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September/October Issue

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Feature article

By John Prados

Once again, the National Security Agency has news for Vietnam veterans. On May 30, the NSA released a second batch of documents on the August 1964 incident that sparked the escalation of the Vietnam War. This release contains some 130 documents. They run the gamut from commentaries and command messages to oral histories and odds and ends of the spot reporting of the NSA listening posts monitoring North Vietnamese communications traffic at the time. Although the NSA declassification action was barely mentioned by the media, the new releases contain significant information on the Gulf of Tonkin incident.

Among the fresh materials in this collection, which can be found on the NSA’s website are a lengthy history of the NSA and the incident written in 1975 by Lieutenant Commander R.A. MacKinnon and excerpts from two NSA texts that cover the incident. Controversy over Robert Hanyok’s study of the incident, which the NSA declassified last November, is evident from the inclusion in this selection of materials dealing with a commentary on that account by NSA Director of Records Lewis Giles dated December 5, 2005.

Giles does not dispute the conclusion that the second alleged attack, that of August 4, 1964, never happened. But he insists that the agency never misled President Lyndon Johnson and that it consistently maintained communications intelligence evidence was inconclusive. Giles pins the blame on Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara, citing the agency’s review of 1968 testimony defending American actions at the Gulf of Tonkin. McNamara systematically used overkill language with COMINT.

The new document release also contains significant data on contemporary and subsequent efforts to investigate what happened at the Gulf of Tonkin. For example, the U.S. Senate’s Church Committee, which investigated every aspect of American intelligence performance in 1975 (but made no real mention of the Tonkin Gulf Incident), actually did attempt to ascertain the facts. The NSA unsuccessfully attempted to divert Church Committee staff into focusing on less important facets of the agency’s work. The declassified documents include the NSA’s memoranda exchanged with the committee.

On the other hand, this collection also contains additional data on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee’s review of the communications intelligence evidence and suggests that the NSA supported that review—although in December 1967 the NSA director had opposed public disclosure of any successes against Hanoi’s communications traffic. The NSA also cooperated with a “friendly” CBS television producer. The reporter assigned did not rate that adjective in a March 1971 segment for the program 60 Minutes, which focused on the Gulf of Tonkin.
Among other noteworthy disclosures in this NSA document release:

The after-action report of the Naval Security Group detachment aboard the destroyer Maddox covering the DeSoto Patrol. The report notes North Vietnamese communications regarding salvaging the torpedo boat damaged in the August 2 action, which was misinterpreted elsewhere as indications of an attack on the night of August 3/4.

A dispatch from NSA director General Gordon Blake on August 2 that describes the damage to the North Vietnamese torpedo boats and anticipates that Hanoi will conduct a search-and-rescue operation to support them. An interesting discrepancy between the DeSoto Patrol report, which mentions possible North Vietnamese voice radio traffic, and a 1967 NSA analysis that says “there was no clear text voice traffic which could be associated with the attacks.”

The Far East Naval Command preliminary evaluation of the DeSoto Patrol, which indicates its successes as identifying three or four North Vietnamese coastal observation posts, taking 120 radar scope photos of points of interest along that coast, and accumulating a set of water temperature readings in the Gulf, along with technical data on radars and other items. The evaluation notes that Maddox herself intercepted no signals “that could possibly be associated with DRV torpedo boat attack on 2 Aug.”

State Department Bureau of Intelligence and Research that accurately described the actions confirm the Maddox had prior warning of the August 2 attack, and detail precautionary moves in the wake of the incidents by the People’s Republic of China, including sending a military command post to Hanoi.

The full text of transcripts of telephone conversations between American Pacific Theater commander Admiral U.S.G. Sharp and Washington officials, including Secretary McNamara, previously available only in excerpted form in a Pentagon study of command control during the incident.

A dispatch from the Swift boat, PTF-77, which shows that the Navy and CIA forces involved in Operations Plan 34-A actively supported the second incursion (by Maddox and C. Turner Joy together) by maintaining a patrol line at sea that the destroyers encountered as they retired down the Gulf. This evidence shows that the North Vietnamese had some basis for fearing that DeSoto and 34-A forces were cooperating.

Also of great interest in this collection are a series of postmortems and other materials concerning an alleged incident in September 1964 when another DeSoto Patrol by the destroyers Edwards and Morton were allegedly attacked in similar fashion.

For the first time, this NSA release includes documents that show the planning and conduct of the later DeSoto Patrol and NSA intercepts concerning that incident, in which President Johnson refused to respond as he had in August. The documents show a similar set of intercepts surrounding the September events. State Department intelligence in this case reasoned that Hanoi had used naval vessels to shadow the U.S. warships but argued that the nature of the encounter militated against any possible North Vietnamese intention of attacking. The NSA concluded, “There were no firm SIGINT reflections of hostile intent such as were observed during the August patrol.”

The latest set of declassified documents that the National Security Agency has released adds fresh detail and context to our knowledge of the Gulf of Tonkin incident.

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