Most people have suspected for a very long time that the incident that precipitated a build up of military might in Vietnam, the Gulf of Tonkin event, was a lie perpetrated by President Johnson to justify increased military operations there.
Now there is proof that the incident was indeed a fabrication and that people knew it.
The U.S. National Security Agency has kept secret since 2001 a finding by an agency historian that NSA officers deliberately distorted critical intelligence during the Tonkin Gulf episode that helped precipitate the Vietnam War, according to two people familiar with the historian's work.
The historian's conclusion is the first serious accusation that communications intercepted by the NSA, 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 NSA historian, Robert 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.
Hanyok concluded that they had done it not out of any political motive but to cover up earlier errors, and that top NSA and military officials and Johnson neither knew about nor condoned the deception.
The research by the NSA historian was detailed four years ago in an in-house article. It remains classified, in part because agency officials feared its release 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 Aid, an independent historian who has discussed Hanyok's Tonkin Gulf research with current and former NSA and CIA 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 Aid, who is writing a history of the NSA. "To keep it classified simply because it might embarrass the agency is wrong."
But one thing that was clear to everyone was that he was not complying with the UN inspection regime that ended the first Gulf War. And while the particular meme of historical revisionism involves "remembering" that the whole invasion rationale was based on WMDs, it was not. And we have as proof the Congressional authorization for a War in Iraq which lists a whole laundry list of reason for finally calling Iraq in breech of the agreements that the ended the Gulf War.
Was Johnson to blame for the Gulf of Tonkin event? This report may actually vindicate him, not indict him. The report may implicate bad intelligence, not malice.
But for Bush, not only will he not be given the benefit of the doubt with regards to WMDs, but people are actively misrepresenting the history of our involvement and their relationship to WMDs.
Intelligence mistakes or no, we had more justification to invade Iraq, as detailed in the Congressional authorization for war, than President Johnson had because his decision was based solely on bad intelligence.
Bush's was not.