The writer believes in alternate views and is skeptical of the mainstream narratives, especially around stories that shocked the world.
16th October 1964, China had successfully carried out a nuclear test at the secret Lop Nur site in the north-western Xinjiang province (formerly Sinkiang), making an unofficial entry into the elite nuclear club. It was indeed a bold move considering the Limited Test Ban Treaty (LTBT) already in place that prohibited such tests. The world, especially the United States was taken aback by this massive development and the geopolitical ramifications that were to precede this open dare. Simultaneously the Chinese had also been testing missiles at secret facilities, particularly 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 of the enemy states. But this wasn't enough, more in-depth and conclusive intelligence was the need of the hour. In the heat of the cold war, the threat perceptions and paranoia was as real as these developments.
US had already entered the Vietnam war, fighting the Communist North and their allies 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 Le May. Bishop in one of their meetings, happened to have recounted the unobstructed line of sight he had from the summit of Everest, 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. Climbing Everest however was not an easy feet, hence the Indian side of Himalayan ranges was taken into consideration.
Why India Allowed the Risky Operation?
Estranged Sino-India relations and perhaps the more decisive factor being the 1962 Sino-India war. 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 North-Eastern Frontier before declaring a cease-fire. China had also previously seized control of thousands of sq km of Indian territory in the north, while the government kept napping. All in all, the Indian insecurities vis-à-vis the Chinese were presumably at their peak. And with them acquiring nuclear arsenal, the equation had only gotten worse.
From U.S. perspective there was an ideal opportunity to be utilised considering India's proximity to China, and the nuclear facility in particular. Although non-aligned, India had a pro-Soviet leaning. Nonetheless by tapping into the Chinese paranoia, the CIA got what they wanted. They not only managed to persuade the Indian Government, but also seek full cooperation in accomplishing the sinister plot. Though a cloud of mystery still surrounds the extent of involvement of the Indian Government in this covert operation. However, in the late 70s, then Indian Prime Minister Morarji Desai on the floor of the Parliament did acknowledge aiding the United States in such a mission.
The sole purpose of this espionage operation was to place a remote sensing device on a Himalayan summit to spy on the Chinese nuclear installations in Xinjiang and gather intel on 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, it had a towering six-foot long antenna to relay the intercepts to the CIA ground station some 40 miles away. The device itself 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 Auxiliary Power) which consisted of five elements, a hot fuel block, radioactive fuel capsules placed in its core, thermo-electric 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 had been emitting heat and the rather naive Sherpas had hence nicknamed it 'Guru Rinpoche' after the Buddhist god -The irony of faith! Though unverified it has been claimed that many of these Sherpas later died of cancer, due to exposure to the radioactive SNAP battery.
The Preparations and Planning
The mission had its numerous challenges from the get go. To begin with it was a daunting task in itself to carry the bulky device while undertaking a difficult climb under 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 being a clandestine mission, 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 of Garhwal Himalayas in the Uttrakhand state of India. At 7816m (25,643ft), the pristine Nanda Devi stood as the second highest Indian peak. For the Hindu population in the region, the Nanda Devi is revered and worshiped as the protector of the hills. Often as 'bliss giving'. Isolated and with limited access, the peak was an ideal choice for the espionage operation.
The Team for the Mission:
As per reports and disclosures that followed, junior officers from Indian Intelligence Bureau (IB) were handed over the task to recruit the necessary workforce for the mission. Around 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 brought from Sikkim, chosen specifically for their expertise in climbing glaciers. The mission was led by some of India’s legendary mountaineers who had scaled the Everest earlier that year. Manmohan Singh Kohli, a Navy commander assigned to the Indo-Tibetan Border Police (ITBP), was assigned the role of expedition leader. Accompanying him were his fellow comrades, Sonam Wangyal, H.C.S Rawat and G.S. Bhangu. On the American side, CIA recruited 14 of America's best climbers on a hefty payroll. Dr Robert Schaller, Jim McCarthy and Tom Frost were among some of the famed names. 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 (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 went on become the founding director of India’s external intelligence agency, the Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) which is akin to the American CIA.
The Indian crew of 4 climbers was then flown to the United States. Alongside their US counterparts, they were taken to Mt. McKinley in Alaska for mock drills at some 20,320 ft. to acclimatise 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 the things to follow. Barry Bishop was in charge of the training that supposedly lasted for 40 days. Jim McCarthy from the American contigent was specifically trained to handle the plutonium rods by the officials from America's Atomic Energy Commission. By this time the news of another nuclear test by China had already added to the concerns of the American intelligence and political echleons.
Operation Hat - Phase I
October 1965, with all arrangements in place and the necessary equipment acquired, the quest finally commenced from the south face of Nanda Devi in September 1965. The objective was to reach the summit or a spot near the top along the northern face overlooking Sinkiang (now Xinjiang). The weather remained unfriendly and only became worse. Fighting against the odds and amidst quite a few narrow escapes, the team fully determined continued the ascent through the adverse conditions. However, some 2000 feet shy of the summit, the mission eventually had to be called off. The team met with a blizzard and had to retreat. Carrying the payload all the way down was not an option. Hence the unassembled device components including the SNAP battery were cached in safely near the Camp IV to await the team's 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. This came as a shocker that CIA was unprepared for. For the Indian side too this was a far serious sitution and hence secrecy was paramount.
Plutonium Threat: Recourse and Counter-Measures
For CIA the primary concern was Plutonium ending up in the wrong hands. The possibility of a Pakistani expedition to steal the device was doings rounds but within the CIA chain of command there was an element of suspicion of their Indian counterparts. This wasn't based on hearsay but rather hardcore intel on India's nuclear capabilites and aspirations. However with the Himalayan misadventure more pressing issues needed immediate attention. Like the possible radioactive contamination of the mountain which could last for centuries. Another immediate threat hovering over was the contamination of source of headwaters of the sacred Ganges (Ganga).The glaciers on the southern slope of Nanda Devi fed water to the Rishi Ganga that seeps down-slope in the Dhauliganga eventually meeting the largest tributary of the Ganges, the Alaknanda. This confluence is the holy site Vishuprayag, where thousands of Hindus take a holy dip. But the device could have been anywhere and this was just the tip of the iceberg. If the Hindu population was to find out that the headwaters of the Holy Ganga had been contaminated with radioactive plutonium, it would have created a huge chaos and probably even spilled doomsday for the Indian Government.
In helter-skelter search and recovery missions kicked off. Swept by the avalanche, the device in all likelihood had gotten buried deep somewhere down the slope. Nanda Devi at this juncture had become a quarantined zone and was immediately declared off limits to civilians as well as the mountaineers. Search missions on ground and aerial scanning of the area aboard the US HH-43 Huskies was carried out. 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 the official records.
Operation Hat - Phase II
Post some shuffling among the ranks and with some new climbers on-board, phase two commenced the same year. An adjacent peak, the Nanda Kot (22,510ft ) was selected as the new target and code named 'Red Mountain'. 1967, Operation Hat finally scored a success with a device being placed on the Nanda Kot. It remained operational for over a year before being retrieved. A noteworthy observation from the recovery team was the impact of the heat from the snap battery. It had melted the ice to form a cove like structure almost 8 feet deep.
The Nanda Devi was re-opened 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 in 1983.
The Cover Blown
Despite all that went down, by all means operation hat was one of 20th centuries greatest 'mountaineering-cum-espionage' operations. Especially considering the duration, the collaboration with a non-allied nation and the involvement of a massive workforce. An estimated total of 200 men were involved in ground operation alone.
A joint Indo-American mountaineering expedition conducting research for high-altitude flight for the American Force - That's how the mission was supposed to be remembered, if need be. But as they say, the truth must reveal itself at some point, and 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". Howard had previous stints in investigative journalism and had risen to fame with another such explosive story. Ironically, the story too centered around a plutonium contamination. Published in Rolling Stones in March 1975, the story focused around the mysterious death of a whistle-blower, Karen Silkwood, who died in a car crash. Karen was 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 the Oklahoma City. She was also among the several employees at the plant who got affected by the plutonium contamination.
The Nanda Devi Caper
Howard's piece created a huge furore both in the US as well as the Indian political circles. 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 also threatening the lives of millions of Hindus with a possible 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 further went on to say that CIA approached the best of American climbers including those that had conquered Mt. Everest with a hefty $1000 per month payout and an opportunity for a free exotic trip - Indeed an offer tempting enough. Besides, the patriotic commitment too was carefully inducted in the pitch. In all, the CIA signed up 14 climbers and ultimately 9 were chosen for the mission.
When Washington was apprised of the expose, the priority was damage-control. Beyond embarrassment, this was a matter of grave 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 Prime Minister Mrs. Gandhi may have been kept in the dark, at least in the initial period post her taking over the office. In all fairness, the mission saw three Indian Prime Ministers take office in quick succession. So did the two prior to her had consented? Well! That remained classified due to their untimely death, while in the office.
New Delhi' Reaction
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 in the forefront, while the 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 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. April 18, 1978). 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 shady events of 1965.
A few decades later, couple of interesting disclosures followed. Some of these were penned down by people involved in the operation itself. In 2003, Manmohan Singh Kohli, the man who led the Nanda Devi expedition came up with an explicit account of the event in his book, Spies In The Himalayas. The book 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 he was denied permission and he ended up climbing an adjacent summit. He later described 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. 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 filmmaker back in 2007. Somehow the project didn't kick off or was probably stalled.
The Scientific Committee's Recommendations
The Scientific Committee to investigate the entire affair was led by the Principal Scientific Advisor 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 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 the committee concluded the possibility of a nuclear contamination was minimal and entirely based on details provided and couldn't be further validated.
The 94 page report deconstructed the plutonium battery (SNAP 19C) giving specifics of the components and made following suggestions to the Indian government:
- To periodically monitor the environment near Nanda Devi to detect any radioactive radiation in the air, water, and soil
- 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 and the entire issue was eventually brushed under the carpet.
Have a say...
The Ticking Time Bomb
There have been few concerned voices primarily from the international community reiterating the need for the device to be looked up, considering the potential risk 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, Satpal Maharaj, a member of Parliament from Garwhal region of the Uttrakhand state also apprised then Prime Minister of India, Manmohan Singh about the grave dangers of the missing nuclear device in his constituency. However the request only met deaf ears. After a decade this story has again resurfaced. In August 2018, as a tourism minister for the state, Satpal Maharaj brought the same to the knowledge of Prime Minister Modi. He reiterated the possibility of a radiation leak from the still active plutonium capsule that can contaminate the Ganges water. In an interview later he confirmed that the PM had taken cognizance of the same.
End of the day with cases like these evaluating the threat perception and worst case scenarios becomes as essential as contemplating the fear psychosis. The SNAP battery still remains radioactive (100 years life) and is presumably a Pandora's box with an expiration date that's not due for 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 minimal, a worst case scenario still cannot be rubbished. And if that happens, the possibility of the contamination of the Ganges water is highly likely. 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. A danger that is constantly lurking in the Himalayas but then again there are just lots of ifs and buts surrounding the same.
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.
Kohn, Howard. (April,1978). The Nanda Devi Caper. Outside Magazine
May, John. (1989). Operation Hat, the Himalayas Source. Greenpeace Book of the Nuclear Age: The hidden History, the Human Cost
(April 12, 1978). Letter by former US Congressman Richard L. Ottinger & John D. Dingell to the President
(April 17, 1978). Prime Minister Desai's statement on Himalayan monitoring device. Wikileaks Cables
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2017 Ashutosh Joshi
Amit Singh on August 28, 2020:
Imagine such a mission today especially in view of recent events