The world's press was systematically manipulated by British intelligence as part of a plot to overthrow Indonesia's President Sukarno in the 1960s, according to Foreign Office documents. The BBC, the Observer and Reuters news agency were all duped into carrying stories manufactured by agents working for the Foreign Office.
Last night, Denis Healey, Labour's defence secretary at the time, admitted the intelligence war had spun out of control in Indonesia. At one point the British were planting false documents on dead soldiers. Lord Healey even had to stop service chiefs from taking military action. He said: "I would not let the RAF drop a single bomb although they were very anxious to get involved."
The left-leaning Sukarno was overthrown in 1966 and up to half a million people were massacred by the new regime. Now a Foreign Office document obtained by the Independent on Sunday reveals the full extent of the "dirty tricks" campaign orchestrated from London, and how the world's journalists were manipulated.
A letter marked "secret and personal" from propaganda expert Norman Reddaway to Britain's ambassador in Jakarta, Sir Andrew Gilchrist, brags about the campaign which aimed to destabilise Mr Sukarno by suggesting his rule would lead to a communist takeover. One story "went all over the world and back again", writes Reddaway, while information from Gilchrist was "put almost instantly back into Indonesia via the BBC".
This included an allegation, with no apparent basis in reality, that Indonesian communists were planning to slaughter the citizens of Jakarta.
Reddaway, a specialist with the FO's Information Research Department (IRD), writes: "I wondered whether this was the first time in history that an ambassador had been able to address the people of his country of work almost at will and virtually instantaneously."
Showing his low opinion of journalists, he boasts that "newsmen would take anything from here, and pestered us for copy". He had been sent to Singapore to bolster British efforts to overthrow the Indonesian president and support General Suharto. His brief from London had been "to do whatever I could do to get rid of Sukarno", he revealed before his death last year. He therefore embarked on an extensive campaign of placing favourable stories with news wires, foreign correspondents and the BBC, and also used the pages of Encounter, an influential magazine for the liberal intelligentsia which, it later emerged, had been funded and controlled by the CIA.
His letter even suggests that the Observer newspaper had been persuaded to take the Foreign Office "angle" on the Indonesian takeover by reporting a "kid glove coup without butchery".
Last month, Abdurrahman Wahid, the country's current president, gave his support to a judicial inquiry into the massacres of 1965-66 and, in an interview broadcast on state television, promised to punish those found guilty.
Newly discovered cabinet papers show that British agencies, including MI6, had supported Islamic guerrillas and other dissident groups in an effort to destabilise Sukarno. The disorder fostered by the British led to General Suharto's takeover and dictatorship, and a wave of violence unseen since the Second World War. The massacre set the stage for almost 35 years of violent suppression, including the 1975 invasion of East Timor, which was only reversed last year.
The cabinet documents (which are separate from the revelations of Reddaway) were uncovered by David Easter, an historian at the London School of Economics. His research - which is published this week in the journal Intelligence and National Security - shows that the cabinet's defence and overseas policy committee asked the head of MI6, Dick White, to draw up plans for covert operations against Indonesia in January 1964. According to Dr Easter, these operations began in the spring of that year and included supplying arms to separatists in the Indonesian provinces of Aceh and Sulawesi.
These actions were complemented by a propaganda campaign run out of Britain's Far East HQ in Singapore by the IRD, which had close connections with MI6. The unit was behind stories that Sukarno and his tolerance of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI) would lead to a communist dictatorship in Indonesia.
Reddaway was a key part of this. His letter, written in July 1966, was released to Churchill College, Cambridge, which holds the private papers of Sir Andrew Gilchrist.
Last night, Lord Healey owned up to the Foreign Office misinformation campaign.
Lord Healey said: "Norman Reddaway had an office in Singapore. They began to put out false information and I think that, to my horror on one occasion, they put forged documents on the bodies of Indonesian soldiers we had taken. I confronted Reddaway over this.
"The key thing here is that Indonesia was infiltrating its troops into Borneo and had organised a coup against the Sultan of Brunei with whom we had a treaty. So we reacted similarly. I think it has been long known that British Special Forces - the SAS, SBS and Gurkhas - were used to tackle the Indonesians. But everything was done on the ground. I would not let the RAF drop a single bomb although they were very anxious to get involved."
Lord Healey denied any personal knowledge of the wider MI6 campaign to arm opponents of Sukarno. But, he added: "I would certainly have supported it."
According to one of the country's leading commentators on security matters - Richard Aldrich, a professor at Nottingham University - the episode shows Britain's post-war operations at their most effective. "It represents one of the supreme achievements of the British clandestine services," he said. "In contrast with the American CIA, they remained politically accountable and low-key. Britain has a preference for bribing people rather than blowing them up."
Professor Aldrich added that modern journalistic deadlines had made today's media even more open to manipulation than it was 30 years ago.Reuse content