Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, June 1992, Page 52, 53

Special Report

Israel's Attack on the USS Liberty: Cracks in the 25-Year Cover-Up

By James M. Ennes, Jr.

Although June 8 marks a quarter century since Israeli forces attacked the USS Liberty, the cover-up continues unabated. For newcomers to the subject, the USS Liberty was a U.S. Navy intelligence collection vessel assigned to patrol in international waters near the Israeli-Egyptian border during what has become known as the Six-Day War.

Liberty arrived on the fourth day of the war. She was immediately identified as American by the Israelis, who circled the ship at low level throughout the day, making a total of eight reconnaissance sorties and 13 orbits in daylight. Liberty's radio intercept operators heard the Israeli pilots reporting to their headquarters that she was American. So did operators in Germany. Observers in the Israeli war room acknowledge that her identity was known there and her position marked on a chart.

Israel, however, had been planning to invade Syria that morning, an event discouraged by the White House. American observers so close to the invasion site could not be tolerated. So the battle was postponed for 24 hours while Israeli aircraft and torpedo boats sought to destroy a ship belonging to the country they call their best friend and ally.

Liberty took over 800 rocket and machine-gun hits, and a torpedo blasted a 40-foot hole in her side. Thirty-four men died and 171 more were wounded from the 295-man crew. Yet the ship stayed afloat and made her way over 1,000 miles to the island of Malta for repairs.

Israel called the attack an error, claiming that the Liberty "strayed into a war zone where she had no business" and was mistaken for a rusted out Egyptian horse carrier half her size called the El Quseir. Only the most ardent of Israel's supporters accepted that story.

Most of then-President Lyndon Johnson's closest advisers saw the attack as what it was: a deliberate attempt to sink a friendly ship. Even the president, in private conversations with colleagues, called the attack deliberate. So did Secretary of State Dean Rusk. So did the directors of all the intelligence agencies.

Yet members of the U.S. Congress remain willfully blind to the event, insisting that they accept the Israeli excuse at face value. Congress refused then and refuses now to investigate. Too many congressmen personally depend on pro-Israel campaign contributions to risk taking a hard look. The Liberty attack now stands alone as the only major maritime incident in all U.S. history that has not been investigated by the Congress.

Evidence has continued to develop, however, indicating ever more certainly that this attack was no accident. For instance, an Israeli pilot as come forward to report that he was among the attackers. He refused to fire on the ship, he tells us, when he recognized it as American. He was told to do so anyway. Instead, he returned to his base where he was arrested, tried, and dismissed from the Israeli Defense Force. Although he was willing to tell his story to Congress, survivors could not find a single member willing to listen.

Last year, then-Ambassador to Lebanon Dwight Porter came forward to report that U.S. Embassy monitors heard the radio conversations between the pilot and his headquarters. Next, Israeli Major Seth Mintz reported that he was in the Israeli war room where he heard the order given to attack a ship the Israelis knew to be American.

Both the Porter and Mintz reports were picked up by nationally syndicated columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak. Their story brought angry denials from spokespersons for Israel and sparked a debate with pro-Israel New York Times columnist A.M. Rosenthal, who reported that the Israeli major had been misquoted by Evans and Novak.

Despite Rosenthal's efforts, no one could discredit the story after Liberty survivors revealed that they had Mintz's original remarks on videotape. The tape was offered to CNN, which declined to use it. And still no member of Congress was willing to probe the serious issues being aired.

Last June, survivors of the attack held a reunion in Washington, DC. This well-attended affair revealed support in high places.

First, while survivors and guest of honor Admiral Thomas Moorer, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, looked on proudly, Rear Admiral Robert Brooks presented Liberty's commanding officer, Captain William McGonagle, with a Presidential Unit Citation that had been authorized in 1967 by Lyndon Johnson, but never formally presented. According to reports, that oversight was corrected at the personal direction of President George Bush.

The next morning, Liberty survivors were invited to the White House, where they were greeted at a Rose Garden reception by then-Chief of Staff John Sununu and presidential adviser General Brent Scowcroft.

This event, belatedly reported on page one of The Washington Post, set off a near panic in the pro-Israel press. The New York Jewish weekly newspaper Forward, for instance, unaware that 60 percent of the directors of the Liberty Veterans Association are Jewish, reported that the USS Liberty Veteran's Association "has been transmogrified into an anti-Semitic organization." Survivors have amused themselves ever since with creative use of the term, as in, "Help, I've been transmogrified!"

This year yet another television documentary promised to present to Americans what it called the "truth" about the attack. NBC's prime-time "Story Behind the Story" won the cooperation of survivors by promising to let them tell their story on camera. Then, after the interviews were filmed, the company assigned a pro-Israel writer to assure that nothing was included in the broadcast that might offend Israel.

As a result, Americans saw a report which glossed over the story, ignored the evidence, failed to describe the extensive aerial reconnaissance prior to the attack or the machine-gunning of liferafts afterwards, skipped statements by Admiral Moorer, and severely cut vital remarks by Dean Rusk and others. Yet the producers did find room for extensive argumentation by Israel.

After three television documentaries, the truth about the USS Liberty is yet to be seen on American television.

Understanding the Truth

Yet, Americans do remember the Liberty, and survivors believe the truth is widely understood despite congressional inaction and media obfuscation.

This year three more memorials to our dead shipmates were created. In Richmond, CA, city fathers agreed to name USS Liberty Street in memory of the ship. In Troy, New York, a flagpole and memorial marker honor the memory of Francis Brown, who died at the helm from an Israeli bullet. And in Greeley, PA, a museum display created by the Veterans of Foreign Wars honors Alexander Neil Thompson, who died from an air-to-surface missile while trying to ward off jet aircraft with the Liberty's 50-caliber machine gun.

This is the third public honor for Gunner Thompson. A barracks at Great Lakes Naval Station and a multimillion dollar Aegis Weapons Training Building in San Diego remind American sailors daily of his sacrifice, and bring to 28 the number of known memorials to our 34 shipmates killed in the attack.

Although Congress remains blind to the Liberty, changes may be in sight. In this election year, with Israel and congressional incumbents both losing their teflon hloss, survivors report increasing calls from congressional challengers who tell us the time may be ripe for a real investigation of the attack on the USS Liberty.

James Ennes retired from the Navy after 27 years of service. He was on the USS Liberty on the day of the attack. His book, Assault on the Liberty (Random House, 1980), a "Notable Naval Book" selection of the U.S. Naval Institute and a Washington Post "editors' choice," is available from the AET Book Club.