By Daniel Southerland, Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor Washington — The United states might have been able to prevent Indonesia's catastrophic invasion of the territory of East Timor five years ago, according to newly available Australian documents.
At the same time, a former US intelligence officer who was intimately familiar with the situation at the time supports the view that the US could have persuaded the Indonesians to refrain from invading.
"We had lots of time to move the Indonesians in a different direction," said this source, a former US Central Intelligence Agency officer who agreed to discuss the question with the understanding that his name not be disclosed. "Instead, we got right on the Indonesian bandwagon."
The official Australian documents dealing with Timor and other subjects are the focus of court actions that could prevent their further distribution in Australia. But while the High Court in Australia barred a new book entitled "Documents on Australian Defense and Foreign Policy 1968-75," the court did not prohibit the publication of information contained in the documents. The Australian government contended that its relations with Indonesia would be damaged by publication of material in the book that dealt with the fate of Portuguese Timor.
In one of the documents obtained by the Monitor, Australia's then ambassador to Indonesia, R. A. Woolcott, argued in a cable in August 1975 that the United States "might have some influence" on Indonesia, as that country "really wants and needs United States assistance in its military re-equipment programme."
But Mr. Woolcott said that US Ambassador David Newsom told him he was under instructions from Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger personally not to involve himself in discussions on Timor with the Indonesians "on the grouns that the United States is involved in enough problems of greater importance overseas at present."
The Australian ambassador said Mr. Newsom's attitude was that the US "should keep out of the Timor situation and allow events to take their course."
"His somewhat cynical comment to me," continued Woolcott, "was that if Indonesia were to intervene, the United States would hope they would do so 'effectively, quickly, and not use our equipment."
But as now is well documented, in the invasion of dec. 7, 1975, the Indonesians did use American equipment. And because of the heavy resistance they met from timorese guerrillas, their invasion was neither quick nor immediately effective. In the end, the Indonesians had to resort to considerable bombing and strafing and what some witnesses described as a program of delibertely denying food to supporters of Fretilin, the Timorese independence movement.
The starvation that followed the invasion, according to some accounts, was comparable to that in Cambodia. At one point last year, more than 200,000 people, or two-fifths of the population of East timor, were said by experts to be suffering from severe malnutrition. As many as 100,000 inhabitants on the island may have died of starvation or been killed.
The Australian documents reveal that there was debate among high-ranking Australian officials prior to the invasion as to the wisdom of supporting such an action by Indonesia, a huge, strategically located, oil-producing nation. A secret document prepared by a division of the Department of Defense, for example , discloses that this department early on argued that all parties accept an independent state in Portuguese Timor.
The document contends that "If Indonesia could be persuaded to accept the unpalatable reality of Fretilin and the major switch of policy involved in acceptance of an independent state, there could be prospect of fruitful talks, with Indonesia in a strong position to establish major influence in the territory."
Indeed, the document asserts that "if the Indonesians were skillful in their political policy, this course would offer them after the passage of some years good prospects of unchallengeable dominance there."
The former CIA official who had followed the situation in detail at the time said the argument some American officials made -- which was that East Timor was not a viable entity -- was not convincing.
"It would have been a viable entity if we and some other governments made clear to the Indonesians there would be a price to pay if they went ahead and invaded," he declared.
In October of this year, 10 US senators, in a letter to Secretary of State Edmund S. Muskie, spoke of reports of continued fighting in East Timor, the jailing of large numbers of political prisoners, and the concern of the senators about prison conditions and the fact that families who were separated during the conflict in East Timor have been unable to be reunited. Many thousands of Timorese desire to join their relatives living abroad, the letter said, yet few have been allowed to leave.