The 'USS Liberty': Case Closed

By Michael B. Oren

June 8, 1967: Why did the IDF open fire on an American spy ship?

Early in the afternoon of June 8, 1967, Israeli jets and missile boats opened fire on the USS Liberty, an American surveillance ship opera-ting off the coast of Gaza. Struck by rockets, cannons and torpedoes, the vessel suffered extensive damage and over 200 casualties. Israeli forces were then engaged in the fourth day of what would soon be called the Six Day War, which would result in a devastating defeat for the combined armies of Egypt, Syria and Jordan.
At first overshadowed by Israel’s stunning victory, the attack on the Liberty was destined to become a recurring source of tension between Israel and the United States. Although Israel apologized for the attack and paid compensation to its victims, many American officials rejected Israel’s claim that the Liberty incident had been an honest mistake. Rather, they blamed Israel for what was at best inexcusable negligence, or at worst the premeditated murder of American servicemen. Such charges persisted in the face of successive inquiries by a broad range of American agencies and Congressional committees, as well as a full Israeli court of inquiry, all of which found no proof whatsoever that Israel knowingly attacked an American ship. On the contrary, the evidence produced by these investigations lent further support to Israel’s claim that its decision to attack was, given the circumstances, a reasonable error.
These findings notwithstanding, the case of the assault on the Liberty has never been closed. If anything, the accusations leveled against Israel have grown sharper with time. In recent years, an impressive number of former American officials have gone on record insisting that the Israeli action was, in fact, deliberate. These include Adm. Thomas H. Moorer, who was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) at the time of the Liberty incident, who has labeled the episode a “cover-up,” adding that he “cannot accept the claim by the Israelis that this was a case of mistaken identity.”1 Paul C. Warnke, then Under Secretary of the Navy, has written that
I found it hard to believe that it was, in fact, an honest mistake on the part of the Israeli air force units.... I suspect that in the heat of battle they figured that the presence of this American ship was inimical to their interests....2
Similarly, former Secretary of State Dean Rusk has called the attack “outrageous,” adding in a 1990 radio interview that “the Liberty was flying an American flag. It was not all that difficult to identify, and my judgment was that somewhere along the line some fairly senior Israeli official gave the go-ahead for these attacks....”3 David G. Nes, who at the time served as deputy head of the American mission in Cairo, puts it more bluntly: “I don’t think that there’s any doubt that it was deliberate.... [It is] one of the great cover-ups of our military history.”4 And George Ball, then Under Secretary of State, has called the American government’s response to the assault an “elaborate charade.... American leaders did not have the courage to punish Israel for the blatant murder of its citizens.”5
Support for these charges can be found in a wide range of publications on the Liberty incident. Assault on the Liberty, a 1979 memoir by former Liberty officer Jim Ennes, Jr., describes the attack as intentional and malicious, and argues that the truth has been obscured by a massive cover-up conducted by Israel and its advocates abroad. This allegation has been repeated in Richard Deacon’s The Israeli Secret Service (1977), in John Ranelagh’s The Agency: The Rise and Decline of the CIA (1986), and in Andrew and Leslie Cockburn’s Dangerous Liaison: The Inside Story of the U.S.-Israel Covert Relationship (1991). The cover-up theory is also central to Stephen Green’s Taking Sides: America’s Secret Relations with a Militant Israel (1984), one of the best-selling of all anti-Israel polemics. Nor is the charge of Israeli premeditation confined to books aimed at a popular audience. It also features prominently in academic works such as The USS Liberty: Dissenting History vs. Official History by historian John E. Borne (1993), as well as Donald Neff’s Warriors for Jerusalem: The Six Days that Changed the Middle East (1984), considered by many scholars a standard text on the Six Day War.6 Indeed, so powerful is the trend towards acceptance of Israeli guilt for having planned the attack that a 1995 issue of the International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence was able to carry the assertion of Reverdy S. Fishel that “all serious scholarship on the subject accepts Israel’s assault as having been perpetrated quite deliberately....”7
The claim that Israel’s attack on the Liberty was premeditated has also appeared persistently in the press. In 1992, nationally syndicated columnists Roland Evans and Robert Novak dedicated a column, “Twenty-Five Years of Cover-Up,”8 to this charge. Similar accusations have been aired on television programs such as ABC’s 20/20 and Geraldo Rivera’s Now It Can Be Told.9 The claim is particularly widespread on the Internet, where a search for the “USS Liberty” yields dozens of sites, from those of Arab propagandists (Birzeit.edu, Salam.org, Palestine Forever) and anti-Semitic hate mongers (The Tangled Web, Jew Watch) to the award-winning USS Liberty Homepage, posted by Ennes and other veterans. But while the tenor of these pages may differ—the veterans abjure any anti-Semitism, stressing that several of their crewmates were Jewish—their conclusions are indistinguishable: Israel wantonly attacked the Liberty with the intention of killing every man on board, and then thwarted attempts to investigate the crime.10
Refuting this accusation was difficult if not impossible in the past, when the official records on the Liberty were designated top-secret and closed to the general public. With the recent declassification of these documents in the United States and Israel, however, researchers have gained access to a wealth of primary sources—Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and U.S. military records, Israeli diplomatic correspondence, and memoranda from both the State Department and the White House. With the aid of these materials, the attack on the Liberty can now be reconstructed virtually minute-by-minute and with remarkable detail. The picture that emerges is not one of crime at all, nor even of criminal negligence, but of a string of failed communications, human errors, unfortunate coincidences and equipment failures on both the American and Israeli sides—the kind of tragic, senseless mistake that is all too common in the thick of war.
The USS Liberty was cruising from Norfolk, Virginia to Abidjan on the Ivory Coast when, in mid-May 1967, crisis erupted in the Middle East. Without warning, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser sent thousands of troops into the Sinai desert, ousted the UN peacekeeping forces stationed there and then closed the Straits of Tiran—the critical waterway leading to Israel’s southern port of Eilat—to Israeli shipping.
In weighing its response, the Israeli government consulted with President Lyndon Johnson, who, though preoccupied with the Vietnam War, was sympathetic to Israel’s plight. The President proposed to challenge the Tiran blockade with an international maritime convoy and on May 24, in preparation for this plan, he ordered the U.S. Sixth Fleet to advance into the eastern Mediterranean. Aware of the danger of becoming embroiled in an Arab-Israeli war, however, Washington cautioned the fleet to remain, until further notice, “outside an arc whose radius is 240 miles from Port Said,” on the Egyptian coast.11
At this time, the Liberty was formally under the command of the Sixth Fleet, although in practice its orders came directly from the Joint Chiefsof Staff, operating under the aegis of the National Security Agency (NSA). Code-named “Rockstar,” the 455-foot “Auxiliary General Technical Research Ship (AGTR),” as it was euphemistically called, was in fact a signals intelligence vessel (sigint) equipped with cutting-edge listening and decoding devices. Among its 294-man crew were several dozen members of the Naval Security Group, who worked below the starboard deck in an area strictly off-limits even to the Liberty’s skipper, Cmdr. William L. McGonagle. The ship sported large antennas and radar discs, but apart from four .50-caliber machine-gun mounts, it had no visible armaments. The markings “GTR-5” were freshly painted on its bow, and from its mast flew a standard, navy-issue American flag.
As the Sixth Fleet steamed toward the eastern Mediterranean, the Liberty headed for Rota, Spain. There, in addition to supplies, it took on three Marine Corps Arabic translators, augmenting the three NSA Russian-language experts already on board. Then, on May 30, McGonagle received new instructions to sail “at best speed” to a point just half a mile outside Egyptian and Israeli territorial waters, which extended twelve and six nautical miles, respectively, from the coast. The order, originating with the JCS, superseded a request by the U.S. Naval Command in Europe (CINCEUR) to hold the Liberty in Rota “until directed otherwise.” Neither CINCEUR nor McGonagle was aware of the Liberty’s objective, later described by the Defense Department as “assuring communications between U.S. government posts... and assisting in... the evacuation of American citizens.” Though the exact nature of its mission remains classified, the Liberty was most likely sent to track the movements of Egyptian troops and their Soviet advisors in Sinai—hence the need for Arabic and Russian translators.12

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