DNI Pick Admiral Dennis Blair, Timor Leste and the ISI

In 1999, Indonesia still entertained hopes of holding onto the former Portuguese colony of Timor Leste (East Timor) which it invaded with Secretary of State Kissinger's consent in December 1975 formerly annexing the territory in July 1976. Strong resistance to Indonesian rule resulted in a brutal repression, forced resettlement and famine in which 200,000 (a quarter of the population) are believed to have died in the two decades that followed. But by early 1999, the Clinton Administration, the Portuguese government, the United Nations and world opinion had forced Indonesian government to allowing a referendum on independence. Still opposing this was the Indonesian military, the TNI, which viewed itself as the ultimate protector of the territorial integrity of the Republik Indonesia. Into this steps Admiral Dennis Blair, Obama's pick to be Director of National Intelligence (DNI), who in April 1999 is sent by the Clinton Administration to have a chat with General Wiranto, the commander of the TNI.

Writing in September 1999 for The Nation, Allan Nairin filed this report:

US officials say that this past April, as militia terror escalated, a top US officer was dispatched to give a message to Jakarta. Adm. Dennis Blair, the US Commander in Chief of the Pacific, leader of all US military forces in the Pacific region, was sent to meet with General Wiranto, the Indonesian armed forces commander, on April 8. Blair's mission, as one senior US official told me, was to tell Wiranto that the time had come to shut the militia operation down. The gravity of the meeting was heightened by the fact that two days before, the militias had committed a horrific machete massacre at the Catholic church in Liquiça, Timor. YAYASAN HAK, a Timorese human rights group, estimated that many dozens of civilians were murdered. Some of the victims' flesh was reportedly stuck to the walls of the church and a pastor's house. But Admiral Blair, fully briefed on Liquiça, quickly made clear at the meeting with Wiranto that he was there to reassure the TNI chief. According to a classified cable on the meeting, circulating at Pacific Command headquarters in Hawaii, Blair, rather than telling Wiranto to shut the militias down, instead offered him a series of promises of new US assistance.

According to the cable, which was drafted by Col. Joseph Daves, US military attaché in Jakarta, Admiral Blair "told the armed forces chief that he looks forward to the time when [the army will] resume its proper role as a leader in the region. He invited General Wiranto to come to Hawaii as his guest in conjunction with the next round of bilateral defense discussions in the July-August '99 time frame. He said Pacific command is prepared to support a subject matter expert exchange for doctrinal development. He expects that approval will be granted to send a small team to provide technical assistance to police and...selected TNI personnel on crowd control measures."

Admiral Blair at no point told Wiranto to stop the militia operation, going the other way by inviting him to be his personal guest in Hawaii. Blair told Wiranto that the United States would initiate this new riot-control training for the Indonesian armed forces. This was quite significant, because it would be the first new US training program for the Indonesian military since 1992. Although State Department officials had been assured in writing that only police and no soldiers would be part of this training, Blair told Wiranto that, yes, soldiers could be included. So although Blair was sent in with the mission of telling Wiranto to shut the militias down, he did the opposite.

The article implies that Admiral Blair disobeyed orders. But Kevin Drum of Mother Jones doesn't think that is the case.

In fairness, Blair doesn't seem to have disobeyed a direct order from the president or anything. The Nation piece uses the passive voice ("was dispatched to") in its description and a later admonition to Blair came from the State Department via the U.S. embassy in Jakarta. Blair, however, apparently felt that you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar, and chose to engage with General Wiranto in hopes of gaining his trust, rather than delivering a sharp rebuke that might have seriously damaged U.S.-Indonesian relations.

The East Timor and Indonesia Action Network (ETAN), a human rights monitoriing organization, is, however, opposing the nomination. It's not clear to me that Admiral Blair's role was anything more than a serious and honest policy dispute. Dana Priest in the Washington Post takes the tact that Admiral Blair's approach to General Wiranto was to engage him.

In the Pacific, he butted heads with the State Department and Congress over his desire to maintain ties with the Indonesian military despite its human rights record and its involvement in East Timor atrocities. "Militaries that are doing something bad at times go into their shell," he said at the time. "It's them against the world." A more fruitful strategy, he insisted, is to make them feel a kinship with professional militaries.

Robert Gelbard, a former U.S. ambassador to Indonesia, opposed Blair's push to work with that country's military in 2000, but he endorses Blair as director of national intelligence. "We had a legitimate policy disagreement. But he has a tremendous analytic mind and commands a lot of respect in Washington. His appointment comes at a time when there needs to be a critical reassessment of what the ODNI does," Gelbard said.

It seems likely that tiny Timor Leste will play a role in Admiral Blair's confirmation hearings though I suspect that in the end the Timor Leste question will be just that a question or two. This doesn't seem likely to derail the nomination. However, I am also curious to hear more on Admiral Blair's view of rogue militaries and rogue intelligence agencies such as Pakistan's ISI. That topic should generate a lot more questions.

Tags: Admiral Dennis Blair, Director of National Intelligence, Indonesia, ISI, pakistan, Timor Leste (all tags)

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