- 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.
- At 0800 hrs, 8 June, 1967, eight Israeli recon flights
flew over 'Liberty,' which was flying a large American flag. At 1400 hrs,
waves of low-flying Israeli Mystere and Mirage-III fighter-bombers repeatedly
attacked the American vessel with rockets, napalm, and cannon. The air
attacks lasted 20 minutes, concentrating on the ship's electronic antennas
and dishes. The 'Liberty' was left afire, listing sharply. Eight of her
crew lay dead, a hundred seriously wounded, including the captain, Commander
- At 1424 hrs, three Israeli torpedo boats attacked, raking
the burning 'Liberty' with 20mm and 40mm shells. At 1431hrs an Israeli
torpedo hit the 'Liberty' midship, precisely where the signals intelligence
systems were located. Twenty-five more Americans died.
- Israeli gunboats circled the wounded 'Liberty,' firing
at crewmen trying to fight the fires. At 1515, the crew were ordered to
abandon ship. The Israeli warships closed and poured machine gun fire into
the crowded life rafts, sinking two. As American sailors were being massacred
in cold blood, a rescue mission by US Sixth Fleet carrier aircraft was
mysteriously aborted on orders from the White House.
- An hour after the attack, Israeli warships and planes
returned. Commander McGonagle gave the order. 'prepare to repel borders.'
But the Israelis, probably fearful of intervention by the US Sixth Fleet,
departed. 'Liberty' was left shattered but still defiant, her flag flying.
- The Israeli attacks killed 34 US seamen and wounded 171
out of a crew of 297, the worst loss of American naval personnel from hostile
action since World War II.
- Less than an hour after the attack, Israel told Washington
its forces had committed a 'tragic error.' Later, Israel claimed it had
mistaken 'Liberty' for an ancient Egyptian horse transport. US Secretary
of State, Dean Rusk, and Joint Chiefs of Staff head, Admiral Thomas Moorer,
insisted the Israeli attack was deliberate and designed to sink 'Liberty.'
So did three CIA reports; one asserted Israel's Defense Minister, Gen.
Moshe Dayan, had personally ordered the attack.
- 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
- 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.
- Israel was also preparing to attack Syria to seize its
strategic Golan Heights. Washington warned Israel not to invade Syria,
which had remained inactive while Israel fought Egypt. Bamford says Israel's
offensive against Syria was abruptly postponed when 'Liberty' appeared
off Sinai, then launched once it was knocked out of action. Israel's claim
that Syria had attacked it could have been disproved by 'Liberty.'
- Most significant, 'Liberty's' intercepts may have shown
that Israel seized upon sharply rising Arab-Israeli tensions in May-June
1967 to launch a long-planned war to invade and annex the West Bank, Jerusalem,
Golan and Sinai.
- Far more shocking was Washington's response. Writes Bamford:
'Despite the overwhelming evidence that Israel attacked the ship and killed
American servicemen deliberately, the Johnson Administration and Congress
covered up the entire incident.' Why?
- Domestic politics. Johnson, a man never noted for high
moral values, preferred to cover up the attack rather than anger a key
constituency and major financial backer of the Democratic Party. Congress
was even less eager to touch this 'third rail' issue.
- Commander McGonagle was quietly awarded the Medal of
Honor for his and his men's heroism ñ not in the White House, as
is usual, but in an obscure ceremony at the Washington Navy Yard. Crew
member's graves were inscribed, 'died in the Eastern Mediterranean..' as
if they had be killed by disease, rather than hostile action.
- A member of President Johnson's staff believed there
was a more complex reason for the cover-up: Johnson offered Jewish liberals
unconditional backing of Israel, and a cover-up of the 'Liberty' attack,
in exchange for the liberal toning down their strident criticism of his
policies in the then raging Vietnam War.
- Israel, which claims it fought a war of self defense
in 1967 and had no prior territorial ambitions, will be much displeased
by Bamford's revelations. Those who believe Israel illegally occupies the
West Bank and Golan will be emboldened.
- Much more important, the US government's long, disgraceful
cover-up of the premeditated attack on 'Liberty' has now burst into the
open and demands full-scale investigation. After 34 years, the voices of
'Liberty's' dead and wounded seamen must finally be heard.
- Copyright Eric S. Margolis 2001
- From Art Harvath
- Concering the USS Liberty. I was a Russian linguist
in the US Navy. I worked at the NSA and also rode subs and flew in surveilance
aircraft. While at the Defense Language Institute in Monterey Ca in the
mid 80's, I met and became friends with the Captain of the aircraft carrier
that was in the Mediteranean when the Liberty was attacked. He told me
that he was told by his intelligence that an attack was imminent, and that
immediately after the attack he sent fighter-bombers out to destroy the
airfield from which the Israelis launched the attack.
- He told me that he personally received a call from the
"White House" (he wouldn't say who it was, but there is only
'one' commander-in-chief there) to recall his aircraft. He also told me
that it was the only time in his career that he seriously considered disobeying
- He told me that the attack was deliberate. And I must
say that we in the Naval intelligence community consider the incident dasterdly,
and I know for a fact (I worked at the NSA) that the Israelis knew exactly
what they were doing.
- Art Harvath Beaverton, Oregon
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