281. Minutes of a Washington Special Actions Group Meeting1


  • Middle East


  • Chairman: Henry A. Kissinger
  • State—
  • Joseph Sisco
  • Alfred Atherton
  • Talcott Seelye
  • Defense—
  • David Packard
  • Robert Pranger
  • CIA
  • Richard Helms
  • David Blee
  • JCS
  • Adm. Thomas Moorer
  • Lt. Gen. John W. Vogt
  • NSC Staff—
  • Gen. Alexander Haig
  • Col. Richard Kennedy
  • Harold H. Saunders
  • Jeanne W. Davis
  • Ronald Ziegler (for Helms briefing only)


It was decided:

that, once Israeli approval has been received, a carrier plane should fly into Tel Aviv to get their latest intelligence on the situation on the ground and discuss certain operational questions with the Israeli pilots;
we should a) convey to the Israelis in New York the Jordanian request for an air strike;2 b) ask them to confirm the facts and the seriousness of the situation; c) tell them if their intelligence confirms the facts, we would have no objection if they decided to make an air strike, but that they should discuss their findings with us before they undertake the air strike.

Mr. Helms briefed from the attached notes.3

Mr. Kissinger: Can we say the King controls Amman if he does not control the refugee camps?

Mr. Helms: Yes, the camps are at some distance and can be isolated.

[Page 775]

Mr. Seelye: With regard to Ambassador Brown’s concern that the Egyptians may be planning to intervene, I think he really meant he was concerned that the Egyptians might be backing off from their support of Hussein.

Mr. Kissinger: How can we say the King controls Amman when the US and Egyptian Embassies are cut off?

Mr. Helms: This relates to the ability to circulate.

Mr. Blee: There is heavy sniper fire.

Mr. Helms: The fighting is not over, but the Jordanian Army is in the town and controls it.

Admiral Moorer: They can enforce a curfew.

Mr. Kissinger: (to Admiral Moorer) What is your military assessment?

Admiral Moorer: It’s nip and tuck whether the Jordanian forces in the north can handle the Syrians. Their numbers are about the same. The Syrians have more tanks: 100 in Jordan now and 60 more just inside Syria. Jordan has 100 or 120. Tank for Tank, the Jordanians are superior. They have our tanks and Centurions; the Syrians have Russian T–54s and T–55s, with Russian 100mm guns. The Syrians didn’t do too well this morning, losing about 30 tanks. All together Jordan has about 500 tanks and Syria about 700.

General Vogt: Syrian operational readiness rates are low.

Admiral Moorer: Syria uses some of its tanks as fixed artillery.

Mr. Kissinger: How far inside the country are the Syrian tanks?

General Vogt: 15 to 18 miles.

Mr. Kissinger: How many tanks did the Jordanians lose?

General Vogt: We don’t know. The Israelis think the Syrians are heading for Irbid.

Mr. Kissinger: Aren’t the Iraqis there?

Mr. Helms: The Iraqis are near Mafraq.

Admiral Moorer: We have authority to send a carrier plane into Tel Aviv to look at the latest Israeli recce pictures. We’re just waiting for the Military Attaché in Tel Aviv to clear this with the Israelis.

Mr. Packard: Does the carrier have the necessary processing equipment for pictures?

Admiral Moorer: I don’t know; I’ll check.

General Vogt: The balance is about equal in numbers. The Jordanians are superior in performance. This morning’s battle was a decisive defeat for the Syrians.

Mr. Kissinger: It can’t have been a defeat; they came back.

Mr. Sisco: (to Vogt) What do you think will happen tomorrow morning?

[Page 776]

General Vogt: Fighting will resume, depending on how many tanks were knocked out.

Admiral Moorer: There are two possibilities: either the Syrians withdraw or the battle is resumed.

Mr. Packard: Either the Syrians will win or the Jordanians will win.

Admiral Moorer: Not necessarily.

Mr. Kissinger: (to Admiral Moorer) What is your judgment as to the outcome if the fighting resumes with the present forces?

Admiral Moorer: I think it is highly likely the Jordanians will inflict casualties of the order that they did today.

Mr. Kissinger: If the Syrians commit new forces, then what?

Admiral Moorer: The Jordanians are having some problems getting ammunition for their tanks. It’s primarily a problem of distribution; they have the ammo.

Mr. Kissinger: Don’t the Syrians have the same problem?

Admiral Moorer: They don’t have as far to go.

Mr. Sisco: Do the Jordanians have some tanks in reserve?

General Vogt: Yes, they have a total of 3 brigades. One brigade is involved now.

Mr. Kissinger: If Syria wins, is the road open to Amman?

Admiral Moorer: No, the Jordanians hold Zarqa.

(Mr. Kissinger left the room)

Admiral Moorer: The Syrians have turned west. They will try to take Irbid.

General Vogt: The Israelis will be nervous if they get close to their border.

Mr. Seelye: The Israelis will shell Irbid.

Admiral Moorer: The Israelis could cream the Syrians.

Mr. Blee: Just with aircraft alone.

Admiral Moorer: They’ve been in the territory before.

(Mr. Kissinger returned.)

Mr. Sisco: I think we should look at the assumption we have been making that the Israelis may jump into this fast. They don’t seem at all anxious.

Admiral Moorer: It depends on how much the action moves toward their border.

Mr. Packard: They won’t jump in until they think Hussein is losing.

Mr. Sisco: The British Ambassador in Amman has said that the King desires either UK, US or Israeli intervention. Ambassador Freeman has called me. I told him we would be having this meeting and [Page 777] would discuss this, and would be in touch with him.4 There have been several telegrams reporting that Zaid Rifai is asking us to “do something.”5 The Jordanian Cabinet is meeting now, and we will know later precisely what they want.

Mr. Kissinger: What diplomatic steps have we taken?

Mr. Sisco: In addition to the Secretary’s public statement at 1:00 p.m. we have called the Russians in and delivered a verbal note, asking them to approach the Syrians to convince them of the danger of their course and tell them to desist, pointing out the “serious consequences” in a broadening of the conflict.

Mr. Helms: Did you tell them to get their guys in hand or else?

Mr. Sisco: It was not friendly but not that categorical. We have informed the British and French of what we did. The French want to try to organize a four-power statement. Tactically, I think we should tell the French that we have put out a statement. We would be agreeable to a four-power statement along the lines of our statement. If the French want to raise the idea with the Russians, that is okay. The only kind of statement we would approve, however, would be along the lines of ours—no call for a cease fire, no “even-handedness.” This is better than giving them the back of our hand, which they deserve.

Mr. Helms: Did we ask the Russians to get Damascus to withdraw?

Mr. Sisco: Precisely.

Mr. Kissinger: What about the airborne brigade in Europe?

Admiral Moorer: We have asked them about their reaction time— when they can get back from the training area and when they can be ready. They have been ordered to prepare one battalion for airdrop. State’s problem now is to pacify our Ambassador in Germany. He is worried about what to tell the Germans.

Mr. Kissinger: Tell them we are pursuing Ostpolitik.

Mr. Sisco: Tell them this is a precautionary move. We may have to evacuate Americans from Amman; possibly even a couple of German hostages.

Mr. Kissinger: And we’ll do nothing about the 82nd Airborne until we are further down the road.

Admiral Moorer: There’s still 22 hours. You recall we decided to let the European brigade go to ten hours alert time by letting them go to the training area. We are bringing them back now to a four-hour time. That’s not transportation, but the time it takes to get them assembled.

General Vogt: And to get their parachutes rigged.

[Page 778]

Mr. Kissinger: How about target collection?

Admiral Moorer: We have asked for and received authority to send an airplane from the carrier to Tel Aviv to pick up their latest intelligence and discuss it with them. We’re awaiting confirmation from our DATT in Tel Aviv that the plane can go in. We hope to go in and out tonight under cover of darkness.

Mr. Kissinger: We need up to date intelligence for the carrier?

Admiral Moorer: Yes, they need operational information—entry routes, IFF, etc.

Mr. Kissinger: Is that necessary?

Mr. Helms: No question about it. [1 line not declassified]

Admiral Moorer: We need intelligence more than we need contingency plans.

Mr. Kissinger: I agree, we don’t want to bomb Jordanian tanks.

Mr. Sisco: I’m concerned over the impact of this on the Israelis. The Israelis want us to intervene. If they see we’re this interested, they may think we are going to go ahead and they don’t have to do anything. If we want to nudge them, this doesn’t help. Is there no other way to get the intelligence? I understand the need, and I’m not worried about it’s becoming known. I am worried about the Israelis getting the idea we are going in.

Mr. Kissinger: There is a difference between their moving automatically, with its advantages and disadvantages, and our telling them to move. If they think we are going to move, they may wait. If not, they may move. I’m not really sure the Israelis would mind it if Hussein should topple. They would have no more West Bank problem.

Admiral Moorer: I thought there was a tacit understanding between Israel and the King.

Mr. Helms: [1 line not declassified]

Mr. Sisco: There have been some indications of such, but they have never been confirmed.

Mr. Helms: [1 line not declassified]

Mr. Packard: It would make a four-hour difference in our time of movement if we have to get the recce ourselves. Also, we would need overflight approval.

Mr. Sisco: Let’s take the chance if there is no other alternative.

Mr. Kissinger: We may reach a point about this time tomorrow when we have to decide who goes. If we want to keep up the credibility of our planning we ought to do it.

Mr. Sisco: OK. Do it tonight.

Mr. Kissinger: OK, let’s go ahead.

[Page 779]

Admiral Moorer: We have already directed the ship and they will go as soon as they get the Israeli okay. Our DATT will notify the carrier directly when he has the approval and the plane will take off.

General Vogt: It’s only a 30-minute flight.

Mr. Kissinger: What about medical assistance?

Admiral Moorer: The ICRC is making some unreasonable demands. They want us to repaint all the aircraft and remove the US labels from the surgical equipment. It would take 20 days to do this. Also, we have no assurance from the Jordanians that the airfield will be secure. We don’t want to paint the aircraft; we may have to use them for evacuation or some other purpose. It’s easier for the British—they have only 2 or 3 aircraft; we have 18. And their aircraft are not part of their regular forces.

Mr. Sisco: How would the British aircraft get there?

General Vogt: They’re in London now. They would need overflight rights.

Mr. Kissinger: How would we bring the European brigade in?

General Vogt: Hopefully, over Austria.

Mr. Kissinger: Do we have to get clearance? Can’t we just fly over and then apologize? Didn’t we do that in 1958?

General Vogt: Yes, and they’ve never let us forget it.

Mr. Kissinger: They won’t let us fly over their country with troop-carrying planes.

Gen. Vogt: We might link it to the hospital equipment. We could say that the situation was deteriorating and it was necessary to provide support for this humanitarian effort.

Mr. Kissinger: How long would it take if they had to go the long way around?

Gen. Vogt: Another day. They would have to stop to refuel.

Mr. Kissinger: And everyone would know about it.

Gen. Vogt: Yes, they would have to land in several countries. Even our hospital planes would have to go across Austria and land in Athens.

Mr. Sisco: Have we got clearance from Austria for our hospital planes?

Gen. Vogt: Yes, we have an unofficial response but no official response yet.

Adm. Moorer: If there were an emergency, we should just go.

Mr. Kissinger: Why don’t you talk about the moves we might have to make tomorrow.

[Page 780]

(Mr. Kissinger left the room.)6

Mr. Sisco: I’m still concerned about our people going in in uniform. I know the problem, the Geneva Convention, etc. But a uniform just increases the probability of someone taking a shot at them, even with a Red Cross armband, particularly when the British are going in in civilian clothes. In the present circumstances, an American uniform would be a lightning rod.

Mr. Packard: They will not be in a US uniform. They will be in fatigues with no identification. Most of the time they will be in medical clothes.

Gen. Vogt: They will wear Red Cross armbands and carry no outside identification or rank insignia.

Mr. Seelye: (to Sisco) That is a new development. It makes it more manageable.

Mr. Sisco: Yes, that’s better.

Mr. Packard: They will carry their identification and their dog tags in their pocket; nothing outside. I’ve discussed this with Alex Johnson and Secretary Laird. There will be some military in uniform with the planes, of course.

Mr. Sisco: Okay.

Adm. Moorer: If the Red Cross demands are so unreasonable that we can’t comply, then what?

Mr. Sisco: What are their demands?

Mr. Seelye: That all aircraft be painted white; all military in civilian clothes and carrying Red Cross identification; all markings on medical equipment to be obliterated. Alex Johnson has sent them a message saying these are obviously unreasonable. He has asked General Burchinal to work it out with the Red Cross.

Gen. Vogt: We have called Burchinal and told him to work it out.

Adm. Moorer: This is all academic without Jordanian assurance about the airfields.

Mr. Packard: If the Red Cross insists on civilian clothes, we can do it. The problem is painting the aircraft.

Mr. Sisco: Just paint a big red cross on the side.

Gen. Vogt: We will do that.

Mr. Packard: Burchinal won’t bring the aircraft in unless the airport is secure.

[Page 781]

Adm. Moorer: Our Ambassador will have to get assurances from the King.

Mr. Seelye: We have sent a cable asking him to get those assurances.7

(The group was summoned to the President’s office at 7:50 and returned at 8:35, without Mr. Kissinger.)8

Mr. Sisco: I have talked to Secretary Rogers about the message from the British passing a message from the Jordanians asking for an air strike. I suggest we go to the Israelis in New York immediately, and pass the message we have received. We should tell them that, at the moment, we are in no position to advise them since we don’t know the situation on the ground. We should ask them to give us their judgment on the situation and on the necessity for this kind of action.

Mr. Packard: I think that’s the best step.

Mr. Sisco: We should ask them to consult with us as soon as they have the facts. Israel won’t make an air strike without our blessing.

Mr. Atherton: Israel isn’t itching to get in this.

Mr. Packard: As an alternative, we could encourage them to move.

Sisco’s course could be the first step.

Mr. Sisco: We wouldn’t be saying “don’t do it.” I think it would be fairly obvious.

Mr. Helms: From the Golan Heights the Israelis have an easy run to cut off the area. Would the Syrians be so hell-bent to put tanks into Jordan?

Mr. Sisco: Where is the next Jordanian strong point? If Syria takes Irbid, what next?

Mr. Seelye: Possibly Mafraq.

Adm. Moorer: I think it is significant that they turned west.

Mr. Seelye: I think their primary objective is to control Irbid and the area in the north. This area has historical connections with Syria.

Mr. Sisco: We also have a message suggesting an approach to the Security Council. We can say we will give them our full support politically.

(Mr. Kissinger returned.)

Mr. Sisco: (to Kissinger) Regarding the British message, I have recommended that we call Rabin and tell him what we think the situation is on the ground. We should convey the Jordanian request for an [Page 782] air strike; say we can’t advise them now because we don’t know the situation on the ground. Say we hope they will look at the situation, make a judgment as to its seriousness, and if they find it serious, we could (a) say we would have no objection if they saw fit to mount an air strike, or (b) say that, after they have surveyed the situation, come back to us with their judgment and we will consult as to the action to be taken.

Mr. Kissinger: We must assume the information is correct. Why would the King say the Syrians are in Irbid if they aren’t?

Mr. Sisco: We could tell the Israelis we have no reason to doubt the information and ask them to confirm. I want the Israelis to check this out. We have many people in Amman under great tension. Zaid Rifai has passed us some very alarming things from time to time, and I don’t know how good his judgment is under fire.

Adm. Moorer: All our information from the north has been second-hand. Confirmation would be highly desirable. We know the Israelis are up to date.

Mr. Kissinger: So we would pass the message to the Israelis; say we have no further information, and can they confirm.

Mr. Sisco: We would pass on the request, saying we want their judgment of the facts and of how serious the situation is. Then either say, after you have confirmed the facts, you and we should discuss the situation; or, say we have no objection if you want to go ahead with the strike.

Mr. Kissinger: So we have two choices: (1) ask the Israelis to come back to us after they have confirmed the facts and adjudged their seriousness; or (2) tell them that if they confirm that the facts are as they have been described, we will understand if they feel they should act independently.

Mr. Sisco: I prefer the first course. This is an extremely important step for the King from a political point of view. Israel should take this step only if it is absolutely necessary.

Mr. Saunders: Should we ask if they have an alternate way of frightening the Syrians short of an air attack?

Mr. Sisco: There may be a way.

Mr. Packard: But the situation is developing so much faster than we thought it would.

Mr. Kissinger: A half-hour ago we thought nothing would happen for six hours or so.

Mr. Helms: Of course we don’t know the time frame of these developments.

Adm. Moorer: It may be that the intelligence is just catching up with the clock.

[Page 783]

Mr. Helms: I think we should go with the first course. We can afford to wait for an independent appraisal. This is an extremely important step in every way.

Mr. Sisco: (to Kissinger) Let’s you and I go call Rabin.9

Mr. Kissinger: The President’s inclination is to make sure that the Syrians get stopped.

Mr. Sisco: Course 1 does not preclude Course 2.

Mr. Kissinger: [1 line not declassified]

Mr. Helms: [1 line not declassified]

Mr. Kissinger: [1 line not declassified]

Mr. Helms: [1 line not declassified]

Mr. Sisco: We will tell them to run a flight at dawn, although they probably will do it anyhow.

Mr. Kissinger: We might combine the two approaches. We could say “if your intelligence confirms this information and its seriousness, we would have no objection if you should decide to make an air strike. But discuss your intelligence with us before you undertake the strike.”

Mr. Seelye: Should we do this before the King actually asks for it? We haven’t had any request yet.

Mr. Kissinger: We will meet again at 8:30 tomorrow morning.10

  1. Source: National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, NSC Files, NSC Institutional Files (H-Files), Box H–114, Washington Special Actions Group, WSAG Minutes (Originals) 1969 and 1970. Top Secret; Sensitive; Nodis. The meeting took place in the White House Situation Room.
  2. See Document 279.
  3. Not attached and not found.
  4. See Document 288.
  5. See footnote 3, Document 270.
  6. The President’s Daily Diary indicates that Kissinger met alone with President Nixon at 7:55 p.m. (National Archives, Nixon Presidential Materials, White House Central Files)
  7. Telegram 154418 to Amman, September 20, 1751Z. (Ibid., NSC Files, Box 619, Country Files, Middle East, Jordan Crisis)
  8. The President’s Daily Diary indicates President Nixon met with the rest of the WSAG members at 8 p.m. The WSAG members left the President at 8:40 p.m., but Kissinger stayed until 9:07 p.m. (Ibid., White House Central Files)
  9. See Document 283.
  10. Because of the fast-moving crisis, the WSAG met at midnight September 20; see Document 290. The National Security Council met the morning of September 21; see Document 299.