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President Gerald Ford Dies at 93; Supported Indonesian Invasion of East Timor That Killed 1/3 of Population

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Former President Gerald Ford died last night at the age of 93. We begin our coverage of Ford’s time in office with a look at his support for the Indonesian invasion of East Timor that killed one-third of the Timorese population. We’re joined by Brad Simpson of the National Security Archives and journalist Allan Nairn. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Former President Gerald Ford died last night at the age of 93. He became president in 1974 following the resignation of Richard Nixon. Ford is the only person to become president that was never elected president or vice president. Some described him as the “accidental president.” At his inauguration, Ford famously declared “the long national nightmare is over.” But a month later Ford granted Richard Nixon a full and absolute pardon for all federal crimes that he committed when he was in the White House, including for crimes connected to the Watergate scandal. The decision stunned the country.

Gerald Ford served as president until he lost to Jimmy Carter in the '76 election. In 1975, he ordered the final pullout of U.S. troops from Vietnam. He later offered amnesty to Vietman-era draft resisters. Gerald Ford surrounded himself by advisers who would later play key roles in the current Bush administration and in shaping Bush's Iraq War policy. Donald Rumsfeld served first as his chief of staff and then as secretary of defense. Dick Cheney also served as Ford’s chief of staff. Paul Wolfowitz served in the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency.

Less well known is President Ford’s involvement in East Timor. Both The New York Times and Washington Post failed to mention in their obituaries today that Ford and Henry Kissinger, Ford’s secretary of state, offered advance approval of Indonesia’s brutal invasion of East Timor.

This is clip of the documentary Massacre: The Story of East Timor that I produced with journalist Allan Nairn.

AMY GOODMAN: The night before the invasion, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and President Ford were in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta, toasting General Suharto, the Indonesian ruler.

PRESIDENT GERALD FORD: Our relationship involves a common concern for the right of every nation to pursue its destiny on its own independent and sovereign course. On behalf of Mrs. Ford and myself, I raise my glass and propose a toast.

AMY GOODMAN: Joao Carrascalao, the brother of the former governor of East Timor and himself a political leader now in exile, was working for the Indonesians at the time.

JOAO CARRASCALAO: I arrived at Jakarta one hour before President Ford and Henry Kissinger landed in Jakarta. And on the same night, I was informed by Colonel Suyanto—he was a top officer in the Jakarta administration—that America had given the green light for Indonesia to invade Timor.

AMY GOODMAN: The United States, Suharto’s main backer, supplied 90 percent of Indonesia’s arms.

AMY GOODMAN: An excerpt of the documentary Massacre: The Story of East Timor, which I produced with journalist Allan Nairn, who will be joining us in a minute. But first, to talk more about President Ford’s legacy and his role in East Timor, we are joined by Brad Simpson. Brad Simpson works for the National Security Archives and is a professor at the University of Maryland.

Brad, welcome to Democracy Now!

BRAD SIMPSON: Thank you very much for having me on, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: Brad, you recently got documents declassified about President Ford and his role in 1975 in meeting with the long-reigning dictator of Indonesia, Suharto. Can you explain what you learned?

BRAD SIMPSON: Yes. Gerald Ford actually met twice with Suharto, first in July of 1975, when Suharto came to the United States, and later in December of 1975, of course, on the eve of his invasion of East Timor. And we now know that for more than a year Indonesia had been planning its armed takeover of East Timor, and the United States had of course been aware of Indonesian military plans. In July of 1975, the National Security Council first informed Henry Kissinger and Gerald Ford of Indonesia’s plan to take over East Timor by force. And Suharto of course raised this with Gerald Ford in July when he met with Gerald Ford at Camp David on a trip to the United States. And then, in December of 1975 on a trip through Southeast Asia, Gerald Ford met again with Suharto on the eve of the invasion, more than two weeks after the National Security Council, the CIA, other intelligence agencies had concluded that an Indonesian invasion was imminent and that the only thing delaying the invasion was the fear that U.S. disapproval might lead to a cutoff of weapons and military supplies to the Indonesian regime.

AMY GOODMAN: How knowledgeable was President Ford at the time of the situation?

BRAD SIMPSON: Well, Ford was very much aware. He was receiving hourly briefings, as was Henry Kissinger, as his plane lifted off from Indonesia, as the invasion indeed commenced. And immediately afterwards, Gerald Ford flew to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii—or to Guam, excuse me, where he gave a speech saying that never again should the United States allow another nation to strike in the middle of the night, to attack another defenseless nation—this was on Pearl Harbor Day, of course—realizing full well that another day of infamy was unfolding in Dili, East Timor, as thousands of Indonesian paratroopers, trained by the United States, using U.S.-supplied weapons, indeed jumping from United States-supplied airplanes, were descending upon the capital city of Dili and massacring literally thousands of people in the hours and days after December 7, 1975.

AMY GOODMAN: Brad, how difficult was it to get this declassified, the memos that you got? And how long were these memos about Ford and Kissinger’s meeting with the long-reigning Suharto—how long were they kept classified?

BRAD SIMPSON: Well, they were kept classified until the fall of 2002. We now know, actually, that a congressman from Minnesota, Donald Fraser, had actually attempted to declassify the memo, the so-called smoking gun memo, the transcript of Suharto’s conversation with Gerald Ford in December of 1975. Congressman Fraser actually tried to declassify this document in 1978 during the Suharto—or during the Carter years. And Carter’s national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, realizing full well the explosive nature of this cable, which showed that the United States had been an accomplice in an international act of aggression, recommended that the State Department refuse to declassify the memo, a mere three years after the invasion. And it took another 25 years after this episode before the cables were finally declassified.

And, of course, much more has come out. And I think it’s incontrovertible that the United States played the crucial role in enabling the Indonesian invasion of East Timor. And I think it’s wrong to say that Gerald Ford was completely unconcerned with the aftermath of the invasion. We now know that just a few days after the invasion Gerald Ford sent a telegram to the State Department asking that an emergency diplomatic cable be sent to General Suharto in response to his recent visit. And inside the cable, which was sent by diplomatic pouch from the U.S. Embassy, was a set of golf balls from Gerald Ford.

AMY GOODMAN: As we wrap up, you have a large body of declassified documents around Indonesia and Timor, of which this is a part, at the National Security Archive. If people want to look, where do they go online, Brad Simpson?

BRAD SIMPSON: They can go to www.nsarchive.org. And there is a link to the Indonesia and East Timor Documentation Project on that website.

AMY GOODMAN: Brad Simpson, I want to thank you for being with us, of the National Security Archive, professor of history at the University of Maryland, College Park. When we come back from break, we’ll be joined by journalist Allan Nairn, who interviewed President Ford about his involvement in the Indonesian invasion of Timor. We’ll also speak with Victor Navasky, publisher of The Nation magazine. And we’ll talk to journalist Robert Parry about the legacy of President Ford. President Ford is dead at the age of 93. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: To talk more about President Ford’s legacy and his role in Indonesia and East Timor, joined by colleague and independent journalist Allan Nairn, who co-produced the documentary, Massacre: The Story of East Timor. Allan, welcome to Democracy Now!


AMY GOODMAN: We just talked to Professor Brad Simpson, who got the document declassified, on the National Security Archive website, of President Ford and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger’s role in giving the green light for the invasion of Timor, December 7, 1975. Can you talk about your interview with President Ford and the significance of the information that has come out since?

ALLAN NAIRN: Well, I interviewed Ford by phone, and beforehand had told his assistant that I wanted to discuss his meeting with General Suharto, the Indonesian dictator, on December 5th. So, coming into the interview, Ford knew the topic. And when I asked Ford whether he did in fact authorize the invasion of East Timor, he said, “Frankly, I don’t recall.” Didn’t remember. And I believed him.

What Ford said was that there were many topics on the agenda that day with Suharto. Timor was not very high on the agenda. It was one of the lesser topics, and he just couldn’t remember whether he had authorized this invasion, which ended up killing a third of the Timorese population. And it’s kind of an illustration of the fact that when, like the United States, you’re a global power with regimes everywhere dependent on your weapons, you can start wars, authorize wars, take actions that result in mass death in a fairly casual way.

In this case, the U.S. did not have great interest in East Timor. All the evidence suggests that they didn’t particularly care one way or the other whether Timor became independent. But as a favor to Suharto, who was close to Washington, who was their protégé, they decided to let him go ahead with the invasion. So, for just a marginal, fleeting gain for—out of doing a favor for a buddy, they ended up causing a mass murder that proportionally was the most intensive killing since the Nazis, a third of the population killed.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, documents, Allan Nairn, that you did get declassified were a memo that involved Henry Kissinger. Again, it was Kissinger and Ford that gave the go-ahead for the invasion when they visited Suharto, the long-reigning dictator. And that was information they were getting as they flew out of Indonesia through to Guam and Pearl Harbor, as Brad Simpson described. But what about those documents and Kissinger’s reaction?

ALLAN NAIRN: Well, Kissinger and Ford, they—one of the points they made to Suharto was, “You have to try to get this invasion over with quickly.” And Kissinger, when he—they wanted them to go in intensively, presumably kill as many Timorese as they could quickly, so that it wouldn’t get international attention. And also, apparently, they were worried that it could get attention in Congress, because Ford and Kissinger knew that by authorizing this invasion, they were technically violating U.S. law, because the U.S. weapons laws at the time stated that U.S. weapons given to foreign clients could not be used for purposes of aggression. And this was in the judgment of the State Department’s own legal analysts. This looked like it would be an act of aggression if Indonesia were to invade East Timor. And that could, technically, if the Congress got wind of it, started to pay attention to it, be grounds for stopping, cutting off U.S. weapons supply to Indonesia.

That would have been devastating for the invasion of Timor because about 90 percent of the Indonesian weapons were coming from the U.S., and they needed spare parts, they needed ammunition, they needed a resupply. And it also would have been dangerous for the regime of Suharto, which was based on repression within Indonesia and needed those weapons to keep their own population down. So Kissinger, in his internal discussions within the State Department, was pressing his people to make sure that all information about Timor be kept under wraps, because they didn’t want the U.S. Congress paying too much attention to it. As it turned out, I think Kissinger was giving Congress a little too much credit, because there was not much evidence at the time that, apart from a few members like then-Congressman Tom Harkin, that there was much interest in probing what the U.S. was doing. But Kissinger knew this was an illegal operation, so he was trying to keep it quiet.

AMY GOODMAN: And the information about Suharto’s role, in general, in Indonesia at the time, as you mentioned both the invasion of East Timor, but Suharto—what happened, how he came to power, the man that eventually Ford and Kissinger would meet with in the capital of Indonesia, Jakarta?

ALLAN NAIRN: Well, Suharto came to power on the back of essentially a military coup which overthrew Sukarno, who was the founding president of Indonesia. And from the period 1965 to '67, when General Suharto was consolidating his power, his army and groups working with the army carried out a mass slaughter of Indonesian civilians. It's not clear exactly how many were killed, but anywhere from 400,000 to perhaps more than a million Indonesians were massacred as the Suharto regime gained power. And they did this, the military did this, with U.S. weaponry. And, in fact, the U.S. CIA station even gave a list of 5,000 names of people who they had identified as communist potential opponents of the army, and they turned this list over to Suharto and his military intelligence people, and many of those people were subsequently assassinated.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Allan Nairn, I want to thank you very much for being with us. Allan Nairn, journalist who interviewed President Ford roughly a decade and a half ago about Ford’s involvement in the invasion of East Timor. That was December 7, 1975, that the invasion occurred.

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