WASHINGTON – After 33 years of secrecy, the U.S. State Department has finally declassified a document admitting it knew the late Yasser Arafat, chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization, plotted and supervised the murders of two U.S. diplomats in Sudan in 1973, a cover-up first exposed by WND in January 2001.
The document, released earlier this year, with no fanfare, makes it clear the Khartoum operation “was planned and carried out with the full knowledge and personal approval” of Arafat, a frequent visitor to the White House throughout the 1990s who died in 2004.
In the attack March 1, 1973, eight members of the Black September terrorist organization, part of Arafat’s Fatah faction of the PLO, stormed the Saudi embassy in Khartoum on Arafat’s orders, taking U.S. Ambassador Cleo Noel, diplomat Charge d’Affaires George Curtis Moore and others hostage, and one day later, killing Noel, Moore and Belgian diplomat Guy Eid.
The admission comes 33 years after James J. Welsh, then the National Security Agency’s Palestinian analyst, saw a communication intercepted from Arafat to his terrorist commandos in Sudan.
Within minutes, Welsh told WND, the director of the NSA was notified and the decision was made to send a rare “FLASH” message – the highest priority – to the U.S. Embassy in Khartoum via the State Department.
But the message didn’t reach the embassy in time. Somewhere between the NSA and the State Department, someone decided the warning was too vague. The alert was downgraded in urgency.
The next day, eight members of Black September, part of Arafat’s Fatah organization, stormed the Saudi embassy in Khartoum, took Noel, Moore and others hostage. A day later, on March 2, 1973, Noel, Moore and Eid were machine-gunned to death – all, Welsh had insisted for years, on the direct orders of Arafat.
Welsh, who left the Navy and NSA in 1974, spoke to WND about the incident in 2001 after years of attempting to get answers from his own agency and the State Department. He became particularly troubled about the cover-up of Arafat’s role in the murders of American officials when President Clinton invited the PLO leader to the White House for direct negotiations on the Middle East.
Ever since, he had been on a personal one-man mission to uncover the tape recordings and transcripts of those intercepts between Arafat and Fatah leader Salah Khalaf, also known as Abu-Iyad, in Beirut and Khalil al-Wazir in Khartoum.
“I have decided that my oaths of secrecy must give way to my sense of right and wrong,” he told WND. “I was particularly outraged as I had spent four years following these individuals and, at the moment of our greatest intelligence coup against them, an uninformed GS level had pooh-poohed our work and cost the lives of two U.S. diplomats,” he recalls.
Welsh has continued to research the Arafat murders continually and stumbled upon the 2006 State Department document during a routine Internet search.
The document goes on to say that Fatah leaders never expected their hostage-taking to result in the freeing of the captives. A primary goal of the attack, it says, “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 report also said the Khartoum operation demonstrated the ability of the Black September organization to strike where least expected and warned the U.S. was at risk of future attacks from the group and its Fatah allies.
Welsh believes the initial cover-up of the communications breakdown and the role of Arafat was launched to prevent embarrassment to the State Department and White House. President Nixon, he points out, was in the death throes of the Watergate scandal at the time. The last thing he needed, Welsh speculates, was an international scandal to deal with on the front page of the Washington Post.
Later, after Nixon was gone, Welsh believes the whole matter of the Arafat tapes was kept quiet to protect the future viability of signals intelligence intercepts of this kind. And, finally, he said, the cover-up persisted to foster Arafat’s role as a “peacemaker” and leader of the Palestinian cause.
Back in 1973, Welsh had received spontaneous transcripts of the dialogue between Arafat and his subordinates. But, under NSA protocol, he was not permitted to keep copies. Under normal procedure, he expected copies of the final transcripts and tapes to arrive on his desk for further analysis. They never came.
“Things were recorded but never arrived at my desk,” he recalls. “I know they were recorded because I was receiving simultaneous reports from a collection site. The warning I drafted for the State Department was based on those reports.”
After the deadly attack in Khartoum, Arafat ordered the eight gunmen to surrender peacefully to the Sudanese authorities. Two were released for “lack of evidence.” Later, in June 1973, the other six were found guilty of murdering the three diplomats. They were sentenced to life imprisonment and released 24 hours later to the PLO.
Before surrendering, the Khartoum terrorists demanded the release of Sirhan Bishara Sirhan, the convicted assassin of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, as well as others being held in Israeli and European prisons. Nixon refused to negotiate.