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Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, May 27, 1985, Page 1


USS Liberty: Questions Persist

By Thomas H. Moorer

June 8, 1985, marks the 18th anniversary of a major event which still leaves many questions to which some are searching for an answer while others fear the true story will be made public.

On that day, when visibility was excellent and the sea was calm, the USS Liberty was cruising about 15 miles off the Sinai coast of Egypt. This ship, which was converted from a merchantman, had a unique topside configuration due to communication antennae and special equipment installed in her superstructure. As a matter of fact, she was the only ship with such clearly identifiable characteristics operating in the entire Mediterranean Sea. She was the easiest ship in the U.S. Navy to identify.

All of a sudden, without warning, the USS Liberty was attacked repeatedly by machine gun fire, rockets, napalm, and, finally, torpedoes fired from Israeli jet aircraft and torpedo boats. When the smoke cleared and the Israeli forces returned to base, the 294 crew of the heavily damaged ship had suffered 34 Americans dead and 171 wounded. So, what did really happen? Why was the ship attacked?

Israel continues to insist that the attack was a case of mistaken identity. However, this claim simply does not hold water. I personally have spent thousands of hours in peace and war searching for and identifying ships on the high seas. Based on this experience, I am certain that a highly trained military force such as the Israelis possess could not have made such a tragic error of misidentification. As a matter of fact, in clear visibility this unique ship was flying a very large, eight foot American flag. Furthermore, Israeli planes circled the ship beforehand and then proceeded to attack her over an extended period of time. There is simply no way that the Israeli pilots and torpedo boat crews could have concluded that it was anything other than a U.S. ship.

While the Congress did have a subcommittee make a limited investigation, there was never a formal congressional hearing such as occurred in the case of the USS Pueblo, for instance. In addition, President Johnson, in reporting this event, significantly understated the extent of the casualties. Finally, only after much effort was it possible to change the stone markers over the graves of six Liberty men buried in Arlington National Cemetery from "dead in the eastern Mediterranean," to "killed USS Liberty."

Based on the manner in which this tragedy was handled in both the United States and Israel, one must conclude that there is much information that has not been made available to the public. In fact, all the information available to the U.S. government indicating those who controlled this operation, together with the exact text of orders transmitted to the Mediterranean fleet and to the Liberty, has never been released.

Some Israelis now are claiming in published articles that the plots of ship positions maintained in their operations control room were changed between watch officers and that the Liberty was mistaken for a much smaller and older Egyptian ship which did not in the most remote way resemble the Liberty in either size or configuration. Once again, I would like to reiterate my personal opinion: In no way could this attack have been a case of mistaken identity.

Before as well as subsequent to the attack on the Liberty, the U.S. Congress has investigated in depth just about every incident of a similar nature in which the military forces participated. At the very least the Congress, in deference to the families of the men who died on board the Liberty, should once and for all clear up the uncertainties, speculations, and the unanswered questions surrounding this tragedy, which still is thought by many to be a deliberate coverup on the part of the government of Israel as well as the government of the United States.

Even after 18 years, the American people still are entitled to the answers to many, many questions. Here are just a few:

  • Why was the Liberty attacked in the first place? Was the objective to hide the fact that Israel was planning to attack Syria the following day?
  • Why did the Israeli reports and explanations differ so widely from the reports of the Liberty crew who held a ringside seat?
  • Even granting the Israeli claim of mistaken identity at the time of the initial air attack, how could such a terrible mistake be continued for the extensive time required to conduct air attacks as well as torpedo boat attacks using guns, rockets, napalm, and torpedoes?
  • Why was air support for the Liberty launched by the U.S. Sixth Fleet carriers recalled, and who gave the order?
  • Why did President Johnson downplay the incident by understating the casualties suffered by the crew of the Liberty and why was the tombstone for the six men buried in Arlington cemetery inscribed in such a way as to mask the true nature of their deaths?
  • Why has not the Congress conducted a full-scale hearing on the attack?
  • Since the Israelis were aware that the USS Liberty was in the eastern Mediterranean should not they have been overly cautious to prevent attacking a proven friend without whose help they could never win a war?

Admiral Thomas H. Moorer, U.S. Navy (Ret.), was Chief of Naval Operations from August, 1967-June, 1970, and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from July, 1970-July,1974. Currently he is a Senior Associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Georgetown University.