Speculation has died down a bit, but it appears that Admiral Dennis C. Blair is still under consideration for a high-level intelligence post in the Obama administration, likely director of national intelligence. He's an interesting character who is considered smart about the possibility of engagement, not conflict, with countries like China, and he has made the right noises on terrorism reduction. But ... and there's always a but ... it seems that Blair, while serving as head of Pacific Command in 2000, had some unpleasant dealings with Indonesian leaders and displayed some remarkably poor judgment on intelligence about violence in East Timor. First, here's the Washington Post's Dana Priest:

Blair wanted to mend military relations with the world's fourth-largest country. But U.S. Ambassador to Indonesia Robert S. Gelbard had opposed the trip, as had some in the State Department and Congress. They believed Blair's visit would undermine President Clinton's decision to cut off military ties to Indonesia in outrage over its army's involvement in a brutal militia rampage in East Timor. The goal was to pressure Indonesia's army into adopting reforms demanded by the country's first democratically elected president in 31 years.

Under the dictatorial regime of then-President Suharto, Congress had funded a generous program to train Indonesia's military, despite the fact that Suharto's security forces routinely jailed, tortured and killed thousands of opposition activists. In East Timor, a former Portuguese colony Indonesia invaded in 1975, the army and its militia supporters had killed 200,000 East Timorese, a third of the population.

Outrage over the violence prompted Congress in 1992 to cut funding for the International Military Education and Training (IMET) programs, but the Pentagon worked around Congress's restrictions. Blair and others in the military viewed Indonesia's human rights abuses more as a reflection of the military's financial straits and lack of discipline than a concerted effort to intimidate its citizenry.

Despite the congressional ban, U.S. Special Operation Forces trained Indonesia's elite and savage special forces through the Joint Combined Exchange Training (JCET) program, which taught urban warfare, sniper tactics and crowd control.

... From a windowless concrete building near Blair's Pacific Command headquarters, seven intelligence analysts at the "Joint Intelligence Center," the world's largest military intelligence center, had tracked the movements of Indonesian and militia forces since May 1998. They watched as East Timor refugees were herded into camps in an effort to intimidate and control pro-independence peasants. Analysts and United Nations monitors saw the violence bubbling into a wholesale rampage.

But at no point, Blair acknowledges, did he or his subordinates reach out to the Indonesian contacts trained through IMET or JCET to try to stop the brewing crisis. In fact, later, U.S. officials were chagrined to learn that five of the 15 Indonesian military officers named by the country's human rights commission as allegedly involved in "crimes against humanity" in East Timor were former IMET students.

Tsk, tsk. For an on the ground perspective and analysis, see this piece from the Nation. The reporting makes it seem as though the good Admiral is more than a little tin-eared in terms of assessing actionable intelligence and responding to human rights violations. While it's very easy to second-guess decisions like Blair's with the benefit of hindsight, any time in a majority-minority setting with people being put in camps is a good time to get more interested.

-- Tim Fernholz

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