LBJ compared the resolution to “grandma’s nightshirt” because it “covered everything.” Like the 2002 Iraq War Resolution, it was worded broadly enough to allow the president to make the final decision about war all by himself—and vaguely enough to allow those who voted for it to deny responsibility for the war they’d authorized.
There’s a lesson there about how congressional fecklessness enables presidential warmaking. But what happened—or didn’t happen—in the Gulf of Tonkin in August 1964 is even more relevant to the current controversy over just how far we should trust the National Security Agency.
On August 2, 1964, the U.S.S. Maddox came under fire while gathering signals intelligence in Vietnamese territorial waters. But it was the alleged “second attack,” confirmed by the NSA, that LBJ seized upon to order retaliatory bombings and push the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution through Congress.
As we now know, the “second attack” never happened. Days after the attack, Johnson cracked, “Hell, those dumb, stupid sailors were just shooting at flying fish!” A National Security Agency historian later concluded that “N.S.A. officers had deliberately falsified intercepted communications in the incident to make it look like the attack on Aug. 4, 1964, had occurred, although he said they acted not out of political motives but to cover up earlier errors.”
As Mark Ambinder and D.B. Grady recount in their new book Deep State: Inside the Government Secrecy Industry, ”the NSA covered up its role in mistakenly reporting that two U.S ships had been attacked,” and stuck to its original story for four decades, “a lie perpetuated by secrecy.” In 2005, Freedom of Information Act requests and pressure from the press finally forced the release of classified documents on the Tonkin incident. The NSA resisted almost until the end, fearing, as one intelligence official told the New York Times, their release “might prompt uncomfortable comparisons with the flawed intelligence used to justify the war in Iraq.”