by Ralph McGehee
Covert Action Quarterly, Fall 1990
In my original article ( The Nation, April 11, 1981) I tried to explain, through the constraints of the secrecy agreement and the deletions by the CIA’s review board, one aspect of the Agency’s successful effort to manipulate events in Indonesia in late 1965 and early 1966. The article was based on a classified CIA study of which I was custodian while working in the International Communism Branch of the CIA’s Counterintelligence Staff. The Nation joined with me in an unsuccessful lawsuit by the ACLU to gain release of the deleted portions of the article. The Agency claims it cannot delete unclassified lies or speculations. By heavily censoring my article, it effectively admitted to an Agency role in the peration.
In a recent story in the San Francisco Examiner, researcher Kathy Kadane quotes CIA and State department officials who admit compiling lists of names of the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI), making those lists available to the Indonesian military, and checking names off as people were “eliminated.” The killings were part of a massive bloodletting after an abortive coup attempt taking, according to various estimates, between 250,000 and 1,000,000 lives and ultimately led to the overthrow of President Sukarno’s government.
Since then a debate has simmered over what happened. A recent study based on information from former Johnson ad ministration officials, asserted that for months the U.S. “did their damnedest” through public pressure and more discreet methods, to prod the Indonesian army to move against Sukarno without success.
Debate continues over the origins of the coup attempt called Gestapu. Was it the result of CIA machinations, a takeover maneuver by General Suharto, a revolt by leftist officers under the control of the PKI, a power play by the People’s Republic of China, a pre-emptive strike by Sukarno loyalists to prevent a move by officers friendly to the CIA, some combination of these factors, or others as yet unknown? I confess to no inside knowledge of the Gestapu.
It is well known that the CIA had long sought to unseat Sukarno: by funding an opposition political party in the mid-1950s, sponsoring a massive military overthrow attempt in the mid-1958, planning his assassination in 1961, and by rigging intelligence to inflame official U.S. concerns in order to win approval for planned covert actions.
Before attempting to describe one aspect of the CIA’s role, it is essential to provide background on the scope and nature of its worldwide operations. Between 1961 and 1975 the Agency conducted 900 major or sensitive operations, and thousands of lesser covert actions. The majority of its operations were propaganda, election or paramilitary. Countries of major concern, such as Indonesia in the early 1960s, were usually subjected to the CIA’s most concerted attention.
Critics of the CIA have aptly described the mainstays of such attention: “discrediting political groups… by forged documents that may be attributed to them. . . ,” faking “communist weapon shipments,” capturing communist documents and then inserting forgeries prepared by the Agency’s Technical Services Division. The CIA’s “Mighty Wurlitzer” then emblazoned and disseminated the details of such “discoveries.”
The Mighty Wurlitzer was a worldwide propaganda mechanism consisting of hundreds or even thousands of media representatives and officials including, over a period of years, approximately 400 members of the American media. The CIA has used the Wurlitzer and its successors to plant stories and to suppress expository or critical reporting in order to manipulate domestic and international perceptions. From the early 1980s, many media operations formerly the responsibility of the CIA have been funded somewhat overtly by the National Endowment for Democracy (NED).
From the earliest days, the Agency’s International Organizations Division (IOD) implemented and coordinated its extensive covert operations. The division’s activities created or assisted international organizations for youth, students, teachers, workers, veterans, journalists, and jurists. The CIA used, and continues to use, the various labor, student, and other suborned organizations not only for intelligence and propaganda purposes, but also to participate in elections and paramilitary operations and to assist in overthrowing governments. At the same time, the CIA manipulates their organizational publications for covert propaganda goals.
The labor unions the CIA creates and subsidizes, in their more virulent stages, provide strong-arm goon squads who burn buildings, threaten and beat up opponents, pose as groups of the opposition to discredit them, terrorize and control labor meetings, and participate in coups.
Use of “Subversive Control Watch Lists”
As a matter of course, the Agency develops close relationships with security services in friendly nations and exploits these in many ways-by recruiting unilateral sources to spy on the home government, by implementing pro-U.S. policies, and by gathering and exchanging intelligence. As one aspect of those liaisons, the CIA universally compiles local “Subversive Control Watch Lists” of leftists for attention by the local government. Frequently that attention is the charter of government death squads.
After the CIA’s overthrow of Arbenz’s government in Guatemala in 1954, the U.S. gave the new government lists of opponents to be eliminated. In Chile from 1971 through 1973, the CIA fomented a military coup through forgery and propaganda operations and compiled arrest lists of thousands,
many of whom were later arrested and assassinated. In Bolivia in 1975, the CIA provided lists of progressive priests and nuns to the government which planned to harass, arrest and expel them. To curry the favor of Khomeini, in 1983 the CIA gave his government a list of KGB agents and collaborators operating in Iran. Khomeini then executed 200 suspects and closed down the communist Tudeh party. In Thailand, I provided the names of hundreds of leftists to Thai security services. The Phoenix program in Vietnam was a massive U.S.-backed program to compile arrest and assassination lists of the Viet Cong for action by CIA-created Provisional Reconnaissance Unit death squads. In fact, former Director of the CIA William Colby compared the Indonesian operation directly to the Vietnam Phoenix Program. Colby further admitted directing the CIA to concentrate on compiling lists of members of the PKI and other left groups.
In 1963, responding to Colby’s direction, U.S.-trained Indonesian trade unionists began gathering the names of workers who were members or sympathizers of unions affiliated with the national labor federation, SOBSI. These trade unionist spies laid the groundwork for many of the massacres of 1965-1966. The CIA also used elements in the 105,000 strong Indonesian national police force to penetrate and gather information on the PKI.
Providing “Watch Lists” based on technical and human penetration of targeted groups is a continuing program of CIA covert operators. Today, U.S.-advised security services in El Salvador, using the techniques of the Phoenix program, operate throughout El Salvador and have taken a heavy toll on peasants, activists and labor leaders in that country. In the late 1980s, the CIA began assisting the Philippine government in the conduct of “low-intensity” operations by, among other things, computerizing security service records of leftists and assisting in the development of a national identity card program. Wherever the CIA cooperates with other national security services it is safe to assume that it also compiles and passes “Subversive Control Watch Lists.”
Putting the Pieces Together
All of this is essential to understanding what happened in Indonesia in 1965 and 1966. In September and October of 1965, the murder of six top military officers during the Gestapu coup attempt provided a pretext for destroying the PKI and removing Sukarno. Surviving officers-principally General Suharto, who was not a target-rallied the army and defeated the coup, ultimately unseating Sukarno.
Two weeks before the coup, the army had been warned that the PKI was plotting to assassinate army leaders. The PKI, nominally backed by Sukarno, was a legal and formidable organization and was the third largest Communist Party in the world. It claimed three million members, and through affiliated organizations-such as labor and youth groups-it had the support of 17 million others. The Army’s anxiety had been fed by rumors throughout 1965 that mainland China was smuggling arms to the PKI for an imminent revolt. Such a story appeared in a Malaysian newspaper, citing Bangkok sources which relied in turn on Hong Kong sources. Such untraceability is a telltale mark of the Mighty Wurlitzer.
Less subtle propaganda claimed that the PKI was a tool of the Red Chinese and planned to infiltrate and divide the armed forces. To bolster these allegations, “communist weapons” were discovered inside Chinese crates labeled as construction material. Far more inflammatory news reporting prior to October 1965 claimed the PKI had a secret list of civilian and military leaders marked for beheading.
After the coup attempt the Indonesian Army in the main left the PKI alone, as there was no credible evidence to substantiate the horror stories in the press. [Eight sentences censored.] As noted, a favorite tactic is to arrange for the capture of communist documents and then insert forgeries prepared by the Agency’s Technical Services Division.
Suddenly documents were serendipitously discovered providing “proof” of PKI guilt. On October 23, 1965, the Suara Islam reported:
…millions of copies of the text of a proclamation of the counterrevolutionary Gestapu…have been recovered…. The text…was obviously printed in the CPR [People’s Republic of China]. Steel helmets and a large quantity of military equipment have also been found…. There is in controvertible evidence of the CPR’s involvement…. The arms sent by the CPR were shipped under cover of “diplomatic immunity.” …other important documents offer irrefutable evidence of the involvement of the CPR Embassy and the CPR ambassador….
On October 30,1965 Major General Suharto, in a speech before a military audience, angrily denounced the PKI saying that captured documents proved the PKI was behind Gestapu. Suharto demanded that the “Communists be completely uprooted.”
On November 2, the Indonesian Armed Forces Bulletin asserted that the PKI had a plan for revolution, and published supposed PKI directives for the period following the October coup attempt. The document stated that the PKI “is only supporting the revolutionary council” that the coup tried to establish. It added that if the council were crushed the PKI would “directly confront” the generals whom the coup leaders accused of planning to overthrow President Sukarno. The document also said, “when the revolution is directly led by the PKI, we can achieve victory because the command will be under the PKI-our hidden strength is in the armed forces.”
Military leaders [seven words censored] began a bloody extermination campaign. Civilians involved were either recruited and trained by the army on the spot, or were drawn from groups such as the army- and CIA-sponsored SOKSI trade unions [Central Organization of Indonesian Socialist Employees], and allied student organizations. Media fabrications had played a key role in preparing public opinion and mobilizing these groups for the massacre.
The documents, manufactured stories of communist plans and atrocities, and claims of communist arms shipments created an atmosphere of hysteria, resulting in the slaughter and the establishment of a dictatorship that still exists today.
The Agency wrote a secret study of what it did in Indonesia. [One sentence censored.] The CIA was extremely proud of its [one word censored] and recommended it as a model for future operations [one half sentence censored].
Yesterday’s Fake News, Today’s Fake History
The CIA desperately wants to conceal evidence of its role in the massacre, which it admits was one of the century’s worst. The U.S. media seem equally determined to protect the American image from consequences of covert operations.
Reaction to Kadane’s new revelations was swift. An Op-Ed by columnist Stephen S. Rosenfeld in the July 20, 1990 Washington Post, and an article by correspondent Michael Wines in the July 12, 1990 New York Times, each deny any CIA role in the massacre. Rosenfeld, reversing his conclusions of a week before, ignores the new evidence, cites one of many academic studies, and concludes with certainty: “For me, the question of the American role in Indonesia is closed.”
Prior to his article, Wines interviewed me. His approach was to reject any information that might implicate the Agency. I told him virtually everything in this article and more. He dismissed the information and instead quoted John Hughes, an “observer removed from the controversy,” citing him as formerly of the Christian Science Monitor but failing to mention that he was also State Department spokesman from 1982 to 1985. In an interview with Kadane, Hughes claimed that during the coup which brought Suharto to power, he functioned as the “eyes and ears of the embassy.” Wines was uninterested.
Subversive control watch lists are an effective and deadly political tool long used by U.S. intelligence, so deadly that the Agency cannot allow them to become public knowledge. Keeping them secret depends on at least two things: Agency censorship of government employees, and self-censorship by the mainstream media.
Ralph McGehee worked for the CIA from 1952 until 1977 and now writes about intelligence matters, notably the book Deadly Deceits — My 25 years in the CIA (New York: Sheridan Square Press, 1983). He has compiled a computer data base on CIA activities. Persons interested may write to him at: 422 Arkansas Ave., Herndon, VA 22070.