In 1958, the Dalai Lama was clinging to power in Tibet as Chinese communism closed in. That is when the religious leader says he first heard that the Central Intelligence Agency was stepping up its involvement in Tibet. The Dalai Lama's lord chamberlain introduced two CIA-trained Tibetan guerrillas and asked them to demonstrate their skills. The warriors pulled out a bazooka, fired it, then took 15 minutes to reload before they fired again. "I said, 'Will you shoot once and then ask the enemy to wait 15 minutes?' " the Dalai Lama recalls, chuckling. "Impossible." But his lord chamberlain was enthusiastic. Freedom fighters were already battling China's military, and they had direct radio communications with the CIA, said the aide. "They gave the impression that once I arrived in India, great support would come from the United States," the Dalai Lama told NEWSWEEK, shaking his head. "It's a sad, sad story."
For many Tibetans, it certainly is. Forty years ago the man they revere as their god-king mounted a horse and fled into exile in India, disguised as a simple bodyguard, exhausted and sick with dysentery. But the secret CIA war in Tibet--an operation code-named "ST CIRCUS"--was just beginning. How the Dalai Lama's disciples were taken under the CIA's wing to wage covert war on the roof of the world is one of the most exotic episodes in the annals of Western intelligence. Some intimate details are emerging only now, as retired spooks publish memoirs and graying guerrillas contemplate the violent karma of their past. Tibetan veterans still fondly recall training secretly in Colorado with Americans they knew as "Mr. Ken" or "Mr. Mac," then parachuting into Tibet out of the silver C-130s they called "sky ships." Their operations scored spectacular intelligence coups--including, NEWSWEEK has learned, early hints that China was developing the atomic bomb.
An in-house CIA study called the secret war in Tibet one of the agency's "most romantic programs of covert action." Yet the Dalai Lama, a devout pacifist, broods over the dark side of this tale. The blood-spattered recollections remind him how Tibet, and he himself, was thrust into a high-stakes cold-war intrigue. "What began as a pure Tibetan resistance looked quite different when the CIA came in, making it easy for China to discredit it as 'Western imperialist activities'," he says. "And the U.S. help was very, very limited. So I'm still very critical of this episode."
The sad story, as the Dalai Lama calls it, began half a century ago. On and off, Tibet had been a vassal state to China in dynasties past, but since 1911 Tibetans had enjoyed de facto independence. They were jittery when victorious communist troops, carrying giant Mao Zedong portraits, marched peacefully into Lhasa to "liberate" the city in 1951. Washington promised financial backing for the Dalai Lama, who considered fleeing to the United States, and aid for any resistance effort inside Tibet. "This was not some CIA black-bag operation," said Ken Knaus, who handled Tibet matters at the CIA from 1958 to 1965. "The initiative was coming from... the entire U.S. government."
By 1956, the Dalai Lama's awkward coexistence with the Chinese communists had unraveled. Chinese commissars had carved off the Tibetan areas of Kham and Amdo and annexed them to Sichuan and Qinghai provinces. They looted monasteries and confiscated land from the Tibetan aristocracy. Finally the Chinese told the Khampas, a hardy mountain people famous for horsemanship and sharpshooting, to surrender their guns. "These were guns we had bought with our own money, so we refused," says Athar Norbu, who was then a monk. "Fighting began in January 1956." In one clash, warplanes bombed a monastery with thousands of Tibetans inside.
The Khampas needed help. After putting out feelers to New Delhi (which didn't reply) and Taipei (which offered weapons), they approached the Dalai Lama's elder brother, Gyalo Thondup, who was the closest thing to Lhasa's spymaster. "He said we should go straight to the Americans," Athar told NEWSWEEK. "We didn't know the world. All we did know was that the Chinese were killing our people, torturing our monks and destroying our temples. We thought if we were going to die anyway, we might as well die fighting, rather than have our throats cut like sheep."
Gyalo Thondup introduced Athar and other fighters to CIA operatives. Washington agreed to launch a pilot program to train six Tibetans in Saipan and Okinawa, then parachute them into Tibet to gather intelligence. U.S. officials were captivated by the fierce, exotic Khampas, many of whom wore pictures of the Dalai Lama in tiny silver amulets around their necks, charms they believed could ward off bullets. CIA agents saw them as "can-do guys," says Knaus. "We romanticized them... They were orphans seeking to be adopted."
The early fighting triggered an exodus of Tibetans. Some 100,000 wound up ultimately in Nepal and India. Many gathered in Kalimpong, a refugee camp near Darjeeling--a place that India's Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru dubbed "a nest of spies." In the midst of this cold-war playground was Gyalo Thondup, who helped choose the first batch of trainees from Kalimpong. But the big brother kept his younger sibling--the Dalai Lama was then in his early 20s--in the dark about the spook business. "I didn't inform His Holiness about my contacts with the CIA and Indian intelligence," says Gyalo Thondup. "This was very dirty business."
Under a full moon in October 1957, the first two-man team of CIA-trained Tibetans took off from an old World War II grass airstrip in East Pakistan, near Dhaka. They rode in a B-17 "sanitized" of all markings. The parachutists were Athar Norbu and another Tibetan named Lhotse--"Tom" and "Lou" to their handlers. They were equipped with everything from dried beef to radios, from signal mirrors to folding-stock submachine guns. They landed smack on target, 60 miles from Lhasa, and quickly hooked up with the local resistance leader, Gompo Tashi Andrugtsang, an influential trader whose legendary Khampas had been battling the Chinese for years.
The ragtag resistance waged a desperate struggle. In early 1958 many guerrillas were surrounded by 1,000 Chinese soldiers with artillery. "All our leaders were wounded, including Gompo Tashi," says one survivor. "We kept hoping the CIA would drop us some weapons, but they never came. I went 15 days without food--even shoe leather tasted delicious." The Tibetans dispersed to escape; one group got lost in a desolate wilderness littered with the brittle skeletons of giant yaks. The fighters' rifle bolts snapped off in the cold. Their plight was so dire, says the veteran, that "we took horses--t and burned it. The aroma alone kept us walking for miles."
Help was on the way. In 1958 more than 30 Tibetans began training secretly at Camp Hale, not far from Leadville, Colorado. Here about 300 Tibetans in all--assigned names like "Jack," "Rocky" and "Martin"--were schooled in the black arts of covert warfare, from spy photography and sabotage to Morse code and mine-laying. "We had great expectations when we went to America; we thought perhaps they would even give us an atom bomb to take back with us," said one trainee, Tenzin Tsultrim. He was interviewed in a documentary ("Shadow Circus: The CIA in Tibet," by Tenzing Sonam and Ritu Sarin), shown in Britain last November.
The training took place in utmost secrecy. U.S. officers made up stories about a top-secret nuclear-research project at Fort Hale, and guards deterred intruders with shoot-to-kill orders. In 1961 four dozen American civilians were temporarily detained at gunpoint when they inadvertently witnessed 15 Asians wearing camouflage fatigues being escorted onto a C-124 Globemaster with blacked-out windows. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara personally intervened to persuade The New York Times to spike the story.
Before they arrived at Camp Hale, Tibetan trainees were told only that their destination was "a place in the mountains with big trees and beautiful flowers," recalled Kesong Tinley--not that the place was in the United States. They formed strong bonds with U.S. paramilitary trainers such as Tony Po, who rode his proteges hard as they humped up and down the Rockies. If the Tibetans complained, he always promised a "special treat" back at camp--and it was always the same: a showing of the film "Viva Zapata!"
By early 1959, Tibetans were growing more jittery. Chinese dignitaries in Lhasa invited the Dalai Lama to attend a dramatic performance in their military headquarters--but without bodyguards. Tibetans feared he would be kidnapped. Shortly after dawn on March 10, 1959, the day of the performance, some 30,000 Tibetans surrounded the Norbulingka palace to protect their god-king. One pro-Beijing Tibetan was stoned to death. The Dalai Lama wrote later that he felt trapped between "two volcanoes, each likely to erupt at any moment."
After two mortar shells exploded inside his palace grounds, the Dalai Lama hastily decided to flee. The night of March 17, he slipped out of the Norbulingka in disguise, with close relatives and aides. The exodus spawned some of spookdom's most outlandish war stories, including one purporting that the CIA "channeled" extra-sensory instructions to the Dalai Lama's oracle monk, detailing a precise escape route. In fact, the CIA communicated with the Dalai Lama's party in much worldlier fashion: through a clunky radio operated by Athar and Lhotse. "The CIA had no direct involvement in my escape," the Dalai Lama told NEWSWEEK, and his oracle monk "had no contact"--mystical or otherwise--with the spooks.
On March 19 the CIA learned through its Calcutta station that the Dalai Lama had fled. The next day, at CIA headquarters near Washington, Tibet specialist John Greaney was summoned to brief the top boss, Allen Dulles, whom underlings had nicknamed "the great white case officer." In his spacious office, Greaney told NEWSWEEK, the CIA director sucked on his pipe and began, "Now, let me see, where is Tibet?" The two men wound up standing on a plush leather couch, peering at a massive National Geographic map on the wall. Dulles pointed vaguely with his pipe to a spot in Eastern Europe: "Is that Tibet?" Greaney answered gently, "No, sir, Tibet's over here, where the Himalayas are."
Within a couple of days, Athar and Lhotse had caught up with the Dalai Lama's fleeing entourage and were transmitting daily messages to the CIA in Washington. Greaney took the coded transmissions to an English-speaking Tibetan monk in a safe house. Together they struggled to decipher the news. "The monk would say, 'I feel this is what the boys are saying'," says Greaney.
One especially urgent message requested the CIA to ask India to grant political asylum to the Dalai Lama and his 37-person entourage. The agency messaged its New Delhi station, which went straight to Nehru; he said yes, cutting miles of red tape. The Dalai Lama arrived in exile on March 31. A CIA-trained Tibetan even managed to film the odyssey with a 16-mm camera; it showed the spiritual leader, astride a brown horse with richly embroidered saddlebags, and his retinue picking their way across Tibet's bleak hillsides, with the People's Liberation Army presumably breathing down their necks.
The Dalai Lama's sensational escape prompted the Eisenhower administration to expand its covert-assistance program. In July 1959, the CIA began using C-130s, flying from a secret CIA base in Takhli, Thailand, to airdrop arms, ammunition and U.S.-trained Tibetans into their occupied homeland. Between 1957 and 1960, 40 drops delivered more than 400 tons of cargo to the resistance. Nine out of every 10 guerrillas parachuted into Tibet were killed by the Chinese or committed suicide to evade capture, according to an article in the Smith-sonian's Air <&> Space Magazine. (Each man carried cyanide capsules.) One veteran guerrilla said the drops were like "throwing meat into a tiger's mouth."
Then the airdrops hit a snag. When a U.S. U-2 spy plane was shot down over the Soviet Union in May 1960, Eisenhower halted intrusions into communist airspace, including Tibet. Some drops continued under the Kennedy administration, but the Tibetans' days of riding the "sky ships" were numbered. Washington's new ambassador to New Delhi, economist John Kenneth Galbraith, considered the Khampas "deeply unhygienic tribesmen" and the aerial transport and support efforts "a particularly insane enterprise," as he told Washington.
The focus of the covert program moved to Mustang, a remote kingdom in Nepal surrounded on three sides by Chinese territory. The early days in Mustang were tough, according to Baba Yeshe, who led the guerrillas at the time. At first the CIA lent scant material support. During the first winter, some guerrillas died for lack of food and shelter. "We boiled the skins of animals and ate them," says Baba Yeshe, now 82. Yet they also fought. From Mustang the Tibetans launched dangerous hit-and-run raids inside Tibet.
The Tibetans were told to use their American training not simply to hurt the Chinese but also to "collect information about how many there were and what they were doing," says Camp Hale veteran Kesong Tinley. In one of several key raids in the early '60s, three dozen Khampas rode deep into Tibet, where they staked out a dirt road. When a Chinese military convoy approached, the Tibetans opened fire, killing all the Chinese, including a well-dressed officer in mufti. A bulging stash of documents was discovered behind the driver. The Tibetans loaded their horses with loot, including hats and epaulets from the dead Chinese, diaries, 170 personal letters and about 70 kilos of bloodstained, bullet-riddled documents. "I hoped that maybe the Americans would be happy," recalls Baba Yeshe.
The CIA was pleased indeed. The dead officer turned out to be commander of the western Tibet military region, traveling with key party documents. Back in Washington the CIA's head of the Far East Division, Desmond Fitzgerald, thought the intelligence yield from these Tibetan operations "was just the greatest," recalls James Lilley, a former CIA official. "He was carried away by those blood-stained documents." Included were "work papers" detailing the disastrous effects of the 1959-1961 Great Leap Forward, plummeting morale within the PLA--and Beijing's plans to move many more troops into Tibet. One cache of 1,600 documents provided the first concrete evidence of the Sino-Soviet rift. "It was one of the single greatest intelligence hauls in history," says Knaus, who recently published a book on Tibet entitled "Orphans of the Cold War."
After Chinese troops invaded Indian soil, launching their 1962 border war, New Delhi joined Washington in mobilizing a Tibetan intelligence unit. Deep inside Chinese territory, Tibetans photographed Chinese military sites, sketched maps, monitored convoy traffic and scoped out potential parachute-drop zones. Their activities also yielded important "insights into China's missile programs and early efforts to develop a nuclear-weapons capability," a former U.S. intelligence operative told NEWSWEEK. The Tibetan intelligence, later fleshed out with data from satellites and spy planes, helped give Washington early hints of China's first nuclear test at Lop Nor, north of Tibet, in 1964.
By that time, the tibet opera- tion was costing Washington more than $1.7 million a year, according to intelligence documents. That included $500,000 to support 2,100 Tibetan guerrillas (800 of them armed) based in Nepal and $180,000 worth of "subsidy to the Dalai Lama." But the world was changing. By the mid-1960s, China was consolidating its hold on Tibet, the aging Khampa guerrillas were slowing down and the "black" training in Colorado came to a halt. CIA officer James Critchfield described the guerrillas' achievements inside Tibet as "minimal" and concluded that Tibetans "did not appear to be congenitally inclined towards conspiratorial proficiency."
In any case, the CIA's attention was shifting to Indochina--and by the end of the decade the Nixon administration was beginning its courtship of China. "In the beginning the Americans were anti-communist and they needed us," observes Athar, now 69. "But when they decided to have good relations with the Chinese, they didn't need us anymore." After the United States cut its support, Beijing also pressured Nepal to close down the Mustang camps. In July 1974 the Dalai Lama himself sent a 20-minute tape-recorded message asking the resistance fighters, now led by a CIA-trained Khampa named Wangdu, to surrender. As the message played over loudspeakers in the camps, the anguished fighters prepared to do as their god-king asked; some chose to commit suicide by drowning themselves.
Meanwhile, 10,000 Nepalese soldiers and Gurkhas sealed off the dusty Mustang valley. Camp by camp, they began disarming the resistance; one CIA-trained guerrilla handed over his weapons, then slit his own throat. Wangdu had arranged to be the last to surrender, but he and three-dozen followers jumped on their horses and rode off, hoping to seek refuge in India. Hemmed in by the Nepalese and by PLA troops on the other side of the border, the guerrillas made their last stand at nearly 18,000 feet, near the famous Tinker Pass. Just 20 miles from safety, Wangdu and a handful of bodyguards charged head-on into their pursuers. He died in a barrage of gunfire.
In the end, the CIA adventure left much blood in its wake. By Beijing's own reckoning, some 87,000 Tibetans were "eliminated" during the Lhasa uprising and its aftermath. The CIA involvement gave Beijing an easy excuse to depict Tibet as a "pawn on the chessboard of imperialist cold-war policy." The CIA's proteges, however, were left with nothing. "The Tibetans were abandoned," says CIA veteran Lilley, evoking the Bay of Pigs fiasco. "It was Cuba all over again."
In his autobiography, the Dalai Lama wrote that the guerrilla missions "caused almost more harm to the Tibetans than to the Chinese." Last month the spiritual leader granted an audience to ex-CIA operative Roger McCarthy, who argued that CIA assistance not only had helped whisk the god-king safely into exile but also "helped delay the Chinese timetable for repressing Tibet." The Dalai Lama seemed "more relaxed than he has been in the past on the topic," McCarthy recalls. "At the end of the meeting I got a big hug." But then, Tibetans have always been big on compassion. Even though "the Chinese reprisals were terrible," says Gyalo Thondup, "I forgive everyone, even the Chinese."
Hope has not abandoned Kesong Tinley, now 85, veteran of the sensational but highly secret raids of the early 1960s. In poor health, with no pension or family to support him, Tinley sports the shaved head and saffron robes of a simple Buddhist monk. But pride of place in his one-room dwelling in Katmandu goes to an elaborate model of the U.S. Capitol building, with the Stars and Stripes unfurled above it. Regardless of the past, Tinley says, "we're still hoping America will help Tibet."