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by Alan Berlind

“The challenge of statesmanship is to define the components of both power and morality and strike a balance between them. This is not a one-time effort. It requires constant recalibration; it is as much an artistic and philosophical as a political enterprise. It implies a willingness to manage nuance and to live with ambiguity. The practitioners of the art must learn to put the attainable in the service of the ultimate and accept the element of compromise inherent in the endeavor.” [1]

It does not take an artist, a philosopher or a politician to recognize this dictum for what it is: a clever and sophisticated-sounding rationale for doing, or failing to do, anything; in other words, a celebration of successes and an excuse for failures. It could be easily dismissed were it not for the fact that its author is the man who, for all intents and purposes, dominated American foreign policy during a crucial period of recent history, i.e., 1969-1976, and who did so presumably guided by his formula.

Dr. Henry A. Kissinger, National Security Advisor and Secretary of State under Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, presided over some major foreign policy gains for the United States, most notably with the pursuit of détente with the Soviet Union and Nixon’s opening to China. His failures were not fewer, producing, for example, a brutal thirteen-year dictatorship in Chile and an ongoing thirty-eight-year-old massive foreign armed occupation of a large part of Cyprus, a member in good standing of both the United Nations and the European Union. And, his heralded role in bringing the Vietnam War to an end must be weighed against the bloody prolongation of that war in the interests of assuring Nixon’s re-election in 1972.

One of the most powerful weapons against truth and accountability is the old saw that holds that old news is no news, bolstered by the rule often pronounced in high government circles that calls for looking forward, not back. But can the future be faced with hope and confidence without acknowledgement of past failures and placement of the blame where it belongs? What follows is old news no less important either for its age or the relatively small amount of blood spilled.

The account below is based on official documents, declassified and released for public consumption, related to the murder in Khartoum, The Sudan on March 2, 1973 of United States Ambassador Cleo Noel, Deputy Chief of Mission George Curtis Moore and Belgian Charge d’Affaires Guy Eid.

The facts are these:

– On March 1, 1973, eight terrorists of the Black September Organization (BSO), part and parcel of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) and Fatah, both headed by Yasir Arafat, invaded the Saudi Embassy in Khartoum and took prisoner the three diplomats.

– The terrorists demanded the release of several persons being held in Jordan, Israel and the U.S.

– Nixon announced publicly in response that the U.S. does not submit to blackmail.

– Responding in turn, Arafat ordered his terrorists to murder the three hostages on March 2, 1973, and they complied and surrendered to the Sudanese authorities.

– Within days, one of Arafat’s top aides told a U.S. official that Arafat “had put the lid on” further terrorist action against Americans as long as a dialogue could be maintained between the two sides: “Khartoum had made its point.”

– Responding to this thinly veiled threat, the U.S. submitted to blackmail and met regularly with Arafat and his top aides.

– In June 1974, following a Sudanese court verdict of guilty, the terrorists were sent to Egypt for delivery to the PLO for punishment.

– The United States loudly punished the Sudanese for their weak response to terrorism.

– While the Sudanese were being punished, a senior Kissinger emissary was asking the Ethiopian Government to release captured members of an opposition movement so as to secure the freedom of two Americans being held by that movement.

– Documentary proof of Arafat’s responsibility for the Khartoum murders and Kissinger’s knowledge thereof surfaced only three decades later.

The Office of the Historian of the U.S. Department of State regularly declassifies and releases old documents. One, dated June 1973, emerged in 2006: an Intelligence Memorandum describing the Khartoum tragedy and assigning the blame to Arafat. Excerpts from the summary read as follows (emphasis added):

“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 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…. 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…. 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…. 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.” [2]

The quoted passage establishes beyond doubt Arafat’s responsibility for the murders. The date of the memorandum, June 1973, furnishes clear evidence of another key fact: total awareness not later than that date within the U.S. Government, and certainly at decision-making levels, of Arafat’s guilt. Roll back the clock one month and find earlier and more specific evidence in an exchange between National Security Advisor Kissinger and Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban held in Washington on May 12, 1973 (emphasis added):

“Kissinger – ‘During the Khartoum incident, someone suggested we ask you for help. You would have blown up Beirut.’

Eban – ‘You know that it was from Beirut that the phone call went to finish them off.’

Kissinger – ‘We know that.’ ” [3]

That Kissinger and others in fact knew some two months before that exchange about the Fatah/BSO relationship and, therefore, Arafat’s role can be concluded from reading the following excerpts from a reporting cable to the State Department from the U.S. Embassy in Abu Dhabi dated March 26, 1973 (emphasis added):

Had long meeting Mar 20 with (UAE President) Shaykh Zayid devoted mainly to terrorism issue. Charge’s presentation followed closely that made several days earlier to FM Suwaidi, with emphasis placed on: (1) indisputable connection between BSO and Fatah…. Emphasized that I under instructions inform him USG policy in future toward Arab states will be affected to considerable degree by tangible evidence of measures they are taking to deny support to BSO and similar terrorist groups. Khartoum murders had shocked US public opinion, which demanding its government prevent repetition of such wanton killings and pursue policy of no-compromise with terrorist elements…. Throughout my presentation placed major stress on irrefutable linkage between Fatah and BSO. USG has concluded from its analysis that virtually no distinction now can be drawn between BSO and Fatah, particularly at top echelon.” [4]

Four days after the murders, i.e., the day following the burial of Noel and Moore at Arlington National Cemetery, President Nixon had the following message for a visiting Sudanese official (emphasis added): “The Sudan Government, said the President, was in effect accidentally involved. This could have happened anywhere. Yet the Sudan Government stepped up to the problem and dealt effectively with it despite heavy pressures upon it…. Discussing the recent events in Khartoum, the President reiterated that the U.S. could not submit to extortion of this kind without giving encouragement to further efforts.” [5]

Whether or not Nixon knew it at the time, the other documents cited above leave no doubt but that his government at the highest levels knew within days of the Khartoum tragedy that Arafat was to blame for the attack and the killings. How the government at the highest levels reacted, however, is preserved in one additional document, a smoking gun found in the papers of Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) Director and, later, Ambassador to Iran Richard Helms, declassified and released in 2008.

In July 1973, CIA Officer Robert Ames informed Helms in Tehran of a meeting he had had in Beirut on July 9/10 with a top Arafat aide, reminding Helms as well of an earlier such meeting held shortly after the murders during which the murders themselves had been discussed and the responsibility for those murders implicitly acknowledged. The relevant portion of Ames’ report, dated 18 July 1973, follows (emphasis added):

“MEMORANDUM FOR: The Ambassador

SUBJECT: Contacts with the Fatah Leadership

During my stay in Beirut on 9-10 July I contacted a close associate of Fatah leader Yasir Arafat on the basis of a letter he sent to me requesting a meeting. As you know, I had a useful meeting with this fellow in the past and his position in Fatah is fully established…. My contact said that significant changes had taken place in the Palestinian Movement since I had last seen him in early March 1973. He reiterated what he said at that time, which was shortly after the Khartoum murders. The fedeyeen have no plans to go after individual Americans or American interests; Khartoum had made its point of causing the USG to take fedeyeen terrorist activity seriously…. Arafat wanted the USG to know that he had “put the lid on” American operations by the fedeyeen and that the lid would stay on as long as both sides could maintain a dialogue…. My contact stated that fedeyeen activity would be confined to two areas: Jordan and Israel, in that priority. A basic change in Fatah ideology has finally been accepted by the Fatah leadership…. the Palestinians must have a home and that home will be Jordan…. Jordan, therefore, will be the prime target of the fedeyeen, with acts of terrorism against Israel maintained to sustain the movement’s credibility. Another change in tactics will be the eschewing of announcements of responsibility for terrorist acts. This only invites retaliation. ” [6]

In June 1974, sixteen months after the murders and the incarceration of the killers in Khartoum, a Sudanese court found them guilty and sentenced them to thirty years in prison. Immediately thereafter, the sentence was reduced to seven years and Sudanese President Jaafar al-Nimeiri ordered that the killers be flown at once to Cairo, Egypt for delivery to the PLO for execution of the sentences. At the request of the U.S., Egyptian authorities intercepted the killers at the airport and imprisoned them.

Secretary of State Kissinger immediately instructed the American Ambassador in Khartoum, William Brewer, to protest vigorously to Sudanese President Nimeiri and then to return to Washington for consultations: “You should express dismay and extreme disappointment over this virtual release of these confessed murderers of diplomatic representatives of two governments, including personal representatives of President Nixon…. Commutation of sentences to seven years and release to PLO is not, in our view, adequate punishment for these confessed and heinous crimes.” 7 and 8 Ordinarily, Brewer would have reacted at once when Nimeiri claimed that Arafat himself was intent on finding the killers; at a minimum, he would have appended a comment to his reporting cable. He did neither. [9] Clearly, the American Ambassador had been kept in the dark by the Secretary of State.

Five weeks later, nothing had changed: “President Nimeiri’s decision to release terrorists to PLO for execution of commuted sentences is incompatible with continuation of cooperative ties which had developed between our two governments. In addition to substance of decision, manner in which it was made and USG learned of it showed scant courtesy to highest levels USG, which had received Nimeiri’s personal assurances in March 1973 that justice would be done in this case…. Department does not rpt not plan advise GOS formally of these decisions, but will respond to specific questions as asked. Kissinger.” [10]

Three full years after the murders, Kissinger was still peddling the line about the stern U.S. attitude toward terrorism, witness the following exchange with Sudanese Ambassador Francis Deng (emphasis added):

“Ambassador Deng: …. Then, unfortunately, the terrible incident in Khartoum occurred which understandably had an adverse effect on the role which the U.S. was playing in Sudan.

“The Secretary: It has been a difficult period. Our Foreign Service officers take a dim view of being the subject of kidnapping and murder. Some members of the Service are taking a very hard line…. We have no national disagreements with Sudan. We work together closely and cooperatively; nevertheless, we have the legacy of the assassination of two of our diplomats and then the release of the assassins and we cannot take these things lightly…. We appreciate what you have done regarding the release of the captives in Eritrea. Relations are good on the political level too. We have no complaints about what the Sudan is doing. If it were not for the events in 1973 there would be no problem at all. Please convey to your President and Vice President on the one hand that we cannot agree that American diplomats can be murdered and there can be no penalties….” [11]

What may be considered just a foot-note must be added to round out this tale of deceit. In August 1974, while the Sudanese security services were being quietly encouraged by the U.S. Embassy in Khartoum to do their best to secure the release of American and other hostages held by the Eritrean Liberation Front (ELF) in Ethiopia – an effort that succeeded in full, Under Secretary of State Joseph Sisco was asking the Ethiopians to release ELF prisoners as an incentive to securing the release of the American hostages. The cable reporting Sisco’s meeting with the Ethiopian Ambassador in Washington and Kissinger’s promise of an award tells the tale (emphasis added):

As final point Sisco expressed strong USG concern over continuing detention by ELF of four Tenneco personnel and hoped IEG (Imperial Ethiopian Government) might agree to release of at least two of the ELF prisoners specifically requested by ELF in order to get negotiations for release of hostages moving again…. Embassy should follow up Sisco talk with Kifle by conveying favorable US decision on military assistance package to FonMin or other appropriate high-level official. Kissinger” [12]

All of the documentation cited above has been officially declassified and is in the public domain, yet even the most revealing and distressing information, that released in 2006 and 2008, has received no attention in the mainstream American media, notwithstanding its sensational nature and the fact that in 2008 and 2011 the Israeli daily “Haaretz” and several on-line news sites thought the story to be newsworthy.

While less “official” in a technical sense, the following is no less pertinent to the story related herein. According to written testimony offered to Congress by former U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) analyst James Welsh, on February 27, 1973, NSA intercepted message traffic indicating imminent plans for a terrorist act, not further specified, to take place in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum. Upon receipt of the warning, NSA Headquarters in Washington, following standard procedure, immediately delivered it to the Department of State for urgent forwarding by electronic means to the American Embassy in Khartoum. For reasons still unknown, the message was assigned a lower priority at State; if it was ever sent, it arrived much too late. A subsequent message from Beirut conveying the order to kill was intercepted on March 2, 1973 by both the NSA and Israeli intelligence and relayed immediately by both to Washington. (When Welsh pushed for an investigation, he was threatened with loss of his security clearance and his job.)

No copies of the order to kill, the earlier warning message or related telegraphic traffic from or to State, Khartoum or Beirut have ever come to light; nor has a cable allegedly originating in Washington and ordering the destruction of all such documents. The disappearance of all correspondence originating in various places during the few days before, during and following the murders cannot easily be written off to coincidence or technological mishap. Whatever the reason for that mysterious disappearing act, the intelligence memorandum cited above and the Ames report preserved the essence of the story in official format. For the nonce, and absent further revelations, we shall have to depend on them and the other documents quoted above.

The decision in Washington to protect and pardon Arafat in the face of threats and to select him as one of America’s primary negotiating partners on Middle East issues was presumably a strategic one guided by the rules of realpolitik and based on a conviction that his participation would be critical to the accomplishment of American strategic objectives. If so, that position would appear to have given license to several actions considered permissible:

loudly and repeatedly damning attempts at blackmail while quietly bowing to blackmail in secret; officially refusing to consider releasing prisoners as demanded by terrorists while asking others to do so to accomplish U.S. objectives; letting pass with no protest stated terrorist intentions to target others, in this case Israel and Jordan; and consigning to history the foul murder of American diplomats and using the angry protests of their colleagues as talking points when falsely proclaiming indignation over supposed weakness in the face of terrorism.

One word is notably absent from Henry Kissinger’s prescription for statesmanship and, it follows, decision-making and diplomacy: principles, which allow neither nuance nor ambiguity and which cannot be altered by recalibration.End.

End-notes1. [The New York Times Sunday Book Review, November 13, 2011]

2. [217. Intelligence Memorandum, Washington, June 1973, as found in Foreign Relations, 1969-1976, Volume E-6, Documents on Africa, 1973-1976 (]

3. [55. Memorandum of Conversation, Washington, May 12, 1973, as found in National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, Kissinger Office Files. Other participants: Israeli Ambassador Simcha Dinitz, Israeli Minister Amir Idan, NSC Staffers Harold Saunders and Peter W. Rodman.]

4. [Beirut 3377 to SecState, 261120Z Mar 73, tagged “from Griffin: Abu Dhabi”]

5. [Memorandum of Conversation: The President, Sudanese Minister of National Reform Abdel Rahman Abdulla, Dr. Henry A. Kissinger, The White House, March 6, 1973]

6. [ Memorandum for the Ambassador re Contacts with the Fatah Leadership, 18July 1973]

7. [SECTO 1 Action Khartoum, Brussels & Beirut, 25 June 1974, as repeated in State 139021 to Jidda, 27 June 1974]

8. [State 139021, Action Khartoum, 25 June 1974: For the Ambassador from Secretary]

9. [Khartoum 1538 to SecState, 26 June 1974]

10. [State 169610, Action Khartoum, 2 Aug 1974: U.S. Policy Toward Sudan in Wake of Terrorist Release]

11. [Memorandum of Conversation: Secretary’s Meeting with Sudanese Ambassador Deng, April 7, 1976, Secretary’s Office]

12. [State 171544 to Addis Ababa, Mogadiscio, Nairobi and Jidda (not Khartoum), 062245Z Aug 74]


Alan Berlind
Alan Berlind

Alan Berlind’s career in the Foreign Service included stints as deputy chief of mission in Khartoum (following the Sudanese release of the killers in 1974) and Athens, political advisor at the U.S. mission to NATO as well as earlier tours in Greece, Ghana, Belgium and Washington including three years as Director of the Office of the Law of the Sea Negotiations. In retirement he specializes in European and transatlantic political and politico-military affairs. He has taught international relations and European integration at two American colleges in Greece.

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