BANGKOK, Thailand -- After a U.S. Justice Department undercover agent displayed a Stinger air-to-surface missile in a bugged Hilton Hotel room in Sacramento, California, paranoia began to spread.

A mysterious woman named Lisa -- "last name unknown" -- was allegedly tasked to find out who the man with the Stinger really was, and if a gang of desperate Americans in California, and ethnic Hmong from Laos, was about to be busted.

The furtive Americans and Hmong allegedly boasted that the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency "was standing by and ready to roll" to ensure success for their clumsy coup attempt in Laos.

They didn't realize their California restaurant meetings, anxious telephone conversations, and hurried chats in urban parking lots would appear in a 90-page affidavit on June 4 by the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF).

Weapons and ammunition, bought for 100,000 U.S. dollars, were to be smuggled into Bangkok next Tuesday (June 12), followed by delivery of at least two Stinger missiles designed to shoot down aircraft, the ATF affidavit said.

To gain military-style training so they could overthrow the communist regime and rule the Southeast Asian nation, some of the men allegedly hoped to join the California Highway Patrol's Sacramento academy to learn "internal security, operations, and road control," because the campus has one of "the best law enforcement training programs available."

Their international "murder" plot was repeatedly compared to the September 11, 2001 assault on New York and Washington which killed 3,000 people.

After 10 men were arrested in California, where they were charged with a slew of felonies on June 4, attention focused on two of the jailed Americans who had undergone U.S. military training, plus combat experience here in Southeast Asia.

In 1975, the CIA lost its bloody "secret war" in Laos after turning much of the country into a vast grave, gouged by massive U.S. aerial bombardments.

But the two Americans allegedly led a 21st century plot to finally win that war.

For the ATF, the most prominent suspect is the U.S. West Point Military Academy's class of 1968 graduate and Vietnam War veteran, Harrison Ulrich Jack.

Jack left the U.S. Army in 1977, and eventually retired from the California National Guard as a lieutenant colonel, settling in Woodland, near Sacramento, where he ran "a consulting business focusing on environmental issues."

The ATF's other main suspect is the CIA's infamous, former Hmong mercenary leader, General Vang Pao.

Vang Pao became a naturalized American citizen as a reward for killing communists and others in Laos during the Vietnam War, when Washington paid a pittance to thousands of impoverished minority ethnic Hmong to fight and die, so Americans would not be killed.

"Jack said he works directly for General Vang Pao and had worked for the Hmong community for the past ten years," the undercover ATF agent said in the affidavit.

The group's alleged clandestine strategy, financing, and choice of weaponry provide an eerie look at how a group of wannabe warriors in California attempted to illegally invade and occupy a country on the other side of the world.

Thailand, a U.S. military ally, was to be the unwitting launching pad for the "military expedition" by the Americans and Hmong to infiltrate Laos -- a tiny, poor, lightly populated, landlocked country "of which the United States is at peace."

The alleged target was Vientiane, the sleepy, languid capital of Laos, just across the Mekong River from Thailand.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Thailand provided the U.S. with air bases, Thai troops, "rest and recreation" facilities and other assistance to fight in Laos, but Bangkok now deals with Laos as a friendly commercial partner and trendy tourist destination.

During May, the California plotters said they had "a man on the ground [in Vientiane], walking around like a tourist with his digital camera, trying to get whatever pictures he can" of government buildings to obliterate, the ATF said.

Jack is portrayed as the gang's enthusiastic blabbermouth, relentlessly pushing the plot along while mindlessly updating the undercover agent.

Jack also told the agent that the CIA was in on the plot.

"I understood his statement to mean that the CIA was preparing to assist the Hmong insurgency once the takeover of Laos had begun," the agent said.

The conspirators "were intending on securing Vientiane and Long Chien, which Jack told me was a former CIA base."

During the CIA's war in Laos, Long Chien supported hundreds of aircraft taking off and landing, including CIA-owned Air America's planes.

"Jack told me his Hmong contacts had raised a lot of money through 'Air America' but had not taken any money from the CIA," the ATF agent said, without elaborating.

"Harrison Ulrich Jack came to ATF's attention in the Fall of 2006 when he reached out to a defense contractor whom he knew and inquired about purchasing 500 AK-47s," the affidavit said, referring to Kalashnikov assault rifles.

"The defense contractor was very concerned, and went to the Phoenix [Arizona] ATF office."

An ATF agent in San Francisco, code-named "Steve," was assigned to Jack's case.

"On February 7, 2007, acting in an undercover capacity as an arms dealer, I met with Jack, General Vang Pao" and about a dozen of Vang Pao's "Neo Hom" supporters.

While they all munched lunch in the "Amarin Thai Restaurant in Sacramento," the wired agent recorded their conversations.

"After the meal, I offered to display the weapons I had available for sale. I walked Jack, General Vang Pao, and the other Neo Hom members to a recreational vehicle (RV) that I had arranged to be parked close to the Thai restaurant.

"Audio and video recording devices were used while the targets were in the RV. Jack, General Vang Pao, and approximately 12 Neo Hom members looked at and/or handled" machine guns, grenade launchers, an anti-tank rocket, a Claymore mine, and C-4 plastic explosives "that they believed were for sale."

On May 9, confident that guns and ammo would soon be illegally delivered in Thailand, "Jack asked me if I had a preferred currency, and I told him I preferred U.S. dollars as opposed to Thai baht."

The ATF told Jack he also would profit.

"Jack and I discussed a finder's fee for Jack's role in brokering this, and possible future deals for weapons. I suggested a flat 7,500 U.S. dollar fee for the initial transaction and a three percent fee for the next, presumably larger order," the agent said.

He later upped Jack's commission for a possible future weapons deal worth 9.8 million U.S. dollars, offering Jack five percent.

One of Jack's main comrades was would-be "president" Lo Cha Thao, who allegedly met Jack and the ATF agent during much of the planning stage, while claiming to have 5,000 fighters inside Laos, waiting for the weapons.

The U.S. government's "Operation Tarnished Eagle" repeatedly invokes the World Trade Center's destruction on 9/11, though low-rise Laos has no skyscrapers.

Lo, however, allegedly said he wanted to destroy several official buildings in Vientiane -- "like September 11th" -- so people in Laos could see that the communist regime had lost its power to command and control.

"I showed the group several satellite images downloaded from Google of the area around the Vientiane Wattay International airport and the Laos Royal Palace in Vientiane, Laos," the agent said.

Lo "asked me if the Stingers were capable of shooting down a MiG [warplane]. I told Lo that the Stinger was made to shoot down jet aircraft."

The ATF said Jack, Vang Pao, and four others wanted to buy two Stinger missiles, after a Stinger was displayed to others in the group on April 24 in the Hilton.

"Conspiracy to receive and possess missile systems designed to destroy aircraft" is one of several charges against Jack, Vang Pao and the others.

The CIA generously handed out Stingers to their Afghan "holy warrior" mujahideen during the 1980s, so the U.S.-financed Islamist guerrillas could win a 10-year-long war against the Soviet Union's occupation of Afghanistan.

After that CIA war, countless Stingers appeared on the blackmarket.

Washington belatedly offered rewards for their return amid fears that the shoulder-fired, heat-seeking rockets would be aimed at U.S. commercial aircraft by anti-American rebels elsewhere.

Copyright by Richard S. Ehrlich, who has reported news from Asia for the past 28 years, and is co-author of the non-fiction book of investigative journalism, "HELLO MY BIG BIG HONEY!" Love Letters to Bangkok Bar Girls and Their Revealing Interviews. His web page is