331. Editorial Note

On December 23, 1968, at 9 a.m. Korean time, General Woodward and General Pak met for the last time. General Woodward opened the meeting, which lasted for 47 minutes, by making a brief statement and signing the documents as prearranged. The text of the document signed by General Woodward on December 23 is in Department of State Bulletin, January 6, 1969, pages 2–3. After General Pak accepted and examined the signed documents, he accused the United States of having violated the agreement, charging that the Department of State had publicly announced the time of the release of the Pueblo crew. Because of that announcement, General Pak stated that the time of the release of the crew must be renegotiated. General Woodward disputed his claim, prompting General Pak to announce a delayed release time of 11:30 a.m., to which both sides agreed. The verbatim text of the meeting was transmitted in airgram A–890 from Seoul, December 26; National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 33–6 KOR N–US.

At 11:30 a.m. on December 23, with two crew members carrying the body of the one sailor who died during attack on the ship, the 82 members of the Pueblo crew walked in single file across the Bridge of No Return at Panmunjom into the southern section of the Demilitarized Zone, where they boarded buses and were taken to a nearby U.S. Army camp. Statements issued by President Johnson and Secretary of State Rusk confirming the release are in Department of State Bulletin, January 6, 1969, pages 1–2. At the U.S. Army camp Commander Bucher and other members of the crew held a brief press conference and met with Ambassador Porter and several South Korean officials. (Telegram 11967 from Seoul, December 24; National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 33–6 KOR N–US) At the press conference Commander Bucher stated that at no time had the Pueblo entered North Korean territorial waters and described beatings and [Page 741] abuse suffered by the men in captivity. (The New York Times, December 23, 1968) After a brief stay at the Army camp, the crew was flown by helicopter to the 121st Evacuation Hospital on a U.S. Army base near Seoul for medical examination. The following day the hospital’s commanding officer announced to the media that, although the examination revealed the aftereffects of beatings the men endured while in captivity and signs of malnutrition, the crew evinced no psychological damage requiring immediate treatment. The men were then released for return to the United States. (Telegram 1958 from Seoul, December 24; National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 33–6 KOR N–US) From Seoul the crew flew to the Miramar Naval Air Station in San Diego, California, arriving on December 24. After being reunited with their families for the Christmas holidays, the men were given extensive medical and psychological examinations.

From talks with members of the crew the Navy gathered additional information and documented details of the physical abuse and mistreatment inflicted on the Pueblo crew by the North Koreans. (Memorandum from Moorer to Clifford, December 24; Washington National Records Center, RG 330, OSD/OASD/ISA Files: FRC 73 A 1250, Korea 383.6; and memorandum from Blouin to the Chief of Naval Operations, December 26; Johnson Library, National Security File, Country File, Korea—Pueblo Incident, Filed by the LBJ Library) The Navy concluded that the maltreatment of the crew members was officially sanctioned, physical and psychological abuse was conducted systematically and during specific periods of the crew’s captivity, the crew adjusted to the level of abuse they experienced, and the degree of physical violence inflicted on the men was deliberately controlled to prevent death and permanent injury to the captives. (Memorandum from Colonel Robert E. Pursely to Secretary Clifford, January 6, 1969; ibid., Papers of Clark Clifford, Pueblo, March 16 to January 20, 1969)

On December 26 in-depth intelligence debriefing of the crew members by teams composed of personnel from the National Security Agency and the Naval Security Group began and continued through January 10, 1969, although Commander Bucher’s interviews extended somewhat beyond that date. Tape recordings, transcripts, summaries, and similar information in preparation for or derived from the debriefings of the crew are in NSA/CSS Archives, Pueblo Collection, Accession No. 24103, Boxes CBOJ11 to CBOJ33; ibid., Accession No. 24107, Box CBOJ43; ibid., Accession No. 30072, Box CBOJ55; ibid., Accession No. 31236, Box CBOJ55; NSA, Historical Files, Box 1, Pueblo, Summaries and Tapes; and ibid., carton marked Return and Debriefing of Crew (Breeches Buoy); Pueblo: Administrative and Debriefing Procedures.

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After the debriefings were completed, a Naval Court of Inquiry convened on January 20, 1969, at the Naval Amphibious Base in Coronado, California, to investigate all circumstances surrounding the seizure and loss of the USS Pueblo and to determine culpability, if warranted. According to the Navy, the Court of Inquiry was merely a fact-finding body, similar to a civilian grand jury, with authority to call witnesses, take sworn testimony in both open and closed sessions, and gather diverse forms of information. Testimony given during open sessions received extensive coverage in The New York Times, among other sources. The Court adjourned on March 13 and issued its findings on May 5.

The Court recommended bringing charges against Commander Bucher and Lieutenant Stephen Harris, the commanding officer of the Naval Security Group detachment on board the Pueblo, and that both be tried by court martial. Commander Bucher faced charges of failing to protect and defend his ship, following North Korean orders to sail to their port, failing to properly train his crew to destroy classified material, failing to destroy that material upon capture, and permitting classified material to fall into enemy hands. Lieutenant Harris would be charged with failing to train his crew in emergency destruction procedures and failing to destroy classified material as ordered. The Court also recommended reprimanding the Pueblo’s executive officer, Edward R. Murphy, for dereliction of duty and bringing charges against the Commander of Naval Forces, Japan, Rear Admiral Frank Johnson, and against the Director of the Naval Security Group, Pacific, Captain Everett Gladding, for failing to support and protect the ship adequately. Ultimately, the Secretary of the Navy, John Chaffee, overruled any further action against the officers, stating that the members of the Pueblo crew had already endured enough suffering while held captive and warranted no further punishment and that charges against their superiors would also be dropped, since they were not solely responsible for failing to anticipate an attack on and the seizure of the ship. With that decision all further action by the Navy in the Pueblo matter came to a close. (National Security Agency, The Capture of the USS Pueblo and its Effect on SIGINT Operations, pages 164–165)

In addition to the Naval Court of Inquiry, a Joint Intelligence Team, composed of representatives from the Central Intelligence Agency, Defense Intelligence Agency, and the intelligence branches of the Navy, Air Force, and Army, assessed the impact on intelligence operations and programs resulting from the loss of the extensive number of messages—between 7 to 8,000 were analyzed—received by the Pueblo prior to its capture. Its report determined that the loss of those documents gave the Communist world undue insight into United States intelligence-collection capabilities and represented a major compromise of [Page 743] intelligence-gathering sources and methods in Southeast Asia. (“Damage Assessment of the Compromise of Operational Intelligence Broadcast Messages on Board USS Pueblo [AGER–2],” March 17, 1969; NSA, Historical Files,Box #6, Pueblo, Review (GOPI) Damage Assessment)

The National Security Agency also conducted an extensive review and analysis of the intelligence losses resulting from the seizure of the Pueblo and the detention of its crew. The resulting report was based first and foremost on the information gathered during the in-depth debriefing of the crew concerning the information and equipment on board the Pueblo and captured by the North Koreans as well as information imparted by crew members when interrogated during captivity. Analysts learned from the debriefing of the enormous number of documents and the full extent of the equipment that fell into North Korean hands intact or with minimal damage and of the intelligence information imparted by some of the crew members. The conclusions contained in the final report assessed the compromise to “the Cryptologic Community collection, processing and reporting operations/techniques on a worldwide basis is without precedence in U.S. cryptologic history.” The report also observed that cryptographic communications remained secure because of the continued inability of the North Koreans or others to decrypt messages “without cryptographic keys used in conjunction with the equipment.” (“Cryptologic/Cryptographic Damage Assessment, USS Pueblo, AGER 2, 23 January–23 December 1968,” March 1969, page 17; ibid., Carton VIII, Pueblo Files, Charts, Maps, Draft History, etc.) A full realization of intelligence losses resulting from the Pueblo seizure emerged only in mid-1985 when the Walker spy ring, operated within the U.S. Navy by John Walker, his son Michael, and others, was discovered and found to have passed to the Soviet Union over an 18-year period a variety of information, including the keys to coded communications, allowing the Soviets to decrypt and read highly classified documents and transmissions. (National Security Agency, The Capture of the USS Pueblo and its Effect on SIGINT Operations, pages 157–159)

Congressional hearings into the Pueblo seizure, expanded to include the downing of a Naval reconnaissance plane by North Korean jets on April 16, 1969, were held in March and April by a special subcommittee chaired by Representative Otis G. Pike. (U.S. Congress, House Committee on Armed Services, Special Subcommittee on the USS Pueblo, Hearings on the Inquiry into the USS Pueblo and EC–121 Plane Incidents. 91st Congress, 1st Session, 1969, Committee Print 91–10) Documentation pertaining to testimony given by high-level Navy officers as well as key figures in the intelligence community, such as National Security Agency Director Carter and Director of Central Intelligence Helms, are in National Security Agency, Historical Files, Box VIII, Pueblo, Post-Incident Reviews, House and Senate Hearings; ibid., [Page 744] Box 1A, Pueblo, VIII Post-Incident Review, Chronological File, January–February 1969; and ibid., Box 1B, Pueblo, VIII Post-Incident Review, Pueblo Chronological File, March 1969. In mid-April the House of Representatives, with the concurrence of the Senate, passed a resolution stating that “no manned ship or plane of the Armed Forces of the United States should be sent into danger areas on an intelligence gathering mission without adequate protection against attack or capture by foreign armed forces.” (U.S. Congress, House of Representatives, House Concurrent Resolution 204, April 17, 1969, 91st Congress, 1st Session)

In the immediate aftermath of the incident, the examination of events surrounding the capture of the Pueblo and its crew led to an overall evaluation of the intelligence-gathering program as a whole and resulted in a suspension of all intelligence operations using ships of that type. By late 1969 the program came to an end with the deactivation of the last vessels. (National Security Agency, The Capture of the USS Pueblo and its Effect on SIGINT Operations, pages 174–175)

In the closing days of the Johnson administration the Departments of State and Defense discussed alternatives to induce the North Koreans to return the Pueblo. Consideration was given to taking action against fishing vessels being constructed for North Korea in Rotterdam, but that course was rejected as potentially jeopardizing the principle of freedom of the seas. (Memorandum from Brown to Secretary Rusk, December 23; National Archives and Records Administration, RG 59, Central Files 1967–69, POL 33–6 KOR N–US) The ship was never recovered from the North Koreans.