Cold River: A case study

In 1973 Yasser Arafat orchestrated the murder of the late U.S. Ambassador to Sudan Cleo Noel Jr. and his charge d’affaires Curtis Moore. In June 2002, I wrote a column for the Minneapolis Star Tribune regarding Arafat’s responsibility for the murders of Noel and Moore. The column was based on accounts of the events as set forth in David Korn’s Assassination in Khartoum, Neil Livingstone and David Halevy’s Inside the PLO, and the testimony of former National Security Agency analyst Jim Welsh. The column provided a condensed version of the operation resulting in the deaths of Noel and Moore along the following lines.

In late February 1973, the National Security Agency listening post in Cyprus picked up radio traffic of a planned PLO operation in Khartoum. According to Welsh, who received the radio intercepts at the NSA in Washington, the NSA issued an urgent warning intended for the American Embassy in Khartoum to the State Department on February 28. This warning was inexplicably held up and downgraded as a result of a bureaucratic snafu.

On March 1, 1973, a gang of eight operatives of the Black September Organization stormed a party at the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Khartoum. The party had been held in honor of the imminent departure of Curtis Moore, the American charge d’affaires at the United States Embassy in Khartoum. The Black September gang took Moore and two others hostage — Cleo Noel Jr., the United States ambassador to Sudan, and Guy Eid, the Belgian embassy’s charge d’affaires. (Two other diplomats taken by the Black September operatives were released.)

The Black September gang demanded the release of Sirhan Sirhan, the assassin of Robert Kennedy; the release of a Black September leader held in Jordan; and the release of several members of the Baader-Meinhof gang held in Germany. On March 2, President Nixon and representatives of the other two governments announced that they would not negotiate with terrorists for the release of the diplomats. That evening the Black September operatives marched Noel, Moore and Eid to the embassy basement and brutally murdered them.

The operation was given the code name “Cold River.” Arafat himself gave the order that resulted in the assassination of Noel and Moore. From beginning to end the operation leading to the assassination of Noel and Moore was an Arafat/Fatah operation. While working on the 2002 column, I sought out a State Department spokesman to ask him if the department had undertaken any efforts to bring Arafat to justice for the murders of Noel and Moore. I sent an e-mail message with a draft of my column to State Department Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs deputy director of press affairs Gregory Sullivan.

I wrote Sullivan:

I have been leaving messages with you and other department officers over the past day or two seeking any information about department efforts to bring to justice Yasser Arafat and others involved in the 1973 assassination of former American Ambassador to Sudan…Cleo Noel and his charge d’affaires, George Curtis Moore. Attached is the op-ed piece I have written on the subject, including criticism of the Department for its apparent inaction…regarding its own former officers. If my assertions regarding the Department’s inaction are wrong, I would like to rewrite the piece to make it accurate. I wonder if you would be willing to take a moment to review the piece and provide me with any information on behalf of the department if I am mistaken.

In response Sulllivan wrote:

I can’t say I’m impressed with your research or argumentation. You’re obviously writing a piece designed to elicit a certain reaction rather than one based on factual accounts or actual comments made by the U.S. government. I really don’t have the time to do the research for you, but I do find myself compelled to point out…Evidence clearly points to the terrorist group Black September as having committed the assassinations of Amb. Noel and George Moore, and though Black September was a part of the Fatah movement, the linkage between Arafat and this group has never been established.

Following the publication of my piece, I filed a Freedom of Information Act request for State Department cables and reports on the assassination of Ambassador Noel. A year later -– in July 2003 — I received copies of 27 previously classified cables, all dating to 1973. The cables directly contradicted the Department’s assertion that Arafat’s connection to Black September and to the assassinations was ever in doubt.

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. Their membership in the organization has never been in doubt. Through Sullivan, however, the State Department indignantly denied 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 was suspect. In 1973 and after, Arafat was the undisputed leader of Fatah. In the light of the contemporaneous State Department cables that were declassified and released by the Department, Sullivan’s statement was both false and inexplicable.

The cables reflected the intense concern within the State 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 responsibility for the operation based on these reports and other intelligence sources.

The cables demonstrated 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 early 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 State Department came to its conclusions regarding the ultimate responsibility 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. (Welsh provided me a copy of this previously unpublished cable, discovered by researcher Russ Braley in the Nixon archives.) Secretary Rogers’s cable stated: “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 attributed 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.

The State Department Office of the Historian has now posted the following account of the Khartoum operation:

In the early evening hours of 1 March 1973, eight Black September Organization (BSO) terrorists seized the Saudi Arabian Embassy in Khartoum as a diplomatic reception honoring the departing United States Deputy Chief of Mission (DCM) was ending. After slightly wounding the United States Ambassador and the Belgian Charge d’Affaires, the terrorists took these officials plus the United States DCM, the Saudi Arabian Ambassador and the Jordanian Charge d’Affaires hostage. In return for the freedom of the hostages, the captors demanded the release of various individuals, mostly Palestinian guerrillas, imprisoned in Jordan, Israel and the United States.

The Khartoum operation was planned and carried out with the full knowledge and personal approval of Yasir Arafat, Chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), and the 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 Muhammed Awadh (Abu Da’ud) from Jordanian captivity. Information acquired subsequently reveals that the Fatah/BSO leaders did not expect Awadh 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.

Negotiations with the BSO terrorist team were conducted primarily by the Sudanese Ministers of Interior and of Health. No effort was spared, within the capabilities of the Sudanese Government, to secure the freedom of the hostages. 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 Charge. Thirty-four hours later, upon receipt of orders from Yasir 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 which occurred in Khartoum.

At Solomonia, Solomon comments: “Thirty years too late — State Dept. admits Arafat did it.”.

JOHN adds: Two thoughts. One, to my knowledge no one other than Scott has pursued the Khartoum matter for many years. So I wonder whether the State Department’s finally coming clean is due to the influence of a Power Line reader in high places. Two, this whole incident illustrates why most conservatives have so little confidence in the State Department. The Americans who were brutally murdered by Yasir Arafat’s thugs were State’s own employees. And yet, for years the department covered for Arafat. Why?


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