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USS Liberty incident

The USS Liberty incident was an attack on a neutral U.S. Navy technical research ship, USS Liberty, by Israeli jet fighter planes and motor torpedo boats on June 8, 1967, during the Six-Day War. The combined air and sea attack killed 34 and wounded more than 170 crew members, and damaged the ship severely. The ship was in international waters north of the Sinai Peninsula, about 25.5 nautical miles northwest from the city of Arish.

Shortly after the attack ended, Israel informed the U.S. that its forces had attacked the Liberty in error. An Israeli Inquiry Commission composed of one person, Colonel Ram Ron, concluded that the attack was caused by a chain of mistakes by Israel Defense Force (IDF) personnel.(p.9) The IDF, in its History Report about the attack, says it asked the United States to inform them of any U.S. ships in the area but was not told of the Liberty's presence.(p.22) The IDF air and naval forces, respectively, misidentified the Liberty as an unknown destroyer and the Egyptian cargo ship El Quseir.(p.15) Supporters of Israel's explanation say that no credible motive existed for Israel to initiate a surprise attack against an important ally and the possibility of such mistakes were inherent in the tense atmosphere of the Six-Day War. The United States government was concerned about such dangers and ordered the Liberty further away from shore but the order was not received in time due to a series of communication failures. In the IDF's History Report about the attack, it points out that that "though the attack on the armed forces of a friendly nation is a most regrettable and painful occurrence, incidents of this kind do occur in war-time."(p.38).

Other sources claim that the attack was premeditated. They note that various aircraft, apparently Israeli, flew over Liberty at regular intervals—some at low altitudes—before the attack; and that Liberty was about twice as large as El Quseir, designated with Latin rather than Arabic letters, displaying the US flag, and differently configured. Proponents include the surviving Liberty crewmen, and some former U.S. government officials, including then-CIA director Richard Helms and then-Secretary of State Dean Rusk as well as Admiral Thomas Hinman Moorer, former Chief of Naval Operations and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The Johnson administration did not publicly dispute Israel's claim that the attack had been nothing more than a disastrous mistake, but internal White House documents obtained from the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library show that the Israelis' explanation of how the mistake had occurred was not believed

Both the Israeli and American governments conducted inquiries into the incident, and issued reports concluding that the attack was a tragic mistake, caused by confusion about the identity of the USS Liberty. On December 17, 1987, the issue was officially closed by the two governments through an exchange of diplomatic notes. Israel eventually paid nearly US$13 million in humanitarian reparations to the United States and in compensation to the families of the victims. The conclusions reached in the inquiry reports remain controversial, and some veterans and intelligence officials who were involved in the incident continue to dispute the official story.

The attack on the Liberty

USS Liberty was originally the 7,725-ton (light) civilian cargo vessel Simmons Victory (a mass-produced, standard-design Victory Ship, the follow-on series to the famous Liberty Ships which supplied the United Kingdom and Allied troops with cargo). She was acquired by the United States Navy, converted to an Auxiliary Technical Research Ship (AGTR), and began her first deployment in 1965, to waters off the west coast of Africa. She carried out several more operations during the next two years.

Events leading up to the attack

During the Six-Day War between Israel and several Arab nations, the United States of America maintained a neutral country status. Shortly before the war began, the USS Liberty was ordered to proceed to the eastern Mediterranean to perform an electronic intelligence collection mission. Due to concerns about her safety, after the war erupted and as she approached her patrol area, several messages were sent to Liberty to change her allowable closest point of approach (CPA) to Egypt's and Israel's coasts from 12.5 nautical miles (23 km) and 6.5 nautical miles (12 km), respectively, to 20 nautical miles (37 km) and 15 nautical miles (17 km), and then later to 100 nautical miles (185 km) for both countries. Unfortunately, due to inadequate message handling and routing, the CPA change messages were not received until after the attack.

On June 5, at the start of the war, General Yitzhak Rabin (then IDF Chief of Staff) informed Commander Ernest Carl Castle, the American Naval Attaché in Tel Aviv, that Israel would defend its coast with every means at its disposal, including sinking unidentified ships. He asked the U.S. to keep it ships away from the shore or at least inform Israel of their exact position. (p.22) Despite this, the United States did not give Israel any information about the Liberty.(ibid) As war broke out Captain William L. McGonagle of the Liberty immediately asked Vice Admiral William I. Martin at the U.S. 6th Fleet headquarters to send a destroyer to accompany the Liberty and serve as its armed escort and as an auxiliary communications center.

The following day, June 6, Admiral Martin replied: “Liberty is a clearly marked United States ship in international waters, not a participant in the conflict and not a reasonable subject for attack by any nation. Request denied.” He promised, however, that in the unlikely event of an inadvertent attack, jet fighters from the Sixth Fleet could be overhead in ten minutes. Meanwhile, at the United Nations, United States Ambassador Goldberg announced, in response to Arab complaints that the U.S. and British were supporting Israel in the conflict, that the U.S. forces were hundreds of miles from the conflict. At the time the statement was made, this was the case, since the Liberty was just entering the Mediterranean Sea but would ultimately steam to within a few miles of the Sinai Peninsula.

On the night of June 7 Washington time, early morning on June 8, 0110Z or 3:10 AM local time, the Pentagon issued an order to Sixth Fleet headquarters to tell the Liberty to come no closer than 100 nautical miles (185 km) to Israel, Syria, or the Sinai coast (Oren, p. 263). (pages 5 and Exhibit N, page 58).

According to the Naval Court of Inquiry (p. 23 ff, p. 111 ff) and National Security Agency official history , the order to withdraw was not broadcast on the frequencies that the Liberty crew was monitoring for orders until 1525 Zulu, hours after the attack, due to a long series of administrative and communications problems. The Navy said a large volume of unrelated high-precedence traffic, including intelligence intercepts related to the conflict, was being handled at the time and it also faulted a shortage of qualified radio men as a contributing factor to the failure to send the withdrawal message to Liberty in time.(p.111 ff)

During the morning of the attack, early June 8, the ship was overflown by several Israeli Air Force (IAF) aircraft including a Nord Noratlas "flying boxcar" and Mirage III jet fighters. (p.7) At least some of those flybys were from a close range. At 6:03 a.m. Sinai time (GMT +2) that morning, the Nord identified the ship as a U.S. supply ship. After the Nord landed and its naval observer was debriefed, the ship was further identified the USS Liberty based its "GTR-5" markings. Many Liberty crewmen gave testimony that one of the aircraft flew so close to Liberty that its propellers rattled the deck plating of the ship, and the pilots waved to the crew of Liberty, and the crewmen waved back. The ship was marked as a neutral vessel on Israel's Central Coastal Command plot board, but at 11 am the ship was removed from the plot because information on its position was stale.

At this time, the ship was slowly heading westward, in international waters, along the northern coast of the Sinai Peninsula. This course took the Liberty approximately 45 kilometers from its last sighting by IAF pilots by 2 p.m.

At 11:24, the Central Coastal Command received the first of several reports that El Arish, on the Sinai coast near the Liberty's position, was being shelled from the sea, and half an hour later sent three torpedo boats to investigate. At 1341, the boats detected a target on radar. Two boats independently calculated its speed as and , suggesting a combat ship, though, in fact, the Liberty was not capable of anywhere near that speed. (p.8 ff) At 13:48 an air attack was ordered.(p.12)

The air and sea attacks

Beginning about 2 p.m. the Liberty was attacked by several IAF aircraft, initially by two Mirage IIIs, firing cannon and rockets, followed by two Dassault Mysteres carrying napalm. One napalm bomb hit the ship.(p.13) The leader of the Mirage formation identified the ship as a destroyer, mistaking the off-center fed parabolic antenna on its forecastle for a gun. After a series of strafing passes by aircraft, one Israeli pilot, Rabin, who wondered why the Liberty had not returned fire, made a close pass and noted that the ship had Western, not Arabic, lettering. Rabin immediately feared that the ship was Soviet and ordered the planes and a three torpedo boat squadron which had been ordered into the area, to withhold fire pending positive identification of the ship, and sent in two helicopters to search for survivors. These radio communications were recorded by Israel. However, although the order was recorded in the ship's log, the commander of the torpedo boat squadron stated that he had not received it.

When the commander of torpedo boats could see the Liberty, he immediately realized the ship was not a destroyer or any type of warship capable of speed. He immediately ordered the attack stopped pending better identification "although this was difficult due to the billowing clouds of smoke which enveloped the vessel; only her bow, part of her bridge and the tip of her mast could be discerned." The commander attempted to signal the ship but got a reply asking him to identify himself. He also observed gun fire from the ship. He consulted an Israeli identification guide to Arab fleets and concluded the ship was the Egyptian supply ship El Quseir. Another of his boat captains reached the same conclusion. (p.16) Based on that identification, the gun fire and what he considered an evasive response to his signal, the commander ordered the attack to proceed.(ibid. p.17)

The Liberty's captain, Commander McGonagle, was wounded during the air attack, but he remained in command on the ship's bridge. He testified, at the Naval Court of Inquiry, that "about midway during the [air] attack Ensign Lucas was noted on the bridge and at that time he became my assistant and assisted me in every way possible." Further, he testified that during "the latter moments of the air attack, it was noted that three high speed boats were approaching the ship from the northeast on a relative bearing of approximately 135 [degrees] at a distance of about 15 [nautical] miles. The ship at the time was still on [westward] course 283 [degrees] true, speed unknown, but believed to be in excess of five knots." McGonagle "believed that the time of initial sighting of the torpedo boats…was about 1420" (2:20 PM local time). He testified that the "boats appeared to be in a wedge type formation with the center boat the lead point of the wedge. Estimated speed of the boats was about 27 to 30 knots," and that it "appeared that they were approaching the ship in a torpedo launch attitude." McGonagle "told a man from the bridge…to proceed to [the 0.50 caliber machine gun] mount 51 and take the boats under fire." He then testified: "When the boats reached an approximate range of 2,000 yards, the center boat of the formation was signaling to us. Also, at this range, it appeared that they were flying an Israeli flag." It was not possible to "read the signals from the center torpedo boat because of the intermittent blocking of view by smoke and flames." McGonagle "realized that there was a possibility of the aircraft having been Israeli and the attack had been conducted in error." So, he "yelled to [the man in] machine gun [mount] 51 to tell him to hold fire." But the man "fired a short burst at the boats before he was able to understand" McGonagle's order. At this same time, McGonagle realized that "machine gun 53 began firing at the center boat," and he observed that its fire was "extremely effective and blanketed the area and the center torpedo boat." Machine gun mount 53 was located on the starboard amidships side, behind the pilot house. McGonagle could not see or "get to mount 53 from the starboard wing of the bridge." So, he "sent Mr. Lucas around the port side of the bridge, around to the skylights, to see if he could tell [Seaman] Quintero, whom [he] believed to be the gunner on Machine gun 53, to hold fire." Lucas "reported back in a few minutes in effect that he saw no one at mount 53." McGonagle expressed that he felt "sure that [the torpedo boat captains] felt that they were under fire from USS Liberty.(pages 37, 38, 39, 40)

Ensign Lucas testified at the Naval Court of Inquiry that he left Liberty's bridge during the air attack and returned during the torpedo boat attack, before the torpedo hit. While on the bridge, he assisted Captain McGonagle and wrote entries in the Quartermaster's notebook. He stated that Liberty was "attempting to get away from the area as fast as possible, on an approximate course of 000" (north) during the air and torpedo boat attack. After the torpedo hit, Lucas stated there was "some firing from the patrol boats", and that the "man in charge of mount 53 [the starboard amidships machine gun], Seaman Quintero, hollered to me, 'should I fire back?', and I gave him an affirmative on that. This was before he [Quintero] and the other men in mount 53 had been chased away by the fire and flames from the motor whaleboat." During a lull in firing from the torpedo boats, Lucas stated that "it sounded as if [mount 53] was firing at the patrol craft." Captain McGonagle sent him to tell the men to stop firing, but he found nobody manning the gun. Lucas speculated that the firing may have been ammunition "cooking off and firing", due to the nearby whaleboat fire. Additionally, at some point during the torpedo boat attack, Lucas recalled that a Seaman either volunteered or was ordered to go to the forward starboard machine gun mount and fired one shot before Captain McGonagle ordered him to cease fire. At about this same time, "the patrol craft were bearing approximately 160 relative", and one of them was trying to signal via blinking light. Lucas stated that "smoke from the motor whaleboat almost completely obscured the patrol craft", making it impossible to read the signal.(pages 14, 15, 16, 26, 27)

The Israeli torpedo boats attacked with cannon fire and launched five torpedoes at Liberty (p.17). One hit Liberty on the starboard side forward of the superstructure, creating a 39 X hole in what had been a former cargo hold converted to the ships research spaces and killing 25 servicemen. It has been said that the torpedo hit a major hull frame which absorbed much of the energy, crew members reported that if the torpedo had missed the frame the Liberty would have split in two. Russian linguist and Marine Staff Sergeant Bryce Lockwood later commented: "I would never deny that it was God that kept the LIBERTY afloat!".

Most of the U.S. deaths and injuries in the incident were caused by the torpedo blast. According to some witnesses the torpedo boats then approached Liberty and strafed crewmen (including damage control parties and sailors preparing life rafts for launch) on deck. (See disputed details below.)

Aftermath of the attack

When the ship was confirmed to have been American, the torpedo boats returned to offer help; it was refused by the American ship. At about 4 pm, two hours after the attack began, Israel informed the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv about the incident and later provided a helicopter to fly a U.S. naval attaché to the ship.(pp.32,34)

Though Liberty was severely damaged, with a wide by high hole and a twisted keel, her crew kept her afloat, and she was able to leave the area under her own power. She was escorted to Malta by units of the U.S. 6th Fleet and was there given interim repairs. After these were completed in July 1967, Liberty returned to the United States. She was decommissioned in June 1968 and struck from the Naval Vessel Register. Liberty was transferred to United States Maritime Administration (MARAD) in December 1970 and sold for scrap in 1973.

McGonagle received the Medal of Honor, the highest U.S. medal, for his actions. It was awarded at the Washington Navy Yard by the Secretary of the Navy. The Medal of Honor is generally presented by the President of the United States in the White House. This was not to be the case for the USS Liberty recipient.

Investigations of the attack

Several official US and Israeli investigations maintained the initially published conclusion that the event was a tragic mistake through misidentification. The scope of the Israeli investigations was to decide whether or not anyone in the Israeli Defense Forces should be tried on crimes (no criminal wrongdoing was found), accepting as a premise that the attack was a mistake. The scope and performance of U.S. congressional investigations and other U.S. investigations subsequent to the U.S. Navy Court of Inquiry did not satisfy some parties. The majority of those subsequent U.S. reports were issues such as communications failures rather than culpability. The Naval Court of Inquiry conclusions continue to be disputed (see below). According to Raymond Garthoff, nonetheless, US military and intelligence agencies are unanimous in finding that the Israeli attack was “deliberate and unprovoked.”

Israeli investigations

Two subsequent Israeli inquiry reports and an historical report concluded the attack was conducted because Liberty was confused with an Egyptian vessel and because of failures in communications between Israel and the U.S. The three Israeli reports were:

  • Fact Finding Inquiry by Colonel Ram Ron ("Ram Ron Report" - June 1967)
  • Preliminary Inquiry (Hearing) by Examining Judge Y. Yerushalmi ("Yerushalmi Report" - July 1967) (Adjudication of IDF negligence complaints.)
  • Historical Report "The Liberty Incident" - IDF History Department Report (1982)

In the historical report, it was acknowledged that IDF naval headquarters knew at least three hours before the attack that the ship was "an electromagnetic audio-surveillance ship of the U.S. Navy" but concluded that this information had simply "gotten lost, never passed along to the ground controllers who directed the air attack nor to the crews of the three Israeli torpedo boats."

The Israeli government said that three crucial errors were made: the refreshing of the status board (removing the ship's classification as American, so that the later shift did not see it identified), the erroneous identification of the ship as an Egyptian vessel, and the lack of notification from the returning aircraft informing Israeli headquarters of markings on the front of the hull (markings that would not be found on an Egyptian ship). As a common root of these problems, Israel blamed the combination of alarm and fatigue experienced by the Israeli forces at that point of the war when pilots were severely overworked.

After conducting his own fact-finding inquiry and reviewing evidence, Judge Yerushalmi's decision was: "I have not discovered any deviation from the standard of reasonable conduct which would justify committal of anyone for trial." In other words, he found no negligence by any IDF member associated with the attack.

American investigations

American inquiries, memorandums, records of testimony, and various reports involving the Liberty attack include but are not limited to the following:

The U.S. Naval Court of Inquiry record contains indepth testimony by a limited number of Liberty crew members and subject matter experts; exhibits of attack damage photographs, various messages and memorandums; and findings of fact. As to culpability, the Court's first finding only touched on the matter by stating: "Available evidence combines to indicate the attack on Liberty on 8 June was in fact a case of mistaken identity." Additionally, the Court found that "heroism displayed by the Commanding Officer, officers and men of the Liberty was exceptional."

The Joint Chief of Staff's Report contains findings of fact related only to communication system failures associated with the Liberty attack. It was not concerned with matters of culpability, nor does it contain statements thereof.

The CIA Memorandums consist of two documents: one dated June 13, 1967, and the other dated June 21, 1967. The June 13 memorandum is an "account of circumstances of the attack…compiled from all available sources." The June 21 memorandum is a point-by-point analysis of Israeli inquiry findings of fact. It concludes: "The attack was not made in malice toward the US and was by mistake, but the failure of the IDF Headquarters and the attacking aircraft to identify the Liberty and the subsequent attack by torpedo boats were both incongruous and indicative of gross negligence."

The Clark Clifford Report consists of a review of "all available information on the subject" and "deals with the question of Israeli culpability", according to its transmittal memorandum. The report concludes: "The unprovoked attack on the Liberty constitutes a flagrant act of gross negligence for which the Israeli Government should be held completely responsible, and the Israeli military personnel involved should be punished."

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee Testimony contains, as an aside matter, questions and statements from several senators and responses from then Secretary of Defense, Robert McNamara, about the Liberty attack. For the most part, the senators were dismayed about the attack, as expressed by Senator Bourke B. Hickenlooper: "From what I have read I can't tolerate for 1 minute that this [attack] was an accident." Also, there was concern about obtaining more information about the attack, as expressed by the committee's chairman: "We asked for [the attack investigation report] about 2 weeks ago and have not received it yet from Secretary Rusk." Secretary McNamara promised to arrange fast delivery of the investigation report and concluded his remarks by saying: "I simply want to emphasize that the investigative report does not show any evidence of a conscious intent to attack a U.S. vessel."

The House Armed Services Committee Investigation report is entitled, "Review of Department of Defense Worldwide Communications". It was not an investigation focused on the Liberty attack; although, the committee's report contains a section that describes communications flow involved with the Liberty incident.

The NSA History Report is, as its name connotes, a historical report that cited the U.S. Naval Court of Inquiry record, various military and government messages and memorandum, and personal interviews for its content. The report ends with a section entitled, "Unanswered Questions", and provides no conclusion regarding culpability.

Critics -- including an active group of survivors from the ship -- assert that U.S. congressional investigations and other U.S. investigations were not actually investigations into the attack; but, rather, reports using evidence only from the U.S. Navy Court of Inquiry, or investigations unrelated to culpability that involved issues such as communications. In their view, the U.S. Navy Court of Inquiry is the only actual investigation on the incident to date. They claim it was hastily conducted, in only 10 days, even though the court’s president, Rear Admiral Isaac Kidd, said that it would take 6 months to conduct properly. The inquiry's terms of reference were limited to whether any shortcomings on the part of the Liberty's crew had contributed to the injuries and deaths that resulted from the attack. According to the Navy Court of Inquiry's record of proceedings, four days were spent hearing testimony: two days for 14 survivors of the attack and several U.S. Navy expert witnesses, and two partial days for two expert U.S. Navy witnesses. No testimony was heard from Israeli personnel involved.

The National Archives in College Park, Md., includes in its files on casualties from the Liberty copies of the original telegrams the Navy sent out to family members. The telegrams called the attack accidental. The telegrams were sent out June 9, the day before the Navy court of inquiry convened.

Ongoing controversy and unresolved questions

The Liberty was capable of intercepting Israeli communications and transmitting information to America's British allies. At the time, Israel's enemy Jordan was a close military partner of the British Empire.

Many intelligence and military officials dispute Israel's explanation:

I was never satisfied with the Israeli explanation. . . . Through diplomatic channels we refused to accept their explanations. I didn't believe them then, and I don't believe them to this day. The attack was outrageous
Former US Secretary of State Dean Rusk

Some of the survivors claim that this incident stands as the only peacetime attack on a U.S. naval vessel not investigated by Congress, and want a full Congressional hearing They claim that a proper investigation has never taken place and that all previous reports, including the ones by the U.S. Congress, are incomplete, mention the incident in passing, and either that they are intended to exonerate Israel or that they do not even question the culpability of the attack (instead, they hold, it focuses on other topics, such as American communication problems). In 2002 Captain Ward Boston, JAGC, U.S. Navy, ended his own silence on the work of the court of inquiry, saying its findings were intended to cover up what was a deliberate attack by Israel on a ship it knew to be American. He has prepared and signed an affidavit (pdf) in which he claimed that Admiral Kidd had told him that the government ordered Kidd to falsely report that the attack was a mistake, and that he and Kidd both believed the attack was deliberate. He wrote, in part:

The evidence was clear. Both Admiral Kidd and I believed with certainty that this attack, which killed 34 American sailors and injured 172 others, was a deliberate effort to sink an American ship and murder its entire crew. Each evening, after hearing testimony all day, we often spoke our private thoughts concerning what we had seen and heard. I recall Admiral Kidd repeatedly referring to the Israeli forces responsible for the attack as 'murderous bastards.' It was our shared belief, based on the documentary evidence and testimony we received first hand, that the Israeli attack was planned and deliberate, and could not possibly have been an accident.

Still, there is no record of Kidd ever publicly expressing such opinions.

Critics of Boston believe that he is not telling the truth in regard to Kidd's views and any pressure from the government. In particular, A. Jay Cristol, who also served as an officer of the Judge Advocate General in the U.S. military, suggests that Boston was responsible in part for the original conclusions of the Court of Inquiry, and that by later declaring that they were false he has admitted to "lying under oath." Critics also note that Boston's claims about pressure on Kidd were hearsay, and that Kidd was not alive to confirm or deny them. They also note that Boston did not maintain prior to his affadavit and comments related to it that Kidd spoke of such instructions to him or to others. Supporters of the intentional-attack theory believe that Boston's statement invalidates the conclusions of the Court, and that Boston would not have made such an accusation if he did not know it to be true.

Israel stated that the attack was not deliberate using the following arguments:

  • The previous day, Israel's warplanes had erroneously attacked an Israeli armored column, demonstrating unintentional mistakes, where the IAF had even attacked Israel's own forces.
  • The incident took place during the Six Day War when Israel was engaged in battles with three Arab countries, creating an environment where mistakes and confusion were prevalent. For example, at 11:45, a few hours before the attack, there was a large explosion on the shores of El-Arish followed by black smoke, probably caused by the destruction of an ammunition dump by retreating Egyptian forces. The Israeli army thought the area was being bombarded, and that an unidentified ship offshore was responsible. (According to U.S. sources, Liberty was 14 nautical miles (26 km) from those shores at the time of the attack.)
  • Had Israel intended to attack the USS Liberty, IAF aircraft would have been sent out with iron bombs, not 30 mm rapid-firing cannons and napalm bombs, sinking the Liberty within the first few minutes of the incident.
  • The attacking aircraft used napalm bombs and rapid-firing 30 mm cannons, and napalm is an ineffective armament for doing real damage to a steel-hulled ship — other than starting fires in combustibles.
  • Liberty opened fire first on the gunboats. This, though, was after the aerial attacks.
  • No adequate benefit has been put forward that the Israelis would derive from the attack on an American ship, especially considering the high cost of the predictable complications that must inevitably follow such an attack on a powerful ally, and the fact that Israel immediately notified the American embassy after the attack.

Some survivors of Liberty, U.S. government officials and U.S. military officers have asserted that the attack was premeditated. (All sides agree that the IAF intended to attack a ship, and in that sense the attack was premeditated. The survivors argue, however, that when IAF jets and IDF boats attacked, they knew the ship was not Egyptian but American.)

James Ennes, a junior officer (and off-going Officer of the Deck) on Liberty'' bridge at the time of the attack, has published a book titled Assault on the Liberty.

Ennes and Joe Meadors, another survivor of the attack, run a website that was built "with support and encouragement from the USS Liberty Veterans Association." Meadors states that the classification of the attack as deliberate is the official policy of the association, to which all known survivors belong. Other survivors run several additional websites.

Several books and the BBC documentary USS Liberty: Dead in the Water argued that Liberty was attacked in order to prevent the U.S. from knowing about the forthcoming attack in the Golan Heights, which apparently would violate a cease-fire to which Israel's government had agreed. Such a motive remains only speculation, however, and in fact the USS Liberty had no Hebrew translators on board, but was manned to monitor Arabic and Soviet radio traffic, although Israel may not have known this.

Critics claim many of the books and documentaries include incorrect assumptions. For example, critics note that a document declassified in 1997 indicated that the U.S. Ambassador at the time had reported on the day of the Liberty attack that he "would not be surprised" by an Israeli attack on Syria, and that the IDF Intelligence chief had told a White House aide then in Israel that "there still remained the Syria problem and perhaps it would be necessary to give Syria a blow, which, the critics argue, indicate that Israel was not trying to conceal the planned invasion of Syria from the U.S.

The 1981 book Weapons by Russell Warren Howe asserts that Liberty was accompanied by the Polaris armed Lafayette class submarine USS Andrew Jackson, which filmed the entire episode through its periscope but was unable to provide assistance. According to Howe: "Two hundred feet below the ship, on a parallel course, was its 'shadow'- the Polaris strategic submarine Andrew Jackson, whose job was to take out all the Israeli long-range missile sites in the Negev if Tel Aviv decided to attack Cairo, Damascus or Baghdad. This was in order that Moscow would not have to perform this task itself and thus trigger World War Three."

James Bamford, a former ABC News producer, in his 2001 book Body of Secrets, proposes a different possible motive for a deliberate attack: to prevent the discovery of a massacre by the IDF of Egyptian prisoners of war that was supposedly taking place at the same time in the nearby town of El-Arish. In 1995, mass graves of Egyptian soldiers were discovered outside of El-Arish, and IDF veterans have admitted that unarmed civilians and prisoners of war were murdered in the 1967 War.

In 2003, journalist Peter Hounam wrote Operation Cyanide: How the Bombing of the USS Liberty Nearly Caused World War III, which proposes a completely different theory regarding the incident. In an attempt to explain why there was no support by U.S. forces as backup, Hounam claims that Israel and U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson had secretly agreed on day four of the Six Day War that Liberty would be sunk with complete loss of life. The attack would be blamed on Egypt, allowing the U.S. in turn to attack Egypt, thus helping out Israel. However, according to Hounam's theory, because the Liberty did not sink after two hours, the plan was quickly reversed, Israel apologized for the case of mistaken identity, and a cover-up put into place. Likewise the BBC documentary (2002) claims that the Liberty incident provoked the launch of nuclear-armed planes targeted against Cairo from a US aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean. It is claimed in the theory that they were recalled only just in time, when it was clear the Liberty had not sunk with all hands, and that Israel was responsible

From the early 1950s up to shortly before the 1967 Six-Day War, Israel's primary military ally was France. The United States, with a few exceptions, consistently refused requests for sales of offensive weapons to Israel until 1968. The height of French-Israeli cooperation was in the 1956 Suez war, when France, Israel and the United Kingdom participated in a combined ground, sea and air offensive against Egypt, despite stringent opposition from the United States and threats from the Soviet Union.

NSA tapes and recent developments

On July 2, 2003, the National Security Agency released copies of the recordings made by an EC-121 aircraft that flew near the attacks from 2:30 p.m. to 3:27 p.m., Sinai time (1230 to 1337 Z), and the resultant translations and summaries. These revelations were elicited as part of a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit by Florida bankruptcy judge and retired naval aviator Jay Cristol. Two linguists who were aboard the EC-121 when the recordings were made, however, have claimed separately that at least two additional tapes were made that have been excluded from the NSA releases up to and including a June 8, 2007 release.

English transcripts of the tapes—recorded by U.S. warplanes—indicate that Israel still believed it had hit an Egyptian supply ship even after the attack had stopped. After the attack, the rescue helicopters are heard relaying several urgent requests that the rescuers ask the first survivor pulled out of the water what his nationality is, and discussing whether the survivors from the attacked ship will speak Arabic.

The NSA reported that there had been no radio intercepts related to the attack made by the Liberty herself, nor there had been any radio intercepts made by the U.S. submarine Amberjack.

Within an hour of learning that the Liberty had been torpedoed the Director, NSA, LTG Marshall S. Carter, USA, sent a message to all intercept sites requesting a special search of all communications that might reflect the attack or reaction. No communications were available. However, one of the airborne platforms, a U.S. Navy EC-121, had collected voice conversations between two Israeli helicopter pilots and the control tower at Hazor Airfield following the attack on the Liberty.

The NSA-translated tapes show that the helicopters were first dispatched to rescue Egyptians (control tower to helicopter 815 at 1234Z: "The ship has now been identified as an Egyptian ship"), and that they demonstrate confusion as to the identification of the target ship. (e.g. control tower to helicopter 815 at 1310Z "The first thing is for you to clarify what nationality they are. Notify me immediately.") Cristol adds: "The tapes confirm that the helicopter pilot observed the flag at 3:12 p.m." (1312Z) which would coincide with the audio tapes the Israel Air Force released to Cristol of the radio transmissions before, during and after the attack. The English translations of the Israeli Air Force tapes are published in Appendix 2 of Cristol's book The Liberty Incident.

On October 10, 2003, The Jerusalem Post ran an interview with Yiftah Spector, one of the pilots who participated in the attack , and thought to be the lead pilot of the first wave of planes. Spector said the ship was assumed to be Egyptian. The interview also contains the transcripts of the Israeli communications about the Liberty.

As of 2006, the National Security Agency (NSA) has yet to declassify "boxes and boxes" of Liberty documents. Numerous requests under both declassification directives and the Freedom of Information Act are pending in various agencies including the NSA, Central Intelligence Agency, and Defense Intelligence Agency.

"…On June 8, 2007, the National Security Agency released hundreds of additional declassified documents on the Israeli attack on the USS Liberty, a communications interception vessel, on June 8, 1967."

On June 8, 2005, the USS Liberty Veterans Association filed a "Report of War Crimes Committed Against the U.S. Military, June 8, 1967" with the Department of Defense (DoD). They say Department of Defense Directive 2311.01E requires the Department of Defense to conduct a thorough investigation of the allegations contained in their report. DoD has responded that a new investigation will not be conducted since a Navy Court of Inquiry already investigated the facts and circumstances surrounding the attack.

Most recently, on October 2, 2007, The Chicago Tribune published a lengthy special report into the attack. The newspaper's article pointed out that the Liberty survivors' "anger has been stoked by the declassification of government documents and the recollections of former military personnel, including some quoted in this article for the first time, which strengthen doubts about the U.S. National Security Agency's position that it never intercepted the communications of the attacking Israeli pilots - communications, according to those who remember seeing them, that showed the Israelis knew they were attacking an American naval vessel. The documents also suggest that the U.S. government, anxious to spare Israel's reputation and preserve its alliance with the U.S., closed the case with what even some of its participants now say was a hasty and seriously flawed investigation."

The Tribune's report is based on the declassified NSA documents as well as interviews with people with first-hand experience of the Israeli attack, ranging from Liberty survivors, to NSA analysts to US and Israeli journalists and politicians. The Tribune article's author, John Crewdson, mentions the Liberty survivors' disbelief that "Israeli pilots [could have] confused the U.S. Navy's most distinctive ship with an Egyptian horse-cavalry transport that was half its size and had a dissimilar profile."

Frequently cited by those making the case for mistaken identity is Yiftah Spector, the first Israeli pilot to attack the Liberty. In an interview with the Jerusalem Post in 2003, Spector states that, "I circled it twice and it did not fire on me. My assumption was that it was likely to open fire at me and nevertheless I slowed down and I looked and there was positively no flag."

Spector's assertion about the absence of a US flag on Liberty is contradicted by every single one of the Liberty's survivors. This fact is confirmed by one of the declassified NSA documents which concludes that, "Every official interview of numerous Liberty crewmen gave consistent evidence that indeed the Liberty was flying an American flag - and, further, the weather conditions were ideal to ensure its easy observance and identification."

The Tribune investigation also makes mention of a Jerusalem Post article from 2004 which carried a transcription of the Israeli Air Force tapes of the actual attack. The journalist who transcribed the tapes for that article, Arieh O'Sullivan, later confirmed that "the Israeli Air Force tapes he listened to contained blank spaces." The Chicago Tribune article also notes that, "The transcript published by the Jerusalem Post bore scant resemblance to the one that in 1967 rolled off the teletype machine behind the sealed vault door at Offutt Air Force Base in Omaha, where Steve Forslund worked as an intelligence analyst for the 544th Air Reconnaissance Technical Wing, then the highest-level strategic planning office in the Air Force." The paper goes on to quote Forslund as remembering that: "The [Israeli] ground control station stated that the target was American and for the aircraft to confirm it. The aircraft did confirm the identity of the target as American, by the American flag… The ground control station ordered the aircraft to attack and sink the target and ensure they left no survivors."

Forslund's recollections are confirmed by, amongst others, James Gotcher, then with the Air Force Security Service's 6924th Security Squadron, an adjunct of the NSA, and USAF Captain Richard Block, then commanding an intelligence wing of more than 100 analysts and cryptologists monitoring Middle Eastern communications. Oliver Kirby, the NSA's deputy director for operations at the time of the Liberty attack, confirmed the existence of NSA transcripts of the actual attack - not just the aftermath - to The Chicago Tribune. When the newspaper asked whether Kirby had personally read such transcripts, Kirby replied, "I sure did. I certainly did. They said, 'We've got him in the zero,' whatever that meant - I guess the sights or something. And then one of them said, 'Can you see the flag?' They said 'Yes, it's U.S, it's U.S.' They said it several times, so there wasn't any doubt in anybody's mind that they knew it."

The Tribune also interviewed Michael Prostinak, a Hebrew linguist aboard a U.S. Navy EC-121 that was monitoring communications in the area at the time of the attack. Like Kirby, Prostinak confirms that recordings were made during the attack which had not been released by the NSA, and that those recordings mention an American flag during the attack. The linguist further noted that the numbering sequence of the tapes released by the NSA clearly indicate that at least two tapes that had once existed were not included in the NSA release.

Even in the immediate aftermath of the attack, the widely-held view of US intelligence and military personnel was expressed succinctly by the then deputy director of the NSA, Louis W. Tordella, in response to the IDF Preliminary Inquiry into the attack: Tordella called it "a nice whitewash.

Details in dispute

Many of the events surrounding the attack are the subject of controversy:

  • US crewmen's perceptions of Israeli intent: Perhaps more than any other detail, this issue remains in dispute because the surviving crew of the Liberty report their subjective perception that Israel's attack on the ship was "deliberate" and in full knowledge that the vessel was American. Yet, Israel agrees that the attack was deliberate—but against the wrong ship. Israel agrees that its jets acted as if they intended to deliberately attack a ship. Israel responds that its attack was directed at its Egyptian enemies, and not at the United States, its most important ally.
  • Distinctiveness of USS Liberty's appearance: One major dispute is whether the Liberty would have been immediately recognized as a different ship from the Egyptian ship El Quseir. Critics of the Israeli attack argue that the Liberty was distinctive, and "bristling with antennae." Admiral Tom Moorer stated that the Liberty was the most identifiable ship in the US Navy. Israel says the identification as the El Quseir was made by the torpedo boats while the Liberty was enveloped in smoke and was based on a guide to Arab fleets that did not include U.S. vessels. Those who believe the attack was intended against a different ship point out that the Liberty was a mass-produced Victory Ship of standardized design, built as a cargo ship—the Egyptian ship El Quseir was a cargo vessel. (Web site with images of both ships)
  • Visibility of ensign: The most vehemently debated point is the visibility of the American flags that the ship was flying; Americans claimed the flags were clearly visible in the wind. The survivors uniformly agree that the Liberty was flying the Stars and Stripes before, during and after the attack, except for a brief period in which one flag that had been shot down was replaced with another, larger flag that measured long. The Israeli pilots claimed they did not see any flag. The Court of Inquiry found that the Liberty was cruising at 5 knots (9 km/hour) on a calm day, so that the flag would have been furled or fouled, and could not be seen. NSA documents declassified on June 8 2007 state "Every official interview of numerous Liberty crewmen gave consistent evidence that indeed the Liberty was flying an American flag and, further, the weather conditions were ideal to ensure its easy observance and identification."
  • Liberty bore an eight-foot-high "5" and a four-foot-high "GTR" along either bow, clearly indicating her hull (or "pendant") number (AGTR-5), and had -high letters spelling the vessel's name across the stern. These markings were not cursive Arabic script but in the Latin alphabet (used in European or English languages). Israeli pilots claim initially they were primarily concerned with making sure the ship was a warship not Israeli and that they called off the attack when they noticed the Latin alphabet markings.
  • Israeli Jets not armed for attacking a ship: Advocates question why Israeli jets flew out to the Liberty armed only with 30 mm rapid-firing cannons and napalm bombs—instead of iron bombs—as these weapons were incapable of sinking a US warship. Israel says the aircraft involved were diverted from ground support roles.
  • Israeli terminates attack: Critics of Israel maintain that Israel intended to attack and sink the Liberty. Those arguing that Israel attacked the wrong ship point out that Israel did not in fact sink the Liberty, but terminated the attack…leaving witnesses and survivors. It remains unknown why Israel would begin to attack a US ship but then leave the Liberty afloat with witnesses aboard.
  • A James Bamford book, published in 2001, claimed that secret NSA intercepts recorded by an American reconnaissance aircraft indicate that Israeli pilots had full knowledge they were attacking a U.S. vessel. This 2001 proposition has played a significant role in the on-going controversies about the incident, and continues to be widely cited. However, the tapes were later released by the National Security Agency in 2003 as a result of a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit brought by Judge and author A. Jay Cristol. These tapes record communications after the attack was over with Israeli helicopter pilots who were not involved in the attack and who were sent to provide assistance. These pilots noticed an American flag flying from the ship. and informed their control tower. See other sources for a link to the NSA website with complete transcripts. The NSA Website denies that there were any U.S. recordings of the attack itself although this is disputed by several intelligence specialists who claim to have read the original transcripts.
  • Israeli aircraft markings: Some American survivors of the attack assert that the Israeli aircraft were unmarked. However, aircraft markings are not required by the laws of war and two of the attacking aircraft were highly distinctive Dassault Mirage III aircraft, flown only by Israel in that region.
  • Jamming: Both Liberty and USS Saratoga radio operators reported hearing the distinctive buzzing sound usually indicative of radio frequency jamming. However, the Navy Court of Inquiry found that the Saratoga in fact received radio reports from the Liberty and successfully relayed these to the Sixth Fleet. (see page 28). According to a book by Russell Warren Howe (see below), Captain McGonagle testified that the jamming of his transmissions had been on American, not Egyptian, frequencies, suggesting that someone was aware of the nationality of the ship. However changing frequency is a standard technique to avoid radio jamming and jamming equipment is often designed to find the actual frequencies in use.
  • Probability of identification: Americans claim the thirteen closer flybys of the previous two days should have been sufficient for identification. Israel acknowledged the ship had been identified as American and neutral that morning; however, it claims that at 11 a.m., the ship was removed from the command status board. Later that morning, when explosions were heard in El-Arish, Israel claims to have reacquired the ship without being aware that it was the same one that was flown over earlier in the day.
  • Effort for identification: The American crew claims the attacking aircraft did not make identification runs over Liberty, but rather began to strafe immediately. Israel claims several identification passes were made.
  • Speed of the vessel: According to Israeli accounts, the torpedo boat made (admittedly erroneous) measurements that indicated the ship was steaming at 30 knots (56 km/h). Israeli naval doctrine at the time required that a ship traveling at that speed must be presumed to be a warship. A second boat calculated Liberty's speed to be 28 knots (52 km/h) The maximum sustained speed of Liberty was only 17.5 knots (32 km/h), 21 knots (39 km/h) being attainable by overriding the engine governors. According to Body of Secrets, by James Bamford, and Liberty crewmen (including the Officer-of-the-Deck), the ship was steaming at 5 knots (9 km/h) at the time of the attack.
  • Visual communications: Joe Meadors, the signalman on bridge, states that "Immediately prior to the torpedo attack, he was on the Signal Bridge repeatedly sending 'USS Liberty U.S. Navy Ship' by flashing light to the torpedo boats." The Israeli boats claim to have read only the signal "AA", which was exactly the signal dispatched by the Egyptian destroyer Ibrahim Al-Awal when it was engaged by the Israeli Navy eleven years earlier. Meadors claims he never sent "AA" (which would require him to identify himself as well); this disagreement may be settled by considering the fact that Liberty was unable to read signals sent from the boats due to smoke.

  • Israeli ships' actions after the torpedo hit: Some of the crewmembers claim that after the Liberty had been torpedoed, Israeli boats circled the ship firing 0.50 caliber machine guns at descended (unmanned) life rafts and sailors on board the ship. Israelis claim they recognized the ship as American immediately after it was hit and ceased fire. Two survivors Lloyd Painter and Glenn Oliphant claim to have seen the life rafts being fired upon, but the ship's captain and others on deck made no mention of this. Oliphant said the life rafts were about behind the ship, Painter said the life raft he saw getting shot “had been cut loose and was floating in the water”. Captain Ward Boston, senior counsel to the U.S. Navy Court of Inquiry, supports Painter’s claim that his testimony about the life rafts being shot at was removed from the court’s report.
  • Israeli offers of help: Reports differ regarding whether the Israeli boats offered help. Some crew members claim the torpedo boats simply withdrew, while the captain and the Israeli crew report that help was offered; the captain testified before the court of inquiry that he had asked the Israeli boats to stay away by the means of signal flags. Ennes acknowledges the Israelis offered help but claims they only did so at 4:30, the same time cited in the Israel Defense Force's History Report about the attack.
  • U.S. rescue attempts: At least two rescue attempts were launched from U.S. aircraft carriers nearby but were recalled, according to David Lewis. Lewis wrote and made an audio recording about a meeting 6th Fleet Rear Admiral Lawrence Geis requested in his cabins: "He told me that since I was the senior Liberty survivor on board he wanted to tell me in confidence what had actually transpired. He told me that upon receipt of our SOS, aircraft were launched to come to our assistance and then Washington was notified. He said that the Secretary of Defense (Robert McNamara) had ordered that the aircraft be returned to the carrier which was done. RADM Geis then said that he speculated that Washington may have suspected that the aircraft carried nuclear weapons so he put together another flight of conventional aircraft that had no capability of carrying nuclear weapons. These he launched to assist us and again notified Washington of his actions. Again McNamara ordered the aircraft recalled. He requested confirmation of the order being unable to believe that Washington would let us sink. This time President Johnson ordered the recall with the comment that he did not care if every man drowned and the ship sank, but that he would not embarrass his allies. This is, to the best of my ability, what I recall transpiring 30 years ago."

Names of fatalities

  • Cryptologic Tech 3rd Class William B. Allenbaugh, USN
  • Lt Cmdr. Philip M. Armstrong Jr., USN
  • Seaman Gary R. Blanchard, USN
  • Cryptologic Technician 2nd Class Allen M. Blue, NSA
  • Quartermaster 3rd Class Francis Brown, USN
  • Cryptologic Tech 2nd Class Ronnie J. Campbell, USN
  • Cryptologic Tech 2nd Class Jerry L. Converse, USN
  • Cryptologic Tech 2nd Class Robert B. Eisenberg, USN
  • Cryptologic Tech 2nd Class Jerry L. Goss, USN
  • Cryptologic Tech 1st Class Curtis L. Graves, USN
  • Cryptologic Tech Lawrence P. Hayden, USN
  • Cryptologic Tech 1st Class Warren Hersey, USN
  • Cryptologic Tech 3rd Class Alan Higgins, USN
  • Seaman Carl L. Hoar, USN
  • Cryptologic Tech 2nd Class Richard W. Keene, USN
  • Cryptologic Tech James L. Lenau, USN
  • Chief Cryptologic Tech Raymond E. Linn, USN

  • Cryptologic Tech 1st Class James M. Lupton, USN
  • Cryptologic Tech 3rd Class Duane R. Marggraf, USN
  • Cryptologic Tech David W. Marlborough, USN
  • Cryptologic Tech 2nd Class Anthony P. Mendle, USN
  • Cryptologic Tech Carl C. Nygren, USN
  • Lt. James C. Pierce, USN
  • Sgt. Jack Raper, U.S.M.C.
  • Cpl. Edward Rehmayer II, U.S.M.C.
  • Interior Comms Electrician David N. Skolak, USN
  • Cryptologic Tech 1st Class John C. Smith Jr, USN
  • Chief Cryptologic Tech Melvin D. Smith, USN
  • Postal Clerk 2nd Class John C. Spicher, USN
  • Gunner's Mate 3rd Class Alexander N. Thompson, USN
  • Cryptologic Tech 3rd Class Thomas R. Thornton, USN
  • Cryptologic Tech 3rd Class Phillipe C. Tiedtke, USN
  • Lt. Stephen S. Toth, USN
  • Cryptologic Tech 1st Class Frederick J. Walton, USN

Note: The rating "cryptologic technician" reflects current usage. In 1967, the rating was called "communications technician."

See also

References

Books

  • A History of Israel by Ahron Bregman contains extracts from the tapes. (ISBN 0-333-67631-9)
  • Cristol, A. Jay (2002). The Liberty Incident: The 1967 Israeli Attack on the U.S. Navy Spy Ship. Dulles, Virginia: Brassey's. ISBN 1-57488-414-X.
  • Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East, by Michael B. Oren, Oxford University Press (ISBN 0-19-515174-7)
  • Assault on the Liberty: The True Story of the Israeli Attack on an American Intelligence Ship, by James M. Ennes, Jr. (ISBN 0-9723116-0-2) Currently in its 9th printing.
  • The Puzzle Palace, by James Bamford, Penguin Books, 1982, has a detailed description of the Israeli attack on the SIGINT ship USS Liberty, and the events leading up to it, on pages 279-293.
  • Body of Secrets, by James Bamford, devotes a detailed chapter to the incident, and concludes it was deliberate. Doubleday, 2001 (ISBN 0-09-942774-5)
  • Peter Hounam, Operation Cyanide: Why the Bombing of the USS Liberty Nearly Caused World War III, Vision Paperbacks. 2003, ISBN 1-904132-19-7,
  • Anthony Pearson, Conspiracy of Silence: The Attack on the USS Liberty, 1979 ISBN 0-7043-2164-5
  • John Borne, The USS Liberty, Dissenting History vs. Official History
  • Thomas, Baylis (1999). How Israel Was Won: A Concise History of the Arab-Israeli Conflict. Lanham, Maryland: Lexington Books. ISBN 0-7391-0064-5. In Chapter 15 on "The Six Day War and Its Consequences", dissects the sequence of events and concurrent attacks on Arab towns and explores the possibility that the attack on this U.S. spy ship was an intentional act to prevent U.S. monitoring of Israeli military actions, and that the intent was to kill all US personnel on board before any kind of communications could be sent out.

External links

U.S. government sites

Other sources

Sources claiming attack was a mistake

Sources claiming attack was deliberate

Survivors of the attack

Other sources

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