On this day 30 years ago, two American diplomats were machine-gunned to death at the Saudi embassy in Sudan by Yasser Arafat’s Black September organization.
Details of the brutal executions filled the front pages of newspapers around the world for several days in early March 1973.
But an element of the story that could have reshaped the history of the Middle East is missing from the official record, according to a National Security Agency Palestinian analyst at the time, who was monitoring radio communications between Palestinian leaders in Beirut and the Sudanese capital, Khartoum.
Two years ago, James J. Welsh told WorldNetDaily of virtually irrefutable evidence that Arafat himself planned, directed and ordered the murders of U.S. Ambassador Cleo Noel, U.S. Charges d’affaires George Curtis Moore and Belgian Guy Eid on March 2, 1973.
Audio tapes made in Cyprus and U.S. embassies in Beirut and Khartoum left no doubt that it was Arafat’s voice directing the operation from Feb. 28 – the day before the men were kidnapped – to their execution two days later, Welsh said in an interview with WND on Friday.
When plans for an imminent attack became apparent on Feb. 28, Welsh immediately helped draft a warning to be sent at “FLASH,” the highest level of urgency. He learned later that on the evening of its transmission to the State Department in Washington, a watch officer downgraded the message to a routine cable, which arrived in Khartoum two days after the murders.
Welsh has been passionately trying to tell his story to U.S. officials for three years, but he now speaks with a hint of resignation after encountering only dead ends: “They will say this is an issue off the table, we are not going to talk about it.”
“I’ve just come to the conclusion that there is too much that has been built upon Arafat to just go and cut him loose,” said Welsh, who was an Arabic linguist seconded to the NSA by the Navy from 1969 to 1974.
The whole story will eventually come out, he believes, but probably only when it’s no longer “important for the government to keep this hidden from the American public.”
“It will become a piece of history, more than anything,” he said.
More evidence has surfaced in recent years to back Welsh’s claims, but some details actually trickled into the mainstream press just one month after the event.
“Western intelligence sources” leaked to a Washington Post reporter the contents of a cable from Khartoum to the State Department with explicit details of communications between the hostage-takers and Beirut command during the crisis.
David Ottaway wrote on April 5, 1973, that “Arafat, leader of Fatah, was in the Black September radio command center in Beirut when the message to execute three Western diplomats being held in Khartoum was sent out.”
The Post reporter said “Arafat’s voice was reportedly monitored and recorded.”
Welsh said he “never saw such panic and anger at NSA as when Ottaway broke the story.”
“It was only after it was realized how potentially explosive the tapes were that the history began to be rewritten,” said Welsh.
‘Cavorting’ at Camp David
At the time of the event, Welsh said his “strong objections” to an obvious cover-up of the Arafat evidence got him into “some serious trouble in the section of NSA where I was working,” resulting in a negative military evaluation.
He finished his Navy service in 1974, and “just left it all,” but in the summer of 2000, the events of early 1973 came rushing back.
Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak were guests of President Bill Clinton, who was engaged in a furious, last-ditch effort to forge a peace agreement before his term ended.
“They were cavorting over at Camp David – that famous shot of them playing around [and gesturing], Who’s going to open the door,” Welsh said. “I’m just looking at the TV and saying, this is ridiculous.”
Since then, he has tried to take his case to Congress and nearly everyone associated with the event he could find.
On March 27, 2001, Welsh sent a letter to all members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, detailing his charges. He sent another to Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., a few days later after reading of the congressman’s call to re-examine U.S. policy toward the Palestinian Authority headed by Arafat.
In his letters, Welsh alleged that an earlier congressional investigation, led by former Sen. Jeremiah Denton, R-Ala., in 1986, was subverted with false and misleading information. He offered to assist further investigations, but received no response and has come to realize the futility of his efforts.
Welsh said he contacted Denton in 2000 after reading the committee’s 400-page report, telling him in an e-mail that “much of what was testified to you was not what actually happened.”
Denton was so disturbed about the charges that he telephoned Welsh. The former senator said he had absolutely no knowledge of Welsh’s information and promised to contact him after his upcoming trip to Washington, D.C.
Welsh said that at the same time, he had been in touch with the office of Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., who was chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
Near the time of the 2000 presidential election, Welsh received a call from Kyl’s office, informing him that “Sen. Kyl has decided that this is not an issue that he wished to bring up at this time.”
Welsh asked if there was a reason.
“Well, his feeling is that everybody knows that Arafat’s a bad guy,” said Kyl’s staff member.
Welsh never heard back from Denton.
“Apparently Denton had gone to Kyl, and I guess the word went out, leave it be, do not go there,” he said.
“It’s just an example of the closing of the doors – they know you’re on the outside, they know you can’t penetrate, they figure you’ll stop knocking sooner or later, and you’ll go away,” Welsh continued. “Which is probably right.”
Welsh believes the initial cover-up was to prevent embarrassment to the State Department and the Richard Nixon White House. After Nixon was gone, the matter was kept quiet to protect the future viability of the NSA’s signals intercepts. But ultimately, he asserts, the cover-up has persisted for 30 years, through seven administrations, to protect Arafat’s role as a “peacemaker” and leader of the Palestinian cause.
If transcripts of the tapes – which Welsh saw in 1973 and others have seen since – had been released 15 years ago, it would have destroyed Arafat, Welsh believes.
“There is no way he could have been rehabilitated in the public’s eye,” he said. “It would have been the murder of two diplomats. You just can’t push that away.”
Lately, Arafat’s star in international diplomatic circles has diminished and other evidence has begun to surface.
Lt.-Gen. Ion Mihai Pacepa – formerly Romanian Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu’s chief of secret police – says he heard Arafat brag about the murders at a private dinner in 1973.
In a Jan. 10, 2002, article in the Wall Street Journal, Pacepa referred to Welsh’s information, but added his own evidence.
“In May 1973, during a private dinner with Ceausescu,” Pacepa remembered, “Arafat excitedly bragged about his Khartoum operation. ‘Be careful,’ Ion Gheorghe Maurer, a Western-educated lawyer who had just retired as Romanian prime minister, told him. ‘No matter how high-up you are, you can still be convicted for killing and stealing.’ ‘Who, me? I never had anything to do with that operation,’ Arafat said, winking mischievously.”
Welsh believes protection of Arafat by the State Department can be explained, at least in part, by a “numbers game,” in which one ambassador to Israel is outnumbered by more than 20 diplomats to Arab nations.
“As you’re posted to those Arab countries, it’s understandable that you begin to develop an affinity for those people,” he said, and, consequently, over the past 50 years, sympathy for the Arab position on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has become the dominant position at the State Department at mid-level.
“It’s even gone to the point where the foreign service career officers don’t even want to discuss the issue of Noel and Moore because it is embarrassing to their position – it’s damaging to their defense of Arafat,” he said.
In a statement to Congress on Oct. 25, 2000, Welsh charged that all existing copies of warning cables sent belatedly to the U.S. Embassy in Khartoum were ordered at a high-level by either the State Department or White House to be collected and destroyed.
Two independent investigations of the National Archives in 2001 and 2002 back up those charges, Welsh said.
Russ Braley, a Middle East correspondent with the New York Daily News who was in Jordan at the time of the event, concluded after spending several days in the National Archives that records on the murders had been purged.
Braley found materials that referred to certain numbered documents, but those documents had been removed.
Welsh said, however, that Braley began digging deeper and came up with “a top-secret cable from Secretary of State [William] Rogers to various American embassies in Europe and Middle East, instructing them to orally brief the governments of the countries they were in that the United States had evidence that Arafat was involved with this, and, in fact, he was one and the same with Black September.”
Welsh wrote Freedom of Information Act requests to the CIA, State Department and NSA, asking for recordings or transcripts of the radio communications but was rejected.
Israel is known to have copies of the tapes, however. Wall Street Journal reporter Robert Pollack said Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told him he gave a copy to Bill Clinton in 1995. Former Prime Minister Golda Maier is reported to have given Nixon a copy.
Welsh believes, though, that Israel has acquiesced to U.S. wishes and recognizes that the Khartoum case is, in the end, an American matter.
Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, nevertheless has publicly commented on Arafat’s complicity in the murders, prompting a letter of thanks from Welsh.
Welsh wrote to Netanyahu last year, that he understood “the diplomatic need for you to refrain from disclosing in detail Arafat’s part in the crisis.”
Ultimately, Welsh wrote, this is “the responsibility of my government, as it was our diplomats (in this case) who were the victims.”
Welsh notes, however, that a more efficient U.S. intelligence system might have spared the lives of 11 Israeli athletes who were murdered by the same Black September group in September 1972, just six months before the Khartoum attack.
After a leave of absence, he returned in November 1972 to find more than two months of intercepts stacked up. He discovered in the pile a message that had been decoded by a cryptographer who did not speak Arabic.
“There it was,” he said, a message from Black September leader Khalil al-Wazir, who also was involved in the Khartoum attack, to general command in Beirut, saying that “the eight had left for Munich.”