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Can We Get the Truth a Bit Faster This Time?
The New York Times
October 31, 2005
Doubts Cast on Vietnam Incident, but Secret Study Stays Classified
By SCOTT SHANE
WASHINGTON, Oct. 28 - The National Security Agency has kept secret since
2001 a finding by an agency historian that during the Tonkin Gulf episode,
which helped precipitate the Vietnam War, N.S.A. officers deliberately
distorted critical intelligence to cover up their mistakes, two people
familiar with the historian's work say.
The historian's conclusion is the first serious accusation that
communications intercepted by the N.S.A., the secretive eavesdropping and
code-breaking agency, were falsified so that they made it look as if North
Vietnam had attacked American destroyers on Aug. 4, 1964, two days after a
previous clash. President Lyndon B. Johnson cited the supposed attack to
persuade Congress to authorize broad military action in Vietnam, but most
historians have concluded in recent years that there was no second attack.
The N.S.A. historian, Robert J. Hanyok, found a pattern of translation
mistakes that went uncorrected, altered intercept times and selective
citation of intelligence that persuaded him that midlevel agency officers
had deliberately skewed the evidence.
Mr. Hanyok concluded that they had done it not out of any political motive
but to cover up earlier errors, and that top N.S.A. and defense officials
and Johnson neither knew about nor condoned the deception.
Mr. Hanyok's findings were published nearly five years ago in a classified
in-house journal, and starting in 2002 he and other government historians
argued that it should be made public. But their effort 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, according to an intelligence official familiar with
some internal discussions of the matter.
Matthew M. Aid, an independent historian who has discussed Mr. Hanyok's
Tonkin Gulf research with current and former N.S.A. and C.I.A. officials who
have read it, said he had decided to speak publicly about the findings
because he believed they should have been released long ago.
"This material is relevant to debates we as Americans are having about the
war in Iraq and intelligence reform," said Mr. Aid, who is writing a history
of the N.S.A. "To keep it classified simply because it might embarrass the
agency is wrong."
Mr. Aid's description of Mr. Hanyok's findings was confirmed by the
intelligence official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the
research has not been made public.
Both men said Mr. Hanyok believed the initial misinterpretation of North
Vietnamese intercepts was probably an honest mistake. But after months of
detective work in N.S.A.'s archives, he concluded that midlevel agency
officials discovered the error almost immediately but covered it up and
doctored documents so that they appeared to provide evidence of an attack.
"Rather than come clean about their mistake, they helped launch the United
States into a bloody war that would last for 10 years," Mr. Aid said.
Asked about Mr. Hanyok's research, an N.S.A. spokesman said the agency
intended to release his 2001 article in late November. The spokesman, Don
Weber, said the release had been "delayed in an effort to be consistent with
our preferred practice of providing the public a more contextual
Mr. Weber said the agency was working to declassify not only Mr. Hanyok's
article, but also the original intercepts and other raw material for his
work, so the public could better assess his conclusions.
The intelligence official gave a different account. He said N.S.A.
historians began pushing for public release in 2002, after Mr. Hanyok
included his Tonkin Gulf findings in a 400-page, in-house history of the
agency and Vietnam called "Spartans in Darkness." Though superiors initially
expressed support for releasing it, the idea lost momentum as Iraq
intelligence was being called into question, the official said.
Mr. Aid said he had heard from other intelligence officials the same
explanation for the delay in releasing the report, though neither he nor the
intelligence official knew how high up in the agency the issue was
discussed. A spokesman for Gen. Michael V. Hayden, who was the agency's.
director until last summer and is now the principal deputy director of
national intelligence, referred questions to Mr. Weber, the N.S.A.
spokesman, who said he had no further information.
Many historians believe that even without the Tonkin Gulf episode, Johnson
might have found a reason to escalate military action against North Vietnam.
They note that Johnson apparently had his own doubts about the Aug. 4 attack
and that a few days later told George W. Ball, the under secretary of state,
"Hell, those dumb, stupid sailors were just shooting at flying fish!"
But Robert S. McNamara, who as defense secretary played a central role in
the Tonkin Gulf affair, said in an interview last week that he believed the
intelligence reports had played a decisive role in the war's expansion.
"I think it's wrong to believe that Johnson wanted war," Mr. McNamara said.
"But we thought we had evidence that North Vietnam was escalating."
Mr. McNamara, 89, said he had never been told that the intelligence might
have been altered to shore up the scant evidence of a North Vietnamese
"That really is surprising to me," said Mr. McNamara, who Mr. Hanyok found
had unknowingly used the altered intercepts in 1964 and 1968 in testimony
before Congress. "I think they ought to make all the material public,
The supposed second North Vietnamese attack, on the American destroyers
Maddox and C. Turner Joy, played an outsize role in history. Johnson
responded by ordering retaliatory air strikes on North Vietnamese targets
and used the event to persuade Congress to pass the Gulf of Tonkin
resolution on Aug. 7, 1964.
It authorized the president "to take all necessary steps, including the use
of armed force," to defend South Vietnam and its neighbors and was used both
by Johnson and President Richard M. Nixon to justify escalating the war, in
which 58,226 Americans and more than 1 million Vietnamese died.
Not all the details of Mr. Hanyok's analysis, published in N.S.A.'s
Cryptologic Quarterly in early 2001, could be learned. But they involved
discrepancies between the official N.S.A. version of the events of Aug. 4,
1964, and intercepts from N.S.A. listening posts at Phu Bai in South Vietnam
and San Miguel in the Philippines that are in the agency archives.
One issue, for example, was the translation of a phrase in an Aug. 4 North
Vietnamese transmission. In some documents the phrase, "we sacrificed two
comrades" - an apparent reference to casualties during the clash with
American ships on Aug. 2 - was incorrectly translated as "we sacrificed two
ships." That phrase was used to suggest that the North Vietnamese were
reporting the loss of ships in a new battle Aug. 4, the intelligence
The original Vietnamese version of that intercept, unlike many other
intercepts from the same period, is missing from the agency's archives, the
The intelligence official said the evidence for deliberate falsification is
"about as certain as it can be without a smoking gun - you can come to no
Despite its well-deserved reputation for secrecy, the N.S.A. in recent years
has made public dozens of studies by its Center for Cryptologic History. A
study by Mr. Hanyok on signals intelligence and the Holocaust, titled
"Eavesdropping on Hell," was published last year.
Two historians who have written extensively on the Tonkin Gulf episode,
Edwin E. Moise of Clemson University and John Prados of the National
Security Archive in Washington, said they were unaware of Mr. Hanyok's work
but found his reported findings intriguing.
"I'm surprised at the notion of deliberate deception at N.S.A.," Dr. Moise
said. "But I get surprised a lot."
Dr. Prados said, "If Mr. Hanyok's conclusion is correct, it adds to the
tragic aspect of the Vietnam War." In addition, he said, "it's new evidence
that intelligence, so often treated as the Holy Grail, turns out to be not
that at all, just as in Iraq."