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Washington hid damaging Vietnam finding

By Scott Shane in Washington

10/31/05 "
SMH" 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 Aid said.

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 perspective".

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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