A Secret War On The Roof Of The World

In 1958, the Dalai Lama was a 23-year-old god-king on the verge of losing his realm. The Chinese communists were closing in, and Tibet's spiritual leader was desperate. That's when he first heard that the Central Intelligence Agency was stepping up its activities in his domain. The Dalai Lama's lord chamberlain arranged a meeting for him with two CIA-trained guerrillas, so they could demonstrate their skills. The Tibetan warriors pulled out a bazooka, fired it, then took 15 minutes to reload before they fired again. His Holiness was incredulous.

"Will you shoot once and then ask the enemy to wait 15 minutes?" he asked his disciples. "Impossible." But the lord chamberlain and other advisers were enthusiastic. Although the Dalai Lama would have to flee into exile in India, freedom fighters were already battling China's Army, and they had direct radio contact with the CIA. "They gave the impression that once I arrived in India, great support would come from the United States," the Dalai Lama told NEWSWEEK in an earlier interview. "It's a sad, sad story."

How the CIA took the Dalai Lama's disciples under its wing is one of the most exotic episodes in the annals of Western intelligence. The intimate details of Operation ST CIRCUS are only just now emerging, as retired spooks publish memoirs and graying guerrillas publicly 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.

Yet the Dalai Lama, a devout pacifist, was reluctant to cooperate with the CIA from the start. Washington's bureaucratic spymasters never really understood these maroon-robed idealists from the roof of the world. Some spies had an ethos that rarely allowed them to see beyond the next intelligence bonanza; the Tibetans were fighting for their eternal freedom. The spies and the monks did share common goals, especially the defeat of the communist Chinese. But looking back now--when Beijing's grip on Tibet is as tight as ever--many Tibetans and some ex-CIA operatives believe that this story was always destined to be a tragedy. "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'," says the Dalai Lama. "And the U.S. help was very, very limited."

The covert war began as far back as 1956, three years before the Dalai Lama, disguised as a bodyguard, mounted a horse and fled to India after a failed Tibetan uprising. Chinese commissars had annexed the Tibetan areas of Kham and Amdo. Then they told the Tibetan Khampas, a mountain people famous for horsemanship and sharpshooting, to surrender their guns. The Khampas resisted, and with advice from the Dalai Lama's elder brother, Gyalo Thondup, they turned to the CIA for help. Gyalo Thondup now says he didn't inform his exalted sibling about all of his intelligence connections at the time: "This was very dirty business."

U.S. officials were entralled by the fierce 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 John Kenneth Knaus, who handled Tibetan matters at the CIA from 1958 to 1965. "We romanticized them... They were orphans seeking to be adopted." Under a full moon in October 1957, the first two-man team of CIA-trained Tibetans took off from a grass airstrip in East Pakistan. 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 dried beef and radios, signal mirrors and submachine guns. They landed smack on target, 60 miles from Lhasa, and quickly hooked up with a local resistance leader and several thousand guerrillas. But many of the fighters were surrounded and starving only a few months later. "We kept hoping the CIA would drop us some weapons, but they never came," recalls one survivor. "I went 15 days without food--even shoe leather tasted delicious." The CIA didn't give up. Beginning in 1958, American operatives trained about 300 Tibetans at Camp Hale in Colorado. The trainees were schooled in spy photography and sabotage, Morse code and mine-laying. Between 1957 and 1960, the CIA dropped more than 400 tons of cargo to the resistance. Yet nine out of 10 guerrillas who fought in Tibet were killed by the Chinese or committed suicide to evade capture, according to an article by aerospace historian William Leary in the Smithsonian's Air & Space Magazine. One veteran guerrilla said the parachute drops were like "throwing meat into a tiger's mouth."

Under the Kennedy administration, the CIA moved the covert program to Mustang, a remote kingdom in Nepal surrounded by China on three sides. The guerrillas ran hit-and-run operations into Tibet. In one of several key raids into Tibet during the early '60s, commandos ambushed a military convoy and made off with a bulging stash of bloodstained documents. Among the captured "work papers" were Beijing's plans to move many more troops into Tibet, and documents that 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 called "Orphans of the Cold War." The Tibetans provided human intelligence and other important "insights into China's... early efforts to develop a nuclear weapons capability," a former U.S. operative told NEWSWEEK.

By the mid-'60s, the Tibet operation was costing Washington $1.7 million a year, according to intelligence documents. That included $500,000 to support 2,100 guerrillas based in Nepal and $180,000 worth of "subsidy to the Dalai Lama." But it was at this time also that Washington became disillusioned with the operation, which had no hope of reversing the Chinese occupation, and scaled back. After the United States cut its support, Beijing pressured Nepal to close the Mustang camps. From his exile in Dharmsala, the Dalai Lama wanted it to end. In July 1974 he sent a 20-minute-long recorded message asking the fighters, now led by a CIA-trained Khampa named Wangdu, to surrender their weapons to local Nepalese authorities. Wangdu and a handful of bodyguards tried to escape and made their last stand against Nepalese soldiers only 20 miles from the Indian border. At nearly 18,000 feet, where the air is thin and a man can see forever, all but one died in a barrage of gunfire.

Wangdu's death marked the end of the CIA-trained guerrilla movement, but Chinese authorities have long memories. They heatedly opposed the Kosovo war, for instance, because they fear future U.S. intervention in their own separatist hot spots. As they fret about Taiwan, Xinjiang and, yes, even Tibet, they can't help but recall the secret war they fought four decades ago over the high Himalayas.