The 'USS Liberty': Case Closed

By Michael B. Oren

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

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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.

Michael B. Oren is Israel
’s Ambassador to the United States. He was formerly a Distinguished Fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem, an academic and research institute, and a contributing editor of AZURE.

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