The USS Liberty Story

by JASON | 7:51 AM in |

On June 8, 1967, during the Six-Day War between Israel and the Arab States, Israeli fighter planes and torpedo boats attacked the U.S. Navy intelligence ship Liberty for 90 minutes in international waters, following several hours of low-level reconnaissance flights by Israeli aircraft. In the incident, 34 American servicemen were killed and 171 more wounded.

Israel maintains that the attack was a mistake. The Liberty's surviving crew members, as well as a number of former U.S. government officials -- including then-CIA Director Richard Helms and then-Secretary of State Dean Rusk -- assert that the attack was deliberate and that Israel knew the ship was American.

Throughout the attack, the Liberty was flying a large American flag. It also had its name painted in English in five-foot letters across the stern.

The best summary I've read on that incident was in "Body of Secrets" by James Banford. Basically the USS Liberty was a NSA spy boat that witnessed the Israeli's massacring 400+ Palestinians.

In the days following the attack, the Israeli government gave the U.S. government a classified report that attempted to justify the claim that the attack was a mistake. On the basis of that same report, an Israeli court of inquiry completely exonerated the government and all those involved. No one was ever court-martialed, reduced in rank, or ever reprimanded. On the contrary, Israel chose instead to honor Motor Torpedo Boat 203, which fired the deadly torpedo at the Liberty. The ship's wheel and bell were placed on prominent display at the naval museum, among the maritime artifacts of which the Israeli navy was most proud. . . .

The [Israeli] torpedo-boat crew claimed that they had mistaken the Liberty for an Egyptian troop transport, El Quseir. At the time of the attack, the Egyptian ship was rusting alongside a pier in the port of Alexandria, 250 miles from where the Liberty was attacked, and along that pier El Quseir remained throughout the war. The location of every Egyptian ship would have been a key piece of intelligence before Israel launched its war. According to the long-secret 1981 NSA [National Security Agency] report:

The fact that two separate torpedo boat commanders made the same false identification only raises the question of the veracity of both commanders. The El-Kasir [El Quseir] was approximately one-quarter of the Liberty's tonnage, about one-half its length, and offered a radically different silhouette. To claim that the Liberty closely resembled the El-Kasir was most illogical. The Department of State expressed its view of the torpedo attack in these words:

"The subsequent attack by Israeli torpedo boats, substantially after the vessel was or should have been identified by Israeli military forces, manifests the same reckless disregard for human life. The silhouette and conduct of USS Liberty readily distinguished it from any vessel that could have been considered hostile. . . . It could and should have been scrutinized visually at close range before torpedoes were fired."

Finally the NSA report, fifteen years after the fact, added:

A persistent question relating to the Liberty incident is whether or not the Israeli forces which attacked the ship knew that it was American . . . not a few of the Liberty's crewmen and [deleted but probably "NSA's G Group"] staff are convinced that they did. Their belief derived from consideration of the long time the Israelis had the ship under surveillance prior to the attack, the visibility of the flag, and the intensity of the attack itself.

Speculation as to the Israeli motivation varied. Some believed that Israel expected that the complete destruction of the ship and killing of the personnel would lead the U.S. to blame the UAR [Egypt] for the incident and bring the U.S. into the war on the side of Israel . . . others felt that Israeli forces wanted the ship and men out of the way.

"I believed the attack might have been ordered by some senior commander on the Sinai Peninsula who wrongly suspected that the Liberty was monitoring his activities," said [NSA deputy director, Dr. Louis] Tordella. His statement was amazingly astute, since he likely had no idea of the war crimes being committed on the Sinai at the time, within easy earshot of the antenna groves that covered the Liberty's deck.

Since the very beginning, Admiral Thomas H. Moorer, appointed Chief of Naval Operations shortly after the attack, has also been convinced that the assault was deliberate. "I have to conclude that it was Israel's intent to sink the Liberty and leave as few survivors as possible," he said in 1997, on the thirtieth anniversary of the assault. "Israel knew perfectly well that the ship was American."

The CIA called the document "raw intelligence data," and said it was one of "several which indicated a possibility that the Israeli Government knew about the USS Liberty before the attack."

In fact, another CIA report, prepared in 1979, indicates that Israel not only knew a great deal about the subject of signals intelligence during the 1967 war, but that Sigint was a major source of their information on the Arabs. "The Israelis have been very successful in their Comint [communications intelligence] and Elint [electronic intelligence] operations against the Arabs," said the report. "During the Six-Day War in 1967, the Israelis succeeded in intercepting, breaking, and disseminating a tremendous volume of Arab traffic quickly and accurately, including a high-level conversation between the late President Gamal Abdel Nasser of the UAR and King Hussein of Jordan. Over the years the Israelis have mounted cross-border operations and tapped Arab landline communications for extended periods. The Israelis have also on occasion boobytrapped the landlines."

The same CIA report also made clear that after collecting intelligence on the Arab world, spying on the United States was Israel's top priority: "The principal targets of the Israeli intelligence and security services are:... (2) collection of information on secret U.S. policy or decisions, if any, concerning Israel."

A mistake or mass murder? It was a question Congress never bothered to address in public hearings at the time. Among those who have long called for an in-depth congressional investigation was Admiral Thomas Moorer, who went on to become chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. "Congress to this day," he said, "has failed to hold formal hearings for the record on the Liberty affair. This is unprecedented and a national disgrace." Perhaps it is not too late, especially for a Congress that rushes into lengthy hearings on such momentous events as the firing of a few employees from a travel office in the White House.

Twenty-six years have passed since that clear day on June 8, 1967 when Israel attacked the USS Liberty with aircraft and torpedo boats, killing 34 young men and wounding 171. The attack in international waters followed over nine hours of close surveillance. Israeli pilots circled the ship at low level 13 times on eight different occasions before attacking. Radio operators in Spain, Lebanon, Germany and aboard the ship itself all heard the pilots reporting to their headquarters that this was an American ship. They attacked anyway. And when the ship failed to sink, the Israeli government concocted an elaborate story to cover the crime.

There is no question that this attack on a U.S. Navy ship was deliberate. This was a coordinated effort involving air, sea, headquarters and commando forces attacking over a long period. It was not the "few rounds of misdirected fire" that Israel would have the world believe. Worse, the Israeli excuse is a gross and detailed fabrication that disagrees entirely with the eyewitness recollections of survivors. Key American leaders call the attack deliberate. More important, eyewitness participants from the Israeli side have told survivors that they knew they were attacking an American ship.

Fifteen years after the attack, an Israeli pilot approached Liberty survivors and then held extensive interviews with former Congressman Paul N. (Pete) McCloskey about his role. According to this senior Israeli lead pilot, he recognized the Liberty as American immediately, so informed his headquarters, and was told to ignore the American flag and continue his attack. He refused to do so and returned to base, where he was arrested.

Later, a dual-citizen Israeli major told survivors that he was in an Israeli war room where he heard that pilot's radio report. The attacking pilots and everyone in the Israeli war room knew that they were attacking an American ship, the major said. He recanted the statement only after he received threatening phone calls from Israel.

The pilot's protests also were heard by radio monitors in the U.S. Embassy in Lebanon. Then-U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon Dwight Porter has confirmed this. Porter told his story to syndicated columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak and offered to submit to further questioning by authorities. Unfortunately, no one in the U.S. government has any interest in hearing these first-person accounts of Israeli treachery.

Key members of the Lyndon Johnson administration have long agreed that this attack was no accident. Perhaps most outspoken is former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Thomas Moorer. "I can never accept the claim that this was a mistaken attack," he insists.

Former Secretary of State Dean Rusk is equally outspoken, calling the attack deliberate in press and radio interviews. Similarly strong language comes from top leaders of the Central Intelligence Agency, National Security Agency (some of whose personnel were among the victims), National Security Council, and from presidential advisers such as Clark Clifford, Joseph Califano and Lucius Battle.

A top-secret analysis of Israel's excuse conducted by the Department of State found Israel's story to be untrue. Yet Israel and its defenders continue to stand by their claim that the attack was a "tragic accident" in which Israel mistook the most modern electronic surveillance vessel in the world for a rusted-out 40-year-old Egyptian horse transport.

Despite the evidence, no U.S. administration has ever found the courage to ever found the courage to defy the Israeli lobby by publicly demanding a proper accounting from Israel.

NEW YORK – On the fourth day of the 1967 Arab Israeli War, the intelligence ship 'USS Liberty' was steaming slowly in international waters, 14 miles off the Sinai Peninsula. Israeli armored forces were racing deep into Sinai in hot pursuit of the retreating Egyptian army.

'Liberty,' a World War II freighter, had been converted into an intelligence vessel by the top-secret US National Security Agency, and packed with the latest signals and electronic interception equipment. The ship bristled with antennas and electronic 'ears' including TRSSCOMM, a system that delivered real-time intercepts to Washington by bouncing a stream of microwaves off the moon.

'Liberty' had been rushed to Sinai to monitor communications of the belligerents in the Third Arab Israeli War: Israel and her foes, Egypt, Syria, and Jordan.

In contrast to American outrage over North Korea's assault on the intelligence ship 'Pueblo,' Iraq's mistaken missile strike on the USS 'Stark,' last fall's bombing of the USS 'Cole' in Aden, and the recent US-China air incident, the savaging of 'Liberty' was quickly hushed up by President Lyndon Johnson and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara.

The White House and Congress immediately accepted Israel's explanation and let the matter drop. Israel later paid a token reparation of US $6 million. There were reports two Israeli pilots who had refused to attack 'Liberty' were jailed for 18 years.

Surviving 'Liberty' crew members would not be silenced. They kept demanding an open inquiry and tried to tell their story of deliberate attack to the media. Israel's government worked behind the scenes to thwart these efforts, going so far as having American pro-Israel groups accuse 'Liberty's' survivors of being 'anti-Semites' and 'Israel-haters.' Major TV networks cancelled interviews with the crew. A book about the 'Liberty' by crewman James Ennes' was dropped from distribution. The Israel lobby branded him 'an Arab propagandist.'

The attack on 'Liberty' was fading into obscurity until last week, when intelligence expert James Bamford came out with Body of Secrets, his latest book about the National Security Agency. In a stunning revelation, Bamford writes that unknown to Israel, a US Navy EC-121 intelligence aircraft was flying high overhead the 'Liberty,' electronically recorded the attack. The US aircraft crew provides evidence that the Israeli pilots knew full well that they were attacking a US Navy ship flying the American flag.

Why did Israel try to sink a naval vessel of its benefactor and ally? Most likely because 'Liberty's' intercepts flatly contradicted Israel's claim, made at the war's beginning on 5 June, that Egypt had attacked Israel, and that Israel's massive air assault on three Arab nations was in retaliation. In fact, Israel began the war by a devastating, Pearl-Harbor style surprise attack that caught the Arabs in bed and destroyed their entire air forces.

More background if you are interested....