CASE STUDY: Jakarta -- A Communist campaign that backfired
ONE of the great coups of the Czech Disinformation Department -- or so it seemed at first to Ladislav Bittman -- was Special Operation Palmer. The year was 1964. The Czechs had established a channel for disinformation in an Indonesian ambassador whom they were supplying with girls. He funneled to Jakarta the anti-American documents the Czechs gave him -- including material alleging that one William Palmer, director of the Association of American Film Importers in Indonesia, was the CIA's most important agent in the country.
The Czechs ``had no direct and persuasive evidence that Palmer was a CIA employee and could only suspect him to be one,'' wrote Bittman, deputy director of Czech disinformation operations until his defection to the West in 1968, in his book, ``The Deception Game.'' Nonetheless, the Czechs patched together an incriminating dossier on Palmer.
Indonesia, ``torn by economic chaos, inflation, internal tension, and hatred for Malaysia, was a ready victim for Communist intelligence activities,'' mused Bittman in the 1972 book. ``It was possible to claim that all past, present, and future difficulties, real or imagined, were the result of American imperialism.''
In December, student demonstrators ransacked the US Information Agency libraries in Jakarta and Surabaja. In February 1965 students attacked the residence of the US ambassador. Shortly thereafter the Indonesian women's movement, bowing to its communist branch, demanded the expulsion of Palmer.
In the meantime the Soviets, impressed by the Czech campaign, joined in. General Agayants, head of the Soviet disinformation service, visited Indonesia to supervise the next stage of the operation himself.
In March a mob attacked the American Motion Picture Association in Indonesia. In April rioters broke into Palmer's (unoccupied) villa. In mid-April the Indonesian government ordered the American Peace Corps out of the country.
At this point, according to Bittman, the Czechs and Soviets forged a report from the British ambassador in Jakarta to London about a purported British-American plan to invade Indonesia from neighboring Malaysia. American and British denials were brushed off by the Indonesian government.
``For almost a year, with only the most primitive means and a few agents, the Czechoslovak and Soviet intelligence services influenced Indonesian public opinion and leadership,'' wrote Bittman. ``The reasons were inherent in the extremely favorable objective curcumstances. Operation Palmer was initiated at the proper time. It succeeded in riding the crest of a wave of anti-Americanism. It corroborated the existing views.''
Western diplomats may think the Soviets and Czechs were in fact just ``riding the crest,'' rather than strengthening it, in the pro-Chinese, virulently anti-American Communist Party. But Bittman and his fellow operatives considered their campaign ``quite successful,'' he recalled in an interview. ``It stirred up a kind of anti-American hysteria in Indonesia.''
But then suddenly a violent reversal snatched all the gains away from Moscow, Prague, Peking, and the Indonesian Communist Party. Emboldened by the swell of anti-Americanism, the Indonesian Communists launched an attack on their political opponents with the tacit consent of President Sukarno and killed six generals. The armed forces fought back and won, and some 300,000 suspected Communists and fellow travelers were slaughtered. The Indonesian Communist Party, once the largest per population in any non-Communist country, was driven underground. Sukarno was replaced by the anticommunist General Suharto. Malaysia and Indonesia became friends.
``In August and the beginning September 1965, Operation Palmer was still being hailed as a tour de force by the Czechoslovak and Russian intelligence services,'' Bittman wrote in summing up the campaign. ``By October, no one willingly mentioned it.''