Washington hid damaging Vietnam finding
By Scott Shane in Washington
The US National Security Agency has kept secret a
2001 finding by its own historian that its officers deliberately
distorted critical intelligence during the Tonkin Gulf episode that
helped precipitate the Vietnam War.
The historian's conclusion was the first serious accusation that the
agency's intercepts were falsified to support the belief North
Vietnamese ships attacked US destroyers on August 4, 1964, two days
after a previous clash.
Most historians have concluded in recent years there was no second
attack, but they have assumed the agency's intercepts were
unintentionally misread, not purposely altered. The research by
Robert Hanyok, the agency's historian, was detailed four years ago
in an in-house article that remains secret, in part because agency
officials feared its release might prompt uncomfortable comparisons
with the flawed intelligence used to justify the war in Iraq,
according to an intelligence official.
Matthew Aid, an independent historian who has discussed Mr Hanyok's
Tonkin Gulf research with agency and CIA officials, 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," he said.
Mr Hanyok believed the initial misinterpretation of North Vietnamese
intercepts was probably an honest mistake. But after months of
detective work in the agency's archives, Mr Hanyok concluded
mid-level 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
President Lyndon Johnson cited the August 4 episode to persuade
Congress in 1964 to authorise military action in Vietnam, despite
doubts about the attack that arose almost immediately. Asked about
Mr Hanyok's research, an agency spokesman, Don Weber, said the
agency intended to release the material late next month but delayed
the release "in an effort to be consistent with our preferred
practice of providing the public [with] a more contextual
The intelligence official said agency staff historians first pushed
for public release in 2002, but the idea lost momentum in 2003, in
part because of the concerns about parallels with Iraq intelligence.
Mr Aid said he had heard from other intelligence officials the same
explanation for the delay in public release.
Robert McNamara, who as defence secretary played a central role in
the Tonkin Gulf affair, said in an interview he had never been told
of evidence intelligence had been altered to shore up the scant
evidence of a North Vietnamese attack.
"That really is surprising to me," said Mr McNamara, 89. Mr Hanyok
said Mr McNamara had used the altered intercepts in 1964 and 1968 in
testimony before Congress. "I think they ought to make all the
material public, period," he said.
The supposed second North Vietnamese attack, on the US destroyers
Maddox and C. Turner Joy, played a significant role in history.
Johnson responded by ordering retaliatory airstrikes on North
Vietnam and obtaining congressional backing for war.
Copyright © 2005. The Sydney Morning Herald.
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