By CALVIN WOODWARD, Associated Press Writer Fri Dec 2, 5:31 AM ET
Forty years before the United States invadedbelieving had weapons of mass destruction, it widened a war in Vietnam apparently convinced the enemy had launched an unprovoked attack on two destroyers.
Papers declassified by the National Security Agency point to a series of bungled intelligence findings on the purported clash in the Gulf of Tonkin that led Congress to endorse President Johnson's escalation of the Vietnam conflict in August 1964.
Among the documents released Thursday is an article written by NSA historian Robert J. Hanyok for the agency's classified publication, Cryptologic Quarterly. In it, he declares that his review of the complete intelligence shows beyond doubt "no attack happened that night."
Claims that North Vietnamese boats attacked two U. S. Navy destroyers on Aug. 4, 1964 just two days after an initial assault on one of those ships rallied Congress behind Johnson's build-up of the war. The so-called Gulf of Tonkin resolution passed three days later empowered him to take "all necessary steps" in the region and opened the way for large-scale commitment of U.S. forces.
As with the intelligence that convinced the administration and lawmakers that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction, the article asserts officials gave much weight to scant evidence.
But, also like Iraq, it did not find that top administration officials ordered up fabricated evidence to suit their wishes.
Instead, in the case of Vietnam, they were presented with an incomplete story, Hanyok said. Of the intelligence-gatherers who got it wrong, he added: "They walked alone in their counsels."
The agency released more than 140 documents in response to requests from researchers trying to get to the bottom of an episode that unfolded in the South China Sea that cloudy night, and has been disputed since.
"The parallels between the faulty intelligence on Tonkin Gulf and the manipulated intelligence used to justify the Iraq war make it all the more worthwhile to re-examine the events of August 1964 in light of new evidence," researcher John Prados said.
Prados is a specialist on the Gulf of Tonkin at George Washington University's National Security Archive, which is not affiliated with the National Security Agency, and which pressed for release of the documents through Freedom of Information requests and other means.
Hanyok's article reviews signals intelligence, or SIGINT, from that time and concludes that top administration officials were only given material supporting the claim of an Aug. 4 attack, not the wealth of contradictory intelligence. His study was published in 2001 and does not necessary reflect the agency's position.
"In truth, Hanoi's navy was engaged in nothing that night but the salvage of two of the boats damaged on 2 August," Hanyok wrote.
He said "the handful of SIGINT reports which suggested that an attack had occurred contained severe analytical errors, unexplained translation changes, and the conjunction of two unrelated messages into one translation. This latter product would become the Johnson administration's main proof of the Aug. 4 attack."
He said he did not find "manufactured evidence and collusion at all levels"; rather, it appeared intelligence-gatherers had made a series of mistakes and their superiors did not set the record straight.
Conflicting and confused reports from the scene have long cast doubt on whether the events unfolded as claimed.
Hanyok's analysis of previously top secret intelligence adds insight on North Vietnam's communications from that time, showing, he said, that the supposed attackers did not even know the location of the destroyers, the USS Maddox and C. Turner Joy, as the two ships patrolled off the North Vietnam coast.
A shorter agency study done years earlier and also released Thursday indicated the ships did not know what, if anything, was coming at them as they zigzagged to evade what the crews feared were torpedoes.
That study concluded with a wry note, saying the destroyers resumed their patrols after a heavy round of U.S. air strikes on North Vietnam ports, "and the rest is just painful history."
A detailed chronology assembled days after the episode for the Joint Chiefs of Staff by J.J. Merrick, commander of Destroyer Division 192, reflected the uncertainty of that night.
It said sonar in many cases picked up sounds that were believed to be torpedoes but turned out to be "self noise" the beating of the ships' own propellers, or noise from patrol boats or supporting planes that were strafing the dark sea, unable to see any prey.
In another instance, however, the report contended a "torpedo wake was seen by four people."
The Maddox had come under fire from North Vietnamese patrol boats Aug. 2, taking only superficial damage.
On the Net:
National Security Agency documents: http://www.nsa.gov/vietnam/index.cfm
National Security Archive: http://www.gwu.edu/nsarchiv/
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