Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

Into Tibet

The CIA's First Atomic Spy and His Secret Expedition to Lhasa

by Thomas Laird

“A scrupulously documented account of Cold War intrigue. . . . [Provides] a detailed view into the CIA’s shadowy world and the havoc it wreaks on individual lives. . . . A grippingly good narrative.” –The Village Voice

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 384
  • Publication Date April 21, 2003
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-3999-3
  • Dimensions 6" x 9"
  • US List Price $15.00

About The Book

For over fifty years the Central Intelligence Agency has closely guarded the identity of the first agent killed in the line of duty–the unnamed First Star on the outfit’s Wall of Honor. Douglas Mackiernan’s unprecedented atomic intelligence operations helped shape both Inner Asia and the CIA as we know them today. His work remains so sensitive that the Agency, even now, will neither confirm nor deny his existence. In a riveting expose of international intrigue, Into Tibet reveals the extraordinary still-classified missions that sent Mackiernan and his partner Frank Bessac into the heart of the Cold War.

Douglas Mackiernan was America’s first atomic spy. He ventured into Russian controlled territory to collect intelligence about uranium mining–an unsettling sign that Russia was developing an atomic bomb. Soon after, he helped create a system to detect Russia’s first atomic tests. Into Tibet brings to life Mackiernan’s adventures as he installed cutting-edge radiation detectors near Russia’s atomic test site. With the help of his four brothers, who never knew they were facilitating atomic intelligence, he also ran a long distance radio receiver station in his Massachusetts home to collect this coded data. Simultaneously he began to organize anti-Chinese nomads into proxy U.S fighting forces in Inner Asia. Only after his role as a U.S. spy was blown did he set off for Tibet.

Although the United States had never recognized Tibet’s claim to independence, Into Tibet uncovers evidence that in 1950 the CIA and the State Department worked covertly to do just that by arming Tibet weeks before it was invaded by Communist China. When Mackiernan met Frank Bessac in Inner Asia and spoke the code word that identified himself as a fellow CIA agent, the two set off with trusty White Russian companions on a harrowing two-thousand-mile trek on foot and camel. To this day Bessac denies that he was working deep under cover, as a CIA contract agent. Bessac had a subtle understanding of the complicated politics of Inner Asia–one that the American government, consumed in McCarthy hysteria, tragically did not. Although Mackiernan met a tragic and gruesome end, Bessac went on to meet the Dalai Lama in Lhasa, and encouraged the Tibetans to request covert U.S. aid. Only with the publication of Into Tibet can we ask the questions the CIA has hidden for so long. Did bungling at the highest levels of U.S. government cause the death of America’s first atomic agent, and the Chinese invasion of Tibet?

A gripping narrative of survival, courage, and adventure among the nomads, princes, and warring armies of Inner Asia, Into Tibet is a stunning true story, based on previously undisclosed materials discovered after six years of research–including the Dalai Lama’s first ever interview about these events.


“Thomas Laird examines a little-known incident in the Cold War and thereby throws a brilliant light upon the character of America’s intelligence and foreign-policy organizations of the time. . . . A fascinating, groundbreaking work on a controversial subject about which few readers will be familiar. Packed with vital new information and insights, Into Tibet fills a blank space in the hidden history of the Cold War.” –Chris Patsilelis, The Houston Chronicle

“Helps illuminate what the agency was doing in the birth of the Cold War. . . . A gripping tale.” –James Rupert, The Washington Post

“A scrupulously documented account of Cold War intrigue. . . . [Provides] a detailed view into the CIA’s shadowy world and the havoc it wreaks on individual lives. . . . A grippingly good narrative.” –The Village Voice

“An intriguing account of a tragic adventure.” –Kathleen Hipson, The Tampa Tribune

Into Tibet brings alive the remarkable adventure of two America Heinrich Harrers and an event the CIA would still, more than 50 years later, like to keep quiet.” –Bruce Barcott, Outside Magazine

“A good insight into the twilight world of espionage as well as a fascinating portrait of a fragile corner of the world at a crucial point in its history.” –Raymond L. Puffer, KLIATT

Into Tibet stands as the definitive account of a shadowy series of events that read like an early spy thriller. . . . Laird’s story is a sordid one, rife with self-interest, cover-ups and moral cowardice at high levels. . . . Laird does an excellent job of explaining not only Mackiernan’s actions, but the Cold War backdrop that made them seem so important at the time and that ultimately led to his death. Laird [has done] an admirable job of tracking each fact as far as it can be followed: He’s talked extensively to the people who are still available and who have information about the events; he’s gone to the archives and studied everything he could get under the Freedom of Information Act.” –Rick Sullivan, Grand Rapids Press

“[Laird] is at his best in his descriptions of the seemingly endless crossing of Tibet, a place where he feels so at home. . . . Laird also deftly re-creates the high altitude drama of the fatal meeting between Mackiernan’s expedition team and the Tibetan border guards ordered to shoot unwelcome foreign invaders.” –Whitney Stewart, New Orleans Times-Picayune

“Laird has pieced together another unheralded saga of the Cold War. . . . Laird’s account is more than just an expos’ of the early CIA. He provides insights into the CIA’s early effort to maintain an independent Tibet. . . . Laird [also] provides enough action to satisfy most readers interested in the Cold War.” –C. C. Lovett, CHOICE Magazine

“Laird has gone to great lengths to penetrate the walls of secrecy the CIA constructed to hide the identity and the activities of Douglas Mackiernan, the first of its agents to be killed on duty.” –Lucian W. Pye, Foreign Affairs

“[A] tale of adventure and intrigue. . . . Mackiernan’s perilous escapades are reminiscent of T.E. Lawrence’s famous adventures as an advisor in Arabia during World War I. . . . [Into Tibet] is a starling revelation of a 50-year old secret that reads like a spy novel.” –David Johnson, The Asian Reporter

“Part-detective novel, part-travelogue and part-thriller.” –Susan Van Dongen, The South Brunswick Post

“[Laird] presents his story as a spy novel, complete with reconstructed dialog, bureaucratic infighting, cinematic pacing, and crackling action.” –Library Journal

“Focusing on the heart-stopping details of the expedition itself, Laird gives the now familiar story of callous CIA manipulation an absorbing twist.” –Publishers Weekly

Into Tibet is the grandest, most exotic and intriguing political adventure of the twentieth century. Laird does an exemplary job of investigating, reporting and shaping the events and personalities that compose the tragic story of the loss of Tibetan independence to the Chinese Communists fifty years ago, when covert actions by the newly created CIA jumped out in front of policy, and the dominoes began to fall.” –Bob Shacochis, author of The Immaculate Invasion



Into Tibet tells the story of a secret American expedition to Tibet in 1949 and 1950 that has never before been told. Only two of the five men who set out survived. Theirs was a two-thousand-mile, one-year trek, and it is one of the most remarkable adventure stories of the twentieth century. The two survivors are the only Americans alive today who have walked across Tibet. However, their story is more than just an adventure tale. The survivors are the last Americans ever to meet the Dalai Lama in independent Tibet. China invaded Tibet six weeks after they left the country. Yet today these men and their journey are not part of history. The primary purpose of this book is to tell as much about their remarkable journey as we are allowed to know.

The facts remained hidden behind a cover story for fifty years. The moment I stumbled upon the first hints of this adventure in the dusty files of the National Archives in Washington, D.C., I felt great sympathy with the men who had trekked through the Himalayas half a century ago.

Although I am an American, at forty-eight I have spent more of my life in the Himalayas than in the United States. I first arrived in Nepal in 1972, a nineteen-year-old kid, traveling alone overland from Europe. I have been based in Nepal since, and have made more than fifty treks in the Himalayas. In 1991 I became the Asiaweek reporter for Nepal.

For much of 1991 and 1992 I lived in Mustang, a remote Buddhist barony within Nepal that juts up through the Himalayas onto the Tibetan Plateau. The people, their culture, and their language are essentially Tibetan, though Nepal has ruled the area since about 1770. The feudal serfs of Mustang were liberated from their noble masters only in 1956. Incredible fourteenth-century Tibetan Buddhist murals have survived in Mustang, while the Chinese have destroyed 90 percent of such art in Tibet. Mustang became a time capsule of preinvasion Tibet–made more alluring by the fact that it was a forbidden land. The Nepalese government forbade foreigners to visit Mustang during the thirty years before my one-year permit was issued. Nepal and China had not forgotten the covert Central Intelligence Agency support for a Tibetan guerrilla movement based in Mustang after the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1950. When the United States halted support to the Tibetans in the 1970s, China and Nepal agreed to disarm the guerrillas. Nepalese sensitivities to this Cold War history–and, some said, Chinese pressure–kept Mustang closed to all non-Nepalese during the 1970s and 1980s even as tourism became Nepal’s major industry. Mustang became the most coveted travel destination in Nepal.

In 1990 Nepal erupted into revolution. My photography of violent clashes in front of the Royal Palace in Kathmandu was published in many international news magazines. The new government that came to power felt I had risked my life getting pictures out to the world. The new prime minister asked me if there was something I wanted in Nepal, after having lived there for twenty years. I said I wanted to go to Mustang. So in 1991 the government issued me the first (and only) one-year travel permit for Mustang. I spent most of my time there shooting 50,000 photographs, working on a book that Peter Matthiessen and I eventually published, titled East of Lo Monthang: In the Land of Mustang.

At the end of my year in Mustang I was eager to fly to the National Archives in Washington, D.C. A number of searing experiences drove me there.

Weapons air-dropped into Mustang by the CIA have never been properly removed from the area. While I was there two teenagers each had blown off a hand with an old CIA-supplied grenade. They found a grenade abandoned beside a trail and tried to break it open. Another young man was killed in 1999 in a similar incident. Seeing the mangled bodies of the children of Mustang made America’s hidden history plain: it saddened and angered me.

I spoke with an old Tibetan guerrilla after I came out of Mustang. During one of his raids from Mustang into Tibet, he had acquired intelligence that gave the CIA six months’ advance warning of China’s first atomic test explosion. When I met him, he was ill, without family, living on charity from other Tibetans. CIA sources say that his atomic intelligence was, dollar for dollar, some of the most valuable intelligence of the entire Cold War. This hero remains unknown, though his eyes still shine with affection for his CIA trainers and love for American ideals.

The maimed boys and the abandoned intelligence hero became symbols to me. Back in the 1960s CIA operatives assured the Tibetan guerrillas that the United States wanted to help the Tibetans drive the Chinese out of Tibet. In fact the guerrillas served U.S. interests, not Tibetan ones. That was made obvious when the United States abruptly established diplomatic relations with China in the 1970s. Covert support to the Tibetans was cut off the next day. Hundreds of guerrillas died as a result of that U.S. abandonment. The weapons of that secret war were left in Mustang to kill innocent children. Its heroes were left without pensions. All of this was collateral damage of American actions, which America now denies ever happened. This cynical manipulation of people and history enraged me.

The fate of the maimed boys in Mustang was before me as I entered the National Archives in 1994 looking for declassified records about the CIA’s involvement in Mustang during the 1960s. I discovered in two hours that this U.S. history is still hidden–nearly all the government documents remained classified top secret. Yet during those same two hours I committed myself to an exploration that would ultimately last six years.

Instead of information about Tibetan guerrillas in Mustang, I found scattered declassified State Department documents about a vice consul named Douglas Mackiernan, Fulbright scholar Frank Bessac, White Russian refugee Vasili Zvansov, and their trip to Tibet in 1949 and 1950. The story of the Mackiernan party gripped me at once. Although most of the State Department documents about it were classified, and the CIA had released none of its documents, from the first moment I started reading the crinkling onion-skin letters, sent to the United States from China and India fifty years earlier, I was hooked.

I copied a few hundred pages of documents and flew home. By 1994 the computer revolution was starting to hit Kathmandu. One day, I ran Bessac’s name through a CD-ROM that had every telephone listing in the United States. On my third call from Kathmandu, I suddenly found myself talking to Frank Bessac–ex-CIA as well as Fulbright–in the United States. I was surprised when he told me that he had written about his experience for Life magazine in 1950. He warned me cryptically, “Henry Luce turned it into a Cold War yarn.” My mother-in-law, back in Los Angeles, had the magazine with Bessac’s story in my hands within weeks.

I audiotaped, and videotaped, dozens of hours of interviews with Bessac and then transcribed them. I eventually found seven surviving participants. Each document and each person led me to more people and more documents. I traveled from New Jersey to Dharamsala, India, to interview people. The story still eluded me. After five years of work, I discovered that the survivors did not understand the whole story. At the last moment, a previously unknown diary turned up. It took years for the story, as I now understand it, to take shape in my mind. It is not the same story that Life published in 1950. Nor is this just the story that the survivors themselves recall. Despite six years of work, there remain many mysteries here.

The Dalai Lama worried aloud to me when I interviewed him for this book. He wondered if revealing the covert American presence in Tibet in 1950 would give the Chinese some excuse for their invasion. After all, when China invaded Tibet in 1950 it said that its motivating reason was to halt the imperialist plots of American agents in Tibet. At the time, America denied that there were any American agents in Tibet prior to the invasion. Until now that denial has stood unchallenged. This book proves, for the first time, not only that there were Americans in Tibet, but that several agents, in and out of Tibet, worked actively to send military aid to the Tibetans prior to the Chinese invasion. It proves that the highest levels of the U.S. government were involved in that planning–despite government denials ever since. Tibetans were led to believe that the United States would help them if China invaded. This book shows, for the first time, why Tibetans felt betrayed by America after the Chinese invasion–and how American actions may have hastened the Chinese invasion of Tibet–tragically even while Americans on the ground tried to help the country.

There are many reasons why the CIA documents, which would reveal every detail about the story that is told here, remain secret even now, fifty years later. The Dalai Lama’s concern may be one of them. In addition, the United States prefers to blame China alone for the invasion, rather than to dilute Chinese guilt with any hint of U.S. involvement. But one reason stands out from all others. I believe that the CIA realizes it indirectly involved Tibet in the one of America’s first atomic intelligence operations led by Douglas Mackiernan back in 1950, at the birth of the Cold War, an operation that benefited the United States but that may have helped destroy Tibet. Nothing about American atomic intelligence operations in foreign countries has ever been declassified by the CIA. This may be the primary reason why this Tibetan chapter of U.S. history has remained hidden. It is not covert U.S. operations in Tibet that are being hidden, but the U.S. atomic secrets to which they are linked. And yet while the CIA operations revealed here were intended to be covert, at the time of these events the Chinese knew almost everything you are about to read. The failure to keep these operations secret may have helped precipitate the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1950–though precipitating the invasion of Tibet was the opposite of America’s avowed intentions. The CIA seems to be hiding its own tragic mistakes behind the veil of national security.

Every CIA director, since 1950, as well as current director George Tenet, has known that these secret operations claimed the life of the first CIA undercover agent ever killed in the line of duty. He is honored by the CIA for his contributions and sacrifice. But the agency may not yet know precisely why that man died. Certainly, it has not linked his death to McCarthyism. A current employee of the CIA says that the administrators of the CIA believe that discussing the covert operation, in which that first agent died, would disrupt modern Sino-U.S. relations. Another CIA employee has written a letter that states there are practical national security reasons why the story behind his death cannot be revealed to the public. In the CIA foyer, near the wall where the CIA honors agents who have died in service to the United States, a line from Christian scripture is inscribed: “And ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” I agree with these sentiments entirely, though now, more than ever, I am unsure if anyone ever knows the full truth, certainly with regard to these events.

Despite all that, readers will want to know if this is a true story. Many facts and many chapters of history are condensed and brought to life in this book, but much is also left out. I have not tried to write an academic history of Tibet. Rather, my aim is to penetrate to the furious, chaotic heart of Tibet’s fight for freedom at the moment when that freedom was lost. I try to reveal the essence of what happened, not through a recitation of every fact but by an understanding of what the Americans who lived through these events did and felt, and what motivated them.

My final answer is still the same: Yes, this is a true a story.

–Thomas Laird

Washington, D.C.; Coral Gables, Florida; New Haven, Connecticut; Hackettstown, New Jersey; Missoula, Montana; Kona, Hawaii; Boston, Massachusetts; New York City; Manhattan Beach, Albany, Berkeley, Santa Rosa, and Palo Alto, California; Gauhati, New Delhi, and Dharamsala, India; Lhasa, Tibet; Kathmandu, Nepal

August 1994–November 2001


“The only new thing in the world is the history you don’t know.”
–President Harry S. Truman

The Tibet-Sinkiang Border
33.40 North, 87.20 West

2pm, April 29, 1950

The first gunshot was as loud inside the yak-wool tent as it was outside on the Tibetan Plateau. Frank Bessac spilled his wooden cup of salt and butter tea as he raced over to peer out of the tent flap. The two young Tibetan women busy serving tea only moments before crowded up behind him and looked over his shoulder toward his camp.

A hundred yards away a knot of horses and men circled Bessac’s canvas tent. Puffs of smoke raced off on the wind as several shooters on their horses lowered their rifles. A dozen short-legged Tibetan ponies pranced around on the treeless plain, silhouetted against the vast sky. One horseman climbed off his horse and advanced on the tent, shouting, with his gun drawn. In the distance, Bessac could see two horsemen approaching his tent from behind. The expedition was surrounded, and apparently everyone was in the tent as someone shouted back at the Tibetans.

Bessac cursed softly to himself.

‘damn! Travel for eight months and the first Tibetans we see start shooting.”

Bessac turned back to his hosts and for the fifth time tried his Mongolian and Chinese on the two Tibetan girls. In their fright, they clung to each other but looked at him just as blankly as they had before. The old man, who had slowly warmed to him as tea was made and served, now got up off his carpet by the dung-fueled fire and walked to the tent door.

Without ceremony, the old man started to push him out of the tent. Bessac grabbed the wool robe of the Tibetan, and tried to pull him toward his own tent, pleading. The old man quickly brushed off Bessac’s hands, but he paused and listened, as Bessac shouted desperately in English.

“Look, you’re Tibetan. You could talk to them. We’re Americans. We’re going to Lhasa! Meet the Dalai Lama. The government knows we are coming. Dalai Lama. Lhasa!”

When Bessac finished pleading, the eyes of the old man remained flat, seemingly devoid of any understanding. They could not understand him in English, Chinese, or Mongolian, and now clearly they were not even going to let him back inside their tent.

At sixteen thousand feet on the treeless Changthang Plateau, Bessac had only two options. Their tent or his. There was not even a rock to hide behind. The Tibetans were the first humans the expedition had met in two months. When Bessac turned back toward his camp and the swirling horses and men surrounding it, the rest of his party began to emerge from the canvas tent.

At a hundred yards, it was impossible to tell who was holding up the white flag. Doug Mackiernan and the three Russians were all dressed, like Bessac, in crudely sewn Kazak sheepskin robes. It was obvious to Frank that these were his friends, and not another party of Tibetans or Kazak, only because they had trekked together for so long.

When he saw them walk out of the tent, Frank started running back. He grabbed his glasses, trying to keep them on his head as he ran, because without them he would be virtually blind. The Tibetans gathered in front of the tent with their raised guns. Three men were in front, with the feeble-looking white flag advancing toward the guns. Behind them, someone crouched back, as if not sure he should advance unarmed on the Tibetans.

The Tibetans were startled–perhaps by the flag or by the fact that the foreigners walked confidently toward them with no weapons in their hands. Some of the Tibetans remained mounted, their horses shifting under them. Others stood on the ground. Yet they all kept their guns keenly focused on Bessac’s friends. Suddenly, one of the Tibetans in the front rank of gunmen stepped back, and Bessac stopped running.

‘don’t shoot,” Bessac said softly.

The Tibetan, who had retreated a step, fired first. A puff of white smoke rose into the wind. Then almost at once, all the other Tibetans fired, and a wave of smoke rose above their heads. The sound of the volley reached Bessac as he started running again toward his friends.

When the guns fired, the man who had held back dropped low and began to dodge between the bullets. Bessac’s heart leapt as he saw him make for the tent. Was it Mackiernan?

At the same moment, the other three men moved in an entirely different way. They twisted in midair, the way bodies do when bullets hit them. And then they went down hard, and at such unnatural angles.

Running as fast as he could at sixteen thousand feet, Bessac shouted at the gunmen in English.

‘don’t shoot. Dalai Lama! Dalai Lama! Lhasa!”

Bessac was now close enough to see the amazement on the Tibetans’ faces. As they turned around and saw him running toward them, they began to fire at him. The earth six feet to his left burst in a small fountain of dust. Another blast of dust flared three feet to his right.

His instincts, drilled into him at the Outfit’s camp on Catalina Island, took over–Bessac found himself kissing the earth behind a tiny hillock that he had not till now known was there. A bullet kicked up the dirt just above his hat. He waited, listening for the next bullet. The sweat that had broken out all over his body turned cold as he lay there. A minute passed, where he could hear only the wind.

He raised his head just enough so that his eyeglasses peeked over the earth at the gunmen. One of them pointed at Bessac, and then began to trace circles around his own eyes. Again, he pointed at Bessac and shouted at his friends. Seeing this, Bessac realized that he was the only person in his party wearing glasses and wondered what that meant to the Tibetans.

Shouting erupted among the Tibetans. Bessac listened, watched, and then stood up. No one pointed a gun at him. He held his ground and removed his glasses to wipe off the dirt, pondering his next move. The Tibetans watched intently as he cleaned his glasses. When he started walking slowly toward them, they were still watching him with their guns lowered.

At twenty yards, Bessac again started shouting in English, then Chinese, and then Mongolian, repeatedly.

“Lhasa! Dalai Lama! Lhasa!”

At five yards, the Tibetans raised their guns again. Bessac stopped walking, locked his eyes on them, and continued his mantra, softly now.

‘dalai Lama. Lhasa.”

The doubt in the eyes of the Tibetans grew, and they looked back and forth at one another, the barrels of their guns sinking ever closer toward the earth. Then the man who had retreated and fired first raised his gun and shook it at Bessac as he shouted, “Kowtow! Kowtow!”

He pointed his gun at the earth and shook it again as he yelled once more, “Kowtow!”

A Chinese phrase that Frank knew well. Bow down. Get on your knees. Submit to me. Show me your subservience.

Frank didn’t think; he spoke, in English, not loudly at first but his voice rose louder into the wind as his anger increased.

“I damn well won’t kowtow to you. You come up here shooting people, people invited by the Dalai Lama to come to Lhasa–and you want me to kowtow? I will not kowtow. No goddamned kowtow! You are going to kowtow to me when the Dalai Lama finds out what you have done! Americans don’t kowtow to anybody!”

The Tibetans watched blankly as Frank spoke. When he took off his glasses and waved them at the Tibetans, emphasizing his refusal to kowtow, some of the men smiled.

The grim-faced leader did not smile but only stared sternly at Bessac. When his men laughed, he leveled his gun barrel at Bessac, now at point-blank range. One of the laughing Tibetans behind the leader jerked up his head quickly to catch Bessac’s eye. He then cocked his head toward the ground, and raised a free hand as if firing his gun.

Bessac saw the mimed gestures. He could see the look of almost mock concern on the one Tibetan’s face as he again violently cocked his head toward the ground.

What the hell, he thought to himself as he let his pride go and sank to his knees.

A ripple of words erupted from the head Tibetan, his gun dropping back down toward the earth.

“La, la, la. Nyingje.”

The Tibetan who had mimed for him slung his rifle over his shoulder, stepped out of the group, and walked toward Bessac, pulling a goat-hair rope out of his robe. Bessac kept his eyes locked on the ground and did not move. The mime pulled Bessac’s hands behind his back and bound them. Bessac glanced up and saw the rest of the Tibetans rush over to the expedition’s camel loads, which sat outside the tent on the ground. Then the man who had bound his hands took off Bessac’s glasses, and his world three feet away immediately turned to a gray blur.

He listened to the Tibetans as they cracked open the crate with the machine guns. He could hear their startled shouts of surprise and glee when they found the gold bars. He heard the clicking of a Geiger counter as it was flicked on and off, and then what sounded like a rock smashing into Mackiernan’s machine. Bessac only hoped they would not play with the grenades.

Those were all smaller, distant things. Most of his attention was focused on a human foot, which lay quite near him in the dirt. It belonged to one of his friends. A crudely sewn sheepskin covered the leg. Five feet away, the face that belonged to the foot was a complete blur. As his world shrank, Bessac knew he should try to get closer so he could see the face and check if he was alive. Instead, he looked at the foot and the robe and remembered when the Kazak sold them the sheepskins. He thought about how they measured one another and cut the skins. He remembered sitting in the Kazak yurt turning the fleece in and the leather out, stitching up the robes as the snow fell outside.

“Warm enough to get you to Tibet, doesn’t matter what they look like. And I guess the Tibetans won’t be expecting diplomats in tuxedos.”

Who said that? Who was that lying in front of him, in such an odd and uncomfortable position, lying so still?

Excerpted from Into Tibet: The CIA’s First Atomic Spy and His Secret Expedition to Lhasa

” Copyright 2002 by Thomas Laird. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.

CIA Statement On Mackiernan

Remarks by Central Intelligence Agency Director Michael Hayden at the Los Angeles World Affairs Council

(as prepared for delivery)

September 16, 2008

Good afternoon. Thanks for that kind introduction, and thank you all for inviting me. It’s a pleasure and privilege to be in Los Angeles and to speak to this Council.

As eventful as the world may be right now, the development that is likely to have the most far-reaching consequences will be a domestic one–the election of a new American president. From the standpoint of the Intelligence Community, it’ll be the first time since 1952 that neither candidate is an incumbent president or vice president. It also will be the first transition since the office of Director of National Intelligence was created, and that will be a new experience for all of us.

CIA is the Community’s executive agent in supporting briefings for Senator McCain and Senator Obama, reflecting our role in producing the President’s Daily Brief. After the election, there will be two daily PDB briefings–one for President Bush and another for the president-elect. The new national security team will be setting up shop, too, so it promises to be a very busy time for everyone involved.

The new administration will be a great opportunity for the Agency. I see it as a chance to demonstrate our expertise and insight into virtually every foreign issue affecting this country. We’ll get to know all our new customers and learn how best to serve them. But our fundamental responsibility–protecting the citizens of this nation–will remain the same.

Today I’d like to talk about how CIA keeps America safe from weapons of mass destruction, particularly the nuclear threat. Meeting that critical challenge has been a core responsibility ever since the Agency’s founding in 1947.

In fact, the very first CIA officer to die in the line of duty had been gathering data on the Soviet nuclear program. Douglas Mackiernan served in the desolate reaches of western China, one of those brave operatives who worked our top intelligence target along the periphery of the Soviet Union.

“Mack,” as he was called, was an MIT physics major conversant in Russian and Chinese, a highly resourceful and perceptive officer who had to work with some pretty basic equipment given the remoteness of his post. His primary tasks were to investigate Moscow’s access to local uranium deposits and report any sign of nuclear testing in Soviet Central Asia.

Mackiernan’s mission was cut short by the rapid western advance of the Chinese Communists after their revolution in 1949. He escaped by setting out on an epic seven-month trek across deserts and mountains. He managed to make it all the way to the frontier of Tibet, where he should have found sanctuary. Tragically, he was shot by Tibetan guards who had not yet received word that an American was coming and that he should be granted safe passage.

Douglas Mackiernan’s story speaks to the dedication and courage our officers have brought to our mission for six decades. CIA has targeted the WMD threat in all its forms, from the massive arsenals of rival nations to the deadly aspirations of terrorists. To say that we’re focused on 21st century challenges doesn’t mean for a second that we’ve forgotten those of the 20th–or that we aren’t looking for the emerging threats of tomorrow.

We closely analyze, as we should and as we must, the WMD and missile programs of countries throughout the world. But as attentive as we are in tracking existing weapons programs, the greater challenge lies in detecting those developing in secrecy. CIA is always watching for signs that states and subnational groups might be taking steps to acquire nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons.

Our mission is made a lot more difficult by the fact that access to sensitive technologies is no longer the exclusive domain of a few advanced nations. Dual-use technologies and scientific experts travel easily in our global economy, making it critical to follow those movements and know the experts.

But because the materials and expertise are so prevalent and have perfectly legitimate applications, the very fact that someone is interested in nuclear, chemical, or biological technology is not enough to prove they are interested in weapons. A WMD program fundamentally centers on political intent.

By that measure alone, there is no greater national security threat facing the United States than al-Qa’ida and its associates. Bin Ladin has said repeatedly that he considers acquisition of nuclear weapons “a religious duty.” And we know that al-Qa’‘ida remains determined to attack our country in ways that inflict maximum death and destruction.

We are fortunate that those with the clearest intent to acquire and use weapons of mass destruction are also the least capable of developing them. But the potential destruction from an improvised nuclear device–no matter how elementary–is so great that all that really matters to CIA is that we know terrorists are determined to use them.

We fight this threat on two fronts–the supply side and the demand side. CIA has a group devoted to identifying, penetrating, and disrupting WMD-related proliferation networks. That group is at the heart of a highly integrated effort, drawing on the expertise of our own analysts and intelligence collectors and their colleagues throughout government. Together with our foreign partners, we account for and help safeguard WMD and related equipment worldwide. We identify the illegal sellers and buyers of technology and expertise. And we use covert action to disrupt illicit transfers.

At the same time, we work–methodically, patiently, tirelessly–to penetrate and destroy terrorist networks. Operating against both ends of the chain is critical to detecting and defeating any nuclear plot against America or our allies.

CIA also focuses on Iran and North Korea, two states whose WMD programs have threatened US interests, regional stability, and international arms control mechanisms like the Non-Proliferation Treaty. North Korea conducted a nuclear test two years ago, and the Intelligence Community judges their program produced enough plutonium for at least a half-dozen weapons. For its part, Iran has the scientific, technical, and industrial capacity to produce nuclear weapons eventually. The question is not of capability, but intent.

A good analyst never presumes anything, least of all the plans of a foreign power. Intelligence officers can only assess capability and intent by starting with a clean slate and working from solid evidence and known behavior. That’s precisely what our Community did last year on Tehran’s nuclear program. The result was the Iran National Intelligence Estimate released in November.

The Iran NIE has had its share of criticism, which is typically what happens with a rigorous estimate that lays out what we know and don’t know about a highly contentious issue. It’s detailed, thorough, and–quite frankly–it’s courageous. We don’t have time to delve into the full scope of its findings, but here, very briefly, are the major judgments:

  • Until the fall of 2003, elements of Iran’s military were working to develop nuclear weapons and a warhead capable of delivering such weapons.
  • Tehran halted these efforts probably due to international scrutiny and exposure of previously undeclared nuclear work. We assessed that the nuclear weapons program had not resumed as of mid-2007, a conclusion that subsequent intelligence still supports.
  • And finally, Tehran at a minimum is keeping open its option to develop nuclear weapons.

What leads us to this last judgment? Again, it’s a matter of working back from actions. Why are they pushing forward with the uranium enrichment process at Natanz? They say it’s for civilian purposes, and yet they’ve rejected international offers of fissile material under proper controls.

Iran’s behavior, coming as it does after years of nuclear activity they concealed and continue to deny, invites nothing but suspicion. Why are they slow-rolling the International Atomic Energy Agency by not being forthcoming? And why are they willing to defy the United Nations and pay such a heavy price in terms of international isolation?

Those questions sound familiar. One could argue that Iraq under Saddam was just as confrontational and ultimately lacked the weapons we thought were there. But Iran’s leaders saw what happened to Saddam, and still they reject every opportunity to come clean with the world.

North Korea also poses a broad and complex challenge to global arms control. In fact, the WMD problem in Iran is compounded to no small degree by Tehran’s collaboration with North Korea on ballistic missiles.

Pyongyang’s WMD programs present a double threat. As part of North Korea’s arsenal, they endanger the peace and stability of northeastern Asia. As a source of global proliferation, they have been without equal since a joint operation with our British partners took down A.Q. Khan earlier this decade. Like Khan, whose network had been the world’s most dangerous black market supplier of nuclear technology, North Korea asks only two things of its customers: first, can they pay, and second, can they keep a secret.

Thanks to some outstanding intelligence work, we were able last year to spoil a big secret, a project that could have provided Syria with plutonium for nuclear weapons. I’d like to cover it here because it’s an excellent example of how CIA and our Community colleagues attack the problem of nuclear proliferation.

It was reported in the press last April, and you’re probably familiar with its outlines. We knew that North Korea and Syria had been cooperating since the late 1990s in the nuclear field. The depth of that relationship was revealed in the spring of last year, when we identified a nuclear reactor at Al-Kibar in the eastern desert of Syria. It was similar to the one at Yongbyon in North Korea, but with its outer structure heavily disguised.

The situation became critical late last summer, when we judged the facility could be nearing operation. The Al-Kibar reactor was destroyed the morning of 6 September 2007. The Syrians immediately cleared away the rubble and every trace of the building, stonewalling the IAEA when asked to explain. Their cover-up only underlined the intense secrecy of this project and the danger it had posed to a volatile region.

I want to focus briefly on two important aspects of this intelligence effort: the quality of tradecraft, in terms of collection and analysis, and the value of collaboration, both with colleagues in our government and with foreign services.

More than anything else, our work was a classic example of multidisciplinary, blue-collar analysis. We had a group of officers who started working overtime on this issue in April 2007 and kept at it for months. Virtually every form of intelligence–imagery, signals, human source, you name it–informed their assessments, so that they were never completely dependent on any single channel.

For instance, a report from a foreign partner initially identified the structure at Al-Kibar as a nuclear reactor similar to one in North Korea. But even without that piece of the puzzle, it wouldn’t have been long before we reached the same conclusion. We had previously identified the facility on imagery as a suspicious target. When pipes for a massive cooling system were laid out to the Euphrates River in the spring of 2007, there would have been little doubt this was a nuclear reactor. We would have known it was North Korean, too, given the quantity and variety of intelligence reports on nuclear ties between Pyongyang and Damascus.

Still, our analysts were open to alternative possibilities at every juncture. Early on, they applied a methodology that laid out the inconsistencies in each competing hypothesis. They carefully examined whether the building might be for another purpose, like a conventional power plant, or a water treatment facility. In each case, the arguments simply didn’t add up. The reactor hypothesis was the most difficult to refute with the available evidence.

We then stepped back and tried to turn the basic premise on its head: OK, we’ve got a nuclear reactor in Syria built with North Korean help, but is it necessarily for a Syrian program? Might it have been built by North Korea for its own use, to secretly replace the Yongbyon reactor they had pledged to shut down? We took that hypothesis and worked very hard on it, but the mainstream theory held sway.

Finally, this was a success reached through close collaboration across agencies, departments, and governments. Dedicated officers at CIA, DIA, the Department of Energy, the National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, and NSA came together as a team, each bringing a specific expertise to the table. And this was an intelligence problem that required a wide range of knowledge. I already mentioned all the different forms of collection, but it also drew from a remarkable diversity of analytic firepower–everyone from nuclear technology and weapons experts to political and leadership analysts.

Our foreign partnerships too were critical to the final outcome. These relationships aren’t a matter of occasionally passing along a report that may or may not be useful. They’re more akin to working together on a complex equation over a long period. Each tries to solve a variable that in turn helps a partner solve another, and so on until we’ve cracked the case. That’s what good intelligence is all about.

I hope my remarks today have given you a better idea of how CIA is meeting the counterproliferation challenge. The Intelligence Community as a whole has taken great strides since the pre-war NIE on Iraq to strengthen our tradecraft, and I think it shows with both the Iran estimate and the Al-Kibar effort. The rigor of our sourcing, the emphasis on alternative analysis, and the integration of our expertise with those of our colleagues have never been greater.

By history and law, CIA has more connective tissue to the rest of the Intelligence Community than any other organization. We draw on those deep connections and other unique strengths–in human intelligence collection, all-source analysis, and foreign liaison partnerships–to fulfill a single overriding mission: protecting the American people. That remains the ultimate standard by which we measure our success.

I am tremendously proud of the men and women of CIA. They give far more than they get, and deserve far better than they usually receive. Like Doug Mackiernan before them, today’s CIA officers face the same risks, possess the same spirit, and serve the same cause. They accomplish their mission in ways I’m sure would make you proud, too.

Thank you very much.