BOOK REVIEW OF "OPERATION CYANIDE" By John Simpson BBC World Affairs Editor
This is an extraordinary story, one of the most extraordinary, perhaps, of the entire twentieth century. Suppose, in an attempt to shore up his critically damaged presidency, Lyndon Johnson deliberately engineered an event in which American lives were sacrificed and the United States was brought disturbingly close to an all-out nuclear war with Russia? Suppose this involved a secret agreement between Israel and American intelligence, which resulted in an Israeli attack on an American naval vessel, in the latter stages of the Six-Day War?
It sounds, I know, like one of those depressing conspiracy theories which cluster round every big controversial event from the death of Princess Diana to the attack on the World Trade Centre. People often have problems in handling the banality of truth, and prefer to imagine deeper, darker plots beneath the surface. Yet this book is based on careful, rigorous investigation by a well-known and respected journalist who has metic- ulously tracked down the people and the documents who have survived from the event itself: the attack on the USS Liberty, in the eastern Mediter- ranean in June 1967.
As with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, four years earlier, the official version is even more unlikely than some of the conspiracy theories. In order to believe the hasty, often contradictory account which came out of Washington, you would have to accept all sorts of virtual impossibilities: that Israeli planes and torpedo boats could have mistaken a modern American warship of ten thousand tons for an elderly Egyptian horse transport less than a quarter of its size, come to within fifty feet of it without spotting that it was flying a particularly large American flag, and blazed away at it from close range for forty minutes before realizing what it was they were shooting at. A hasty American enquiry immediately afterwards called it 'a bona fide mistake.' That seems, to say the least, a little implausible.
Yet this is the official version, which stands to this day. Any other version -- that of the Liberty's surviving crew members, for instance -- has been extremely hard to establish because of the intensity of the security blanket which the Israelis and Americans wrapped around the entire incident.
The blanket remains in place to this day, yet this book provides sufficient evidence for any open-minded person to see that something else lies underneath: something very disturbing.
I have found Peter Hounam's research compelling, and the story which unfolds in these pages rivetting. It is time a little daylight was shed on Operation Cyanide. This book does precisely that, and we should be grateful for it.