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USS Liberty incident
The USS Liberty incident an attack on a US Navy intelligence ship in international waters near the Sinai Peninsula, north of El Arish, by Israeli fighter planes and torpedo boats on June 8, 1967 during the Six-Day War between Israel and the Arab States. In all, 34 American servicemen were killed and 172 wounded in the attack.
- Vessel details can be found in the USS Liberty (AGTR-5) article.
Israel maintains that the incident was entirely due to error, a finding supported by a number of United States government reports and officially accepted by the United States. Israel contends it was assured by the United States that no US ships were in the area and that its air and naval forces wrongly identified the Liberty at various stages as a Russian intelligence ship providing information to the Arabs or as the Egyptian vessel "El Quseir," which is a horse carrier one-fourth the size of the Liberty. The United States and Israel exchanged diplomatic notes after several inquiries, and the US accepted an indemnity of $13 million.
Surviving crew members, as well as a number of Western observers and former US government officials (including then CIA director Richard Helms), and then-Secretary of State Dean Rusk assert that the attack was premeditated and deliberate and that Israel knew the ship was American.
The Attack on the Liberty
USS Liberty (AGTR-5) was originally the 7,725-ton (light) civilian cargo ship Simmons Victory. She was acquired by the United States Navy, converted to an Auxiliary Technical Research Ship (AGTR), and began her first deployment in 1965, to waters off the west coast of Africa. She carried out several more operations during the next two years. During the Six-Day War between Israel and the Arab nations, she was sent to collect electronic intelligence in the eastern Mediterranean.
On June 4, the day before the start of the Six-Day War, Israel asked if the United States had any ships in the region. The United States responded that it did not -- and it didn't, since the United States was just entering the Mediterranean Sea at this time. In addition, five messages had been sent to Liberty warning it to come no closer than 100 miles to the Sinai coast. These messages were not received.
On June 5, at the start of the war, the Liberty was already in the eastern Mediterranean. Captain William L. McGonagle of the Liberty immediately asked Vice Admiral William I. Martin at the Sixth Fleet headquarters to send a destroyer to accompany the Liberty and serve as its armed escort and an auxiliary communications center.
The following day, June 6, Admiral Martin replied: “Liberty is a clearly marked United States ship in international waters, not a participant in the conflict and not a reasonable subject for attack by any nation. Request denied.” He promised, however, that, in the unlikely event of an inadvertent attack, jet fighters from the Sixth Fleet could be overhead in ten minutes.
During the day preceding the attack, June 7, the ship was flown over by several aircraft. Their exact number and type is disputed; at least one was a Nord Noratlas "flying boxcar" (claimed by the survivors and confirmed by Israel); a photograph presents a C-47 Dakota and other reports speak about Mirage III jet fighters. At least some of those fly-bys were from a close range. In fact, at 6:00 A.M. Sinai (GMT +2) time that morning Israel confirmed that a Nord Noratlas identified the ship as the USS Liberty. Many Liberty crewmen given testimony that one of the aircraft flew so close to Liberty that her propellers rattled the deck plating of the ship and her pilots waved to the crew of the Liberty and her crewmen waved back.
The ship left the coast of Israel in the morning hours of June 8, 1967 and travelled westwards towards the coast of the Sinai Peninsula to monitor the fighting which was taking place. On the afternoon of that day the ship was steaming at about 5 knots (9 km/h) on the boundary of international and coastal waters approximately 13 miles (21 km) off the coast of the Sinai Peninsula near El-Arish.
The Israeli military had standing orders to attack any unidentified vessel near the shore. At about 2 p.m., Liberty was attacked by several aircraft, most probably two or three Mirage IIIs carrying cannon and rockets followed by Dassault Mysteres carrying napalm. Testimony of USS Liberty crew members unanimously describes the aircraft as having no identifying markings.
About twenty minutes after the attack of the aircraft, the ship was approached by three torpedo boats bearing Israeli flags and identification signs. Initially, Captain McGonagle, who perceived that the torpedo boats "were approaching the ship in a torpedo launch attitude," ordered a machine gun to engage the boats. After recognizing the Israeli standard and seeing apparent morse code signalling attempts by one of the boats (but being unable to see what was being sent, due to the smoke of the fire started by the earlier aircraft attack), McGonagle gave the order to hold fire. This order was apparently misunderstood in the confusion, and two heavy machine guns opened fire. Subsequently the Israeli boats opened fire and launched at least two torpedoes at Liberty (five according to the 1982 IDF History Department report). One hit Liberty on the starboard side, forward of the superstructure, creating a large hole in what had been a former cargo hold converted to the ships research spaces causing the majority of the casualties for the incident. The torpedo boats approached Liberty and strafed crewmen (including damage control parties and sailors preparing life rafts for launch) on deck. (see below for disputed details).
Eventually the torpedo boats withdrew from the area. Israel states that its aircraft crew were afraid at first that they had attacked a Soviet ship, which might bring the Soviet Union into the war. When the ship was confirmed to have been American, the torpedo boats returned to offer help; it was refused by the American ship. About three hours after the attack, Israel informed the US embassy in Tel Aviv about the incident and provided a helicopter to fly a US naval attaché to the ship.
Though severely damaged, with a 50 foot hole and a twisted keel, Liberty's crew kept her afloat, and she was able to leave the area under her own power. She was escorted to Malta by units of the US Sixth Fleet and was there given interim repairs. After these were completed in July 1967, Liberty returned to the United States. She was decommissioned in June 1968 and struck from the Naval Vessel Register. Liberty was transferred to US Maritime Administration (MARAD) in December 1970 and sold for scrap in 1973. Her casualties numbered 34 dead and 171 wounded.
Investigations of the Attack
Since the attack on the USS Liberty ten official U.S. investigations and 3 or more official Israeli investigations have concluded that the event was a case of mistaken identity. . However, critics of the Israeli government position state that for the three Israeli investigations, the fact that the attack was a mistake was a given, and that the investigations were to decide whether or not anyone in the Israeli Defense Forces should be tried on crimes (no wrongdoing was found). They also assert that five U.S. congressional investigations and four other U.S. investigations were not investigations at all, but rather reports, using evidence only from the U.S. Navy Court of Inquiry. As well, they insist that the majority of those nine U.S. reports have nothing to do with the culpability of the attack, but rather, they discuss issues such as communications failures.
On December 17, 1987, the issue was officially closed by the exchange of diplomatic notes between the US and Israel. Israel also eventually paid nearly US $13 million in humanitarian reparations to the United States and in compensation to the families of the victims.
Three subsequent Israeli reports concluded that the attack was conducted because Liberty was confused with an Egyptian vessel and because of failures of communications between Israel and the US. The three Israeli commissions were:
- Ram Ron Investigation
- Israeli Examining Judges Investigation
- IDF History Department Investigation
The Israeli government admitted that three crucial errors were made: the refreshing of the status board (nullifying the ship's classification as American), the erroneous identification of the ship as an Egyptian vessel, and the lack of notification from the returning aircraft informing Israeli headquarters of markings on the front of the hull (markings that would not be found on an Egyptian ship). As the general root of these problems, Israel blames the combination of alarm and tiredness experienced by the Israeli forces at that point of the war.
There were at least ten official investigations into the USS Liberty and related matters, all of which concluded that the attack was not deliberate. Among them were (all go to links to original documents):
- The CIA Report of 1967
- The Clark Clifford Report of 1967
- The Joint Chief of Staff's Report, focusing on communications failures.
- The NSA Report of 1981 including recordings of intercepted Israeli military radio transmissions and translated transcripts
- The Senate Foreign Relations Committee Testimony of 1967
- The US Naval Court of Inquiry
Critics assert that five U.S. congressional investigations and four other U.S. investigations were not investigations at all, but rather reports, using evidence only from the U.S. Navy Court of Inquiry. As well, they insist that the majority of those nine U.S. reports have nothing to do with the culpability of the attack, but rather, they discuss issues such as communications In their view, the U.S. Navy Court of Inquiry is the only investigation on the incident to date. They claim that it was hastily conducted, in only 10 days, even though the court’s president, Rear Admiral Isaac Kidd, said that it would take 6 months to properly conduct.
Additionally, the court's legal counsel, Captain Ward Boston, JACG, US Navy, has stepped forward and stated that the government ordered him and Kidd to falsely report that the attack was a mistake, and his statement says that he and Kidd believed that the attack was deliberate. He wrote this declaration with regard to the evidence and conclusions (pdf) presented to the inquiry that he and Admiral Kidd, President of the US Naval Court of Inquiry, shared regarding the incident. He wrote, in part, "The evidence was clear. Both Admiral Kidd and I believed with certainty that this attack, which killed 34 American sailors and injured 172 others, was a deliberate effort to sink an American ship and murder its entire crew. Each evening, after hearing testimony all day, we often spoke our private thoughts concerning what we had seen and heard. I recall Admiral Kidd repeatedly referring to the Israeli forces responsible for the attack as “murderous bastards.” It was our shared belief, based on the documentary evidence and testimony we received first hand, that the Israeli attack was planned and deliberate, and could not possibly have been an accident." Critics of Boston believe that he is not telling the truth in regards to Kidd's views and any pressure from the government (see this PDF).
This incident stands as the only peacetime attack on a US naval vessel not investigated by Congress. The survivors want a full Congressional hearing; they hold that a proper investigation has never taken place and that all previous reports are incomplete, mention the incident in passing, and either that they are intended to exonerate Israel or that they do not even question the culpability of the attack (instead, they hold, it focuses on other topics, such as American communication problems).
Israel denied any accusations that the attack was deliberate using the following arguments:
- The incident took place during the Six Day War, when Israel was engaged in battles with three Arab countries, creating an environment where mistakes and confusion were prevalent. For example, at 1145, a few hours before the attack, there was a large explosion on the shores of El-Arish followed by black smoke, probably caused by the destruction of a ammunition dump by retreating Egyptian forces. The Israeli army thought the area was being bombarded, and that an unidentified ship off-shore was responsible. (According to US sources, The USS Liberty was 14 miles from those shores at the time of the attack).
- The attacking aircraft used napalm and machine guns, rather ineffective armament for attacking a ship.
- Liberty opened fire first on the gunboats.
- No adequate benefit has been put forward that the Israelis would derive from the attack on an American ship, especially considering the high cost of the predictable complications that must inevitably follow such an attack on a powerful ally and the fact that Israel immediately notified the American embassy after the attack.
Virtually all of the survivors of Liberty, some US government officials and some US military officers have asserted that the attack was premeditated. Jim Ennes, a junior officer (and off-going Officer of the Deck) on Liberty's bridge at the time of the attack, has published a book titled "Assault on the Liberty". Like virtually all accounts of the "Liberty" incident, it has come under heavy criticism by those disagreeing with its point of view.
Ennes and Joe Meadors, another survivor of the attack, run a web site that was built "with support and encouragement from the USS Liberty Veterans Association." Meadors states that the classification of the attack as deliberate is the official policy of the association, to which all known survivors belong. Other survivors run several additional websites.
Several books and a BBC documentary tried to prove that USS Liberty was attacked on purpose. They are backed in this position by some representatives of the US intelligence community. Critics claim that many of them include incorrect assumptions and use fuzzy reasoning. For example, they claim that the ship was attacked to prevent the U.S. from knowing about the forthcoming attack in the Golan Heights, although materials declassified in 1997 stated that Israel had already notified the U.S. of the attack in advance.
James Bamford, a former ABC News producer, in his book "Body of Secrets", proposed a different possible motive for a deliberate attack: "to cover up a massacre of 1,000 Egyptian prisoners of war" that was supposedly taking place at the same time in the nearby town of El-Arish. Bamford has no concrete evidence to back this accusation, except a confirmation by an Egyptian, conveniently anonymous. He cites a supporting Israeli source, that "150 prisoners were executed" but this source, Gabi Bron, an Israeli reporter, claims Bamford misrepresented his report by using only partial sentences from it, which in fact wholly referred to the execution of 5 Palestinian guerillas, and other than that he saw no mass murders. Further adding evidence against this claim was that Egypt has ruled El-Arish and the whole of the Sinai peninsula for over 20 years since Israel returned it in the early 1980's, yet no mass graves has been found, nor has Egypt reported such an incident occuring. In any event, the possibility of a Ship at sea discovering such a crime on land, at or beyond the limit of its visual range, is unlikely (according to U.S. accounts, the ship was 14 miles from shore at the time of the attack, and did not get much closer to it previously).
Lastly, execution of captives is porhibited under the Israeli Army code of conduct, and if occured, would likely not be discussed on the wireless by the perpetrators, for fear of being eavesdropped by HQ or other parties. This discounts the effectiveness, and therefore the supposed motivation, of attacking the ship to cover up such activities.
Israeli officials and Jewish organizations world-wide have asserted that materials claiming the Liberty incident was deliberate are often used as a pretext for anti-Semitic declarations and acts. They claim that these reviews often do not give Israel the benefit of the doubt, turning the incident into an obsessive circus for Israel-bashing, especially in comparison to the treatment of other incidents involving foreign attacks on US vessels. Meadors and Ennes have denied an anti-Semitic pretext in their work, and have repeatedly expressed sharp disapproval at the use of the USS Liberty incident in anti-Semitic contexts, and have pointed out that some of the ship's company were Jewish.
On July 2, 2003, as a result of US Florida Judge Jay Cristol's (retired Naval carrier pilot) lawsuit using the Freedom of Information Act, the National Security Agency made two significant admissions: that there had been no radio intercepts made by USS Liberty, and that there had been no radio intercepts made by the US submarine Amberjack. The National Security Agency released copies of the recordings it made from an EC-121 aircraft in the vicinity of the attacks during the time periods 2:30 p.m. Sinai time to 3:27 p.m. Sinai time. The NSA tapes were the last significant piece of evidence which remained classified until the decision. The English translations of those tapes are published in Appendix 2, of Judge Cristol's book "The Liberty Incident". The tapes show that the helicopters were first dispatched to rescue Egyptians, and then demonstrate the confusion as to the identification of the target ship. Cristol adds: "The tapes confirm that the helicopter pilot observed the flag at 3:12 p.m." which would coincide with the audio tapes which the Israel Air Force released to Judge Cristol of the radio transmissions before, during and after the attack.
On October 10, 2003, the Jerusalem Post ran an interview with Yiftah Spector, one of the pilots who participated in the attack. Spector stated in the interview that the ship was assumed to be Egyptian at the time of the attack, the transcripts of the Israeli communications about the Liberty are also in interview.
Details in dispute
The events surrounding the attack, even very simple elements such as its duration, are a subject of fierce controversy. Among the disputed facts:
- Visibility of ensign: The most vehemently debated point is the visibility of the large American flags that the ship was flying; Americans claimed that the flags were clearly visible in the wind. The Israeli pilots claimed that they were either unable to notice it altogether (possibly due to there being no wind), or considered it an Egyptian diversion aimed to mislead them. One point that is beyond dispute is that USS Liberty bore ten-foot-high markings along either bow clearly indicating her hull (or "pendant") number (AGTR-5) or the 24 inch high letters spelling the vessel's name across the stern. These marking were not cursive Arabic script, but in English.
- Israeli aircraft markings: American survivors of the attack unanimously assert that the Israeli aircraft were unmarked. Israel never responded to this claim.
- Jamming: An additional point on which Israel did not comment is the use of radio jamming. In the absence of reliable records, it is only left to speculate whether jamming (of Navy tactical and international maritime distress frequencies) did take place, or whether the deficiency in communications originated in the attack itself (i.e. loss of power and damage of antennas). Both Liberty and USS Saratoga radio operators reported hearing the distinctive buzzing sound usually indicative of radio frequency jamming
- Probability of identification: Americans claim the thirteen closer fly-bys of the previous two days should have been sufficient for identification. Israel acknowledged that the ship had been identified as American and neutral the previous day; however it claims that at 11 a.m., the ship moved out of the status board. An hour later, when explosions were heard in El-Arish, Israel claims to have re-acquired the ship without being aware that it was the same one that was flown over the day before.
- Effort for identification: The American crew claims that the attacking aircraft did not make identification runs over Liberty, but rather began to strafe immediately. One Israeli report claims several passes were made.
- Speed of the vessel: According to Israeli accounts, they made (admittedly erroneous) measurements that indicated that the ship was steaming at 30 knots (56 km/h). United States and Israeli naval doctrine at the time required that a ship traveling at that speed must be presumed to be a warship. Liberty's speed was later recalculated to be 28 knots, although the top speed of the Liberty was only 17.5 knots (21 knots being attainable if the engine governors were disengaged) According to Body of Secrets, by James Bamford, and Liberty crewmen (including the Officer-of-the-Deck) the ship was steaming at 5 knots at the time of the attack.
- Call for ID: Israel claims to have called the ship on radio several times without receiving an answer while the American crew members deny ever receiving a call for identification.
- Visual communications: Joe Meadors, the signalman on bridge, states that "Immediately prior to the torpedo attack he was on the Signal Bridge repeatedly sending 'USS Liberty US Navy Ship' by flashing light to the torpedo boats." The Israeli boats claim to have read only the signal "AA", which was exactly the signal dispatched by the Egyptian destroyer Ibrahim Al-Awal when it was engaged by the Israeli navy eleven years earlier. Meadors claims that he never sent "AA" (which would require him to identify himself as well); this disagreement may be settled by considering the fact that Liberty was unable to read signals sent from the boats.
- Israeli ships' actions after the torpedo hit: The American crew claims that after Liberty had been torpedoed, Israeli boats circled the ship shooting machine gun fire at descended (unmanned) life rafts and sailors on board the ship. Israelis claim that they recognized the ship as American immediately after it was hit and ceased fire. The former point of view was expressed by many of the crew members, while the latter one is reinforced by the statement the ship's captain had given to the Navy Court several days after the attack.
- Israeli offers of help: Reports differ regarding whether the Israeli boats offered help. The crew claims that the torpedo boats simply withdrew, while the captain and the Israeli crew report that help was offered; the captain stated that he had asked the Israeli boats to stay away by the means of signal flags.
- U.S. rescue attempts: At least two rescue attempts were launched from US aircraft carriers nearby but were recalled, according to David Lewis, Commander during the attack. Lewis wrote and made an audio recording about a meeting 6th Fleet Rear Admiral Lawrence Geis requested in his cabins. "He told me that since I was the senior Liberty survivor on board he wanted to tell me in confidence what had actually transpired. He told me that upon receipt of our SOS aircraft were launched to come to our assistance and then Washington was notified. He said that the Secretary of defense (Robert MacNamara) had ordered that the aircraft be returned to the carrier which was done. Radm Geis then said that he speculated that Washington may have suspected that the aircraft carried nuclear weapons so he put together another flight of conventional aircraft that had no capability of carrying nuclear weapons. These he launched to assist us and again notified Washington of his actions. Again MacNamara ordered the aircraft recalled. He requested confirmation of the order being unable to believe that Washington would let us sink. This time President Johnson ordered the recall with the comment that did not care if every many drowned and the ship sank, but that he would not embarrass his allies. This is, to the best of my ability, what I recall transpiring 30 years ago."
- The Liberty Incident: The 1967 Israeli Attack on the U.S. Navy Spy Ship, by A. Jay Cristol (ISBN 157488414X)
- Assault on the Liberty: The True Story of the Israeli Attack on an American Intelligence Ship, by James M. Ennes, Jr. (ISBN 0972311602) Currently in its 9th printing.
- Six Days of War: June 1967 and the Making of the Modern Middle East, by Michael B. Oren, Oxford University Press (ISBN 0195151747)
- , Body of Secrets, by James Bamford, (ISBN 0099427745)
US Government Sites
- Additional information released by the National Security Agency on July 2003, including audio recordings (mostly in Hebrew), their transcripts (in English), follow-up reports, and a report originally released in 1999.
- Naval Historical Center, featuring photographs of the ship and crew, and the aftermath of the attack.
Sources Claiming Attack was Deliberate
- The website of the Veterans of USS Liberty, run by Jim Ennes, including a wide variety of documents, photographs, and responses to authors who argue that the attack was a mistake.
- USS LIBERTY: Public History vs. Dissenting History, By John Borne
- Possible strategic and political backgrounds by Eric Margolis, foreign correspondent for the Toronto Sun.
- Assault on Liberty Still Covered Up After 26 Years by Jim Ennes at Washington-Report
- Affidavit by Ward Boston, senior legal counsel of the Navy's inquiry, that Johnson and McNamara ordered a conclusion of mistaken identity despite "overwhelming evidence to the contrary"
- Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: Israel Deliberately Attacked US Ship, Lebanon Daily Star, January 21, 2004.
- Naval Institute Proceedings: Friendless Fire? by David Walsh
- San Diego Union-Tribune: Lifting the "fog of war" by David Walsh
Sources Claiming Attack was a Mistake
- (NSA) Memos show Liberty attack was an error
- The Liberty Incident, by Naval Aviator and JAG A. Jay Cristol. Includes original documents, as well as rebuttals to various pro-attack theories and articles.
- The New Republic: Unfriendly Fire by historian Michael Oren
- Pages devoted to USS Liberty Incident maintained by the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise, including a collection of contemporaneous diplomatic documents and telegrams.
- USS 'Liberty' hit was unintentional, says CIA
- Pilot who bombed 'Liberty' talks to 'Post - interview with pilot (Yiftah Spector) who led attack
- Exclusive: Liberty attack tapes revealed - transcript of IAF recordings of radio traffic during the attack.
- A preview from the book The Liberty Incident, by A. Jay Cristol
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