In 1967, at the height of the Arab-Israeli Six-Day War, the Israeli Air Force launched an unprovoked attack on the USS Liberty, a US Navy spy ship that was monitoring the conflict from the safety of international waters in the Mediterranean.
Israeli jet fighters hit the vessel with rockets, cannon fire and napalm, before three Israeli torpedo boats moved in to launch a second more devastating attack. Though she did not sink, the Liberty was badly damaged. Thirty-four US servicemen and civilian analysts were killed, another 171 were wounded.
Later Israel apologized for what it claimed to be a tragic case of mistaken identity. It said that it had believed the ship to be hostile Egyptian naval vessel. US President Lyndon Johnson was privately furious but publicly the White House chose not to challenge the word of its closest Middle East ally and accepted that the attack had been a catastrophic accident.
The U.S. government, military, and media all went along with the cover-up of the deliberate attack on the USS Liberty to avoid blaming Israel for the murder of the 34 American servicemen, 26 of whom died from the torpedo blast. Shimon Peres, the Israeli president, certainly knows who made the decision to attack the U.S. vessel in 1967.
Twenty minutes later, after the Liberty had been hit repeatedly by machine guns, 30 mm cannon and napalm from the Israelis’ French-built Mirage and Mystere fighter-bombers, the controller directing the attack asked his chief in Tel Aviv to which country the target vessel belonged.
“Apparently American,” the chief controller replied.
Fourteen minutes later the Liberty was struck amidships by a torpedo from an Israeli boat, killing 26 of the 100 or so NSA technicians and specialists in Russian and Arabic who were working in restricted compartments below the ship’s waterline.
“SINK THE TARGET – NO SURVIVORS”
Lt. James M. Ennes, Jr., an officer on the bridge of the USS Liberty, wrote his first-hand account of the Israeli attack in a 1979 book entitled Assault on the Liberty. Lieutenant Ennes’ book is documentary evidence that the Israeli attack was deliberate and not an accident of war. Ennes describes how Israeli torpedo boats repeatedly machine-gunned Liberty sailors fighting the napalm fires on deck and shot her life rafts in the water while an oversize U.S. flag flew from its mast.
The shooting of the life rafts indicates that the Israelis did not want anyone to survive the assault and intended sinking of the U.S. vessel. Steve Forslund, an intelligence analyst for the 544th Air Reconnaissance Technical Wing in 1967, saw the transcripts from the Israeli pilots and their ground control as they came off the teletype machine at Offutt Air Force Base in Omaha.
“The ground control station stated that the target was American and for the aircraft to confirm it,” Forslund recalled. “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 said he clearly recalled “the obvious frustration of the controller over the inability of the pilots to sink the target quickly and completely.”
“He kept insisting the mission had to sink the target, and was frustrated with the pilots’ responses that it didn’t sink.”
Chief Petty Officer Stanley W. White, president of the Liberty Veterans Association, said, “The Israeli planes and gunboats spent more than one hour hitting us with rockets, napalm bombs, torpedoes, cannon and machine-gun fire. They machine-gunned our firefighters on deck and they shot our life rafts out of the water…I don’t know of a single member of our association who believes that attack was an accident.”
There are three reasons that have been given as to why the Israelis wanted to sink the U.S. electronic reconnaissance vessel:
- To prevent the U.S. from knowing that Israel was planning to seize the Golan Heights from Syria;
- To prevent the U.S. from obtaining evidence that Israeli troops were slaughtering some 1,000 Egyptian prisoners of war near Gaza;
- To destroy the U.S. vessel that was capable of discerning that Israel was sending false communications to Jordan and Egypt to keep them in the war until the Israeli military achieved its territorial goals on the ground.
“U.S. intelligence documents indicate the Israelis attacked the Liberty deliberately. They feared she would monitor their plans to attack the Golan Heights in Syria – a move the United States opposed for fear of provoking Soviet military intervention,” James Ennes said.
Wilber Crane Eveland, an author formerly with the CIA in the Middle East, wrote that the Liberty had intercepted messages that “made it clear that Israel had never intended to limit its attack to Egypt.”
ISRAELI MASSACRE OF EGYPTIAN POWS
The Tribune article reported that the NSA’s deputy director at the time, Louis Tordella, speculated in a recently declassified memo that the attack “might have been ordered by some senior commander on the Sinai peninsula who wrongly suspected that the Liberty was monitoring his activities.” The activities that needed to be hidden included the slaughter of some 1,000 Egyptian POWs.
Aryeh Yitzhaki of Bar Ilan University, who had worked in the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) history department, said in an August 1995 interview with Israel Radio that a reconnaissance unit, known as Shaked (Almond), headed by Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, had killed hundreds of Egyptians who had abandoned their weapons and fled into the desert during the 1967 war.
Yitzhaki said he had investigated six or seven separate incidents, in which approximately 1,000 unarmed Egyptian prisoners of war had been killed by IDF units.
Al Jazeera Filmmaker, Richard Belfield, Gives His Viewpoint
I was first told about the attack on the USS Liberty in 1980 over dinner with a former analyst from the National Security Agency (NSA) in Washington DC.
Back in 1980, I promised my friend that if I ever got the chance I would make a film about it. Over the years, I pitched the idea to numerous broadcasters and always got the same response: eyes rolled upwards, usually followed by the statement, “Are you completely mad?”
Fast forward to 2009 and I was a guest speaker at the NSA’s biennial conference on historical cryptography, talking about an unsolved code on an 18th century monument in an English stately home.
While there, I went to two other sessions – both about attacks on American signal intelligence naval vessels.
The first was the capture of the US spy ship, the Pueblo (boarded by North Korean forces in 1968 – and never returned). The survivors of that incident were treated like heroes and feted on stage.
The next day there was a session about the USS Liberty. James Scott, who has written easily the best book on the Liberty attack, was on stage and limited to his allotted 20 minutes. Ranged against him were three Israeli apologists, all of whom were allowed to overrun their time. Survivors from the Liberty affair were allowed to sit in the audience, but they were denied any say in proceedings.
As an Englishman, I was brought up with a strong sense of fair play and I thought this was a disgrace. It was gruesome to watch. First, the crew had been attacked in broad daylight by a close ally, then they were betrayed by their government and now they were being humiliated by the same agency many had worked for back in 1967.
Earlier this year, I acquired a copy of the audiotape of the attack as it had unfolded, the real time conversations between Isreali Air Force pilots and their controllers back at base. It had never been broadcast before. I went to talk to Al Jazeera and after careful consideration, the network commissioned the film.
On location, it all started with James Scott (who gets a co-producer credit on this project). When writing his book, he had already interviewed the survivors as well as many of the key people in the Washington political and intelligence machine from that time. The introductions he made would prove invaluable as we began filming interviews.
The veterans were extraordinary. One after another, they were generous with their time, uniformly eloquent and passionate and above all, honest in their recollections.
They all felt betrayed by the American government but were keen to exonerate ordinary Jewish people both in Israel and without, for any responsibility for the incident. Their beef was simply with the senior Israeli officers in the control room and their superiors higher up the command chain who had ordered the attack.
After a few days filming, I rang Elaine Morris, my producer back in London. She asked how things were going. All I could say was that the quality of the interviews was the best I had ever experienced in many decades in this business.
In Texas we interviewed Bobby Ray Inman, an intelligence officer with a glittering track record at the CIA, Naval Intelligence and as a former director of the NSA. My contacts in the UK intelligence world had always told me “he is one of the good guys” and I quickly discovered why. He was frank and clear. The top Israeli commanders, he explained, had known exactly what they were doing when they attacked the Liberty and when it came to holding them to account, the US government rolled over for them.
We filmed an annual memorial ceremony in Washington, D.C. It was emotional, visceral and tense, with survivors, family and friends gathered in the morning sun. Listening to a sole bugler playing the US Navy’s lament, ‘Taps’ is a memory that will never fade.
Years earlier, I had visited the US military graves in Arlington Cemetery but now, following the ceremony, I got to go there again with Dave Lucas, one of the survivors of the attack and a truly wonderful man.
We filmed as he walked up the hill carrying a wreath from the ceremony. Alongside him was a crew member, a Portuguese language specialist, who had left the Liberty in Spain just a few days before it sailed off up the Mediterranean to take up position off the Egyptian coast. He had been temporarily replaced for the mission by an Arab linguist. He wept openly for the comrades he had said goodbye to, never to see again. As we filmed the pair laying the flowers, an interview with one of the other survivors, Jim Kavanagh came suddenly to mind. “I went through hell,” he had said about his shipmates. “But they left this earth.”
Finally, we filmed on a sister ship to the Liberty, now moored in San Francisco. The crew hauled an outsized US flag up a mast for us. The flag – known as the “holiday colours” – was identical to that which was flown from the Liberty on June 8, 1967. It was huge, clearly visible for miles, and I knew immediately that no one could ever have been in any doubt about the nationality of the ship beneath it.
Watching the Stars and Stripes unfurl into the wind, I realised that I had got to keep the promise I first made to my friend in a Washington restaurant 34 years ago.[box type=”shadow” ]John Crewdson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, published in 2007 what former CIA analyst Ray McGovern has called the ‘most detailed and accurate account of the Israeli attack‘ for the Chicago Tribune and Baltimore Sun. You guessed it, Crewdson was fired by the Chicago Tribune just a year later after working there for 24 years. You should read his work.
“Israeli messages intercepted on June 8, 1967, leave no doubt that sinking the USS Liberty was the mission assigned to the attacking Israeli warplanes and torpedo boats as the Six-Day War raged in the Middle East. Let me repeat: there is no doubt – none – that the mission of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) was to destroy the USS Liberty and kill its entire crew.” – former CIA analyst Ray McGovern.[/box]
Admin. Comment: Ironically, just as Israel, who many view as our great ally, tried to destroy the US ship with the title ‘Liberty’, they could not destroy her. Unbeknownst to most, the Zionist who built Israel also seek to destroy the U.S.’s liberty and enslave us with the rest of the world. They will do damage, but we will not give up our Liberty! Remember the Liberty & remember the liberty our founding fathers fought to assure us and was granted by the grace of God.