When we last heard from the State Department in yesterday’s post regarding the brutal 1973 assassinations of U.S. Ambassador to Sudan Cleo Noel and charge d’affaires George Curtis Moore, Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs deputy director of press affairs Gregory Sullivan spoke on behalf of the department. Sullivan conceded that “[e]vidence clearly points to the terrorist group Black September as having committed the assassinations[.]”
This is not much of a concession; the eight Black September terrorists who executed the operation had themselves proclaimed their membership in Black September at the time of the operation and after they surrendered to Sudanese authorities on March 3, 1973.
Sullivan indignantly denied, however, that the evidence linked Yasser Arafat to the operation. According to Sullivan, “though Black September was a part of the Fatah movement, the linkage between Arafat and this group has never been established.”
On its face, this claim is suspect. In 1973, as now, Arafat was the undisputed leader of Fatah. But seen in the light of the contemporaneous State Department cables that have now been declassified and released by the State Department in response to my Freedom of Information Act request, Sullivan’s statement is both false and inexplicable.
The cables reflect the intense concern within the department regarding the security issues raised by the Khartoum operation. The department received reports from its embassies and missions conveying the results of intelligence inquiries and the Secretary of State (William Rogers) himself promptly disseminated his conclusions regarding responsiblity for the operation based on these reports and other intellligence sources.
Contary to Sullivan’s assertions, the cables demonstrate that in March 1973 the State Department had promptly concluded that Black September was nothing more than a front for Fatah and that Arafat himself had directed the operation resulting in the assassination of Noel and Moore. Both points are made over and over again in the cables to and from the Secretary of State.
To take one example, in March the U.S Mission in Vienna reported to Secretary Rogers: “The Black September Organization (BSO) is a cover term for Fatah’s terrorist operations executed by Fatah’s intelligence organization, Jihaz al-Rasd…For all intents and purposes no significant distinction now can be made between the BSO and Fatah…Fatah leader Yasir Arafat has now been described in recent intelligence as having given approval to the Khartoum operation prior to its inception.”
As the department came to its conclusions regarding the ultimate resonsbility for the operation, it dispatched its representatives to meet with sympathetic governments and attempt to persuade them to take appropriate precautionary measures. The American ambassador to Tunisia, for example, met with the then-Tunisian President Bourguiba on March 10 to convey the department’s concerns about Fatah in light of the Black September Khartoum operation: “I referred to Sudanese government’s revelation that head of Fatah office in Khartoum masterminded Khartoum assassinations…I noted that there is Fatah office in almost every Arab capital operating openly and, in light of Khartoum tragedy, this has clear implications.”
On March 13 Secretary Rogers issued a comprehensive cable summarizing the department’s conclusions and sent the cable to American embassies around the world. (I was provided a copy of this cable by Jim Welsh. Although the cable lacks any FOIA release data — Welsh appears to have obtained it through sources of his own — it closely tracks the language and conclusions of the cables released to me by the department.) Secretary Rogers’ cable states: “Question of link between Black September Organization (BSO) has been subject of much public discussion since murder of U.S. diplomats in Khartoum. Fatah leader Arafat has disavowed connection with BSO…”
The cable then attributes the following paragraphs to an intelligence brief prepared by the department and the CIA: “The Black September Organization (BSO) is a cover term for Fatah’s terrorist operations executed by Fatah’s intelligence organization…Fatah funds, facilities, and personnel are used in these operations…
“For all intents and purposes no siginificant distinction now can be made between the BSO and Fatah…Fatah leader Yasir Arafat has now been described in recent intelligence as having given approval to the Khartoum operation prior to its inception.”
Why does the department cover up for the chief assassin of its officers thirty years after the fact? Intelligent observers such as Daniel Pipes (in his review of Assassination in Khartoum) have offered informed speculation in answer to this question. The State Department’s records themselves provide no ground whatsoever to challenge the premise of the question — indeed, they corroborate it, and they further provide much reason to think about what the answer could be.
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