How a CIA operation in Indonesia turned the Vietnam War - Asia Times (2024)

JAKARTA – A former World War II Dutch resistance fighter played a key role in the US Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) theft of Indonesian military secret manuals on the SA-2 surface-to-air missile, allowing the Americans to develop countermeasures against the deadly weapon in the early stages of the Vietnam War.

The inside story of the long-faded episode appears in “In Red Weather”, a new book by Daniel Cameron, a Surabaya-based CIA undercover agent during the lead up to the army’s bloody purge of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) in 1965-66 that claimed more than 500,000 lives.

Wim Vermeulen, the husband of a willowy Dutch art dealer, received a commendation from the CIA in 1970 for his covert work in obtaining four manuals and an actual guidance pod of the Soviet SA-2, the first surface-to-air-guided missile system used in combat and which the North Vietnamese used to shoot down American warplanes.

The SA-2 Guideline had proved itself in 1959 when China, in an incident hushed up at the time, shot down a Taiwanese Canberra bomber flying at 65,000 feet.But it gained world-wide attention a year later when a similar missile strikedowned Gary Powers’ high-flying U-2 spy plane over Russia.

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As part of North Vietnam’s arsenal, it very soon became an effective weapon against high-altitude bombers attacking Hanoi and the nearby port of Haiphong that were out of range of 23 mm and 37 mm anti-aircraft guns.

Another key figure in the Surabaya cloak-and-dagger saga was the late CIA agent DavidBarnett, stationed there between 1967 and 1970, who a decade later became the first officer in the agency’s then 33-year history to be indicted on espionage charges.

He was jailed for 18 years for selling details of so-called Operation Habrink, one of the most successful undercover operations ever mounted against the Russians. He also exposed Vermeulen and 29 local operatives to the KGB to pay for a $92,000 debt he owed to Indonesian businessmen.

Habrink was not limited to the SA-2, which allowed the US to jam the radio frequency used to guide the missile to its target and to adopt other electronic countermeasures to defeat Hanoi’s air defense system, combining missiles and radar-controlled guns.

Over time, the CIA also acquired the designs for the Whiskey-class submarine, the Sverdlov-class battlecruiser, the SSN-2 Styx anti-ship missile and the Tu-16 Badger bomber, all of which had been supplied to Indonesia in a US$2.5 billion deal with Moscow in the early 1960s.

Although control over these weapons was extremely tight at Soviet bases, Cameron notes that their developing-world clients “guarded them with security that was less than absolute.”

In Indonesia’s case, army officers alarmed at Sukarno’s growing alliance with the PKI and what it could mean for newly-independent Indonesia’s future may have turned a blind eye to the leakage of some of those closely-held secrets.

Cameron says Barnett’s revelations unraveled a mystery that had “haunted” the Soviet military throughout the Vietnam War: How had vulnerable Strategic Air Command B-52 bombers been able to fly deep into North Vietnam and drop their 30-ton payloads without suffering a hit?

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The Stratofortress was first introduced into the Vietnam war in 1966, flying from Guam’s Anderson airbase and a year later from the newly-constructedU-Tapao base on the Gulf of Thailand with its four kilometer-long runway.

High-altitude raids over northern Vietnam were carried out with seeming impunity until November 22, 1972, when a surface-to-air missile struck a B-52 near the southern coastal city of Vinh, the first of the bombers to be downed by hostile fire.

A month later came Linebacker II, the last major air campaign of the war where the North Vietnamese were forced to fire salvoes of missiles fitted with close proximity fuses to try and ward offwaves of B-52s and their radar-jamming escorts.

Because they were flying at a lower altitude to lessen civilian casualties, 15 more of the big planes were lost, including one that crashed over U-Tapao’s perimeter fence after attempting an emergency landing with five of its eight engines shredded by groundfire.

In a sad footnote, co-pilot Robert Hymel,one of only two crewmen to walk away from the flamingwreckage, was killed 29 years later in the 9/11 terrorist attack on the Pentagon.

Barnett was identified as a spy in 1979 by Colonel Vladimir Piguzov, a Jakarta-based KGB officer recruited as a double agent by the CIA during nightsof partying in the city’s pubs. Piguzov was betrayed in turn by CIA turncoat Aldrich Ames in 1985 and subsequently executed.

Later to become head of the CIA’s East Asia operations, Cameron says ofBarnett: “(His) mind was always focused on an ulterior preoccupation, no matter what the subject that was being discussed among his colleagues. He was there, yet not there, to the point of invisibility.

“David never seemed to share myinterest in the production ‘take’ of the Habrink operation, although a very productive Habrink operation was still in place. But this seemed inconsistent with David’s overall blandness and lack of interest in things other than money.”

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Cameron landed in Surabaya in late 1960 under diplomatic cover. The East Java port city was literally a backwater and his superiors no doubt had few expectations of a novice field operative on his first mission in Southeast Asia.

But in the thick of the Cold War, Indonesia was an emerging hotspot and he had been told by his agency superior in Washington that “nine times out of 10 our best sources come to us by accident and serendipity.” That’s what Vermeulen turned out to be.

As a willing accomplice critical of president Sukarno for “sleeping with the Soviets,” the maverick Dutchman drew on a circle of highly-placed sources, including a mysterious figure with links to the Foreign Ministry and various military commands whose identity has never been revealed.

“Wim’s coolness under sometimes difficult circ*mstances made me confident he would be a superb principal agent, given the right level of access to information of value, particularly in the military field,” writes Cameron, now 89 and living in New York.

It was in June 1964 that Vermeulan finally took delivery of the SA-2 manuals, which were photographed and passed on to the CIA’s Langley headquarters. The guidance pod followed, but that passage appears to have been among many that were redacted by CIA censors.

“Half of the initial draft was blacked out when it was submitted four years ago,” says Bali-based art historian Bruce Carpenter, a close friend of Cameron who persuaded him to write the book. “They also made ridiculous demands. He was not even allowed to say he was stationed in Indonesia.”

Meanwhile, things were heating up across the country with the political internal power struggle spawning increasing levels of violence as shadowy PKI leaders sought to strengthen their influence over Sukarno.

Among Cameron’s friends was Colonel Sutojo Siswomihardjo, an aristocratic Javanese appointed in mid-1965 as the army’s adjutant-general. When the American asked him about the PKI’s increasingly hostile posture, he responded: “We’re waiting for them to make the first move.”

A few months later he was dead, one of the six generals murdered and thrown down a well in the October 1, 1965, coup blamed on the PKI. Known as Gestapu, the event was to usher in the 32-year rule of the low-profile Suharto, who was finally made president in 1968.

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“It was part of the eternal triangle that existed between the PKI, the army and Sukarno,” says Siswomihardjo’s son, retired Lieutenant General Agus Wijojo, governor of the National Resilience Institute and a leading military reformist. “It was a nerve-wracking time.”

Cameron had left the country in July 1965, but he returned briefly in late October, recalling a feeling of uncertainty and even menace as he drove around town. “Everything seemed suspended,” he says, “floating in a prevailing atmosphere of suspicion.”

Eschewing a bizarre political philosophy that sought to unite nationalism, communism and Islam, the charismatic Sukarno was never a committed communist. But in the wake of Gestapu his fate as the republic’s founding president was sealed.

Vermeulen’s departure from Indonesia about the same time as Cameron and the change in Indonesia’s international posture resulting from the rolling up of the PKI meant the Habrink spy ring had been dissolved by the time Barnett arrived in Surabaya in 1967.

Initially, the Dutchman settled back in his homeland. Then, with the death of his wife, Hilke, he moved to an anonymous but comfortable retirement in Portugal,where he died in 1989 still in touch with his CIA controller and now life-long friend.

Looking back now, Cameron says incoming strongman Suharto understood the US could be counted on to provide the military equipment needed to bolster his regime following Sukarno’s downfall, which also brought the end of Confrontation with Malaysia and its Five Power allies.

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“This also led to our inexcusably turning a blind eye to more than one egregious form of behavior,” he says of the mass bloodshed against the PKI that Indonesia’s military still tries to paper over. “The fact that the communist movement was crushed also suited our purposes at the time.”

However, while the Americans shared information on known communists, Cameron rejectsaccusations that the CIA or the US government were directly involved in the planning and implementation of the barbaric events that unfolded through 1965 and early 1966.

“In light of recent revelations and from the vantage point of 2020, I nowsee the killings with older eyes and regret that the US did not find a way to alert the world to a rolling massacre of unprecedented proportions and perhaps somehow end it,” he says.

How a CIA operation in Indonesia turned the Vietnam War - Asia Times (2024)


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