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Thompson Agonistes: The Dissent and Subsequent Disappearance of A CIA Officer


COMMENT: Younger readers/listeners might be puz­zled by dis­cus­sion of a “lib­er­al” CIA offi­cer. Before the trans­for­ma­tion of the CIA into a huge para­mil­i­tary force, Jim Thomp­son worked for the Agency and its World War II pre­de­ces­sor the Office of Strate­gic Ser­vices. Imbued with the ideals of the Roo­sevelt admin­is­tra­tions and the war against fas­cism, Thomp­son became an oper­a­tive on behalf of CIA-spon­sored com­bat­ants in Laos because of his anti-impe­ri­al­ist views and gen­uine respect and affec­tion for its peo­ple.

As the war oper­a­tion in Laos grew big­ger and para­mil­i­tary oper­a­tives eclipsed long-time agents on the ground, Thomp­son grew increas­ing­ly, vis­i­bly and vocal­ly crit­i­cal of the Agen­cy’s pres­ence in Laos and the changes in that orga­ni­za­tion.

Voic­ing his dis­taste at social func­tions while in gov­ern­ment employ and even more after his depar­ture into civil­ian life, Thomp­son even­tu­al­ly dis­ap­peared while on a walk.

He was nev­er seen again. No body has every been found.

“The End of the Inno­cents” by Joshua Kurlantz­ic; For­eign Pol­i­cy; 11/3/2011.

EXCERPT: . . . Work­ing first in the Office of Strate­gic Ser­vices and then for the CIA, which at the time was try­ing to bro­ker some kind of exit for France from Asia, Thomp­son had con­tacts among the Lao, Cam­bo­di­an, and Viet­namese mil­i­tants that no one else had. But despite his enor­mous knowl­edge of the South­east Asians, Thomp­son seemed to under­stand lit­tle about his own agency; he knew the peo­ple he was work­ing with need­ed help and assumed that the Unit­ed States would come to their aid.

The Lao­tians brought togeth­er all of Thomp­son’s beliefs all at once: his ide­al­is­tic anti-impe­ri­al­ism, his desire to help the most alien­at­ed and hope­less of peo­ple, his need to have a mis­sion that was his alone. Because no one else in the U.S. mis­sion focused on the Lao­tians — even though, one day soon, Laos would become vital to Amer­i­can inter­ests — Thomp­son basi­cal­ly ran the oper­a­tion him­self.

Thomp­son did not only have a unique affec­tion for Lao­tians; he tru­ly believed that, as Pres­i­dent Franklin D. Roo­sevelt had promised dur­ing World War II, the Unit­ed States would help free coun­tries from colo­nial mas­ters and set them on the road to democ­ra­cy. Neigh­bors on all sides of Thai­land — Indochi­na, Bur­ma, India, and Indone­sia — were deep in it. “Jim was an ide­al­ist, a roman­tic, an anti-impe­ri­al­ist, and there was no more ide­al­is­tic time than just after the war,” remem­bered Rol­land Bush­n­er, who served in the U.S. Embassy in Bangkok. “We had stood with the anti-colo­nial­ists, the democ­rats, in the war, and we expect­ed that would con­tin­ue.”

Thomp­son was in many ways unique, but by the 1950s and ear­ly 1960s he would become part of a larg­er, grow­ing, and much less ide­al­is­tic machine, one that would expose his naivete — and pun­ish him for it. As the Cold War grew hot, the Unit­ed States no longer would back any of these nation­al­ist fight­ers; Amer­i­ca would sup­port France, and then local dic­ta­tors, in an attempt to fend off com­mu­nism, infu­ri­at­ing old­er lib­er­als like Thomp­son. In Laos, the CIA would make the biggest bet in its his­to­ry — not to push democ­ra­cy, as Thomp­son want­ed, but itself. The agen­cy’s secret war in Laos would alter Asia for­ev­er, trans­form­ing the lives of Amer­i­can oper­a­tives and the local hill tribes they worked with. But it would also trans­form the CIA.

Before the Laos secret war, the agency was a small play­er in the pol­i­cy­mak­ing appa­ra­tus. But by using the war to demon­strate its new impor­tance in pol­i­cy­mak­ing cir­cles, the CIA would make itself far more pow­er­ful — a para­mil­i­tary orga­ni­za­tion rather than a spy agency. Today, the CIA has retained and expand­ed that para­mil­i­tary focus, often lead­ing the war on ter­ror in Afghanistan and oth­er parts of the globe. “Laos made us,” one CIA oper­a­tive told me. “Every­thing about the pow­er of the CIA, the CIA’s glob­al reach, the abil­i­ty of the CIA [to make war today], not just the Army, to make war — it came from Laos.” . . .

. . . armies up to the present day. By run­ning the Laos secret war, the CIA made itself into a cen­tral for­eign-pol­i­cy actor for the first time, a cen­tral­i­ty it would nev­er give up, even when it faced reforms imposed by Con­gress in the 1970s, after the Church Com­mit­tee report, such as the removal of CIA direc­tor William Col­by and the cre­ation of a For­eign Intel­li­gence Sur­veil­lance Court. The agency had devel­oped a cadre of para­mil­i­tary experts and demon­strat­ed its own kind of war­fare, which held down Viet­namese forces in Laos for more than 10 years, at min­i­mal cost to Amer­i­ca, even though the Unit­ed States ulti­mate­ly pulled out of Indochi­na. By the late 1960s, Laos had put the CIA direc­tor at the pol­i­cy table with the Joint Chiefs of Staff and oth­er senior mil­i­tary lead­ers, and it had made, for the fore­see­able future, a proxy war a viable alter­na­tive to an Army-led war.

Laos, long­time oper­a­tives said, showed that the CIA could run its own kind of war, and the grad­u­ates of that oper­a­tion would go on to mas­ter­mind oth­er proxy bat­tles. Among the major oper­a­tives in Laos in the lat­er years of the secret war were Richard Sec­ond, Thomas Clines, and Ted Shack­ley — three men who would reunite in the ear­ly and mid-1980s to man­age the Iran-Con­tra oper­a­tion and work with and fun­nel weapons to the mujahideen in Afghanistan, a CIA proxy war not unlike the secret war in Laos.

But for Thomp­son, as well as many Lao­tians, the war would not turn out so well. As the war in Indochi­na expand­ed, Thomp­son focused on his silk busi­ness, but he con­tin­ued to pro­vide advice and assis­tance to CIA men work­ing in South­east Asia. Increas­ing­ly, though, he was so embit­tered by Amer­i­ca’s Cold War pol­i­cy in the region that the din­ner and cock­tail par­ties he often threw at his grand house along a Bangkok canal led to open ques­tion­ing of what the CIA and the Army were doing. . . . [Ital­ics are mine–D.E.]

. . . The changed focus on run­ning the war from the Unit­ed States attract­ed a new breed of mil­i­tary con­trac­tors, too, men who saw dol­lar signs in the secret war — a young indus­try of con­trac­tors that would grow to be the CIA’s essen­tial para­mil­i­tary part­ners. Long­time oper­a­tives on the ground in South­east Asia like Thomp­son were sim­ply a thing of the past — no one lis­tened to them any­more. The secret war had grown so big no one at the CIA was going to let local oper­a­tives actu­al­ly man­age it. Lan­g­ley had built up the Thai bases sup­port­ing the secret war into giant oper­a­tions, com­plete with offi­cers’ clubs and movie the­aters where only Amer­i­cans were allowed in, with broth­els right out­side the bases where Thai cooks whipped up ham­burg­ers along­side plates of wide noo­dles stir-fried with hot basil.

By the mid-1960s, watch­ing how Laos was turn­ing into a mas­sive war, with lit­tle con­trol by Lao­tians them­selves, Thomp­son became more and more dispir­it­ed. “Laos makes me feel sick,” Thomp­son wrote to his sis­ter in late 1960, as he con­va­lesced in the hos­pi­tal after com­ing down with pneu­mo­nia yet again — ill­ness­es, many friends believed, accen­tu­at­ed by see­ing how his lit­tle slice of par­adise was being destroyed. “I am afraid this is the begin­ning of a long strug­gle for that poor lit­tle coun­try,” he wrote.

But rather than sim­ply keep­ing his wor­ry and anger to him­self, Thomp­son took a very impolitic step. The best-known Amer­i­can in Asia, he began to open­ly crit­i­cize the Unit­ed States, its war effort, and the CIA, as well as the Thai lead­ers who were work­ing with the Unit­ed States to foment the war in Laos — a dan­ger­ous move when he was still, after all these years, a vis­i­tor liv­ing in Thai­land.

In the ear­ly 1960s, the CIA issued a “burn notice” on Thomp­son, warn­ing all its oper­a­tives to avoid any con­tact with him. But still, Thomp­son per­sist­ed. In ear­ly 1967, he gave a much-viewed tele­vi­sion inter­view in which he lashed into U.S. pol­i­cy in Indochi­na, infu­ri­at­ing many agency men. “Jim basi­cal­ly cut any ties he still had with that,” said his old friend and long­time agent Camp­bell James.

Thomp­son’s anger at U.S. pol­i­cy car­ried over into his pri­vate life; he had grown so agi­tat­ed that friends encour­aged him to take a much-need­ed vaca­tion. He trav­eled to Malaysia in the spring of 1967. On East­er Sun­day, while tak­ing a short hike on vaca­tion in the high­lands, Thomp­son sud­den­ly van­ished. When his rel­a­tives tried to find out where he might have dis­ap­peared to, the U.S. embassies in the region, and the CIA, stonewalled them. Despite a mas­sive man­hunt that was the largest in the region for its time, no trace of Jim Thomp­son was ever found. [Ital­ics are mine–D.E.]


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