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June/July 2002, pages 18-19

Special Report

The USS Liberty: Still Covered Up After 35 Years

By James M. Ennes, Jr.

June 8 marks 35 years since Israel attacked the USS Liberty without warning in international waters, killing 34 Americans and wounding 172 more. The Israelis lied about it and persuaded our Congress to look the other way, and they are still lying about it today. But the Liberty will not go away. Every attempt to hide this story seems to bring more attention.

This past year brought a 60-minute documentary produced by CBS News Productions that was broadcast by The History Channel on Aug. 9—much to the dismay and over the heated objections of the Israeli Embassy and various spokesmen for Israel who did all in their power to block it.

CAMERA, a leading pro-Israel propaganda arm, produced an extended and angry critique of the film, accusing survivors and CBS News itself of producing a “propaganda-laden bogus history” that is deliberately distorted and anti-Semitic.

In a personal attack on this writer, CAMERA unearthed a 1990 Internet newsgroup in which I made what they consider a damning comment. In response to a claim that Israel was “surrounded by enemies,” I replied that Israel would have no enemies if it didn’t steal its neighbors’ land and water and shoot its neighbors’ children. CAMERA cited that remark as evidence of bias and anti-Semitism; I would defend it even today as a truism that might well be engraved in stone.

The History Channel’s report was aired as scheduled and rebroadcast this past March 14. Although CAMERA urged The History Channel not to sell a video version, it was made available anyway. In fact, the video temporarily sold out and was described by some retailers as their best selling such product ever. CAMERA, it seems, convinced only the choir.

Also this past year, author James Bamford released Body of Secrets, his second book on the National Security Agency, with a chapter devoted to the Liberty. Bamford received wide attention in book reviews and on the talk show circuit because his book revealed interviews with an airborne Navy radio intercept operator who listened to the attack from overhead while it was happening. This man confirmed the crew’s claims that the Israelis knew they were attacking an American naval vessel.

Further confirmation came a few weeks later, when an Air Force intelligence analyst privately told us the same story. Those transcripts, we learned, were widely distributed to intelligence processing centers around the world. The Israelis not only knew we were American, but were deeply frustrated and angry when the Liberty did not sink quickly, as they intended.

Another intelligence analyst told us that, a few days after the attack, a “consensus report” concluding that the attack was deliberate was briefly circulated throughout the intelligence community. The report was then cancelled and all copies were ordered collected and destroyed.

On June 10, London’s BBC plans a worldwide release of its new documentary called “Dead in the Water.” In it the BBC reports that the Liberty attack almost led to a U.S. nuclear strike on Egypt, which was briefly but mistakenly thought responsible for the attack. The film, which includes interviews with former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, former CIA chief Richard Helms and others, reveals secret collaboration between Washington and Tel Aviv during the Six-Day War.

A new book entitled Operation Cyanide, by prize-winning British investigative reporter Peter Hounam, researcher for the BBC film, will be published to coincide with the release of the film. Hounam argues that carefully laid plans were made to sink the Liberty, and that the U.S. was as much to blame as Israel for what happened.

Meanwhile, independent filmmaker Tito Howard has produced in VHS format the documentary “Loss of Liberty,”which includes interviews with several Liberty survivors and former U.S. Navy leaders.

Undeterred by all this, bankruptcy Judge A. Jay Cristol is about to release a commercial trade book version of his doctoral thesis which seeks to make the case that the attack really was just a tragic mistake. The original thesis is a ponderous but seemingly scholarly account that may well convince readers uninformed about the attack.

Survivors see it as a flawed work, packed with evasions and misleading statements. Cristol seems to accept at face value all the arguments that support his case, while he nitpicks, dismisses and ignores entirely the eyewitness reports of survivors and other supporting evidence. Because he comes to the subject as a federal judge and a reserve naval officer, however, he brings some apparent credibility that probably will get him a ride on the talk show circuits.

Michael Oren, a senior fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, recently released a book entitled, Six Days of War, with a chapter arguing that the Liberty attack was a tragic accident. An Internet search for “Michael Oren” will turn up the gist of his one-sided argument.

Even the venerable Navy Times came out April 4 with an article arguing Cristol’s case that the attack was a tragic accident. Its author received an avalanche of e-mail, mostly challenging his conclusions. This writer submitted a rebuttal statement, which was published in April as a guest column (see box). Other rebuttals and counter-rebuttals are in the works as we go to press.

Through it all, despite the passage of 35 years, controversy builds and interest in the subject continues to grow. Liberty survivors welcome the Cristols and Orens and misguided articles from Israel’s defenders, because every published attack causes even more people to want to know what really happened to the USS Liberty. The continued controversy caused Assault on the Liberty to sell out months ago. It is being reprinted, and should be available soon.

The award-winning Liberty Web site, <http://www.ussliberty.com>, sometimes hosts more than 1,500 visitors a day as people search for information on the subject. Survivors are happy to oblige.

SIDEBAR 1

A Survivor Speaks

Survivors of Israel’s 1967 attack on the USS Liberty that killed 34 Americans and wounded 172 find it very sad that some Americans can argue endlessly that the attack on our ship was a tragic accident and not the deliberate attack on a known American ship that we experienced.

We felt secure after 13 very low reconnaissance orbits by Israeli aircraft, our supposed friends. Our intercept operators heard the pilots reporting that we were American.

I was relieved of the conn[ing tower] as the attacking jets approached, and then was severely wounded by the first rocket salvo. I was lying in a stretcher in a starboard passageway when the torpedo exploded.

I recall the warning that torpedo boats were approaching, followed by the explosion, the ship lifting away from the blast, then settling back to starboard and the very real fear that it would continue to settle until it rolled over and sank.

Moments later the torpedo boats approached within 50 feet of the ship. One boat stopped alongside and trained a heavy machine gun on a man who was standing alone on a hatch cover on the main deck screaming obscenities and giving them the finger. They did not fire.

Then the boat moved to within 50 feet of the fantail where the ship displayed her name in large letters in English and her hull numbers in even larger letters. The boatmen clearly examined those markings and can hardly have failed to see other distinctive American markings and the American flag that flew from the mast.

The Israeli government claims it was at that point that they offered help and that they never fired after the torpedo explosion. But this is not true.

Survivors recall that the torpedo boats then circled the ship firing at anything that moved. Men on deck were fired upon as they tried to help their wounded shipmates. Firefighters saw their fire hoses punctured by machine gun fire. At one point the boatmen concentrated their fire near the waterline amidships, presumably seeking out the boilers.

Forty minutes after the torpedo explosion, the boats drew closer and methodically machine-gunned three life rafts that we had just launched in response to orders to prepare to abandon ship.

The Israelis’ excuse? They claim they mistakenly plotted our speed at 32 knots, marking us as a warship suitable for attack. We were moving only at five knots and we were more than 30 miles away, double their 16 mile radar horizon.

They claim the officers on two torpedo boats mistook the USS Liberty for a 40-year-old out-of-service Egyptian horse transport. Israeli naval officers tell me that story is an embarrassment to them. It should be. It is unbelievable.

Yet despite these things a few Americans seem to accept the preposterous claims that a tiny motor torpedo boat can have a 30-mile radar horizon, or can miscalculate a target’s speed by 500 percent, or can mistake a clearly marked 10,000 ton United States ship a mile away for an ancient 2,640 ton Egyptian horse carrier, can fail to recognize an oversize American flag from as close as 50 feet, and can then continue to fire on that target from close range for another 40 minutes before suddenly recognizing us as American after learning that Sixth Fleet jets were on the way.

Survivors cannot accept that.

The typical Israeli reaction is that we are liars or anti-Semites, which of course we are not. We are American sailors honestly reporting an act of treachery at sea.

—James Ennes, LCDR, USN (retired), survivor

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 on the subject, Assault on the Liberty (Random House, 1980), is a “Notable Naval Book” selection of the U.S. Naval Institute and was “editor’s choice” when reviewed in The Washington Post.

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