By Scott W. Johnson, January 29, 2007.
Twenty years before he joined Bill Clinton and Yitzhak Rabin in Washington for
that famous handshake — and proceeded to become Clinton’s most frequent
foreign guest at the White House — Yasser Arafat planned and directed the
murder of an American ambassador and his deputy chief of mission.
From the first moment of the deadly operation, which took place in Khartoum
on March 1, 1973, the State Department possessed direct evidence of Arafat’s
responsibility, yet neither the State Department nor any other government
agency made public its knowledge.
Indeed, as recently as the summer of 2002, the State Department denied
that such evidence existed. Across seven administrations, the State Department
hewed to silence and denial.
Until last spring. In June 2006, the department’s Office of the Historian quietly
posted an authoritative summary of the events dated June 1973.
The source of the summary is not given, but the CIA had previously
produced it in redacted form in response to a Freedom of Information Act
request. Prepared by the CIA on the basis of intercepted communications, it
baldly states: “The Khartoum operation was planned and carried out with the
full knowledge and personal approval of Yasser Arafat.” What happened?
In late February 1973, the National Security Agency listening post in Cyprus
picked up radio traffic including Arafat, Salah Kalaf (a cofounder of Arafat’s
Palestine Liberation Organization faction, Fatah), and others strongly suggesting
that a PLO operation was about to be conducted in Khartoum, the capital of
National Security Agency analyst Jim Welsh received word of the
operation at his post in Washington and helped draft a message warning the
U.S. embassy in Khartoum that a PLO operation was imminent. Welsh and his
NSA colleagues marked the message for transmission with a “flash” (highest)
The State Department watch officer unaccountably downgraded the
message for routine transmission. As a result, it arrived several days late.
On March 1, the embassy of Saudi Arabia in Khartoum held a going-away party
for U.S. Deputy Chief of Mission George Curtis Moore. A gang of eight who
identified themselves as members of the Black September Organization stormed
the party. The terrorists seized the embassy and held Moore and two others
hostage–U.S. ambassador to Sudan Cleo Noel Jr. and Guy Eid, charge
d’affaires at the Belgian embassy. (Two other diplomats were seized and
The Black September operatives issued several demands: 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 terrorist
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.
Using coded instructions, Arafat’s closest Fatah associate in Beirut, Salah
Khalaf, directed the murder of Noel, Moore, and Eid. Arafat himself separately
confirmed the instructions. At 9:00 P.M. that very night, the Black September
operatives marched Noel, Moore, and Eid to the embassy basement and
murdered them with forty rounds from Kalashnikov weapons fired from the feet
to the head in order to inflict maximum suffering on the victims.
Arafat ordered his operatives to surrender to Sudanese authorities.
“Your mission has ended,” he told them, in an intercepted
communication. “Explain your just cause to [the] great Sudanese masses and
international opinion. We are with you on the same road.”
The next morning the eight operatives surrendered. Two were quickly released.
The remaining six were tried and convicted in June. At trial the leader stated
that they had acted “under the orders of the Palestine Liberation Organization
and should only be questioned by that organization.” The six convicted
operatives were immediately turned over to their PLO patrons.
In November 1974, when Yasser Arafat made his famous debut at the United
Nations in New York wearing a sidearm, he was accompanied by Ali Hassan
Salameh, the chief planner of the Khartoum operation, and several other key
Communications intelligence afforded the State Department immediate
knowledge of every relevant fact regarding these events. The operation was a
matter of life-and-death interest to the department’s field officers. The
contemporaneous State Department cables reflect this intense concern within
the State Department regarding the security issues raised by the murders.
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
The cables demonstrate that in the immediate aftermath of the assault, the
State Department had 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.
As the State Department reached conclusions regarding ultimate responsibility
for the operation, it dispatched its representatives to meet with sympathetic
governments and attempt to persuade them to take appropriate precautionary
The American ambassador to Tunisia, for example, met with Tunisian
president Habib Bourguiba on March 10 to convey the department’s concerns
about Fatah in light of the Black September attack in Khartoum: “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 it to American embassies around the world.
Discovered by researcher Russ Braley in the Nixon archives, the Rogers cable
states: “Question of link between Black September Organization (BSO) and
Fatah has been subject of much public discussion since murder of U.S.
diplomats in Khartoum. Fatah leader Arafat has disavowed connection with
The cable then attributes the following statements 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 significant distinction now
can be made between the BSO and Fatah. . . . Fatah leader Yasser Arafat has
now been described in recent intelligence as having given approval to the
Khartoum operation prior to its inception.”
The murders of Noel and Moore convulsed the State Department. One would
never know it, however, from reading Henry Kissinger’s invaluable memoirs of
the period during which he served as national security adviser (early 1969 to
January 1975) and secretary of state (concurrently, September 1973 to
January 1977). President Nixon replaced Rogers that summer with Kissinger.
Kissinger’s memoirs maintain a discreet silence regarding Arafat’s
responsibility for the Khartoum operation. Noting only that Noel and Moore
were killed by “Black September Palestinian terrorists,” Kissinger makes no
mention of Arafat, Fatah, or the PLO in this connection.
Set against the backdrop of the detailed knowledge possessed by the
government (certainly including Kissinger himself), Kissinger’s silence provides a
valuable clue to understanding the State Department’s public silence about
Arafat’s responsibility for the murders of Noel and Moore and the subsequent
U.S. treatment of Yasser Arafat.
In the fall of 1973 and early 1974, as part of his larger diplomatic efforts in the
Middle East, Kissinger authorized the late Vernon Walters, then deputy director
of central intelligence, to undertake the first meetings of an American
representative with the PLO.
In a sentence that makes little sense outside the context of Khartoum,
Kissinger states in his memoir that after Walters’s second meeting with Arafat’s
representative, “attacks on Americans — at least by Arafat’s faction of the PLO
With his “characteristic swaggering efficiency and discretion” (Kissinger’s
words), Walters seems to have worked out a modus vivendi that precluded any
accounting with Arafat for the murders of Noel and Moore. (Kissinger did not
respond to my request for an interview. Walters’s own 1978 memoir, Silent
Missions, says nothing about these events.)
By June 1974, Thomas Ross was reporting in the Chicago Tribune that
crucial State Department cables from the American embassy in Khartoum had
been destroyed on the basis of an order that “could have come only from a high
level in the State Department or the White House.”
The government’s failure to make any public issue of Arafat’s responsibility had
unfortunate consequences. On the one hand, it abetted the impulse to appease
enemies that runs so strong in the State Department.
In his well-researched 1993 book Assassination in Khartoum, former
foreign service officer David Korn recalls that Nixon visited Foggy Bottom on
March 6 to speak at the laying of a memorial plaque in honor of Noel and
Moore. Korn’s text seethes with anger over the deaths of his former colleagues,
accusing Nixon of seeking to “exculpate” himself. Korn of course faults the
Black September operatives and their Sudanese protectors. Yet he reserves his
deepest indignation for Nixon, blaming him for “having triggered the murders of
the two Americans and the Belgian” by refusing to make concessions to the
Black September operatives. Korn also faults Kissinger for this no-concessions
The eminent diplomat Charles Hill, now on the faculty at Yale, served at high
levels in the State Department before and after the murders. By 1975 he had
become an aide to Kissinger on the policy planning staff. Although Hill and his
colleagues knew nothing of the communications intelligence showing Arafat’s
responsibility, Hill remembers there being no doubt in his circle of professionals
on the seventh floor of the department that Arafat bore ultimate responsibility
for the operation. Hill recalls that the murders were the subject of frequent,
intense discussion among desk officers and leaders at Foggy Bottom for roughly
three years afterward.
By the early years of the Carter administration, according to Hill, the
institutional memory of the event had largely been lost. The failure of the
government generally or the State Department specifically to make a public
issue of Arafat’s responsibility facilitated this amnesia.
Korn makes little of Arafat’s responsibility for the murders, but he
acutely observes: “So Curt Moore and Cleo Noel, who were required to
sacrifice their lives in Khartoum to sustain a principle of U.S. policy, found
neither an institutional nor a consistent personal advocate at the State
Department in Washington, no one whose prime and overriding responsibility it
was to ensure that the government of Sudan honored its commitment to bring
to justice the eight men who murdered them.”
But what about Arafat? His role in the murders of Noel and Moore was not yet
entirely forgotten. In early 1986 the possibility of seeking remedies in the
criminal justice system was reportedly under consideration by the Justice
Department’s criminal division.
Forty-four Senate members signed off on a February 12 letter urging
Attorney General Ed Meese to speed up the investigation. The letter referred to
“various State Department cables that may confirm Arafat’s role in the
In April 1986, Senator Jeremiah Denton convened a subcommittee of the
Senate Judiciary Committee for a one-day hearing on the possibility of bringing
Arafat to justice for crimes including the murders of Noel and Moore.
Criminal Division deputy attorney general Mark Richard testified and
provided the Justice Department’s verdict on the pursuit of Arafat through the
criminal justice system: There was no legal ground for a federal prosecution of
Arafat based on his role in the murders, Richard testified. He added somewhat
cryptically and almost completely inaccurately: “We enlisted the assistance of
the State Department and various components of the intelligence community to
obtain and verify Arafat’s complicity in the planning of the embassy takeover
and the murder of our diplomats. We have analyzed all the materials available
and determined that the evidence currently available is plainly insufficient for
prosecutive purposes if there were a legal basis for instituting charges against
Arafat. . . . Information concerning Arafat’s direct involvement in this operation
is, at best, hearsay and conjecture. Thus, such information would never be
admissible in any trial of Arafat in this country.”
And that was that.
Arafat was thus “cleared” for his cozy relationship with the Clinton White
House. Did the administration’s highest officers know whom they were dealing
with? I asked Dennis Ross, the Middle East envoy and chief peace negotiator in
the administrations of both George H.W. Bush and Clinton, if he was aware of
Arafat’s responsibility for the 1973 murders of Noel and Moore. “I was aware
that State had looked into it, but I didn’t know that a conclusion had been
reached,” he told me.
I asked him whether, if in fact the department had determined Arafat’s
involvement, we should not have dealt with him like a criminal rather than an
honored guest. “That’s a legitimate question,” he responded. “Had it been
understood at the highest levels, it should have factored into the decision
making. What we would have done had we been fully aware of it after the
Israelis made their decision to proceed in dealing with Arafat, I can’t say.”
I asked him what he would say to the average citizen with the perspective that
the murderer of American officials shouldn’t get a pass. “It’s fair to say,” he
said, “at a minimum, that it’s hard to fathom.”
When the Bush (I) and Clinton administrations dealt directly with Arafat, did
they somehow not know exactly with whom they were dealing? If so,
regardless of the failure of institutional memory reflected in Ambassador Ross’s
comments and the institutional misrepresentations reflected in Richard’s
testimony, excuses were lacking.
In 1990 Neil C. Livingstone and David Halevy had published Inside the
PLO, devoting a chapter to the murders and quoting extensively from State
Department cables received in response to the authors’ Freedom of Information
Act requests. In 1993, Korn published his equally well-documented volume,
though Korn buried the documentation of Arafat’s culpability in the book’s
In the summer of 2002 I contacted the State Department for a comment on a
draft column addressing the question of Arafat’s responsibility for the Khartoum
State Department Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs deputy director of press
affairs Gregory Sullivan responded: “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
Given Sullivan’s statement, the State Department’s posting this past June of
the 1973 CIA summary of the Khartoum operation came as a surprise. Sullivan
to the contrary notwithstanding, the summary stated that “the Khartoum
operation was carried out with the full knowledge and personal approval of
Yasser Arafat.” (Sullivan did not respond to my request for an interview.)
When I inquired into the posting of the document, I was referred to the State
Department’s Office of the Historian. Marc Susser is head of the office; Edward
Keefer is the general editor of the Foreign Relation series in which the 1973
document was published.
Susser and Keefer explained that the document was deemed of interest
in the context of American relations with Sudan. They included it for publication
in fulfillment of the office’s statutory obligation to document American foreign
relations, after thirty years, without input from any policymaker at State. They
first learned of the document’s wider interest beyond the context of
American-African relations when they read Caroline Glick’s January 2, 2007,
Jerusalem Post column on the subject.
The publication of the 1973 CIA summary ends 33 years of public silence on
Yasser Arafat’s murder of two high-ranking State Department officers. It is a
The tortured history of the government’s treatment of Arafat’s
responsibility warrants much additional investigation. And given the fact that
Arafat’s right hand man is the current prime minister of the Palestinian
Authority, it is not only of historical interest.
Speaking in a 2003 interview from the perspective of an average citizen who
was also a firsthand witness to a most significant piece of this tortured history,
former NSA analyst Welsh may appropriately be given the last word, at least for
the moment: “There are limits to which foreign policy issues should require a
man to lower himself. Shaking the hand of a murderer of a U.S. ambassador is
such a case. Any peace based upon that hand is a delusion.”