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USS Liberty – Tragic Blunder or Mass Murder?

USS Liberty – Tragic Blunder or Mass Murder?

Damaged USS Liberty on 9 June 1967, one day after attack

“Never before in the history of the US Navy has a Navy board of inquiry ignored the testimony of American eyewitnesses and taken, on faith, the word of their attackers”
Captain Dr. Richard Kiepfer, USS Liberty survivor

“A danger to national security exists whenever elected officials are willing to subordinate American interests to those of any foreign nation, and specifically are unwilling to challenge Israel’s interests when they conflict with American interests.”
Admiral Thomas H. Moorer, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, 1970-1974

“Patriotism is supporting your country all the time, and your government when it deserves it.”
Mark Twain

At dawn on June 14, 1967 a battered American intelligence-gathering ship, the USS Liberty limped into the Grand Harbor at Valletta, Malta.

Six days earlier it had been attacked and almost sunk by Israeli air and naval forces while in international waters 13 miles off the coast of Egypt. Fewer than a third of the ship’s complement of 294 escaped death or injury in what survivors are convinced was a deliberate attempt by the Israelis to sink the ship with all hands.

What was the ship doing there? Though a naval ship manned by naval crew, the Liberty was a state-of-the art intelligence gathering ship. Bristling with radio antennae, its National Security Agency (NSA) staff below decks could eavesdrop on radio communications in nearby countries. On board were NSA linguists able to intercept and understand communications in Russian and Arabic. In response to rising tensions between Israel and its Arab neighbors, the Liberty had been sent to the Eastern Mediterranean from its previous location off the coast of West Africa.

The ship arrived at its destination just in time for the beginning of the ‘six-day-war’ on June 5, in which Israel inflicted devastating surprise attacks on the air forces of Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Iraq, destroying hundreds of planes before they could get off the ground. Israel now occupied the Sinai Peninsula, the Gaza Strip, East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Only Syria was still resisting; Israel had not yet taken the Golan Heights. This would have involved rushing troops and materiel north from Sinai to the Syrian border, for which secrecy was essential. The presence of the Liberty therefore posed a threat to the completion of General Dyan’s plans.

Air Reconnaissance

June 8 in the Eastern Mediterranean was a crystal-clear day with perfect visibility. At 4 A.M., Ensign John Scott began his watch duty on the bridge of the Liberty. Mindful of the fact that the Liberty was in a war zone, the skipper, Commander McGonagle, had been relentlessly drilling his crew to deal with possible air attack. At 5:15 A.M. Scott spotted a lone Israeli ‘Noratlas’ photoreconnaissance plane circling the ship, the first of many such overflights. These flights did not concern Liberty’s crew, as the ship was in international waters.

Lieutenant James Ennes, who survived the attack, had just ordered a clean 5-foot-by-8 foot ‘Stars and Stripes’ flag to be hoisted to replace the previous one that had become discoloured by the ship’s smoke. All surviving eyewitnesses reported that the flag flew freely in a 5-10 knot breeze. Moreover, on the hull, its identity, consisting of the symbols ‘GTR’ (four feet high) and ‘5’ (eight feet high), made it impossible for any Israeli aircraft to mistake it for an Egyptian ship. So off-duty crew continued to sunbathe while Israeli planes had been flying over the Liberty all morning. Crew member Lloyd Painter reported that the planes flew so low that they could wave to the pilot, who waved back.

Air Attack

Armed only with four .5-caliber machine guns for repelling boarders, the Liberty was defenseless against air attack. At 1.58 P.M. three Mirage fighters appeared out of the sky and attacked the ship. It was methodical; 30-mm cannon and machine guns targeted the bridge, and heat-seeking rockets attacked the 45 antennae that would be needed to send out distress signals. Every 45 seconds the jets returned with another attack.

Within minutes, the Liberty’s deck was running with blood. After the Mirage fighters ran out of ammunition they were replaced by Super-Mystère fighter-bombers armed with napalm that was used to flood the bridge with fire. The planes vanished, leaving nine men dead. Commander McGonagle suffered a severe shrapnel wound to his right leg, leaving him weak from loss of blood.

Bryce Lockwood, a US Marine Corps linguist specializing in Russian, said in interview:

“They were jamming both our distress frequencies and our tactical frequencies.”

As James Kavanagh, communications technician aboard the Liberty pointed out, jamming distress frequencies is a violation of international law, and only an ally would know the tactical frequencies. And Israel was the only ally anywhere near.

Why napalm? Covering the decks with fire would have prevented any attempt to repair the radio antennae, thus preventing the Liberty getting out a distress signal.

With its huge array of 45 radio antennae, giant satellite dish and its large American flag flying freely, the ship was clearly identifiable. As eyewitness Lieutenant James M. Ennes, who was on the bridge during the attack put it:

“They ignored the 5-by-8 foot American flag that flew in plain sight from the mast while firing on medical personnel and firefighters nearby. The Israeli identity of the planes was not known at this stage because they were unmarked, a breach of the rules of war”.

Furthermore, as Ennes said in a radio interview many years later, the men below decks were listening in to the Israeli pilots, who repeatedly reported that the ship was flying an American flag. And arguably most important of all, the radio jamming Liberty’s five American emergency radio channels made misidentification impossible since jamming requires knowledge of the frequencies used by the target.

Quite apart from the views of surviving eyewitnesses, there were others, much further away from the scene, that were listening in to conversations between Israeli pilots and their control. Captain Richard Block, a US air force intelligence analyst, was monitoring radio intercepts of the attack.

In an interview in 2007 for the BBC documentary USS Liberty: Dead in the Water, Captain Block stated that his intelligence gathering group on the island of Crete received instant translations of the communications between Israeli attack pilots and their headquarters from an American RC-130 plane near the Gaza Strip.

The communication I had in my hand originated from an Israeli flight commander. Evidently, from his questioning to ground control, he had been given specific orders to attack that ship before he left the ground, and when he saw it was an American ship he questioned those orders to his ground control. That same conversation that I had in my hand specifically noted that the ground control said ‘proceed with the attack’, and there was still doubt in the Israeli pilot’s mind. And he said ‘no, this is an American, repeat those orders again’. And he was told, flat out: ‘do attack this ship’”.

Torpedo attack

At 2.24 P.M. McGonagle observed three torpedo boats approaching in attack formation, some 5 miles away. He ordered the remaining, forward machine guns to be manned and a new flag to be hoisted to replace the one shot down. At 7-by-13 feet, the new one was the largest they had. Even at its top speed of 18 knots, the ship would have had no chance against the 30 knot-torpedo boats.

When the MTBs were about two thousand yards away, McGonagle saw a blue and white Star of David Israeli flag. As the torpedo boats closed, they opened fire with 20-mm and 40-mm cannon and .50-caliber machine guns, killing four more sailors. The machine guns, however, were of far less concern than the two torpedoes carried by each of the Israeli boats.

Through the loudspeaker, the crew heard McGonagle’s warning: “Standby for torpedo attack.” The chief engineer ordered all non-essential men to don life-jackets and climb the ladders out of spaces below. Now the sailors could only await the blast. Altogether five torpedoes were launched, but only one struck its target, at 2.35 P.M., hitting the starboard side. The explosion tore a hole thirty nine feet wide by twenty four feet high, killing 25 men. Had it struck the engine room it would have been curtains for the ship, but it mercifully stayed afloat. Survivor Lloyd Painter reported that as preparations were being made to abandon ship, he witnessed “the machinegunning of life-rafts as they floated by, the Israeli torpedo boat crew members raked the life rafts thoroughly with machine gun fire, making sure that if there had been anyone in the life rafts, they would not have survived.” This was a clear violation of the Geneva conventions.

Soon after the torpedo boats left, survivor Phillip Tourney recalls the arrival of a large, troop-carrying helicopter. As it hovered only seventy five feet away, he exchanged middle-finger gestures with a marine armed with a sub-machine gun. He was sitting on the floor, ready to descend to the deck of the ship, but suddenly the attack was called off.

In total over two thirds of the crew were killed or injured: 34 killed and 171 wounded, only 30% of the crew escaping injury or death. Had the objective of the Israelis been to prevent the Liberty gathering information, this would have been accomplished in the first few minutes. The survivors took a different view; that the torpedo attack and machine-gunning of life rafts showed that the intention had been to sink the ship and leave no survivors.

Distress calls

A transmitting antenna emits heat, enabling the Israelis to target them with heat-seeking missiles. But by good fortune, one of the radio antennae had been out of commission and so escaped the missiles’ attention. Risking his life, radio technician Terry Halbardier ran across the Liberty’s deck while it was being strafed and took a co-axial cable to this undamaged antenna. The Sixth Fleet was about 500 miles westward of the Liberty, off the coast of Crete.

“Any station, this is Rockstar [Liberty’s call sign]: “We are under attack by unidentified jet aircraft and require immediate assistance.”

The Israelis intercepted that message and fearing a US response, immediately broke off the attack, returned to their bases, and sent an “oops” message to Washington confessing to their unfortunate “mistake.”

At 3.55 P.M., by which time the attack was over, radio contact with the Sixth Fleet had been re-established and some details of the ship’s plight given.

McGonagle dictated the message:

“Request immediate assistance. Torpedo hit starboard midship. Flooding. List has stopped at nine degrees. Approximate casualties four dead, three seriously wounded, 50 wounded. Radar, fathometer and gyroscope inoperable. Will require navigational aid consisting of sea and air escort.”

Though the Liberty was without power or steering, her desperate appeal had been received by the Sixth Fleet. It was assumed that the attackers were Egyptian, and two nuclear-armed Douglas A-4 Skyhawk bombers were launched, along with fighter escort. The skyhawks were minutes away from making a nuclear attack on Cairo.

Rescue aircraft Recalled

Naval communications were being monitored by Chief Petty Officer J.Q. (“Tony”) Hart, working as a US Navy communications supervisor at a relay station in Morocco. Soon after the A-4s were launched, he passed a Pentagon message to the navy, ordering the recall of the aircraft.

Ten minutes later, on a direct phone link, Defence Secretary McNamara confirmed the order to recall the aircraft. The Fleet Commander Admiral Martin asked permission to send conventionally-armed aircraft to rescue the Liberty. The conversation was monitored by Tony Hart, who said that McNamara said that no aircraft were to be launched.

Lieutenant Commander Dave Lewis, Senior Signals Intelligence officer on the Liberty, spoke with Rear Admiral Geis, who was deeply upset by being forbidden to send rescue aircraft. He told Lewis that after recall of the nuclear armed planes, he had launched conventionally armed planes and that he had informed Washington to that effect. McNamara ordered these planes to be recalled, and Geis said he wouldn’t, unless he heard from a higher authority. So President Johnson came on the line, saying that he “didn’t give a damn if the ship sank; he would not embarrass his allies.”

So one has to ask how the President knew the attackers were Israelis, in view of the fact that at that stage the Liberty crew did not know the identity of the attackers.

Emergency surgery

Meanwhile the crippled Liberty was steaming at half-speed towards the Sixth Fleet. Some electrical power had been restored, though steering had to be manual. The fathometer was working but was no help in navigation as the gyrocompass and radar were kaput.

Richard Kiepfer, the ship’s only physician, had been working flat out since the attack began. Though suffering shrapnel wounds in the abdomen, he performed emergency surgery in the mess deck for 28 hours without a break. In the mess deck he treated shrapnel wounds and broken bones. On the bridge he gave saline solution to skipper McGonagle, helping to stave off the effects of blood loss from a wound in his right leg. It was the skipper’s resolute insistence on remaining in command that helped sustain the morale of the crew.

Soon after dawn the next day Sixth Fleet destroyers, that had been racing to the rescue at 30 knots, met with the Liberty. Fifty injured men were transferred to the America by helicopter, followed by the bodies of nine dead. For the first time since the attack seventeen hours earlier, non-improvised medical aid was available to treat the wounded, but even now McGonagle insisted on remaining on the Liberty.

There was a total media blackout; the press were prevented from talking to the injured men by guards outside the rooms in which the injured men lay. The military action was over, but the political fallout and cover-up were about to begin.

* * *

Washington reacts

The news reached Washington at 9:11 A.M., Washington time, just over half an hour after the torpedo struck. At this stage, nobody knew who the attackers were, and the possibility that it was the Soviets that were responsible was deeply worrying.

However, by 11 A.M. the administration had learned from the Israelis that they had admitted responsibility, saying that it was the result of a mistake, and accordingly the Soviet government was immediately notified. Washington breathed a sigh of relief; the possibility of WWIII with the Soviets had disappeared.

With that news, the situation had changed from a military nightmare to a political headache. Somehow the news had to be broken to the American public that an American ship had been torpedoed and almost sunk by the forces of a close ally. The announcement to the media ran as follows:

A US Navy technical research ship, the USS Liberty (AGTR-5) was attacked about 9 A.M. (EDT) today approximately 15 miles north of the Sinai Peninsula in international waters of the Mediterranean Sea. The Liberty departed Rota, Spain, June 2nd and arrived at her position this morning to assure communications between US Government posts in the Middle East and to assist in relaying information concerning the evacuation of American dependents and other American citizens from the countries of the Middle East. The United States Government has been informed by the Israeli government that the attack was made in error by Israeli forces, and an apology has been received from Tel Aviv. Initial reports of casualties are 4 dead and 53 wounded [the figures that were known at that time]. The Liberty is steaming north from the area at a speed of 8 knots to meet US forces moving to her aid. It is reported that she is in no danger of sinking.”

In stark contrast to the emollient official public statement, individuals in the Johnson administration were in turmoil. Secretary of State Dean Rusk didn’t for a moment believe that such a well organized attack, preceded by so many reconnaissance flights, could have been a case of mistaken identity.

Moreover, in an interview with Charles Roberts of Newsweek, President Johnson said that the United States had accepted Israel’s apology, but not the explanation, saying that the attack was deliberate. The interview was conducted on the condition that attribution had to be to senior but un-named officials.

In stark contrast, some members of both sides of Congress were willing to accept Israel’s version.

Israel’s reaction

From the moment the attack became public, the Israelis accepted responsibility but denied culpability, saying that it had been a terrible mistake. The Israelis accepted that reconnaissance flights had identified the Liberty and marked its position on the combat information map. Later that morning, reports came in of the Sinai coast being shelled from the sea, but by this time the Liberty’s position had been erased from their map. Patrol boats were sent to investigate the shelling, and the only ship they found was the Liberty.

Whereas the Liberty’s maximum speed was 18 knots, the Israelis say they misread its speed at 28 knots, which meant it must have been a military ship. The next mistake, the Israelis said, was that they confused the Liberty with an Egyptian troop- and horse-carrying ship, the El Quesir, which was just over half the Liberty’s length and lacked the conspicuous arrays of antennae. Its maximum speed was 14 knots and bore markings in Arabic. With that erroneous and threadbare information, the air force had been sent to attack the Liberty.

The Naval Court of Inquiry

A navy Court of Inquiry was set up by Admiral John S. McCain Jr., then Commander-in-chief, Naval Forces Europe, charged with the task of inquiring into
“all the pertinent facts and circumstances leading to and connected with the armed attack; damage resulting therefrom; and deaths of and injuries to Naval personnel.”

McCain was acutely aware of the potential explosiveness of the issue; not only was Israel a close ally, but there was substantial domestic support from American Jews. The court was chaired by Rear Admiral Isaac C. Kidd, with Captain Ward Boston, Jr. as senior legal counsel and two junior Judge Advocate General officers, Capts. Bernard Lauff and Bert Atkinson.

Admiral Kidd and Captain Boston were given only a week to gather evidence, despite the fact that they had estimated that such an inquiry would take at least six months to conduct. They gathered hours of testimony from about 15 survivors, but could not gather evidence from the more than sixty others who were still in hospital. When Kidd and Boston expressed the need to travel to Israel to interview the Israelis who took part in the attack, Admiral McCain was adamant that they were not to travel to Israel or contact the Israelis concerning this matter.

The Liberty had barely had time to tie up in harbor that the court began its hearings. Kidd and Boston had already witnessed the damage done to the Liberty, having been taken by destroyer to the stricken ship only four days after the attack, so they saw the 821 cannon and rocket holes at first hand. They interviewed Ensign Dave Lucas and Commander McGonagle at length, and later, a dozen more officers and crew, representing only a small proportion of the total ship’s complement of 294 men.

Some of the men who had been on deck during the attack and thus were best placed to give evidence, did not testify because they had been airlifted to hospitals on land. Those who did testify told of harrowing experiences; men blown into several pieces, the deck covered with blood, a gunner with his head completely shot away, and so many injured that the ship ran out of stretchers.

Captain Boston observed a sailor vomiting after finding a headless body. Sights such as these, together with the pre-attack reconnaissance and the colossal damage, led Boston and Kidd to conclude that the attack must have been deliberate, though at this time such views were only expressed privately.

Many of the Liberty’s officers later said that the court was not interested in evidence that pointed to Israel’s culpability. Whereas skipper McGonagle testified that the first reconnaissance flight was at 10.30 A.M., others reported that they began much earlier, at 5.15 A.M.

In fact, Ensign Scott photographed one of the reconnaissance planes at dawn, nine hours before the attack began. His testimony was ignored in the final report, which stated that reconnaissance flights began much later. Other officers later said that the court asked few questions and wasted time with irrelevant questions, such as the cost of a damaged tape recorder.

The inquiry, they said, was ‘shallow’, ‘cursory’, and concerned with ‘process rather than product’. Some of the witnesses testified for only a few minutes, if that long.

Other relevant details were ignored. Lieutenant Lloyd Painter testified that the Liberty was seventeen and a half miles from the Egyptian shore and 38 miles from the coast of Israel just before the attack, well outside territorial limits of Egypt or Israel, but this fact was not included in the final report.

The court did not follow up the testimonies of Chief Petty Officers Wayne Smith and Carl Lamkin that the attackers had jammed the Liberty’s communications, which indicated that they knew the ship’s identity. Petty Officer James Halman, who had radioed for help, was not even called to testify, even though he was available.

Some important testimony that had been given but was unfavourable to Israel was deleted from the final transcript. The machine-gunning of life rafts by the torpedo boats, as testified by Lloyd Painter, was witnessed by other crew members but was not mentioned in the final report. Petty Officer 2nd class Charles Cocnavitch, who was a radar man, was sworn in and gave testimony, but his name was not even mentioned in the report.

One thing all witnesses agreed upon: the American flag was visibly flying. Ensign John Scott, Lieutenant George Golden, Lieutenant Lloyd Painter, Commander William McGonagle, Lieutenant Malcolm Watson, Chief Petty Officer Wayne Smith, Lieutenant George O’Connor, all were emphatic that the flag was flying and clearly visible.

In fact McGonagle testified that on the approach of the torpedo boats he ordered the hoisting of the ship’s largest flag, at 7 feet by 13 feet, to replace the standard 5 feet by 8 feet flag that had been shot down. The report stated that “the calm conditions and slow ship speed may well have made the American flag difficult to identify”, implying uncertainty that was in flat contradiction to unanimous witness testimony.

Most important of all, the court was expressly forbidden to go to Israel to interview the pilots, torpedo boat skippers, despite a directive “to inquire into all the pertinent facts and circumstances leading to and connected with the attack.” An investigation in which the chief suspect cannot be questioned is not an investigation in any properly understood sense of the word. Neither did the US government require the Israelis to produce flight books, ship logs, or recordings of pilot communications. Taking the uncorroborated word of the accused is clear evidence of a strong desire by both governments to conceal rather than to reveal.

The report was sent to Merlin Staring, Legal Officer for Admiral McCain, and later the navy’s top lawer, for his examination. After having had less than 24 hours to read the 700-page document he was asked to return the file to Admiral Kidd.

In an interview for the BBC Documentary USS Liberty: Dead in the Water, he said:

I simply could not find an evidentiary basis for that conclusion. I had considerable trouble with the record . . . . as I read through it, attempting to find the evidence, the testimony, or other evidence, that would support some of the findings, or opinions or conclusions that the court of inquiry had drafted and had reached.”

In a documentary he would later make, he said,

In the course of my career as a Navy lawyer, I have been called upon to review and take action upon hundreds of investigations of various degrees of importance and volume. This is the only instance in which a record of such an investigation was withdrawn from me before I had been given an opportunity to complete my advice to the convening authority.”

Many years later Staring learned from Liberty survivors and Capt. Ward Boston the truth about the coverup of the official investigation:

It was a political thing. We were ordered to ‘put a lid on it.’ The facts were clear. Israel knew it was an American ship and tried to sink it and murder its entire crew. The outrageous claims by Israel’s apologists who continue to claim the attack was a mistake pushed me to speak out. The official record is not the one I certified. My initials are not on it.”

Despite these restrictions, the official report stated that it was a case of “mistaken identity”.

The Ron Inquiry

Whereas the US naval inquiry was careful not to interview Israeli eyewitnesses, neither of the two Israeli inquiries interviewed American eyewitnesses. The first Israeli investigation lasted only four days, and was conducted by Colonel Ram Ron, an ex-paratrooper and later a military attaché in Washington, with no professional legal experience. He interviewed only twelve witnesses, none of them attacking pilots, and six of them identified by letters such as “Lieutenant R” and “Commander B”.

The only eyewitness interviewed was a torpedo boat commander, who was named, Lieutenant Avraham. All witnesses were Israelis, and there were no expert witnesses. Evidently, testimony from American surviving witnesses was not considered relevant to determining the truth. Though Ron had been given access to the Liberty’s logs, his report made no mention of them.

The report, extending a mere seventeen pages, began by stating that in response to a report that an unidentified ship had shelled the Egyptian town of El Arish, three motor torpedo boats had been sent to investigate. One of the torpedo boats reported that the ship was travelling at thirty knots, a speed that only military craft could achieve, twelve knots faster than the Liberty’s maximum and nearly six times faster than its actual speed.

According to Ron, Israeli reconnaissance planes had identified the Liberty early that morning, but that the torpedo boats had did not realize that it might be the Liberty because of its mistaken speed of thirty knots, so the torpedo boats called in an air strike. After the air strike officers on the torpedo boats concluded that the Liberty was the Egyptian troop and horse-carrying ship the El Quseir which, at 275 feet long and 2,180 tons, was just over half the length of the Liberty’s 455 feet, and less than a quarter of its 10,150 tons displacement.

Moreover it was manifestly different in outline as it lacked the conspicuous radio antennae and satellite dish. The El Quseir was marked in Arabic letters, in stark contrast to the GTR-5 on the Liberty. And with a maximum speed of 14 knots, it was even slower than the Liberty’s maximum of 18 knots.

Just before the torpedo boats began their attack, McGonagle had ordered the hoisting of the ship’s largest flag, measuring 7-by-13 feet. Yet on page 14 of his report, Ron seems to be putting responsisbility on the Liberty when he states that: “The entire ship as enveloped in thick smoke, and when asked to identify itself, it failed to do so and behaved suspiciously.” And on page 15 is the extraordinary statement: “it seems that the ship made every effort to conceal her identity, both by flying a small flag which was unidentifiable from a distance and by retreating when she realised that she was spotted by our forces”. Furthermore, implying that the Israeli forces attacked because they couldn’t see the American flag is self-contradictory because the smoke was a result of the attack.

In his conclusions, Ron stated that “the attack on the ship by the Israeli Defence Forces was made neither maliciously nor in gross negligence, but as the result of a bona fide mistake.

The informal reaction in Washington intelligence circles was one of incredulity. In a memo to Undersecretary of State Nickolas Katzenbach, Thomas Hughes, director of the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research, Hughes stated that he believed the attack could not have been an accident, pointing out that Liberty crew members could identify the hull number of one of the small, fast moving torpedo boats, but the Israeli boat commanders seemingly failed to identify the much larger name of the Liberty on its stern.

Hughes believed that Israel’s explanation “stretched all credibility”, and other senior staff agreed, believing that Israel would not allow the United States to read its wartime military messages.

The Moorer Report

So disgusted were senior naval officers at the cover-up that a number of retired admirals and other distinguished individuals conducted their own inquiry. They were led by Admiral Thomas H. Moorer who, from 1970 to 1974 had been Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the highest-ranking officer in the US armed forces. He was assisted by:

  • Rear Admiral Merlin Staring, United States Navy, (Ret.), Former Judge Advocate General Of The Navy.
  • General Raymond G. Davis, United States Marine Corps, (MOH)[1] Former Assistant Commandant of The Marine Corps
  • Ambassador James Akins, (Ret.) Former United States Ambassador to Saudi Arabia

The conclusions in their report in October 2003 ( differed radically from the official report, and can be summarised thus:

  • The attack on the Liberty was a deliberate attempt to sink the ship and kill all 294 crew.
  • Fearing conflict with Israel, the White House deliberately prevented the US Navy from coming to the defence of the Liberty by recalling Sixth Fleet military rescue support while the ship was under attack.
  • There had been an official cover-up without precedent in American naval history.
  • A danger to national security exists whenever elected officials are willing to subordinate American interests to those of any foreign nation, and specifically are unwilling to challenge Israel’s interests when they conflict with American interests.

The cover-up continues

For his bravery Commander William McGonagle was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, the highest award for valor. This is normally presented at the White House by the President, but on this occasion it was presented by the Secretary of the Navy at the Washington Navy Yard, the only time a Medal of Honor has been awarded in this manner. Throughout the entire ceremony there was no mention of Israel; the citation made no mention of the identity of the attackers, and the gravestones of dead sailors showed no details of how they died. Six of them were buried at Arlington National Cemetery, with gravestones marked, “Died in the Eastern Mediterranean.” There was no mention of the Liberty, Israel, or even of the attack, though later they were amended slightly to read, “Killed USS Liberty”, but there was still no mention of Israel.

Commander McGonagle’s award was but one of many. In fact the Liberty crew were the most decorated for a single engagement of any ship in US naval history: two Navy Crosses, thirteen Silver Stars, twenty Bronze Stars, nine Navy Commendation Medals, and one National Security Agency Exceptional Service Civilian Award (to Allen Blue, the only civilian). Six were awarded posthumously. In addition, over two hundred Purple Hearts, more than two thirds of the ship’s complement, were awarded.

But these were part of the cover-up. With one exception, none of the citations indicated the whereabouts of the Liberty or the identity of Israelis as the attackers. The exception was the Silver Star awarded to Terry Halbardier, whose total disregard for danger enabled the Liberty to send out its distress signal. The feeling among the survivors was that the awards were an appeasement.

12 years later Lt. Commander James M. Ennes broke the silence of the survivors by publishing a book, Assault on the Liberty. As Ennes put it in an article:

“Israel’s attack on the USS Liberty remains the only major maritime incident in American history not investigated by Congress. Queries to Congress bring boilerplate replies and no serious attention. Why? Because the attack by Israel on the USS Liberty is simply too politically sensitive.”

Jay Cristol intervenes

And there, officially at least, it rested, until 2003, when A. Jay Cristol published The Liberty Incident, which attempted to show that the Liberty attack was the result of mistaken identity. The book was savagely criticized by surviving eyewitnesses for misrepresenting and distorting the views of those who investigated the attack.

Five of those eyewitnesses wrote reviews on Amazon, Terry Halbardier (first edition) and Ernie Gallo, Ronald Kukal, Joel Lehman, Joseph Meadors (second edition), stated that they had not been interviewed by Cristol.

This attempt to whitewash the facts prompted Boston to break his silence in January 2004, by making a sworn affidavit to say that President Johnson had ordered Kidd to conclude that the attack was a case of ‘mistaken identity’, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

In his affidavit Boston recalled that each evening, after hearing testimony all day, he and Admiral Kidd exchanged their thoughts about what they had seen and heard. He remembers hearing Admiral Kidd repeatedly referring to the Israeli forces responsible for the attack as “murderous bastards.” It was their shared belief, based on the documentary evidence and testimony they received first hand, that the Israeli attack was planned and deliberate effort to sink an American ship and murder its entire crew and could not possibly have been an accident.

Boston was certain that the Israeli pilots and their superiors who had ordered the attack were well aware that the ship was American. He saw the American flag, riddled with bullet holes, and heard testimony that made it clear that the Israelis had intended that there would be no survivors because Israeli torpedo boats machine-gunned three lifeboats that had been launched in an attempt by the crew to save the most seriously wounded, which is a war crime.

He also recalled that Admiral Kidd had told him that he had been ordered to rewrite portions of the court’s findings, and that Admiral Kidd also told him that he had been ordered to “put the lid” on everything having to do with the attack on U.S.S. Liberty, and that they were never to speak of it and they were to caution everyone else involved that they could never speak of it again.

In his affidavit Boston said that the Court of Inquiry transcript that had been released to the public was not the same one that he certified and sent off to Washington. He said that he knew this because it was necessary, due to time limits, to hand correct and initial a substantial number of pages. He had examined the released version of the transcript and did not see any pages that bore his hand corrections and initials.

Moreover, the testimony of Lt. Painter concerning the deliberate machine gunning of the life rafts by the Israeli torpedo boat crews, which he distinctly recalled being given at the Court of Inquiry and included in the original transcript, had been deleted.

More recently, in May 2014, Cristol gave an ‘Eight Bells’ Lecture at the Naval War College Museum, the theme of which was to show that the attack on the Liberty was a case of ‘mistaken identity’. In his hour-long lecture he relied solely on evidence from the parties over which the cloud of suspicion lay: the Israeli and American governments.

No mention was made of evidence from the survivors, who were the only non-Israeli eyewitnesses. Also conspicuously absent was any mention of the Moore report and the sworn affidavit of Captain Ward Boston.

Cristol’s attempts to mislead the public are so numerous that one of the most blatant will have to suffice. Page 161 of the second edition to his book shows the USS Liberty and El Quseir in silhouette. Apart from the conspicuous differences that any trained military person would spot, he omits the most obvious difference of all – size.

The Liberty’s 455 feet was over 60 percent longer than the 275 feet of the El Quseir. Yet he manipulated the profiles to make them look the same length. In the illustration below, the Liberty is shown above the El Quseir. Cristol’s version is shown on the left, and on the right are the ships shown in their correct relative proportions.

The second edition to Cristol’s book is subtitled “The Definitive account of the 1967 Israeli attack on the U.S. Navy Spy Ship”. The illustration above is but one of many deliberate attempts to mislead, showing a highly elastic meaning to the word ‘definitive’.

In his book, Cristol refers to people who doubt the official explanation as ‘conspiracy theorists’. A conspiracy theorist is generally regarded as someone who has an irrational tendency to disbelieve official statements from people in power. The important word here is irrational.

In that context it is pertinent to remind ourselves of the official brief of the U.S. naval inquiry, which was to examine…

“all the pertinent facts and circumstances leading to and connected with the armed attack; damage resulting therefrom; and deaths of and injuries to Naval personnel.”

Cristol evidently considers that the refusal of Admiral McCain to allow the official U.S. navy inquiry to interview the chief suspects – members of the Israeli Defense Forces – was consistent with this brief. If the police were to refuse to interview the chief suspect in a murder inquiry, one would naturally suspect corruption – yet Cristol describes such people as ‘conspiracy theorists’. Indeed, in the second edition to his book he devotes an entire chapter to such people.

So who are these ‘conspiracy theorists’?

In addition to those already mentioned, here are just a few of the many reputable people who are on record as stating their belief that the attack was deliberate:

  • Dean Rusk, President Johnson’s Secretary of State, who stated in his memoirs (p388): “I was never satisfied with the Israeli explanation. Their sustained attack to disable and sink Liberty precluded an assault by accident or some trigger-happy local commander. 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.”
  • Admiral Rufus Taylor, former CIA Deputy Director
  • Oliver Kirby, former deputy director for operations/production, National Security Agency
  • Adlai E. Stevenson III, United States Senator, 1970-81.

For Cristol to imply that such people are not rational is more revealing than anything in his book.

By labelling them with the term ‘conspiracy theorists’, he is exploiting a deep need in human nature. Like almost all primates, humans are intensely social beings and as such, most people feel the need to belong to a group of other, like-minded people. Being one of a majority may be an inheritance from our primeval past, when everyone belonged to a tribe. In our highly sophisticated, technological society, tribes as such don’t exist, but the need to be part of a group persists in our sports teams, clubs and societies.

So when a person publicly expresses a preference for evidence over hearsay before making up his or her mind over a political issue that threatens the powerful, the ‘conspiracy’ bludgeon is a crude but effective weapon. And having identified with the majority, reversing one’s view seems to be much more difficult.

A comment reportedly mis-attributed to Mark Twain puts it nicely: “It’s easier to fool people than to convince them that they’ve been fooled”.

As Mark Twain did remark: “In the beginning of a change, the patriot is a scarce man, and brave, and hated and scorned. When his cause succeeds, the timid join him, for then it costs nothing to be a patriot.”

Postscript: A YouTube video illustrating the Israeli stranglehold over the US Congress can be seen at:


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