Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, August 2002, pages 29-30
While Facts of Liberty Attack Are Clear, Questions of Motive, Cover-Up Remain
By Donald Neff
For 35 years, the outline of the story of the USS Liberty has been well known. On June 8, 1967, the fourth day of the Six-Day war, Israeli jets and torpedo boats repeatedly attacked the U.S. intelligence ship in the eastern Mediterranean, killing 34 Americans and wounding 171. Israel claimed—and still does—that it did not know the ship was American.
Nearly everyone who is not affiliated with Israel, however, and who has seriously looked into the attack believes it was deliberate. Indeed, the roll call of officials at the time who suspected Israel knowingly attacked the Liberty extends from Secretary of State Dean Rusk to Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Thomas H. Moorer to Director of Central Intelligence Richard Helms to National Security Agency director Lt. Gen. Marshall S. (Pat) Carter to the skipper of the Liberty, Capt. William L. McGonagle.
In reality, the bare facts of the attack rule out any other conclusion.
The Liberty was flying the American flag and its name was clearly displayed in bold black letters on its stern. It was in international waters, 17 miles off Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. Reconnaissance jets presumed to be Israeli had overflown the ship at least 13 times over six hours during the morning, making crew members feel secure that their identity was well known by a friendly ally.
In midafternoon Israeli planes returned, soon to be followed by torpedo boats. This time, instead of just looking, they pounced on the defenseless ship, hitting it with rockets, bombs and napalm, strafing it with machine gun and cannon fire and tearing a gaping hole in its side with a torpedo. Four other torpedoes were fired but missed. Had they struck their target the Liberty almost certainly would have been sunk.
During the attack, the U.S. flag was shot from its staff. Within seconds another flag, a huge 9x15-ft. holiday flag, was hoisted. But it did no good. The attack continued. In the end the badly damaged ship was left helpless in the water, its dead and wounded scattered throughout the wreckage.
The attack on the Liberty took place over a period of more than two hours. No help ever arrived that dismal day, though two Sixth Fleet aircraft carriers were in the western Mediterranean, well within reach. Armed rescue jets were launched but inexplicably were recalled. Unconfirmed reports say the recall orders came directly from President Lyndon B. Johnson and Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara.
At this point an already strange tale becomes bizarre.
After the crippled ship limped into Malta, it immediately became clear to the Liberty’s surviving crewmen that they were not being treated with the usual respect accorded victims of a major U.S. sea engagement. In fact, they were treated more like lepers that the United States would just as soon shun. Rear Admiral Isaac C. (Ike) Kidd Jr. set the chilly tone, personally declaring to the survivors:
“You are never, repeat, never to discuss this with anyone, not even your wives. If you do you will be court-martialed and will end your lives in prison—or worse.” Ten days after the attack, Kidd headed an official court of inquiry that ruled the attack was a case of mistaken identity.
Kidd’s words demonstrated how quickly the Johnson White House moved to cover up the incident and downplay its significance. There were obvious political reasons. A presidential election loomed the following year and Johnson depended heavily on the Jewish vote and money. Moreover, he had an emotional attachment to Israel. The first president to sell Israel weapons, Johnson was surrounded by many Jewish friends and advisers, including his National Security Council adviser, Walt Rostow. Rostow’s brother was Undersecretary of State Gene Rostow. As Israel slaughtered Egyptian troops during the first day of war Gene had exulted that it was a “turkey shoot.” U.N. Ambassador Arthur Goldberg openly embraced Zionism, and special presidential adviser McGeorge Bundy was a strong supporter of Israel.
The day following the Liberty attack Bundy sent a memorandum urging Johnson to make a speech in support of Israel. He suggested the president should “emphasize that this task to secure a strong Israel and a stable Middle East is in the first instance a task for the nations in the area. This is good LBJ doctrine and good Israeli doctrine, and therefore a good doctrine to get out in public.”
Even in his post-presidency memoirs Johnson gave the Liberty attack scant mention and claimed there were only 10 fatalities among the Liberty crew. When McGonagle was awarded the Medal of Honor Johnson did not invite him to the White House and confer the medal personally, as was customary. Instead it was given to McGonagle by a relatively minor official in the mundane environs of Washington, DC’s Navy Yard. Nor did Congress follow tradition and hold hearings to ascertain details of the attack. None has been held to this day.
After the attack, surviving Liberty crewmembers were widely dispersed, and the ship itself was decommissioned and soon turned into scrap. As far as Washington was concerned, the attack was a non-event. Not surprisingly, the details of the attack on the Liberty remained largely unknown for many years, through Democratic and Republican administrations alike. It was only in 1979, when one of the surviving officers, James Ennes, wrote a book called Assault on the Liberty, that some of the details of the attack became widely known.
In reaction to their shoddy treatment and Washington’s evasiveness, surviving members of the crew eventually established the USS Liberty Veterans Association and now have their own Web site, (<www.ussliberty.org>). Recently, another committee, Liberty Alliance, which includes former Joint Chiefs chairman Moorer and two Marine Medal of Honor recipients, Gen. Ray Davis and Col. Mitchell Paige, has been formed to demand a congressional inquiry. Despite these efforts, the Liberty men and many others who have become interested in the assault have been unsuccessful in penetrating Washington’s secrecy or Congress’s indifference. The cover-up continues.
While the facts are clear, the big question remains: Why? What did Israel expect to gain by its murderous assault? Why does the cover-up go on?
Many have speculated that the Israelis did not want the United States to know they planned to attack Syria after finishing off Egypt. Washington opposed such an extension of the war and Israel was reassuring the world that its war aims were limited. The Liberty could intercept Israeli battlefield communications and could have overheard plans for an attack on Syria, which came a day after the Liberty attack. Or it may have been motivated by an Israeli effort to cloak the massacre of hundreds of Egyptian troops going on at the time in the sand dunes at El Arish.
An Intriguing New Motive
Now a more intriguing motive has emerged. The BBC documentary “Dead in the Water” that first aired June 10 suggests a far more complicated scenario, one involving a doublecross by Israel and a secret U.S. plot to topple Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser, long a thorn in Washington’s side.
A hint of the plot is contained in a memorandum drafted less than two months before the war by the 303 Committee, a highly secret group of top Pentagon, State Department and CIA officials working within the National Security Council. Its task was to advise the president on intelligence matters. A handwritten note on the April 18, 1967 memo says, “Submarine operating within UAR [Egyptian] waters.” The plot was called Operation Cyanide.
One conjecture is that the United States was providing intelligence to Israel prior to its initiation of the 1967 war. There were persistent reports aboard the Liberty upon its arrival at the outbreak of the war that a mysterious submarine was operating in the area. There is also a report that a small unit of U.S. reconnaissance planes was secretly posted to Israel before the war to provide Israel with high-quality photographs of Egyptian military installations.
Thus, when the first reports arrived at the Sixth Fleet of the attack on the Liberty, it was no leap of imagination to assume the attackers were Egyptian. Armed jets were immediately launched from the carrier USS Saratoga. There are unconfirmed reports that the warplanes were on their way not only to protect the Liberty but also to bomb Cairo. It was only when Israel informed Washington—immediately after the Liberty crew finally had managed to send out an SOS—that its forces had “mistakenly” staged the attack that the U.S. planes were recalled.
This in itself was an extremely odd reaction. Military doctrine calls for the defense of endangered forces, regardless of the attacker’s identity or circumstances of the attack. It is most unlikely that, had Egypt or any other country claimed it had mistakenly attacked the Liberty, the U.S. warplanes would have been recalled. The flight no doubt would have pressed forward if for no other reason than to reassure the damaged ship that its country stood behind it and to display American pride and might.
It was more than 16 hours after the attack that the Liberty received any aid. It came in the form of two destroyers, which escorted the stricken ship to Malta.
Aside from the numbing number of casualties, the ferocity of the attack was apparent when its damage was examined in detail. The Liberty was pocketed with 821 holes caused by rockets and more than 3,000 punctures from armor-piercing machine gunfire.
The enormous damage to the ship strongly suggested that Israel not only had wanted to injure the Liberty but desperately tried to sink it with all hands. Had that occurred, Israel could have laid the blame on Egypt and an outraged Washington could have been expected to support Israel even more in its war against the Arabs.
The evidence suggests Washington sought to mute blame of Israel because it feared to risk that the Jewish state might reveal America’s collusion with it against Egypt. Such a revelation would have caused severe damage to U.S. relations with the entire Muslim world and great embarrassment at home and abroad. Thus it was more expedient for the U.S. to cover up the attack than chance exposure of its Operation Cyanide.
By one of the ironies of history, Israel emerged the major winner from the attack. The United States drew closer to Israel after the war, despite the Liberty attack. Israel’s victory was wildly celebrated in the United States, helped in no small measure by a pro-Israel press, Congress and the Johnson administration.
Ever since, the United States has provided Israel with massive numbers of weapons and Congress has awarded it so much money that the sum amounts to many times over the entire cost of the Marshall Plan to regenerate Western Europe after World War II. Today Israel enjoys the status of an American strategic ally and has a public U.S. pledge to protect it from any enemy. Not even Israel’s most optimistic master strategists could have hoped for such a beneficial resolution of its attack on the USS Liberty. ❑
Donald Neff is the author of the Warriors trilogy and 50 Years of Israel, available from the AET Book Club, and of Fallen Pillars: U.S. Policy towards Palestine and Israel since 1945.