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The U.S. Central Intelligence Agency's Tibetan program was a covert operation consisting of political plots, propaganda distribution, as well as paramilitary support and intelligence gathering based on U.S. commitments made to the Dalai Lama in 1951 and 1956.
Although the operation was formally assigned to the CIA alone, it was nevertheless closely coordinated with several other U.S. government agencies such as the Department of State and the Department of Defense.
Previous operations had aimed to strengthen a number of isolated Tibetan resistance groups, which eventually led to the creation of a paramilitary force on the Nepalese border with approximately 2,000 men. By February 1964, the projected annual cost for all CIA Tibetan operations had exceeded US$1.7 million.
In the fields of political action and propaganda, the CIA's Tibetan program was aimed at lessening the influence and capabilities of the Chinese regime. The approval and subsequent endorsement of the program was carried out by the 303 Committee of the United States National Security Council. The program consists of several clandestine operations with the following code names:
In the early 1950s, the CIA inserted paramilitary teams from the Special Activities Division (SAD) to train and lead Tibetan resistance fighters against the People's Liberation Army of China. These teams selected and then trained Tibetan soldiers in the Rocky Mountains of the United States; as well as at Camp Hale in Colorado. The SAD teams then advised and led these commandos against the Chinese, both from Nepal and India. In addition, SAD Paramilitary Officers were responsible for the Dalai Lama's clandestine escape to India, narrowly escaping capture and certain execution by the Chinese government.
In 1955, a group of local Tibetan leaders secretly plotted an armed uprising, and rebellion broke out in 1956, with the rebels besieging several Chinese government agencies and killing hundreds of Chinese government staff as well as Han Chinese people. By May 1957, a rebel organization with its own fighting force was established with the support of the CIA.
As stated by Palden Wangyal, a veteran guerrilla fighter, the rebels were directly paid by the Americans to attack Chinese government facilities and installations in Tibet:
"Our soldiers attacked Chinese trucks and seized some documents of the Chinese government. After that the Americans increased our pay scale."
Some CIA trainees ended up commanding an army of 2,000 resistance fighters dubbed the Chushi Gangdruk, or "Four Rivers, Six Gorges". These fighters were specialized in ambushing Chinese targets from elevated bases in the mountains of Nepal.
In 1958, with the rebellion in Kham ongoing, two of these fighters, Athar and Lhotse, attempted to meet with the Dalai Lama to determine whether he would cooperate with their activities. However, their request for an audience was refused by the Lord Chamberlain, Phala Thubten Wonden, who believed such a meeting would be impolitic. According to Tsering Shakya, "Phala never told the Dalai Lama or the Kashag of the arrival of Athar and Lhotse. Nor did he inform the Dalai Lama of American willingness to provide aid".
The rebels continued to attack Chinese government officials, disrupting communication lines, and targeting Chinese troops. Following a mass uprising in Lhasa in 1959 during the celebration of the Tibetan New Year and the ensuing Chinese military response, the Dalai Lama went into exile in India.
However, the CIA Tibetan program was gradually discontinued in the late 1960s, and finally ended when Richard Nixon decided to seek rapprochement with China in the early 1970s. As a result, each of the 1,500 CIA-trained rebels received 10,000 rupees to buy land in India or to open a business, instead of fighting the People's Liberation Army of China. In addition, the White House decided that the training of Tibetan guerrillas by the CIA would have to cease, because the risk of damaging Sino-American relations would be too high and costly.
The following table provides an example of the financial cost of the CIA's Tibetan program in the year 1968 alone:
|Training cost of junior officers||US$45,000|
|Advocacy groups in New York and Geneva||US$75,000|
|Subsidy to the Dalai Lama||US$180,000|
|Covert training site in Colorado||US$400,000|
|Support of 2100 Tibetan guerrillas||US$500,000|
The 14th Dalai Lama was financially backed by the CIA from the late 1950s until 1974, receiving US$180,000 each year. The funds were paid to him personally, although he used most of them for Tibetan government-in-exile activities funding foreign offices to lobby for international support.
Although the Dalai Lama's pleas proved to be less effective with the passing of time, his office in New York did not cease to lobby several U.N. delegations for the Tibetan cause. In addition, the Dalai Lama was also aided by a former U.S. delegate to the U.N.
In his 1991 autobiography Freedom in Exile, the 14th Dalai Lama criticized the CIA for supporting the Tibetan independence movement "not because they (the CIA) cared about Tibetan independence, but as part of their worldwide efforts to destabilize all communist governments".
In 1999, the Dalai Lama admitted that the CIA Tibetan program had been harmful for Tibet because it was primarily aimed at serving American interests, and "once the American policy toward China changed, they stopped their help".