For much of the 1960s, the CIA provided the Tibetan exile movement with $1.7 million a year for operations against China, including an annual subsidy of $180,000 for the Dalai Lama, according to newly released U.S. intelligence documents.
The money for the Tibetans and the Dalai Lama was part of the CIA’s worldwide effort during the height of the Cold War to undermine Communist governments, particularly in the Soviet Union and China. In fact, the U.S. government committee that approved the Tibetan operations also authorized the disastrous Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba.
The documents, published last month by the State Department, illustrate the historical background of the situation in Tibet today, in which China continues to accuse the Dalai Lama of being an agent of foreign forces seeking to separate Tibet from China.
The CIA’s program encompassed support of Tibetan guerrillas in Nepal, a covert military training site in Colorado, “Tibet Houses” established to promote Tibetan causes in New York and Geneva, education for Tibetan operatives at Cornell University and supplies for reconnaissance teams.
“The purpose of the program . . . is to keep the political concept of an autonomous Tibet alive within Tibet and among foreign nations, principally India, and to build a capability for resistance against possible political developments inside Communist China,” explains one memo written by top U.S. intelligence officials.
Relationship Was Mutually Beneficial
The declassified historical documents provide the first inside details of the CIA’s decade-long covert program to support the Tibetan independence movement. At the time of the intelligence operation, the CIA was seeking to weaken Mao Tse-tung’s hold over China. And the Tibetan exiles were looking for help to keep their movement alive after the Dalai Lama and his supporters fled Tibet following an unsuccessful 1959 revolt against Chinese rule.
Tibetan exiles and the Dalai Lama have acknowledged for many years that they once received support from U.S. intelligence. But until now, Washington has refused to release any information about the CIA’s Tibetan operations.
The U.S. intelligence support for the Tibetans ended in the early 1970s after the Nixon administration’s diplomatic opening to China, according to the Dalai Lama’s writings, former CIA officials and independent scholars.
The Dalai Lama wrote in his autobiography that the cutoff in the 1970s showed that the assistance from the Americans “had been a reflection of their anti-Communist policies rather than genuine support for the restoration of Tibetan independence.”
The newly published files show that the collaboration between U.S. intelligence and the Tibetans was less than ideal. “The Tibetans by nature did not appear to be congenitally inclined toward conspiratorial proficiency,” a top CIA official says ruefully in one memo.
The budget figures for the CIA’s Tibetan program are contained in a memo dated Jan. 9, 1964. It was evidently written to help justify continued funding for the clandestine intelligence operation.
“Support of 2,100 Tibetan guerrillas based in Nepal: $500,000,” the document says. “Subsidy to the Dalai Lama: $180,000.” After listing several other costs, it concludes: “Total: $1,735,000.” The files show that this budget request was approved soon afterward.
A later document indicates that these annual expenses continued at the same level for four more years, until 1968. At that point, the CIA scrubbed its training programs for Tibetans inside the United States and cut the budget for the entire program to just below $1.2 million a year.
In his 1990 autobiography, “Freedom in Exile,” the Dalai Lama explained that his two brothers made contact with the CIA during a trip to India in 1956. The CIA agreed to help, “not because they cared about Tibetan independence, but as part of their worldwide efforts to destabilize all Communist governments,” the Dalai Lama wrote.
“Naturally, my brothers judged it wise to keep this information from me. They knew what my reaction would have been.”
The Dalai Lama also wrote regretfully in his book that the CIA had trained and equipped Tibetan guerrillas who conducted raids into Tibet from a base camp in Nepal.
The effect of these operations “only resulted in more suffering for the people of Tibet. Worse, these activities gave the Chinese government the opportunity to blame the efforts of those seeking to regain Tibetan independence on the activities of foreign powers--whereas, of course, it was an entirely Tibetan initiative.”
Lodi Gyari, the Dalai Lama’s personal representative in Washington, said last week that he had no knowledge of the CIA’s $180,000-a-year subsidy or how the money was spent.
“I have no clue whatsoever,” Gyari said. Speaking more generally of the CIA’s past support for the Tibetans, Gyari acknowledged: “It is an open secret. We do not deny it.”
Agency Has Resisted Release of Details
The CIA has long resisted efforts to disclose information about its Tibetan operations.
In 1993, then-CIA Director R. James Woolsey promised to declassify and release the records of six CIA covert operations during the Cold War, involving France, Italy, Indonesia, Laos, North Korea and Tibet. But this year, CIA Director George J. Tenet said the agency did not have the money or personnel to do this for the foreseeable future.
The Tibet documents were released not by the CIA but by the State Department, which has responsibility for regularly publishing documents that show the history of U.S. foreign policy.
Warren W. Smith Jr., author of a recent book on the history of Tibet, said he believes that the newly published documents are the first to describe the CIA’s Tibetan operations.
Until now, information about the CIA plans has come from "[Tibetan] exiles and a few old CIA agents,” Smith said. “None of the agents involved would know detailed information about things like the budget.”
The CIA was not the only intelligence service to support the Tibetans. India also helped, and, according to Smith’s book, Indian intelligence officials even organized a Tibetan unit within the Indian army.
The newly published documents show, however, that Tibetan leaders sometimes complained to Washington that they weren’t getting sufficient backing from India.
The documents provide no details about the $180,000-a-year subsidy to the Dalai Lama. But they suggest that the money was used to pay for the staff and other costs of supporting his activities on behalf of the Tibetan people.
The same 1964 memo speaks of “continuing the support subsidy to the Dalai Lama’s entourage at Dharamsala,” the city in northern India that has served as the Dalai Lama’s headquarters and the seat of the Tibetan government-in-exile.
Eisenhower Team Gave Initial Approval
A brief internal history of the CIA’s Tibet operations shows that the Eisenhower administration first formally approved covert support to the Tibetan resistance in September 1958, at a time when the Tibetans were conducting guerrilla raids against Chinese army units.
The U.S. intelligence operations were overseen in Washington by the executive branch’s top-secret “303 Committee.” On May 20, 1959, only a few weeks after the unsuccessful Tibetan revolt, the 303 Committee approved the first covert support specifically for the Dalai Lama, who had just arrived in India. These covert CIA programs were re-approved several times during the 1960s.
In 1964, the CIA decided that one of the main problems facing the Tibetans was “a lack of trained officers equipped with linguistic and administrative abilities.” As a result, it decided to educate 20 Tibetans. “Cornell University has tentatively agreed to provide facilities for their education,” the CIA explains in one memo.
The Cornell program did not last long. In 1967, after Ramparts magazine disclosed that the CIA had been secretly funding the activities of the National Student Assn. in the United States, the CIA restricted its activities on U.S. university campuses.
The files show that the Tibetans were keeping close track of U.S. policy toward China. In fact, they sometimes had a better sense of what the U.S. was about to do about China than did the rest of the world.
On Dec. 6, 1968, a month after Richard Nixon was elected president but before he took office, the Dalai Lama’s brother told a senior State Department official that the Tibetan exiles were afraid “of an accommodation the United States might make with the Chinese Communists.”
Undersecretary of State Eugene V. Rostow told him not to worry. Rostow said that “we [the United States] would not make any accommodation with the Chinese Communists at the expense of Tibet.”
Over the next four years, the Nixon administration carried out its opening to China, and the CIA’s Tibetan operations were shut down.
Now, more than a quarter of a century later, the U.S. government is providing some financial support for Tibetans, but openly and through other channels.
In recent years, Congress has approved about $2 million annually in funding for Tibetan exiles in India. Congress has also urged the administration to spend another $2 million for democracy activities among the Tibetans.