The Indonesian Massacres and the CIA
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
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
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
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
Suddenly documents were serendipitously discovered providing
"proof" of PKI guilt. On October 23, 1965, the Suara
...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
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,
and Third World