WASHINGTON — National Security Agency officers mistranslated interceptions involving the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident, and their mistake was covered up by deliberate falsifications, says a researcher trying to obtain an article that lays out what happened.
Now, says researcher Matthew Aid, the NSA is blocking release of the article, by an NSA historian, about the incident that led to a massive U.S. buildup in Vietnam by President Lyndon B. Johnson with the near-unanimous backing of Congress.
Aid, who requested the article last year under the Freedom of Information Act, said it appeared that NSA officers made honest mistakes in translating the intercepted messages about what was reported as a North Vietnamese attack on American destroyers in the gulf off the coast of what was then North Vietnam.
Rather than correct the mistakes, the 2001 article in the NSA's classified Cryptologic Quarterly says, midlevel officials decided to falsify documents to cover up the errors, according to Aid, who is working on a history of the agency and has talked to a number of current and former government officials about this chapter of American history.
Aid said he had been told that the article, written by NSA historian Robert Hanyok, analyzes problems found in interceptions about the events. He said the nature and extent of the mistakes remained unclear, and that some senior officials at NSA who were not involved with the errors had taken issue with the journal article.
Aid drew comparisons to more recent intelligence on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction that overstated the threat posed by President Saddam Hussein's arsenal.
"The question becomes, why not release this?" Aid said of the article. "We have some documents that, from my perspective, I think would be very instructive to the public and the intelligence community ... on a mistake made 41 years ago that was just as bad as the WMD debacle."
The NSA is the largest spy agency in government, responsible for much of the United States' code-breaking and eavesdropping work. In spy lingo, the agency collects and analyzes "signals intelligence" — "SIGINT."
The controversy over the article's release were reported first in The New York Times on Oct. 31.
In a written statement, NSA spokesman Don Weber said the agency had delayed releasing the article "in an effort to be consistent with our preferred practice of providing the public a more contextual perspective." The agency plans to release the article and related materials next month, he said.
"Instead of simply releasing the author's historical account, the agency worked to declassify the associated signals intelligence ... and other classified documents used to draw his conclusions," Weber said.
Many historians believe that Johnson would have escalated U.S. military action in the region anyway. At the time, the incident was regarded by some in the anti-war movement as a flimsy pretext for increased American involvement. On Aug. 5, 1964, Johnson announced to Congress that "the North Vietnamese regime had conducted further deliberate attacks against U.S. naval vessels operating in international waters" and that he had "therefore directed air action against gunboats and supporting facilities used in these hostile operations."
Congress then passed a joint resolution supporting the president in taking "all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression."
Steven Aftergood, director of the Federation of American Scientists project on secrecy, said events of the Cold War cannot remain off limits, effectively a secret history.
"A lot of what we think we know of our recent history may be mistaken," Aftergood said. "It is a disgrace that it should be so in a democracy, but it is."
James Bamford, who has written several books on the NSA, said the agency had a "lethargic attitude" about revealing historic information "that may be useful for people in the future, to help prevent mistakes."