Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, December 1999 , pages 28-34, 36

Special Report

The Israeli Attack on the USS Liberty, June 8, 1967, And the 32-Year Cover-up That Has Followed

 

By James E. Akins

 

In 1963 three World War II Victory hull freighters were refitted as Technical Research Ships. Their function, formally, was “to conduct technical research operations in support of U.S. Navy electronic research projects which include electromagnetic propagation studies and advanced communications systems.” Jane’s Fighting Ships called these ships “mobile bases for research in communications and electromagnetic radiation...[They are] considered electronic intelligence ships.” And so they were. They were designed to intercept foreign electronic messages and they were popularly called “spy ships.”

One of these ships was rechristened the USS Liberty.

In late May 1967 tension between Egypt and Israel had become serious and the Navy Department decided that it needed a “spy ship” in the region. As the Liberty was in Abidjan at the time and could get to the Eastern Mediterranean in two weeks it was dispatched. On June 5, when Israel attacked Egypt and destroyed most of its air force, the Liberty was already in the region. Commander William McGonagle of the Liberty immediately asked Vice Admiral Martin at the Sixth Fleet headquarters to send a destroyer to accompany the Liberty and serve as its armed escort and an auxiliary communications center.

The following day, June 6, Admiral Martin replied: “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. REQUEST DENIED.” However he promised that, in the unlikely event of an inadvertent attack, jet fighters from the Sixth Fleet could be overhead in 10 minutes.

By the evening of June 7 the Liberty was 13 miles off the coast of Gaza, ergo in international waters. At about that time the Pentagon decided that the ship might be too exposed and sent a message to the Sixth Fleet headquarters, copy to the Liberty, ordering the ship to withdraw to 20 miles from the coast. The message was misdirected to the Philippines and the Liberty never got its copy. The Pentagon then decided that 20 miles was insufficient and ordered the ship to withdraw to 100 miles from the coast. That message, too, was misdirected to the Philippines and was never received by the Liberty. As the ship had not acknowledged receipt of the earlier messages a direct message was sent to the Liberty. Unfortunately, it was classified Top Secret and the ship was unable to receive it. So the Liberty proceeded on course to the waters off Gaza but remained at all times in international waters.

At about 0900 a plane approached the ship but its markings could not be identified; it broke off and then turned toward the Gaza coast. At 1000 hours two delta-winged jets flew close enough to the ship to enable officers with binoculars to count the rockets they were carrying and even to see the pilots of the planes. But no identifying marks on the planes could be seen. Still, there was no great concern as the planes, which circled the ship three times, could easily see its markings and its large American flag. At 1030 a flying boxcar circled the ship slowly, giving further assurance that the ship had been identified. It flew over the Liberty at about 200 feet and its Israeli markings were clearly visible. The boxcar repeated this at about 1100 and again at 1130.

The ship continued its patrol at very slow speed when at 1400 two Mirage aircraft were seen rapidly approaching the ship. Although they were unmarked they were assumed to be Israeli planes—the Arabs did not have Mirages—and no defensive action was taken. Not that it would have done much good, since the ship was only very lightly armed. Both attacked the ship and the damage was considerable.

Commander McGonagle immediately sent a message to the chief of naval operations: “Under attack by unidentified jet aircraft, require immediate assistance.” According to James Ennis, who was badly wounded in this first attack, a submarine which had been following the ship sent up its periscope and filmed the attack. He was told of this by one of the crew on the submarine; it was subsequently confirmed by three other persons in a position to know the truth.

The attack lasted about 5 minutes and then ended. After another few minutes three unmarked Super-Mysteres attacked with napalm and dozens of rockets. There was then a short respite and two more Mirages—also unmarked—attacked. The entire engagement lasted about 22 minutes.

Throughout the attack the ship tried to contact Sixth Fleet headquarters, but the Israeli planes knew the frequencies of the transmission and were able to block transmission except when the rockets were underway. During these few seconds the radio operator was able to make contact. The first ship to receive and acknowledge the distress signal was the carrier Saratoga, and 12 F-4 phantom jets and four tanker planes were dispatched almost immediately to defend the Liberty . The Sixth Fleet flagship, the Little Rock, which had received the messages at almost the same time, was informed and the Liberty was informed that help was on the way.

It never arrived. Shortly after the word of the attack and the 12 planes dispatched to support it reached Washington, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara personally got on the circuit and said, “Tell Sixth Fleet to get those aircraft back immediately.” That message did get through and the planes were recalled. In subsequent discussion of the affair the White House directed the Pentagon to say that the Israelis had acknowledged their “mistake,” that the attack had been called off and the Israelis would give assistance to the ship.

Nine men had been killed and about 60 wounded. But that was not to be the end.

Most of the lifeboats had been destroyed in the earlier attack but the ship managed to launch three life rafts. They were immediately attacked by Israeli motor torpedo boats which destroyed two of them—a war crime in itself—and captured the third. They also launched torpedoes, one of which hit the Liberty at the waterline, and fired their cannon into the ship in an apparent last attempt to sink it, and the carnage continued. In all, 34 Americans were killed and 171 were wounded.

When the Israelis saw they were unable to sink the ship after more than two hours of intense attack, they offered support to the survivors, who refused it. The Liberty limped into Malta, where 821 rocket and missile holes and more than 3,000 holes from armor-piercing bullets were counted.

In subsequent “explanations” Israelis said they had mistaken the ship for the Egyptian “al-Qusair,” although the profiles of the two ships had nothing in common: the Egyptian ship displaced 2,000 tons, the American one 10,000. The American ship was clearly marked and it flew a standard American flag which measured 5 by 8 feet. The flag was destroyed during the first attack but it was replaced immediately by a 9-by-15 foot “holiday flag” and it flew throughout the attack. The Israelis never attempted to explain how they had acquired the frequencies over which the ship transmitted and why they had blocked these frequencies; the Egyptian frequencies would have been quite different. Nor have the Israelis explained why the aircraft were unmarked.

While in Malta most of the surviving officers and men were interviewed in several groups by Rear Admiral Isaac Kidd, who ostentatiously took off the stars on his uniform in each case and said, “Now, tell me, man-to-man, everything that happened.” They all did. Then he equally ostentatiously put the stars back on and said, “Now I’m talking officially; you are never, repeat, never to discuss this with anyone, not even your wives. If you do you will be court-martialed and will end your lives in prison—or worse.” For years almost no one spoke out. Now almost all the survivors who can be contacted do.

 

Prelude and Aftermath

 

George Ball served as undersecretary of state under Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson. That Ball saw clearly what mistakes the U.S. was making in Vietnam and that he recommended an early withdrawal is now widely known. What is less widely known is that he also believed the U.S. policy of underwriting all of Israel’s actions in the Middle East was harmful to America’s interests and its foreign policy objectives. This did not endear Ball to the Israel Lobby in Washington, and Ball firmly believed he would have been selected secretary of state by Jimmy Carter if his appointment had not been vetoed by the Israelis.

In 1992 Ball wrote his last book, The Passionate Attachment; America’s Involvement with Israel, 1947 to the Present. The title is a phrase from George Washington’s farewell address in 1796. Washington counseled “the new nation, that in shaping its international relations, it should abjure any ”˜passionate attachment’ to or ”˜inveterate hatred’ of any other nation. Instead it should ”˜cultivate peace and harmony with all.’” Washington was clearly referring to the attachment of some of his fellow Americans to France. Ball believed the “passionate attachment” of some Americans to Israel was and is equally dangerous. Although Ball was very well known and his previous books had been widely and favorably reviewed, this book was ignored. The Washington Post and The New York Times carried “reviews” from well-known defenders of Israel who used the occasion not to review the book but to launch ad hominem attacks on Ball. The book was not reviewed elsewhere in the “elite media” and there were no interviews on the daytime talk shows.

In his book Ball, who was a top State Department official in 1967, wrote:

“The Liberty’s presence and function were known to Israel’s leaders. They presumably thought it vital that the Liberty be prevented from informing Washington of their intention to violate any cease-fire before they had completed their occupation of the Golan. Their solution was brutal and direct...Apprised of Israel’s plans from various sources, the U.S. Navy Department faced a delicate problem. Due regard for the lives of America’s naval personnel should have impelled the Navy to urge the State Department to warn off Israel in no uncertain terms; meanwhile the Navy should have alerted the Liberty to its danger and dispatched ships or planes for its protection. But none of these actions was taken in time.”

Ball describes the attack and the slaughter of American seamen and then goes on:

“The sequel was unedifying. The administration tried vigorously to downplay the whole matter. Although it silenced the crew, casualties to the sailors and damage to the ship could not possibly be concealed. Thus an elaborate charade was performed. The ship, they rejoined, had not been clearly marked but looked like an Arab ship—which was definitely untrue....In the end the Israelis tendered a reluctant and graceless apology....The sordid affair has still not been erased from the history books; an organization of devoted survivors has kept the cause alive over the years by publishing a newsletter and holding well-advertised meetings.”

Is there any possibility that the U.S. government did not know what the Israelis were doing to the Liberty or that it thought that there was in fact a honest mistake? Senator Jacob Javits of New York said at the time, “Thank Heavens the ship was attacked by the Israelis because we know it was a mistake.” The unstated implication was that an attack by an Arab nation would have been deliberate. No, pace Senator Javits, there was no one at the top of the U.S. government who did not know the facts.

Dwight Porter, who was ambassador in Lebanon at the time of the attack on the Golan, told columnist Rowland Evans in late 1991 that the CIA station chief showed him during or immediately after the attack the transcript of intercepted Israeli messages. Israeli planes had been given the order by the IDF (Israel Defense Forces) to attack the Liberty but a pilot replied that it was an American ship; the order was repeated, “Attack the ship”; the pilot still didn’t get the point and said he could see the American flag. He was then told harshly that he had his orders: “Attack it.” And, as we sadly know, he did. These facts were published in the Evans and Novak column of Nov. 6, 1991.

The columnists got further confirmation from an American-born Israeli major, Seth Mintz, who was in the war room in Tel Aviv at the time of the attack. He is quoted as saying, “Everyone felt it was an American ship and that it was the Liberty...there were comments about the markings, about the flag. Everyone in that room was convinced that it was an American ship.” Mintz told Evans and Novak that “The Israelis were guilty of an outrage.” The American suppression of the truth is surely an equal outrage. There have also been reports, but never confirmed on the record, that at least one of the attacking pilots was an American citizen.

Major Mintz was apparently a dual citizen; at least he was living in Maine at the time he was interviewed by Evans and Novak. It’s too bad that he didn’t make his statements earlier, that he hadn’t renounced his Israeli citizenship at the time and gone public immediately. But that would be asking a lot—too much, in view of the American government’s own efforts to suppress the truth.

Ball is certainly right that the Israelis wanted no interference in their plans to occupy Syria’s Golan Heights. The essentials of the Golan problem are well known; they can be described as follows:

From 1948 until 1967 the Syrians sat on the Golan Heights and shelled thedefenseless and peaceful Israeli farmers below. This was done out of maliciousness or a desire to be provocative or perhaps just because the Syrians were evil. Clearly this situation had become intolerable to the Israelis and they had not only the right but the duty to change it. And they did; the occupation of the Heights—although there may not have been any specific provocation during the Israeli attacks on Egypt and Jordan—was perfectly understandable and justifiable.

These “facts” were widely “understood,” I might even say “universally” understood, in the U.S.

Brent Scowcroft, subsequently head of the National Security Council, responded archly when I suggested that the story wasn’t exactly right. “Everyone knows the facts,” he said, “I was just in Israel and I saw for myself what had happened.”

The problem was—and is—that this Israeli version of the Golan is pure fiction. Every one of the 1,000-odd clashes between Syria and Israel between 1948 and 1967 was examined by the U.N. Truce Supervisory Commission, which found that only a very few had clearly been caused by the Syrians. A few dozen were ambiguous and all the rest were caused by Israel. But, many Israelis point out, the U.N. was notoriously anti-Israel, so how could its reports be believed? Well, there were many officers of many nations and they all reported the same thing. Could they all have been lying? Still, we no longer have to rely only on U.N. documentation.

Moshe Dayan, who commanded the Israeli forces in 1967 and had given the order to occupy the Golan, gave an interview to an Israeli journalist, Rami Tal, in 1976. The interview was kept secret until April 1997—two years ago—when it was published in a leading Israeli daily newspaper, Yediot Ahronot. It has been authenticated by Israeli historians, and General Dayan’s daughter, Yael, a member of the Knesset, insisted that it be published.

In the interview, Tal interjected, “But they were sitting on the Golan Heights and...”

“Never mind that,” said Dayan, “I know how at least 80 percent of the clashes there started. In my opinion, more than 80 percent, but let’s talk about 80 percent. It went this way: We would send a tractor to plow some area where it wasn’t possible to do anything—[it was] in the demilitarized zone—and would know in advance that the Syrians would start to shoot. If they didn’t shoot, we would tell the tractor to advance further, until in the end the Syrians would get annoyed and shoot. And then we would use artillery and later the air force...And that’s how it was.”

Furthermore, Dayan thought that the land would have to be given back to Syria if there was ever to be peace in the region, and taking it would result in the loss of many Israeli soldiers.

Then why did he give the order to invade? Essentially it was because of pressure from the would-be settlers who convinced Levi Eshkol, the Israeli prime minister, to occupy the Heights and the fertile lands beyond. When asked if that was all there was to it, Dayan replied,

“I can tell you with absolute confidence that [they] were not thinking about [security] they were thinking about the Heights’ land....I saw them; I spoke with them. They didn’t even try to hide their greed for that land.”

During the peace talks between Syria and Israel under Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin there was almost full agreement. Israel would withdraw from all of the Heights; there would be demilitarized zones on both sides of the border—more in Syria than in Israel. The main point—perhaps the only significant unresolved issue—was where the final border would be: the international pre-1947 border (the Israeli position) or the 1948 truce line (the Syrian position). A total of less than 15 square miles was at issue.

This encouraging development ended with the murder of Rabin and the subsequent rise of Binyamin Netanyahu as Israeli prime minister. Netanyahu agreed to talks with Syria but they had to begin all over again. The Syrians said they wanted the talks resumed but they would have to proceed from positions already agreed. No talks have taken place, showing that sometimes terrorism does pay off; Rabin’s murderer justified his action because of Rabin’s “treason.” And Netanyahu revived the old discredited line that the Golan Heights were necessary to protect Israel’s security.

But back to George Ball’s comments on the Liberty. He concludes:

“Yet the ultimate lesson of the Liberty attack had far more effect on policy in Israel than in America. Israel’s leaders concluded that nothing they might do would offend the Americans to the point of reprisal. If America’s leaders did not have the courage to punish Israel for the blatant murder of American citizens, it seemed clear that their American friends would let them get away with almost anything.”

This is hard to gainsay.

In fact, the Israelis tried to press their advantage almost immediately.

During the 1967 war Israel occupied the entire Sinai Peninsula and among the great prizes of its victory were the Egyptian oil fields which they proceeded to exploit to capacity until the Sinai was returned some 20 years later. But the main Egyptian oil fields were off-shore in the Gulf of Suez. The Israelis maintained that the new Israel-Egyptian border was the median line in the Gulf and the oil fields were to the east of the line, therefore under Israeli control.

General Yitzhak Rabin came to Washington very shortly after the war to press the claim. He said that Israel had occupied the drilling platforms during the war (which might have changed the legality of the matter) but, in fact, the general was lying and we knew it.

That did not deter General Rabin. He hadn’t come to negotiate; he had come to dictate and he proceeded to tell Secretary of State Rusk what “the United States had to do.” He even gave a schedule: this must be done today, this tomorrow and this by the end of the week.

Dean Rusk was a mild Georgian, a gentleman who never lost his temper, never raised his voice. He was also completely bald, and as Rabin ranted Rusk’s neck turned red, then his lower face, and the red kept rising like a thermometer. When he was completely red he said, quite coolly:

“General. We have all heard the Soviet propaganda repeated by President Nasser and others, that Israel is an American colony imposed on the Middle East to enable the U.S. to dominate it. We all know that is nonsense. But I would like to remind you that the United States is not a colony of Israel.”

Sometimes I wonder. But Rabin did not get what he wanted—at least not at this point—a minor and a rare defeat.

An even more flagrant example of Israeli certainty that there is nothing it could do against the United States and not get away with it was the case of Jonathan Pollard, the spy who did the most damage to America in our entire history, according to Caspar Weinberger, who was secretary of defense at the time of Pollard’s actions. Pollard was a low-ranking official of the Navy Department with a very high security clearance. He was given names and numbers of documents by one or more other Israeli agents in the Defense Department. He then withdrew these documents from the files and took them to an Israeli safe-house where they were copied. He then returned the documents to the files the next working day. Literally thousands of documents were taken, most of which had little if anything to do with Israel.

Pollard seems to have considered himself primarily an Israeli, although as far as I know he had never taken Israeli nationality. The case was and is most disturbing for several reasons: 1) the damage was so great because Israel sold or traded the information to hostile powers, making it possible for them to destroy all American intelligence networks throughout the Soviet bloc. Many U.S. informants were caught and executed; 2) Israel has never returned the documents Pollard stole in spite of promising to do so; and 3) Pollard has never identified those who tasked him with acquiring specific documents. That Pollard has never shown any remorse is natural; he believes he served his “true homeland” well.

Israel initially claimed this was a “rogue operation” and that the Israeli government knew nothing about it. Not one member of the American intelligence community believed this, but the U.S. government decided not to make an issue of it. This Israeli charade has subsequently been abandoned and the last Israeli prime minister used all of his power to get Pollard released on the grounds that he “has suffered enough already.”

Netanyahu failed largely because he had bragged that the price President Bill Clinton agreed to pay for Israel’s signing the Wye agreement was the release of Pollard. I am not sure that Clinton actually made such a promise, but when the word leaked that Pollard might soon be freed, George Tenet, head of the CIA, let it be known that he would resign if this were done. Clinton then said he had agreed only to “examine the question again.”

As a matter of interest, any Americans who contribute to the Fund to Free Pollard may deduct such contributions from their U.S. income taxes.

Israel and its Lobby here constantly make the point that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East and must be supported. It is indeed a democracy but only in the same sense that apartheid South Africa was a democracy, for some but not all of its citizens.

But the main point Israel’s supporters make is that “Israel is our only friend in the Middle East.” In view of the Liberty and Jonathan Pollard matters, one wonders how we can distinguish our “friends” from our “enemies.”

The international legality of Israel was established when the United Nations voted in 1947 to partition Palestine into a Jewish state with about 53 percent of the land and an Arab state with about 47 percent. The Arabs at the time were about two-thirds of the population, and they understandably rejected the partition plan. When the truce was finally reached in 1948 Israel controlled 78 percent and the 22 percent left to the Arabs was annexed to the Kingdom of Jordan.

From then on Israel has shown an extraordinary ability to defy the U.N. From 1947 to 1967 it refused to comply with 32 resolutions. Between 1967 and 1974 there were another 17. The resolutions called for the internationalization of Jerusalem, for an end to settlements in the territories occupied in 1967, for the return of refugees and for an end to the occupation of southern Lebanon.

All were quite important. And all were ignored. Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol said after the 1967 war that “even if the U.N. votes by 121 to one, we will not withdraw from the territories we have occupied.” Golda Meir added, “If a resolution is not to our liking, so what? After all it’s not a tank firing at you.”

Arabs and other Muslims and many others comment on the asymmetry of our Middle East policy, our double standard. The U.S. vetoes any U.N. resolution including or even implying punitive action against Israel and it tolerates Israeli defiance even of those resolutuions with which the U.S. concurs.

Iraq defies the Security Council resolution to withdraw from Kuwait and its infrastructure is destroyed. It defies another SC resolution on inspection of suspected military sites and sanctions are imposed for eight years. Some countries, like some of George Orwell’s animals, are more equal than others.

 

Crucial Questions

 

Finally, let’s face the crucial questions we’d all like answered about the Liberty.

Who knew about the attack on the Liberty and when did they know it? The attack was reported by the ship immediately and the word was certainly on the president’s desk within 15 minutes—probably much less. So he knew. So did Walt Rostow and McGeorge Bundy in the White House. So did Robert McNamara, the secretary of defense. So did a number of senior military men.

Admiral ThomasMoorer, who was not immediately involved, knows men who were and he has spoken strongly about the scandal of the Israeli action and the greater scandal of non-American response. Planes were dispatched from the mid-Mediterranean to the Liberty almost immediately after the attack. Why were they ordered to stop and turn around while the ship was under ferocious attack, and who issued the order?

If the planes had continued they almost certainly could have saved the 25 who were killed and the 110 who were wounded in the second and third Israeli attacks. And why has there never been a full congressional investigation of this whole affair, one of the most shameful in American history?

The short answer is simple: all those who know the facts or could find them out are afraid to speak about the matter or to order the investigation. This includes both the Congress and the White House. And so little is known by the American people that there has never been a strong demand from the country at large for answers and for punishment or at least exposure of those who are responsible.

In Washington, when anyone refers to “The Lobby” there is no doubt which one is meant: it is AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Some maintain the AARP, the senior citizen lobby, is even more powerful, but they can’t make their case. And forget about the NRA, the powerful Gun Lobby. It is nothing comparable.

After Watergate, Congress passed campaign reforms including the provision that a political action committee (PAC) could contribute only $5,000 to a candidate in each election. Fine. A good start. Then, quite suddenly, about 120 independent PACs were formed around the country whose sole raison d’etre was support of Israel. But their names showed no connection to the Middle East, e.g. “Connecticut Good Government PAC.” (Richard Curtiss, executive editor of this magazine, wrote a book on these “Stealth PACS.”) Does AIPAC coordinate the activities of these PACs? What a shocking question! That would be illegal!

What AIPAC does is supply these PACs with information on voting records and statements of candidates about the Middle East, and which candidates, or their pro-Israel opponents, need funding. If the individual PAC then feels a candidate is sufficiently pro-Israel it supports him; if he is seen to be anti-Israel, the support goes to his opponent.

With a single PAC there isn’t much of a problem; you can’t buy a congressman for $5,000—well, not a good one. But with 100 PACs each giving $5,000, that’s $500,000 and is quite another story.

I’m in a rather small minority in believing that the power and the invincibility of AIPAC are more myth than reality. But I must admit that there isn’t much difference. If people and members of Congress believe the myth, then the myth has become reality.

About 20 years ago Sen. J. William Fulbright asked me to have lunch with him and Sen. Hugh Scott, the Senate minority leader. We talked about the Middle East and at the end of the lunch Fulbright asked his colleague what he had concluded.

“No doubt about it, Ambassador Akins is right,” Senator Scott said. “But if you quote me publicly I’ll say you’re a goddam liar.”

You get the same reaction today when you talk with most congresspeople. “Sure, you’ve got a point; you’re probably right. But what can I do? Look at what happened to Senator Fulbright, Senator [Charles] Percy and Congressman [Paul] Findley.” All three had been targeted by AIPAC for defeat. And defeated they all were.

But each case is flawed; none is a clear AIPAC victory. Fulbright himself told me that he was out of touch with Arkansas; he was interested primarily in foreign policy and few in his home state shared this passion. “And Dale Bumpers (his primary election opponent) was young, attractive, popular and had been an excellent governor. I would have lost the election even if the Middle East had not existed.”

The case of Percy is different. He was a popular senator from Illinois in 1982 and was chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. And he favored the sale of Boeing AWAC surveillance planes to Saudi Arabia.

And why not? It was a fantastic deal for the U.S. The Saudis paid 10 times as much for the planes as the shah of Iran had paid; they would be manned, at least initially, by Americans and the information they recovered would be processed in Kansas City. But Israel opposed the sale of anything which might give any Arab country parity with Israel, and its lobby in Washington went all out to block the sale. The sale went through, but Israel then came to the United States with a demand for even more military assistance, and we gave it immediately.

As for Percy, he would be destroyed. A millionaire real estate developer from Los Angeles (that’s in California, not Illinois) put hundreds of thousands of dollars into the campaign to defeat him.

Percy was advised by many to stand up to the attacks, to say he would take no action which would harm Israel but if Israeli and American interests came into conflict the American ones would take precedence. He was running for the Senate, after all, not for the Israeli Knesset.

Percy did not take the advice; in fact he asked rather pitiably, “Why are they doing this? I’m the best friend of Israel in the Senate.” AIPAC decided to finish him off and others who might have supported his actions decided he was a wimp.

Paul Findley’s case is different, too. He was a Republican congressman from down-state Illinois. After the 1980 census Illinois lost a seat and Findley’s district was redrawn, it lost a traditionally Republican area and gained a large number of Democratic voters. It’s not clear how much his Middle East stand had to do with the manner in which his state’s reapportionment was carried out. But from the time a Republican congressman was given an overwhelmingly Democratic constituency, the work of dozens of volunteers AIPAC sent from all parts of the country to work for his opponent was greatly enhanced.

So was the role of AIPAC crucial? Perhaps, but I advise congressmen and others to look at the case of the late Sen. John Chafee of Rhode Island. AIPAC singled him out for defeat in 1988; he did not back down or even acknowledge the AIPAC campaign. He won with a bigger majority than he had six years earlier, and he won again in 1994. Nor did he change his voting patterns prior to his death in October of this year.

What exactly is AIPAC? Sometimes it is called the Jewish Lobby. This is wrong. It was formed to advance the interests of Israel. Many of its supporters are Jews but some of its most fanatical supporters are Christian fundamentalists who believe that at the end of time, just before the second coming of Christ, the Jews will go back to their homeland. Any attempt to oppose this or, indeed, to try to block anything Israel wants to do is an attempt to frustrate the will of God. Of course, these people are not particularly philo-Semitic. They believe that 144,000 of these Jews (yes; that’s 12 x 12,000 of the tribes of Israel) will be converted to Christianity and will be saved. The rest of the Jews will be consigned to hell along with me and probably at least some of those reading these lines.

A few years ago a prominent Zionist was asked about the propriety of accepting support from Christian fundamentalists like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson. Didn’t he know what they believed about Jews? “Oh yes, of course, we know,” the Jewish Zionist replied. “And if Jesus returns we’ll re-examine our options. In the meantime we’ll take all the help they give.”

It is extremely important to note that the Jewish community is far from monolithic in its support of Israel or its lobby in Washington. All polls show that the majority of American Jews know how important peace in the Middle East is for the United States and they strongly favor a real peace between Israel and the Palestinians and other Arabs. By real peace is meant something the Arabs can accept as honorable. And there is no doubt whatsoever that the great majority of American Jews place the interests of America before the interests of Israel.

AIPAC’s influence does not come from its control of Jewish votes but from its access to extraordinary amounts of cash. It seems that a majority of super-rich Jews are strong supporters of the extreme right-wing in Israel. A Jewish friend of mine explained that these vicarious Zionists believe they can gain the spiritual rewards of aliyah—emigration to Israel—by supporting Jewish settlers on Arab lands on the West Bank. A bingo parlor operator living in Florida is financing the construction of Jewish settlements in occupied Arab East Jerusalem. But construction may be stopped with the election of Barak.

The day after the American presidential election in 1992 I attended a meeting of Americans for Peace Now. It’s largely Jewish but it includes a significant Christian contingent. Peter Edelman, then a close friend of President and Mrs. Clinton, had just come back from a trip through the Middle East. Edelman was exultant about the trip and about the election of his friend. “We represent American Jews,” he said, “AIPAC doesn’t. And we will very quickly see the United States turn its attention to the Middle East. At last we can hope to see real peace in the Middle East.”

It didn’t quite work out that way, alas. In December 1992 a group of right-wing Jews saw Clinton and told him that there were a lot of Jews in his entourage but they weren’t “the right kind” of Jews. “Peace Now did not give you the millions you needed for your election, We did. And we have to be represented in your administration.”

They were. And they dominate the administration’s foreign policy. Peter Edelman and his wife, Marion Wright Edelman, who had subsequent differences with the administration, apparently no longer have even social contact with the Clintons.

Once again efforts are being made to reopen the shameful case of the assault on the Liberty, to try to raise popular consciousness enough to demand a congressional investigation of the whole matter while there is still some chance that those responsible for the action and the cover-up can be held accountable.

It’s late, many of them are dead. The tactic which Israel and its supporters in Congress will take will be to try to ignore anything than comes out, any statements that are made, any pleas for justice. It’s been remarkably successful since 1967.

Now they add, “Don’t talk to us about that. It was regrettable, of course, but it’s ancient history now.” A major American tragedy has been distorted and there has been a major cover-up. All the guilty parties have to do is to hold on just a little longer. In a few years those who remember and who demand justice will all be dead.

We can take some small, cold comfort in the certainty that historians will describe the events completely and accurately. They will know whether it was President Johnson himself or one of his assistants who gave the shameful order to the war planes to abort their rescue efforts, which almost certainly would have saved 28 of the American sailors who were killed and 110 of these who were wounded aboard the Liberty.

The historians will know why the Israelis took the action. Was it because they wanted the ship to be sunk before it could monitor the Israeli advance into the Golan Heights? Or was it because the Israelis had ordered us to stay out of the eastern Mediterranean and the Liberty had disobeyed this order—knowingly or not—and therefore had to be destroyed?

Historians will even find out how many American citizens inside Israel knew of or participated in this action against America, and if any of the pilots who attacked the American ship were carrying American passports.

Yes, the truth will be known and widely accepted someday and that will be good. How much better it would be if Congress would launch a determined effort to expose the truth now, if it would call to account those in Israel and in the United States who were involved in spreading the lies about the tragedy. The heroes who demand justice have a right to see it done in their lifetimes. And is it too much to ask that those who participated in the attack and in its cover-up be exposed—if not punished—while they are still alive?

James E. Akins, a career foreign service officer, served as U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia before his retirement in 1976.He lives in Washington, DC, where he serves as a consultant on energy matters and travels frequently to the Middle East, Europe and Asia. This article was adapted from a talk given by Ambassador Akins at the Center for Policy Analysis on Palestine in Washington, DC.

 

SIDEBAR 1

Following is the text of a draft Resolution introduced into the Wisconsin State Assembly and passed by its Veterans’ Committee by a 9 to 0 vote. The resolution is now awaiting a vote by the Assembly’s full membership.

1999-2000 Legislature LRBs0121/1

Assembly Substitute Amendment 1, To 1999 Assembly Joint Resolution 47

Sept. 14, 1999 Offered by Representative Marlan Schneider

Relating to: Calling upon the U.S. Congress to investigate the attack on the USS Liberty.

Whereas, on June 8, 1967, the USS Liberty, while operating in international waters in the eastern Mediterranean, was assailed by Israeli aircraft and torpedo boats; and whereas, this attack killed 34 members of the Liberty’s crew and wounded 171 other United States personnel on board in addition to causing extensive damage to the ship; and whereas, the late George Ball, undersecretary of state in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, referred to these deaths as the “blatant murder of American citizens”; and whereas, accountability for these deaths and injuries to our American soldiers has never been established; and whereas, aircraft dispatched from aircraft carriers to aid the Liberty were recalled and this complete lack of assistance to our U.S. troops resulted in 34 dead and 171 wounded; and whereas, the USS Liberty’s disaster should have been thoroughly investigated by Congress at that time; now, therefore, be it Resolved by the assembly, the senate concurring, That the Wisconsin legislature calls upon Congress to immediately investigate this tragic attack on the USS Liberty by the armed forces of the State of Israel on June 8, 1967, In order to determine accountability for the attack; and, be it further Resolved , That the Wisconsin legislature urges Congress to determine why aircraft dispatched to aid the Liberty were recalled and our servicemen and the ship were not supported while under fire and, be it further Resolved, That the assembly chief clerk shall provide a copy of this joint resolution to each member of this state’s congressional delegation.

 

SIDEBAR 2

 

An Open Letter From the Widow of a USS Liberty Crew Member to Senator John Warner (R-VA), Washington, DC.

 

Dear Senator:

I am writing to you in your capacity as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. I am the wife of James Mahlon Lupton, CT1, who was killed aboard the USS Liberty when it was attacked by Israel on June 8, 1967. He was right where the torpedo hit. I have wondered for 32 years what was on his 24-year-old mind as he worked, knowing that the ship was under attack, that she had no defense weapons, that basically she didn’t have a chance unless someone came to the rescue. He probably heard the torpedoes being launched and heard them zinging toward him in the water. Coming Fast! And perhaps he knew, somehow, that this time there was not going to be a rescue...there was not going to be any help from anybody...that Israel was determined to sink this vessel and she didn’t have a chance. And maybe—his last thought was of me.

I was 24 years old. We had been married only two years. My husband was 6’2” tall, 220 pounds, very handsome, with a winning smile (I have pictures to prove it) and many friends. Everyone who knew him respected him because of his integrity. He had the highest sense of “my word is my bond” honor that I have ever seen in a human being. He did not equivocate or tell lies.

I am telling you all this about him because right now he is an unknown person to you. But I assure you, he was a real person, who laughed, loved, had hobbies, enjoyed the company of friends and family, and was looked up to as a man to emulate. And certainly looked up to by me. I had tremendous respect for him. He was such a fine person—he was the only person who could make me laugh when I was angry. (Until I had my son. He had that same quality. Sadly, I also lost my son, 11 years ago, when he was 15.)

Senator Warner, he was a real person. And I am a real person, just as you are a real person. You have lived, loved, laughed, enjoyed the respect of your peers, and enjoyed considerable success in your field, because of your intelligence and your expertise.

My husband did exactly the same thing. Not in your field, of course. He was a Russian linguist. What I am trying to accomplish here is to make you aware that he was a person, with the rights and privileges that all American citizens enjoy. Except for one thing. He died on the Liberty when it was torpedoed by Israel, our allies, I thought. Allies were supposed to work together and protect each other. Am I under an illusion here? Or am I just misunderstanding the meaning of the word “ally”?

I was in Turkey at the time. I woke up to a beautiful sunlit spring day, and got dressed to go to my job on the air base. I remember that I wore a sky-blue dress. When the officer came into my office to tell me that the ship had been attacked, I started shaking. The coffee I was drinking spilled over the edges of the cup and my knees turned to water. I couldn’t stand up. I sat down and immediately lost focus. All I could do was react to what I had heard.

The officer said what he had to say—he was very kind—and left. My boss said I could go home. (Home? What home? Didn’t I have a husband at home?) I could scarcely remember how to drive—but I did. I had some friends who wanted to take my mind off what was going on, so they took me to the movie that was showing on base. The movie was “The Bedford Incident.” Isn’t that ironic?

I’m giving you all this history because you need to know that I am not the only wife who felt that way. I am not the only woman who lost someone she loved on that vessel. And I am not the only person looking for honest answers to a nightmare that has been ongoing for 32 years. You know, the families and the survivors of the Liberty only want the truth. Nobody wants to “get even” or “start something.” We just want to put this at rest, and as long as the truth is hidden, not one of us can rest. And if this happened to us, who among our shipmates is safe? And why would anyone enlist to serve a country that apparently doesn’t even care enough about what happened to us to launch an investigation?

Having said all that, I have some questions to ask. I have read almost everything on the USS Liberty Web site—some of it is too painful still—and there are discrepancies and inadequacies which I am certainly not the first to note or point out. My questions are listed below.

1.Why didn’t the Sixth Fleet come to the aid of the Liberty?

2. Why were the rescue aircraft called back by the president of the United States?

3. What involvement did the 303 Committee have in the Liberty’s deployment and mission?

4. What did Project Cyanide have to do with the Liberty, directly or indirectly?

5. What did Frontlet 615 have to do with the Liberty directly or indirectly?

6. Why wasn’t the USS Amberjack allowed to come to the aid of the Liberty?

7. Where is the film of the attack taken by the Amberjack?

8. Why weren’t violations of the UCMJ investigated?

9. Why were warning and operational messages to the Liberty mis-routed?

10. Why was the crew told to keep silent regarding the attack?

11. What secret is so volatile that it cannot be revealed by our government after 30 years?

12. Why haven’t clear violations of international law been investigated?

13. Why was Admiral Tobin awarded the Bronze Star when he wasn’t even there?

14. Why hasn’t our former ambassador to Lebanon, Dwight Porter, ever been questioned by Congress, when it is known he was shown transcripts of radio conversations between the Israeli attackers and their military superiors recorded at our embassy in Lebanon?

15. Why was Commander McGonagle awarded his Medal of Honor, our country’s highest honor, in the Navy Yard instead of in a ceremony conducted by the president at the White House? That certainly was not his request. And it is the only Medal of Honor that has been presented in such a fashion. Begging your pardon, Senator—that was shameful.

I would sincerely appreciate any explanation that you can give that would ease the pain I bear. I have remarried and had children, been divorced, worked, and still work at my job, and I still don’t understand. I am trying very hard to get some peace and it just won’t come. I have not forgotten him, and I will never forget that awful day when I lost a piece of my heart.

Can you help me?

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Very truly yours,

Barbara Scott (Lupton) Neilson