The Washington Post has published several reports on an Aug. 31, 2002, ambush near a mine owned by Freeport McMoRan Copper & Gold Inc. in the Indonesian province of Papua. Two Americans and one Indonesian were killed in the ambush, and eight Americans were wounded. Several official investigations have been launched to determine who was responsible for the deadly attack. In the Nov. 3, 2002 edition, The Post reported the existence of intelligence indicating that "[s]enior Indonesian military officials discussed an operation" against Freeport before the ambush occurred, and that the discussions involved the military's commander in chief, Endriartono Sutarto. Gen. Sutarto has vehemently denied that he or any other top military officers discussed any operation targeting Freeport. As a result of the general's denial, The Post investigated the matter further. The reporting has revealed no substantiation that Sutarto or other high-ranking Indonesian military officers were involved in any discussion or planning of the attack. The Post regrets publication of this report. Intelligence indicating that Endriartono Sutarto, Indonesia's military commander in chief, and other high-ranking officers discussed an operation to discredit a Papuan separatist group has not been substantiated. (Published 2/25/03)
Senior Indonesian military officials discussed an operation against Freeport McMoRan Copper & Gold Inc. before an ambush near its mine in Papua province that killed two Americans and one Indonesian on Aug. 31, according to intelligence obtained by the United States, a U.S. government official and other sources said.
The discussions involved the top ranks of Indonesia's military, including Endriartono Sutarto, the influential commander in chief, and were aimed at discrediting a Papuan separatist group, the Free Papua Movement, said the U.S. government official and another American source. A spokesman for Sutarto denied the discussions occurred.
The attack took place near a mine operated by New Orleans-based Freeport; the three victims were contract employees.
The intelligence was based on information supplied after the ambush by a person who claimed to be knowledgeable about the high-level military conversations. The source was described in the report as "highly reliable." This information was supported by an intercept of a conversation including that individual, said the U.S. government official and the American source. The intercept was shared with the United States by another country, identified by a Western source as Australia.
The discussions described in the intelligence report did not detail a specific attack, nor did they call explicitly for the killing of Americans or other foreigners, but they clearly targeted Freeport, the U.S. official and the American source said. Subordinates could have understood the discussions as a direction "to take some kind of violent action against Freeport," the government official said. It could not be learned precisely when the discussions took place.
The intelligence report was provided to the State Department about two weeks after the ambush, the official said.
If confirmed, evidence of Indonesian military involvement could seriously impair Bush administration efforts to restore U.S. assistance to the Indonesian military, suspended in 1999 to protest the involvement of the armed forces in human rights atrocities in East Timor. Such evidence would also represent a setback to a key U.S. foreign policy goal in Southeast Asia of engaging the Indonesian military, known by the initials TNI, in the campaign against terrorism.
Maj. Gen. Syafrie Syamsuddin, an armed forces spokesman, said today that top officers had never discussed an operation targeting Freeport. He said Sutarto is a disciplined officer who would not become involved in activities that violate the strict rules and ethics of the Indonesian military.
Syamsuddin also said top officers do not get involved in "technical matters" such as planning specific attacks and ambushes. He added that to ambush Freeport employees as a way of discrediting the separatist group would be "illogical."
"This is probably something made up to discredit the TNI," he said. Asked who might have sought to tarnish the army, Syamsuddin said he did not know.
Sutarto said last week that no Indonesian military officers were involved in the attack, which took place in Indonesia's easternmost province, on a misty mountain slope near the world's largest gold and copper mine.
His comments came after Papua police investigators told the commanders of military intelligence and military police that they believed Indonesian soldiers likely were behind the attack, according to senior military and intelligence officials.
The U.S. government official today confirmed that the FBI briefed State Department and embassy officials about three weeks ago on the bureau's own investigation of the attack. FBI investigators have visited Papua as part of the probe.
"The indications have pointed in that direction [of the military] but are not conclusive," the official said. The FBI is still interviewing witnesses, Freeport contract employees and their family members who have returned to the United States, he said.
The intelligence report, completed separately from the FBI investigation, indicated the military was "thinking or contemplating some kind of measure to accomplish the goal" of prodding the United States to declare the Free Papua Movement (OPM) a terrorist group, the official said.
The OPM is a loose organization of Papuan rebels waging a long-running independence struggle marked by sporadic, low-level violence. The military's claims that the separatists carried out the Aug. 31 attack have been met with skepticism from some analysts, who said it was not OPM practice to target foreigners or to use automatic weapons. The ambush was carried out with assault rifles, which the attackers used to spray two vehicles with bullets, killing three teachers and wounding 12 people, mostly Americans.
Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz, a former U.S. ambassador to Indonesia and the administration's senior Indonesia expert, said Friday that it was "very disturbing" the military might be involved. "We take it very seriously," he said. "And if it's true, I think it's extremely important for the government to get to the bottom of it."
But that is not a reason to resist reestablishing ties with the Indonesian military, he argued. Giving the military "more contact with the West and with the United States and moving them in a positive direction is important both to support democracy in Indonesia and to support the fight against terrorism," he said. "Unfortunately, we've been isolating them for a decade. It's not a policy that's working."
Wolfowitz was not asked in the interview about the intelligence report.
A State Department spokeswoman said the department did not comment on intelligence reports.
Critics of renewed military aid for Indonesia expressed concern. "These revelations should trigger a complete and public congressional investigation," said Mike Jendrzejczk, director of Human Rights Watch/Asia. "This should also take up the question of the U.S.-Indonesia military relationship generally. But the focus has got to be on getting to the bottom of these allegations."
On Friday, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Appropriations foreign operations subcommittee, said that if the Indonesian military was found to have planned the killings, then the administration's proposed military training aid, $400,000 for fiscal 2003, should not go forward.
"It should surprise no one that the Indonesian army may have been involved in this atrocity," he said. "It has a long history of human rights violations and obstruction of justice. The fact that the perpetrators apparently believed they could murder Americans without fear of being punished illustrates the extent of the impunity."
Freeport's vice president of corporate communications, William Collier, said the company could not comment on an ongoing investigation. "We hope that the perpetrators will be brought to justice, whoever they may be," he said.
Regional analysts and sources familiar with the investigation said the military had been troubled by Freeport's practice beginning in 1996 of providing 1 percent of the Papua operation's gross revenue to the local community for development projects. Military officials have repeatedly expressed concern that a portion of that money is being diverted to the separatists.
About one week after the shooting, a police official, an army general and a high-ranking official from the office of the coordinating minister for security flew to Papua to speak to Freeport officials about what they believed to be Freeport's financing of a trip to Australia by pro-independence Papuans, said a source familiar with the investigation. The delegation was not convinced by assurances that Freeport had not financed the trip, the source said. Collier said today that Freeport money does not go to OPM. "We're not financing the separatist movement in any way," he said. "It's just not true."