- The Attack on the Liberty: The Untold Story of Israel’s Deadly 1967 Assault on a U.S. Spy Ship
- Simon & Schuster, 384 pp.
HOW TO DESTROY A U.S. NAVY SHIP AND GET AWAY WITH IT
James Scott’s father was a young ensign on board the U.S.S. Liberty when the Israelis attacked the ship with fighter jets, bomber jets, and torpedo boats. The Israeli jets strafed the American sailors as they were trying to escape the slaughter, while later, an Israeli torpedo blew a giant hole in the side of the ship which nearly sank the Liberty. Even napalm was used against the Liberty’s crew. A sitting duck for the Israeli Air Force and Navy, the Liberty was a U.S. intelligence ship that carried only 50 caliber machine guns for protection. That the ship didn’t sink is something of a miracle. The sneak Israeli attack resulted in the killing of 34 American sailors and wounded 171 more. The attack was a war crime of serious proportions.
One of the officers aboard the Liberty when it was attacked, James Ennes, wrote a book about the attack several years ago, entitled Assault on the Liberty. But since that time additional information has been declassified and released, making James Scott’s book, Attack on the Liberty, a more thorough study of the destruction of the ship.
The Liberty had been ordered by the Pentagon to sail off the coast of Israel and Egypt to pick up radio transmissions during the June, 1967 Arab-Israeli war. She had been sailing in international waters boasting a large American flag from her mast, with her identification “GTR 5” in four foot white letters on her hull. The “5” was six foot high.
An Israeli government investigation concluded that the attack was an accident, noting also Israel’s apology. The Pentagon conducted an investigation that also concluded the attack was an accident. The glaring insufficiencies in both reports reflect the intention of both the Israeli and the American governments to cover up what really happened. It is that continuing cover-up that enrages the families of those U.S. sailors who were killed and wounded during the assault, as well as the bitter memories of those crew members who survived the attack.
Neither investigation called as witnesses the Israeli pilots who bombed and strafed the ship — and dropped napalm on the American sailors — to testify. Neither did they call as witnesses the Israeli torpedo boat crews, nor the senior Israeli officers who were in command that day.
Nor did the U.S. investigation explain why the U.S. government called back the U.S. fighter jets which were on their way to help defend the Liberty from the vicious attack.
It is obvious that the Israelis intended that there be no survivors to describe what happened. But when it became clear that there were witnesses, the U.S. government ordered the surviving officers and men to maintain total silence about the attack, and to refrain from talking to anyone about what happened that day. It is only after they left the service that the survivors were able to open up, expressing their bitterness to anyone who would listen. They, of course, feel betrayed by their government, and show no signs of abandoning the fight to have the truth told in an official manner.
One rationale offered by the Israelis was that the Liberty resembled an Egyptian horse and troop transport ship, the El Quseir. The problem with that explanation is that Egyptian ships have their ship’s names in Arabic on the hull, and not in English, as the Liberty had. As well, the Quseir is a much smaller ship than the Liberty, which had an array of antennae on its superstructure befitting its mission as an intelligence gathering ship.
The mainstream press continues to ignore what happened, preferring instead to give excess coverage to missing blond teenagers, or taking part in the media orgy following the death of Michael Jackson. The survivors fight a lonely battle, continually ignored by members of Congress who have the ability to hold official hearings as part of an official investigation. The Pentagon, which, under the tutelage of Cyrus Vance, took part in the cover-up, has never been eager to pursue the matter.
The Senate Armed Services Committee, the logical venue to investigate and to hold hearings, is currently chaired by Michigan Senator Carl Levin, who has little interest in pointing any fingers at Israel. Moreover, John McCain, a senior Republican on the Committee, has at stake the memory of his father, Admiral John McCain who relayed the order to the American fighter jets to return to their carrier before they could arrive to help the beleaguered Liberty crew.
There is, however, a wealth of new information that has become available to assist in finding the truth of the attack. Author James Bamford, in his book, Body of Secrets, disclosed the presence of an American spy plane circling over the war zone which picked up radio traffic, and overheard Israeli pilots carrying out the attack, acknowledging that they knew the Liberty was an American ship. And James Scott has uncovered a treasure trove of declassified documents that back up the fact that the attack on a U.S ship was a deliberate act on the part of the Israelis.
Even without such evidence, the Israeli explanations that they mistook the Liberty for an Egyptian ship defies logic. Israeli reconnaissance planes had been flying over the Liberty since early morning on June 8, 1967. It is beyond credibility that those planes could not identify a ship belonging to a supposed ally of Israel, especially one that was clearly marked, as the Liberty was.
The Navy’s inquiry of the attack, which lasted only a week, resulted in a Pentagon-ordered cover-up of the attack. Captain Ward Boston, who was an assistant to Admiral Isaac Kidd, the chief investigator, in later years disclosed that Kidd actually had been ordered to conclude that the attack was accidental, despite evidence they had gathered to the contrary.
Evidence collected for this book by the author clearly shows that some officers inside Israel’s chain of command understood that this was an American ship long before the torpedo attack that resulted in more than two-dozen of the Liberty’s 34 deaths. But they allowed the assault to continue. Israeli pilots radioed in the hull number of the Liberty more than 20 minutes before the torpedo strike, and that information was passed to the Israeli Navy. Had the attack stopped then, the majority of the lives lost that day would have been saved.
The book reveals for the first time the extent of the outrage and widespread disbelief of many of President Johnson’s senior advisers over Israel’s claim that the attack was an accident. Even LBJ was convinced the attack was no accident and confided his disbelief in Israel’s story to a Newsweek reporter, stating that he believed Israel attacked the ship because it was spying on the war. The book also quotes many senior State Department, Navy, NSA and CIA officials talking of their disbelief in the story.
The book further documents, through interviews with senior officials, how and why President Johnson decided to cover-up the assault. Johnson had a great fear of offending American Jewish supporters at a time when he was trying to maintain support for his failing Vietnam policy. In 1967, the U.S. lost an average of 26 men a day in Vietnam. In May of 1967, those numbers spiked to 37 men a day. The Liberty’s dead and wounded were essentially one day’s casualty count in Vietnam. Many American Jews were at the forefront of the anti-Vietnam War movement and Johnson feared that picking a fight over the Liberty would risk more loss of support from that important constituency. In effect, the Liberty was sacrificed to Lyndon Johnson’s failing war policy. Nicholas Katzenbach, the second in command of the State Department, is quoted discussing this in the book. “It was no help if you had a lot of people getting angry at the Israelis,” he said. “If the Israelis screw up the relations, then the Jewish groups are going to bail out the Israelis. It ends up with you having a more difficult situation than you would have otherwise.”
Some American officials even considered sinking the Liberty at sea to prevent reporters from photographing it and inflaming public opinion against Israel. Scott’s book also shows how civilian leaders inside the Pentagon even went so far as to pressure the Navy to tone down the publicly released version of the court of inquiry, already weak to the point of ineffectiveness. When the draft was first given to the Navy for review, Chief of Naval Operations David McDonald was outraged. He wrote a memo that revealed his belief that the United States was trying to protect Israel. “I think that much of this is extraneous and leaves me with the feeling that we’re trying our best to excuse the attackers,” he wrote in a handwritten memo. “Were I a parent of one of the deceased this release would burn me up. I myself do not subscribe to it.”
Very few people at senior levels of the Navy believed the attack was an accident. Jerome King, Jr., the senior aide to Adm. McDonald and later a vice admiral, on his first occasion to speak publicly about the Liberty said, “It certainly was not mistaken identity,” King said. “I don’t buy it. I never did. Nobody that I knew ever did either. It wasn’t as though it was at night or a rainy day or anything like that. There wasn’t any excuse for not knowing what the ship was. You could divine from just the apparatus on deck — all the antennae and so on — what its mission was.”
Extensive Israeli documents Scott obtained for the book also reveal how officials at the Israeli Embassy in Washington devised their own plan to manipulate the American media to downplay the story and to pressure American officials to drop the case. Israeli officials convinced Newsweek to tone down a story on the Liberty and even had other stories killed. The embassy also tapped influential American Jews to help put pressure on the White House to make the Liberty issue go away.
Israel’s apologists are many and varied on the question of whether the attack was deliberate, including Jay Cristol’s apologia to Ram Ron’s report. Cristol is a Federal Judge in Florida, and Ron was in the Israeli military and was tasked to investigate the incident. Ron had no experience either in naval operations or in Air Force operations. He did not interview any of the pilots who attacked the ship, nor did he interview any of the officers who were in charge of military operations for Israel at the time.
Admiral Moorer, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, however, came out publicly in defense of the Liberty’s crew, calling the attack deliberate. Additionally, Congressman Pete McCloskey interviewed one of the Israeli pilots who confirmed that the Israeli military knew the Liberty was an American ship, but nevertheless continued with the bloody attack.
Scott’s research of the newly available data leaves little room for doubt as to the deliberate nature of the attack, but what no one knows for certain is why Israel decided to attack a ship belonging to a supposed ally. There is adequate informed speculation, however.
One theory has it that Lyndon Johnson had given Israel the go ahead to attack Egypt, but warned them to go no further. At the time, Egyptian President Nasser’s big mouth provided a rationale for Israel to attack first, which they did. Their propaganda, however, which has stuck in the minds of many, is that Egypt attacked first. Because Israel intended to also attack Syria, it wanted to prevent the U.S. government from listening to the radio traffic necessary to build up for such an attack on Syria. Israel wanted the attack to be a fait accompli, realizing that LBJ could do nothing about it once it happened.
Another theory has it that Israel was slaughtering Egyptian prisoners it had captured, and wanted to prevent that knowledge from being overheard by the Americans.
I strongly believe that this country owes the survivors of the Liberty at least a full governmental hearing on how the attack happened and who was ultimately responsible. Our country should do something that would signal to those survivors that their government cares about them. Absent that, we are at least entitled to no longer hear the political mantra that “we support our troops.” There is a way to show that support other than simply talking about it.
James Abourezk, a veteran of the U.S. Navy, is a former U.S. Senator from South Dakota. He currently practices law in South Dakota.