Monday, December 24, 2012
William Cooper's Chinese Tapes
It seemed at the time little more than an interesting bit of trivia, a fact only remotely related to any larger event. The pilot of a Southern Air Transport C-123 cargo plane that crashed in Nicaragua in 1986 had been teaching himself Mandarin with the help of an inexpensive audio-cassette course sold in bookstores throughout the U.S. I, too, was teaching myself Mandarin at that time in preparation for a teaching assignment in China. And I owned a copy of the same audio cassette course. Even in the next months as the revelations and the repercussions of the crash unfolded in the press and on television and an obscure U.S. Marine lieutenant colonel emerged as a central player a story of arms dealing and international intrigue, the existence of the Mandarin cassettes never came up. I mentioned them to a journalist covering the story from Washington and he brushed it aside as irrelevant.
Not until three years later -- in the fall of 1989 -- did the significance of the cassettes finally surface as a small yet important piece in a larger puzzle.
In early October of 1986, when the American C-123 was shot down over Nicaragua, three individuals on board -- the pilot, William "Bill" Cooper, co-pilot Wallace "Buzz" Sawyer,and a Nicaraguan crew member -- were killed in the crash. One man, a "kicker" by the name of Eugene Hasenfus, survived.
A few days after the crash, I received a telephone call from a close friend in El Salvador. He'd worked for Air America in Laos and then, after adventures in a half dozen other trouble spots around the globe, had gone to work for Southern Air Transport in Central America. He was angry. The press, he said, didn't understand what was going on in Central America. They were distorting the role of the Americans dropping supplies to the Nicaraguan Contras. He cautioned me not to believe what was broadcast and published in the American media. People in the White House knew everything about the operation, he said. Everything. He said he'd be back in the U.S. within a few weeks and we could talk more about it then.
In late November of 1986 I was in Washington being interviewed for the China job. During a luncheon at the Brookings Institution, a young man stopped at my table and announced that he'd just heard that Admiral John Poindexter, the principal assistant to President Reagan's National Security Advisor Robert McFarlane, had testified that profits from American arms sales to Iran had been diverted to buy arms for the Nicaraguan Contras. At the time the story seemed just too incredible to be true.
In December I was told that I had been accepted for the job in China. I would be starting, however, not in the fall of 1987, as expected, but rather in the fall of 1988. I accepted.
In January, my friend returned from El Salvador, and together we flew to Marinette, Wisconsin, to meet with Gene Hasenfus, who'd been released by the Sandinistas as a good-will gesture.
During the flight to Wisconsin, I spoke with my friend about the Central American operation. Nobody expected it to last very long, he said. And that is why the pilot of the ill-fated C-123, Charles Cooper, had been studying Mandarin. It was a joke, he said, to the other men involved in the operation. Cooper was forever listening to his cassettes, practicing his pronunciation of common Chinese phrases. On return flights from drops over Nicaragua, Cooper sometimes turned control of the aircraft over to a co-pilot Sawyer or another crew member and concentrated on listening to his language cassettes.
Cooper told the men working with him that as soon as the CIA took over the Central American operation, they would all be going "back to China" for another job.
"Where in China?" I asked.
"Kunming," he said.
"To do what?" I asked.
"The same things we always do," was the reply. "Shipping." My friend laughed when he recalled Cooper trying to speak Mandarin. "It was really pretty funny," he said. "We teased of him by imitating the sounds he made when he listened to his tapes." [He also mentioned, as an aside but an important one, that the majority of the arms being shipped to the Contras, ironically, were supplied by Chinese firms with the blessing of American officials. That was another of the threads tying the crews of SAT to China. But in official investigations of the operation, China was never specifically mentioned as a supplier -- a euphemistic term was used such as "unnamed" or "unidentified" source or nation. Yet the working relationship had been established.]
For a time I forgot about William Cooper's Mandarin tapes. I was finishing a book on the fall of South Vietnam in 1975. I was interviewing scores of men who had worked for Air America in Laos and Vietnam. Some of them were in Cambodia and South Vietnam in 1975 and had piloted planes and helicopters during the evacuations in April, 1975. By 1986 they were scattered throughout the world. My friend provided me with addresses and introductions to some of them. And some of them agreed to speak with me and to recall their bitter memories from that Indochina spring eleven years earlier.
I arrived in Nanjing, China, in late August, 1988. I taught classes in American history and culture to about thirty Chinese students enrolled at the Center for Chinese and American Studies at Nanjing University. All but one of the students was a "mid-career professional" -- an individual in an established profession who had been awarded a year's leave from his or her work unit in order to study with an American professor in a unique "American-style" academic setting in Nanjing. About half of my students came to the Center from the military. Three were commissioned officers, I learned later. One was a veteran of the Sino-Vietnam War of 1979. The other students were professors, teachers and administrators from universities and middle-schools from throughout China.
All of the students wore civilian attire. The "foreign experts"(American faculty) at the Center was not supposed to know which students affiliated with the military. In some cases, during informal discussions, the student-soldiers were adept at fabricating a background story or inventing some imaginary institutional affiliation. In time, however, as friendships at the Center developed, it was not difficult to identify students from military institutes by the expertise with which they discussed domestic and international events.
Following a discussion on the American experience in Vietnam, one student described at length to me his personal experiences fighting in Vietnam outside the city of Lang Son. He wanted me to know that the Chinese experience in Vietnam was as brutal and as bitter as that of the Americans.
On sight-seeing trips to Shanghai and Beijing that fall, I met more Chinese students, many of them the friends of my Nanjing students. Some had traveled in the US or had worked in Europe. Often they welcomed the chance to talk with an American about world events and the future of Chinese-American relations.
One theme seemed to recur in those discussions. Americans were not getting the truth about China and about the relationship between China and America. Academics and journalists were too often missing the point of what was really going on in the country. During an animated discussion with a half dozen Chinese students one night in the lobby of the Jianguo Hotel in Beijing, a young man who had worked in the Foreign Ministry for a decade and was about to enroll in graduate school in the US, described his assignment to Thailand where initial contacts between the Israelis and the Chinese had been made. Talks began there that led to the training of Chinese pilots in Israel. Scores of Israeli technicians and pilots were in Beijing at that moment, he said, working on upgrading the software and guidance systems for the PLA's Mig-21s and Mig-23s. How could the American press not know this? The point he wanted to make was that a country like the US, with a free press, didn't do a very good job of reporting events and relationships in China that were pretty widely known.
I expressed surprise at this. I didn't know of the Israeli cooperation with China. Everyone at the table laughed. There were many things the Americans didn't know about China, the young man implied. Many things. For example, he said, most Americans didn't know of NSA employees working in northwest China at a supersecret listening post. They'd been there since 1980, he said. Why wasn't this in the American press?
At that moment, I remembered the Mandarin tapes of William Cooper. Why, I asked, might a group of Americans be coming to China to work in Kunming and Baoshan? That had nothing to do with an installation in northwest China, did it? My question was answered with silence. Finally someone said, "we don't know." But the tone of his answer indicated to me that he did know and preferred simply to drop it. He did. We talked of other things.
One month later one of my best students disappeared from the Center in Nanjing. She was arrested on the night of December 3rd and accused of leaking state secrets to a foreign agent -- me. Four weeks later I was asked to leave China and warned that if I did not, I might be arrested. I was never told what my specific transgression had been. One particularly repulsive Chinese academic official, a diminutive martinet so unctuous in manner and appearance that one might suspect he was freshly dipped in a tub of corn oil each morning, when asked if there was an evidence against me for any action I had taken, responded with the phrase, "the charges are so serious, they require no evidence."
I spent the next eight months in Hong Kong. On Hong Kong television I watched the unfolding of the Democracy Movement in Beijing and then saw the tragic culmination of the inspiring efforts to change China on June 4th.
In the months following the massacre at Tiananmen Square I again met several of my students from Nanjing. They'd been admitted to American universities or were working abroad for Chinese businesses. They were more willing than ever before to tell me what they thought Americans should know about China. One of my students introduced to two of her close friends who worked for Poly Technologies, the arms dealing agent of the PLA. One of the men worked for a affiliate of the organization in Atlanta, Georgia. The other had participated a recent supersecret effort of the company to purchase the American aircraft carrier, the Shangri-La. They were willing to tell me many things about China's business with overseas companies because, they said, they were fed up with the ruling clique in Beijing. Tiananmen had been the end for them, they said. It was a betrayal of the PLA, which was ordered to fire on the people, and it was a betrayal of the people. Perhaps the truth might force the old rulers to answer questions about their actions, their finances, their policies. And perhaps that might hasten their downfall. Anyway, one could hope.
I was introduced to still other Chinese living in America. Some were students who had once worked for the government. Some had been in the military or had taught at military institutes where China trained her foreign intelligence experts. I traveled to Boston, Philadelphia, New York, Chicago and Los Angeles for interviews. I learned of the inner workings of Poly Technologies, of the international arms business, of the secret Swiss bank accounts of military officers and businessmen in China working in the arms trade. And one afternoon in Boston, I learned why William Cooper had been studying Chinese.
"Oh, that's not difficult to understand," a woman who had worked as a translator for a Poly Technologies affiliate in Hong Kong told me. "You see, the Yunnan military region makes most of its money by cultivating poppies. They process poppies from the Golden Triangle in Burma and Laos. The area has bad roads. They need experienced pilots to fly arms and supplies to the Golden Triangle and to bring back crops from Burma and Laos. The processing plants for the poppies are just south of Kunming. The Americans are experienced at that kind of flying. The Chinese are not. And if a Chinese plane crashed in that area, it might be an embarrassment to the government. If a plane piloted by Americans crashed, well, there would be no grave international repercussions. And the Chinese government would remain clean."
She said it in such a matter-of-fact manner that for a moment I didn't think she realized the significance of what she was saying.
"Wait a minute," I said. "You mean to say that the PLA finances some of its operations by drug trafficking?"
"Yes. That's widely known. I'm sure your government knows this," she said.
"Then who are the drug traffickers publicly executed every month by the Chinese government," I asked.
"How do you know, in the first place," she said, "that they are drug traffickers? Just because the government says they are? And second, if they are traffickers, then they probably steal from the PLA."
This story, like the story of the efforts to buy the Shangri-La, seemed almost too incredible to be true. But when I asked others about it, they were surprised that I was surprised by these stories. Of course, they were true. I could check. When I began looking for cross references, I found them. When I asked a Chinese student from Shanghai who was studying in California, "What would you say if somebody told me that the PLA financed itself partly through drug trafficking?" I fully expected her to laugh and say that was crazy. Instead, she said, "Oh, that's true. My aunt and uncle are chemists and they work in Yunnan processing opium. When they come home for Chinese New Year they bring opium -- for medicinal purposes."
As I heard the stories of the inner workings of the Chinese government, of international arms deals and of bribes and payoffs and rigged bidding and espionage, of America's connection to the PLA and the sharing of American military intelligence with the Chinese government, I asked a man who had worked for the Foreign Ministry in Beijing, "wasn't any of this disrupted by the Tiananmen Square massacre?"
"No," he responded. And he was angry that it had not. "Politics is politics," he said. "And business is business. Remember that. That listening post in northwest China was not disturbed at all by Tiananmen. And one of our biggest arms deals was signed on the evening of June 3rd, 1989. Important business continued as usual. That's the way the world works. Politicians say one thing. But they do another. Your politicians. And ours."
POLAND AND CHINA REPORTEDLY SENT ARMS TO CONTRAS
By STEPHEN ENGELBERG, Special to the New York Times
Published: May 02, 1987
The Congressional committees investigating the Iran-contra affair have uncovered detailed evidence that the Reagan Administration solicited aid for Nicaraguan rebels from Poland and China, a Congressional official said today.
The official said the committees had assembled evidence of dealings with China that included the first sales of Soviet-designed anti-aircraft missiles to the rebels. He added that the sales were arranged by at least one former White House official.
The contras were also said to have bought arms from Poland when the Poles were also shipping arms to the Sandinista Government.
Administration officials speculated that the Chinese motive was to counter Soviet influence in the region and to bolster ties with the United States. As for Poland, one official suggested that its motivation may have been to get much-needed hard currency. Poindexter to Testify
The disclosures were among several diplomatically sensitive developments that the House and Senate committees have turned up in their inquiry into the White House-sponsored network to aid the rebels, known as the contras. They are expected to be made public during hearings that begin next week.