission. “It scared the bejesus out of us. It looked like a country within a country with its own army.”

Around this time, Thao organized an air show to honor Hmong veterans at the La Crosse airport. A press release said the state legislature would award medals to the once-secret soldiers, who wore battle dress uniforms with American flags sticking out of their pockets.

When Gen. Pao arrived, “it was like the president had arrived,” recalls Paul Vasconi, president of the Air America Foundation.

Pao was by then in his 70s, a bald man with a pug-like face, barely skimming 5 feet tall. Observers noted the unique quality that remains in his eyes, the tiger-like bead of a warrior. His posture is erect, his torso high. He’s assertive, they say, in both facial and hand gestures.

Zien once gave Pao a ride on his Harley-Davidson motorcycle at a Wisconsin veterans’ event. Hmong prostrated themselves, collapsing on their knees and bowing, as they passed.

Thao’s efforts on behalf of Pao were controversial. Philip Smith, a former lobbyist for Pao who now runs the Center for Public Policy Analysis, says Laotian veterans’ groups’ names were appropriated without permission at some Thao-organized events, clouding Thao’s reputation even with some Hmong.

The park commission eventually nixed the name change. Meanwhile, Thao’s boss Gary George faced more trouble: an attempt to recall him from office as state senator. George needed every voter he could find, and his district had a sizable Hmong community. In June 2003, he cast the decisive, post-midnight vote to pass a new state budget after Republican lawmakers agreed to insert a $3 million Hmong cultural center in Milwaukee into it. Gov. Doyle vetoed it, spurring angry Hmong protests outside the governor’s mansion (the cultural center was back in this year’s proposed budget).

George was recalled from office in October 2003. But Thao remained a political commodity. He worked as a legislative employee for then-state Sen. Robert Welch (R-Redgranite) from December 2003 through April 2004, according to state senate records. Welch, a rural Republican known for his glasses and carefully coiffed, blow-dried white hair, seemed an unlikely match for Thao. But Welch also tapped him as an organizer in his unsuccessful primary bid for Russ Feingold’s U.S. Senate seat in 2004. In a three-way Republican primary where turnout was low, the Hmong vote could be decisive.

“I was really close to Bob Welch,” Thao says. “I had communication with Welch all the time.” Welch, now a lobbyist, did not respond to interview requests.

In mid-primary, Thao switched over to car dealer Russ Darrow’s campaign, says Schutt, who ran the campaign. Thao contacted the campaign and offered to keep Darrow in the loop on Hmong events. “He was charismatic,” Schutt recalls.

But businessman Tim Michels beat both Welch and Darrow in the primary.

Thao says he also did some work for Republican state Rep. Terry Moulton of Chippewa Falls. Moulton, who had a Hmong opponent, says he doesn’t know Thao.

As the political action began to dry up for Thao in Wisconsin, he moved back to Fresno, Calif., where he flew “fat cats” to Las Vegas for gambling, Smith says. It was in California that Thao would begin planning his war against Laos.

For many Hmongwho immigrated to America, their old country remained a kind of lost cause they continued to grieve. “When Vang Pao was forced out of Laos, there was a strong desire to go back. From that was born Neo Hom,” says Shwaw Vang, the Madison School Board member.

Neo Hom was a network of Hmong activists that Pao formed in America, with the hopes of somehow helping those who opposed the communist government in Laos. Neo Hom representatives say 18 pockets of resistance fighters remain in Laos. Hmong eat forest vegetation, shelter in caves and are targeted with chemical gas for trying to uphold the values of freedom and democracy, the Neo Hom say.

McCoy, once again, disagrees: “This is not genocide. It’s harsh pacification of a dissident movement.”

In 2003, Time magazine reporter Andrew Perrin painted a heart-rending portrait of the Hmong resistance in Laos: “a ragtag army with wailing families in tow, beseeching me to take news of their plight to the outside world…starving children, their tiny frames scarred by mortar shrapnel…”

The U.S. government, however, moved to restore diplomatic relations with Laos and normalize trade relations in 2004. After an Appleton tourist, a Hmong, mysteriously disappeared near the Lao/Thai border, the Lao Human Rights Council Inc. of Eau Claire asked Congress not to normalize trade with Laos, citing the country’s genocide and support for Saddam Hussein.

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In a 2006 report, the U.S. State Department described unlawful killings and persecution of Christians and “increased efforts by security forces to eliminate scattered pockets of (Hmong) insurgents and their families in remote jungle areas.”

Thue Vang says that when Gen. Pao saw videos of the atrocities, he was moved to tears. “He wanted to do something to help those people.”

But the elderly general’s decision- making was questionable, Smith says. “He surrounded himself with some people of dubious character as he grew older, and he had a stroke.”

Younger members of the Neo Hom group started by Pao gained bad press for alleged shakedowns of elderly Hmong, who were told the money would help those in Laos, according to the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

Some Neo Hom members had absorbed the mores of refugee camps, where “bribery, extortion was expected, otherwise people couldn’t eat,” Smith says. Some were “snake-oil salesmen.”

Smith includes Thao in this category, describing one meeting run by Thao that involved stacks of cash, whiskey and card games, like a “Roman holiday.”

Thao insists he was part of an idealistic crusade. “I got involved in this mess because I was introduced to all of the genocide that’s been happening. The community leaders came to me and showed me what’s happening in Laos.” They thought he could build political support.

Vasconi says Thao spoke about the issue to the Air America Foundation in Florida last January. Thao showed a DVD of the atrocities and told the audience all the Hmong would be dead in three years.

Thao also turned to his old rolodex. On a trip to St. Paul to attend a rally about the Laos situation last January, he traveled to nearby Eau Claire, where he met then-state Sen. Dave Zien at a McDonald’s. Zien, a Vietnam veteran, suggested organizing a group of armed Vietnam veterans to storm into Laos. “The Hmong are being hunted like animals. They are barefoot, starving, without medical supplies,” says Zien.

Zien says Thao nixed the idea of bringing weapons into it, saying they’d all get killed.

Thao says he also talked with former congressman and now Tanzanian Ambassador Mark Green about the genocide issue. Green’s spokesman denies it. Green took a leading role in arguing against normalized trade relations for Laos in 2003, calling it one of the world’s most “reprehensible abusers of human rights.”

Back in California, the indictments allege, Thao worked with a group on a plan to wage war against Laos. They’d met the arms dealer through a contact of Harrison Ulrich Jack, the only non-Hmong among the indicted group. The indictment paints him and Thao as key conspirators.

Jack was a West Point graduate, former Army ranger and intelligence officer in Berlin who was now a Department of Homeland Security contractor. He hadn’t forgotten the Hmong who saved his life in Vietnam. The man exudes “honor and duty,” says his old military friend, retired Col. Bill Fortier. Jack allegedly wanted to embed Hmong in the California Highway Patrol for training. They could later assume top enforcement posts in Laos.

The effort grew increasingly fantastical, with Thao and others allegedly meeting with the supposed arms dealer in Kmart parking lots, Thai restaurants, Doubletree hotels and the Sacramento bar-and-grill.

Thue Vang believes the plot was a “money-making scheme” designed to convince elderly Hmong who revered Gen. Pao to donate to a bogus plan.

Others insist Thao acted out of idealism. “He was very honest and devoted to his culture,” Vasconi says. “Day and night, Lo Cha was getting calls from overseas relaying information about the atrocities. His wife told Lo Cha he needed to take a break from it – it was becoming so consuming. I sensed a certain desperation and hopelessness.”

Thue Vang believes Gen. Pao was “dragged into this by Lo Cha and a couple others” and opposed using weapons. But the indictment describes Pao attending a meeting with the undercover arms dealer at a Thai restaurant. Pao was accompanied by a dozen Hmong, many of them now also under indictment – respected clan elders, a former cop. There, the indictment says, the dealer passed around a manila folder containing prices of weapons and mercenaries. Pao and others allegedly walked to his RV and handled submachine guns, grenade launchers and a rocket-propelled anti-tank weapon. I’m “sold on the whole thing,” Pao said.

The plotters’ operational plan, called “Operation Popcorn,” envisioned eliminating Laotian leadership, then creating a constitution and holding elections. Thao and others felt the U.S. Government would support the effort, or at least turn a blind eye.

Still, Thao wasn’t sure. So he turned to his old mentor, Gary George. “He did give us good advice that maybe this undercover guy was up to something,” Thao says. “That it was not the actual government trying to help us. I think [George] cares about the Hmong people.”

Thao says the key meeting occurred in the Grafton home of George, who declined to be interviewed. The federal affidavit describes the conversations this way: George wondered about Harrison Jack. “Can you trust Jack?” he asked. “Yes,” Thao replied.

Don’t trust anyone else, George said.

Thao told George the meetings with the dealer occurred at a hotel. George pushed for more information: Were they set up before Thao arrived? “Yes,” Thao said. “It might have been recorded,” George warned.

If you’re going to exchange funds, don’t do it inside the U.S., George said. Go to Mexico or take a boat into international waters. If the arms dealer balked, he was probably up to something.

Some time later, George and Thao talked again by phone. Had Lo followed up on his advice? Yes. The whole exchange would take place in Thailand.

“That’s a smart decision,” said George. “Then there’s no chance for a problem.”

Thao also says he was in “constant contact” with Welch throughout the spring. Weapons and the plot weren’t discussed, he says, but he adds, “I was open with everyone that we thought the government was helping us.”

In fact, the government was running a sting called Operation Tarnished Eagle. On June 4, 2007, a “Joint Terrorism Task Force” of 200 officers arrested 10 people, including Jack, Pao and Thao.

Many in the Hmong community felt betrayed by the U.S. government. Thue Vang says some elderly Hmong veterans died from the shock. Two defendants suffered strokes while in jail.

David “Hawkeye” Downs, a former Vietnam sniper who knows Thao, says the entire plot was a ruse to push the U.S. government to get involved in Laos. “We were trying to create a rumor that old Air America guys, Vietnam vets and CIA guys were going to fly them (the Hmong resistance fighters) out of Laos.”

The ATF agents, Downs adds, stumbled into something that wasn’t their business. “They should have called the CIA.”

Would the CIA have been helpful? “It’s hard for me to believe that a man (Pao) who was trained by the CIA, who assisted the CIA, who fought for the CIA for so many years and then was brought to America by the CIA, doesn’t have some ties still in there,” Fortier says.

Twenty years earlier, the CIA might have been asked to help the Hmong.

“Ronald Reagan would have found out how much more money they needed,” says Smith. He believes the indictment is the “sign of the times” – a weakened, lame-duck president consumed by another war.

Tovar, the former CIA bureau chief, considers the arrest of the general a tragedy. “Vang Pao is responsible for knowing our law,” he notes. “But I doubt he fully understands it. Even if he does, I think it would be fairly easy to trick him into a desperate act to free his people left behind in Laos. I do not think his current predicament will be comprehensible to the Hmong; certainly not to the old soldiers who followed him into battle, nor to the many who have relatives still living under a repressive regime.”

Pao’s incarceration, adds Tovar, would be a terrible blow. “Many hundreds of Americans who as young men soldiered in the company of Vang Pao and the Hmong would see harshness rather than justice in such treatment of one of the best friends we ever had.”

But U.S. Attorney McGregor Scott, who is prosecuting the case for the Sacramento district, sees it differently “The United States cannot provide a safe harbor to those plotting to overthrow a government with whom we are at peace,” he has declared.

“We cannot tolerate our country being used as a staging ground for foreign coup attempts,” says Assistant Attorney General for National Security Ken Wainstein.

How, McCoy asks, can a nation fight a global war on terror if it supports Hmong “terrorists” plotting from its own shores? “They had to nail him,” he says.

But some observers draw a parallel to our allies in Afghanistan and Iraq.

“Should Vang Pao be convicted, it will send a very ugly message to other prospective allies about the shabby way we treat our friends after our interest in them fades,” Tovar says.

Thao claims to be mystified by his arrest. “I still don’t know why we’re being accused,” he says. “All we do is go to congressmen and senators just for the genocide.”

Defense attorneys argue the plotters thought they were operating with at least tacit CIA approval and were entrapped by the ATF agent. Thao’s attorney, Mark Reichel, says taped conversations add details not in the indictment, including references the agent allegedly made to being a Navy seal with top-secret clearance.

“This group of people is owed a hell of a lot by the government, and instead of paying them back as promised, they misled them, preyed upon them and betrayed them,” says Reichel. He adds: “The last person to put a gun in these people’s hands was the CIA.”

More than 1,000 Hmong showed up for Pao’s release to house arrest after community members posted his bail. They celebrated by tossing confetti, which rained down on the old general in a wheelchair.

Some think the case could be too embarrassing and won’t get very far. When does an American freedom fighter become an American terrorist? In the current political climate, this may be a question the government won’t want asked.

After all, the U.S. gave birth to the defendants’ cause. The cause was once an American one. That complex relationship was captured last December, at a Hmong New Year celebration in Sacramento, in a telling photograph. Gen. Pao, wearing a crisp blue suit, sits with a gaunt, 83-year-old man in a black hat and trench coat, a young spy’s attire. It is the Hmong army’s old CIA overseer, Bill Lair. Next to Lair, a white-haired man with glasses leans into the frame. Harrison Jack. He was there peddling bottled water to raise money for the Hmong cause. Each bottle was labeled “Hero water.”

Jessica McBride is a UW-Milwaukee journalism faculty member and columnist for the Waukesha Freeman.