Secret Alliance: CIA & Indian Intelligence In Tibet

After China’s border war with India in 1962, a secret alliance between CIA and Indian intelligence in Tibet waged a secret guerrilla war against China in the Himalayas. CIA worked closely with Indian intelligence services in training and supplying agents in Tibet and in creating a special forces unit of Tibetan refugees that was eventually called the Special Frontier Force and formed a joint aerial and intelligence units such as the Aviation Research Center and Special Center.

Secret Alliance CIA & Indian Intelligence In Tibet
Secret Alliance CIA & Indian Intelligence In Tibet

The Central Intelligence Agency assisted Tibetan resistance fighters in their struggle against the People’s Republic of China (PRC) from the 1950s to the 1970s. Although the Agency had contacts with Tibetans since the Chinese reoccupied Tibet in 1950, it did not organize a major operation in the country until Khampa tribesmen launched rebellions against the PRC in 1955 and 1956.

With the assistance of Gyalo Thondup, a brother of the Dalai Lama who was active in the politics of the Tibetan refugee community, the CIA recruited and trained six Tibetan refugees to serve as agents in assessing the strength of rebellion and in preparing for the creation of a resistance network.

By 1958, reports from these agents convinced the Eisenhower administration that the Tibetans had the ability to wage a sustained campaign against Chinese rule. The CIA therefore carried out a program of secretly dropping supplies to the Tibetan insurgents and training Tibetan agents to organize resistance and intelligence networks within the country.

This effort, however, was launched just as the People’s Liberation Army took increasingly effective measures in suppressing the rebels. Tibetan radio agents did play a crucial role in assisting the Dalai Lama as he fled the escalating fighting by informing the U.S. and Indian governments about the Lama’s request for sanctuary in India. This important propaganda victory nevertheless did nothing to stop the PLA’s destruction and dispersal of the guerrilla bands that the CIA assisted.

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A still from the 1998 documentary The Shadow Circus The CIA in Tibet, directed by Tenzing Sonam and Ritu Sarin.
A still from the 1998 documentary The Shadow Circus The CIA in Tibet, directed by Tenzing Sonam and Ritu Sarin.

The failure of the rebellion, however, did not bring an end to American efforts to use Tibet as an active front against the PRC. In the 1960s, the CIA continued training Tibetan agents for intelligence and sabotage operations in Tibet and it set up a base for a guerrilla unit in the remote Nepalese kingdom of Mustang.

After China’s border war with India in 1962, the CIA worked closely with Indian intelligence services in training and supplying agents in Tibet and in creating a special forces unit of Tibetan refugees that was eventually called the Special Frontier Force. The CIA’s Tibetan operations continued until the 1970s when strains in U.S.-Indian relations, the improvement of U.S. diplomatic ties with the PRC, and the Nepalese government’s occupation of the Mustang base brought the Tibet program to an end.

In addition to training agents and paramilitary units for operations inside Tibet, the CIA took other steps to aid the Tibetan resistance. A CIA subsidiary, the Committee for Free Asia, financed a trip that Thubten Norbu, another one of the Dalai Lama’s brothers, made to the United States in the early 1950s to plead for American support for Tibetan independence.

A CIA-issued camera, goggles and maps from Lhamo Tsering’s collection. Photo: Raisa Galofre
A CIA-issued camera, goggles and maps from Lhamo Tsering’s collection. Photo: Raisa Galofre

When Tibetans lobbied for the passage of a United Nations resolution that expressed concern over PRC policies in Tibet in 1959, the CIA provided information to sympathetic journalists and editors in an effort to build up public support for the resolution. The CIA also assisted the Dalai Lama’s government-in-exile by giving a $180,000 annual donation to the Dalai Lama’s charitable trust fund until 1967 and by subsidizing a training program for Tibetan officials and agents at Cornell University. It also purchased Tibetan art works for display at the government-in-exile’s Tibet House in New Delhi.

Tibet, became a vital cold war proving ground for CIA case officers and their spycraft. Much of the equipment that the Agency used in subsequent years, especially aircraft and communications gear, was “combat tested in the most extreme conditions imaginable”. CIA personnel also learned techniques for air dropping supplies and in establishing communications networks that were used in subsequent operations.

Moreover, they learned to work closely with other government agencies, especially the armed forces and U.S. Forest Service, in getting the pilots, parachute instructors, and aircraft needed to implement the program.

Resistance fighters on the Tibetan border during the early years of the CIA’s Tibet program
Resistance fighters on the Tibetan border during the early years of the CIA’s Tibet program. Lhamo Tsering Collection

Finally, many of the officers who participated in the Tibet program later assumed positions of greater responsibility in directing CIA activities in other parts of the world, especially Vietnam and Laos.

John Kenneth Knaus, who trained Tibetan agents and later headed the Tibet Task Force in the early 1960s, went on to hold senior positions at Langley. Roger McCarthy, the head of the Tibet Task Force at the height of its activities from 1959 until 1961, later led operations in Vietnam and Laos. Two CIA members who trained Tibetan agents in Colorado, Thomas Fosmire and Anthony Poshpenny (Tony Poe), also served in Indochina for several years.

CIA’s Tibet program played an important role in forging closer ties between the United States and India, particularly the CIA and its Indian counterparts. Despite serious disputes over issues such as India’s Cold War neutralism and America’s alliance with Pakistan, common fears about Chinese policies in Tibet “led Washington and New Delhi to become secret partners over the course of several U.S. administrations”.

The Dalai Lama (front right center, in black, wearing glasses) poses with his armed guerrilla escort as he flees Tibet after having instigated a militarily futile “uprising” of monks against the revolutionary Chinese government’s overthrow of his feudalist theocratic rule. Date unknown.
The Dalai Lama (front right center, in black, wearing glasses) poses with his armed guerrilla escort as he flees Tibet after having instigated a militarily futile “uprising” of monks against the revolutionary Chinese government’s overthrow of his feudalist theocratic rule. Date unknown.

CIA collaborated with the Indian intelligence services in training and equipping Tibetan agents and special forces troops and in forming joint aerial and intelligence units such as the Aviation Research Center and Special Center. This collaboration continued well into the 1970s and some of the programs that it sponsored, especially the operations of the Special Frontier Force under Indian command, continue into the present.

CIA’s role in assisting the Dalai Lama in his flight from Tibet and in establishing a Tibetan government-in-exile as well as paramilitary forces “was a significant boost in the morale in the refugee community.” This assistance, “helped carry the diaspora community and its leadership through the darkest years of exile when their cause might have been otherwise forgotten”.

This argument is likely to spark the strongest disagreement from many. Although it is true that the Americans gave valuable assistance to the Dalai Lama during the early years of his exile, their very involvement in the revolt against the PRC did much to create the tensions that shaped his decision to flee Tibet.

Moreover, as Tsering Shakya writes in The Dragon in the Land of Snows, the CIA’s Tibetan operations convinced the PRC’s leaders that they faced “a direct threat to China’s security” and this conviction “may explain the ferocity of Chinese suppression of the Tibetan revolt.”

Many of the CIA’s Tibetan operations were simply ineffectual and costly failures despite the ingenuity and bravery of both the Tibetan and American agents. Aid to the revolt in the late 1950s did not prevent the rebellion’s ultimate defeat and the harsh Chinese policies that followed. Virtually all of the agents who infiltrated Tibet for the purpose of creating resistance or intelligence networks were killed, captured, or forced to flee the country.

The guerrilla force based at Mustang scored an impressive early success by capturing a cache of classified Chinese documents in 1961, but did little in subsequent years because of effective Chinese border control measures and infighting among the force’s leadership. The unit, as one of its officers put it, “went on existing for the sake of existence”.

The Tibetan leadership constantly suffered from differences concerning personalities, policy, and regional loyalties. Despite widespread resentment against their rule, the Chinese implemented rigorous security measures that discouraged local support for the CIA’s Tibetan agents. Finally, neither the United States nor the South Asian governments that supported or tolerated the Agency’s activities were willing to countenance a campaign that risked an open conflict with the PRC.

Notes

  • Tsering Shakya, The Dragon in the Land of Snows: A Modern History of Tibet Since 1947 (London: Pimlico, 1999)
  • John Prados, Presidents’ Secret Wars: CIA and Pentagon Covert Operations Since World War II (New York: William Morrow, 1986)
  • John Kenneth Knaus, Orphans of the Cold War: America and the Struggle for Tibetan Survival (New York: Public Affairs, 1999)
  • Roger McCarthy, Tears of the Lotus: Accounts of Tibetan Resistance to the Chinese Invasion, 1950-1961 (Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1997)
  • A. Tom Grunfeld, The Making of Modern Tibet, revised edition (Armonk, N.Y., 1996)
  • Melvyn C. Goldstein, A History of Modern Tibet, 1913-1951: The Demise of the Lamaist State (Berkeley and London: University of California Press, 1989)
  • The Snow Lion and the Dragon: China, Tibet, and the Dalai Lama (Berkeley and London: University of California Press, 1997)

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