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Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, June 1989, Page 16

USS Liberty 22nd Anniversary

New Memorials, Old Congressional Obfuscation, Still Inquiry

By James M. Ennes, Jr.

The USS Liberty controversy shows no sign of abating despite the passage of 22 years. MostWashington Report on Middle East Affairs, readers know the story. Israeli air and naval forces conducted a prolonged, coordinated attack on an American naval vessel on June 8, 1967, during the Six Day Arab-Israeli War, killing 34 Americans and wounding another 171, then claimed mistaken identity. That excuse is rejected by key US government officials of the era and by all known survivors. Yet few elected or appointed officials have ever spoken out publicly while still in office. The USSLiberty remains the only major maritime disaster in all American history that has not been investigated by Congress. So the issue remains unresolved, Israel insisting on its innocence while survivors and their US Navy and civilian supporters insisting that the attack was planned and premeditated.

The Mystery Submarine

Among the most peculiar stories surrounding the event are reports that an American submarine operating nearby photographed the attack. Although that story came directly from a sailor who claimed to have been aboard the submarine, US officials denied that any American submarine was anywhere near. Now amateur historian James Miller has obtained a top secret National Security Council document which supports the submarine story

According to the declassified NSC memorandum, shortly before the start of the Six Day War, Admiral Rufus Taylor sought and was granted permission to conduct a sensitive Defense Department operation to be known as "Frontlet 615." Taylor's special responsibility was clandestine submarine operations. A handwritten note on the original NSC document identifies Frontlet 615 as an operation involving a US submarine operating within the territorial waters of the United Arab Republic!

James Miller has requested additional information. It seems dear, however, that a submarine did operate near our ship and that somewhere in naval archives-may be found the long-missing photographs of the ship under attack with the oversize American flag flying proudly and clearly throughout.

Members of Congress continue to give lip service to the need for a proper inquiry into the attack, while failing to follow up with any action.

Members of Congress continue to give lip service to the need for a proper inquiry into the attack, while failing to follow up with any action.

For example, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-MA) last year assigned a staff member to study the situation. Upon completion of the study, Kennedy issued a statement which acknowledged that "many legitimate questions remain" and concluded: "Although I find it difficult to believe that Israeli forces knowingly attacked a US Navy vessel, the serious questions which continue to remain about the attack must be answered to the maximum extent humanly possible."

Kennedy's view of the humanly possible, however, does not extend to action. Requests for Kennedy's help in obtaining those answers have been ignored.

Sen. Tim Wirth (D-CO) has similarly assigned an inquiry to a member of his staff. Wirth's action, too, seems only to be a delaying tactic. "Due to the complexity and volume of work involved in researching the incident:' he writes, "I expect [the inquiry] to remain [open] for some time to come."

Rep. Hank Brown (R-CO) made some encouraging preliminary noises. Then, without interviewing a single survivor, he concluded that evidence and witnesses would be impossible to find.

Sen. John McCain (D-AZ) also assigned a staff member to inquire into the circumstances of the attack. Months later McCain advises that the inquiry is progressing slowly and that no results can be expected soon. No survivors have been queried. As a former Navy pilot and a former POW, Sen. McCain should have a special interest in this matter. It was McCain's father, Admiral John McCain, who convened the original Navy Court of Inquiry. Unfortunately, follow-up letters to McCain's office elicit no signs of progress. His "inquiry" seems little more than a diplomatic delaying tactic.

Rep. Larry Hopkins (R-KY) seemed to be one of the few legislators disposed to take more than pro forma action. He personally reviewed key documents and then formally asked the House Armed Services Investigations Subcommittee to investigate. Eventually, however, he informed his constituent that because Israel is "our ally" and "the most stable and only democratic country" in the region, there is "no interest in eroding that relationship by revisiting this issue from the past."

As if to explain all this congressional duplicity, Rep. Jim Bates (D-CA) informed a constituent that the US agreed in 1980, in return for Israel's final $6 million payment for damages, never to reopen the inquiry into the attack.

Americans Who Remember

Other Americans remember the USS Liberty. At last count, six states, nine cities, and the District of Columbia have proclaimed June 8 "USS Liberty Memorial Day" in memory of this valiant ship. (Two proclamations were later rescinded after complaints from Israel that such remembrances of Americans who died for their country under Israeli attack are "insulting to Israel.")

US Navy buildings in Florida, Virginia, and Japan have been named after men who died in theLiberty. A museum display at the Naval Cryptologic Museum in Washington, DC, memorializes the ship. All 34 men who died are permanently remembered in the "Navy Memorial Log" at the US Navy Memorial in Washington, DC. And a memorial carillon at the Navy Chapel in Norfolk reminds parishioners of the USS Liberty.

A memorial marker commemorates the event at Fon du Lac, Wisconsin, as do others at Bay City, Michigan, and at the Detroit Naval Station. A permanent display will soon be placed aboard the USS Yorktown at the Naval and Maritime Museum at Patriots Point, North Carolina. And a memorial marker is now being engraved for installation in Hicksville, New York.

The Military and Space Museum at Frankenmuth, Michigan, Michigan's largest tourist attraction with up to two million visitors annually, will soon feature a Liberty crewman in a permanent exhibit there. Michigan crewmen will be featured in a book about the museum, and museum officials presently plan to display a USS Liberty memorial marker on museum property.

The USS Liberty Veterans Association has distributed more than 40,000 "Remember the USSLiberty" bumper stickers, which are an increasingly common sight, especially on the East Coast. (For yours, send $1 and a self-addressed envelope to 3 Burns Ave., Hicksville, NY 11801.)

Meanwhile, for every move to remember our lost shipmates, a spokesman for Israel pops up to complain that such remembrances are improper, unnecessary, or insulting to Israel. For instance, when a group of veterans and Liberty survivors in Flint, Michigan, proposed placing a memorial marker in Veterans' Park near the city hall, the mayor's office refused permission. Remembering these particular veterans was deemed inappropriate.

When residents of Grafton, Wisconsin, decided to name their new town library after the ship, apologists for Israel in Milwaukee organized protests that have continued, unsuccessfully, for more than 18 months.

Remembrances for all other slain American servicemen are OK and honorable. But remembrances for those killed 22 years ago in the assault on the USS Liberty are still "too controversial."

Too bad.

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 Assault on the Liberty (Random House, 1980), is a "Notable Naval Book" selection of the US Naval Institute and was "editors choice" when reviewed in theWashington Post. It is available from the AET Book Club.