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 government's failure to make any public issue of Arafat's responsibility had unfortunate consequences. On the one hand, it abetted the impulse to appease enemies that runs so strong in the State Department. In his well-researched 1993 book Assassination in Khartoum, former foreign service officer David Korn recalls that Nixon visited Foggy Bottom on March 6 to speak at the laying of a memorial plaque in honor of Noel and Moore. Korn's text seethes with anger over the deaths of his former colleagues, accusing Nixon of seeking to "exculpate" himself. Korn of course faults the Black September operatives and their Sudanese protectors. Yet he reserves his deepest indignation for Nixon, blaming him for "having triggered the murders of the two Americans and the Belgian" by refusing to make concessions to the Black September operatives. Korn also faults Kissinger for this no-concessions policy.

The eminent diplomat Charles Hill, now on the faculty at Yale, served at high levels in the State Department before and after the murders. By 1975 he had become an aide to Kissinger on the policy planning staff. Although Hill and his colleagues knew nothing of the communications intelligence showing Arafat's responsibility, Hill remembers there being no doubt in his circle of professionals on the seventh floor of the department that Arafat bore ultimate responsibility for the operation. Hill recalls that the murders were the subject of frequent, intense discussion among desk officers and leaders at Foggy Bottom for roughly three years afterward.

By the early years of the Carter administration, according to Hill, the institutional memory of the event had largely been lost. The failure of the government generally or the State Department specifically to make a public issue of Arafat's responsibility facilitated this amnesia. Korn makes little of Arafat's responsibility for the murders, but he acutely observes: "So Curt Moore and Cleo Noel, who were required to sacrifice their lives in Khartoum to sustain a principle of U.S. policy, found neither an institutional nor a consistent personal advocate at the State Department in Washington, no one whose prime and overriding responsibility it was to ensure that the government of Sudan honored its commitment to bring to justice the eight men who murdered them."

But what about Arafat? His role in the murders of Noel and Moore was not yet entirely forgotten. In early 1986 the possibility of seeking remedies in the criminal justice system was reportedly under consideration by the Justice Department's criminal division. Forty-four Senate members signed off on a February 12 letter urging Attorney General Ed Meese to speed up the investigation. The letter referred to "various State Department cables that may confirm Arafat's role in the murders."

In April 1986, Senator Jeremiah Denton convened a subcommittee of the Senate Judiciary Committee for a one-day hearing on the possibility of bringing Arafat to justice for crimes including the murders of Noel and Moore. Criminal Division deputy attorney general Mark Richard testified and provided the Justice Department's verdict on the pursuit of Arafat through the criminal justice system: There was no legal ground for a federal prosecution of Arafat based on his role in the murders, Richard testified. He added somewhat cryptically and almost completely inaccurately: "We enlisted the assistance of the State Department and various components of the intelligence community to obtain and verify Arafat's complicity in the planning of the embassy takeover and the murder of our diplomats. We have analyzed all the materials available and determined that the evidence currently available is plainly insufficient for prosecutive purposes if there were a legal basis for instituting charges against Arafat. . . . Information concerning Arafat's direct involvement in this operation is, at best, hearsay and conjecture. Thus, such information would never be admissible in any trial of Arafat in this country." And that was that.

Arafat was thus "cleared" for his cozy relationship with the Clinton White House. Did the administration's highest officers know whom they were dealing with? I asked Dennis Ross, the Middle East envoy and chief peace negotiator in the administrations of both George H.W. Bush and Clinton, if he was aware of Arafat's responsibility for the 1973 murders of Noel and Moore. "I was aware that State had looked into it, but I didn't know that a conclusion had been reached," he told me. I asked him whether, if in fact the department had determined Arafat's involvement, we should not have dealt with him like a criminal rather than an honored guest. "That's a legitimate question," he responded. "Had it been understood at the highest levels, it should have factored into the decision making. What we would have done had we been fully aware of it after the Israelis made their decision to proceed in dealing with Arafat, I can't say." I asked him what he would say to the average citizen with the perspective that the murderer of American officials shouldn't get a pass. "It's fair to say," he said, "at a minimum, that it's hard to fathom."

When the Bush (I) and Clinton administrations dealt directly with Arafat, did they somehow not know exactly with whom they were dealing? If so, regardless of the failure of institutional memory reflected in Ambassador Ross's comments and the institutional misrepresentations reflected in Richard's testimony, excuses were lacking. In 1990 Neil C. Livingstone and David Halevy had published Inside the PLO, devoting a chapter to the murders and quoting extensively from State Department cables received in response to the authors' Freedom of Information Act requests. In 1993, Korn published his equally well-documented volume, though Korn buried the documentation of Arafat's culpability in the book's source notes.

In the summer of 2002 I contacted the State Department for a comment on a draft column addressing the question of Arafat's responsibility for the Khartoum murders. State Department Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs deputy director of press affairs Gregory Sullivan responded: "I can't say I'm impressed with your research or argumentation. You're obviously writing a piece designed to elicit a certain reaction rather than one based on factual accounts or actual comments made by the U.S. government. I really don't have the time to do the research for you, but I do find myself compelled to point out . . . Evidence clearly points to the terrorist group Black September as having committed the assassinations of Amb. Noel and George Moore, and though Black September was a part of the Fatah movement, the linkage between Arafat and this group has never been established."

Given Sullivan's statement, the State Department's posting this past June of the 1973 CIA summary of the Khartoum operation came as a surprise. Sullivan to the contrary notwithstanding, the summary stated that "the Khartoum operation was carried out with the full knowledge and personal approval of Yasser Arafat." (Sullivan did not respond to my request for an interview.)

When I inquired into the posting of the document, I was referred to the State Department's Office of the Historian. Marc Susser is head of the office; Edward Keefer is the general editor of the Foreign Relation series in which the 1973 document was published. Susser and Keefer explained that the document was deemed of interest in the context of American relations with Sudan. They included it for publication in fulfillment of the office's statutory obligation to document American foreign relations, after thirty years, without input from any policymaker at State. They first learned of the document's wider interest beyond the context of American-African relations when they read Caroline Glick's January 2, 2007, Jerusalem Post column on the subject.

The publication of the 1973 CIA summary ends 33 years of public silence on Yasser Arafat's murder of two high-ranking State Department officers. It is a notable event. The tortured history of the government's treatment of Arafat's responsibility warrants much additional investigation. And given the fact that Arafat's right hand man is the current prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, it is not only of historical interest. Speaking in a 2003 interview from the perspective of an average citizen who was also a firsthand witness to a most significant piece of this tortured history, former NSA analyst Welsh may appropriately be given the last word, at least for the moment: "There are limits to which foreign policy issues should require a man to lower himself. Shaking the hand of a murderer of a U.S. ambassador is such a case. Any peace based upon that hand is a delusion."

Scott W. Johnson is a Minneapolis attorney and contributor to the Power Line blog.