Originally published at Moral Low Ground
June 8, 1967. The eastern Mediterranean. The Six-Day War between Israel and a coalition of Arab nations hell-bent on the Jewish state’s destruction was raging, and the USS Liberty, a $40 million state-of-the-art intelligence vessel was dispatched on an electronic intelligence collection mission. The Liberty employed the very latest in signals and communication interception technology, including a system that relayed real-time intercepts to Washington by bouncing microwaves off the moon. But because it was a communications vessel, it was lightly armed with only four .50 caliber machine guns to repel would-be unwelcome boarders.
The Liberty’s captain, William L. McGonagle, had requested Vice Admiral William I. Martin at US Sixth Fleet headquarters to send an armed escort ship to accompany them into the volatile war zone. But the admiral rejected Capt. McGonagle’s request out of hand. “Liberty is a clearly marked United States ship in international waters, not a participant in the conflict and not a reasonable subject for attack by any nation,” Martin responded, assuring McGonagle that fighter jets could be scrambled within minutes if the Liberty encountered hostile fire.
That morning, just before dawn, Israeli Air Force (IAF) planes circled the Liberty eight times. At 6:03am, one of them identified the ship as an American vessel. Shortly thereafter, the Israelis identified it as the Liberty based on the “GTR-5″ marking on its hull. One of the IAF planes had flown so low over the Liberty that its pilots waved to the sailors on deck. The crew waved back, not realizing that many of them would soon be slaughtered.
Everything was fine for a few more hours. Around 2pm, officers and enlisted men were laying out on the Liberty’s deck on their lunch break when suddenly IAF Mystere and Mirage III jets appeared out of nowhere and opened fire on them with bombs, rockets, cannon and napalm. Quartermaster Theodore Arfsten recalled watching a Jewish officer cry when he spotted the blue Star of David on one of the attacking aircraft. The furious assault seemed to be targeting the Liberty’s communications equipment.
At this stage of the attack, the Liberty’s crew was desperately attempting to contact Sixth Fleet for help, but the Israelis were jamming their communications. But the message got through, and two squadrons of Navy fighter bombers were scrambled– then inexplicably recalled.
Chief Petty Officer J.Q. “Tony” Hart was manning a Navy relay station in Morocco, facilitating contact between the Sixth Fleet and Washington. He clearly remembered listening to Defense Secretary Robert McNamara order Rear Admiral Lawrence Geis to call those fighter bombers back. Admiral Geiss, upon protesting that the Liberty was under attack, was rebuffed by McNamara. Hart told the Chicago Tribune that the Defense Secretary responded “President Johnson is not going to go to war or embarrass an American ally over a few sailors.”
If McNamara would have let those rescue missions proceed, what happened next to the Liberty could have been avoided and dozens of American sailors’ lives would have been saved. Instead, Sixth Fleet listened in on the horror, forbidden to assist as American sailors desperately called for help.
After the IAF aircraft completed their attacks, three Israeli torpedo boats closed in on the Liberty and fired five torpedoes, one of which blasted a 40-foot (12 meter) hole in the starboard hull, killing 25 sailors. The Israeli gunboats circled the badly damaged Liberty, kept afloat only by the heroism of her crew, attacking sailors who were desperately trying to extinguish the fires caused by the onslaught. Capt. McGonagle, seriously wounded in the attack, issued an order to abandon ship, and in one of the most despicable moments of the attack the Israelis strafed both crewmen and lifeboats as they were lowered from the Liberty’s deck.
When the dastardly attack was over, 34 sailors were dead and 173 wounded out of a crew of 297. It was the worst loss of American naval personnel from hostile fire since World War II.
Although badly damage, the Liberty managed to limp into port in Malta. From then on, a different sort of damage control was the order of the day.
Within a couple of hours after the attack, Israel informed the US embassy in Tel Aviv about what it was calling a tragic case of mistaken identity. According to the Israeli account, the Liberty had been mistaken for an ancient Egyptian horse cavalry transport ship of a different size and shape from the American vessel. But an Israeli military court later admitted that Israeli naval headquarters had known for at least three hours prior to the attack that the vessel was “an electromagnetic audio surveillance ship of the US Navy.” And declassified National Security Agency (NSA) documents prove that every single interview with Liberty crewmen confirmed that the ship was flying an American flag and that “weather conditions were ideal to ensure its easy observance and identification.”
Admiral Tom Moorer, who called the Liberty “the most identifiable ship in the US Navy,” told the Washington Post that “to suggest that they [the Israelis] couldn’t identify the ship is… ridiculous. Anybody who could not identify the Liberty could not tell the difference between the White House and the Washington Monument.”
Some of the most damning evidence that proves Israel deliberately attacked the Liberty comes in the form of tapes and transcripts of the incident recorded by both the Israelis and the Americans.
A Chicago Tribune article from October 2007 contains interviews with US military personnel who were first-hand witnesses to the teletype transcripts regarding the Liberty incident. Intelligence analyst Steve Forslund, stationed at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska, said “the [Israeli] ground control station stated the target was an American and for the aircraft to confirm it. The aircraft did confirm the identity of the target as American, by the American flag. The ground control station ordered the aircraft to attack and sink the target and ensure they left no survivors.”
Forslund says that “everyone” working with him saw the transcripts.
Two other Air Force intelligence specialists, in different locations, also saw the transcripts of the Israeli communications. James Gothcer, now a California attorney, saw them in Vietnam. “It was clear that the Israeli aircraft were being vectored directly at USS Liberty,” he told the Tribune. “Later, around the time the Liberty got off a distress call, the controllers seemed to panic and urged the aircraft to ‘complete the job’ and get out of there.”
Air Force Captain Richard Block, stationed on the Greek island of Crete, was commanding an intelligence wing of over 100 analysts and cryptologists tracking Middle East communications. He says the teletypes recorded Israeli pilots balking at their orders to attack an American ship. “The pilots said, ‘This is an American ship. Do you still want us to attack?’ And ground control came back and said, ‘Yes, follow orders.’”
It wasn’t just US military personnel who saw those transcripts. Dwight Porter, the American ambassador to Lebanon at the time, heard Israeli pilots protesting ‘But sir, it’s an American ship– I can see the flag!’ and ground control replying ‘Never mind; hit it!’
NSA Deputy Director Oliver Kirby also read the transcripts. “One of them [Israeli pilots] said ‘Can you see the flag?’ They said ‘Yes, it’s US, it’s US.’ They said it several times, so there wasn’t any doubt in anybody’s mind that they knew.”
His boss, former NSA Director Lieutenant General Marshall Carter later told Congress that the attack on the Liberty “couldn’t be anything else but deliberate.” CIA Director Richard Helms concurred.
The transcripts were even used as teaching material in advanced intelligence classes, according to retired Army Colonel W. Patrick Lang. “The flight leader spoke to his base to report he had the ship in his view, that it was the same ship that he had been briefed on and that it was clearly marked with the US flag,” Lang told the Tribune. “The flight commander was reluctant. That was very clear. He didn’t want to do this. He asked a couple of times, ‘Do you really want me to do this?’ I’ve remembered it ever since. It was very striking. I’ve been harboring this memory for all these years.”
But key portions of those NSA tapes have gone “missing” since 1967, leaving the door open for those who, for whatever reason, assert that the attack on the Liberty was not intentional.
However, the “smoking gun” that proves the existence of those transcripts comes from the Israelis themselves, in the form of diplomatic cables sent by Avraham Harman, the Israeli ambassador to the US, to Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban. Ambassador Harman told Minister Eban that the Americans “had clear proof that from a certain stage the [Israeli] pilot discovered the identity of the ship and continued the attack anyway.” Three days later, Harman cabled Eban again to report that President Johnson was “very angry” because “the Americans probably have findings showing that our pilots indeed knew that the ship was American.”
The US Navy did conduct an investigation of the incident in the immediate aftermath of the attack. The Court of Inquiry, conducted in great haste, was tasked only with determining what the crew of the Liberty did wrong, and was given just one week to complete a task that should have taken six months to properly complete. Rear Admiral Merlin Staring, the Navy’s former Judge Advocate General (JAG) described the investigation as “a hasty, superficial, incomplete and totally inadequate inquiry.”
Incredibly, the Court of Inquiry did not even consider culpability. “It was not the responsibility of the court to rule on the culpability of the attackers, and no evidence was heard from the attacking nation,” it said.
Secretary of State Dean Rusk didn’t believe for one second that the attack was an accident. He cabled the Israeli ambassador:
“At the time of the attack, the USS Liberty was flying the American flag and its identification was clearly indicated in large white letters and numerals on its hull. … Experience demonstrates that both the flag and the identification number of the vessel were readily visible from the air…. Accordingly, there is every reason to believe that the USS Liberty was identified, or at least her nationality determined, by Israeli aircraft approximately one hour before the attack. … The subsequent attack by the torpedo boats, substantially after the vessel was or should have been identified by Israeli military forces, manifests the same reckless disregard for human life.”
But if the attack was indeed deliberate, what could Israel’s motives possibly be that they would risk enraging their best friend, or worse? This is the point most commonly made by apologists for Israel’s actions. A closer examination of possible motives, however, quickly uncovers many reasons why Israel would risk such an outrageous attack on an American ship.
First of all, we must remember that the Liberty was a spy ship equipped with the latest and greatest American eavesdropping technology. Many believe that Israel, which had been planning to escalate the Six Day War against Washington’s wishes, feared that the Liberty would uncover sensitive information that would greatly damage Israel’s ability to seize the strategic Golan Heights from Syria. The Johnson administration, after all, had warned Israel not to invade Syria. The Liberty’s intercepted communications may also have shown how Israel planned to capitalize on regional tension in order to invade and occupy the West Bank, Jerusalem and the Egyptian Sinai, all of which it did during the war.
Former ABC News producer James Bamford, in his 2001 book Body of Secrets, argues that the Israelis tried to sink the Liberty in order to prevent the Americans from discovering the massacre of Egyptian prisoners of war by Israeli troops in El-Arish. Mass graves of Egyptian soldiers were indeed found outside El-Arish in 1995, and Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) veterans of the 1967 war have admitted to slaughtering unarmed Egyptian civilians and POWs.
Still others, including the BBC, argue that the attack on the Liberty was a “daring ploy by Israel to fake an Egyptian attack,” a false-flag operation designed to draw the United States into the war on Israel’s side. Israel was, after all, quite desperate, surrounded by enemy armies from Egypt, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Libya, Morocco, Kuwait, Algeria, Tunisia and Sudan, all united with the goal of wiping Israel off the map once and for all. The Israeli government may have calculated that the risk of enraging the United States was worthwhile in the face of an existential crisis. Then again, that wouldn’t seem to explain why some of the planes used to attack the Liberty were clearly marked with the Star of David– unless you consider that the Israelis meant to sink the Liberty and kill every last one of her crew. This could be why the Israeli gunboats even attacked the American lifeboats.
“The attack was most likely deliberate for reasons far too sensitive to be disclosed by the US or Israeli government,” US Colonel Peyton E. Smith mused. “The truth may never be known.”
Captain McGonagle was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, the highest American medal, for his actions during the attack on his ship. But while the Medal of Honor is almost always presented by the President in the White House, McGonagle received his in a secret ceremony at the Navy Yard by the Naval Secretary. Other Liberty sailors were honored for their bravery during the attack, but most of their awards left out Israel as the enemy. The graves of those killed in the incident are simply marked ‘died in the Eastern Mediterranean.’
The refusal of the United States to deal honestly with the deplorable attack amounts to nothing less than spitting on their graves.
Meanwhile, Israel received increasingly large amounts of American military and economic aid from the time of the Liberty incident right up to the present day. Each year, some $3 billion goes to Israel free of charge. This, despite the fact that after years of foot-dragging, Israel only paid a paltry $6.7 million in restitution to the injured sailors and the families of those killed in the attack, and another $6 million for the loss of the $40 million Liberty, sold for scrap for $101,666 in 1970.
And whereas the United States declared itself neutral during the 1967 war, ever since Washington has been a staunch supporter of the Jewish state, right or wrong. Indeed, America often stands alone with Israel as it commits horrific human rights abuses against the Palestinian people under the dubious cover of security. Rather than isolation and ostracism, the United States responded to Israel’s slaughter of American sailors with dramatically increased cooperation, friendship and aid.
The survivors of the Israeli attack on the USS Liberty continue to suffer to this very day. Some have post-traumatic stress disorder. One has undergone more than 30 operations. Yet another suffers from seizures caused by shrapnel lodged in his brain. All suffer from the indignity of not being told the truth about what happened that sunny June day 44 years ago.
“Someday the truth will come out,” Dennis Eikleberry, an NSA officer aboard the Liberty told the Chicago Tribune.“Someday it will, but we’ll all be gone.”
Click here to review the NSA’s USS Liberty files.