Friend or Foe?
It’s been five decades and a bit since the “US Liberty Incident” and I’ve been living in the dark all this time. I suspect you may have, too. When the Israeli air force and navy launched a devastating unprovoked attack on an American technical research (electronic spy) ship in international waters just thirteen miles off the Gaza Strip during the 1967 Six Day War, I naturally accepted the US government’s explanation: that it was due to a tragic case of misidentification on the part of the Israelis.
That they should knowingly attack a United States ship for no cogent reason seemed unlikely to me. The Israelis were, after all, friends, allies and massive American aid recipients. It couldn’t happen. Besides, President Lyndon Johnson, himself, declared that it was a tragic accident, putting the whole matter to rest. Johnson was lying, as we shall see.
The other night I’m wandering around YouTube when I run across a 2014 documentary called The Day Israel Attacked America, Al Jazerra investigates the shocking truth behind a deadly Israeli attack on a US naval vessel. Al Jazeera is the Qatari online news channel. I’ll listen to anybody if they’ve got reasons. This time they had reasons in spades. What I found most convincing–and most horrifying–was the live testimony of the surviving crew members. One of them, Lt. James Ennes, then age 24, wrote it down in a book 13 years later: Assault on the Liberty–USS Liberty Memorial. Ennes was one of many crew members who continued to work to keep the ship afloat and help the wounded throughout the attack, though wounded himself.
His notes on the dust cover set the scene vividly:
In June, 1967, jet aircraft and motor torpedo boats of Israel brutally assaulted an American naval vessel, USS Liberty, in international waters off the Sinai Peninsula in the Mediterranean Sea. The attack was preceded by more than six hours of intense low-level surveillance by Israeli photo-reconnaissance aircraft, which buzzed the intelligence ship thirteen times, sometimes flying as low as 200 feet directly overhead. The reconnaissance pilots were heard by intercept operators in Germany and by American airborne intercept operators reporting to their headquarters that they could see an American flag and men sunbathing on deck.
The carefully orchestrated assault that followed was initiated by high-performance jet aircraft, was followed up by slower and more maneuverable jets carrying napalm, and was finally turned over to lethal torpedo boats which fired five torpedoes. Four missed. The one torpedo that hit the ship blasted a forty-foot hole in the ship’s side.
The attack lasted more than two hours — killing 34 Americans and wounding 174 others — and inflicted 821 rocket and machine-gun holes. And when the Liberty stubbornly remained afloat despite her damage, Israeli forces machine-gunned her life rafts and sent troop-carrying helicopters in to finish the job. US Air Force intercept operators heard Israeli jets being vectored to “the American ship” which they were ordered to sink quickly. Those who have seen these transcripts insist that they leave no doubt that the Israelis knew they were attacking an American ship.
Before USS Liberty arrived in the area, U.S. Sixth Fleet Commander Admiral William Martin promised to provide air support within ten minutes if an emergency arose. Yet when the ship did come under attack, the White House blocked any air rescue for more than 90 minutes. Officers on the bridge of the aircraft carrier Saratoga heard Liberty’s radio operators calling for help while bombs burst in the background, but were forbidden to help. When Navy jet aircraft were finally authorized to come to the ship’s aid, the Israeli government suddenly ended the attack and withdrew, claiming that they had mistaken the ship for an Egyptian horse transport named El Quseir. Only then did the identity of the assailants become known.
Details of the attack were hushed up in both countries. Israel claimed that her forces mistook USS Liberty for an Egyptian ship, and our government publicly accepted that excuse despite evidence to the contrary. Meanwhile, in top secret diplomatic mail, US Secretary of State Dean Rusk accused the Israelis of demonstrating “blatant disregard for human life” and said that the attack was no accident. Then our government downplayed the intensity of the surveillance and the severity of the attack and imposed a news blackout to keep the official story under control. The official version is that the Liberty was reconnoitered only three times and then only from great distance. The American people were told that the air attack lasted only five minutes and that it was followed by a single torpedo and an immediate apology and offer of assistance.
Admiral Thomas H. Moorer, a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time of the Liberty incident, said that he, “cannot accept the claim by the Israelis that this was a case of mistaken identity.”
Questions Left Pending
No Congressional investigation regarding the USS Liberty Incident was ever carried out, though the surviving crew members have been clamoring for one since the events occurred. (See the USS Liberty Veterans Association website: https://www.usslibertyveterans.org/)
Nevertheless, a 1967 US Naval Court of Inquiry investigation concluded that the testimony record revealed “a shallow investigation, plagued by myriad disagreements between the captain and his crew.” (Although severely wounded. Comdr. W. L. McGonagle, the commanding officer, remained at the conn to guide the ship out of shallow water. He was later awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for valor. There was no suggestion of a quid pro quo.)
According to the record of proceedings, four days were spent hearing testimony: two days for fourteen survivors of the attack and several U.S. Navy expert witnesses, and two partial days for two expert U.S. Navy witnesses. No testimony was heard from Israeli personnel involved. The conclusion of this somewhat haphazard inquiry, according to Wikipedia, was that:
The official U.S. records of the Liberty incident were designated top-secret and closed to the general public. The U.S. government and Israel jointly stated: “That the Israeli attack upon the USS Liberty had been the result of error, and nothing more.” However, Admiral Thomas H. Moorer, a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time of the Liberty incident, said that he, “cannot accept the claim by the Israelis that this was a case of mistaken identity.”
President Johnson Himself Led the Hasty Coverup
Pentagon officials waited nearly forty minutes to inform Johnson, who was in an important meeting. Then National Security Advisor Walt Rostow telephoned the President to tell him that a U.S. Navy ship was in trouble.
Jim Ennes describes the President’s reaction:
The immediate White House reaction to the attack, I am told
by a former staff member, was to accept Israel’s apology at face
value even though there was considerable skepticism that the
attack was entirely accidental. The President could ill afford a
confrontation with Israel.His major concern was to bring about
an end to the war before the Soviet Union stepped in; a
confrontation with Israel would likely destroy the leverage he
After some discussion, Johnson detailed Clark Clifford to head an
investigation into the circumstances of the attack, and the White
House resolved to bite its collective tongue until the Clifford report
came in. By this time, the Israeli government had hastily summoned
the US naval attache to report that an unidentified “maybe Navy”
ship had been erroneously attacked.
When the Clifford report eventually came in, it contained no
evidence that the attack was deliberate, and White House tolerance
of the affair as a “feasible” error of war thus became permanent.
As soon as President Johnson learned of the attack and spoke with the Israelis on the subject, he launched an immediate all-points coverup which included swearing the surviving crew to silence and threatening them with prosecution if they should leak any information regarding the events they lived aboard the Liberty on June 8, 1967.
Three questions immediately arise: Why did the Israelis do it? Why did the American forces in the area stand off. And why such an urgent coverup on the part of the US President? The vital issues posed by the USS Liberty case are moral questions of the first rank. The Israeli military command knowingly designed and executed an operation the object of which was to sink the Liberty and assure that its crew members were all killed. It was not just to neutralize the Liberty’s offensive capabilities–which were nil insofar as its armament was limited to four merely testimonial 50-caliber machine guns, useless against the array of armament the Israelis turned loose on them. The Israelis knew what they were doing and they were aware of just how irregular it was. What possible justification could they have for the proposed cold-blooded murder of the entire crew of a harmless American ship. Subsequent research suggests two possibilities:
- The object of the operation was to sink the ship, eliminate the crew to the last man and blame the outrage on the Egyptians, a classic false-flag operation. In order for it to succeed they had to assure that the ship was at the bottom of the sea and not a single witness was left alive. This is the least convincing explanation.
- Aware that the Liberty was monitoring radio messages in the area, the Israeli command feared that, as one of the United States’ most sophisticated National Security Agency’s (NSA) listening operations, it would pick up the chatter regarding the Israeli’s planned land grab in the Gaza Strip and the Golan Heights programmed for the following day. This was an illegal operation under international law, one that they had previously renounced, but it was nevertheless carried out and remains in force until today, more than half a century later. This version makes more sense.
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