James Scott is the son of a surviving Liberty officer. In this riveting book, he recounts the story of the horrifying attack and the tremendous impact it had on the lives of the crew. He puts the attack in context, showing how political considerations trumped the demands for justice from the survivors and their supporters in the military and in Congress. Drawing on new interviews and recently declassified documents, he demonstrates that Israel's initial insistence that the attack was a mistake caused by misidentification of the ship is implausible.
Scott documents, for the first time, the fact that the ship was correctly identified by at least one of the pilots prior to the attacks. His descriptions of the crew under fire and their frantic work to save the ship are dramatic and unforgettable. Scott takes readers into the conference rooms at the White House where the most senior officials in the government debated how to respond to the attack and then eventually devised a plan to protect Israel from public outrage.
The Attack on the Liberty is the finest account yet of this tragedy and a remarkable tale of men under fire in an incident that remains bitterly disputed after more than forty years.
James Scott is a freelance journalist who was formerly a reporter with the Charleston, S.C., Post and Courier, where he was named Journalist of the Year by the South Carolina Press Association in 2003. From 2006 to 2007 he was a Neiman fellow at Harvard University. He lives with his wife and daughter in Charleston, S.C.
I know what a slaughterhouse looks like. That's what this was.
-PETTY OFFICER 3RD CLASS GARY BRUMMETT
Captain William L. McGonagle mustered his men. On June 8, 1997, the skipper gathered with his remaining crew in front of grave #1817 in section 34 of Arlington National Cemetery. Beneath the single granite headstone rested the unidentified remains of six of McGonagle's men. Eight others lay in individual graves amid manicured lawns and rolling hills of the nation's military cemetery on the banks of the Potomac River.
McGonagle had commanded the U.S.S. Liberty, a spy ship the Israelis strafed and torpedoed in what the Washington Post later described as "one of the most bloody and bizarre peacetime encounters in U.S. naval history." On this humid morning-the thirtieth anniversary of that dreadful day McGonagle finally was ready to speak.
This marked the first time in decades some of these men had seen their reclusive captain. He had shied away from interviews and the controversy that still dogged the Liberty years after metal cutters reduced it to scrap in a Baltimore shipyard. Now seventy-one, McGonagle took stock of his men through Coke-bottle glasses. His sandy hair was gray and thinning, his trademark tan faded. The Medal of Honor, the nation's highest award for heroism, dangled from his neck.
His silence over the years mirrored his style as captain. He rarely mingled with his men. Even in his downtime on board the Liberty, the bow aimed signal lights skyward, hoping to alert American rescue planes and helicopters to the Liberty's position. None came.
Halfway around the world, the unknowing American public celebrated Israel's stunning victory over its Arab neighbors in what later became known as the Six-Day War-a welcome reprieve from the grind of the Vietnam War and race riots that left American cities in flames. Israel apologized within hours of the attack, blaming it on a series of tactical blunders that culminated in its forces mistakenly concluding that the Liberty was an Egyptian horse and troop transport ship. The White House eagerly accepted the apology.
The Navy barred its investigators from traveling to Israel to interview pilots and torpedo boat skippers. The inquiry lasted just eight days less time than it took to bury some of the dead. The Navy's top- secret final report proved a muddled mess with typos, misspellings, and contradictory findings.
The declassified summary released to the press on June 28, 1967, concluded that the attack by Israeli forces was most likely an accident, but it also ruled that it had insufficient information to determine reasons for the assault. The investigation seemed engineered to protect Israel, stating that witnesses reported that the Liberty's flag might have been difficult to see, even though that statement contradicted the testimony of every officer and crewmember aboard the ship.
Chief of Naval Operations Admiral David McDonald seethed when he read the findings prepared for the public. The report left him "with the feeling that we're trying our best to excuse the attackers." "Were I a parent of one of the deceased this release would burn me up," he wrote in an angry handwritten memo. "I myself do not subscribe to it."
The media didn't either. The Washington Post slammed the Navy's investigation as "not good enough." The Chicago Tribune proclaimed it generated "more fog and unanswered questions than clarification." "Did the attackers, in fact, know that the Liberty was an American ship?" asked the Evening Star, another Washington daily. "It seems to us they must have known." Deaf ears greeted the handful of congressmen who rallied for action.
"Whatever is the reason for the attack, it was an act of high piracy:' declared Representative Craig Hosmer of California on the floor of the House. "Those responsible should be court-martialed on charges of murder, amongst other counts”.
"I can't tolerate for one minute that this was an accident”, Senator Bourke Hickenlooper of Iowa told fellow members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "I can't accept these explanations that so glibly come out of Tel Aviv”.
"How could this be treated so lightly in this the greatest Capitol in all the world?" asked Representative Thomas Abernethy of Mississippi. "The world has been standing by looking at us now for days since the Liberty was pounced upon. What do we do? What do we say?"
The United States said nothing. Neither did McGonagle.
For the men gathered in Arlington, the Liberty had become an albatross. Some crewmembers battled through years of physical therapy and surgeries. Emotional trauma drove others to alcoholism and divorce court. One crewmember, who nearly drowned in the ship's flooded bowels, still woke up some nights under his bed, banging on the bottom of the box spring, pleading for someone to let him out.
McGonagle also couldn't let go. He refused to throw out notes that detailed with clinical precision how each of his men died: "Blast injury to brain:' "Multiple bullet and shrapnel wounds:' "Basal skull fracture." He also clung to copies of the letters he wrote to the wives and parents of the dead, letters he wept over as he composed them in a hotel room in Malta days after the attack.
Over the years, many of President Lyndon Johnson's former advisers-including the directors of the CIA, NSA, and State Department- acknowledged what many in the intelligence community secretly believed for years: the attack was no accident. But McGonagle would not live long enough to learn some of the darker secrets, including how senior American officials had contemplated sinking his ship at sea to block reporters from photographing the damage and sparking public outrage against Israel.
Still, McGonagle remained silent. He refused to join the Liberty's survivors association, whose members begged Congress to investigate the attack. When asked to attend the 1987 reunion marking the attack's twenty-year anniversary, he drafted a six-page letter to one of his former chief petty officers, telling him that the association might not like what he had to say. The implication was not lost on the sailors. Their captain, who had steered the men to safety using only the North Star, had abandoned them.
One of his officers wrote him hate mail.
In Arlington that June morning, surrounded by a sea of white tombstones, McGonagle had reached the end of a personal journey. For years he had wrestled with his responsibility to protect his men and his oath to serve the Navy, which had plucked him from the poverty of the Coachella Valley date fields and declared him a hero.
Unbeknownst to his men, McGonagle had quietly conducted his own inquiry. He hammered out letters over the years to the Navy, the State Department, and the National Archives, demanding files on the attack. He pored through records from the Navy's court of inquiry and sifted through yellowed memos, diaries, and telegrams at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library and Museum in Texas.
His questions were many. Why were the fighter jets that had been sent to help the Liberty suddenly recalled? Why did it take almost seventeen hours for help to arrive? If he was a hero the nation was to be proud of, why had President Johnson shunned him, refusing to present his Medal of Honor at the White House, as is customary?
McGonagle also examined Israel's story. He questioned how pilots and torpedo boat commanders from one of the world's top militaries confused the Liberty with an aged Egyptian transport ship a fraction of its size. Why didn't the Israelis fire warning shots across the bow or try to stop the Liberty before torpedoing it? How had the attackers on a clear afternoon failed to spot the American flag or freshly painted hull markings in an assault that raged for approximately an hour?
After all these years, McGonagle now had something to say.
The eager teenage boys who had scrubbed decks and chipped paint had turned gray and soft bellied. Some had grown children and spouses in tow, all crowded among the headstones. A warm breeze rustled the trees as McGonagle clutched the podium. Old Shep, their wayward captain, had returned.
"For many years I had wanted to believe that the attack on the Liberty was pure error. It appears to me that it was not a pure case of mistaken identity:' McGonagle told his men. "I think that it's about time that the state of Israel and the United States government provide the crewmembers of the Liberty, and the rest of the American people, the facts of what happened."
Israel enjoyed its strongest relationship with the United States under Johnson. American presidents-both Republican and Democrat- historically had been cool toward the Jewish state. David Ben-Gurion, who would become Israel's first leader after it declared independence, waited in a Washington hotel for ten weeks in 1941-42 for a meeting with President Franklin Roosevelt that never materialized. President Harry Truman officially recognized Israel after its independence in 1948 but refused to sell the Jewish state weapons. After Israel seized the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza Strip in 1956 in response to Egypt's nationalization of the Suez Canal, President Dwight Eisenhower threatened to halt all foreign aid and eliminate private tax-deductible donations to Israel if it did not withdraw. President John Kennedy, one of the first presidents to grasp Israel's influence on domestic politics, strengthened relations and sold sophisticated surface-to-air missile batteries to Israel.
Johnson went further. Soon after Kennedy's assassination, he signaled his intentions. "You have lost a very great friend”, Johnson confided to an Israeli diplomat, "but you have found a better one." The president's support stemmed from his religious upbringing in the dusty hill country of Texas. Family elders had preached that the destruction of Israel would trigger the apocalypse. "Take care of the Jews, God's chosen people:' Johnson's grandfather scrawled in a family album. "Consider them your friends and help them any way you can." The president never forgot those teachings, as illustrated by a speech he gave to members of B'nai B'rith, a national Jewish organization. "Most, if not all of you, have very deep ties with the land and with the people of Israel, as I do, for my Christian faith sprang from yours:' Johnson said. "The Bible stories are woven into my childhood memories as the gallant struggle of modern Jews to be free of persecution is also woven into our souls."
The president's fondness for Israel had as much to do with politics as biblical stories. The nation's six million Jews in 1967 accounted for only a fraction of the 200 million Americans, but Jews commanded a larger role in political life than the population figures might other- wise have indicated. Many American Jews monitored the issues, voted, and involved themselves in business organizations, labor unions, and civic groups. Others occupied important leadership roles in newspapers and in the television and motion picture industry. Jews donated and raised millions for political candidates, mostly Democrats. Many also lived in major cities in crucial political states, including New York, Newark, Boston, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, and Chicago. Candidates recognized that these large populations could determine the outcome of states that accounted for 169 of the 270 electoral votes required to win the White House.
Johnson surrounded himself in office with Jewish and pro-Israel advisers. The shrewd politician picked brothers Walt and Eugene Rostow to serve as his national security adviser and undersecretary of state for political affairs, respectively. The president chose Supreme Court justice Arthur Goldberg as ambassador to the United Nations, replacing him on the bench with Abe Fortas, another Israel supporter. John Roche, a former dean at Brandeis University, wrote many of Johnson's speeches. The president also relied on close Jewish friends for advice, including high-profile lawyers Ed Weisl and David Ginsburg, who often represented the Israeli Embassy. Johnson never missed a call from Democratic fund-raiser Abe Feinberg, because, as one senior aide noted, "it might mean another million dollars." United Artists Chairman Arthur Krim and his wife, Mathilde, a former gunrunner for early Zionist guerrillas, spent so many nights in the White House that Room 303 became the couple's regular quarters.
The United States under Johnson increased aid to the Jewish state. "No one who has an insider's view;' noted Robert Komer of the National Security Council, "could contest the proposition that the US is 100% behind the security and well being of Israel. We are Israel's chief supporters, bankers, direct and indirect arms purveyors, and ultimate guarantors." Israel's leaders welcomed the attention, believing that for years the State Department had favored the Arabs. The administration tallied that support in a report that revealed that America gave Israel $134 million in economic aid between 1964 and 1966. America also sold tanks and combat aircraft on liberal credit terms, provided grants and loans, and funded another $8 million annually in scientific research, 25 percent of all money Israel spent each year on nonmilitary research. "Perhaps the best way to characterize US-Israeli relations in this period is to say that they are closer today than ever:' the report concluded. "The breadth and depth of US help for Israel, even more than aid levels themselves, are impressive."
Despite Johnson's lavish support of Israel, many American Jews refused to back the Vietnam War, a source of frustration inside the administration as antiwar rallies increased and the president's popularity plummeted. Jews had become so prominent in the antiwar movement that it sparked a protest button: "You don't have to be Jewish to be against the war in Vietnam." Johnson, who viewed Vietnam and Israel as small countries threatened by Soviet-backed adversaries, struggled to understand that discontent. Jewish frustration over Vietnam served as a focus of a report for the president that analyzed public opinion. The report, which noted that many Jews worked as writers, teachers, and political and civil rights activists, discussed the possible threat to the president's 1968 reelection. "Viet Nam is a serious problem area:' the report concluded. "If Viet Nam is favorably resolved before the elections, defections among Jews will be minimal; if Viet Nam persists, a special effort to hold the Jewish vote will be necessary."
Many Jews who protested the war in Southeast Asia now urged the president to use force if necessary to help Israel in its standoff with Egypt. Letters, telegrams, and petitions inundated government mail- rooms. The State Department processed 17,440 letters during the four days between May 29 and June 1 in what analysts recognized was part of an organized campaign. The analysis showed that 95 percent of the writers supported Israel, 4.5 percent opposed American intervention, and only a half percent favored the Arabs. Pro-Israel demonstrators crowded the streets. An estimated 125,000 men, women, and children, including several concentration camp survivors, had rallied days earlier in New York City's Riverside Park, singing Israel's national anthem and demanding the United States intervene.
The president had worked to calm Israeli fears since Egypt closed the Strait of Tiran and mobilized its forces in the Sinai. Johnson assured Israeli diplomats that he would gather a multinational naval force to break the blockade. Progress had proven slow and Johnson feared the Jewish state would launch a preemptive strike, even though he and defense secretary Robert McNamara had informed Israel's foreign minister that American intelligence showed Egypt did not plan to attack. The president knew Israel had mobilized for war. Its military had called up thousands of reservists and requisitioned hundreds of buses, vans, and delivery trucks at an estimated cost of five hundred thousand dollars a day. Workers piled sandbags in window frames in Jerusalem as residents strung blackout curtains, stockpiled candles, and filled bathtubs with water. Trenches zigzagged across city parks and squares in the city of Elat on the Gulf of Aqaba. Medics converted hotel lobbies into hospitals in Tel Aviv as undertakers transformed movie theaters into makeshift morgues.
Despite Israel's preparations, Johnson still hoped to avert a war. The president diverged from his prepared remarks on welfare in his speech in New York to reiterate his commitment to peace in the Middle East, comments that drew loud applause. Abe Feinberg whispered to Johnson over dinner that Israel would hold back no longer. The Jewish state planned a preemptive strike. Johnson's efforts had apparently failed; now he waited. He tried to relax Sunday afternoon on the presidential yacht followed by a quiet dinner at the home of Justice Fortas. The president returned to the White House and retired for the evening at 11:45 P.M. The call came at 4:30 A.M. Johnson listened in silence to his national security adviser and asked few questions. He hung up at the end of the seven-minute conversation. Lady Bird asked what was the matter as he dropped back on his pillow. "We have a war on our hands.”
Main Stream Media and Israel’s Cover Up
pp 190 - 198
Thursday and Friday were the longest days we have experienced.
-GEORGE SCOTT, LETTER TO HIS SON, ENSIGN JOHN SCOTT
Less than a week after the attack Newsweek broke the story that many senior Washington officials believed Israel had deliberately targeted the Liberty. President Johnson was the magazine's source. The 178-word article headlined "Sinking the Liberty: Accident or Design?" observed that the assault left a "wake of bitterness and political charges of the most serious sort." Previous speculation about the mission vanished. The article defined the Liberty as a spy ship tasked to intercept battle- field messages. "One top-level theory holds," Newsweek reported, "that someone in the Israeli armed forces ordered the Liberty sunk because he suspected it had taken down messages showing that Israel started the fighting. (A Pentagon official has already tried to shoot down the Israeli claim of 'pilot error.') Not everyone in Washington is buying this theory, but some top Administration officials will not be satisfied until fuller and more convincing explanations of the attack on a clearly marked ship in international waters are forthcoming."
Similar articles followed in other newspapers and magazines. U.S. News & World Report declared that "questions outnumbered answers" and "the full story may never be made public:' "Pending investigations, the U.S. Government's position is that it has accepted the Israeli apology but rejected the explanation that the attack was entirely accidental:' the magazine wrote. "Well-informed officials feel the attack was too deliberate to have been made without a key decision by some Israeli officer." Life magazine echoed the skepticism, calling the Liberty an "unexplained casualty" in a two-page article that included a photograph of sailors offloading the injured from a helicopter on the deck of the carrier America. "A storm of controversy about the incident immediately swelled," the magazine reported. "As the listing vessel headed for repairs, the only indisputable facts about the episode were the grim casualty figures”.
Newspaper editorials berated Israel and accused the American government of lying. "When the essentials of an espionage operation have been exposed, continued secrecy or obfuscation only serves to plant more seeds of doubt," wrote the Washington Post. "The insinuations, carefully circulated by Pentagon officials, that the attack was deliberate and conscious only compound the impression of a shabby cover-up”. Syndicated columnists Drew Pearson and Jack Anderson urged Congress to investigate the "puzzling circumstances." "The facts are that the Liberty was seen by the Israelis off the Egyptian coast at dawn. They did not attack until 2:30 P.M. This gave them ample time to ascertain the identity of the ship:' the journalists wrote in a joint column. "Further- more, a coordinated attack by both torpedo boats and airplanes means that the action was planned in advance."
The families of Liberty sailors raised some of the same questions in telephone calls and letters to the men in Malta. Many of the wives and parents had received detailed accounts from loved ones that discussed Israel's reconnaissance of the ship, the efficiency of the attack, and the crew's doubts that it was an accident. Some family members even speculated about possible motives. In a two-page letter to her son, Ruth Scott questioned whether America's failure to support Israel in the 1956 Suez Canal crisis might have been a factor in the attack. "No one can figure out why the Israelis did it:' she wrote. "Could they have thought you were giving information to the Arabs? Everything they struck they did swiftly and that is why they won so easily. I don't know. They struck you, apologized to Johnson before our planes got to you. I would like to know what was behind all this."
Many of the Liberty's officers, frustrated by the court's shallow probe, feared the government planned to downplay the attack. George Golden disobeyed orders and talked to the Associated Press. The Liberty's chief engineer told a reporter in a Malta bar that the assault's duration and intensity convinced senior crewmen the attack was intentional. The reporter wrote a story attributed to an unnamed sailor and it appeared in newspapers nationwide. "We were flying the Stars and Stripes and it's absolutely impossible that they shouldn't know who we were:' the reporter quoted his source. "This was a deliberate and planned attack and the remarkable thing about it was the accuracy of their air fire." The Navy in response ordered McGonagle to silence his men: "Because other reporters may attempt to follow up, you may feel it appropriate to repeat previous admonition to your fine crew to refrain from speaking about matters under investigation:'
These powerful allegations failed to gain the expected traction throughout the mainstream press. More in-depth news reports analyzing the Jewish state's victory over its Arab neighbors overshadowed the mounting press speculation about the Liberty. In the same issue of Life magazine that raised concerns about the Liberty, a grinning Israeli sailor cooling off in the Suez Canal appeared on the cover under the headline "Wrap-up of the Astounding War." Israeli defense minister Moshe Dayan graced Newsweek's cover while the magazine's one- paragraph article questioning the Liberty attack ran on page 21. Time magazine, which ignored the questions raised by its competitors, also featured on its cover the famed Israeli general with his signature black eye patch, set against the backdrop of the burning desert.
Other media outlets discounted the charges or published articles based on Defense Department spin. Such stories often exonerated Israel. "Former Navy skippers in the Pentagon were frank to forgive the Israelis for not seeing or not believing the identity of the Liberty, and then attacking it," wrote George Wilson in the Washington Post. Pentagon officials told the Associated Press that the attackers likely were unfamiliar with the Liberty's design, though hundreds of identical vessels had sailed for decades. "The Israelis may have thought the Liberty was an Egyptian ship masquerading as a U.S. ship," reported Seymour Hersh. "Officers noted that such deceits are as old as sea warfare."
A few editorials and columns blamed the United States. Questions included whether the Liberty might have accomplished its mission from a safer distance and was the intelligence gathered worth the risk to the ship and crew. One unnamed Pentagon official sniped at McGonagle for steaming too close to a war zone: "Couldn't that skipper have at least gotten over the horizon?" Syndicated columnist David Lawrence challenged whether the Navy could have done more to make the Liberty's identity recognizable. "Greater precautions should have been taken by spreading out the American flag on the deck or painting it on the side, so that there could be no chance of mistaking the identity of the ship either from the air or the surface," Lawrence wrote. "There is always the possibility that, even if the American flag had been flown conspicuously, the resemblance to the Egyptian ship could have misled the Israeli airmen into believing the whole thing was merely a ruse to I protect an enemy vessel."
The news coverage of the attack ranged widely in point of view. Some magazines and newspapers appeared on a crusade while others took a more tempered stand and a few chose to ignore it. Some of the same media outlets that questioned the assault on the editorial pages published news articles that contradicted the paper's position. One of the best examples that illustrated this inconsistency appeared in the New York Times. The newspaper printed the Associated Press story that quoted the unnamed Golden. The same day it published a Reuters dispatch that contradicted the story and claimed the Liberty's officers "rejected the idea that the attack was deliberate." Liberty's officers concluded that the Navy was behind the Reuters three-paragraph story. The Times neither investigated nor explained the inconsistency, but rather chose to run the opposing stories alongside each other.
The waffling news coverage likely confounded some readers and made it easy for Congress to ignore the Liberty. Some lawmakers questioned the attack in closed-door sessions, including members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. But the Congressional Record shows that most elected leaders said little or nothing in public. Many chose to congratulate Israel on its victory-congratulations that at times bordered on fawning-rather than press for answers about the Liberty. Democratic representative Wayne Hays of Ohio quipped that the United States should trade four hundred fighter jets for Moshe Dayan. One of his colleagues proposed the United States unload defense secretary Robert McNamara in the trade. Other lawmakers urged the United States to back Israel in peace negotiations, halt foreign aid to Egypt, and provide emergency economic help for the Jewish state.
The same day Liberty sailors sifted through the tangled debris of what was once the National Security Agency's hub, Representative Jonathan Bingham of New York proposed America lift the travel ban to Israel so tourists might pump money into the economy. "Israel is suffering economic stresses and strains brought about by the original Arab aggression, and sorely needs the foreign exchange which visitors from the United States can bring," the Democrat urged. "I hope that the State Department will move quickly and take the action now:' Hours after Liberty sailors packed the last of the dead into body bags, Republican representative Seymour Halpern of New York suggested that the United States relocate its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and called for an emergency economic aid plan for Israel. "We can yet redeem our pledges to Israel:' he argued. "What we did, or failed to do, is behind us. We now have the opportunity to fulfill our commitment to Israel by standing up for Israel's rights in the peace settlement to come:'
Ambassador Avraham Harman pored over the latest news reports in his office at the Israeli Embassy just off Massachusetts Avenue, set amid the tree-lined streets and townhouses in one of northwest Washington's most affluent neighborhoods. Harman was concerned. Newspapers quoted injured sailors and published excerpts from the letters of others detailing the horror of the attack. Some of the nation's most prestigious media outlets reported that American leaders believed Israeli pilots and torpedo boat skippers had deliberately targeted the Liberty. These stories represented a stark change from days earlier when the press and administration had appeared satisfied that the attack was a tragic error. Some newspaper editorials now accused Washington of a cover-up, criticized elected leaders for settling for Israel's apology, and called for a congressional investigation. Letters to newspaper editorial pages, which the ambassador read, captured the hostility of the American public. Grieving families soon would file into cemeteries to bury the dead. The attack, as Harman's deputy observed, contained "very dangerous elements for us:
The ambassador's concern turned to anger after Israeli diplomats discovered that President Johnson was Newsweek's anonymous source. Twenty-four hours after the president met with reporter Charles Roberts in his private lounge, a "very reliable journalistic source" tipped off Israeli officials to the details of the briefing. The embassy dashed off an urgent message that Johnson claimed Israel had "carried out a deliberate attack because the Liberty had intentionally engaged in electronic espionage." Diplomats learned that information at a State Department background briefing the next day was "presented pretty much the same way."
Ephraim Evron, the Israeli Embassy's second in command, accused the administration of politicizing the Liberty. He wrote in a confidential memo that the news leaks were designed to dampen enthusiasm for Israel that only days earlier had sparked thousands to rally in American streets and raised millions in donations. If the administration could marginalize Israel's political influence it would have greater freedom to take positions contrary to Israeli interests, dangerous ground for the Jewish state as it prepared to negotiate a peace deal that would involve controversial issues, such as territorial gains and refugees. "We can assume that the US Department of State and the White House are both party to this decision, each for its own reasons. The US Department of State, and especially Rusk, who had tried throughout the crisis to create the impression of not identifying with us, are attempting to use the incident to create a bridge to the Arab countries:' Evron wrote. "The President has been showing in the past few days special sensitivity and dissatisfaction with respect to Jewish pressures on him. He thinks that an information-based treatment of the matter of the ship in the aforesaid manner will lead to weakening of the pro- Israeli pressure that envelopes many circles, even outside the Jewish public."
The Israeli Embassy now countered with its own spin campaign. "We are facing a clear and deliberate attempt to turn public opinion against us:' Evron cabled Jerusalem. "Our informative process must avoid confrontation with the United States Government, since it is clear that the American public, if faced with a direct argument, will accept its government's version." Silencing President Johnson was the top priority. Evron suggested the embassy remind the president "of the dangers facing him personally if the public learns that he was party to the distribution of the story that is on the verge of being blood libel." The embassy turned to Supreme Court justice Abe Fortas, a close friend of Johnson's, and Washington lawyer David Ginsburg referred to in Israeli documents as "nan" and "Harari” respectively-for advice and to help pressure the president. Fortas and Ginsburg urged the embassy to publicly propose a joint U.S.-Israeli commission to investigate the attack. America would reject the proposal, because that would expose the Liberty's officers to interrogation by Israel. But diplomats recognized that even the rejection would "improve our position in public opinion" as Israel would appear more cooperative and open than America.
Embassy staffers hammered the media to kill critical stories and slant others in favor of Israel. Before Newsweek's story appeared, embassy spokesman Dan Patir had reviewed an advance copy of the article. He successfully pressured editors to run a "toned down" version. Editors added a question mark to the headline and deleted the words "deliberate attack." The magazine also killed an accompanying commentary that said the leak was designed to free American leaders from pro- Israel pressure. When Newsweek's story broke, embassy officials pounced, labeling the allegations "malicious" in competing newspapers. "Such stories are untrue and without foundation whatever:' an unnamed embassy spokesman told reporters. "It was an unfortunate and tragic accident which occurred in an area where fierce land and air fighting took place in recent days." Patir derailed another story about a House Armed Services Committee member under pressure from constituents to launch a congressional investigation: "We have made sure that the journalistic source will refrain from writing about this for now." Israel's spin frustrated American officials, who increasingly bore the media's hostility. Phil Goulding later accused Israel of , 'floating one self-serving rumor after another" with the mission "to make this tragedy the fault of the United States instead of the fault of the Israeli government."
Rumors evolved into deception. Israeli officials told the press that the day the war began, the Jewish state contacted the American Embassy in Tel Aviv and asked if the United States planned to operate any ships off the Sinai Peninsula in the eastern Mediterranean. Israel claimed that the American Embassy failed to answer, so it was left to assume that no American ships steamed nearby. The implication was clear: America was to blame. When the story appeared in the Washington Post, Rusk fumed. The only request Israel had made about American ships came after its forces torpedoed the Liberty. The secretary of state telegrammed the American Embassy in Tel Aviv, demanding "urgent confirmation" that no prior inquiry was made. Ambassador Walworth Barbour confirmed Israel's story was bogus. "No request for info on U.S. ships operating off Sinai was made until after Liberty incident:' Barbour cabled back. "Had Israelis made such an inquiry it would have been forwarded immediately to the chief of naval operations and other high naval commands and repeated to dept."
Israel's problems magnified. "A personal friend in the US Department of State just told me that they have proof that we attacked the ship intentionally, and that the purpose was to remove an independent American intelligence source, and force them to depend only on information we are feeding them.” Evron cabled Jerusalem. "This man warned me, as a friend, against trouble that we might have in this case." The tip wasn't isolated. Arthur Goldberg, the American ambassador to the United Nations, confided in Harman that the United States had intercepted the communications of Israeli pilots identifying the ship as American. Democratic fund-raiser Abe Feinberg-code-named "Hamlet" in Israeli telegrams-told Evron that the United States had "clear proof that at a certain stage the pilot had discovered the identity of the ship and had still continued the attack." Fortas told the ambassador that many administration officials believed a local commander ordered the attack, fearing the spy ship eavesdropped on "Israeli combat orders, and that they might reach the enemy:' Fortas added "the entire city already knows" Israeli "planes circled above the ship a long time before the attack.”
But Israeli diplomats continued their defense. Harman told Fortas that he was certain no local commander ordered the attack. Even if Israeli planes had circled the Liberty, he insisted, the pilots must have misidentified it. Evron cautioned Feinberg that there was "a significant difference between blaming a single pilot and making a public claim that the Israeli Government repeat that the Israeli Government had initiated the attack intentionally." The charges only intensified. Ginsburg advised Israel to hurry up and finish its investigation into the attack and turn over the results to the American government. Feinberg urged the embassy to halt what he called its "guerrilla war." Goldberg warned Ambassador Harman that the president was furious and that the embassy needed to be "very careful." He told the embassy that the "only chance of getting out of this crisis is to punish someone for negligence.” The frantic ambassador cabled his concerns back to Jerusalem. "In light of the serious developments in this matter, it is essential that our inquiry will end within a day or two at the latest.” Harman wrote to the Foreign Ministry. "The faster this thing is behind us, the healthier for all of us!"
Almost as shocking as the attack itself has been the manner in which Washington-especially the Defense Department-has seemed to try to absolve Israel from any guilt right from the start. Some of these efforts would be laughable but for the terrible tragedy involved.
Israel’s Bogus Report
The final destruction of the classified records fell to the men on the Liberty. A work party from the local base arrived one humid August morning a couple of weeks later with a truck and a crane to help Painter and other sailors dispose of the stacks of canvas bags. The first sailor to venture down inside the torpedoed spaces in Malta, Painter would be the last to deal with the remnants of the attack. The men loaded the bags onto the back of a truck and drove to the base incinerator. There a crane lifted each bag-many containing bone fragments and tissue of the Liberty's dead-and dropped them one by one into the incinerator. The young officer watched as the bags vanished in seconds. "I remember thinking that I had just cremated the remains of many unnamed sailors," Painter later recalled. "I never forgot that day."
Sixteen days after the Liberty tied up in Virginia, Ephraim Evron delivered a copy of Israel's final report on the attack to Eugene Rostow at the State Department. Brigadier General Joseph Geva, Israel's military attaché, also submitted a copy to his counterparts in the U.S. Navy. Israeli diplomats urged American officials to downplay the nineteen- page report now that the attack had faded from the headlines. American leaders agreed and limited distribution largely to members of Congress and senior officers at the Pentagon. "I made clear that the document is secret and added that in our opinion, it is best not to re-evoke the matter now that it is being forgotten;' Evron cabled to Jerusalem. "Rostow responded that confidentiality will be guaranteed.”
American leaders had awaited a satisfactory explanation of the attack for more than two months. The Israeli prosecutor, without naming any defendants, recommended seven charges of negligence. Those ranged from failure to alert senior officers of the spy ship's presence after reconnaissance flights spotted it that morning to the dereliction of the torpedo boat division commander to positively identify the Liberty before attacking it. Lieutenant Colonel Yeshayahu Yerushalmi was the judge who presided over the case. Like Ron, Yerushalmi was a native of Poland. He had emigrated to Israel as a teenager in 1935 and later graduated from Tel Aviv's Balfour College. After he studied law at the University of Jerusalem, Yerushalmi joined the military court of appeals as a judge in 1957, where he served at the time of the attack on the Liberty. Yerushalmi's report stated that over the course of a month, he heard thirty-four witnesses and considered fourteen exhibits before rendering his verdict. The English-language version of his report pro- vided to the United States identified witnesses by title only and did not include a breakdown of those exhibits.
Yerushalmi's explanation for the attack largely mirrored Ron's, but a close comparison of the reports revealed stark differences. Ron had exonerated the attackers, but his full report contained damaging evidence against Israeli forces. Transcripts of radio communications showed that a pilot reported the Liberty's hull markings more than twenty minutes before the torpedo strike, markings that convinced the chief air controller at general headquarters in Tel Aviv the ship was "probably American:' The Navy's second in command had received the pilot's report of the Liberty's hull markings, but dismissed the markings as an Egyptian ruse. Ron's report also revealed that before the torpedo attack, two other Israeli Navy officers believed the target was the Liberty. These facts had convinced Ambassador Harman that people needed to go to jail.
Yerushalmi's report in contrast downplayed, omitted, or used ridiculous logic to explain away the most damaging evidence that showed Israeli forces had conclusively identified the Liberty in time to halt the fatal torpedo strike that killed twenty-five of the thirty-four sailors. In his poorly written and cumbersome report, Yerushalmi conceded that pilots spotted the Liberty's hull markings but said only that it raised doubts about the ship's identity. Likewise, he omitted the fact that the Navy's second in command had earlier testified that he discounted the pilot's report as evidence of an Egyptian ploy. Also absent was the critical fact that two Israeli Navy officers believed before the torpedo attack that the ship was the Liberty but failed to intervene. In referring to one of the officers, Yerushalmi stated only that the officer's suspicion was "aroused" that the target might be wrong.
Yerushalmi's report instead appeared intended to counter many of the criticisms against Israeli forces. He explained away the morning's reconnaissance by stating that shortly before the attack, an officer assumed the Liberty had sailed away and ordered the ship's marker removed from the Navy's war room plotting table. He wrote that he examined photographs of the Liberty and El Quseir and was satisfied that the two ships appeared similar. The smoke, a result of the air strikes, made it harder for Israeli forces to identify it. As for the criticism that torpedo boat skippers should have recognized the unarmed ship was incapable of a shore bombardment, Yerushalmi argued that it could have been an escaping Egyptian supply ship that lagged behind the true culprits or, as one witness testified, was a transport ship that had "come to assist in the evacuation of Egyptian soldiers."
Yerushalmi justified Israel's actions in part by blaming the United States. He conceded the Liberty was in international waters, but deter- mined that that didn't matter because the ship steamed in an area Egypt had declared "dangerous for shipping:' He wrote that he could only assume Egypt's declaration was known to the Liberty. He further noted that the area was not a recognized shipping route and criticized the United States for failing to announce the Liberty's presence. McGonagle also shared the blame for allegedly signaling "identify yourself first" when confronted by the torpedo boats, a claim the United States had disproved. Yerushalmi insisted despite evidence to the contrary- that Israeli forces did not identify the Liberty until after the torpedo strike. "It was only a helicopter, sent after the attack in order to render assistance-if necessary-which noticed a small American Flag flying over the target:' he wrote. "At that stage the vessel was finally identified as an audio-surveillance ship of the U.S. Navy."
In his conclusion, Yerushalmi ruled that Israel's pilots, skippers, and commanders all acted reasonably under wartime circumstances. He then dismissed all charges. No Israeli would ever be punished for the attack that killed thirty-four Americans, injured almost two hundred others, and nearly destroyed an American ship. The assault on the Liberty, which raged for approximately an hour on a clear afternoon in international waters, was the most violent assault on an American naval ship since World War II. Yet Yerushalmi could find no evidence of wrongdoing, no negligence, no violation of military procedure. "For all my regret that our forces were involved in an incident with a vessel of a friendly state, and its sad outcome," Yerushalmi concluded, "I have not discovered any deviation from the standard of reasonable conduct which would justify the committal of anyone for trial."
American officials slammed Yerushalmi's report. Lucius Battle, assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern and South Asian affairs, questioned why Israeli officers removed the Liberty from the war room's plotting table. Reconnaissance planes had flown regular missions since before sunrise. Surely someone could have assured Israel's high command that no ships capable of a shore bombardment had sailed into the area. If it was clear the Liberty was not a threat, why did Israeli forces attack? How were fighter pilots able to spot the spy ship's hull markings after the assault-when fires raged on deck-but failed to observe the towering letters and numbers before repeatedly strafing the defenseless ship with cannons and napalm?
Battle's memo to Nicholas Katzenbach, the State Department's second in command, concluded that Yerushalmi's report promised political problems for the administration. Congressional interest remained strong and it would be only a matter of time before word of the report's arrival leaked. To mitigate the backlash, America needed to make sure Israel punished someone. "It seems likely that the decision will be considered a 'whitewash' by the press, public, and Congressional officials;' Battle wrote. "The United States cannot accept the report as exonerating the Israeli Government from taking the disciplinary measures which international law requires in the event of wrongful conduct by the military personnel of a state."
Others shared Battle's view. Captain Mayo Hadden, Jr., in the Navy's Politico-Military Policy Division prepared a summary of Yerushalmi's report for senior officers at the Pentagon. Two months earlier, Hadden had written a secret analysis of Ron's report, describing it as a "whitewash." The World War II fighter pilot reiterated his previous analysis in a confidential memo. "A one-word summation," he concluded, "well could be white-wash." NSA deputy director Louis Tordella went further. Tordella, who previously told members of the House Appropriations Committee in a closed-door meeting that he believed Israel intentionally targeted the Liberty, was outraged by Yerushalmi's findings. He made his feelings clear in a handwritten note. "A nice whitewash for a group of ignorant, stupid and inept xxx;' he wrote, substituting the letter x for his true beliefs. "If the attackers had not been Hebrew there would have been quite a commotion. Such crass stupidity-3D knots, warship, 2 guns, etc., does not even do credit to the Nigerian Navy."
When Ambassador Harman had urged Israel to expand its investigation, he believed that only a thorough vetting of the assault followed by the prosecution of the attackers would assure Washington that the strike had not been malicious. Yerushalmi's exoneration instead con- firmed the belief among many senior American officials that Israel had deliberately targeted the Liberty. The question remained: How could trained Israeli naval officers confuse a spy ship with forty-five towering antennae for an aged horse and troop transport a fraction its size? Israel's skilled intelligence services had pinpointed the precise location of Egyptian forces on the eve of the war but days later seemed at a loss to identify the lumbering Liberty on a clear day.
Even Israel's convoluted justification as outlined in Yerushalmi's report overlooked the obvious question: Why did senior commanders, when presented with the possibility that the target might be American, not do everything possible to stop the assault? The senior air controller later admitted he was certain the ship was American. Why had neither he nor his supervisors called the Navy, the defense minister, or even the leaders of Israel's civilian government to demand an end to the assault? Surely more could have been done to halt the attack before the torpedo strike more than twenty minutes later that resulted in the majority of the Liberty's casualties. Israeli forces already had determined the ship was unarmed, alone, and incapable of escape. There was no need to hurry.
The possibility of such a catastrophic intelligence breakdown seemed preposterous to American officials, particularly in the wake of Israel's stunning performance in what would later be known as the Six-Day War. To many, Yerushalmi's report appeared orchestrated to provide political cover for Israel's leaders and shield the attackers. The failure to punish those involved, Katzenbach later said, only "confirms that there was some knowledge of it." It also left lingering resentment among many, particularly in the Navy. When asked about his "most prominent memory of the Liberty," Admiral Rivero answered: "My anger and frustration at our not punishing the attackers."
Katzenbach shared his disbelief in a private meeting at the State Department in August with Evron, the Israeli Embassy's second in command. Evron said he could add little to the report's findings. He had pressed the issue with Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin, but said Israel was now bound by Yerushalmi's conclusion. "Examining judge laid out point after point confirming negligence on part of various Israeli officials in affair, yet ended up finding no deviation from normal conduct. Surely, Under Secretary said, one cannot believe such conduct was consistent with normal Israeli practice and did not involve culpable negligence on part of officials involved," a memo of the conversation stated. "Under Secretary reiterated his surprise at judge's findings though he assured Evron he did not intend publicly to express these personal conclusions."
The State Department continued to seek answers. In a September analysis, Deputy Legal Adviser Carl Salans contrasted Yerushalmi's findings with the Navy court of inquiry and Clark Clifford's report. The Harvard-trained lawyer outlined nearly a dozen significant inconsistencies between the American and Israeli accounts, from the Liberty's speed and direction to the number of reconnaissance flights, visibility of the ship's markings, and the alleged resemblance to El Quseir. His five-page report, prepared for Katzenbach and stamped top-secret, convinced Salans that the attack must have been deliberate. "There were a lot of discrepancies. That was the whole point of the memo;' recalled Salans, the department's second-ranking lawyer at the time. "My opin- ion was that very likely the Israelis were not telling the truth."
State Department legal adviser Leonard Meeker agreed. He later wrote that the apparent coordination between the fighters and torpedo boats-followed by hours of close surveillance-ruled out an accidental attack by local commanders. The department's top lawyer concluded that the order to strike must have originated high up the chain of command. "The Israeli and U.S. Navy accounts of what happened on 8 June 1967 plainly do not jibe;' Meeker wrote. "The attacks on the Liberty cannot be written off as accidental. Nor can they really be seen as the result of misidentification of the ship. In view of the repeated reconnaissance runs by Israeli aircraft over several hours between 0515 and 1245, the air and torpedo boat attacks must be judged as deliberate."
The discrepancies noted in the State Department's analysis were familiar to many senior American officials, but absent the political motivation to press Israel, the report accomplished little. Phil Goulding later summarized the frustration over Washington's inability to determine precisely what happened. "How in the name of heaven was the Pentagon to learn whether the attackers knew that the Liberty was an American ship? How was it to know why the attack had been made and who ordered it? The Israeli government had not offered us its logs or copies of its messages; it had volunteered no witnesses nor affidavits; the Pentagon's chief spokesman wrote in his memoir. "When I left the government, nineteen months after the attack, we still did not have from Israel the answers to why it happened or how it happened or who ordered it or who was to blame. Having acknowledged-rather begrudgingly-its responsibility for the attack, the sovereign government of Israel had not seen fit to disclose details to us."
Whether the Liberty belonged on the geopolitical stage-as some of President Johnson's advisers questioned-is debatable. Soon after the attack, the president ordered Nicholas Katzenbach to press Israel to pay reparations to the injured and the families of the men killed and make sure payments were generous. With those conditions met, the president was willing to drop the matter. When I interviewed Katzenbach for this book, I asked if he had ever demanded to know why Israel attacked. "No," he said. "What good would it do? What would it tell you?" From a policy perspective, Katzenbach said, Israel's motivation didn't matter. "I don't think it would do any good to know," he said. "I don't like to work at things that don't do any good."
Faced with incredible pressure in Vietnam and with his domestic approval numbers plummeting, Johnson likely felt he had found a compromise that would make sure families were generously compensated and not spark a confrontation with Israel's supporters. But the American government owed the men who served on the Liberty an explanation. Johnson downplayed the attack for the wrong reasons: to protect his failed policies in Southeast Asia and his personal political ambitions. Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield told a reporter hours after the attack that he doubted the Liberty incident would spark any lasting complications in U.S.-Israel relations. If Navy investigators had spent more than eight days probing the attack, if Congress had played a more public and aggressive oversight role, and if Israel had followed Ambassador Harman's advice and prosecuted those responsible, the attack wouldn't have harmed long-term U.S.-Israeli relations.
Some of President Johnson's advisers later regretted the handling of the attack. "We failed to let it all come out publicly at the time:' said Lucius Battle, the assistant secretary of state for near eastern and south Asian affairs. "We really ignored it for all practical purposes, and we shouldn't have." George Ball, the former undersecretary of state prior to Katzenbach, wrote that the Liberty ultimately had a greater effect on policy in Israel than in the United States. "Israel's leaders concluded that nothing they might do would offend the Americans to the point of reprisal.” Ball wrote. "If America's leaders did not have the courage to punish Israel for the blatant murder of American citizens, it seemed clear that their American friends would let them get away with almost anything."
Rear Admiral Thomas Brooks, a former director of naval intelligence, described the treatment of the Liberty's crew as a "national disgrace;' "The Navy was ordered to hush this up, say nothing, allow the sailors to say nothing," Brooks said. "The Navy rolled over and played dead.”
My father found an unlikely sense of closure when he traveled with me to Israel in the fall of 2007. Yiftah Spector, one of the Israeli pilots who had attacked the Liberty, declined my request for an interview but invited me to his home in the suburbs of Tel Aviv for coffee. Spector, who also participated in Israel's attack on an Iraqi nuclear reactor in 1981, more recently had drawn criticism for signing a petition, along with other pilots, refusing to conduct air strikes against militants hiding in densely populated Palestinian areas. I left my father behind and took a cab to Spector's home that afternoon. I arrived to find the sixty-six-year-old brigadier general covered in sweat from building a playground for his grandchildren in his backyard. Over coffee in his kitchen he asked why I was interested in the Liberty. Four decades had passed, he said, and it was an old story. I told him my father was one of the officers.
Why had I not brought him along for coffee, Spector asked, remembering my earlier comment that my father had accompanied me to Israel. I told him that I thought that might be awkward. "Nonsense:' he said. "I must meet your father. Call him." I phoned my father and relayed Spector's request to see him. Within half an hour a taxi pulled alongside the curb in front of Spector's home, and my father came face-to-face with one of the pilots who attacked his ship that sunny afternoon of June 8, 1967. The two men, both young and confident so many years earlier, were now gray and wrinkled. Spector stuck out his hand for my father to shake. "We came within 300 meters of one another," he told my father. "I'm sorry."
Those were the words my father and many of his shipmates had wanted to hear for decades, the words no one in the Navy, the White House, or Congress had ever been publicly willing to say. The Liberty and its crew had become pariahs, shunned for political reasons and the misguided view that it was more important to protect relations with an ally than to support and defend American service members. The unfortunate reality is that America could have done both. Spector had no way of knowing how my father might react when he invited him to his home, but he chose to do so anyway. Even though my father had long ago packed up his memories of the Liberty and moved on with his life, I know how much Spector's apology meant to him. A burden had been lifted. My father reached out and took Spector's hand and said: "Thank you."
For my father, John Scott, who lived to tell about it.
And in memory of the thirty-four, who didn't.
Philip McC. Armstrong, Jr.
Gary R. Blanchard
Allen M. Blue Francis Brown
Ronnie J. Campbell
Jerry L. Converse
Robert B. Eisenberg
Jerry L. Goss
Curtis A. Graves
Lawrence P. Hayde
n Warren E. Hersey
Carl L. Hoar
Richard w: Keene, Jr.
James L. Lenau
Raymond E. Linn
James M. Lupton
Duane R. Marggraf
David w: Marlborough
Anthony P. Mendle
Carl C. Nygren
James C. Pierce
Jack L. Raper
Edward E. Rehmeyer, III
John C. Smith, Jr.
Melvin D. Smith
John C. Spicher
Alexander N. Thompson, Jr.
Thomas R. Thornton
Philippe C. Tiedtke
Stephen S. Toth
Frederick J. Walton
Please support our efforts to petition the US Government to
conduct an investigation while there are still competent and credible witnesses
available. Forty two years of silence from our government has been hard to
Widow of Allen M. Blue, a civilian from the National Security Agency, who was killed in the torpedo attack on the Liberty.
I would recommend anyone interested in the history of this country and this event read and pass the book around and recommend it to any and all civic, military or any other organization interested in the truth. I want to thank James Scott for a wonderful book. Job well done, James!
Gary W Brummett, surviving crewman of USS Liberty & former President of the USS Liberty Veterans Association
Justice must be served.
Petition your U.S. Congressman and Senators to open the investigation of the attack on the USS Liberty.
Ray McGovern, former senior analyst at the CIA, discusses USS Liberty survivor Terry Halbardier’s belated Silver Star award, LBJ’s personal involvement in preventing military aid from reaching the besieged USS Liberty, two major theories explaining why Israel attacked the ship and Adm. Mike Mullen’s groundbreaking mention of the Liberty in an apparent attempt to dissuade Israel from attacking Iran.Click on hypertext"discusses USS Liberty survivor". Quick Time required to open mp3 file.
Ray McGovern was a CIA analyst for 27 years, from the John F. Kennedy administration to that of George H. W. Bush.