The Secret History of Bigfoot and the CIA
Intelligence agencies employ myriad types of cover for action, including the hunt for the mysterious creatures like the Abominable Snowman
Tensions are rising in East Asia, to a possible point of no peaceful return. Last week, this newsletter described how alarmed U.S. senior intelligence officials have grown regarding the threat of war with China over the Taiwan issue. Now, Tokyo’s just-issued 2023 defense white paper sounds the alarm, depicting Japan’s security environment as “the most severe and complex” since the Second World War, thanks to increasing Chinese willingness to employ military power to achieve Beijing’s strategic aims. Since the United States has a mutual defense pact with our close ally Japan, Americans need to take Tokyo’s fast-rising threat perception seriously.
On the other side, the Chinese Communist Party considers itself the responsible ones, merely looking out for their country’s defense and self-interest in a dangerous world. After all, Japan invaded China in 1931, and even more in 1937, not the other way around. This week, Chinese top officials were in Pyongyang to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the end of the Korean War (Russia’s defense minister Sergei Shoigu was also prominently in attendance), hailed by the CCP as a “victory for peace.” That bloody war, nearly forgotten among Americans, remains a vivid memory for Beijing, which views its participation in defense of North Korea as a necessary response to U.S. aggression.
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Even fewer Americans recall that Washington wasn’t merely fighting China in Korea in the 1950s. The CCP, however, regularly reminds the Chinese people of this complex story, which is mostly about American spies and covert action trying to stymie the new Communist regime from its beginnings. From the birth of the People’s Republic of China in October 1949, after the conclusion of that country’s long-running civil war (which saw the losers retreat to sanctuary on Taiwan), the Central Intelligence Agency tried hard to run agents inside the PRC, frequently without success. Indeed, the first CIA officer killed in the line of duty, Douglas Mackiernan, died while trying to escape China in 1950, two months before the outbreak of the Korean War. In a screw-up, Mackiernan, who had been working undercover in Xinjiang to purloin Soviet and Chinese secrets, particularly regarding nuclear weapons, was shot by Tibetans by mistake.
That’s a painful irony, given how much effort CIA expended trying to assist Tibetans after their ancient country was occupied by the People’s Liberation Army in October 1950 and forcibly taken under Beijing’s control. Tibetan resistance to the PLA didn’t end with the CCP’s occupation. Instead, an insurgency developed inside Tibet that by 1957 was big enough that Washington took notice and decided to support it clandestinely, led by the CIA, with help from the Pentagon. That secret war remained hidden for decades, and much of its operations remain classified, yet Washington has released enough information that the essential story can be told.
Langley’s secret Tibetan program ran from 1957 until 1969, although it wasn’t completely shut down until President Richard Nixon’s opening to Beijing in the early 1970s, which made CIA’s support to the Tibetan resistance obsolete. From that point, Washington viewed the PRC as its partner in the Cold War against the Soviet Union. However, for a dozen years, American spies employed the full range of covert action, from paramilitary operations to propaganda to conventional espionage against China, in this effort to bolster Tibetan resistance to Beijing.
Although Tibetans paid most of that price, something the few surviving elderly veterans of that secret war now discuss with pride, the CIA’s campaign was broadly a success in American eyes. While clandestine support for the Tibetan resistance ultimately failed to endanger Chinese rule, these CIA operations behind Communist lines proved more successful than they were elsewhere, for instance in Ukraine or Albania, where CIA airdrops of weapons and fighters behind Communist lines were routinely intercepted by Red counterintelligence, usually fast. Moreover, Langley’s clandestine activities in Tibet kept alive the spirit of Tibetan independence, which in a sense has never waned, thanks in no small part to the role played by the 14th Dalai Lama, who escaped to India in 1959 with CIA’s help: the Dalai Lama’s brother had a close relationship with the agency, which rescued the spiritual leader from China’s clutches. Tibet’s government-in-exile has operated from India, a thorn in Beijing’s side, ever since 1959, under the Dalai Lama’s patronage.
CIA’s support to the Tibetan resistance took the customary early Cold War form. Agency paramilitary specialists trained Tibetan fighters in secret – first on the island of Saipan, then at Camp Hale in Colorado – then inserted them and weapons into Tibet via CIA airdrops. Within a few years it was apparent that parachute insertion of personnel and armaments wasn’t generating much impact on the ground in occupied Tibet, so CIA established a clandestine base in the Mustang region of Nepal, on the Tibetan border. From Mustang, Tibetan fighters were supposed to infiltrate into Chinese-occupied territory and create trouble for the PLA. This failed to materialize on any large scale, leading to the shutdown of CIA’s Mustang base in 1969. Challenges were many: the forbidding Himalayan terrain, sometimes inadequate logistical support from Langley, the political complications of Nepalese neutrality, plus Chinese counterintelligence vigilance.
Nevertheless, these clandestine operations, even when unsuccessful, maintained pressure on Beijing in the Cold War and kept hope alive for Tibetans seeking to throw off the Communist yoke. Particularly in its early years, CIA’s Tibetan program seemed like a solid return on investment for Washington. This secret story, hidden from view until after the Cold War’s end, employed a colorful cast of characters befitting its exotic venue.
Enter Peter Byrne, who died this week at the age of 97. The Irish-born Byrne served in the Royal Air Force in the Second World War and thereafter became an exotic full-time adventurer, a big game hunter in India and Nepal. However, Byrne ultimately spent most of his life in the United States, specifically in the Pacific Northwest, becoming for a time the best-known Bigfoot hunter in the world. Whether or not that elusive manlike monster exists, Byrne made a living off attempting to find Bigfoot, running various expeditions for different wealthy benefactors, with as much press attention as Byrne could muster. In his 1970s heyday, Byrne represented much of the public face of the Bigfoot mania which, like the Bermuda Triangle, featured prominently in that decade’s popular imagination.
Byrne never found Bigfoot but the story of how he got involved in looking for it brings us back to the CIA’s activities in Tibet in the late 1950s. After the conquest of Mount Everest, the world’s highest peak, on the Tibet-Nepal border in May 1953 by Edmund Hilary and Tenzing Norgay, word spread of sightings of a mysterious bipedal creature termed the Yeti by the locals. Western media soon dubbed it the Abominable Snowman while, in the Pacific Northwest, Americans a few years later claimed to see – or more often, find the outsized footprints of – a similar creature called Bigfoot. All these supposed animals were big, furry, and elusive.
Peter Byrne heard these stories too and, as fate had it, in 1956 during one of his many adventures in the Himalayas, he encountered a kindred spirit: Tom Slick, Jr., a hard-living American heir to an oil fortune who, like Byrne, craved adventures. His father, the “King of the Wildcatters,” discovered Oklahoma’s biggest oil field, so Slick, Jr. spent his life funding worthwhile research of many kinds, all over the world. He took a particular interest in stories of mysterious creatures such as the Abominable Snowman, so Slick set out to find the Yeti. Instead, he found Peter Byrne.
Soon, Slick made Byrne his point man in the hunt for the Yeti and funded his expeditions into the Himalayas over three years beginning in 1957, searching for evidence of the creature’s existence. Footprints they found aplenty, plus numerous eyewitness accounts, but hard evidence that would stand up to scientific scrutiny remained elusive. The closest Byrne got was a supposed Yeti finger, part of a full hand, belonging to a Buddhist monastery in Nepal, which the monks had possessed for many years. Byrne stole a finger (he reputedly got the monks drunk on whisky, so they didn’t notice) and snuck it out, passing it in a film-worthy twist to the actor Jimmy Stewart, a Slick friend and confidant who was visiting India. Stewart then brought the finger to London. Subsequent DNA testing has shown the finger to be human, but the mystery can never be resolved since the rest of the hand was stolen from the monastery in the 1990s. Its current whereabouts are unknown.
At the end of 1959, with nothing of substance discovered after three years of expensive searching, Slick informed Byrne that he was suspending his Himalayan expeditions for manlike monsters. Instead, Slick wanted Byrne to look for Bigfoot, the Yeti’s reputed North American cousin, in the Pacific Northwest. That sounded easier and cheaper. In 1960, Slick dispatched Byrne and his brother from Nepal to the United States, on the hunt. They didn’t find Bigfoot either, in part due to Slick’s untimely demise in October 1962 when his twin-engine aircraft disintegrated in flight over Montana, apparently due to mountain turbulence.
Without his wealthy benefactor, Byrne had to look for other financing, which proved a hit-or-miss enterprise. His efforts to get the FBI interested in Bigfoot, revealed to the public in 2019, didn’t get far either. He found intermittent success, sometimes rich guys liked the romance of searching the woods for Bigfoot (or at least paying others to), plus sales of books about the mysterious hunt helped, but in the end, Byrne found wealth as elusive as any man-beast. Bigfoot doesn’t pay the bills. Embarrassingly, the 88-year-old Byrne was sentenced by the Justice Department to three years’ probation, with full restitution, in 2013 for two decades of defrauding the Social Security Administration by collecting benefits and food stamps valued at almost $80,000 despite spending ample time outside the U.S., in violation of Federal law. That was a shocking comedown for someone who played the role of dashing tiger-hunter and all-purpose adventurer throughout his adult life.
The larger question looms: What exactly was Tom Slick, Jr.’s investigation into the Yeti really about? The issue has long raised suspicions, given that he was financing expeditions into the same areas of Nepal that were being used by CIA to train and supply the agency’s clandestine operations in support of the Tibetan resistance at the Cold War’s height. Certainly, the KGB considered the Slick-Byrne show to be merely a cover for nefarious capitalist activities against China. Moscow said as much. In a statement that wound up in the New York Times in April 1957, the Kremlin denounced “a diabolical anthropological maneuver aimed at the subversion of Communist China.” Moscow maintained that the hunt for the mysterious “snowmen” in the Himalayas was a ruse, a ploy by American intelligence to run covert action against Chinese forces in Tibet behind a benign curtain. The KGB didn’t name Tom Slick, Jr. and his operation run by Peter Byrne, but the Times came to that conclusion, surely correctly.
Since Langley hasn’t released its operational files relating to the agency’s Tibetan operations in the late 1950s, and Tom Slick, Jr. isn’t around to tell us, we can’t state with certainty that the Yeti-hunt provided cover for U.S. espionage and covert action in the Himalayas. Yet, such happenings did occur during the Cold War, with private citizens assisting CIA clandestine operations all over the world out of patriotic motives. Slick’s patriotism and negative views on Communism were well known and, if his Yeti search provided cover for U.S. intelligence operations against the Reds, he certainly wasn’t the only wealthy American to do so during the Cold War.
Subsequent research into the Slick-Byrne relationship in looking for the Abominable Snowman, on Tibet’s border circa 1957-1960, presents a plausible case that CIA footprints were all over that mysterious adventure. It’s impossible to say for certain, but agency lore has it that Slick helped out the CIA with his “Yeti hunt.” I’ve heard the story from more than one long-retired intelligence officer with experience in Asia during the Cold War. My father, an Asia hand for NSA with three tours in Vietnam under his belt, knew plenty such guys, and after a few drinks they had interesting tales to tell. Some of them involved Bigfoot.
Hollywood has toyed with making a movie about Tom Slick, Jr., given his adventures and larger-than-life personality. More than a quarter-century ago, Nicholas Cage agreed to star in “Tom Slick: Monster Hunter,” but the project got trapped in development hell and sank without a trace, despite continuing interest in such a film. If Hollywood eventually gets around to making that movie, the publicity might be enough to get at the truth of any CIA secret relationship to the Cold War hunt for Bigfoot. Until then, there’s plenty of fun and furry speculation.
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