Monday, April 29, 2013

Inside the CIA Mission to Haul Plutonium Up the Himalayas


The first American team to ascend Everest, several of whom would go on to mountaineer for the CIA. Dave Dingman, kneeling on left, was one of them. Photo: Courtesy of Marie Abercrombie.

Back in the day, America’s spies didn’t have the kind of surveillance satellites that can pinpoint you from orbit. The CIA had to rely on much rougher methods like climbing the Himalayan mountains. In theory, it was an ideal place to put sensor devices and spy on China. It also nearly ended in complete failure.

It was 1965, and the Pentagon and CIA were worried. The Vietnam War was beginning to ramp up. The People’s Republic of China had recently conducted its first nuclear test, but intelligence was limited. Chinese missile tests were being conducted at a secretive facility a few hundred miles north of the Himalayan mountains, but intelligence estimates for the missiles’ range — and compatibility with nuclear warheads — was unclear. The mountain range blocked ground-based sensors, which could have picked up the missiles’ radio telemetry signals. Worse, Pakistan had just kicked out America’s spy planes, and precision satellite imagery was still primitive.

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