History is sometimes made in the unmaking — with some of the critical facts in an appalling event being hurriedly and knowingly swept under a rug like so many pieces of broken glass. This weekend marks the 40th anniversary of such an event in the making and masking of history.
In the early evening of March 1, 1973 (like today, a Friday), eight gunmen from the Black September Organization — the same terrorist group which had created havoc six months earlier at the 1972 Munich Olympics — stormed the Saudi Arabian embassy in Khartoum where a going-away party was being held for George Curtis Moore, second-ranking officer at the U.S. embassy in the Sudan.
Following an initial burst of gunfire, they took five hostages — a Belgian, a Saudi, a Jordanian, and two Americans — Moore and Cleo Allen Noel, Jr., the newly appointed American ambassador to the Sudan.
Twenty-six hours of intense negotiations followed between the gunmen and Sudanese authorities. The gunmen sent out a long list of provocative demands, which included the freeing from Jordanian captivity of Abu Daoud, a leader of the Black September Organization (BSO); the freeing of Sirhan Sirhan, Robert Kennedy’s killer, from a California prison; the freeing of members of the terrorist Baader-Meinhof gang held in Germany; and the freeing of “Palestinian women in prison in Israel.”
On March 2, President Nixon announced that he would not negotiate with terrorists for the release of diplomats.
Later that day, after nightfall, the terrorists executed the three westerners — Noel, Moore, and Guy Eid, chargé d’affaires at the Belgian embassy. They were lined up against a wall in the basement of the embassy and gunned down in a hail of automatic weapons fire. Reportedly, the gunmen shot first for sport — aiming at their feet and legs — before aiming to kill.
Ironically, far from condemning the PLO, Moore held strongly pro-Arab, anti-Israeli views — believing that “the Arabs had legitimate grievances and were, in general, more wronged by Israel than wrong-doing against it.” Arab terrorists have often targeted the most pro-Arab Americans — as witness the recent slaying of Ambassador Christopher Stevens in Benghazi, Libya.
Like the slayings of Stevens and three other Americans on the night of September 11/12, 2012, the assassination of Moore and Ambassador Noel was front-page news in the United States for a week or more.
What was missing then (as in the more recent catastrophe) was an honest account from the U.S. government of what happened.
It was not until the release of the summary portion of a long-classified U.S. State Department document in May 2006 that the real truth emerged. Written soon after the event, this document — entitled “The Seizure of the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Khartoum” — reached the unambiguous conclusion:
The Khartoum operation was planned and carried out with the full knowledge and personal approval of Yasser Arafat, Chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), and head of Fatah. Fatah representatives based in Khartoum participated in the attack, using a Fatah vehicle to transport the terrorists to the Saudi Arabian Embassy.
Initially, the main objective of the attack appeared to be to secure the release of Fatah / BSO leader Mohammed Awadh (Abu Daoud) from Jordanian captivity. Information acquired subsequently reveals that the Fatah/BSO leaders did not expect Awadh (Daoud) to be freed, and indicates that one of the primary goals of the operation was to strike at the United States because of its efforts to achieve a Middle East peace settlement which many Arabs believe would be inimical to Palestinian interests.
… The terrorists extended their deadlines three times, but when they became convinced that their demands would not be met and after they reportedly had received orders from Fatah headquarters in Beirut, they killed the two United States officials and the Belgian chargé. Thirty-four hours later, upon receipt of orders from Yasser Arafat in Beirut to surrender, the terrorists released their other hostages unharmed and surrendered to Sudanese authorities.
The Khartoum operation again demonstrated the ability of the BSO to strike where least expected. The open participation of Fatah representatives in Khartoum in the attack provides further evidence of the Fatah / BSO relationship. The emergence of the United States as a primary Fedayeen target indicates a serious threat of further incidents similar to that of Khartoum.
Despite the certain knowledge of his guilt displayed in the long-hidden U.S. State Department document, Arafat went from strength to strength following the murders that he had ordered in Khartoum — and he did so with the tacit support of President Richard Nixon and his National Security Adviser (and soon-to-be Secretary of State) Henry Kissinger. That set the pattern for three decades to come, or until Arafat’s death on Nov. 11, 2004:
With little dissent, the PLO leader was lionized by most of the world media as an Arab “Moses” struggling to lead his people to the promised land. He became a welcome guest in presidential palaces and residences around the world — most especially including the White House. Time magazine called Arafat the Clinton administration’s “Most Frequent Visitor — President Clinton has held more tete-a-tetes with the Palestinian leader than any other world leader during his eight years in office.” Arafat also became a near-billionaire (according to his former finance minister, more than $900 million of western aid money had gone missing) — cited by Forbes magazine as one of the world’s wealthiest leaders.
Neither Nixon (then up to his neck in alligators as a result of the Watergate scandal) nor the ever ambitious and opportunistic Kissinger ever came close to denouncing Arafat for his role in ordering the execution of U.S. diplomats. To call the leader of the PLO out for the murders of an American ambassador and his top assistant would have terminated any possibility of future relations with the murderer and his followers.
Later on in 1973, as Kissinger became secretary of state as well as national security adviser, he was obviously keen to keep open all channels of communication with the Arab world, including relations with Arafat — both because of the Yom Kipper War and, tied to that, the OPEC oil embargo, which soon caused gas prices in the U.S. to skyrocket and the U.S. to tumble into what was then the worst recession in post-World War II history. As the world’s biggest oil exporter, Saudi Arabia was one of Arafat’s strongest supporters.
Arafat made his first visit to the United States (an event that could not have happened without State Department approval) in November of 1974, and he made the most of it — in terms of thumbing his nose at the U.S.
Wearing a sidearm (or at least an empty holster; stories vary) and accompanied by several of the participants in the Khartoum operation, Arafat made his famous debut at the United Nations in New York on November 13 — using the occasion to denounce Zionism as racism.
And it is not as though Arafat and the various branches of the PLO under his command had been staying quiet and behaving well between the time of the murders in Khartoum and Arafat’s appearance at the UN.
In May 1974, Palestinian terrorists entered Israel from Lebanon and took over a high school in the town of Maalot, six miles south of border — killing 22 children (mostly 15-year-old girls) with grenades and automatic weapons and injuring many more. Another similar attack a month earlier killed 18 people in the town of Kiryat Shmona.
THERE WAS AT LEAST ONE person who was intimately involved in tracking the events in Khartoum who was outraged by the decades-long cover-up that followed. His name is James J. Welsh and he contacted me after reading a recent article of mine in TAS entitled “Obama Fiddled … While Benghazi burned … and a U.S. election approached.”
Now 66-years old and running a grocery store in the coastal resort town of Manzanita in northern Oregon, Welsh still seethes with indignation over what happened inside the Nixon administration over that lost weekend of 40 years ago.
In achieving a top security clearance as a result of his knowledge of Arabic and his skill as a communications technician, Welsh served in the U.S. Navy as a foreign language specialist assigned to the National Security Agency (NSA) to intercept and analyze foreign radio transmissions in the Middle East.
From 1969 to 1972 he worked at an intercept site just outside of Nicosia, Cyprus, and from then until 1974 he worked at NSA headquarters at Fort Meade near Washington, D.C. — supporting his old colleagues back in Cyprus and elsewhere in the Middle East.
In a series of interviews lasting over eight hours, Welsh told me this story of what happened between Thursday, Feb. 28 — the day before the takeover of the Saudi Embassy — and Monday, March 4, when different agencies in the U.S. government were just beginning to take stock of Saturday night’s disaster in Khartoum.
This is the first part of his story:
Late in the morning on Thursday, the teletype machine at his office at NSA headquarters clattered with the receipt of a printed message from an old colleague at the listening post in Cyprus.
“This is Mike,” the message said.
“What’s up?” Welsh tapped back in reply.
“I’ve got an intercept of Arafat in Beirut talking to Abu Jihad (a top Black September operative) in Khartoum, and it looks big,” Mike answered, saying that he was able to recognize Arafat’s voice.
As their typed conversation continued, Welsh learned that eight members of BSO — the same number of terrorists who had been dispatched in 1972 to go to Munich — had assembled in Khartoum and were awaiting Arafat’s instructions on when to strike at the target (still unknown to the NSA).
When he had gathered all he could from ‘Mike,’ Welsh tore the paper from the machine and took it to his supervisor. The information was passed immediately through the chain of command at NSA. Before the end of the working day, Welsh and others at the agency sent out a Flash (top priority) message to the U.S. Embassy Khartoum via the State Department, as required by inter-agency protocol, warning the embassy of the imminent danger of an assault from Black September.
Knowing he had the next day off, Welsh went to bed that night feeling that intercepted communication might have come just in time to avert a disaster.
Not so, however. Welsh received an urgent call the next morning telling him to “turn on the television set” — and then get back to the office asap. The television news was all about the capture of the U.S. diplomats in Khartoum by same terrorist organization that had captured and eventually killed 11 members of the Israeli team at the summer Olympics in Munich.
Inexplicably, it turned out that a watch officer at the State Department had downgraded the NSA message to the embassy in Khartoum from the highest urgency to a routine cable. As such, it went slow-delivery and did not arrive until the day after the death of the diplomats.
On Monday morning, Welsh said, “the buzz at the NSA” was that the agency’s director (Gen. Samuel C. Phillips) had headed over to the State Department “steaming mad” about the department’s failure to do its job in sounding the alarm in a timely fashion.
But upon the general’s return, Welsh and others in the agency were shocked to hear their director had come back from the State Department in a morose and chastened state. Said Welsh: “The word came down that whatever happened to squelch the warning, that issue was over: We’re not going to talk about it anymore.”
When Welsh suggested to a supervisor that it would be worth taking the issue to Congress, he was told that if he (as a naval enlisted man) dared to suggest any such thing again, he would be put out to sea on “a fleet oiler.” Translation: He would lose his top secret clearance and be sent back to the navy doing the most menial of tasks, such as throwing fuel lines from one ship to another.
A week or so later, Welch was told — to his utter amazement and disbelief — that there was nothing of interest on the tape that had been forwarded from the intercept station in Cyprus. He thought to himself: “Am I supposed to believe that everything I heard the day before the attack was a total fantasy — and, coincidentally, it all just turned out to be true?” To this day, the tape has never surfaced.
Returning to civilian life a year later, he stayed silent for 27 years. But in seeing Arafat reach something of an apotheosis during Clinton’s administration, he found he no longer hold his tongue.
In interviews with sympathetic segments of the news media (such as the Israeli newspaper Haaretz) and in letters to Congress, Welsh denounced the failure on the part of successive U.S. administrations to acknowledge the truth about Arafat. He told one reporter: “There are limits to which foreign policy issues should require a man to lower himself. Shaking the hand of a murderer of a U.S. ambassador is such a case. Any peace based upon that hand is a delusion.”
Today he notes two overriding similarities between the tragic events in Benghazi and Khartoum.
One is the simple fact of a State Department and White House cover-up driven by political considerations and the desire to hide mistakes.
And, in his words, the second is “the whole continuing idea that the Palestinians and Arabs have to be given a pass on everything they do — no matter how bad it is — just because they are such poor victims.”