The Magazine

How Arafat Got Away with Murder

The State Department covered up his responsibility for the 1973 slaughter of two American diplomats.

Jan 29, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 19 • By SCOTT W. JOHNSON
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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 Sudan. 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) precedence. 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, chargé d'affaires at the Belgian embassy. (Two other diplomats were seized and released.)

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 participants.

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 sources.