Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, June 1988, Page 11, 12

Special Report

Why the USS Liberty Story Has Been Suppressed

By Sandra Sullivan

This article won the 1987 USS Liberty Essay Contest, sponsored by the USS Liberty Veterans Association and administered by the American Educational Trust. Sullivan received the top prize of $1,500 for her essay, which is reprinted below on the 21st anniversary of the attack. 

"So likewise, a passionate attachment of one nation for another produces a variety of evils. Sympathy for the favorite nation, facilitating the illusion of an imaginary common interest in cases where no real common interest exists, and infusing into one of the enmities of the other, betrays the former into a participation in the quarrels and wars of the latter, without adequate inducement or justification. It leads also to concessions to the favorite nation of priviliges denied to others, which is apt doubly to injure the nation making the concessions. . . And it gives to ambitious, corrupted, or deluded citizens (who devote themselves to the favorite nation) the facility to betray or sacrifice the interests of their own country. . . "

George Washington, in his farewell address of 1796, warned the American people against diplomatic relationships that might lead to the betrayal and sacrifice of the interests of one's own country. The relationship between the United States and the state of Israel has historically been one in which America provides Israel with virtually unlimited economic, diplomatic, military, and psychological support. This relationship has frequently caused the United States to sacrifice its own principles in favor of Israel's interests. One of the most dramatic illustrations of the danger of such a relationship is the tragic story of the Israeli attack on the USS Liberty, and the reaction of the United States government to that attack.

It cannot be denied that the attack of June 8, 1967, was calculated and deliberate. Thirty-four American men died, and 171 others were wounded. Despite the glaring evidence of recently declassified documents and eyewitness testimony, the American and Israeli governments still stubbornly cling to the official excuse that the attack was an accident. In 1967, the U.S. government classified all evidence that disagreed with the Israeli version of the story as top secret, and then proceeded to inform the American people that the attack was a "miscalculation that could take place any place in the world."

America's deep alliance with Israel caused U.S. government officials to first tolerate the murder of their fellow citizens, and then to justify such tolerance by lying to the American people.

Such a miscalculation-one that results in an entire afternoon of cannon and rocket fire, napalm, and torpedoes directed against a virtually unarmed vessel of a close ally-is inconceivable. The reaction of the U.S. government to this miscalculation-a reaction that is the invariable result of the United States' unhealthy relationship with Israel-is unjustifiable. In the words of James M. Ennes, Jr., an officer aboard the Liberty who survived the attack and has since written a book exposing the cover-up:

"It's one thing to be attacked by another nation, but to have your own government smile at it and say well, it's really an understandable error of war. . . that's very difficult to accept."

A U.S. "Spook Ship" Too Close to Shore

The USS Liberty was a World War II victory ship that was converted, in 1963, to a technical research ship. The in-house Pentagon mission statement says specifically that the Liberty's purpose was to "provide shipborne COMINT (communications intelligence) and ELINT (electronic intelligence) platforms to intercept and exploit foreign electromagnetic radiations in those areas of the world where suitable shore-based intercept stations do not exist."

James Ennes, in his book Assault on the Liberty, colorfully describes the vessel as a "spook ship." Israel was quite aware of the "spook" abilities of the U.S. Navy's electronic intelligence ships, for Israeli military intelligence had a close working relationship with the Central Intelligence Agency and Defense Department. Despite America's supportive posture toward Israel during the Six-Day War, it is understandable, in light of Lyndon Johnson's policy statement of late May 1967, that Israel might not have wanted the United States to intercept its military communications.

In his statement, Johnson insisted that the United States was "committed to the support of the political independence and territorial integrity of all the nations in the area." In other words, the U.S. would refuse to help or defend Israel if she were an aggressor. After war broke out, Israel claimed that she was simply waiting for the Arabs to stop fighting first. However, when Jordan accepted the U.N. cease-fire on June 7, Israel continued her assault. On June 8, the entire United Arab Republic, badly defeated, accepted the cease-fire. Syria accepted it that night, and it went into effect at 5:20 a.m. on June 9. Israel, flagrantly violating the cease-fire, invaded Syria at 11:30 that morning.

The National Security Agency in Washington had the technology to ensure clear information regarding who might be planning to violate a U.N. cease-fire. The cornerstone of its complex communication interception network was none other than the USS Liberty. It is only logical that Israel would want to prevent U.S. detection of her plans to invade the Golan Heights. Indeed, in the late afternoon or early evening of June 7, Israel warned the Pentagon via the U.S. defense attache in Tel Aviv to change the ship's course. The Defense Department ordered the Liberty to move 100 miles off the coast, but this command got tangled in red tape and never reached the ship.

The Beginning of the Attack

James Ennes, who was in charge of electronic maintenance, was officer of the deck on the morning of June 8. He witnessed almost seven hours of reconnaissance by Israeli aircraft. The surveillance was so low that the Libertysailors waved to the Israeli pilots. It was a clear morning, the ship was in international waters, and a new flag stood out in eight knots of relative wind. At 2 p.m., the attack began. Mirage jets bombarded the deck with rockets, and 10 to 15 minutes later slower Mystere jets began dropping canisters of napalm. After a half hour, torpedo boats arrived and fired five torpedoes, one of which blew a 40-foot hole in the Liberty's side and killed 25 men.

Ten minutes after the air attack began, the Liberty was promised help by Sixth Fleet aircraft carriers, but at the Pentagon's instruction the rescue effort was recalled. The torpedo boats circled the Liberty until 3:15, firing on anything that moved, including empty life rafts. At this time Israel stopped the attack and the Israeli government apologized. A second rescue effort had been launched but was then recalled as "unnecessary." At 4:30 p.m. the torpedo boats returned and, incredibly enough, offered assistance. Their offer was rather firmly rejected. TheLiberty waited-alone, burning, sinking, with men wounded and dying-until help finally arrived on the morning of June 9.

The following statement appeared in the New York Times on June 10:

Dear Mr. President:

I was deeply grieved by the tragic loss of life on the United States naval ship Liberty. Please accept my deep condolences, and convey my sympathy to all the bereaved families. May all bloodshed come to an end, and may our God grant us peace evermore."

So apologized Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol to President Johnson. The White House usually does not make communications between heads of state public, let alone messages from other governments. But in this case, the American government was quick to back publicly the Israeli claims of "accident." Privately, however, the initial U.S. reaction was quite different. Secretary of State Dean Rusk hotly responded to a similar statement of apology from the Israeli ambassador with the assertion that Israel had every chance to identify the ship, and thus, "(at) a minimum, the attack must be condemned as an act of military recklessness reflecting a wanton disregard for human life."

It is only logical that Israel would want to prevent U.S. detection of her plans to invade the Golan Heights.

However, when a naval court of inquiry into the attack convened on Malta on June 14, any accounts that conflicted with Capt. William McGonagle's report were dismissed, ignored, or classified top secret (notably, the evidence of napalm use). McGonagle, who earned a medal of honor for his valor during the attack, had been losing consciousness at the time he dictated his first report of the incident for Washington; his account was highly inaccurate, simplifying and downplaying the whole event. Ennes notes that McGonagle was apparently worried that somehow he was responsible for the suffering; a concern which may have caused him to adhere so firmly to his initial version of the story, despite other officers' attempts to remind him of what really happened.

The official American press release on the attack supported Israeli claims that Israel mistook the Liberty for an Egyptian freighter, that the U.S. flag was not visible (this assertion conflicts with McGonagle's testimony that it was very visible), that the air attack lasted a mere five to six minutes, and that as soon as the torpedo hit the ship Israel realized her mistake and apologized.

Even the most skeptical reporters had no solid evidence to support their speculations that the attack was not an accident after all. The U.S. government ordered a news blackout until after the court of inquiry made its report. The Liberty crew members were reminded daily to "refer all questions to the commanding officer or Admiral Kidd. Answer no questions. If somehow you are backed into a corner, you may say that it was an accident and Israel has apologized. You may say nothing else."

It was a clear morning, the ship was in international waters. . . At 2 p.m., the attack began.

In Assault on the Liberty, Ennes discusses the recently declassified court of inquiry documents and testimonies, and demonstrates repeatedly the literal and technical impossibilities, contradictions, and omissions that led tot he official "conclusions." As Ennes stated in a 1982 radio interview, the court obviously had other influences upon it, and thus the attack was excused as brief and accidental. Yet for some reason, when the news blackout was officially lifted, the Liberty crew members' freedom of speech was defined in the following terms:

"Interviews and statements to news media. . . are not to be given by individuals. . . The only information that ship's company is allowed to discuss is that already made to the press. Therefore, there is nothing new that we would be able to tell them in an interview."

The crew was thoroughly intimidated, for as Ennes recalls, it was made clear that: "You won't even tell your mother what happened-if you ever talk to the press or anyone else you will be tracked down and punished, and don't think the time limit will ever run out because it will never run out."

Newly Disclosed Documents Show Falsehood of Official Story

The time limit, however, at last appears to be running out. Under the U.S. Freedom of Information Act, documents have been made available that prove that the U.S. administration's official story was not the true story. Many of the people involved in the affair, from the crewmen to government officials, are coming forward with their testimonies. Lt. Maury Bennet, who had been sworn to secrecy in 1967, informed Ennes in 1974 that he was told point-blank by Sen. J. William Fulbright that Johnson had "ordered a cover-up to protect Israel and to avoid causing a ruckus." Others who have given their candid accounts of, and reactions to, the incident include Dean Rusk, former secretary of state; Admiral Thomas Moorer, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; Richard Helms, former CIA director; and Philip Goulding, former assistant secretary of defense for public affairs. Yet the U.S. government continues to protect Israel, and the U.S. Zionist community tries desperately to keep the truth from the public. As Adlai Stevenson told James Ennes and the press:

"The attack was clearly deliberate, (but) it was not investigated in Congress because of the heavy pressure from the Israeli lobby, the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee, which intimidates the American Congress."

Paul Findley, a former U.S. congressman and senior member of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe and the Middle East, includes in his book They Dare to Speak Out a chapter called "The Assault on the 'Assault,'" Findley describes how Ennes's book received high praise in reviews, but book orders regularly got lost. Retail stores were told by Random House that the book did not exist or was out of print. The Israeli Foreign Office charged that Ennes "allows his very evident rancor and subjectivity to override objective analysis," and that his "conclusions fly in the face of logic and military facts."

Such criticism seemed to be coordinated on a national, perhaps international scale, for many public rebuttals were almost identical to the document issued by the Israeli Foreign Office in Jerusalem. When Ennes was interviewed on San Francisco radio station KGO in 1980, public response was overwhelming-including two phone calls threatening the talk show host's life. Although the public reaction when Ennes lectured at universities in 1981 and 1982 was generally positive, hecklers accused him of being a liar and an anti-Semite. Flyers protesting Ennes' speeches used wording identical to that used by the Israeli Foreign Office and by the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith.

The Reasons Behind the Cover-Up

If a book that appears 12 years after the fact causes such panic, violence, and accusations, it is almost understandable why the Johnson administration chose to cover up the truth. Despite the insupportability and, in Dean Rusk's words, the "genuine outrage" of Israel's attack, America's deep alliance with that country caused U.S. officials to first tolerate the murder of their fellow citizens, and then to justify such tolerance by lying to the American people.

The U.S. government still refuses to discuss the incident, for it knows that an objective inquiry would enrage the powerful Israeli lobby by exploding the myth that American and Israeli national interests are always and everywhere the same. Thus, even today, a strong current in both American public opinion and government policy wants to dismiss the disturbing facts and questions that may have been brought to light in the quest for truth. George Washington knew the dangers of such a national disposition, and the betrayals and sacrifices that result from such an alliance between nations:

". . . Such attachments are particularly alarming to the truly enlightened and independent patriot. How many opportunities do they afford to tamper with domestic factions, to practice the arts of seduction, to mislead public opinion, to influence or awe the Public Councils!" 

Sandra Sullivan graduated summa cum laude from Kenyon College in 1987. Born in Beirut while her father was teaching history at International College there, she was evacuated from Lebanon when she was two years old at the outbreak of the Six-Day War.

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