The Palestinian Black September Organization's attack on Israeli athletes during the 1972 Munich Olympic games convinced President Richard Nixon and National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger that similar acts of terrorism could occur in other parts of the world as well. Because representatives of the American government were prime potential targets for such operations-indeed, the American ambassador to Haiti had been kidnapped only a few months earlier-the White House devised a policy intended to render futile assaults on American diplomats for political ends. There would be no negotiations with terrorists, no concessions to them, and no deals to secure the release of hostages.
These principles were not, however, officially conveyed to members of the Foreign Service, nor were they ever the subject of extensive discussion within the Department of State, not all of whose officers were even aware of their existence. Black September's seizure of US ambassador to the Sudan Cleo A. Noel, Jr., his deputy chief of mission George Curtis Moore, and other diplomats, at a reception in the residence of Saudi Arabia's ambassador to Sudan in March 1973, put the policy to its first test. The murders of the two American diplomats, and of Belgian charge d'affaires Guy Eid, revealed how flawed it was.
Assassination in Khartoum draws on extensive interviews with participants in and observers of the events in Khartoum, as well as on official documents, some of them previously inaccessible. David Kom, himself a former Foreign Service officer, has pieced together a narrative of the diplomats' capture; the US government's actions in the ensuing hours; and the subsequent measures taken to ensure the punishment of the assassins that reads like a thriller novel. His case study offers valuable insights into the government's management of international crises in general, and, more specifically, into its approach to terrorism aimed at American officials at a time when the horrors of the Tehran hostage crisis and the Beirut US embassy bombing still lay in the future. But of all the political exercises described by Korn, surely the most dismaying are the hastily contrived exculpations and the seemingly callous pragmatism that can relegate even a recent crisis to virtual oblivion if such a course facilitates the pursuit of newly emergent national concerns.
Questioned by a reporter during the Khartoum incident, Nixon rather casually enunciated, for the first time in public, the non-negotiation policy he had accepted months earlier. …