Dalai Lama's Links to CIA Still Stir Debate

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Two sorts of people were offended by Oliver Stone's film JFK. American patriots were outraged at the suggestion by Stone's main character that Lyndon Johnson was complicit in John F. Kennedy's murder. The others, deeply involved in North America's fast-growing spirituality industry, gasped with disbelief when the unnamed U.S. intelligence veteran played by Donald Sutherland, reminiscing about the old days of the CIA, said, "Tibet '59, we got the Dalai Lama out--we were good, very good."

Followers of the 14th Dalai Lama, including such Buddhist theologians as Richard Gere and Harrison Ford, have often tried to ignore the long-time links between their exiled leader and the CIA. Doing so credibly, however, becomes harder each year.

When the People's Republic of China invaded Tibet in 1950, it found Tibet much as it always had been: an unforgiving and feudal society where there were still warlords and even slaves. The Dalai Lama, who visits Vancouver April 18 to 20 (details at www.dalailamavancouver.org/), lived as the monarch in his 1,000-room palace in Lhasa without interference from the new occupiers of his country, which had often been invaded in earlier times and just as often had invaded others.

But some of his subjects did rise up, unsuccessfully and with CIA help. Rebelliousness grew until 1959, when the Dalai Lama himself joined in a more general revolt. It failed. He fled across the border into India.

Probably the first public revelation about supposed CIA help in the flight itself came in 1961 with the publication of Tibet Is My Country: The Autobiography of Thubten Jigme Norbu, Brother of the Dalai Lama. But the phrasing in this as-told-to book, translated from Tibetan to English via German, was ambiguous. Many were left to argue whether the springing of the Dalai Lama was actually a CIA covert op or if, as the CIA claimed, its people became aware of the escape only when it was already under way--though by then they long had American operatives at work inside Tibet.

In his 1995 The Very Best Men, Evan Thomas, Newsweek's expert on the intelligence community, described the Dalai Lama and a CIA operative "racing down the runway of a remote mountain strip, a step ahead of the blazing guns" of the Chinese army. But in Orphans of the Cold War (1999), John Kenneth Knaus, one of the CIA's point men in Tibet, said CIA help was limited to radio contact (as shown in Martin Scorsese's 1997 film Kundun). That version was echoed in The Dragon in the Land of Snows by Tsering Shakya (also 1999). Many arguments still turn on this point. What's become a lot less debatable is what the Dalai Lama and the CIA did next--together.

In the early 1960s, the CIA moved from dropping its own agents into Tibet to training a brigade of 2,000 Tibetan exiles, using secret bases in the Colorado Rockies and elsewhere. The band was supposed to invade occupied Tibet from Nepal. The Dalai Lama admitted as much in his 1990 autobiography Freedom in Exile, which sold one million copies and was the first of his many lucrative bestsellers (two in the past two years alone).

But apparently the guerrilla army never did more than engage in border skirmishing. As early as 1964, in fact, its effectiveness and efficiency were called into question by the CIA, which nevertheless stuck with the plan. Funds to pay this army were funnelled through the Dalai Lama and his organization, which received US$1.7 million a year, later reduced to $1.2 million. (Of this, the Dalai Lama himself was paid $186,000 a year. But no one has ever suggested that he pocketed it. The money was used to operate his exiled government's offices in Geneva and New York.) The last year in which the stipend was paid out was 1974. By then, of course, U.S. policy had changed to one of embracing China, not antagonizing it.

Much of this information became public in 1997 in the far-right Chicago Tribune, of all places, confirming what Maoists had been charging for decades. In 1998 both the Los Angeles Times and the New York Times added further details, using newly declassified agency documents.

Now the debate may be shifting. One former CIA agent named Ralph McGehee, admittedly a professional thorn in the side of his former employer, alleges that the CIA has been a prime funder of the Dalai Lama's media profile as a symbol of meditative peace and Buddhist mindfulness. But the North American image of a spiritually pure Tibet--the Shangri-la idea that's been building ever since Lost Horizon, the 1933 novel by James Hilton, who got the idea from photos in National Geographic--can also be viewed in other terms. It can be seen as a continuation of the Orientalism by which the western imagination has colonized and marginalized Asia and the Middle East for generations.