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Operation Hat: A Failed CIA Mission and the Plutonium Threat in the Indian Himalayas
The threat perceptions during the cold war weren't anything new and nor were the covert and overt operations, or the propaganda and the warmongering that both the eastern and western blocs were wishfully and willfully engaged in. 16th October 1964, China had successfully carried out a nuclear test at the secret Lop Nur site in the north-western Xinjiang province (then Sinkiang), making an unofficial entry into the elite nuclear club despite a Limited Test Ban Treaty (LTBT) in place. The world especially the Americans were taken aback by this massive development and the geopolitical ramifications that would follow this open dare. Simultaneously the Chinese had also been secretly testing missiles at some secret facilities in the close vicinity of the Himalayas. However, the nuclear capability and strike-range of these missiles were still unknown due to limited intelligence, which had the Pentagon and CIA worried. Back then, there were no effective spy satellites and the Americans primarily relied on photo reconnaissance missions for intelligence gathering beside the ground intel from their spy network. The Air Force Program 206, code-named Gambit was one such program, using the specialized KH-7 camera systems. The Gambit program between 1963-67 was able to gather crucial military intelligence that primarily involved high-resolution photography of strategic assets. But this wasn't enough and more in-depth and conclusive intelligence was the need of the hour amidst the cold war paranoia. Then there were other challenges to deal with. The Americans were already neck-deep in the Vietnam war alongside their allies, the South Vietnam, fighting the Communist North and their allies in South, the Viet Cong.
With Communist China getting a nuclear edge, President Johnson entrusted the CIA with the responsibility to head a clandestine mission, code-named 'Project Hat'. The mission objective was to install a remote sensing spy device in the Himalayan ranges in India. The initial spark for such a risky covert mission is believed to have come from a meeting between Barry Bishop (the summiteer from the first successful American Everest expedition in 1963) and General Curtis LeMay. Bishop in one of their meetings, happened to have recounted the unobstructed line of sight he had from the summit of Everest, stating he could see all the way into Western China. It's believed that from this casual exchange emerged an unlikely inspiration to put the spy device atop the Himalayan summit.
Easier said than done, climbing Everest along with all the cavalcade was out of the question and hence Indian side of Himalayan ranges was taken into consideration. Although non-aligned, India had a pro-Soviet leaning. Nonetheless, for CIA it was an easy cookie to crack and they not just managed to persuade the Indian Government in allowing the operation but also offer full cooperation in accomplishing the sinister plot. Though a cloud of mystery still surrounds the involvement of the Indian Government in this covert operation and that, despite former Indian Prime Minister Morarji Desai's acknowledgment in the late 70s. In retrospective, however, considering Indian Government involvement and falling for the bait is quite understandable and doesn't come across as something very shocking or surprising to the least. Just three years prior to the operation, the aggressing Chinese forces took the nation by surprise and thrashed it in a short war along the Northern and North-Eastern Frontier. Further embarrassment followed, with China capturing some 33,000 sq km of Indian territory before declaring a cease-fire. The Indian insecurities vis a vis the Chinese were presumably at their peak and with them acquiring nuclear arsenal the equation had only gotten worse.
The Preparations and Planning
The mission had its numerous challenges from the word go. To begin with, during the said period, it was a daunting task in itself to carry the device while undertaking a difficult climb in some of the most extreme and unpredictable weather conditions. To top it up a practically unexplored terrain, increased the difficulty scenario four-folds. Most importantly all this had to be carried out in a hush-hush mode.
Initially, Mt. Kanchenjunga was chosen for the mission, primarily due to its close proximity to Chinese nuclear site. However, considering the challenges, it was later decided to install the spy device atop the snow-clad Nanda Devi peak in the Garhwal Himalayas in the Uttrakhand state of India. And there it was, the pristine Nanda Devi, at 7816m (25,643ft), stood as the second highest Indian peak and 23rd highest in the world. For the Hindu population, the Nanda Devi is revered and worshipped as the protector of the hills. Often as 'bliss giving'. Isolated, with limited access, the peak was an ideal choice for the espionage operation.
As per some unofficial reports, junior officers from Indian Intelligence Bureau (IB) were handed over the task to recruit the necessary workforce for the mission. Thirty-three Bhotia men (an indigenous tribe) from Lata and Reini village in the adjoining region were hired for the expedition. In addition nine Sherpas, members of a tribe of elite mountaineers were brought from Sikkim state for their expertise in climbing glaciers. The mission was supposed to be led by some of India’s most legendary mountaineers—drawn from a team of climbers who had scaled Everest earlier that year, putting India in the elite club of few nations that have achieved the feat. Manmohan Singh Kohli, a Navy commander assigned to the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP), was the expedition’s leader. On the American side, CIA recruited 14 of America's best climbers on a hefty payroll. Schaller and Tom Frost being the famed names.
The Indian crew, which included 4 climbers, was taken to the US, where along with their US counterparts they were flown to Mt. McKinley in Alaska for a possible mock drill at some 20,320 ft. to acclimatize and provide them the relevant know-how. The warm-up exercise itself was marred by some distressing weather and that was no less than a bad omen for things to follow. Barry Bishop was in charge of the training that supposedly lasted for 40 days. By then the news of another nuclear test by China had already added to the concerns of the American intelligence circle.
Bill Mckniff was the CIA officer in charge in India who coordinated the mission from the base camp. Partnering with him were the heavyweights in the Indian intelligence arena. Bhola Nath Mullik, the first director of the Indian Intelligence Bureau (IB) post Independence. Closely coordinating with Mullik was Rameshwar Nath Kao, who was then the director of the Aviation Research Centre (ARC), a branch of the IB. Kao, later on, became the founding director of India’s external intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW).
Operation Hat & SNAP Powered Spy Device
The sole purpose of this classified mission or rather espionage operation was to place a sensing device on a Himalayan summit to eavesdrop on the Chinese nuclear installations in Xinjiang and gather as much information possible about the Chinese nuclear and missile program. The CIA intended to intercept radio telemetry signals between the Chinese missiles and ground control that could further help them analyze Chinese missile range capabilities.
The spy device weighing a total of 275 pounds, had a towering six-foot long antenna to relay the intercepts to the CIA ground station some 40 miles away and was powered by a plutonium generator or battery pack, that essentially converted radioactive heat into electricity. It was supposed to power the device for up to two years post which a recovery mission would climb up to retrieve the device.
The Plutonium battery pack was a model SNAP 19C (System for Nuclear Auxillary Power) which consisted of five elements, a hot fuel block, radioactive fuel capsules placed in its core, thermoelectric generators mounted around it, insulation material, and the block’s preventive outer casing. The fuel contained seven rods of alloyed plutonium-238 weighing around 4 pounds (details not specific). The disassembled monitoring station, including the SNAP battery, was carried by the porters on their backs without any protective gear. According to the accounts of the climbers, the fuel rod was already emitting heat and was nicknamed 'Guru Rinpoche' by the climbing sherpas, after the Buddhist god.
Lost Plutonium: Repercussions and Recourse
With all arrangements in place and necessary equipment, acquired, the quest finally commenced from the south face of Nanda Devi summit in September 1965. The objective was to reach a summit or a spot on the top along the northern face overlooking Sinking (now Xinjiang). Fighting against the odds and amidst quite a few narrow escapes, the team fully determined continued the ascent, ripping throught the adverse conditions. Ultimately some 2000 feet shy of the summit, the mission had to be abandoned, as the conditions became too unfavorable to proceed any further. The unassembled device components including the SNAP battery were cached in near the Camp IV to await their return, the next season.
Washington, we have a problem
When the team climbed up to the Camp IV in the following season, to their surprise the cache was all gone. A massive avalanche had swept away a major chunk of the area along with the device. A shocker CIA never expected and Mckniff was fully aware of repercussions that were to follow post this massive blunder, both on the ground and in the diplomatic circles.
The primary concern was, what if the Plutonium ends up in wrong hands. However there were more pressing issue like, the possible radioactive contamination of the mountain which could last for centuries. There was immediate threat hovering over, which was the contamination of source of headwaters of the sacred Ganges (Ganga).The glaciers on the southern slope of Nanda Devi feeds water to the Rishi Ganga that seeps downslope in the Dhauliganga which eventually meets into the largest tributary of the Ganges, the Alaknanda. Thousands of Hindus take a holy dip into the waters of the confluence of Dhauliganga and Alaknanda. The holy site is called Vishuprayag. And this was just the tip of the iceberg. If the Hindu population was to find out that the headwater of the Holy Ganga had been contaminated with radioactive plutonium, it would have created a huge chaos and probably spilled a doomsday for the government.
In helter-skelter search and recovery missions kicked off. The device in all likelihood had gotten buried deep somewhere by the massive avalanche. Nanda Devi was declared off limits to civilians as well as mountaineers. Searches on ground and scanning of the area on the HH-43 Huskies was carried out and it continued till 1968, before finally being called off. Meanwhile, the sampling of the headwaters was also carried out but no evidence or traces of plutonium were ever detected as per official records.
Back in the US, Bill McKniff, the officer in charge, took the brunt of the failed mission and was removed from Project Hat in early 1967. Post some shuffling among the ranks and with some new climbers onboard, phase two commenced. An adjacent peak, the Nanda Kot (22,510ft ) was selected as the new target and codenamed 'Red Mountain'. The same year Operation Hat finally scored a success with a device being placed on the Nanda Kot, where it remained operational for two years before being retrieved.
The Nanda Devi was reopened to the public in 1974, it's forbidden status all this while became an irresistible temptation for expeditions from across the world causing massive damage to the ecosystem and eventually forcing the government to declare it off-limits once again. This entire operation in itself was nothing short of chills and thrills of a typical 007 Hollywood flick and that's what probably inspired the idea of taking it to the bigger screen. It seems the rights were acquired for Kohli's book by a US filmaker back in 2007. Somehow the project didn't kick off or maybe it did.
The Cover Blown
For CIA, this was a pretty costly affair amounting to millions of dollars, considering the long duration and various expeditions that were undertaken besides the payouts, the logistic support and the recovery missions for the lost device. Nonetheless, this was one of 20th centuries greatest 'mountaineering-cum-espionage' operations, especially owing to the fact that it involved a second nation and a huge workforce, that by no means met the spy standards. After the mission finally scored a success, all involved parties had assumed it was done and dusted. But as they say, the truth must reveal itself at some point, the skeleton was finally out of the closet some thirteen years later. April 1978, American Journalist, Howard Kohn blew the lid off the clandestine operation in the Outside magazine with his article - 'The Nanda Devi Caper'. Prior to this, Howard had risen to fame with another explosive story. Ironically it too centered around a plutonium threat but this time around it was on the US soil. Published in Rolling Stones in March 1975, the story focussed around the mysterious death of a whistleblower, Karen Silkwood, who died in a car crash while on her way to deliver some documents to a New York Times reporter, that supposedly exposed the safety violations at the Kerr-McGee nuclear fuel plant in Oklahoma City. She was among the several employees at the plant who got contaminated with plutonium.
The Nanda Devi Caper
The article created a huge furor both in the US, as well as the Indian political circle. Howard didn't shy away from going ballistic against his own government, accusing them of undertaking such a covert mission without the knowledge of the Indian government and threatening the lives of millions of Hindus with Plutonium poisoning. The article contained plentiful sweeping statements and allegations that were more or less incriminating. In one instance the article quotes "In addition, the CIA had the unofficial cooperation of its Indian counterpart, the Central Bureau of Investigation(CBI). American undercover agents on the CBI payroll co-opted Indian intelligence, setting up the arrangement on an informal basis to preserve the CIA's absolute authority over the project. The CIA demanded that CBI...keep the affair secret from Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and other ranking officials of the government of India." It goes on to say that CIA approached the best of American climbers including those that had conquered Mt. Everest with a hefty $1000/month payout and an opportunity for a free exotic trip. The offer was tempting enough and perhaps serendipitous for some. The patriotic commitment too was carefully inducted in the pitch. In all CIA signed up 14 climbers and ultimately 9 were chosen for the mission.
When Washington was apprised of the expose, it seems a lot of arm-twistings, as well as backchannel negotiations, took place. For Washington more than embarrassment it was a matter of concern as it could have easily snowballed into a bigger controversy. Hence New Delhi's silence was considered in the best of American interest under the given circumstances. There seems to be a possibility that the former PM Mrs. Gandhi may have been kept in the dark at least in the initial period. But that doesn't take away from the fact that from the start to the finish, the mission saw three Indian Prime Ministers. So did the two prior to her connived? Well! That remained classified due to the untimely death of both, while in the office.
New Delhi Reaction
In India, it was a coalition government headed by Morarji Desai in power at the time of the expose. Several Parliament sessions saw ruckus over the issue. The communist parties in India were essentially the in the forefront, while Congress in opposition provided cover-fire. Prime Minister Desai officially acknowledged the occurrence of such a covert operation on the floor of Parliament including the unfortunate loss of the plutonium-powered SNAP generator. To pacify the dissidents, Prime Minister rather convincingly assured the Parliament stating: "The indirect evidence so far is that the safety precautions built into the nuclear-fuelled power pack may be as effective as has been claimed and, if so, pollution effects may not take place in the future."(The Times, 18.4.78). He even went ahead and exonerated the CIA, amidst the allegations of its connivance with the Indian Intelligence bypassing the Indian Government. A six-member scientific committee was eventually created to investigate the events of 1965.
A few decades later a couple of interesting disclosures followed, some of these were penned down by people involved in the operation itself. The Indian mountaineering legend, the man leading the Nanda Devi expedition himself came up with an explicit account of the event in his book: "Spies In The Himalayas" in 2003, which was coauthored with Kenneth Conboy. Another legendary American mountaineer Pete Takeda went one step ahead and traveled to India to ascend the Nanda Devi summit, though was denied the same and ended up climbing an adjacent summit. He would later describe his experience in his book: "An Eye At The Top Of The World: The Terrifying Legacy Of The Cold War's Most Daring CIA Operation".
The Scientific Committee's Recommendations
The Scientific Committee to investigate the whole affair was led by the Principal Scientific Adviser to the Prime Minister, along with the Chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission who also spearheaded India’s first atomic tests in 1974. They were joined by the Director Generals of DRDO (Defence Research and Development Organisation), BARC (Bhabha Atomic Research Centre), ICMR (Indian Council for Medical Research) and SINP (Saha Institute of Nuclear Physics). Despite the best Indian minds onboard the committee primarily had to primarily rely on the information provided by their US counterparts. For instance the composition of fuel rods or safety precautions of the fuel core based on which they concluded the possibility of a nuclear contamination involving was minimal.
Their 94-page report deconstructed the plutonium battery (SNAP 19C) giving specifics of the components. The following suggestions were also made to the Indian government:
1) To periodically monitor the environment near Nanda Devi to detect any radioactive radiation in the air, water, and soil
2) To develop new techniques for locating the device
How much of it was adhered to, has mostly remained under the wraps. As time progressed, governments changed, the entire issue was brushed under the carpet.
Have a say...
Do you think that India and US should jointly arrange for recovery mission to retrieve the lost plutonium?
Plutonium Contamination - The Ticking Time Bomb
There have been very voices and that too primarily from the international community raising the need for the device to be looked up, considering the potential threat it still poses. Be it the likes of Pete Takeda or even Yoichi Shimatsu, the Hong Kong-based freelance journalist and the former editor of Japan Times Weekly and Pacific News Service, requesting joint efforts from the involved nations to eliminate the threat. In 2009 a member of Parliament from Garwhal region of the Uttrakhand state also apprised then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh about the grave dangers of the missing nuclear device in his constituency.
Eventually, it all comes down to the threat perception and possible scenarios rather than contemplating a fear psychosis. The SNAP battery still remains radioactive and is presumably a pandora's box, with an expiration date that's not due for many-many years. But what if it does get opened prior, due to a natural calamity or the corrosion of the protective casing? Even if chances are low, a worst case scenario still cannot be rubbished. And if that happens, the possibility of the contamination of the Ganges water cannot be denied either. Besides, climate change, geological factors have all a part to play and let's not also discount the fact that glaciers are constantly melting and even the Himalayan region in itself, is a possible seismic-hazard area as per the seismologists.
The worst part is, to this day the status of the SNAP battery remains unknown. A danger constantly lurking in the Himalayas.
Nobody knows for sure, the ultimate fate of the lost plutonium battery.
All we can hope and pray for is, that frozen under the white Himalayan blanket, it 'Rests in Peace' forever!
The Nanda Devi Caper, article by Howard Kohn in the Outside Magazine, published by Rolling Stone, 1978
Letter by former US Congressman Richard L. Ottinger & John D. Dingell to the President dated April 12th 1978, CIA declassified files
Greenpeace Book Of The Nuclear Age: The hidden history, the human cost by John May(1989)
Minutes of the Parliamentry discussion, following PM Desai's statement on Himalayan monitoring device, April 17th 1978, Wikileaks Cables
© 2017 Ashutosh Joshi