Benghazi: History of Pueblo Repeats Itself

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Comparisons have been made, especially by conservatives, that the terrorist attack on the American consulate in Benghazi last September was another Watergate. In fact, the Pueblo Incident in 1968 best defines what happened in that Libyan city.

The capture of the USS Pueblo by North Korean patrol boats received relatively little attention in the U.S. at the time and was quickly forgotten. This despite the fact that it was the first time a U.S. Navy ship had surrendered in 150 years, and despite the fact that one sailor was killed and 82 other crew members imprisoned and tortured for nearly one year.

The USS Pueblo was a navy intelligence surveillance ship captured by North Korean warships in international waters off the coast near Wonsan. The 82 members of the crew were taken from the ship and held captive for 11 months then released after Washington “apologized” for the intrusion into Korean waters, an apology it repudiated just as soon as the last captive set foot in South Korea.

Today the attack would probably be labeled a “terrorist attack,” even though it was perpetrated by elements of North Korea’s regular military.

The ship was kept in Wonsan harbor until 1999 when it was towed around the Korean peninsula (unmolested by U.S. or South Korean navies) and ended up as a floating museum in Pyongyang. Washington officially considers the Pueblo a captive ship and low-ranking negotiations continue to take place for its repatriation.

Almost all of the charges that have been laid, fairly or unfairly, against the Obama administration for the loss of four American lives, including the ambassador, can be seen in the Pueblo Incident:

Complacency  The navy sent the Pueblo off the coast of North Korea unprotected even though it was practically defenseless. It had over-confidently assumed that the unstated agreement with the Soviet Union that neither would molest each other’s spy ships if they stayed carefully in international waters also applied with North Korea.

The Board of Inquiry that was held after the crew was released made that point explicitly: The major factor in the capture was the “sudden collapse of a premise that had been assumed at every level of responsibility and upon which every other aspect of the mission had been based – freedom of the high seas.”

This fatal misreading of North Korea’s respect for the niceties of international law can be gauged from the fact that Pyongyang sent commandoes into Seoul to assassinate President Park Chung-hee just two days before they captured the Pueblo (the current South Korean President’s mother was killed in the attack).

Although packed with highly sensitive surveillance and communications gear, the Pueblo was ill-equipped to destroy classified materials quickly. They had only axes and sledgehammers to destroy metal safes and other heavy gear. The one death was a sailor machined-gunned while trying to throw weighted bags of classified material overboard.

Tardy Response  By the time higher Pacific command realized the Pueblo was in serious trouble, it was too late to provide effective help. Probably the closest air force unit was the 347th Tactical Fighter Wing based at Yokota AFB in Japan and Osan AFB just south of Seoul.

That outfit was then standing nuclear alert at Osan, meaning it was prepared to take off at a moment’s notice to deliver a tactical nuclear bomb. By the time they were alerted, it was too late to off-load the nukes and upload the conventional ordinance. No U.S. Navy ships were in the vicinity.

One senior officer, the then-commander of naval forces in Japan and a rear admiral, was eventually reprimanded for failing to properly plan for effective backup support in the eventuality that an essentially unarmed American ship would come under attack.

Cover Up  In the aftermath of the attack on the Pueblo, the Johnson administration claimed that the classified gear captured from the Pueblo was “not vital”. This was disingenuous. According to later intelligence reports, plane-loads of classified gear were in the air heading toward Moscow within hours of the Pueblo’s capture. 

Among the material allegedly captured by the North Koreans and shared with their Soviet allies were code books. It is also reported that the Soviets gained about three to five years in the race for advanced communications technology because of the Pueblo’s capture.

Political Fallout  There was, in fact, very little. The reason could likely be the date of the incident: Jan. 23, 1968. Within two weeks, the Tet Offensive in Vietnam would break out and would dominate the nation’s headlines for weeks. In March, President Johnson declined to run for re-election, but that had much more to do with the Vietnam War than the Pueblo. 

Congress didn’t get around to holding any kind of hearings until 1989, when the incident was a comfortable 20 years in the past. It also delved into the shooting down of the American EC-121 spy plane by North Korea, with even greater loss of life in 1969.

Accountability  When the 82 captured sailors were released in December 1968, they were initially treated as heroes, but soon forgotten. A navy Board of Inquiry held in January 1969, recommended bringing court-martial charges against the Pueblo’s captain, Commander Lloyd Bucher. After all, he had surrendered his ship.

But the charges against Bucher and two other officers were soon dismissed. The convening admiral said that the crew members had suffered enough and that Bucher had behaved admirably during captivity. “There is enough blame to go around for everybody,” he said. Probably much the same thing can be said about the Benghazi attack.

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