Foreign Policy

Ghost of Tonkin

Cover-up covered up.

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It has been common knowledge for years that the murky events triggering the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution–the closest Vietnam ever got to a U.S. declaration of war–were manipulated by then-President Lyndon Johnson to encourage the country to support military escalation in Southeast Asia. At the time it was alleged that the North Vietnamese attacked two American ships on August 4, 1964. Recently, National Security Agency historian Robert Hanyok added a new detail to the discussion: Not only was there no attack, but the majority of the intelligence intercepts indicating this fact were suppressed before they even got to Johnson's desk.

"It is not simply that there is a different story as to what happened; it is that no attack happened that night," Hanyok wrote. "Information was presented in such a manner as to preclude responsible decisionmakers in the Johnson administration from having the complete and objective narrative of events from 4 August 1964. Instead, only [intercepts] that supported the claim that the communists had attacked the two destroyers were given to administration officials."

Hanyok's findings were published in the Winter 2000 and Spring 2001 editions of Cryptologic Quarterly, the in-house publication of the National Security Agency's Center for Cryptologic History. Yet the public remained unaware of his bombshell work until late last October, when The New York Times published an article about the then-unsuccessful efforts to share Hanyok's paper with the taxpayers who funded his research. The declassification "was rebuffed by higher-level agency policymakers, who by the next year were fearful that it might prompt uncomfortable comparisons with the flawed intelligence used to justify the war in Iraq," the Times reported, citing "an intelligence official familiar with some internal discussions of the matter."

A month later, Hanyok's work finally appeared on the agency's Web site (at nsa.gov/vietnam/releases/relea00012.pdf), along with reams of contextual intercepts and data. The NSA denies that contemporary politics played any role in the publication, but reading the report it's impossible not to think of more recent events.

"The overwhelming body of reports, if used, would have told the story that no attack had happened," Hanyok concluded. "So a conscious effort ensued to demonstrate that the attack occurred."??