New evidence over the past decade has led to a UN probe into the probable assassination of the second UN chief, but U.S., British and South African intelligence are rebuffing UN demands to declassify files to get at the truth.
Former President Harry Truman told reporters two days after Dag Hammarskjöld’s death on Sept. 18, 1961 that the U.N. secretary-general “was on the point of getting something done when they killed him. Notice that I said ‘when they killed him.’”
The mystery of the second U.N. secretary-general’s death festered until the 2011 book Who Killed Hammarskjöld? by British researcher Susan Williams, who uncovered new evidence that pointed to the likelihood that U.S., British and South African intelligence had a hand in his death in a plane crash in Northern Rhodesia, today’s Zambia. He was on his way to negotiate a cease-fire in Katanga’s separatist war from the Congo.
Williams’ findings led to an independent commission that called on the U.N. to reopen its 1962 probe in the killing, which ended with an open verdict. “The possibility … the plane was … forced into descent by some form of hostile action is supported by sufficient evidence to merit further inquiry,” the commission concluded.
The U.N. General Assembly on Dec. 30, 2014 passed a resolution establishing a panel of experts to examine the new evidence and called on nations to declassify any relevant information. In July 2015, the panel reported that it received limited cooperation from U.S. and other intelligence agencies.
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon at the time noted that “in some cases, member states have not provided a substantive response, have not responded at all or have maintained the classified status of the documents in question despite the passage of time.”
To this day the U.S. and other governments have continued to stonewall the U.N. investigation. The National Security Agency says it has files but are refusing to turn them over, 60 years after the event. In November last year, The Observer in London revealed that a Belgian mercenary pilot, who died in 2007, confessed to a friend that he had shot down Hammarskjöld’s plane.
Consortium News Editor Joe Lauria wrote a series of three articles for The Wall Street Journal, including the first story in the United States about the new evidence. We are republishing the series here on the 60th anniversary of Hammarskjöld’s death.
U.N. Considers Reopening Probe into 1961
Crash that Killed Dag Hammarskjöld
New evidence of possible foul play has emerged
UNITED NATIONS—The United Nations is considering reopening its investigation into the mysterious 1961 plane crash that killed then-U.N. chief Dag Hammarskjöld after new evidence of possible foul play emerged.
The U.N. General Assembly put the case back on its agenda in March at the recommendation of Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon after more than half a century of speculation that the Swedish diplomat’s plane was either sabotaged or shot down.
Mr. Ban’s recommendation came after a report by the independent Hammarskjöld commission, formed in 2012 with the participation of South African jurist Richard Goldstone. The report in September raised the possibility the National Security Agency and other intelligence agencies have a tape-recorded radio communication by a mercenary pilot who allegedly carried out an aerial attack on the secretary-general’s plane.
The NSA told the commission that none of its searches produced any account of the events surrounding the plane crash. But it added that “two NSA documents have been located that are associated with the event,” which it has decided to withhold.
Mr. Hammarskjöld on his way to Northern Rhodesia—now Zambia—when his Swedish DC-6 airliner plunged into a forest 9 miles from the airport in the city of Ndola just past midnight on Sept. 18, 1961.
He had planned to negotiate a peace deal with Moise Tshombe, leader of the separatist Katanga province in the newly independent Congo. Mr. Hammarskjöld opposed Katanga leaving the Congo and U.N. troops were fighting Katanganese mercenaries about 100 miles away as Mr. Hammarskjöld was about to land.
The U.N., Rhodesia and Sweden conducted separate investigations into the crash. Sweden and Rhodesia both concluded it was pilot error. The 1962 U.N. investigation ended without conclusion, requesting the secretary-general “inform the General Assembly of any new evidence which may come to his attention.”
Five decades later, Mr. Ban has done just that.
His request and the General Assembly’s agreement to put it on the agenda means there will be a discussion at a date that hasn’t been set yet. After that, a resolution to reopen the probe could be drafted followed by a vote.
The Hammarskjöld commission report based many of its findings on a 2011 book Who Killed Hammarskjöld? by British researcher Susan Williams.
“The possibility…the plane was…forced into its descent by some form of hostile action is supported by sufficient evidence to merit further inquiry,” the report said.
The commission reported evidence that first came to light in the book from Charles Southall, a former U.S. Navy commander who was working at an NSA listening post in Cyprus on the night of the crash. Both the commission and Ms. Williams spoke to Mr. Southall.
Mr. Southall told The Wall Street Journal he was called to work the night of the crash by a supervisor who delivered a cryptic message, telling him to expect an important event. Their conversation took place about three hours before the crash. Later, Mr. Southall said he heard an intercept of a pilot carrying out an attack on Mr. Hammarskjöld’s plane. He said the transmission had been intercepted seven minutes before he heard it.
” ‘I see a transport coming in low. I’m going to make a run on it,’ ” Mr. Southall quoted the pilot as saying on the intercept. “And then you can hear the gun cannon firing and he says: ‘There’s flames coming out of it. I’ve hit it.’ And soon after that it’s crashed.”
Although the Hammarskjöld commission asked the NSA for an audio recording or a transcript of what Mr. Southall says he heard, Mr. Southall told The Wall Street Journal the intercept was actually made by the Central Intelligence Agency. The CIA couldn’t be reached for comment.
“Authenticated recordings of any such cockpit narrative or radio messages, if located, would furnish potentially conclusive evidence of what happened” to Mr. Hammarskjöld’s plane,” the commission’s report said.
In response to the commission’s Freedom of Information Act request, the State Department released a declassified cable found in NSA archives sent by then-U.S. ambassador to the Congo, Edmund Gullion, two days after the crash.
“There is possibility [Mr. Hammarskjöld] was shot down by the single pilot who has harassed U.N. operations.” He identified the pilot as Belgian mercenary Jan Van Risseghem, who died in 2007.
The commission’s report set out the geopolitical context in which powerful interests saw Mr. Hammarskjöld’s defense of African nationalism as a threat. The Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland and South Africa supported Katangan independence to keep the province as a buffer against the southward wave of African nationalism, the report said.
The Belgian mining company, Union Minière du Haut Katanga, supported independence to prevent Congolese nationalization of Katanga’s rich uranium and cobalt resources, the commission said. At the time Katanga supplied 80% of the West’s cobalt, which is widely used in batteries, jet engines and in the medical industry.
The province’s uranium was used in the Hiroshima and Nagasaki nuclear bombs, and keeping the uranium from a pro-Soviet Congo was also a CIA priority, the commission said.
Union Minière funded the Katanga separatist government that hired hundreds of mercenaries to fight U.N. troops in Katanga, the commission said.
The possibility that the plane was shot down had been raised shortly after the crash. However, this was the first revelation that the U.S. ambassador at the time raised this explanation, and the first time a Belgian mercenary was identified.
Witness accounts by residents in the vicinity of the crash site, ignored in the U.N. and a Rhodesian government probe, which blamed pilot error, seem to corroborate an aerial attack, the report says.
Several witnesses, some interviewed by the commission, reported seeing another jet firing at Mr. Hammarskjöld’s plane. The white minority Rhodesian government commission dismissed the reports as unreliable.
An American U.N. security chief, Harold Julien, who survived the crash for six days, told doctors of an explosion aboard the U.N. plane. But this too was dismissed by the Rhodesian investigation.
Both the book and the commission raised questions about whether those accounts should have been dismissed.
If the U.N. reopens its investigation, it could deal with unexplained details raised by the commission’s report, such as possible bullet holes in the plane’s fuselage and bullets found in the bodies of several of the crash victims.
The commission questioned why a Norwegian U.N. aircrew sent to search for the plane was arrested at Ndola and why it took 15 hours to find the plane even though several witnesses spotted the wreckage at dawn and saw mercenaries and Rhodesian army and police at the site.
The inquiry could also investigate a report that a second mercenary pilot claimed he accidentally shot the plane down during a botched hijacking.
Also unexplained was why Mr. Hammarskjöld’s body was the only one not burned and why a playing card, possibly the ace of spades, was found tucked in the collar of his bloodied shirt.
UN Seeks Clues on 1961 Death of
Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld
Panel of Experts Will Evaluate New Evidence
By Dec. 30, 2014
UNITED NATIONS—The U.N. called on any nation with information that may shed light on the 1961 death of Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld to disclose it after evidence emerged in the past few years suggesting foul play.
The request was part of a resolution adopted by all 193 nations in the U.N. General Assembly on Monday, which also establishes an independent panel of experts to examine the new evidence.
The inquiry aims to resolve one of global diplomacy’s most enduring mysteries: What caused a Swedish DC-6 airliner carrying one of the era’s most renowned statesmen to crash into a forest on its way to the former British colony of Northern Rhodesia?
Mr. Hammarskjöld, a Swedish diplomat, had been en route there half a century ago to negotiate a peace deal with separatists in the mineral-rich Katangan province in newly independent Congo, whose forces U.N. troops were fighting. At the time, both Sweden and Northern Rhodesia blamed the crash on pilot error, and a 1962 U.N. investigation ended without conclusion.
Evidence suggesting that the diplomat was shot down by mercenaries fighting for Katanga emerged in a 2011 book, “Who Killed Hammarskjöld?” That sparked new interest in the case. The book led to the formation of the independent Hammarskjöld Commission, made up of veteran international jurists.
In a September 2013 report, the commission examined both new and previously ignored evidence, including witness accounts of a second plane firing on Mr. Hammarskjöld’s plane.
“The possibility…the plane was…forced into its descent by some form of hostile action is supported by sufficient evidence to merit further inquiry,” the report concluded.
That notion was bolstered by Charles Southall, a former U.S. naval officer who was working at a National Security Agency listening post in Cyprus on the night of the crash. He raised the possibility that the Central Intelligence Agency has a tape-recorded radio communication by a mercenary who carried out the alleged air attack on Mr. Hammarskjöld’s plane.
Mr. Southall told the Hammarskjöld Commission that about three hours before the crash, he was called to work by a supervisor who delivered a cryptic message, telling him to expect an important event. Mr. Southall said he then heard a recording—intercepted seven minutes earlier—of a pilot carrying out an attack on Mr. Hammarskjöld’s plane.
Mr. Southall told The Journal that the intercept he heard was over a Central Intelligence Agency—not an NSA—circuit. The CIA refused to confirm or deny the existence of any intercept following a Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA, request by The Journal. The agency upheld its decision after The Journal appealed it.
The General Assembly resolution followed Mr. Ban’s call earlier this year for the assembly to ask governments to “declassify any relevant records in their possession” related to Mr. Hammarskjöld’s death.
General Assembly resolutions aren’t legally binding. But by consenting, President Barack Obama’s administration has committed to make available any material it may have related to Mr. Hammarskjöld’s death from the CIA or any other party.
A senior American official said this month that the U.S. had already shown two classified documents to Carl Bildt, the Swedish foreign minister until this year, who called them “trivial” and “immaterial.” Those were NSA documents, another U.S. official said.
In response to a FOIA request by the Hammarskjöld Commission, the NSA said it doesn’t have a transcript or an audio recording of what Mr. Southall says he heard. But the NSA asked the State Department to release a cable sent by then-U.S. ambassador to Congo, Edmund Gullion, just hours after the crash. The State Department complied.
“There is possibility [Mr. Hammarskjöld] was shot down by the single pilot who has harassed U.N. operations,” Mr. Gullion wrote, identifying the pilot as Belgian mercenary Jan Van Risseghem, who died in 2007.
The Hammarskjöld Commission report attempted to explore a motive for a killing. It set out the geopolitical context in which powerful interests saw Mr. Hammarskjöld’s defense of African nationalism as a threat.
The Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland and South Africa supported Katangan independence to keep the province as a buffer against the southward wave of African nationalism, the report said.
The Belgian mining company, Union Minière du Haut Katanga—now called Umicore—supported independence to prevent Congolese nationalization of Katanga’s rich uranium and cobalt resources, the commission said. At the time Katanga supplied 80%of the West’s cobalt, which is widely used in batteries, jet engines and in the medical industry.
The province’s uranium was used in the manufacture of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombs, and keeping the uranium from a pro-Soviet Congo was also a CIA priority, the commission said.
U.N. Secretary-General Presses Probe
Into Former Chief’s Death in 1961
Ban Ki-moon cites new evidence surrounding
the crash that killed Dag Hammarskjöld
By July 6, 2015
UNITED NATIONS—U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon asked the General Assembly to open a full-scale probe into the plane crash that killed former U.N. chief Dag Hammarskjöld in 1961, after an independent panel reported Monday that evidence recently uncovered was worth investigating.
The panel reported that the continued refusal by intelligence agencies of the U.S. and other governments to declassify documents may be hindering the “final revelation” into what caused the crash. The panel recommended Mr. Ban continue to urge governments to disclose or declassify the documents, or allow him “privileged access” to information the governments may possess about the circumstances of Mr. Hammarskjöld’s death.
“I note … that in some cases, member states have not provided a substantive response, have not responded at all or have maintained the classified status of the documents in question despite the passage of time,” Mr. Ban said in his letter to the General Assembly. “I intend to follow up with the member states concerned.” The secretary-general said he’s appointed a special counsel to interact with U.S. and other intelligence agencies.
Mr. Hammarskjöld was killed on his way to Northern Rhodesia—now Zambia—when his Swedish DC-6 airliner plunged into a forest 9 miles from his destination in the city of Ndola on Sept. 18, 1961.
He was on his way to negotiate a peace agreement there with Moise Tshombe, leader of the separatist Katanga province in the newly independent Congo. Mr. Hammarskjöld supported the spreading anti-colonial movement in Africa at the time and opposed mineral-rich Katanga leaving the Congo. U.N. troops were fighting Katanganese mercenaries about 100 miles away as Mr. Hammarskjöld was about to land.
Why the plane crashed has never been established.
A 2011 book “Who Killed Hammarskjöld?” by British researcher Susan Williams revealed significant new evidence about the crash and inspired an independent commission that recommended in 2013 that Mr. Ban either reopen an inconclusive 1962 U.N. investigation or start a new one. The secretary-general asked the U.N. General Assembly to create a panel to look into the new evidence, which the assembly did in December. Both Mr. Ban and the assembly, in a resolution backed by the U.S. and U.K., urged governments to declassify any information pertinent to the case.
The panel reported that it received only limited cooperation from U.S. intelligence agencies. It said the truth about what happened to Mr. Hammarskjöld’s plane would still require the U.N. to further “critically address remaining information gaps,” including what may be contained in classified material and other information held by member governments.
The panel’s report dismissed an array of the new evidence, including information suggesting that the plane may have been hijacked, accidentally shot down by a pilot trying to divert it, or that a bomb was placed on board. Using medical records from the time, the panel also rejected accounts that Mr. Hammarskjöld and the other 15 people aboard who were killed had been shot either on the plane or on the ground.
But the panel didn’t dismiss evidence that the plane may have been deliberately shot down. The three panel members traveled to Ndola to interview witnesses of the air disaster who told them they had seen a second plane near Mr. Hammarskjöld’s, and that the DC-6 had been set on fire before it went down.
The panel also examined accounts by Charles Southall and Paul Abram, two American servicemen working for the National Security Agency on the night of the crash, who said they heard intercepted radio transmissions indicating Mr. Hammarskjöld’s plane was shot down.
Although he worked for the NSA, Mr. Southall told The Wall Street Journal the intercept was over a Central Intelligence Agency circuit. The CIA declined to confirm or deny the existence of any intercept following a Freedom of Information Act request by The Journal. The agency upheld its decision after The Journal appealed it. The NSA told the independent commission that reported last year that it had no record of the Southall incident.
The NSA had one related file declassified. It was a cable sent by then-U.S. Ambassador to Congo Edmund Gullion hours after the crash, saying there was a possibility Mr. Hammarskjöld was shot down by a single pilot who had “harassed” U.N. operations, Mr. Gullion wrote. He identified the pilot as Belgian mercenary Jan Van Risseghem, who died in 2007.
The panel learned from the Belgian government that Mr. Hammarskjöld was aware of the danger posed by Mr. Van Risseghem. The secretary-general sent a telegram to Brussels two days before his fatal flight asking the foreign ministry’s help in “putting an end to Van Risseghem’s criminal acts against the U.N.,” the report says. Belgium then investigated and discovered that Mr. Van Risseghem had left Belgium to return to Katanga on Sept. 16, and wouldn’t have arrived in time to carry out the attack, the report says.
Joe Lauria is editor-in-chief of Consortium News and a former UN correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe, and numerous other newspapers. He was an investigative reporter for the Sunday Times of London and began his professional work as a stringer for The New York Times. He can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @unjoe