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The Dalai Lama and the CIA

In response to:

The Dalai Lama on Succession and on the CIA from the June 10, 1999 issue

To the Editors:

Jonathan Mirsky states [NYR, June 10] that the Dalai Lama is wrong to give (reluctant) credit to the CIA for his escape from China. “The Dalai Lama,” Mirsky writes, “has been misinformed…. The escape operation was an entirely Tibetan affair.”

According to Evan Thomas’s recent The Very Best Men, an account of Desmond Fitzgerald, Richard Bissell, and other leaders of early CIA covert operations, his flight was “aided by the CIA…. Tony Poe…was the CIA’s man on the ground. He later presented a crayon portrait of the Dalai Lama’s flight out of Tibet to Richard Bissell, while Fitzgerald told his family about Poe and the Dalai Lama racing down the runway of a remote mountain strip, a step ahead of the blazing guns of the PLA.”

Thomas notes elsewhere that Poe (real name: Poshepny), who later lived in Laos “in a house decorated with a string of ears that had been chopped off the heads of dead communists…,” “was sometimes said to be the real-life version of the mad Colonel Kurtz of Apocalypse Now.…”

Daniel Wikler, Ph.D.
Department of Philosophy
University of Wisconsin
Madison, Wisconsin

Jonathan Mirsky replies:

Professor Wikler says that the CIA helped the Dalai Lama escape from Lhasa to India. He also gives the name of a CIA man “on the ground,” Tony Poe. In his Orphans of the Cold War (Public Affairs Press, 1999), John Kenneth Knaus, one of the CIA men who directed the agency’s ill-fated operations in Tibet, describes this event minutely. There were no CIA men on the ground (indeed there never were in Tibet) and the agency learned of the Dalai Lama’s escape “only some days after his flight” from two CIA-trained Tibetans “who had radio communication only with the CIA in Washington.” The CIA otherwise had nothing to do with the flight, although it was kept in touch by radio.

In The Dragon in the Land of Snows (Pimlico Press, 1999), the historian Tsering Shakya also gives a detailed account of the escape, and concludes, “It is clear that the CIA was not involved in organising the Dalai Lama’s escape as alleged by the Chinese and some Western writers.”

As for Poe/Poshepny, he is a great fabulist.

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