False flag : Tonkin Gulf : new revelations


Richard Moore


October 31, 2005 

Vietnam Study, Casting  Doubts, Remains Secret 

WASHINGTON, Oct. 28 - The National Security Agency has
kept secret since 2001 a finding by an agency historian
that during the Tonkin Gulf episode, which helped
precipitate the Vietnam War, N.S.A. officers deliberately
distorted critical intelligence to cover up their
mistakes, two people familiar with the historian's work

The historian's conclusion is the first serious accusation
that communications intercepted by the N.S.A., the
secretive eavesdropping and code-breaking agency, were
falsified so that they made it look as if North Vietnam
had attacked American destroyers on Aug. 4, 1964, two days
after a previous clash. President Lyndon B. Johnson cited
the supposed attack to persuade Congress to authorize
broad military action in Vietnam , but most historians
have concluded in recent years that there was no second

The N.S.A. historian, Robert J. Hanyok, found a pattern of
translation mistakes that went uncorrected, altered
intercept times and selective citation of intelligence
that persuaded him that midlevel agency officers had
deliberately skewed the evidence.

Mr. Hanyok concluded that they had done it not out of any
political motive but to cover up earlier errors, and that
top N.S.A. and defense officials and Johnson neither knew
about nor condoned the deception.

Mr. Hanyok's findings were published nearly five years ago
in a classified in-house journal, and starting in 2002 he
and other government historians argued that it should be
made public. But their effort was rebuffed by higher-level
agency policymakers, who by the next year were fearful
that it might prompt uncomfortable comparisons with the
flawed intelligence used to justify the war in Iraq ,
according to an intelligence official familiar with some
internal discussions of the matter.

Matthew M. Aid, an independent historian who has discussed
Mr. Hanyok's Tonkin Gulf research with current and former
N.S.A. and C.I.A. officials who have read it, said he had
decided to speak publicly about the findings because he
believed they should have been released long ago.

"This material is relevant to debates we as Americans are
having about the war in Iraq and intelligence reform,"
said Mr. Aid, who is writing a history of the N.S.A. "To
keep it classified simply because it might embarrass the
agency is wrong."

Mr. Aid's description of Mr. Hanyok's findings was
confirmed by the intelligence official, who spoke on
condition of anonymity because the research has not been
made public.

Both men said Mr. Hanyok believed the initial
misinterpretation of North Vietnamese intercepts was
probably an honest mistake. But after months of detective
work in N.S.A.'s archives, he concluded that midlevel
agency officials discovered the error almost immediately
but covered it up and doctored documents so that they
appeared to provide evidence of an attack.

"Rather than come clean about their mistake, they helped
launch the United States into a bloody war that would last
for 10 years," Mr. Aid said.

Asked about Mr. Hanyok's research, an N.S.A. spokesman
said the agency intended to release his 2001 article in
late November. The spokesman, Don Weber, said the release
had been "delayed in an effort to be consistent with our
preferred practice of providing the public a more
contextual perspective."

Mr. Weber said the agency was working to declassify not
only Mr. Hanyok's article, but also the original
intercepts and other raw material for his work, so the
public could better assess his conclusions.

The intelligence official gave a different account. He
said N.S.A. historians began pushing for public release in
2002, after Mr. Hanyok included his Tonkin Gulf findings
in a 400-page, in-house history of the agency and Vietnam
called "Spartans in Darkness." Though superiors initially
expressed support for releasing it, the idea lost momentum
as  Iraq intelligence was being called into question, the
official said.

Mr. Aid said he had heard from other intelligence
officials the same explanation for the delay in releasing
the report, though neither he nor the intelligence
official knew how high up in the agency the issue was
discussed. A spokesman for Gen. Michael V. Hayden, who was
the agency's. director until last summer and is now the
principal deputy director of national intelligence,
referred questions to Mr. Weber, the N.S.A. spokesman, who
said he had no further information.

Many historians believe that even without the Tonkin Gulf
episode, Johnson might have found a reason to escalate
military action against North Vietnam. They note that
Johnson apparently had his own doubts about the Aug. 4
attack and that a few days later told George W. Ball, the
under secretary of state, "Hell, those dumb, stupid
sailors were just shooting at flying fish!"

But Robert S. McNamara, who as defense secretary played a
central role in the Tonkin Gulf affair, said in an
interview last week that he believed the intelligence
reports had played a decisive role in the war's expansion.

"I think it's wrong to believe that Johnson wanted war,"
Mr. McNamara said. "But we thought we had evidence that
North Vietnam was escalating."

Mr. McNamara, 89, said he had never been told that the
intelligence might have been altered to shore up the scant
evidence of a North Vietnamese attack.

"That really is surprising to me," said Mr. McNamara, who
Mr. Hanyok found had unknowingly used the altered
intercepts in 1964 and 1968 in testimony before Congress.
"I think they ought to make all the material public,

The supposed second North Vietnamese attack, on the
American destroyers Maddox and  C. Turner Joy, played an
outsize role in history. Johnson responded by ordering
retaliatory air strikes on North Vietnamese targets and
used the event to persuade Congress to pass the Gulf of
Tonkin resolution on Aug. 7, 1964.

It authorized the president "to take all necessary steps,
including the use of armed force," to defend South Vietnam
and its neighbors and was used both by Johnson and
President Richard M. Nixon to justify escalating the war,
in which 58,226 Americans and more than 1 million
Vietnamese died.

Not all the details of Mr. Hanyok's analysis, published in
N.S.A.'s  Cryptologic Quarterly in early 2001, could be
learned. But they involved discrepancies between the
official N.S.A. version of the events of Aug. 4, 1964, and
intercepts from N.S.A. listening posts at Phu Bai in South
Vietnam and San Miguel in the Philippines that are in the
agency archives.

One issue, for example, was the translation of a phrase in
an Aug. 4 North Vietnamese transmission. In some documents
the phrase, "we sacrificed two comrades" - an apparent
reference to casualties during the clash with American
ships on Aug. 2 - was incorrectly translated as "we
sacrificed two ships." That phrase was used to suggest
that the North Vietnamese were reporting the loss of ships
in a new battle Aug. 4, the intelligence official said.

The original Vietnamese version of that intercept, unlike
many other intercepts from the same period, is missing
from the agency's archives, the official said.

The intelligence official said the evidence for deliberate
falsification  is "about as certain as it can be without a
smoking gun - you can come to no other conclusion."

Despite its well-deserved reputation for secrecy, the
N.S.A. in recent years has made public dozens of studies
by its Center for Cryptologic History. A study by Mr.
Hanyok on signals intelligence and the Holocaust, titled
"Eavesdropping on Hell," was published  last year.

Two historians who have written extensively on the Tonkin
Gulf episode, Edwin E. Moise of Clemson University and
John Prados of the National Security Archive in
Washington, said they were unaware of Mr. Hanyok's work
but found his reported findings intriguing.

"I'm surprised at the notion of deliberate deception at
N.S.A.," Dr. Moise said. "But I get surprised a lot."

Dr. Prados said, "If Mr. Hanyok's conclusion is correct,
it adds to the tragic aspect of the Vietnam War." In
addition, he said, "it's new evidence that intelligence,
so often treated as the Holy Grail, turns out to be not
that at all, just as in Iraq."

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company 


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