Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, December 30, 1985, Page 4


The USS Liberty: The Scandal That Refuses to Die

By James M. Ennes, Jr.

More than 18 years after Israel attacked the American intelligence ship USS Liberty, the scandal persists despite a curtain of media silence.

On the fourth day of the 1967 Arab-Israeli Six Day War, Israeli naval and air forces attacked and almost sank this lightly-armed neutral ship in international waters. Thirty-four Americans died and 171 were wounded. But the story vanished from the news instead of exploding like the political bombshell it still is. Israel swore the attack was a mistake, and no amount of evidence to the contrary made any difference given the sad reality that friends of Israel wielded tremendous power in the Lyndon Johnson White House.

Minor newspaper articles have explored the subject briefly. Several books have been written. A number of government and military leaders have spoken out. But charges of a cover-up persist while both governments continue to deny proven circumstances of the affair and national news executives dismiss the story as unworthy of their attention.

In 1984 the situation promised suddenly to change when Atlantic magazine commissioned two leading Israeli journalists, Ze'ev Schiff and Hirsch Goodman, to write about the attack for the September edition. This would be the first major American magazine to treat the subject seriously.

"Was the Liberty attacked intentionally?" Schiff and Goodman asked rhetorically. "Such tragic accidents have happened to every army in the history of modern war, but many reasonable people have not been able to accept Israel's attack on the Liberty as such an accident."

Some Not So "New Evidence"

For almost 18 years, the Israeli government has insisted publicly that the Liberty's presence in the area was unknown to it until after the attack. Privately, however, the Israeli government has admitted from the beginning that it did know the American ship was nearby.

Schiff and Goodman's account in the Atlantic reconstructs the events leading up to the attack this way. The Liberty was correctly identified eight hours before the attack and was properly marked on a chart in the Israeli war room. Then, after some undetermined period of time had elapsed, the authors claim, the Liberty's identification marker was removed in order to keep the chart "uncluttered," with the result that when the Liberty was again sighted several hours later, she was mistakenly thought to be an enemy vessel.

According to Schiff and Goodman, torpedo boats sighted the Liberty on radar and mistakenly plotted the ship's speed at more than thirty miles per hour—which, under Israeli rules of warfare, made the target an enemy vessel which could be fired upon. When no flag or other identifying marks could be seen, an air attack followed. Twenty minutes later, Israeli torpedomen fired five torpedoes at the ship, after the Liberty had refused the torpedo boat commander's request to identify itself. Only later did the Israelis realize that the ship was American.

The Atlantic article and excerpts from it were widely reprinted, often with headlines proclaiming "New Evidence Shows Attack on American Ship was a Mistake." Meanwhile, except for brief Letters-to-the Editor, the Atlantic refused to provide effective rebuttal space. So did the major veterans magazines, major newspapers, important newsmagazines, and such journals of opinion and politics as Harper's and The Nation. ("You have the wrong magazine," a Nationeditor responded icily when queried.) This particular story, it seems, can be told to a national audience only from the Israeli viewpoint.

A Twice-Told Tale

The Atlantic's version of the attack, however, was not new at all, and was long-ago officially dismissed as untrue by American officials, even though an Israeli apology was officially accepted. The Israeli version of the story was originally prepared by Israeli Military Judge Lieutenant Colonel Yeshayahu Yerushalmi on July 21, 1967, and delivered by hand to State Department Under Secretary Eugene Rostow along with urgent requests that it be withheld from the American public. Rostow assigned it to Legal Advisor Carl F. Salans for review.

Salans' report, which ran to five single-spaced pages, rejected in turn each key element of the Israeli excuse: Tracked at 30 knots? (Impossible. The ship never exceeded 5 knots.) Identified only once and then forgotten? (False. The ship was reconnoitered eight times in daylight.) Erased from the Israeli chart? (Unlikely.) Israeli forces circled before attacking but could find no flag? (Not so.) The Liberty refused to identify herself? (False.) Mistaken for an Egyptian freighter? (Unlikely.)

Other discrepancies in the Israeli account are obvious. The Israeli torpedomen, for instance, whose propitious errors in plotting, tracking and identification were blamed for the "mistaken attack," were in fact too far away when the attack was ordered to have detected the ship at all. And apparently no one responsible for analyzing the Israeli excuse was told of a CIA report received from Israel the day before the ship was attacked informing our government that the Israelis objected so strongly to eavesdropping that they had already decided to attack theLiberty if the ship appeared near the Israeli coast. These points and supporting documentation were offered to the Atlantic and to Schiff and Goodman early in their research on the article, but they chose to ignore it.

Despite widespread media aversion to the story of the attack on the Liberty, the facts are clear and convincing. Survivors continue to speak out, and are more and more being joined by key figures from the era who support them. Recently, for instance, seventeen former crewmen, including three ship's officers and the ship's top-ranking enlisted man, attended the 1985 American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee in Washington, D.C., where Retired Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Thomas H. Moorer served as moderator of a well-attended panel discussion., "There is no way it could have happened" the way the Israelis describe it, Moorer said. "Congress should investigate this matter, even now."

And instead of fading away, momentum is building. Indeed, during September at least 500 Americans asked their Congressmen why the coverup is allowed to persist. And in December Admiral Moorer joined Liberty survivors in a press conference at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. to call for a full-fledged U.S. Government investigation. Soon, some member of Congress must see the wisdom of putting American interests first and finally telling the world the truth about the USS Liberty. 

James M. Ennis, Jr. 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 is available through the American Educational Trust .

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