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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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 measures. 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 BSO." 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--ceased." 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."