A Massachusettes Institute of Technology graduate and Central Intelligence Agency officer, Mackiernan lost his life in Tibet under mysterious circumstances in 1950; he was the first CIA officer to die while undertaking a clandestine mission. Also an Office of Strategic Services veteran, Mackiernan was shot, and then beheaded, by Tibetan soldiers who had not received a warning from Lhasa that a pair of American consular officials had been granted permission to enter the country. The mission’s survivor was Frank Bessac, now a retired academic who insists he left the CIA in 1947, but accompanied Mackiernan and was a witness to the shooting incident on the frontier, which also resulted in the deaths of two other members of the group after an epic, two-month journey across the desert from Sinkiang Province to establish contact with the Dalai Lama.
The mission ended in double disaster because the Chinese Communists invaded soon afterward, using the presence of U.S. spies as a pretext. The Dalai Lama fled into exile and Tibet has been under uneasy Chinese occupation ever since. Mackiernan’s consular cover in Tihwa, subordinate to the U.S. embassy in Nanking, concealed his principal task, which had been to monitor and maybe sabotage Soviet extraction of uranium ore from Koktogai in neighboring Turkistan and to report on activity at the Soviet nuclear test site at Semipalatinsk.