Retired Adm. Dennis Blair is expected to sail through his confirmation hearing Thursday to be national intelligence director, but he will likely face questions about his efforts to strengthen relations with the Indonesian military at a time when the U.S. was publicly critical of its human rights record.
Supporters say Mr. Blair is viewed as a forward thinker on issues close to lawmakers' hearts, such as information sharing and open-source intelligence. In particular, they point to his establishment, while he was head of U.S. Pacific Command, of a special open-source intelligence operation, working outside of the traditional military structures, providing daily analyses of social and political issues in the region.
But critics point to a different aspect of his record at Pacific Command, which he headed February 1999 to May 2002 - his efforts to befriend senior Indonesian military commanders when U.S. diplomats were pressuring them to rein in militias they armed and controlled in East Timor.
The province, annexed by Indonesia in 1975, staged a United Nations-sponsored and U.S. supported independence referendum in August 1999.
Mr. Blair "undermined U.S. policy in the run-up to the referendum in East Timor," said Edmond McWilliams, who was political counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Jakarta at the time.
"While [U.S. diplomats] were pressuring the [Indonesian] military to rein in its militias and stop their intimidation of voters, Blair went out of his way to befriend senior officers, especially [then-Defense Minister] General Wiranto," Mr. McWilliams told United Press International.
Gen. Wiranto, who like many Indonesians uses just one name, was indicted in 2003 by a U.N.-backed court in East Timor for his role in the 1999 violence, which cost hundreds of lives before the referendum and thousands after it.
As Pacific Command chief, "his virtual silence on the [Timor] issue in meetings with the Indonesian generals led them and their militias to escalate their attacks on the Timorese," Mr. McWilliams said.
"This is a relevant issue today because partnering with bad militaries is something we have done a lot of [as part of the war on terrorism] and something we should be concerned about," he said.
Mr. Blair could not be reached for comment, and nominees traditionally do not speak publicly ahead of their confirmation hearings. An administration official told UPI that U.S. policy at the time was to work "to bring about East Timorese independence and to stop the abuses by the Indonesian military."
The official said that Mr. Blair's actions were "in accordance with U.S. government policy at the time," adding that, "Blair condemned the conduct of Indonesian troops in East Timor, and he conveyed that if they behaved responsibly, the United States was prepared to resume normal relations. If they did not, they risked further negative consequences."
Observers said questions will likely also be raised about Mr. Blair's judgment in relation to a conflict of interest during his tenure as head of the Pentagon-funded research center called the Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA) after he retired as head of Pacific Command in 2002.
A watchdog nonprofit called the Project on Government Oversight found that Mr. Blair had overseen an assessment by the institute of the new F-22 military aircraft while, at the same time, being a stockholder and board member for two subcontractors working on the plane.
A 2006 Defense Department inspector general report found he had breached conflict of interest standards, but that Mr. Blair's failure to disqualify himself "had no impact on F-22 related work undertaken by IDA." He resigned as head of the institute after the report was issued.