Missing US Nuclear-bug a threat to the Ganges

On the eve of the Beijing Olympics, a climber has disclosed his role in a secret cold war mission to plant a nuclear-powered bugging device in the Himalayas to spy on China.

Robert Schaller, an amateur mountaineer and hospital doctor, was part of a team recruited by CIA. He carried the 40-pound device on his back as he climbed Nanda Devi, the highest peak wholly inside India.

The US spy agency hoped to use the device to monitor missile tests in China. The radioactive device was later lost in an avalanche. Even today, fears remain that it could break open and cause an environmental disaster by leaking radioactive material into the Ganga.

Schaller, 73, believes radiation from carrying the device caused the rheumatoid arthritis that was to prevent him practising surgery. He says in an interview in the Mountaineer magazine that he was selected by CIA for his medical expertise as well as his climbing skills.

Two Hollywood film companies are competing to be the first to make a movie based on the Himalaya missions. "It will be a cross between Charlie Wilson's War and Indiana Jones," said one insider.

Schaller was on his rounds at the University of Washington Hospital in Seattle when he was paged to the front desk where he met a man in a trench coat and dark glasses. The visitor opened his coat, showed him an airline ticket and whispered: "Do you want to go to the Himalayas?" Schaller jumped at the chance. It was 1965, the Chinese had detonated their first nuclear test the year before and had recently fought a war with India. Spy satellites were in their infancy and still unreliable.

Robert Schaller, an amateur mountaineer and hospital doctor, was given with a cover story that he was training as a scientist-astronaut and not even allowed to tell his wife what he was really doing.

He said last week: "It was very hush-hush. I would be flown somewhere, I don't know where, to train how to jump out of a helicopter and use plastic explosives... I went on six missions to the Himalayas in all over the next three years. It clearly contributed to the breakup of my marriage."

The first mission, to place the device on Nanda Devi, involved two other Americans and three Indians. The peak provided unfettered views into Xinjiang province to track Chinese missile tests.

"The device was about 18 inches round, one foot high and on an aluminium post with guide wires. It was powered by cylinders of plutonium about the size of a cigar," he said. The climbers reached 24,000ft and lashed the device to a ledge when they were hit by a blizzard. When they returned the entire ledge had been swept away.

Schaller said he later put a second device on the 22,510ft peak of Nanda Kot, 10 miles south, which beamed information back for two years to a CIA agent in Nepal. The CIA declined to comment this weekend. SUNDAY TIMES, LONDON.

Schaller was hired by CIA to put a nuke device on Nanda Devi in 1965. It got lost, posing an environmental risk to Ganga.

3 August 2008

Maurice Chittenden


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