Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, April 21, 1986, Page 11

Book Review

Assault on the Liberty

By James M. Ennes, Jr. New York, N.Y.: Random House, 1986 (5th Edition). 299 pp. $14.95.

Reviewed by John N. Gatch, Jr.

Random House has just brought out a new edition (its fifth) of James M. Ennes's Assault on the Liberty, this one with a foreword by Thomas H. Moorer, U.S. Navy (Ret.). Admiral Moorer was Commander of the Atlantic Fleet when Israeli planes and torpedo boats attacked the electronic intelligence gathering ship USS Liberty in June 1967, killing 34 and wounding 171 American sailors. He later served as Chief of Naval Operations and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He's had time, circumstance and reason to consider every aspect of the assault, and his judgment here is unequivocal and disturbing:

The ship was clearly identified, not only by its unique configuration but by a very large U.S. flag that was flown at the time. The weather was calm and the visibility was excellent. During this unprovoked attack 34 U.S. Navy men were killed and 171 wounded. Nevertheless, to this day the American public does not know why the attack took place and who was involved overall.

In my opinion the United States government and the Israeli government must share responsibility for this cover up. I cannot accept the claim by the Israelis that this was a case of mistaken identity. I have flown for years in both peace and war on surveillance flights over the ocean, and my opinion is supported by a full career of locating and identifying ships at sea. Based on the way this situation was handled both in the United States and in Israel, one must conclude that there is much information that has not been made available to the public.

Author James Ennes was a communications lieutenant on board the Liberty. He experienced the full horror of the Israeli rocket, torpedo and machine gun attacks on the virtually defenseless vessel. He was severely wounded, but recovered to spend another 11 years in the service as a cryptographer. During this period, angered by what seemed to him an obvious cover up, he pieced together the story contained in this book, which was first published in 1979 after his departure from the U.S. Navy.

A Fistful of Loose Ends

Neither Ennes nor Admiral Moorer seem to have a particularly pro or anti Israeli bias as they view the terrible events unfolding. They share, however, a sense of outrage at what happened, and even more at the official U.S. reaction to what to them was a clear case of aggression.

Apart from the gripping and vivid description of the attack and its aftermath, Assault on the Libertyreally boils down to a series of questions which have never been satisfactorily answered by U.S. officials.

  • Why was the Liberty sent to the Eastern Mediterranean in the first place?
  • Why was the Joint Chiefs' decision to pull the Liberty back 100 miles from the coast undelivered?
  • Why was the first F 4 Phantom flight from the aircraft carrier America in aid of theLiberty cancelled at the direct order of Defense Secretary McNamara emphatically backed up by Commander of Naval Operations McDonald?
  • After the Liberty was torpedoed by Israeli PT boats, why was the flight from the aircraft carrier Saratoga cancelled?
  • Why was the report of the initial assault handled in such a desultory fashion in Washington? (The Pentagon had the news for 40 minutes before informing Walt Rostow in the White House, who in turn informed President Johnson. The President called for an emergency meeting "within the hour.")
  • Why was the Israeli explanation immediately accepted at face value?
  • Why has the elaborate media cover up which followed on the heels of the assault remained in effect until today? (When the captain of the Liberty was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, the citation did not even mention that his ship had been attacked by Israel.)

Ennes tentatively ventures answers to these and other questions but admits his deep frustration at their inadequacy. He presents a good hypothetical case for the assault being motivated by Israel's desire to keep the United States in the dark about her imminent attack on the Golan Heights. Yet, even this explanation is unsatisfactory, since it is known that U.N. Ambassador Goldberg in New York delayed consideration of a cease fire until after Israel had captured the Heights, thereby clearly implying that the United States supported Israeli seizure of Syrian territory.

This reviewer, too, shares the author's frustration, realizing that it's unlikely we'll ever get to know the full story of this affair. A nagging thought keeps coming to mind, though, as I read the headlines day after day: if we are so determined to uphold the principle of freedom of the seas in the Gulf of Sidra why do we supinely accept the fact that the Israeli air force and navy brutally and successfully challenged that principle in the eastern Mediterranean?

John N. Gatch, Jr., a former U.S. foreign service officer with many years experience in the Middle East, is currently president of a Washington, D.C. consulting firm.