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Interview of Lisa Cathey, director CIA in Tibet

It was in 2005 that Lisa Cathey, a Washington-based award-wining documentary film-maker, came to know that her father, Clay Cathey, was a CIA officer posted in Calcutta and that he had worked on the Tibetan Task Force in 1962. The next thing she would do was to explore this little-known territory in a documentary, CIA in Tibet, which will be released next year

Many have heard the rally cry “Free Tibet!”, but few are aware of the past events that have shaped the Tibetan struggle against China’s dominance. Exploring this little-known territory in a documentary currently in production, CIA in Tibet traces the hidden history of a secret CIA operation to back Tibet’s fight for survival, one that lasted 16 years, to the rebellion that continues today. From CIA-supplied weapons, funding and training in guerrilla warfare to a conflicted Tibetan government and people under siege, the inner-workings behind the elusive mystery of both Tibet and the CIA uncover complex characters grappling with a history-changing geopolitical power struggle.  

Q. Tell us something about yourself?

I loved to draw as a child, but when I went to art college I fell in love with photography, film and video. And while I later worked in television post-production, then freelance for Discovery Channel and others for many years, my artistic roots always pulled at me to find a more personal expression. By my 40s, I decided to try my hand on an independent documentary, after making several shorts on my own. CIA in Tibet is my first feature project and while it’s been a struggle financially, I love the work, and hope to be able to continue doing it. 

Q. What inspired you to make a documentarya on CIA covert operation in Tibet?

On a visit with my father in 2005, I noticed a “Free Tibet” bumper sticker on his golf cart (he’s in his 80s now, and plays a lot of golf in his retirement). I asked why he had it, and he replied that he’d worked on a Tibetan operation in the late 50s and early 60s. I was stunned—having no idea the CIA was ever involved in Tibet. I knew Dad had been in the CIA, but he never shared any information on his work until that day. After reading up on it a bit, it was amazing to me that this dramatic part of Tibetan and US history was still so widely unknown, and felt compelled to do a documentary to engage the public more on the subject.

Q. What was the biggest challenge in making this documentary?

The biggest challenge by far paying the myriad expenses of making a film, as well as basic living expenses, is a constant challenge. This is true of most documentary filmmakers, but especially those like me who are starting their first independent work. It’s not easy, but it’s worth it to do work that’s truly fulfilling, and hopefully meaningful to others.

Q. Most documentaries tend to be controversial for one reason or another? Do you expect ‘CIA in Tibet’ will be controversial?

No doubt it will be controversial from the Chinese government’s point of view. Their take is that “Tibet has always been a part of China”, and that their presence in Tibet was never, and still isn’t, an occupation. It also may be controversial within certain parts of the Tibetan refugee community within India and throughout the world, as well as some of their Western supporters. Since working on the project since 2008, I’ve found this history is not well liked by those who think telling Tibet’s connection to the CIA and their history of war conflicts with their image of peace and non-violence, or various other reasons. To me, exploring the truth of Tibet’s hidden past doesn’t damage their cause, but allows the viewer to better understand Tibet’s struggle with China–then and now.

Q. What insights did you gain about CIA’s covert operation in South Asia from making this film?

For the most of the operation, it wasn’t covert. When China first occupied Tibet in 1950, both the CIA and the US State Department were dealing with Tibetan and Indian officials about what, if any, actions to take. As the Cold War heated up, and an underground armed resistance developed in Tibet, the CIA began to back the resistance covertly in 1957, but after India’s border war with China in October 1962 (in today’s Arunachal Pradesh) Indian intelligence began working with the CIA on the operation. One Tibetan resistance veteran I talked to continued to work for Indian intelligence well into the 80’s, long after the US withdrew its support to the Tibetan resistance in 1972. Revealing the secrets and complexities of this past can help us understand not only Tibet’s situation today, but also the geopolitical forces that are still relevant in Asia, especially as China becomes more powerful in the world.

Q. Does your documentary thrown light on how Dalai Lama was whisked into exile in India?

One of the main things is breaking the myth that the CIA engineered the Dalai Lama’s escape. The Dalai Lama’s Lord Chamberlain, Phala, seems to have worked out a detailed plan for an escape during the Tibetan uprising that preceded the Dalai Lama’s flight on March 17, 1959. Phala had apparently sent notice to the Indian Embassy that they might need permission to enter India if it became necessary. The CIA had no knowledge of Phala’s plans and didn’t know what had happened to the Dalai Lama until its two Tibetan agents caught up with the escape party about five days into their flight. The Dalai Lama wanted to reestablish his government in southern Tibet, where the Tibetan resistance still had a stronghold. When he learned en route that tens of thousands of PLA troops were hunting him as a fugitive, he agreed to go to India, at which point the CIA and US State Department worked directly with Nehru to secure political asylum. Another big thing is the film shot during the escape by the two Tibetans agents inside the escape party, who were trained in espionage as well as guerrilla warfare. This film was finally declassified in 2006 and given to the US National Archives, as well as other films it had from the Tibetan operation.

Q. During you research work you have met and interviewed many CIA case officers who were posted in Washington and India. You have also met Tibetan activists and leaders in India. Does the CIA still support and aid Tibetan refuges?

If the CIA currently supports Tibet in any way, I am not privy to it, nor are any of the former CIA Officers who were part of the operation then. I’ve seen no evidence yet to suggest that they’ve been involved with Tibet since 1974, when the CIA finally stopped financial support to the Dalai Lama and his administration (according to US government documents).

Q. Your father, Mr. Clay Cathey was a CIA operative in India. How does CIA officers operative in a foreign land. Do you like to share any anecdote of your father during his posting in India?

In 1960, the CIA wanted to propagate positive sentiment towards the Tibetan struggle by publishing a biography of Gompo Tashi, the leader of the Chushi Gangruk (the Tibetan resistance army that was supported by CIA). It was to be written by a ghostwriter contracted by the CIA, who had a long list of questions that was given to my father so he could get the answers from Gompo Tashi, who was by then living in Darjeeling. Dad was based in Calcutta, so Gompo Tashi had to fly down with an interpreter and wait all day in a hotel because they could only meet for a few hours at night, as to not arouse suspicion. There were still a lot of questions after three separate trips, and it became too hard on Gompo Tashi who was still suffering from old battle wounds, so the book was aborted. I’ve made a request under the Freedom of Information Act to see the notes from those meetings, but the CIA has not been forthcoming. I don’t know if the notes are even still in existence.

Q. What is the best and bad part of being a daughter of CIA operative?

For me growing up, there wasn’t any substantial distinction in being the daughter of a CIA operative, except that we moved around a fair amount. My brother and sister were both born in Calcutta, I was born later in Burma, then we lived in Hong Kong for a couple years before returning to the states permanently and moved around the Eastern US a few times. I never even knew that my Dad worked for CIA until I was 12; then it was just kind of “oh, how interesting”, but didn’t affect me personally. As an adult, there’s a certain bond with other children of CIA parents, maybe because our families often lived in places most Americans hadn’t, or because our parents couldn’t be open about the work they did. Not until my 40s did Dad ever fess up to his work on the Tibetan operation, probably because he had already been quoted in a book about it. He had to get permission from CIA to talk on camera for the documentary. He still won’t tell me about any other ops he’s worked on.

 (March 27 2011, THE WEEK)

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