EXCLUSIVE– Inside NSA Operation to Thwart 1973 Plot to Bomb NYC, Assassinate Israeli PM

Mario Tama/Getty Images
Mario Tama/Getty Images

TEL AVIV – After it received an intercepted communication detailing the terrorist group Black September’s plans to bomb New York City and assassinate then-Israeli prime minister Golda Meir, the National Security Agency had to debate how best to disseminate the information in order to thwart the imminent murder and mayhem plot, it was revealed on Sunday.

James J. Welsh, who served as the NSA’s analyst for Palestinian communications from 1969 to 1974, was interviewed for “Aaron Klein Investigative Radio,” broadcast on New York’s AM 970 The Answer and Philadelphia’s NewsTalk 990 AM.

Welsh took listeners inside the NSA’s decision-making process that resulted in the New York Police Department finding and detonating three Black September car bombs in New York, including at least one at Israeli airline El Al’s cargo terminal at John F. Kennedy International Airport that was intended to kill Meir when she landed there on March 4, 1973.

The other bombs were placed outside the First Israel Bank and Trust company at Fifth Avenue and 47th Street; and four blocks south on Fifth Avenue outside Israel Discount Bank.

“That could have been a really terrible situation had Golda Meir’s motorcade been passing by one of the vehicles parked alongside outside the airport,” Welsh told Klein.

“And then of course if she had visited over there in downtown New York, where those could have been detonated if the first bomb hadn’t succeeded.”

In 2009, the Associated Press released an investigation which first revealed it was the NSA that uncovered the 1973 New York City bomb plot by Yasser Arafat’s group.

The AP cited Welsh, who explained that the NSA discovered someone had transmitted a detailed message about the bomb plot using official Iraqi diplomatic communications inside the U.S., likely from inside Iraq’s United Nations office in New York.

On Sunday, Welsh told Klein that the communication contained shockingly specific information about the plans, including the whereabouts of all three car bombs.

He clarified that the NSA itself had not intercepted the message. Rather, it was received from “another intelligence agency that the U.S. works with.” The communication was “from the Iraqi United Nations office to the Iraqi embassy in Washington DC.”

“This message was to go to the Palestinian office in Baghdad for further transmittal, I’m sure to Beirut to Yasser Arafat,” Welsh said.

Welsh described the dilemma that the NSA immediately faced on how to disseminate information to law enforcement agencies given that the communication was intercepted inside the U.S.

Welsh told Klein:

The message was surprisingly a very detailed message about the placement of the bombs and why they were being done and we were just shocked. When we got the message it was decoded and then a question began about, well gosh, how do we disseminate this message?

And it was shocking. We had never really quite seen anything this detailed. And it was like, you’ve got to be kidding. The question that arose is we’ve got a bit of a technical problem, legal problem here. NSA is not supposed to intercept materials, transmissions, messages in the United States. However, we hadn’t actually. It had come from another intelligence agency that the U.S. works with.

And it was finally decided that we could then disseminate this message. The message went to a number of agencies, including the FBI, because the FBI had jurisdiction in these kinds of things.

The FBI in turn tipped off the NYPD and the two car bombs in Manhattan were detonated. The third car bomb at JFK airport was disabled by Terence McTigue of the NYPD’s bomb squad. In 2009, McTigue told the AP that the FBI never told him how they knew the location of the car bomb.

The bomb attacks could have been devastating. The New York Times reported in 1973 that just one of the bombs detonated by the NYPD had caused a fireball 50 to 75 feet high and 25 feet wide, meaning it could have killed dozens or more in densely populated NYC.

The NYC bomb plot occurred just days after eight members of the Black September terrorist organization stormed the Saudi embassy in Khartoum, reportedly on Arafat’s orders, and took U.S. Ambassador Cleo Noel, diplomat Charge d’Affaires George Curtis Moore, and others hostage on March 1, 1973.  One day later, Noel, Moore, and Belgian diplomat Guy Eid were murdered.

Welsh previously told the WND news agency that before the Khartoum operation, the NSA had intercepted a transmission from Black September speaking about an imminent operation in Khartoum. He also revealed that the NSA had tape recordings of Arafat personally ordering the executions of the U.S. diplomats.

Nonetheless, the U.S. later regarded Arafat as a statesman and partner for peace with Israel.

Welsh spoke about the Khartoum affair on Klein’s show on Sunday. He said the tapes were collected from his NSA desk and never returned.

“The whole thing was just a shocking thing that happened,” he said.

And the fact that we actually had Arafat on the radio telephone, on the tape transcripts putting this whole thing together, the actual murder of the U.S. ambassador and this charge d’affaires was unheard of. And it was just too hot to handle, I think.

Welsh says he believes the U.S. did not want to shake up the Arab world with charges against Arafat during the Cold War.

I think that the situation with many in the Middle East supporting the Russians and we were supporting what we considered at the time the more moderate Arabs, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, etc., did not want to drive the more moderate into the Russian camp by singling [out] Arafat as the murderer of American diplomats. And I think a decision was made that this become a nonevent.