The CIA and KGB Both Tried to Blackmail This World Leader With Sex Tapes
One had a real video, the other decided to make a fake
This story originally appeared on Oct. 30, 2016.
In 1945, a man known simply by the name Sukarno became Indonesia’s first president after leading an independence movement against Dutch colonial rule. He entered office with overwhelming popular support and was widely regarded as a national hero.
He brought with him a reputation for loving his country, and for loving women. Sukarno couldn’t have anticipated it at the time, but his habits eventually attracted the interest of some of the most powerful intelligence agencies in the world.
Indonesia would play an important role in the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. The Pacific archipelago nation was populous, strategically vital and home to the largest communist party outside of the Soviet Union.
Sukarno — while not a communist himself— had communist allies and shared some of the ideology’s tendencies, which did not endear him to Western leaders. For these reasons, and undoubtedly others, Moscow and Washington played tug-of-war with Indonesia for decades.
In their more desperate but imaginative moments, spies for both governments tried to turn Sukarno’s famed sexual prowess against him. These efforts included a CIA-produced pornographic film and a “honey pot” scheme with KGB operatives dressed as flight attendants.
Neither plan went well.
Indonesia became a valuable prize soon after independence. U.S. foreign policy elites were also strong believers in the “domino theory,” which posited that communist revolutions, if allowed to occur, would spread to neighboring countries.
Sukarno’s sympathy toward communism — and budding ties with the Soviet Union and China — eventually convinced the U.S. government to engineer his ouster.
By 1962, British “Prime Minister Macmillan and President [John F.] Kennedy agreed to ‘liquidate President Sukarno, depending on the situation and available opportunities,’” a 1962 CIA memorandum noted, according to Paul Lashmar and James Oliver writing in The Independent.
At top — Sukarno depicted in a painting in Bendogerit, Indonesia. Prayitno photo via Flickr. Above — Sukarno with Pres. Richard Nixon and Secretary of State John Dulles, who’s brother, Allen, served as director of the CIA. U.S. Information Service photo
But the CIA employed multiple methods in its efforts to oust the Indonesian president, and far earlier. The agency wasted a million dollars trying to sway the Indonesian elections of 1955, according to Evan Thomas’ The Very Best Men: The Daring Early Years of the CIA.
To the agency’s chagrin, the communist party — an important Sukarno ally — received a “surprising” six million votes in the election. Over the next two years, Sukarno strengthened ties with Moscow and Beijing.
The CIA considered “a full-scale paramilitary operation” but put that plan on ice after Frank Wisner, the longtime Directorate of Plans for the CIA, advised that such an operation could fail or backfire, according to Thomas.
“Absolute control [of the rebellion] could not be guaranteed … that explosive results were always possible, that U.S. officials must be braced for allegations of covert U.S. activities,” Wisner warned.
With the CIA’s hopes of friendly rebels overthrowing Sukarno curtailed, the agency searched for alternative methods. When reports surfaced that Sukarno engaged in an affair with a flight attendant — who may have been a KGB spy — the spooks saw an opportunity to exploit his alleged promiscuity while undercutting his status as a national hero.
Initially, the CIA relied on spreading rumors and pushing reports of the alleged affair.
“The idea was that Sukarno’s well-known womanizing had trapped him in the spell of a Soviet female agent,” William Blum wrote in Killing Hope: U.S. Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II. “He had succumbed to Soviet control, CIA reports implied, as a result of her influence or blackmail, or both.”
The reports of Sukarno gallivanting with a Russian flight attendant, and potentially providing the Soviets with some leverage against him, seems to have had some basis in reality.
Sukarno had traveled in the company of a blonde flight attendant during a visit to the Soviet Union, and the same flight attendant later traveled to Indonesia with Soviet official Kliment Voroshilov and was seen in Sukarno’s company several times, according to Blum.
And the Soviets did at one point attempt to blackmail Sukarno by filming him having sex with a group of flight attendants. “When … Sukarno visited Moscow in the 1960s, the KGB sought to take advantage of his renowned sexual appetite, sending a batch of glamorous young women posing as air hostesses to his hotel,” Tim Lister wrote in a CNN piece on sex and espionage.
Lister’s timeline might be off, as other sources suggest that the KGB was cooking up stories about Sukarno and flight attendants as far back as 1957 or 1958. Regardless of the timing, the KGB misread a crucial aspect of Sukarno’s sexual proclivities — he never tried to hide those tendencies.
If anything, he flaunted them.
Sukarno openly supported polygamy, Elizabeth Martyn explained in The Women’s Movement in Postcolonial Indonesia. He took on four “official” wives while maintaining a “de facto” marriage with a fifth wife. And Sukarno once bragged to a U.S. diplomat that he was “a very physical man who needed sex every day,” and shocked his government hosts in Washington when he demanded they provide him with call girls during a visit, according to Peter Arnett’s Live From the Battlefield.
Given Sukarno’s boasts, the KGB shouldn’t have been too surprised that its efforts to blackmail him went astray. “When the Russians later confronted him with a film of the lurid encounter, Sukarno was apparently delighted,” Lister wrote.
“Legend has it he even asked for extra copies.”
The CIA was equally slow in learning this lesson. Propaganda agents continued spreading the rumor of the Soviets blackmailing Sukarno with a sex tape. Meanwhile, the agency pushed forward with the paramilitary operation, despite Wisner’s warnings.
The agency armed and trained tens of thousands of rebels and “soldiers of fortune” from The Philippines, Taiwan and the United States at bases in Okinawa, The Philippines and Singapore, according to Blum.
U.S. Navy submarines landed “over-the-beach parties” on Indonesian shores, and Air Force planes dropped weapons into rebel strongholds deep inside Indonesia. The operation borrowed a fleet of “sanitized … non-attributable” B-26s for air support.
Rebellion broke out in early 1958, and the CIA continued to provide weapons, supplies and logistical support, in addition to conducting bombing raids and strafing government forces. Despite this, the rebels still proved ineffective.
When CIA pilot Allen Lawrence Pope was shot down and captured with documents that implicated the CIA and the U.S. government, the agency withdrew its support for military operations and the rebellion fizzled.
Frustrated and desperate, agents revisited the idea of turning Sukarno’s sexual appetites against him.
Sukarno, at left, in 1966. Indonesian Information Ministry photo
“We had as a matter of fact, considerable success with this theme,” Joseph Burkholder Smith, who led CIA operations in Indonesia from 1956–1958, wrote in his memoirs. “[Sukarno’s alleged dalliances with flight attendants] appeared in the press around the world, and when Round Table, the serious British quarterly of international affairs, came to analyze the Indonesian revolt in its March 1958 issue, it listed Sukarno’s being blackmailed by a Soviet female spy as one of the reasons that caused the uprising.”
The general line of thinking at the CIA seemed to be that if the sexy spy story had inspired the rebellion to some extent, then the spies just needed a bigger, sexier story to kick off a successful revolution. And what better way to tell a story than with visual aids?
So they, too, decided to make their own sex tape, starring Sukarno. Sort of.
“A substantial effort was made to come up with a pornographic film or at least some still photographs that could pass for Sukarno and his Russian girlfriend engaged in ‘his favorite activity,” Blum wrote. “When scrutiny of available porno films (supplied by the Chief of Police of Los Angeles) failed to turn up a couple who could pass for Sukarno (dark and bald) and a beautiful blonde Russian woman, the CIA undertook to produce its own films.”
This suggests the CIA had somehow heard about the Soviet films, but not that they were a complete bust. Nonetheless, as agents failed to find lookalikes in available films, they also failed to find an actor who could stand in for Sukarno.
So the CIA decided to make “a full-face mask of the Indonesian leader,” Blum wrote. The mask would then be sent to Los Angeles “where the police were to pay some porno-film actor to wear it during his big scene.”
Presumably, there were no close ups. However, by all accounts, a film was produced. It’s just the details that are still a matter of debate.
In The CIA’s Black Ops: Covert Action, Foreign Policy and Democracy, John Jacob Nutter contends that the film, titled Happy Days, was produced with the actor wearing a mask. Blum, on the other hand, agreed on the title but alleged that the film was made by Robert Maheu, “former FBI agent and intimate of Howard Hughes,” at a later date using a Sukarno lookalike.
Regardless of who starred in it or whether or not they wore a mask, there’s no evidence that the video was ever distributed, perhaps because the CIA came face-to-face with the realities of adult film distribution in the days before the Internet or even VHS.
Reel-to-reel film simply did not make sense as an effective tool for delivering propaganda to the masses. And ultimately, it didn’t matter.
The CIA, with some help from its British allies at MI6, eventually facilitated a coup that led to Sukarno’s government being replaced by the pro-Western dictatorship of Suharto in 1967. Suharto’s “New Order” then embarked on a campaign of mass murder targeting (real or suspected) communists.
The overthrow of Sukarno was one of the “most successful” coups MI6 was involved with, a former agent who worked on propaganda operations in Indonesia told Lashmar and Oliver for The Independent.
And it was, apparently, helped along by smut.