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Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, June 1990, Page 39

Special Report

USS Liberty Revisited: New Information, Still No Investigation

By James M. Ennes, Jr.

June 8 marks 23 years of America's coverup of the Israeli attack on the USS Liberty . Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, readers know the story well: a deliberate daylight attack by Israeli aircraft and torpedo boats that nearly sank the ship and killed 34 and injured 171 men, incriminating reports by survivors, a falsified account by Israel, and a stubborn refusal by the American government to review the evidence or to resolve the discrepancies. Survivors have worked ever since to persuade our government to listen to their stories and review the evidence. So far they have been frustrated at every turn.

The typical congressional reaction is a letter asserting that the Liberty issue was thoroughly investigated in 1967 and that no incriminating evidence was found. The matter is closed, they say.

The past year brought more of the same, but also some striking progress, and equally striking evasions.

Two Remembrances

For example, the town of Grafton, Wisconsin remembered the USS Liberty in 1989 by building a $600,000 public library and naming it "The USS Liberty Memorial Public Library." The generous gesture was sadly marred by protests organized by spokesmen for Israel, who orchestrated angry editorials, hostile news stories, TV commentaries, and letters to editors complaining that any recognition of the attack on the Liberty was insulting to Israel. Picketers marched at the dedication ceremony, some carrying swastika posters, in an attempt to smear the name of the ship. The library's dedication ceremony became so controversial that local officials stationed an armed SWAT team on the roof to ward off trouble.

Similar protests occurred in Keene, New Hampshire, when a local college sponsored a USS Liberty discussion there. Letters of protest, mostly unsigned or signed with phony names and fictitious addresses, bombarded the area newspapers for months.

Among the most persistent arguments from Congress is that this event occurred too long ago to be investigated. Evidence and witnesses would be too difficult to find, they say-blindly ignoring offers from survivors to provide all the evidence and witnesses they could possibly examine.

Which Came First, 1967 or 1942?

Yet 1989 was also the year that 92 members of Congress signed or otherwise supported a statement on behalf of a Wisconsin veteran of WWII who claims he was deprived of a Medal of Honor for heroics in 1942-more than twice as long ago. According to the veteran, he killed over 500 Japanese single-handedly.

"He was denied the Medal of Honor due to blatant anti-Semitic sentiment," the congressmen wrote in a letter to the Secretary of the Army. Senator Herbert Kohl (D-WI) wrote not one but six strongly worded letters all but demanding that the medal be issued.

The State Department internal inquiry. . . concluded that the Israeli excuse was not true.

In fact, however, the veteran's "evidence" was sparse, weak, contradictory, and said to have been partially forged. Others in his military unit said his story was untrue. Experts said his claimed exploits were impossible. But none of that prevented members of Congress from lining up in his support, and only a shortage of time prevented even more from trying to help. The veteran was even permitted to testify personally on his own behalf before the House Armed Services Committee-a privilege Liberty survivors are still denied.

Eventually the Army persuaded the Congress that the veteran's claim was without merit. "If Congress can listen so carefully to that one lone veteran with little or no evidence and a 47-year-old story, why does the same Congress refuse to listen to us?" survivors asked. "We stand over 100 strong. We all tell the same story. We can prove our attackers are lying. We are supported by top officials of the era. But the same Congressmen who helped that WWII veteran usually won't give us an appointment, much less a hearing."

For supporters of the Liberty, however, the year 1989 was most important for a little-noticed but critical change in the U.S. government's response to inquiries.

Questions about the Liberty usually are sent to the U.S. Navy's office of the Judge Advocate General (JAG) in Arlington, Virginia, for reply. Until 1989, JAG has answered all questions with a terse but evasive statement: "The attack was fully investigated in 1967. Crewmen were interviewed and records were reviewed. No evidence of a deliberate attack was found. The matter is closed."

A Change in Position

In 1989, however, after persistent complaints from survivors and a thorough re-examination of the official records by at least one senior staff officer, JAG suddenly changed its position.

Now congressmen as well as members of the public who ask the Navy about the attack on the USS Liberty are told: "The Navy Court of Inquiry's investigation focused on communications problems and the crew's efforts in controlling damage. Sensitive international issues were best left for diplomatic and political consideration."

Clearly, the Navy has finally abandoned its claim that its investigation vindicated Israel. Now the Navy admits that its own inquiry only looked into communications problems and the crew's performance in combat. The question whether Israel deliberately attacked a ship it knew to be American was left for diplomats and politicians-Congress-to resolve. And Congress has failed to do its job. This is an important and dramatic reversal!

This is what we survivors have been saying for 23 years. The attack on the USS Liberty has never been investigated by anyone except to probe the performance of its own crew! Meanwhile, the excuses members of Congress use for evading this vital issue are either contradicted by Congress's own actions, or declared invalid by the Navy.

The State Department internal inquiry in 1967 into Israel's excuse that the Liberty was misidentified as an Egyptian vessel concluded that the Israeli excuse was not true. So the U.S. government knows that Israel is lying, but it chose to pretend to accept at face value Israel's claim that it was all a tragic accident.

In 1980, then-Senator Adlai Stevenson III, after grilling me for two hours about the attack, was asked by a staff member why Israeli goodwill should be risked by reopening the USS Liberty issue. Senator Stevenson replied: "Because the American people deserve to know the truth." That statement is as valid today as it was then. All that is needed is a single member of Congress with the courage to place the American national interest ahead of the wishes of the Israeli lobby.

James M. Ennes, Jr. retired from the Navy in 1978 after 27 years of service. He was a lieutenant on the bridge of the USS Liberty on the day of the attack. His book, Assault on the Liberty, is available from the AET Book Club.