The Skeletons in Dennis Blair’s Closet


The presumed appointment by President-elect Barack Obama of retired Admiral Dennis C. Blair as his new Director of National Intelligence is being greeted with cheers by the national media, who hail his experience, bureaucratic infighting skills and comparatively moderate views on national security issues. The New York Times, in a recent profile, seemed much impressed by the fact that the 34-year Navy veteran once water skied behind an aircraft carrier, in addition to his stints with the National Security Council, the Central Intelligence Agency and the Institute for Defense Analysis (from which he resigned in 2006 over conflict of interest charges involving the F-22 raptor).

But human rights supporters are right to be worried that Dennis Blair will hardly lead the charge for reform in the nation’s intelligence community after the Bush Administration’s embrace of torture, rendition and other crimes. For in the period leading up to and following East Timor’s August 1999 referendum on independence from Indonesia Blair, from his perch as US Commander in Chief of the Pacific (CINCPAC) from February 1999 to May 2000, ran interference for the Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI) as they and their militia proxies committed crimes against humanity on an awesome scale.

Following the ouster of long-time dictator Suharto in 1998, Indonesian president B.J. Habibie signaled that Indonesia would be willing to allow East Timor an up or down referendum on independence following 24 years of brutal Indonesian occupation. The Indonesian Armed Forces (TNI), hoping to sway the vote in Jakarta’s favor, launched a campaign of terror and intimidation led by the Army, Police and local militia proxies in which they killed hundreds of people displaced tens of thousands, most infamously on April 6, 1999, when militia forces massacred 57 Timorese in a church at Liquica on the outskirts of the capitol Dili.

As readers of the Nation will recall from the reporting of Alan Nairn, two days after the massacre the Pentagon dispatched Blair two days later to meet with Wiranto and demand that he disband the militias and allow a fair vote in East Timor. Instead, Blair offered assurances of continued US support for the TNI and invited Wiranto to Pacific Command Headquarters in Hawaii as his personal guest. According to top secret CIA intelligence summary issued after the massacre, however (and recently declassified by the author through a Freedom of Information Act request), “Indonesian military had colluded with pro-Jakarta militia forces in events preceding the attack and were present in some numbers at the time of the killings.” A Top Secret Senior Executive Intelligence Brief from April 20, 1999 stated plainly that “to restore stability, the Indonesian security forces must stop supporting the militias and adopt a neutral posture.” A Top Secret CIA Intelligence Report dated May 10, 1999 reported that “local commanders would have required at least tacit approval from headquarters in Jakarta to allow the militias the blatant free hand they have enjoyed.” Blair’s performance, which prompted a rebuke by the State Department, was part of a fierce bureaucratic struggle between the Pentagon and State Department and Embassy officers seeking to reign in the TNI’s terror.

Immediately after the August 30, 1999 referendum, in which nearly 80% of Timorese voted for independence from Indonesia, TNI forces and their militia proxies launched a murderous scorched earth campaign, killing nearly 1,500 Timorese, forcing a third of the population from their homes and destroying most of the territory’s infrastructure. Following a global outcry and enormous pressure from Congress and grassroots activists, President Clinton finally severed military ties on September 8, with Dennis Blair personally conveying news of the cutoff to General Wiranto.

By this point the TNI’s – and by extension Wironto’s – control of the terror operations in East Timor was being widely acknowledged internally by both State Department and CIA sources. On September 10 the US Embassy in Canberra, Australia dispatched a secret telegram to Washington reporting in the subject line that that the TNI was “controlling and assisting militia” in East Timor. Yet in Pentagon news briefing two weeks later Blair continued publicly to push the ‘bad apple’ line – characterizing the TNI’s deliberate destruction of East Timor and murder of hundreds of people as “a bad breakdown of order with some elements of TNI contributing to it and not helping it.” He went on to insist that US training of the Indonesian Armed Forces had paid dividends, with “many of those officers who did have training and education in the United States … are leading a very strong reform movement within TNI.” As Dana Priest of the /Washington Post/ later reported, however, fully one third of the Indonesian officers indicted by Indonesia’s national human rights commission for “crimes against humanity” committed in East Timor in 1999 were US trained. Wiranto, also indicted, is now considering a run at the Indonesian presidency in 2009. The clear links between US training and TNI terror clearly did not trouble Blair, who spent much of his remaining time as CINCPAC fighting to restore the military ties to his allies in Jakarta that grassroots activists and their Congressional allies had worked since 1992 to sever, finally winning their resumption in 2002.

Blair’s apologetics for murder and torture by the Indonesian armed forces in East Timor, and his opposition to trials, international or otherwise, for the high level perpetrators of mass violence, offers a sobering indication of the positions he is likely to take as Director of National Intelligence. President-elect Obama’s choice suggests that he will resist – as Blair almost certainly will – demands for the prosecution of high-ranking Bush Administration officials, much less lower level employees in the Pentagon and Central Intelligence Agency, for torture, rendition and other crimes carried out in the name of the so-called War on Terror.

BRADLEY SIMPSON is assistant professor of history and international affairs at Princeton University and a research fellow at the National Security Archive in Washington, DC, where he directs the Indonesia and East Timor Documentation Project. He is the author of Economists With Guns: Authoritarian Development and U.S.-Indonesian Relations, 1960-1968.








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