Secret Journey

Local writer Thomas Laird chronicles the adventures of 'atomic spy' Douglas Mackiernan, the man the CIA denies sending to Tibet.



A willing abandonment of a democratic republic's most cherished principles -- think Abraham Lincoln and the suspension of habeas corpus during the Civil War -- is a hallmark, for better or worse, of the United States at war.

That today a hefty chunk of Americans -- more than 78 percent according to a recent Gallup survey -- are willing to relinquish some rights and freedoms if it means waging war more effectively against terrorism, is only the latest evidence of how different our country becomes when its security seems suddenly at risk.

Fifty years ago, the republic faced a similar dilemma as it prepared for what most Americans were sure would be a coming battle with the Soviet Union, a conflagration that would almost certainly involve atomic weapons. It was a gray time: as Cold War tensions increased, so did support for whatever Washington might do to subvert the advance of communism internationally.

President Harry Truman announced the formation of the Central Intelligence Agency, an act he later said he regretted: "If I had known what was going to happen, I would never have done it," he said in an interview with the journalist Merle Miller in the early l960s, later published in Miller's popular book Plain Speaking: An Oral Biography of Harry S. Truman.

Suddenly the era of executive-sanctioned covert action was launched.

Enter Douglas Mackiernan, a 36-year-old CIA agent assigned the difficult task of trying to convince Tibet to accept arms from the United States in order to ward off what seemed to be an almost certain invasion from Chinese communists, who had just recently routed the nationalists on the mainland. Mackiernan's assignment, according to a book just released by New Orleans writer Thomas Laird, would prove futile: not only was he killed by Tibetan soldiers who were unaware of his mission, but the guns the Americans finally arranged to transport to Tibet came too late -- China invaded Tibet in the spring of l950 and has occupied it ever since.

Mackiernan's story, then, is a short one, an early symbol of this country's circuitous and often self-defeating attempts to protect itself through a series of implausible -- and at times unethical -- covert actions.

But it is what happened to Mackiernan after his death, on the other side of the globe -- in Washington -- that ultimately forms the moral parable of Laird's book, Into Tibet: The CIA's First Atomic Spy and His Secret Expedition to Lhasa, called by the Village Voice a "scrupulously documented account of Cold War intrigue."

"It just seemed like a story that had to be told," Laird says of Into Tibet. "In fact, it was one of those stories that, once I started putting together the stray bits and pieces, virtually began to tell itself."

In late 1949, Douglas Mackiernan was assigned the delicate task of trying to establish a pro-U.S. beachhead in Tibet just as that country faced what would prove to be an unassailable assault from the Chinese communists. Through rural peasant villages and rugged mountain terrain, Mackiernan and a fellow agent, Frank Bessac, trekked more than 2,000 miles on their way to Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, where they hoped to persuade the young Dalai Lama to accept arms in order to more effectively resist Mao Tse-tung's men.

Accompanied by three Russians who were devoted anti-communists, the small party was confronted by Tibetan guards in the spring of 1950. The guards, unaware of the men's mission, shot and killed Mackiernan and two of the Russians. But when Bessac and the remaining Russian were taken into Lhasa, they were greeted by Tibetan officials who not only apologized for the shootings but also agreed to accept American arms for what nearly everyone agreed was the coming Chinese invasion.

The new and, as it emerged, cumbersome U.S.-Tibet alliance proved too slow, however, for the Chinese communists, who were on a roll after their dramatic takeover of mainland China in September of the previous year. In October l950, the Chinese communists moved into Tibet to stay.

Laird began to unravel the tragic consequences of the U.S.-Tibet-China tale more than eight years ago, as he waded though hundreds of declassified documents at the National Archives. As he grew to see it, the story bears the mark of dozens of similar dagger-and-cloak CIA operations that have stained the reputation of the United States with any number of countries in a wide arc from Central and Latin America to sub-Saharan Africa and southeast Asia. But what made the death of Douglas Mackiernan all the more compelling, says Laird, is that the CIA to this day continues to deny that there was ever an attempt to arm Tibet. In so doing, they inevitably endeavor to erase the historic importance of Mackiernan who, Laird insists, is the "first known CIA agent to have died in the service of his country."

"For 50 years," Laird charges, "great pains were taken ... to conceal what truly happened before, during, and after this expedition."

Those efforts eventually resulted in a ceremony that seems to be drawn out of a Graham Greene novel or John Frankenheimer movie: in the summer of 2000, 14 members of the Mackiernan family, including Douglas Mackiernan's wife Pegge, who was denied a widow's pension by the CIA, were at long last invited to the agency's annual memorial ceremony. But they were instructed to not bring with them a camera or tape recorder.

"The CIA dealt with them much as it had dealt with Pegge in the 1950s," reports Laird. "The family was also told that if they were asked if any of the Mackiernan family had attended the ceremony, the CIA would deny it."

CIA director George Tenet, adds Laird, "urged the families to bear their grief in silence" -- the implication being that the agency would continue to not only publicly deny Mackiernan's sacrifice, but the precise reason why he died.

To Laird, the agency's stance belies explanation. But one he recently came across sounds as good as any: he says former New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan told him it is the nature of every bureaucracy to horde information. "That is how bureaucracies justify their existence," Moynihan, a long-time advocate of "sunshine legislation," reportedly told Laird.

For a government agency whose mission is to gather, decipher and file away -- sometimes forever -- intelligence information, such a bureaucratic inclination is perhaps even more pronounced. But Laird acknowledges that the current 9/11 environment drastically differs from the anti-authority 1970s that originally formed many of his political opinions. The country has more of a need for intelligent intelligence gathering than ever before, he admits.

"Let's face it, the United States has many enemies," Laird says. "It is essential that we monitor their movements. It is absolutely, now, in our own best interest."

What Laird would like to see changed is the manner in which the CIA allows its records to be examined by the public. He echoes the complaints of historians, journalists and other scholars who have attempted to peel away the secrecy surrounding the CIA -- as well as the FBI -- by requesting records through the Freedom of Information Act (FOI), only to see such requests take months and often years to process.

"I ended up getting some key documents through the FOI," Laird says. "But it took about three years for me to get them, which is an incredibly long time."

Admitting that he has received some negative and even hostile responses to his book from current CIA employees -- "I do not want to say who they are," he says -- Laird hopes that one result of his book may be a public clamor for more openness in one of the world's most closed agencies. "It is just a matter of accountability," Laird says. "And in the world's greatest democracy we should demand no less."

Earlier this year, Laird and his wife, Jann Fenner, moved to New Orleans and purchased a house in Algiers Point. Together, they have also opened up a shop called Patina on the 3600 block of Magazine Street, which will specialize in blankets and carpets woven from hemp products in Nepal.

New Orleans by way of Kathmandu is not exactly the traditional route to this port city, but for Laird it has proven to be the only way to get here. "During my last days in Kathmandu I spent a lot of time walking in the streets, just touching things, the walls of the old temples and other buildings, and complaining that I was leaving all it all -- the rich history of a wonderful place -- behind."

But on a surprise visit to New Orleans, Laird found he was rubbing his hands over the marble, brick and cypress walls of aged structures in the French Quarter. "I know that sounds kind of weird," he says. "But New Orleans just began to feel to me like Kathmandu: its history, its culture, its old-world atmosphere, these were all things that I knew I would miss about Nepal, and to my surprise I found them in New Orleans."

For Laird, the move to New Orleans succeeds a 30-year love affair with Nepal, currently in the midst of a violent civil war that in the past month alone has seen the murder of more than 100 people -- both members of the Nepalese army as well as a Maoist rebel group. "I simply came to the conclusion that it was no longer safe to live there," Laird says.

But the end of this most recent journey also comes just as Laird has unveiled to the world the quirky tale of someone else's journey, a half a planet away, in a time that is eerily similar to our own.

CORRECTIONS AND CLARIFICATIONS: In last week's cover story ("40 Under 40"), media artist Courtney Egan was incorrectly identified as the director of the Media Arts program at the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts; Egan is an instructor, while Paul Werner is the director of the program. Also, the Web site address for Blake Haney's organization, New Breed New Orleans, was incorrectly reported as; the actual URL is Additionally, anyone seeking to contact Amanda Shaw should visit her Web site, Gambit Weekly regrets the errors.
The Dalai Lama with Thomas Laird
  • The Dalai Lama with Thomas Laird

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