- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 17, 2003

Bad intelligence on a dead CIA agent

The obituary of Jack Shirley, a CIA paramilitary officer who took part in America's covert war in Laos, was right on several points ("Top agent in CIA's 'secret war' dies," World, Tuesday). Mr. Shirley, who died a few days ago in Thailand, was liked by almost everyone who met him. He was genial and gregarious and a favorite of American expatriates in the bar scene in Patpong, the famous nightclub district in Bangkok. I had several long conversations with Mr. Shirley there myself for a book I wrote on the CIA's Laos operation, "Shooting at the Moon: The Story of America's Clandestine War in Laos," which won the book-of-the-year prize from the Overseas Press Club. I liked him, too.

However, the obituary is wrong on most of the major points. Jack Shirley didn't "help run" the Laos operation. He was a friend of the extraordinary but little-known paramilitary officer who did, a hugely talented and soft-spoken Texan named Bill Lair. Mr. Shirley and Mr. Lair arrived in Thailand about the same time, in the early 1950s. But, whereas Mr. Lair became the CIA's most successful organizer of indigenous armed forces in Southeast Asia first with a 400-man special-operations unit of the Thai border police and then with an irregular force of Laotian tribesmen that grew to 30,000 Jack Shirley played only a minor role. He helped run some training of Laotian tribesmen in 1961, came under attack by North Vietnamese regulars, led his men ably in a retreat under fire, then returned to the relative safety of Thailand for most of the Laos war years (1961-1973).

The obituary also contains a garbled account of another CIA operative of those days, Anthony Poshepny, also known as Tony Poe. Mr. Poe was a highly colorful and out-of-control alcoholic who did, for a short period in northwestern Laos, issue bounty payments on enemy ears (to the consternation of his superiors who realized that, among other problems it created, it was stupendously bad public relations). But the business about Mr. Poe collecting heads and serving as the model for Marlon Brando's Col. Kurtz character in the film "Apocalypse Now" is just a bunch of bar stories, and your reporter ought to know better than to repeat bar stories uncritically.

In what is evidently a feeble attempt at journalistic balance, the reporter alternates between his evident admiration of some of those bad-boy CIA operatives in Laos ("on the one hand") and a rehashed litany of the destruction wrought by American air power in Laos ("on the other hand"), but he has missed the main story. The real tragedy of the Laos war was that a few key CIA operatives, led by Bill Lair, tried to run an un-Vietnamlike war with as few Americans as possible. In the early 1960s, they were trying to support Laotian tribesmen in a legitimate, if secret, struggle against North Vietnamese invaders. Then the war in Vietnam itself sucked in America and Laos, and the whole thing went into a downward spiral from which it never recovered. The personal tragedy of the CIA's Southeast Asia hands such as Bill Lair and Jack Shirley is that they were highly loyal to the agency while quietly opposed to the wrongheadedness and bureaucratic stupidity shown by their government. They wanted to fight a much smarter, smaller and cheaper war, but there were too few of these men to change the course of events.


Ipswich, Mass.

Jury's out on Iraq

Presidential candidate Howard Dean should be praised, not criticized, for "supposing" that getting rid of a secular Iraqi dictator is a good thing ("Anti-war grumps, whiners, etc." Op-Ed, Monday). He's the only presidential candidate with enough sense to remember that for years America provided financial and military support to both Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein.

Who knows if the leaders we'll back after Iraq's fall will be any less brutal than our old friends gone bad. Yes, I too "suppose" toppling Saddam is a good thing. But the jury's still out and, as usual, the plainspoken and honest doctor still in.


St. Louis

Weak argument for UN

Timothy Wirth, president of the United Nations Foundation, exhibits panic in his column "Why U.N. is needed" (Commentary, Monday), as he presents weak, retread arguments for the future of the United Nations. I say "panic" because he obviously knows there has been a dramatic shift in how the rest of the nation views the United Nations.

The fact is the world is in chaos, and quite frankly, it's the United Nations' fault. It gives validity to zealots and petty bigots, keeps tyrannical dictators in power and provides money and aid to international terrorists. The United Nations is the root of international trouble, not the answer. It is irrelevant as a tool for world peace.

Delay, negotiate, recommend, study, reconsider, do nothing that is the game the United Nations played while allowing the brutal Iraqi dictatorship to exist. It is the same game the United Nations has played in nearly every international crisis. It is the reason North Korea remains a threat and its oppressive dictatorship remains in power after 50 years. It's the reason Zimbabwe's murderous dictator, Robert Mugabe, is able to steal an election and then steal the land of white property owners, inflict famine on his country and still have a voice at the U.N. Sustainable Development Conference, which took place last fall in South Africa. It's the reason why Libya can be put in charge of the U.N. Human Rights Council and Iraq can be put in charge of the U.N. Disarmament Commission.

The United Nations is dangerous because its most vocal membership stands in opposition to American values of controlled representative government, justice, free enterprise, individual privacy and private property rights.

It is, however, the United States that is to blame for this situation because we allow this circus on the East River to exist. The only credibility the United Nations possesses comes from its recognition by the United States. The only financial security the United Nations enjoys comes from the funds provided by the United States. The only military punch available to the United Nations comes from American military might.

The United States dutifully has been providing an elegant clubhouse in which pouting and jealous bureaucrats and self-inflated diplomats can pretend to matter. As long as the United States allows them to exist, and as long as this nation goes along with their demands, they do matter.

The United Nations is nothing but a house of cards, but a very dangerous one. As the United Nations' irrelevance becomes clearer to the nation, as it drags its feet, delays and passes another meaningless resolution, the time has never been better to change the national mind-set to say, "Get us out of the United Nations." The time is now, and Mr. Wirth knows it.



American Policy Center

Warrenton, Va.

Failed drug war

Thank you for running Heritage Foundation adjunct scholar William H. Peterson's column "The war on drugs" (Op-Ed, Tuesday). I had been told that some thinkers at the Heritage Foundation were reconsidering their take on drug policy, but this is the first evidence I have seen of it.

Now that an adjunct scholar at the Heritage Foundation has joined the libertarian Cato Institute in applying basic economic principles to drug policy, perhaps it's time for the self-professed champions of the free market in Congress to do the same. Drug prohibition funds organized crime at home and terrorism abroad. The drug czar's sensationalist drug-terror ad campaign would have the public believe that's good reason to maintain the status quo.

Afghanistan profits from heroin trafficking because of drug prohibition, not in spite of it. Here in the United States, the drug war's distortion of immutable laws of supply and demand make an easily grown weed such as marijuana literally worth its weight in gold. The various armed factions waging civil war in Colombia are financially dependent on America's drug war.

With alcohol prohibition repealed, liquor bootleggers no longer gun down one another in drive-by shootings, nor do consumers go blind drinking bathtub gin. While U.S. politicians ignore the drug war's historical precedent, European countries are embracing harm reduction, a public health alternative based on the principle that both drug abuse and prohibition have the potential to cause harm.

Examples of harm reduction include needle-exchange programs to stop the spread of HIV, marijuana regulation aimed at separating the hard and soft drug markets and treatment alternatives that do not require incarceration as a prerequisite. Unfortunately, fear of appearing "soft on crime" compels U.S. politicians to support a failed drug war that ultimately subsidizes organized crime. Drug abuse is bad, but the drug war is worse.


Program officer

Drug Policy Alliance


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