The discovery in a nondescript US town of Michael Hand, a onetime Central Intelligence Agency contract operative who disappeared after helping to foment one of Australia’s biggest scandals, is a reminder of just how out of control the US’s intelligence services were in the aftermath of the Vietnam War – and may still be.
The fact that Hand is in an obscure town under a new name in the sparsely populated western state of Idaho, manufacturing weapons for “special operations groups,” raises suspicions that his disappearance from Asia, his new identity and his business were manufactured for him by a US government that would prefer not to have him found, and that 35 years later, he still enjoys the US’s surreptitious support.
Hand and an Australian lawyer, Frank Nugan, founded the Nugan Hand Bank, a merchant bank that prosecutors said became a haven across Asia for drug dealers, money launderers and surreptitious operators of all stripes. It was described as the center a “vast network of drug transactions, fraud, secret arms deals and covert intelligence operations.” Although nothing was proven, the bank was widely assumed to be a creature of the CIA in a period when the US under then-President Richard Nixon was in the thick of attempting to back anti-communist insurgents throughout much of Asia and Africa.
An enterprising Australian author named Peter Butt found Hand, now 73, now living under the name of Michael Jon Fuller in Idaho Falls, Idaho, and apparently still in touch with US military authorities, manufacturing tactical weapons for US special operations groups, the US Special Forces and others. Butt, from Sydney, provided a video clip to the Sydney Morning Herald of the bearded, taciturn Hand getting into his car in Idaho Falls, wearing a neck brace. Butt’s book, Merchant of Menace, details his search for Hand.
Although the partners said the bank was founded on US$1million of share capital, a subsequent investigation found it had only US$80 in its account and U$5 in paid-up capital at the start. It eventually was paying 16 percent annual interest on deposits, providing anonymous tax-free accounts and other services. The once-obscure bank expanded into a network that included branches in Chiang Mai in Thailand, Hawaii, Singapore, Hong Kong, the Cayman Islands and Washington, DC.
The bank failed spectacularly in 1980 when Frank Nugan was found in his Mercedes Benz near Lithgow, two hours from Sydney, with a rifle bullet in his head. A coroner’s inquest determined he had killed himself although many have questioned the verdict. In his pocket was found the business card of William Colby, the onetime director of the CIA from 1973 to 1976. After Nugan died, Hand gave contradictory stories of who really owned the bank. At an investigation called by Australian authorities into the demise of the bank and Nugan’s death, Hand, who at times said he was merely a minority shareholder, said he and Nugan were actually the beneficial owners.
Former Wall Street Journal reporter Jonathan Kwitney, in his book, “The Crimes of Patriots,” wrote of the principal characters of the Nugan Hand saga that they “have lived their lives in a world of spying and secrecy. Though they have been and in some cases still are paid with US tax dollars, they have been trained to keep the taxpayers—among others—from finding out what they do. Compunctions about lying have seldom impeded that effort. They entered their secret world under a cloak of patriotism. They have stretched that cloak in various ways. Claiming a patriotic duty to the United States, they have carried out unlawful and scarcely believable acts of violence against civilians in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.”