America's Unseen Hand
By BARRY HILLENBRAND
In the late 1950s, when the United States was losing patience with what it considered to be the crypto-communist, anti-Western ways of Indonesia's Sukarno, the Central Intelligence Agency was ordered to destabilize his regime. A life-like mask of Sukarno was made and sent to Hollywood, where a porn star wore it while being filmed in action. The resulting movie and some still photographs from it were passed around influential circles in Indonesia. But the CIA miscalculated. Rather than express surprise and outrage at their leader's apparent peccadilloes, Indonesians shrugged. They expected no less. Unsuccessful in shaming Sukarno out of office, the CIA sent B-26 bombers to Indonesia in support of a 1958 rebellion of colonels. One of the CIA pilots was shot down and captured. Embarrassed, Allen Dulles, then the agency's director, declared that "we must disengage." Yet in 1965, a bloody spasm of violence left tens of thousands dead, the Indonesian Communist Party was destroyed and Sukarno was deposed. The CIA denied complicity in the upheaval, but few took the denial seriously.
The CIA played a major role in Asia's passage through the last half of the 20th century (the agency was formally founded in 1947). Its failures were numerous, as were its successes, and nearly all its operations were significant. The CIA missed both the warnings of the 1950 North Korean attack on the South and the Chinese intervention in the war later that year. But when CIA officer Edward Lansdale successfully employed a mix of propaganda, community development and covert military operations to help the Philippines put down the Huk rebellion in the 1950s, an agency model for counter-insurgency operations was set in place. The system failed to yield much success in Vietnam, where the agency was constantly battling with the U.S. State Department and Pentagon over the best strategy for the war. While hundreds of CIA officers were running a not-so-secret war in Laos and a ruthless program to eliminate communist supporters in the villages of South Vietnam, others were writing largely unheeded--and prophetic--reports warning that America's venture in Southeast Asia was doomed to failure.
Chastened by the U.S. defeat in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, the CIA became more cautious in Asia. In the 1970s and 1980s, its operations--and successes--were less dramatic and public. "Like all aging institutions," says a former officer, "we badly needed to reassess what we were doing." Agency intelligence reports helped squelch secret programs to develop nuclear weapons in South Korea, Taiwan and, U.S. officials hope, North Korea--while failing to check their advance in India and Pakistan. Without generating much publicity or getting its hands too dirty, the agency successfully assisted in waging the war that drove the Soviets from Afghanistan, but it was unable to persuade its former clients in Kabul to live in peace with each other. As elsewhere in the world, the CIA's methods and goals in Asia have changed. It gathers information increasingly by high-tech means rather than by stealth. Satellites, not spies, do most of the listening and watching. CIA analysts today are more commonly concerned about economic data--and less likely to worry about the sex lives of government officials.