Number 399 February 7, 2008

This Week: Suharto and Philip Agee

"Quote" of the Week
Join the "Friends of Nygaard Notes"
Suharto and His "Mixed Legacy"
Philip Agee and His Legacy


It's very important to me that Nygaard Notes does not take advertising. And it is extremely rare for me to run anything that I didn't write myself. So it feels funny to me to run item #1 below (Join the "Friends of Nygaard Notes"). I didn't write it—in fact, I had nothing to do with it—and I guess it is basically an ad. But it's all in the service of supporting the project that you are reading right now, so I guess it's alright... See what you think.

Welcome to all the new readers that have come on board lately! I look forward to your feedback. Please send along your questions and comments.



"Quote" of the Week

In the latest version of William Blum's "Anti-Empire Report", Blum articulates a large part of the reason why Nygaard Notes exists. So I thought I would pass it along:

"I think there are all kinds of intelligence in this world: musical, scientific, mathematical, artistic, academic, literary, mechanical, and so on. Then there's political intelligence, which I would define as the ability to see through the bullshit which the leaders and politicians of every society, past, present and future, feed their citizens from birth on to win elections and assure continuance of the prevailing ideology.

"This is why it's so important for all of us to continue ‘preaching to the choir' and ‘preaching to the converted." That's what speakers and writers and other activists are often scoffed at for doing—saying the same old thing to the same old people, just spinning their wheels. But long experience as speaker, writer and activist in the area of foreign policy tells me it just ain't so. From the questions and comments I regularly get from my audiences, via email and in person, and from other people's audiences as well, I can plainly see that there are numerous significant information gaps and misconceptions in the choir's thinking, often leaving them unable to see through the newest government lie or propaganda trick; they're unknowing or forgetful of what happened in the past that illuminates the present; knowing the facts but unable to apply them at the appropriate moment; vulnerable to being led astray by the next person who offers a specious argument that opposes what they currently believe, or think they believe. The choir needs to be frequently reminded and enlightened.

"In sum, even when the hearts of the chorus may be in the right place, their heads still need working on, on a recurring basis. And in any event, very few people are actually born into the choir; they achieve choir membership only after being preached to, multiple times."


Join the "Friends of Nygaard Notes"

Are you interested in supporting Nygaard Notes, but not sure how to go about it? Wouldn't it be great if there were a "Friends of Nygaard Notes" group like many libraries have? I am a long-time fan of both Nygaard Notes and Jeff Nygaard, and I am looking for some company in starting just such a group.

If you'd like to join me in this exciting project, please contact me at or 763-391-6246. Together we can think about financial and non-financial ways to support Nygaard Notes. This proposed group will operate independently of Jeff. It can be as small or as large as we decide to make it. I hope to hear from both local and non-local supporters of Nygaard Notes.

Linda Brandt


Suharto and His "Mixed Legacy"

On January 27th the former dictator of Indonesia, Suharto, died at age 86. Looking at the obituaries for notable figures almost always offers a revealing glimpse into the prevailing moral and intellectual climate of our times. Suharto's death was no exception, so let's have a look at what we can learn.

First of all, I imagine that many readers don't know too much about Suharto, so I'll relate a few of the things that I know.

Suharto came to power in Indonesia in 1965, pushing aside President Sukarno, who was Indonesia's first president, and had been president since Indonesia declared its independence in 1945. Here's a small part of the story of Suharto's rise, as told by Jakarta-based scholar Andreas Harsono, writing for Inter Press Service:

"[On Oct. 1, 1965] the Suharto-led military ... began a slow purge against Sukarno. Suharto put the blame on the communists. It was a bloody period in Indonesia's history. At least 500,000 people were murdered between October 1965 and March 1966. Hundreds of thousands of people were to spend years in prison, without clear charges against them. They suffered, on a routine basis, excruciating torture. They endured uncountable losses of property to theft and looting, everyday rapes and social ostracism that also targeted wives and widows, children and kinsfolk."

TIME Magazine, in its December 17, 1965 issue, reported on Suharto's Indonesia: "The killings have been on, on such a scale that the disposal of the corpses has created a serious sanitation problem in East Java and northern Sumatra, where the humid air bears the reek of decaying flesh. Travelers from those areas tell of small rivers and streams that have been literally clogged with bodies; river transportation has at places been impeded."

Harsono says "at least 500,000." Other estimates range as high as one million. In a 1968 CIA study called "Indonesia—1965: The Coup That Backfired," the CIA said that "In terms of the numbers killed, the [1965-66] massacres in Indonesia rank as one of the worst mass murders of the twentieth century, along with the Soviet purges of the 1930s..."

Joseph Stalin presided over those "Soviet purges," during a period that saw rapid economic growth in the Soviet Union. Unlike Suharto, few in the United States consider Stalin to have had a "mixed record."

The killing under Suharto did not end in the 1960s. The next frenzy of murder under Suharto began in the mid-1970s, and I'll let William Blum summarize that story (including the U.S. role): "In December 1975, Indonesia invaded East Timor, which lies at the eastern end of the Indonesian archipelago, and which had proclaimed its independence after Portugal had relinquished control of it.... Indonesia was Washington's most valuable tool in Southeast Asia.

"Amnesty International estimated that by 1989, Indonesian troops, with the aim of forcibly annexing East Timor, had killed 200,000 people out of a population of between 600,000 and 700,000. The United States consistently supported Indonesia's claim to East Timor (unlike the UN and the EU), and downplayed the slaughter to a remarkable degree, at the same time supplying Indonesia with all the military hardware and training it needed to carry out the job."

It's hard to understand such numbers, so let me elaborate: Suharto's Indonesia killed between 28 percent and 33 percent of the total population of the newly-independent nation of East Timor. By way of comparison, the inhuman slaughters of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, occurring at about the same time, resulted in the deaths of between 24 percent and 31 percent of the Cambodian population. Roughly similar, proportionally, to the East Timor atrocities. Yet, while the sites of the Khmer Rouge atrocities are universally remembered as the "Killing Fields," and rightly elicit horror around the world, a reference to East Timor will likely elicit a much milder, if any, response from a majority of United Statesians, despite U.S. complicity in the latter crime.

(The U.S. also had a role in the devastation of Cambodia, with its "secret bombings" that killed unknown numbers, perhaps as many as were executed by the Khmer Rouge. But that's another story.)

"There May Be Some Controversy"

For all of the above reasons, when I heard about the death of Suharto I had certain thoughts about his "legacy." U.S. officialdom, and the media that takes its cue from them, had some different thoughts.

Upon Suharto's death the US ambassador to Indonesia, Cameron Hume, immediately issued an official statement of "condolences" from the U.S., saying "President Suharto led Indonesia for over 30 years, a period during which Indonesia achieved remarkable economic and social development.... Though there may be some controversy over his legacy, President Suharto was a historic figure who left a lasting imprint on Indonesia and the region of Southeast Asia."

There's your official "line" on Suharto: "remarkable economic and social development" with "some controversy over his legacy." Now, here are some headlines from the U.S. corporate media on the death of Suharto. Note how well they echo the line!

The Wall Street Journal headline was "Suharto Leaves a Mixed Record; Indonesian Dictator Stifled Democracy, Civil Liberties But Led Humming Economy." The Washington Post and the New York Times had a similar take on the death. The Post said, "Indonesia's Despotic ‘Father of Development'; U.S. Ally, in Power for 3 Decades, Oversaw Bloody Purges as Well as Nation's Rise to Prosperity." The Times said, "Suharto Dies at 86; Indonesian Dictator Brought Order and Bloodshed." The International Herald Tribune, the NY Times abroad, said, "Suharto, Indonesia's Ruler for 32 Years, Dies at 86. Corrupt, Repressive, but a Force for Stability." And the Christian Science Monitor said simply, "Indonesia's Suharto: A Complex Legacy."

The themes are clear, and can be seen in the key words: Suharto was the "Father of Development" who brought "Stability," "Prosperity," and made the economy "hum." Still, it is hard to avoid the dark side of this picture—the "bloody purges" by a "dictator" who "stifled democracy"—so the result is a "mixed record" and a "complex legacy."


If we look at the media in other countries, the record is a little less "mixed." Outside of the U.S. we see headlines like "Disgraced, Vilified Ex-Dictator Suharto Dies" (Turkey) and "Suharto, Tyrant of Indonesia, Dies Without Facing Justice" (England) and "Survivors Haunted by Frenzy of Bloodshed; Tens of Thousands Killed During Suharto's Rise to Power, Repressive Rule." (Canada).

One last comment on the Ambassador's remark about the "Remarkable economic and social development" under Suharto. This comment comes from investigative journalist Allan Nairn, who has reported extensively on Indonesia for many years:

"In fact, if you compare Indonesia [today] to Malaysia, a neighboring country which started out at the same economic level, after Suharto and the army got done with Indonesia, wages in Indonesia are about a sixth of what they are in Malaysia. ... in terms of lives of the poor—hunger, life expectancy, health, nutrition—people in Malaysia ended up doing much better, because there they took away power from the army, they put restrictions on the multinationals, and they had a different form of development. So the idea that Suharto's mass murders were somehow balanced by economic progress he gave to the people is just factually incorrect..."

As we consider the role of the media in the construction of the image of one of the major criminals of the 20th Century, it's worth remembering that similar construction projects are underway for various contemporary political figures. It may be an ally, like Musharraf in Pakistan or Islam Karimov in Uzbekistan, or it may be an official "enemy," such as Hugo Chavez in Venezuela or Evo Morales in Bolivia. As an antidote to the routine propaganda that we're fed each day—telling us who is "Good" and who is "Evil" in the absurd War On Terror—it would be a good idea to keep in mind the example of the mass murderer Suharto, and his "complex legacy."


Philip Agee and His Legacy

Philip Agee, the former CIA agent who renounced "The Company" and spent the rest of his life in a courageous effort to expose and obstruct the CIA's ongoing crimes around the world, died in Havana on January 7th. I was 22 years old when I picked up a copy of Agee's 1975 book "Inside the Company: CIA Diary." After reading it I would never be able to see the United States the same way again.

Agee was a CIA case officer for 12 years, from 1957 to 1969, working in Ecuador, Uruguay, and Mexico. He resigned from the CIA after witnessing the US-backed bloodbath against student protesters on the eve of the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. Years later, speaking of his resignation, Agee explained that he "didn't want anything more to do with" the political repression that was required to maintain "the traditional power structures in Latin America."

Agee was not the first to leave the CIA for reasons of conscience but he was the first to write a book explicitly aimed at obstructing the functioning of the CIA. And he was successful. An official CIA review of "Inside the Company" said that "Those whose interests lie in identifying and neutralizing U.S. covert action will find it useful," adding that "The book will affect the CIA as a severe body blow does any living organism: some parts obviously will be affected more than others, but the health of the whole is bound to suffer."

"His 50-page recitation of the instruction he received," said the CIA, "is an accurate description of the intelligence community, the CIA structure, and the doctrines, tradecraft, and terms of the Clandestine Service." That's why "Inside the Company" remains essential reading for anyone who wants to understand how "the system" works.

Agee's principled opposition did not end with the publication of "Inside the Company." He went on to co-found the magazine "Covert Action Information Bulletin," and also co-authored a second book called "Dirty Work: The CIA in Western Europe." Both efforts were aimed, in part, at exposing CIA agents and the work they do. By choosing the course he did, Agee put his life in danger, and was forced to live much of the past 32 years as a "wanted man," at great personal sacrifice.

Agee continued educating and agitating for the rest of his life. Nygaard Notes recently cited his 2005 essay, "How United States Intervention Against Venezuela Works," and I have turned to him many other times over the years when I was trying to understand "how it works."

Agee's work wasn't done when he died last month. One source reported that "at the time of his death [Agee] was reportedly working on a book about CIA subversive activities in Venezuela." It would have been invaluable, I'm sure.

To understand how an empire (or any institution) works, one needs to know what it does when no one is looking. Exposing this—in detail—is the invaluable gift that Philip Agee gave the world.