Jun 2, 2023

The USS Liberty: a Well-Planned Accident

Photograph Source: The U.S. Navy – Public Domain

Today marks the 56th anniversary of the Israeli attack on the USS Liberty, which has been described by too many U.S. and Israeli accounts as an accident.  In fact, the attack took place after eight hours of aerial surveillance by Israel, and it involved a two-hour air and naval attack that killed 34 sailors and wounded an additional 172 servicemen.  This marked a casualty rate of 70% in a crew of 294.  The Israelis claimed that they were attacking an Egyptian ship, but the configuration of the Liberty clearly marked it as the world’s most sophisticated intelligence ship, one that could only belong to the United States.

The air attack lasted nearly a half-hour as unmarked Israeli aircraft dropped napalm canisters on the Liberty’s bridge, and fired 30 mm cannons and rockets into the ship.  There were at least 12 Israeli planes involved in the air attack.  In addition, Israeli torpedo boats fired torpedoes at the ship and even machine-gunned the Liberty’s firefighters and stretcher-bearers as they struggled to save the ship and its crew. These boats returned to machine-gun the Liberty’s life rafts that had been lowered to rescue seriously wounded servicemen in the water.

According to a survivor, Israeli pilots acknowledged the ship was flying the American flag and they still attacked.  According to my research, a huge American flag was hoisted early in the morning of June 8, 1967 and was flying all day until it was shot away by attacking aircraft.  At all times, the Liberty was in international waters, proceeding at a speed of only five knots.

The Liberty’s radio operators, moreover, found it difficult to transmit a distress signal because Israeli aircraft jammed all five of the Liberty’s emergency radio channels.  The Liberty crew managed to broadcast an OSS over a makeshift antenna.  When the SOS reached Israeli military commanders, the assault was immediately terminated.

Numerous U.S. officials testified that the attack had been a deliberate attempt to destroy an American ship that had been monitoring Israeli military communications at the start of the Six-Day War in 1967.  But they did so only after leaving their official positions and were no longer serving in President Lyndon Johnson’s administration.  This list included former Secretary of State Dean Rusk, former Undersecretary of State George Ball, former Central Intelligence Agency director Richard Helms, former National Security Agency director William Odom, and former U.S. ambassador to Lebanon Dwight Porter.  Retired Admiral Thomas Moorer, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, also weighed in after leaving the government, concluding that the Liberty episode marked “one of the classic all-American cover-ups.”

As a former CIA analyst who served in the agency’s task force during the war, I can also testify to that fact.  The naval ship, which had been seconded to the NSA to gather intelligence in the Middle East, was providing sensitive information on Israeli war plans.  The Israelis had demanded that the ship be moved in order not to be able to intercept such data.

The official cover-up of the attack on the USS Liberty by the Johnson administration is without precedent in American naval history.  The Congress never investigated the attack, and no surviving crew member was permitted to publicly testify about the attack.  There were reports that the White House stopped the U.S. Navy from coming to the defense of the Liberty, but I cannot confirm those reports.  NSA’s investigation of the attack remains classified.  A Navy court of inquiry concluded that there was insufficient information to make a judgment about why Israel attacked the ship.

In addition to lying about the Liberty, the Israelis also lied about the start of the Six-Day War.  In the run-up to the war, the Israelis claimed there were indications of Egyptian preparations for an invasion, but there was no intelligence that indicated Egyptian readiness in terms of its air or armored power.  I argued at the time that Egypt would be unlikely to start a war with Israel while nearly half of its army was tied down fighting a civil war in Yemen.  Arabists at the Department of State believed that Egyptian President Nasser was bluffing, and cited the low quality of Cairo’s military equipment. The fact that Egyptian planes were parked on airfields wingtip-to-wingtip suggested that there was no Egyptian plan to attack Israel.  That is the reason the Israelis were able to destroy more than 200 Egyptian planes on the ground.

Much later I learned that a confidant of President Johnson, Harry McPherson, was in Israel at the start of the war and accompanied the U.S. ambassador to a meeting with Prime Minister Levi Eshkol.  When Israeli air raid sires began to wail during the meeting, Israeli intelligence chief General Aharon Yariv assured everyone there was no need to move to an underground bunker.  At the highest levels of the Israeli government, there was certainty that there was no possibility of an Egyptian attack, which counters the Israeli argument that their attack was a preemptive one.

On too many occasions in U.S. history, the use of force was been justified with either corrupt intelligence or just plain lies.  This was the case in the Vietnam War and the 2003 Iraq War.  We shouldn’t tolerate the lies of our presidents, and we shouldn’t tolerate the lies of foreign officials, which was the case in the Six-Day War and the attack on the USS Liberty.

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