COLUMN LEFT : Fury Won’t Make Truth Go Away : “Air America” revives old but well-documented charges of CIA complicity in drug-running.


“I t’s un-American,” said Pia Lindstrom on WCBS in New York. “Half-baked . . . conspiracy theory,” wrote Christoper Robbins in twin attacks in the New York Times and Vogue. Similarly unsparing vilification has come from Peter Kann and Phillip Jennings in the Wall Street Journal, and from Time magazine.

The object of all this fury is “Air America,” a comedy thriller depicting the adventures of Mel Gibson and Robert Downey Jr. as a pair of Air America pilots operating in Laos in the 1960s, where the United States waged a “secret war.”

For the record:

12:00 a.m. Sept. 21, 1990 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday September 21, 1990 Home Edition Metro Part B Page 7 Column 1 Op Ed Desk 2 inches; 62 words Type of Material: Correction
Column Left--Due to an editing error in an Alexander Cockburn column Thursday, a sentence fragment confused the meaning of two sentences. They should read:
(The movie) similarly dares to say the unsayable, and commits the added offense of joking about it.
Most significantly, former CIA officer Tony Po, now living in northeast Thailand, said on camera that the CIA knew that Vang Pao was making millions from opium and heroin trafficking.

The film admittedly concentrates on the lighter side of a horrible conflict, but this is not what excited the critics’ greatest fury. The rage stems from the film’s recognition of the fact that the CIA, with the knowledge of higher authorities in Washington, was actively involved in the heroin trade.

Kann and Air America veteran Jennings state that Air America, a CIA proprietary company, was “specifically barred” from carrying drugs, which is scarcely surprising. No one claims that the pilots had written approval from the director of Central Intelligence. Robbins, who wrote a history of Air America on which the film is loosely based, is more slippery, conceding in his Vogue article that “Air America certainly carried opium during harvest time,” while proclaiming in the New York Times that the CIA merely “turned a blind eye” to the drug trading of client generals.

But charges of CIA implication in the drug trade are by no means new and are very well-founded. The classic work on the subject is Alfred McCoy’s “The Politics of Heroin in South-East Asia,” published in 1972. McCoy’s research is legendary. Through interviews with U.S. intelligence, military and aid officials and local sources, including drug traders, he showed in compelling detail how, since World War II, the CIA had supported opium traffickers as allies in the war on communism.


Thus, the CIA maintained a fugitive anti-communist Kuomintang army in Burma that rapidly became the largest supplier of opium in the region. In Laos, the CIA followed in the steps of the previous occupiers, the French, assisting in Hmong opium distribution in return for Hmong services against the communist guerrillas.

McCoy and his collaborators were banished from mainstream American academia. They had said the unsayable, describing the process whereby U.S. intelligence officials had connived in the refining of opium into heroin and its subsequent shipment either to Vietnam and into the veins of GIs or to the U.S. mainland.

Sixteen years later, in 1988, my brother and sister-in-law, Andrew and Leslie Cockburn, preparing their WGBH “Frontline” documentary, “Guns, Drugs and the CIA,” expanded McCoy’s findings with on-camera testimony from U.S. officials involved in the trade.

Ron Rickenbach, for example, a former Agency for International Development man who served in Laos at the storm center of the secret war, described how he had seen opium loaded on and off Air America planes. He also described how the CIA had purchased an airline for “General” Vang Pao, leader of the CIA-sponsored Hmong. A former Air America pilot, Neil Hansen, now serving time for marijuana smuggling, described on camera how he and other pilots routinely flew--not unofficially but under CIA orders--"the sticky bricks,” that is, opium.

“Air America,” the film, is now suffering the sort of abuse incurred by McCoy. It similarly dares to say the unsayable, and commits the added offense of joking about it. Its prime assailant, author Robbins, did Most significantly, former CIA officer Tony Po, now living in northeast Thailand, said on camera that the CIA knew that Vang Pao was making millions from opium and heroin trafficking. Po gave in precise detail the routes by which Vang moved his heroin from Laos to Vietnam, using planes that the CIA had given him, while maintaining full CIA cooperation.

Robbins did not always view the CIA-drug connection as “half-baked . . . conspiracy theory.” His 1979 edition of “Air America,” heavily reliant on McCoy’s work, contained scores of assertions of the sort of CIA-drug involvement that the film portrays. But such charges vanished without explanation from the 1988 edition. In the interim, Robbins had embarked on a history of one particular group of pilots involved in the secret war, known as the Ravens. These pilots, loaned from the Air Force to the secret war, were understandably eager to insist on the probity of their operations.

Despite its frivolity, the film touches a raw nerve. It injects into mass culture truth on a matter that official America has been lying about for three decades, namely the confluence between U.S. covert operations and criminality, whether in Laos, Afghanistan or Central America.