- Washington Report readers know the story well...
- In 1967 on the fourth day of the Six Day War, the armed
forces of Israel attacked the American intelligence ship USS Liberty for
90 minutes in international waters in broad daylight following several
hours of close, low-level reconnaissance. Thirty-four men died, 171 were
hurt, and the ship was so badly damaged that it had to be scrapped.
- The government of Israel has lied about the circumstances
ever since, telling a story markedly different from that told by American
survivors. Congress has refused to question Israel's demonstrably false
account, even though the State Department's own analysis finds the Israeli
story to be untrue.Yet the most pressing question remaining from that
is not whether the attack was deliberate. That was settled long ago for
most reasonable people. The question is why Israel risked its cozy
with America by killing American seaman on the high seas.Indeed, spokesmen
for Israel use that question in Israel's defense. Why, they ask, would
Israel risk alienating its American friends?So why did Israel
- Intelligence analysts and others have long supposed that
Israel attacked to prevent the ship from reporting the impending invasion
of the Golan Heights, then imminent despite cease fire pleas by the United
States. Israel's defenders reject that explanation. Recent reports in the
Israeli and Egyptian press suggest another powerful possibility.
- According to eyewitness accounts by Israeli officers
and journalists, the Israeli Army - the army that claims to hold itself
to a higher moral standard than other armies - executed as many as 1,000
Arab prisoners during the 1967 war. Historian Gabby Bron wrote in the
Yediot Ahronot in Israel that he witnessed Israeli troops executing
prisoners on the morning of June 8, 1967, in the Sinai town of El
- Bron reported that he saw about 150 Egyptian POWs being
held at the El Arish airport where they were sitting on the ground, densely
crowded together with their hands held on the back of their necks. Every
few minutes, Bron writes, Israeli soldiers would escort an Egyptian POW
from the group to a hearing conducted by two men in Israeli army uniforms.
Then the man would be taken away, given a spade, and forced to dig his
own grave."I watched as (one) man dug a hole for about 15
Bron wrote. "Afterwards, the (Israeli military) policeman told him
to throw the shovel away, and then one of them leveled an Uzi at him and
shot two short bursts, each of three or four bullets."
- Bron says he witnessed about ten such executions, until
the grave was filled. Then an Israeli Colonel threatened him with a
forcing him to leave the area. USS Liberty was nearby. As those
were underway, America's most sophisticated intelligence platform, USS
Liberty, was less than 13 miles from El Arish. We were close enough to
see the town mosque with the naked eye. With binoculars we could make
out individual buildings and might have seen the executions if we had
in the right place.
- Could our operators have heard voice radio messages
these killings? Did senior Israeli officers sanction the murders, or did
they learn of them? How would they have reacted to the knowledge that USS
Liberty was nearby and might have heard incriminating radio traffic?Would
they have been desperate enough to attack an American ship?The Liberty
attack was a war crimeThe attack on USS Liberty was itself a war crime.
US Navy Commander Walter Jacobsen, a Navy Legal Officer then doing
work at George Washington University, conducted an extensive legal analysis
of the attack.
- His conclusion, reported in the Winter, 1986, Naval Law
Review, was that several aspects of the attack violated provisions of the
Geneva Conventions -- war crimes. Specifically, Commander Jacobsen found
that the attack was not legally justified, that it constituted an act of
aggression under the United Nations Charter, that the use of unmarked
the wanton destruction of life rafts in the water, the jamming of
radio distress frequencies, and the failure of the torpedo boat commanders
to render immediate assistance to a disabled and helpless enemy were all
violations of international law.
- US refusal to investigate violates Geneva ConventionsFor
years, USS Liberty survivors have asked Members of Congress to investigate
the circumstances of the attack.The Israeli version is untrue. We did fly
a flag. We did identify ourselves. We were in international waters. They
did not stop firing after seeing our flag as they claim, but continued
to fire for another 40 minutes. The attack lasted 75 minutes and was not
brief or accidental as Israel claims. We did not "attempt to
or escape when detected, as Israeli has charged. These things are easy
- More important are the war crimes discussed by Commander
Jacobsen. These things should have been investigated in 1967. Yet U.S.
officials have ignored the offenses for 29 years, refusing to investigate
or even to acknowledge them. That refusal is itself a crime. The United
States, as a signatory to the Geneva Conventions of 1949, is "under
the obligation to search for persons alleged to have committed, or to have
ordered to be committed" violations of the conventions, and to see
that violators are brought to trial.There are no exceptions. War crimes
reported to government officials must be investigated and perpetrators
tried.Yet even this is ignored by U.S. officials. Liberty survivors for
many years have reported the crimes committed against us and have requested
an appropriate investigation. Despite the law, our complaints are ignored.
No investigation of these charges has ever been held.
- Recently Liberty's Joe Meadors, a former president and
chairman of the Liberty Veterans Association, has filed formal complaints
with the House and Senate Ethics Committees against members who have
our complaints. To no surprise, these complaints, too, are being ignored.
Navy Refusal to investigate violates Navy Regulations.
- When the Liberty was attacked, Captain Joseph Tully in
the aircraft carrier USS Saratoga received the ship's call for help and
immediately sent jet aircraft to her assistance. Tully's jets were
almost immediately by orders from Washington. As a result, American jet
fighter support was withheld for more than 90 minutes. By then the damage
was done and 34 men were dead or dying.
- Had those aircraft been sent, they would probably have
arrived before the torpedo boats started their part of the attack. At least
25 lives could have been saved. We survivors have tried for 29 years to
learn why we were denied the immediate air support that we were promised
in case of trouble. There are no answers. The Navy still will not even
admit that help was not sent, even though one of the aircraft carrier
has offered to testify that he was forbidden to help us.
- The Uniform Code of Military Justice, the body of law
that governs every military person, provides that "Any person subject
to this chapter who before or in the presence of the enemy . . . does not
afford all practicable relief and assistance to . . . troops, vessels,
or aircraft of the armed forces . . . when engaged in battle . . . shall
be punished by death or such punishment as a court martial may
provision was clearly violated when Liberty's air support was withheld.
Yet the Navy will not even admit that we were not defended.
- George Orwell suggested in 1945 that some animals are
more equal than other animals. Some countries, too, it would seem.James
Ennes retired from the Navy in 1978 as a lieutenant commander after 27
years of enlisted and commissioned service. He was a lieutenant on the
bridge of the USS Liberty on the day of the attack. His book on the
Assault on the Liberty (Random House, 1980), is a "Notable Naval
selection of the U.S. Naval Institute and was "editors choice"
when reviewed in The Washington Post.
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