President Barack Obama shakes hands with Palestinian children during a visit to the Church of the Nativity in the occupied West Bank town of Bethlehem, March 22, 2013. (ATEF SAFADI-POOL/GETTY IMAGES)
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Israeli Finance Minister Yair Lipid (c) with former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who resigned his position after being indicted on charges of fraud and breach of trust, at the Feb. 5 swearing in of the 19th Knesset. (URIEL SINAI/AFP/GETTY IMAGES)
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June/July 1997, pgs. 19-20
Anniversary of a 30-Year Investigation
USS Liberty: Periscope Photography May Finally Reveal Truth
by James M. Ennes, Jr.
The facts are well known. USS Liberty, an American intelligence collection ship operated by the U.S. Navy with 294 men aboard, was attacked by Israeli aircraft and motor torpedo boats in international waters in clear weather during the 1967 Six-Day War. Thirty-four men were killed and 171 wounded. The ship was so badly damaged it had to be sold for scrap.
Israel called the attack a "tragic accident," claiming the ship was mistaken for an ancient Egyptian horse carrier less than half her size. Survivors and many top U.S. officials dismiss the Israeli story as contrived, unbelievable and untrue.
Survivors cite numerous falsehoods in the Israeli account. For instance, Israel claims the attacking jets circled the ship three times looking for a flag and that no flag was flown. They say a cease-fire order was given even before the ship was hit by a torpedo and that no further shots were fired. They call it a very brief case of "friendly fire" that ended when they saw our flag. They say they offered help immediately after the torpedo explosion.
Not true! A large American flag was clearly displayed in a good breeze and the attacking pilots did not circle looking for it. The torpedomen continued firing for another 40 minutes after the torpedo explosion, even firing upon life rafts in the water. Their offer of help did not come until two hours after the torpedo explosion. Many other conflicts exist between the Israeli and American versions.
In fact, the Israeli assault on the Liberty remains the only major maritime event in American history that has not been investigated by the Congress. For comparison, the U.S. committed more than 300 people and seven months to investigating the uncontested single hit by an Iraqi missile on USS Stark in the Arabian Gulf. Yet, even though 250 survivors of the Liberty say Israel is lying about the 75-minute attack on their ship, no member of Congress since Adlai Stevenson II has shown the slightest interest in finding the truth. When pressed, members of Congress generally tell their constituentsas they have since 1967 that an investigation would be impossible because too much time has passed, and because Israel could not be compelled to testify.
Submarine Photography Can Prove What Happened
Moments after the attack, several Liberty crewmen reported seeing a periscope very close to the ship. Then the periscope vanished as quickly as it had appeared.
A few weeks later, Liberty survivor Joe Lentini was approached by another sailor in the cafeteria of Portsmouth Naval Hospital in Virginia. Lentini was in uniform and on crutches. His ship's name, "USS LIBERTY," was embroidered on his shoulder.
"Were you there?" the sailor asked, seemingly astonished. When Lentini confirmed that he was, the man continued. "We were there," he said. "Our submarine. We saw the whole thing. We took pictures. Then we sent an officer back to the Pentagon to deliver them."
Lentini was so stunned by this news that he neglected to get the man's name or the name of the submarine. When he looked for the man again later, he was nowhere to be found.
I asked my Liberty shipmate, then-Lieutenant Jim O'Connor, what he knew about a submarine operating near us. Jim's job in the Liberty would have made him among the most likely people to know such things. Before the attack I had seen him plotting what looked to me like a submarine track on a chart.
Jim looked stunned. "I don't know how you learned about that," he said. "Yes, there was a submarine near us. If you ever quote me I'll swear you are lying." From then until he died 25 years later of Lou Gehrig's disease, Jim never mentioned the submarine again. When I asked him about it, he denied the earlier conversation.
During the next few years three other naval officers in key positions to know about such things all told me, "Yes, there was a submarine with you. There were three. They spent most of the war on the bottom, then they got out in a hurry."
Recently one of Liberty's intercept operators, Charles Rowley, told me that just before the attack he had intercepted a very strange, very short radio signal that he had forwarded to Washington. Instead of acknowledging his effort, Washington promptly ordered him to destroy any copies of that signal and to ignore any like it that he heard in the future. He felt he was being scolded for doing his job.
Rowley concluded that he had picked up a submarine signal and asked some other technicians about it. These men mentioned "Project Cyanide" but were unable or unwilling to say more. He concluded that "Cyanide" and the strange track on the chart all were associated with a compartmented submarine project to which only a very few people were privy. Most of those men died in the attack.
For the next several years, "Cyanide" and the mystery submarine remained elusive. One Liberty survivor mentioned a submarine to a free-lance reporter who wrote a book about it. Nearly everything he wrote was based on guesswork and was wrong. The book did nothing to advance the story.
Then in 1988 the Lyndon Johnson Library declassified and released an intriguing, highly sensitive document with the rare "Eyes Only" security caveat. This "Memorandum for the Record" dated 10 April 1967 reported a briefing of the "303 Committee" by General Ralph D. Steakley. Members present were Walt Rostow, Foy Kohler, Cyrus Vance and Admiral Rufus Taylor.
According to the memo, General Steakley "briefed the committee on a sensitive DOD project known as FRONTLET 615," which is identified in a handwritten note on the original memorandum as "submarine within U.A.R. waters." (At that time Egypt was formally known as "The United Arab Republic.") After considering alternatives, "the proposal was approved by the committee principals."
This memorandum was filed in the LBJ Library's USS Liberty archive. Why there? Obviously it has something to do with the Liberty. Could this have been the submarine we have heard about since 1967?
Survivors filed further Freedom of Information Act requests with the Library, Navy, Department of Defense, National Security Council, National Security Agency, Central Intelligence Agency, Joint Chiefs of Staff and elsewhere seeking more information. We sent copies of the declassified memo to support our request. In every case we were told that there is no record within the government of Cyanide or Frontlet 615 or of any submarines operating near the Liberty in 1967.
When we called General Steakley, he told us that his job for nine years with the Joint Chiefs of Staff was to win approval of such projects from the appropriate authorities. He was rarely involved in the projects themselves. He could remember nothing about Frontlet 615.
In February 1997, we were contacted by a man who, like the first visitor in the cafeteria, told us, "I was there. We watched the attack through the periscope and took pictures." He added, "News reports said Liberty was under attack for only five minutes, but that attack lasted more than an hour."
This person identified himself as a relatively senior member of the crew of the submarine, but he was unwilling to give his name or to talk to us except through a third party, as he feared punishment for telling the story. He did, however, give us the name of the submarine: USS Amberjack SS522, a Guppy (snorkel)-equipped diesel boat built in 1945. He also told us that Amberjack's mission was reconnaissance within U.A.R. waters. Apparently Amberjack was the Frontlet 615 submarine.
This source gained credibility when we obtained Amberjack's official ship's history from the Department of Defense. Amberjack was indeed in the area during the Six-Day War, just as he said.
Further searches of Navy-oriented Web sites on the Internet quickly turned up four more Amberjack crewmen from the "Med Cruise" of June 1967. Some of these were Amberjack's most senior enlisted men. All four of these men, contacted by telephone, readily told us that they were very close to USS Liberty when we came under attack. Amberjack was so close, they said, and the sound of gunfire, missiles and the torpedo explosion so loud, that some of the crew thought Amberjack was under depth charge attack.
These men, all career submariners and all fairly senior at the time, had not seen or talked to one another for many years. Yet they all told the same story. They were very close to or "almost directly under" Liberty when the ship came under attack. Amberjack was specially fitted for periscope photography and was fully capable of photographing the attack, they said, although none of these four was certain that pictures were taken.
All four men told us that Amberjack proceeded from the Gaza Strip to a brief stop at Souda Bay, Crete, where the ship was kept at anchorage and the crew was not allowed ashore. Next, Amberjack went to Malta, where she tied up near the Liberty.
All four men told us that Amberjack was only one of five submarines in the Gaza Strip area. Others were USS Trutta SS421, USS Requin SS481, and French and Italian submarines. Any of those might also have photographed or recorded the attack.
Amberjack Skipper Denies Everything
Next we located Amberjack's 1967 skipper, August Hubal. By coincidence, Hubal was an Annapolis classmate of Liberty's Executive Officer, Phil Armstrong, who died in the attack. Hubal's room at the Naval Academy was directly across the hall from that of Liberty's Research Operations Department Head, David Lewis. Hubal knew both men well.
Now a retired Navy captain, Hubal denies everything. Interviewed by telephone, he insists that his ship was nowhere near Liberty. Amberjack was at least 100 miles away, he says. When we told Captain Hubal that several senior members of his crew, including a periscope photographer, have told us they were within sight of the attack, he shrugged that off. "They must be mistaken," he says, apparently still muffled by ancient security restrictions.
Why Is This Important?
These stories matter because they can resolve at last the differences between Israeli and American versions of what happened.
For 30 years Israel and its supporters have denounced survivors as liars and anti-Semites for reporting what happened to their ship. Members of Congress are unwilling even to listen to their stories. These men seek justice.
Recent White House executive orders call for the declassification of virtually every record more than 30 years old. Amberjack photography and other such reports fall in that category.
If the submarine photography can be found, it should show that the ship's flag was clearly visible to the attacking fighters and torpedo boats. Pictures also should show that the Israelis continued to fire from close range with the flag and other markings in clear view long after the torpedo explosion that they claim ended the attack. Pictures may reveal the methodical machine-gunning of Liberty's life rafts in the water. Other Amberjack records, reports and sound recordings should show the duration of the attack and other details denied by the attackers.
Liberty survivors will continue their quest for these records. We believe they exist and we think they can be found.
With those files and photographs declassified, Israel never again will be able to pretend that the survivors of the Liberty attack are lying.