America’s Spies on the Roof of the World

From The Washington Post Book World — 15 September 2002

INTO TIBET: The CIA’s First Atomic Spy and His Secret Expedition to Lhasa, by Thomas Laird.

THE CIA’S SECRET WAR IN TIBET, by Kenneth Conboy and James Morrison.

Reviewed by James Rupert

In July 1950, a world focused on the Korean War took only brief note of Douglas MacKiernan’s singular death. “U.S. Consul, Fleeing China, Slain By Tibetan on Watch for Bandits,” read the headline of the lone front-page story in the New York Times.

For more than a half-century, that’s all the news on MacKiernan that his real employer, the CIA, has wanted to see. The agency still classifies as secret his identity as an officer (the first to be killed on duty) and his early Cold War missions: on the Chinese-Soviet frontier in Sinkiang, and in Tibet, as it desperately sought independence from Mao’s communist China.

Among the CIA’s secret anti-communist wars — in Cuba, Central America, Southeast Asia and elsewhere — its operations in Tibet have remained particularly obscured. Only in 1999, in his book Orphans of the Cold War, did former CIA trainer of Tibetan guerrillas John Kenneth Knaus break the silence with the first broad account of the agency’s effort, from about 1950 to 1970, to build an armed Tibetan resistance movement.

Guerrillas trained and armed by the CIA helped the Dalai Lama flee to India, where he and other exiles have kept alive the Tibetan cause. But in their high Himalayan plateaus and valleys, fighting the People’s Liberation Army, the rebels against China’s rule could do no more than delay the conquest of their land. The United States was never going to provide open, direct support for Tibetan independence, and the CIA ultimately dismantled the guerrilla army and the hopes it had nurtured among its fighters.

Now two books reveal more of this hidden history. Thomas Laird, a photographer, journalist and 30-year Himalayas aficionado based in Nepal, tells a gripping tale of Douglas MacKiernan’s mission. Into Tibet helps illuminate what the agency was doing in China at the birth of the Cold War, and suggests some particular embarrassments about MacKiernan that may help explain why the CIA keeps his file, and its Tibetan history, so resolutely classified. Laird has performed impressive research, combing other archives and tracking down MacKiernan’s family and colleagues for interviews.

MacKiernan was a technical-scientific wizard — at radio communications, cryptology and meteorology — and during World War II, he shoved his way into Army intelligence. The Army sent him to Sinkiang, on northwestern China’s border with Soviet Central Asia, to run a weather station that predicted what skies America’s B-29 pilots would find while bombing Japan.

After the war, the newborn CIA scooped up many military intelligence officers and sent MacKiernan back to Sinkiang under consular cover. Now Soviet troops had seized part of that region and were mining uranium for the weapons that would soon challenge America’s atom-bomb monopoly. Riding into the desert, MacKiernan got ethnic Kazakh tribesmen to help him investigate, and try to disrupt, what the Soviets were doing.

Laird argues that MacKiernan played an even more critical role, by burying transmitters in Sinkiang’s sands — perhaps even inside the Soviet Union — and using microphones to pinpoint the nuclear blast that created the world’s second nuclear power in August 1949. Within weeks of the Soviet blast, Sinkiang was falling to Mao Zedong’s Communists, and MacKiernan was the only American left there, except for Frank Bessac, a CIA agent who had stumbled into town after failing to organize an anti-communist front among ethnic Mongols. Washington ordered the pair to flee — not southwest to India, but on a more treacherous route across the Takla Makan Desert in northern Tibet. As they left, MacKiernan handed gold to his Kazakh friends in support of their rebellion against communist rule. News of that act got quickly to Beijing, which proclaimed MacKiernan a spy.

Months later, as the bedraggled Americans stumbled toward the Tibetan border, Washington was in chaos over Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s charges that spies riddled the State Department. Amid infighting, State officials dithered over notifying Tibet of the Americans’ arrival, and Tibetan frontier guards confronted them, shooting MacKiernan dead.

The big picture of America’s role in Tibet is sharpened in another book, by James Morrison, a former Army officer who took part in CIA operations in Laos, and Kenneth Conboy, an Asia scholar. Morrison died in 2000; The CIA’s Secret War in Tibet is the last in a series the two men co-wrote on clandestine CIA operations in Asia. Whereas the CIA-trained Knaus focused more on the broad politics of the operation, the livelier Conboy-Morrison account offers more details of how the secret war worked on the ground. Together, the two books may represent the best overall picture possible of the CIA’s war in Tibet until the agency cracks open its files.

Conboy and Morrison seem to have interviewed every American and Tibetan participant in the operation who could be found, and their book is alive with the sitcom-style mishaps (and minor characters) that bedeviled the CIA as it tried to run a covert war in a land where its officers had almost never set foot. Training its troops at a former high-altitude Army camp in Colorado, for example, the Tibet program nearly blew its own cover, once by letting a planeload of strange Asian men be discovered at the airport in nearby Colorado Springs, and another time by accidentally blowing up a transcontinental telegraph line while experimenting with rockets.

The secret war effort had to scavenge for key skills. Training its first guerrillas, the CIA discovered that their illiteracy would prevent them from sending Morse code messages even in their own language. It hired a polyglot Mongolian Buddhist monk, Geshe Wangyal, to teach them grammar and, later, to interpret their transmissions from the field.

Wangyal worked out of a safe house off Wisconsin Ave. But an erudite lama wandering the streets in beard and traditional robes drew too much attention. “He would go into a Chinese restaurant,” recalled a CIA officer, “and the staff would all start bowing.”

In the end, the operation ran more in accordance with the Americans’ needs and interests than with the Tibetans’. The United States (and India, which helped run the program in its latter years) shut down the last Tibetan guerrilla units at the start of the 1970s, just before the Nixon administration opened relations with Beijing.

So why is the CIA’s operation in Tibet still such a secret? Laird argues that it’s largely because Tibet operations were entwined with sensitive U.S. espionage against Russian and Chinese nuclear programs.

The obvious part of the answer is that digging up the Tibet war risks upsetting the increasingly important Sino-U.S. relationship. In particular, the United States may want to hide its use of MacKiernan, Bessac and others to encourage ethnic rebellions — Mongol, Kazakh and Tibetan — against the Chinese.

Beyond that, as Laird notes, may be potential embarrassments for Washington, notably the implications of ordering MacKiernan, his cover blown, into Tibet in 1950. Beijing knew MacKiernan had encouraged rebellion among the Kazakhs, so by sending him to Tibet, Washington may have alarmed China in a way that inadvertently hastened its invasion of the land that America claimed to be trying to help protect.

James Rupert, a former correspondent for The Post in South Asia, is deputy foreign editor of Newsday.

Copyright © The Washington Post, 2002


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