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June 16, 1986, Page 5


The USS Liberty : A Demon That Won't Go Away

By James M. Ennes, Jr.

One of the first sure signs that Watergate would destroy the Richard Nixon presidency came when the White House declared Watergate a dead issue. It was time to get back to the business of government, the White House announced. Predictably, the growing Watergate scandal soon forced the President out of office.

In January 1986, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration quietly shelved an embarrassing internal controversy about the safety of seals in the space shuttle's booster rockets. The book is closed on the booster seal questions, NASA decided. Five days later Challenger blew up because the seals failed.

In December 1980, the Department of State was embarrassed by renewed questions about the 1967 attack by Israel on the USS Liberty. "The book is closed on the USS Liberty affair," the Department announced in a press release. The USS Liberty story has been bursting its bindings ever since.

Indeed, official pronouncements that issues are dead, books closed and controversies ended are often dependable signs that the demon is out of control. Such is the case of the USSLiberty. Despite nineteen years of official exorcisms, the Liberty demon is alive and well and getting stronger. Consider this:

After the Liberty was attacked by Israel in 1967, survivors were forbidden to discuss the attack even with their families. Eyewitness testimony before the official Navy Court of Inquiry was restricted, while the few press interviews allowed were carefully stage-managed and rehearsed.

But Americans were not satisfied. Recently released State Department records reveal that Congressmen were overwhelmed by mail from their angry, disbelieving constituents. Dozens of Congressmen demanded answers from the Lyndon Johnson Administration and, typical of cover-ups, the government's boiler-plate replies were evasive. The attack, Congressmen were told, had been thoroughly investigated. The matter was closed.

Liberty's Jewish acting commanding officer breached the cover-up with a widely published but anonymous press interview which called the attack deliberate. "We flew Old Glory and there is no way they could not have known that we were American," he said.

There the matter stood until 1980 when Assault on the Liberty burst upon the scene with new evidence that it was no mistake. "The book is closed on the Liberty," proclaimed an exorcist for the Department of State, a Department spokesman thoroughly briefed on how to answer questions about the new book. But the story would not and will not go away.

Survivors are recounting it to civic, veterans groups and business organizations—always to astounded and supportive audiences. Veterans groups are supporting calls for a Congressional investigation.

Questions about the USS Liberty now appear regularly in newspapers, magazines and national talk shows. For instance, the Liberty is now mentioned frequently on the nationally heard Larry King Show. Widely heard broadcasts from KDKA in Pittsburg mention the Liberty often, as do broadcasts from KGO in San Francisco, among others. National talk show host Larry Breen reports that the subject comes up on his show almost daily.

The Atlantic Monthly, whose new publisher has made it an apologist for Israel, felt it necessary in 1984 to defend the Israeli position with a major article restating the discredited and untenable Israeli excuse.

Two major stories on the Liberty were distributed on the Associated Press wire service in 1985. ABC Nightline, after years of near-misses, finally mentioned the Liberty in November. The esteemed Los Angeles Times has featured the attack in front page news stories. Navy Timesrecently told active duty Navy people about the attack while The Refired Officer magazine told the story to the retired officer community, And in November the attack was mentioned on the front page of the New York Times.

Even CBS' 60 Minutes, which has treated the Liberty with scorn for 19 years, allowed Harry Reasoner to mention the attack briefly on March 16. Two months later, National Review printed a letter to the editor referring to the attack.

After years of studied inattention by the media, Hodding Carter, State Department spokesman during the Carter Administration, and nationally-syndicated columnist Robert Novak discussed the attack before a national television audience on "The McLaughlin Hour." National Public Radio discussed the attack on the air with a former CIA deputy director. Popular columnists Mary McGrory, James Kilpatrick, Georgie Anne Geyer, Alexander Cockburn, Philip Geyelin, David Shipler and others have written about it-all since the case was declared closed.

Less visibly, Americans are once again asking their Congressmen about the Liberty.

Perhaps most revealing of the strength of public support, sales of Assault on the Liberty now exceed 50,000 copies in five editions, and already more printings are planned. More copies have been printed in the first half of 1986 than in the previous five years combined. And at least one television documentary is currently scheduled for production while motion picture producers are starting to show serious interest for the first time.

Through it all can be heard the clear voice of retired Admiral Thomas H. Moorer, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, now calling publicly for a Congressional investigation of the attack. Admiral Moorer's call-now voiced in a news conference, a public address, an article in Navy Times and in a new Foreword to Assault on the Liberty-is particularly striking because he became Chief of Naval Operations right after the 1967 attack and presided over the Navy at the time of the original investigation.

The USS Liberty demon is uncaged and running loose in the streets. Going into its 20th year and in vigorous health, it won't be tamed until Congress and official Washington takes it seriously and starts providing some real answers to the questions it asks.

James Ennes was an officer on the bridge of the USS Liberty on the day of the Israeli attack. His book, Assault on the Liberty (Random House, 5th Edition, 1986) is available at $14.95 through book stores or at a discount through the American Educational Trust book club. The AET Endowment Fund will mail copies of this book to public or school libraries of your choice in your name for a donation of $2.50 per library.

The USS Liberty, a U.S. Navy intelligence ship, was attacked by Israeli aircraft and torpedo boats off the Sinai coast on June 8, 1967, the fourth day of the June, 1967 war, with the loss of 34 Americans killed and 171 wounded. Admiral Thomas H. Moorer, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1971 to 1974 and Chief of Naval Operations from 1967 to 1970, contrasted treatment of the Liberty and its sister ship, the Pueblo, at a press conference held by the American Educational Trust at the National Press Club in December, 1985 in the following words:

"When the Pueblo was seized by the North Koreans, I spent weeks over on the Hill testifying about the Pueblo in the most minute detail. But nothing like that's ever been done for theLiberty.. . The difference in the way these two events were handled is mindboggling... I think, without a doubt, that those 34 men who were killed on the Liberty were killed deliberately, on purpose, in a preconceived operation. I'll never believe until my dying day that it was a case of mistaken identity."