WASHINGTON – The old soldier bears scars of his many brushes with death. The hollow where a bullet went through his arm. Discolored skin where a hand grenade blast nearly severed his leg. Shrapnel in his body that sets off airport metal detectors.
Khao Insixiengmay survived 13 years of war and another dozen in a prison camp before emigrating from his native Laos to the Twin Cities. His service to the United States during the Vietnam War and work as a crime prevention and social worker in the Twin Cities have earned him proclamations and admiring resolutions from mayors and legislators.
At 72, weakened by a heart attack, Insixiengmay seeks one final distinction — the right to burial with military honors in a national cemetery. Yet this Brooklyn Park veteran of the CIA's "secret war" has been stymied by the federal government's refusal to hand over classified documents about its proxy army, or even acknowledge that they exist.
"The blood we shed, the lives we sacrificed, the tears we shed, saved American lives in South Vietnam," Insixiengmay said. "We need dignity. We need something to make us proud of what we do."
The plight of Insixiengmay and thousands of other Lao and Hmong veterans demonstrates a human cost of the runaway system of classification that perpetuates federal secrecy. No one knows how many classified records exist, but federal agencies create tens of millions of new ones every year, and the cost of maintaining those secrets — $17 billion in fiscal year 2015 — is soaring.
The CIA acknowledges in its own official history of the war, released in redacted form in 2009, that it commanded and paid thousands of Lao citizens, many of them Hmong, to fight Communists on its behalf. But when advocates filed Freedom of Information requests for the names of those on its payroll, the spy agency said it cannot confirm or deny that such records exist, because such a disclosure could threaten "intelligence sources and methods."
"How in the hell is our safety at stake by trying to release those names or at least telling us they don't have them?" said U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn., who supports recognition for Hmong and other Lao veterans who aided the nation in the war.
Contacted by the Star Tribune, the CIA declined to comment.
An executive order signed in 2009 by then-President Barack Obama included the landmark statement that no official secret should remain so forever. The order also revamped the system of declassifying records that is credited with releasing millions of pages of previously secret material.
Yet intelligence agencies cling to their records, even when the events they document are distant history, not current affairs. The U.S. House Oversight Committee last year concluded that 50 to 90 percent of classification is excessive, and much of it totally unnecessary.
"All it takes is one person at CIA to say, 'Wait a second, that Hmong army, that was a covert operation,' " said Tom Blanton, director of the National Security Archive, a nonprofit research institution based at George Washington University.
That person might reason that releasing the secret army payroll might mean they have to do so for "our current assets in Guatemala or Ukraine," Blanton said. "So they'll exercise their almost unilateral ability to deem something secret. It's insane."
Sheryl Shenberger, a former CIA employee who leads the federal government's declassification office, said records officials have a dual role of protecting sensitive information and releasing what the law says they can. "They're not trying to obstruct anything. They want the material to get out to the public. They want to tell their story."
Some scholars and former CIA officers doubt that secret war payroll records exist at all. Some Congress members, including Walz and Sens. Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar, think they may have to find other ways to certify that individuals served.
Nevertheless, the CIA's stance leaves the veterans in legal limbo. A box of records might exist, perhaps in the CIA headquarters or the vast warehouse of the National Archives, that, once opened, could document what everyone already knows to be true.
A world of secret papers
The cargo arrives by 18-wheelers to a warehouse in College Park, Md. Workers unload pallets of shrink-wrapped stacks of paper — the permanent records of the federal government's classified behemoth.
"Hard copy pages, onion skin, regular paper, the mimeograph stuff that we had when we were kids, originals, Xeroxes, all sorts of things," said Shenberger, director of the National Declassification Center (NDC), a unit of the National Archives.
The world has gone digital, but the center still lives in the era of paper. When the center started operating in 2010, that paper had backed up to an estimated 350 million pages: classified records from the Department of Defense, National Security Agency, Department of Energy and numerous other agencies.
Through collaboration with those agencies, which sent records experts to the National Archives to pore over every page, the center managed to eliminate that backlog, a fact that Shenberger takes pride in. That doesn't mean every document is now open to the public. She said the center's "release rate" is about 60 percent.
The center has coordinated the release of a number of records documenting the construction of the Berlin Wall (1961), the Katyn Forest massacre of Polish nationals by Stalin (1940) and U.S. political maneuverings over the Panama Canal (1964 to 1973).
All of these records are far mustier than what Obama's order laid out: Automatic declassification for records 25 years and older. But that's not quite what it sounds like, Shenberger said. All it really means is that agencies have to review records that are reaching the 25-year mark to determine whether they should remain secret under nine exemptions, including revealing war plans, exposing weapons technology, jeopardizing the security of the president and violating an international treaty.
Agencies have declassified records on their own for decades. The NDC generally gets involved when records have secrets from multiple agencies, all of which must sign off on their own piece before anything goes public.
That's where the process truly grinds to a crawl.
"Sometimes seriously it is literally one paragraph that's stopping 80 pages from being released," Shenberger said.
Groups that prodded Obama to issue the executive order credit the NDC for making progress. But they say it lacks the authority or the will to stand up to intelligence agencies and military officials who reflexively refuse to let records see the light of day.
The result is a painstaking page-by-page review, and what Blanton called an endless loop of referrals.
Those records that reach the National Archives are only a fraction of the official secrets created by the federal government. How many are there altogether? No one knows.
"I don't think anybody remotely has a handle on how big the classified universe is, because computers enable the infinite replication and redistribution," Blanton said.
Army Pvt. Chelsea Manning downloaded 250,000 State Department cables and gave them to WikiLeaks. The massive, illegal transfer of information sent her to prison, but it represented only a fraction of the department's 2 million cables each year, Blanton said.
An estimated 4.2 million people have security clearances, meaning they have some access to classified records. The number of new official secrets has actually dropped in recent years, yet the number of new records incorporating existing secrets is nearly 1,000 times that number.
When an agency refuses to acknowledge whether records even exist, it presents a conundrum that some say reveals a major shortcoming of the declassification system.
There's no way for citizens to say, I don't know what secret records you have, but any of them that you do have should be revealed in the public interest, said Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists' Project on Government Secrecy.
This has left veterans of the secret war with no real way to find out if the records even exist.
CIA's long military legacy
In May, organizers of a Lao veterans ceremony had set up a shrine-like display in the banquet hall of a community center on University Avenue in St. Paul.
A colossal portrait of Gen. Vang Pao, the legendary leader of the Hmong forces, hung among draperies at the head of the room. Below his image, amid bouquets of white flowers, were portraits of Sisavang Vatthana, the last king of Laos; President John F. Kennedy; and a serious-faced man in horn-rimmed glasses.
He's Bill Lair, the CIA officer who recruited Vang Pao and the Hmong to the American cause. His presence in the display reflects the reverence the spy agency inspired among the community now transplanted from tropical Southeast Asia to a cold northern land.
The Laotian veterans of the CIA's largest paramilitary action in its history still don fatigues and berets for the occasion. But their ranks are thinning. Even Vang Pao, who died in 2011, could not qualify for burial in a national cemetery, despite pleas from members of Congress to the Pentagon.
Insixiengmay, who was a colonel, has affixed another patch to his uniform: "U.S. surrogate." A military leader since he was barely 18, he trained at three U.S. bases and spent the next decade battling the North Vietnamese army and Lao Communist forces.
The colonel remembers seeing the CIA officers distributing cash in the field. Hundred-dollar bonuses for capturing an enemy soldier. Two thousand for knocking out a tank.
The first CIA officer to die in Laos was shot right in front of him. Insixiengmay estimates he lost nearly 1,000 men, and nearly died himself when a grenade blew up near him in 1969.
The CIA pulled out of Laos after the fall of Saigon in 1975, leaving thousands of their soldiers vulnerable to the newly Communist government. After surviving 12 years in an internment camp, Insixiengmay immigrated to the United States in 1990. He led one of several groups that have pressured Congress to recognize their service.
"We are like nobody," he said. "We do not know politics."
In January, the CIA put millions of pages of declassified records on its website, and in an office at Concordia University in St. Paul, Lee Pao Xiong, the son of a Hmong soldier, eagerly went through them, looking for more evidence that could persuade the government.
Xiong, the university's director of the Center for Hmong Studies, doubts he'll find a record that names names.
"The bureaucracy is sitting in an office saying, 'Give us proof, give us proof,' " Xiong said. "Give me a break. You guys burned all the records."
Thomas Briggs, a retired CIA official who served two years in Laos, thinks that was the fate of the index cards he created in the field that included a photo and name of each Lao soldier who earned base pay of $16 to $26 a month.
Briggs and other CIA case officers have advocated for recognition for Insixiengmay and the others they trained and commanded.
"We were paid, financed and trained by Americans," said Xai Nou Vang, 69, who joined Vang Pao's army as a teenager and became his personal bodyguard and a close adviser.
Vang thinks it is ironic that the lack of a form DD214, the Pentagon's discharge paperwork, is one of the holdups for federal recognition. A retired CIA officer says on the agency's own website that the United States abandoned thousands of Hmong who had fought bravely for them.
"I'm still Capt. Xai Nou," Vang said, "because the Americans never discharged us."