Spies on the Mekong

CIA Clandestine Operations in Laos

Ken Conboy

The first detailed look at the CIA's clandestine operations in Laos during the Cold War.
Date Published :
August 2021
Publisher :
Illustration :
maps, photographs, and a 16-page plate section
Format Available    QuantityPrice
Binding. : Hardback
ISBN : 9781636240190
Pages : 256
Dimensions : 9 X 6 inches
Stock Status : In stock
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The first detailed look at the CIA's clandestine operations in Laos during the Cold War.

During the Cold War, the Central Intelligence Agency’s biggest and longest paramilitary operation was in the tiny kingdom of Laos. Hundreds of advisors and support personnel trained and led guerrilla formations across the mountainous Laotian countryside, as well as running smaller road-watch and agent teams that stretched from the Ho Chi Minh Trail to the Chinese frontier. Added to this number were hundreds of contract personnel providing covert aviation services.

It was dangerous work. On the Memorial Wall at the CIA headquarters in Langley, Virginia, nine stars are dedicated to officers who perished in Laos. On top of this are more than one hundred from propriety airlines killed in aviation mishaps between 1961 and 1973. Combined, this grim casualty figure is orders of magnitude larger than any other CIA paramilitary operation.

But for the Foreign Intelligence officers at Langley, Laos was more than a paramilitary battleground. Because of its geographic location as a buffer state, as well as its trifurcated political structure, Laos was a unique Cold War melting pot. All three of the Lao political factions, including the communist Pathet Lao, had representation in Vientiane. The Soviet Union had an extremely active embassy in the capital, while the People’s Republic of China—though in the throes of the Cultural Revolution—had multiple diplomatic outposts across the kingdom. So, too, did both North and South Vietnam. All of this made Laos fertile ground for clandestine operations. This book comprehensively details the cloak-and-dagger side of the war in Laos for the first time, from agent recruitments to servicing dead-drops in Vientiane.

About The Author

Kenneth Conboy was South East Asian policy analyst and deputy director of the Asian Studies Centre in Washington D.C., 1986–1992. Since then he has held roles in risk management companies in Indonesia, and he currently serves as Risk Management Advisory Country Manager in Indonesia. He has written a number of books about war in Asia, as well as several articles.



Chapter One Growing Pains
Chapter Two The Young Turks
Chapter Three Hell is a City
Chapter Four Apéritif
Chapter Five The Teams
Chapter Six The Flying Squad
Chapter Seven The Holy Grail
Chapter Eight Hard Target
Chapter Nine Rock and a Hard Place
Chapter Ten The Art of Seduction
Chapter Eleven Suspicious Minds
Chapter Twelve Writing on the Wall
Chapter Thirteen Eye of the Hurricane
Chapter Fourteen Surreptitious Entries
Chapter Fifteen Dénouement
Chapter Sixteen Cloak and Keris


"Such was the unique board on which the CIA played its longest undercover game. It truly was hard to tell who was who without a scorecard, but in Spies on the Mekong Conboy provides that scorecard with information on the major players, their allies and enemies and enough intrigue to more than satisfy a reader of a Graham Greene spy novel. Except, of course, these stories are real."

- Vietnam Magazine

"The footnotes are a strength of the book, not only for further bibliographical references to primary and secondary sources, but for a trove of information expanding the narrative, especially the author’s background notes detailing what happened to many of the participants after they departed Laos."

- Journal of Military History

"People in the book—friends and foes—come through clearly in Conboy’s thoughtful vignettes about them. He presents backgrounds of many men and a few women in a manner that personalizes each—for good or for bad. Some of them practically walk off the page and greet the reader."

- The VVA Veteran

"Spies on the Mekong is well written and easy to read. It provides a broader perspective on US activities in Laos that what is contained in the many paramilitary-oriented accounts."

- Intelligencer: Journal of U.S. Intelligence Studies

"...offers a good spy tale and is a well-researched and credible history. It is a valuable addition to the intelligence literature."

- International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence

" Ken Conboy explores the traditional espionage that the CIA conducted from Vientiane Station while the paramilitary which ran for about 15 years and focused on neutralizing the 85,000 North Vietnamese Army forces that had invaded Laos to funnel troops and material to South Vietnam via the ‘Ho Chi Minh Trail’. Drawing on dozens of interviews with former CIA and Air America officers, Conboy has woven a detailed picture of the Agency in its more traditional, unseen, role seeking to recruit spies."

- Barry Broman, author of "Risk Taker, Spy Maker"

"Think the Vietnam war was all about guerrillas and triple-canopy jungle? Think again. Here Kenneth Conboy brings to life the work of CIA operatives in Laos-- the External Branch of the CIA station, which worked against Laotian communists, North Vietnamese, Japanese, and Russians, relying upon Thai surveillance teams, and including recruiting a significant Soviet agent. All this is set against the topsy turvy world of Laos, known as the Land of a Million Elephants. Conboy's history sheds light brighter than any spy fiction on an important aspect of the Indochina experience."

- John Prados, author of "Vietnam: The History of an Unwinnable War, 1945-1975"

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