The CIA’s First Atomic Spy
   and His Secret Expedition to Lhasa
   Grove Press
   Hardcover, 1st edition May 2002
   364 pages ISBN: 0802117147
   US$ 26

   Paperback: 384 pages
   Publisher: Grove Press; March 2003
   ISBN: 080213999X
   US$ 15

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


     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 unique atomic intelligence operations helped shape both Inner Asia and the CIA as we know them today. The facts about his work–and his death, deep inside Tibet – remains so sensitive that the Agency, even now, will neither confirm nor deny his existence.

      In a fast-paced 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.

     Into Tibet is the incredible story of a 1949-1950 American undercover expedition led by America's first atomic agent, Douglas S. Mackiernan–a covert attempt to arm the Tibetans and to recognize Tibet's independence months before China invaded.

      It was a one-year trek across Inner Asia to Tibet, for the agents: across black sand deserts below sea level, and over snow bound 20,000 feet Himalayan passes. Tragically, ill-informed border guards opened fire on the American party as soon as they reached Tibet, killing Mackiernan before he could reach Lhasa. Or did Mackiernan suspect that his mission was actually a political kiss of death for the Tibetans, and commit an odd suicide? The dramatic shoot out at the border turns and re-shapes as layer within layer of this true-life mystery is revealed.

      The survivor, Frank Bessac, says that he took up Mackiernan's mission. He met the young Dalai Lama in Lhasa, the last American ever to do so there. The Dalai Lama in his first ever interview about this US operation said, " Yes, it happened. .. You see we considered him as something official. Because he had a radio and money…he was somehow, we thought, an American government official–he had a radio. So you see he offered…the Tibetan side was very much willing at that time to discuss things."

      Standing up in the Potala the twenty eight-year-old American agent made an impassioned plea to the Tibetan National Assembly, urging it to officially request covert US military aid. This is what he thought Mackiernan would have done. Chinese spies in Lhasa followed his every move. Six weeks after he left Tibet, with the governments' official written request for covert military aid in hand, that document was encrypted and transmitted back to Washington where it landed on the desk of Dean Rusk, at the State Department. Weeks later the CIA began to air drop small amounts of military aid into Tibet. Weeks after that China invaded, claiming it did so to halt 'Imperialist Plots'. America publicly denied any covert US involvement as 'Communist Propaganda'. Tibet had to lie about these events, to protect America. LIFE Magazine published a sanitized version of the trek across Tibet as, This Was the Tragic Trek to Tragedy.

      As this drama unfolded in Tibet Mackiernan's wife and then widow–the journalist Pegge Lyons-kept a frank and troublesome diary back home. That diary, revealed to Laird by the widow only 50 years later, allows Into Tibet to peer into the searing human cost paid by Mackiernan's family. The CIA ultimately abandoned the widow and young twins of the first agent ever killed in the line of duty–under ugly circumstances that the CIA has yet to come to grips with–denying them any pension. Only in recent years has the Director of the CIA finally made some compensation to Mackiernan's family as the CIA at last struggles to understand the life and death, the success and failure, of a man who was in many ways one of the founding fathers of the CIA.

      Into Tibet reveals how the clash between the State Department and the CIA, as well as unguided actions by field agents, hastened the Chinese invasion of Tibet. It is a gripping narrative of survival, courage, and intrigue among the nomads, princes, and warring armies of Inner Asia, and it rewrites the accepted history behind the Chinese invasion of Tibet.


© 2003 Thomas Laird  |  Contact the author