WASHINGTON -- The U.S. government derailed the career of Thailand's prime minister-designate in 1992, publicly accusing him of heroin trafficking. His subsequent withdrawal set off a series of events, culminating in a military coup and popular uprising in which at least 40 people died.
But, sources say, U.S. intelligence agencies now believe that the announcement was based on false information.
Last year, the Central Intelligence Agency concluded that its agent -- a close relative of a top official of a rival political party -- had fabricated his information on Thai businessman-politician Narong Wongwan, designated prime minister after Thailand's 1992 elections.
The agent had remained on the CIA payroll for several years despite indicating deception in polygraph tests; he finally was dismissed last year.
The CIA then disseminated a "burn" memorandum to all agencies that had received information based on the agent's reporting, alerting them that the reports were not credible.
Still, the State Department as recently as last week continued to link Mr. Narong with narcotics trafficking and said that his appointment in the new Thai Cabinet would complicate Thai-U.S. relations.
Asked to provide evidence, State Department spokesman Nicholas Burns said, "We're sure of our sources and we stand by those decisions."
The CIA inspector general has launched an investigation of the case, including the reported shredding of copies of a critical 1993 internal review.
The inspector general has the only remaining copy of the 50-page analysis, which concluded that neither the CIA nor Drug Enforcement Administration had credible evidence that Mr. Narong and many other Thais were involved in drug trafficking, sources close to the investigation said.
State Department officials declined to discuss the evidence against Mr. Narong because, they said, it would compromise intelligence sources and methods.
The CIA refused to discuss the case, other than to confirm that it is subject to an inspector general review.
The case of Mr. Narong, as outlined by several current and former administration and intelligence officials, raises questions about the government's ability to make public accusations against a foreign official or civilian without revealing the proof.
The State Department, for example, routinely has divulged that a visa for a foreign dignitary has been denied on grounds that the applicant is allegedly involved in narcotics or other criminal activity.
In 1992 the State Department disclosed that Mr. Narong, a wealthy landowner near the border with Myanmar (Burma), which produces most of the world's opium, had been denied a U.S. visa because he was believed involved in narcotics trafficking.
In the years since, Mr. Narong, who was educated at the University of Kentucky, has petitioned Presidents Bush and Clinton to clear his name and has retained several prominent lawyers, including Leonard Garment, to press his case -- to no avail.
"He's not been charged," said Barry Levine, a Garment associate. "[So] there is no burden of proof, no rules of disclosure, you can't cross-examine. . . . What you have is statements by sources who are unidentified. There's no way to uncover them. . . . How does he overcome this?"
Mr. Narong, 70, is bitter.
In a telephone interview from his home in Thailand, he said, "We are suffering, all my family. Even my grandchild. . . . It's not only the visa; [it's] the credibility of my family."
The public announcement not only derailed Mr. Narong's political career but affected Thailand's fledgling democratic process.
Mr. Narong's withdrawal as the prime minister-designate led to the appointment of Gen. Suchinda Kraprayoon, a member of the military junta that controlled the government until the elections that had seen Mr. Narong's party win the largest bloc of votes.
Anti-government demonstrations and protests soon followed. On May 18-19 the military unleashed troops firing rifles and automatic weapons against the unarmed protesters, killing 44 and injuring 736.
Later that month General Suchinda resigned as prime minister.
Two former CIA officers with intimate knowledge of how the government handled the Narong case said that there was no credible evidence against the businessman.
Interviewed separately, they said that the CIA station in Bangkok, which has a major role in gathering intelligence on opium and heroin trafficking in the Golden Triangle of Myanmar, Thailand and Laos, had absolutely no information on Mr. Narong until 1991, when its agent delivered the bogus bombshell.
They said that the case against Mr. Narong unraveled in 1993 when an operations officer who specialized in the region was ordered by the Counternarcotics Center (Now the Crime and Narcotics Center) to come up with a plan to dismantle Mr. Narong's alleged heroin network in Thailand.
In researching the government files -- which included all information from the Drug Enforcement Agency, the CIA, National Security Agency intercepts and other sources -- the officer discovered that there was virtually no credible information on many of the officials who were purported to be heroin traffickers, including Mr. Narong.