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From the Bloodbaths In East Timor to a Suicide in Arlington

by Alexander Cockburn And Jeffrey St. Clair

Sandra Jenkins woke up about 6 am on a muggy June morning outside Washington, DC in 1999 to find a note from on her husband on the night-table beside the bed. “Spread my ashes at our house in Fadden.” She called a friend and told her, “I think Merv has done something to himself”. The friend told Sandra that she had to go find him before the kids did.

“I went downstairs”. recalled Sandra to the Australian news program Four Corners, earlier this year. “I was hoping to find him asleep on the sofa. Maybe he’d taken some sleeping pills. But he wasn’t there. I opened the Venetian blinds and I saw him standing outside. I thought he was standing. But something wasn’t right. I followed his body down and he washe was hanging.”

The man at the end of the rope was Merv Jenkins, a top intelligence officer with the Australian security forces. He had killed himself on his birthday at his home on Spy Hill, in Arlington, Virginia.

His wife, Sandra, believes that Merv was driven to suicide by the CIA. The story, which has received no press attention in the US, involves the complex and bloody relationship between US and Australian intelligence agencies, the Indonesia military and East Timor.

Jenkins was one of Australia’s top covert operatives. He had led the Australian special forces group, known as the 660 Signal Troop, which coordinated communications for numerous operations inside East Timor, when Australian forces were essentially working has hired guns for Suharto and the CIA. Later Jenkins became the commanding officer for Australia’s electronic warfare department.

Then in 1996 Jenkins got what he thought was his dream job: top liaison between Australia’s Defense Intelligence Organization and the CIA and Defense Intelligence Agency. In this position, Jenkins was supposed to pass on satellite imagery and intercepted communications from Indonesia to the Americans.

Jenkins arrived in Washington at a fraught moment. Despite the best efforts of the CIA and the Australian military, the Suharto regime was beginning to crumble and the independence movement inside East Timor was once again gaining momentum and being countered with increasingly vicious reprisals by Indonesian troops, acting on intelligence provided by US and Australian sources.

The CIA repeatedly carped that the intelligence coming from Australia on Indonesia matters, including East Timor, was “insufficiently detailed” and “too anodyne” in nature. The Agency threatened Jenkins that if things didn’t improve they were going to cut the Aussies off from the intelligence gathered at Pine Gap, the satellite control complex outside Alice Springs, which eavesdrops on Iraq, Indonesia, Afghanistan, India and China.

“Merv was angry because the CIA was upset that he wasn’t passing over more information that they really required, and that they, the CIA, expected a lot more out of Australia. They expected a lot more information”, Peter Czeti, a former intelligence officer at the Australian embassy in DC, told the Canberra Times, ” We would be requested for intelligence material by our allies on numerous occasionsWe would make those requests and send them back to Australia and they would sit there. And I mean for months, years. And they were never fulfilled. And these were areas that we were experts in, so there’s no reason why we couldn’t have provided the material. It’s just that it never happened.”

In fact, there were plenty of reasons why the Australian intelligence agencies may have been reluctant to turn over detailed intelligence reports on the operations of the Aussie military in East Timor. During Clintontime, the Australians had largely become a surrogate for US operatives in the region, even as Clinton moved to distance the administration from the collapsing Suharto regime and the rampages of the Indonesian military.

For example, in May Captain Andrew Plunkett, an intelligence office for the 3rd Battalion of the Royal Australian Regiment, who served in East Timor said that the Australian intelligence agencies instructed his and other units to conceal evidence of war crimes by the Indonesia army and militias.

Plunkett, who now faces prosecution for violating government secrecy laws, charges that the Australian military ignored intelligence reports about the impending massacre of 50 people at a police station in the East Timor border town of Maliana in September, 1999. “Australian intelligence sources had accurately reported on Indonesian plans to kill independence supporters in Maliana, but those reports were pushed up the chain of command, hosed down and politically wordsmithed by the Asia Division of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade”, Plunkett told the Australian TV show Dateline on May 9 of this year. “None of this information was passed on to the UN troops on the ground.”

When Indonesian militias attacked independence demonstrators in and around Maliana, the UN told the people to go to the local police station where they would be protected by Indonesian police. Instead, the police and Indonesian soldiers trapped several thousand people on the police grounds and allowed militiamen to hack at least 47 people to death with machetes.

Plunkett, who was assigned the task of examining mass graves, also said that Australian soldiers were instructed to undercount the death toll. The official death count at Maliana was 12. But Plunkett says that the Australians and the UN knew that many of the bodies had been put in mass graves or dumped in rivers or the ocean. Plunkett says that he examined more than 60 bodies himself in the Maliana area.

It was precisely this kind of information on the situation in East Timor prior to the independence referendum that the CIA was pressuring Merv Jenkins to pass along. In May of 1999, Jenkins came across an AUSTEO (Australian Eyes Only Document) cable from the Department of Foreign Affairs describing the activities of the Indonesian militias and troops in East Timor. Jenkins, under extreme pressure, slipped the information to his contacts in the CIA. He was soon reprimanded by his superiors. An email from his superiors at the Defense Intelligence Security Office warned: “Issues are becoming extremely sensitive as there are foreign policy implications. It is imperative that extra care is taken with the passing of material to the US and Canada.”

The CIA was equally upset. When the agents saw what Jenkins handed over, they realized that the Australians had been holding back key information on the movements of Indonesian troops in East Timor. They demanded more documents from Jenkins. He tried to comply, telling his superiors that “the pressure from CIA has been intense and building”. But Jenkins didn’t know that he was being spied on by his own employees, two uniformed officers who were supposed to be couriers between his office and the CIA.

The two men began opening Jenkins’ packets and soon discovered that he was sending AUSTEO documents on East Timor to the CIA. They informed the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs, the very same office that suppressed the intelligence reports from Maliana. One of the men, Dennis Magennis, wrote a letter to the Department of Foreign Affairs denouncing Jenkins’ ties to the CIA “as barely one step removed from treachery”. He said that he could not rule out the use of violence against Jenkins and warned that unless the Department stopped the liaisons “external means must be found.”

In any event, an investigation of Jenkins’ ties to the CIA was soon launched and, at the end of May 1999, he was hauled in for an interrogation. He came out of the meeting shaken.

“When I first saw him, he was clearly under enormous stress”, said Noel Adams, a former Aussie intelligence officer and colleague of Jenkins. “You could see it in his face. His eyes were red-rimmed. It shocked me. I was dismayed to see how he was.”

After the session, Jenkins sent an email to his superiors in Canberra saying that he felt he had been abused. He said that he was “angry and frustrated” and wanted to discuss the matter with top agency officials when he returned to Australia in August. He never made it back. Two days after sending this note, he was dead, hanging from a rope in his garage. It was his 48th birthday.

“There’s a culture there that excludes people,” said Jenkins’ mother, Enid. “People who are honest and have integrity. And being accountable for what they’ve done. And it’s the old boy stuff again. You know? Here’s the bottle of whiskey. Here’s the gun. You know what to do.”

CounterPunchers should not conclude from that the CIA was somehow wearing the white hat in this dark affair. The Agency wanted more information on the rampages of the Indonesian militias in East Timor, but not in order to stimulate preventative action, but as a quid pro for the electronic intercepts the US was furnishing Australia. CP

Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His new book is Killing Trayvons: an Anthology of American Violence (with JoAnn Wypijewski and Kevin Alexander Gray). He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net. Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined! and A Colossal Wreck are available from CounterPunch.

CounterPunch Magazine

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