In 1967, Israeli Forces Bombarded a U.S. Spy Ship, Killing 34 Americans And Leaving a Legacy of Suspicion
By Ken Ringle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, February 1, 2003; Page C01
On June 8, 1967, in one of the periodic explosions of violence we’ve learned to expect in the Middle East, an American intelligence ship named the USS Liberty was attacked with rockets, cannon fire and torpedoes while in international waters off the town of El Arish in the Sinai desert.
Thirty-four Americans were killed and 171 injured in what would remain the largest post-World War II loss of U.S. lives in the Middle East until the bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Beirut in 1983.
But unlike that latter attack, or the 1983 truck bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut or the suicide bombing of the U.S. destroyer Cole in Aden, Yemen, which killed 17 less than three years ago, the attack on the Liberty was not made by terrorist bombs but by the jet fighters and torpedo boats of the nation of Israel.
The attack on the Liberty has never been fully explained. Official reports by both the Israelis and the U.S. Navy declared it accidental: "a case of mistaken identity" during the Six-Day War.
But today, dozens of Web sites still argue one side or another, and they’re multiplying. Pro- and anti-Israeli authors, journalists and activists have sought to spin the Liberty story for their own purposes over the years. The controversy keeps growing, much as Middle East conflicts have grown to become the largest foreign policy and defense issue occupying the U.S. government.
For the Israelis, compared with the Americans, there has been less reason for resentment, blame and further investigation — their people weren’t killed, and after their government admitted its mistake, they did not have victims making charges of coverups. Not that they have ignored it: In 2000, for instance, Israeli historian Michael B. Oren wrote an article titled "The U.S.S. Liberty: Case Closed" — a position he also took in the New Republic in 2001.
The attack on the Liberty, and the Six-Day War that surrounded it, introduced us to a fog of war that gets ever thicker. The same sort of bewilderment, suspicions and anger aroused by the Liberty incident continue to bedevil governments as U.S. troops mass on the borders of Iraq, war protesters parade and intellectuals debate.
The Six-Day War was "a turning point in our relationship with Israel," says former ambassador Richard Parker, political counselor of the U.S. Embassy in Cairo in 1967. The war did more than double the size of Israel with captured lands still the focal point of Israeli-Arab turmoil: "Up to that point we had avoided being a major arms supplier to Israel. And afterward, the security of Israel became one of our strategic objectives, which it had never been . . ."
The attack on the Liberty was not simply a case of a single bomb going astray. According to those who survived, it continued for nearly two hours. It involved rocket and napalm attacks by multiple flights of Israeli jet fighters, a simultaneous torpedo attack by three vessels of the Israeli navy and the machine-gunning of lifeboats tossed overboard as the Liberty survivors prepared to abandon their wounded ship.
Last month, during a program on the Liberty at the Middle East Institute here, Parker said those on record as believing that the Israeli attack was deliberate include former secretary of state Dean Rusk, former CIA chief Richard Helms, Adm. Thomas Moorer (a former chief of naval operations) and a host of former directors of the National Security Agency, as well as then-President Lyndon B. Johnson. Parker said he believes that the attack was accidental. But he also believes that a congressional investigation into the Liberty incident, even at this late date, "would be very useful."
In the past year alone, a Front Royal, Va., filmmaker has produced a video calling for a congressional investigation of the Liberty incident, and a Miami bankruptcy judge has published a book and set up an associated Web site endorsing the "mistaken identity" thesis and attempting to lay the incident to rest. Meanwhile a BBC documentary last June presented documents purporting to link the attack and its subsequent coverup to a mysterious covert operation the United States and Israel planned against Egypt, complete with nuclear weapons.
As the United States prepares for war in Iraq, the attack on the Liberty looms like a specter. Whether accidental or deliberate, the incident is full of examples of bungled orders, missed communications, operational stupidity and interservice rivalry on both sides — the sort of foul-ups that dog every country’s military in every conflict.
A Phantom Investigation?
"They tried to kill all the witnesses," Phil Tourney, president of the Liberty Veterans Association, said recently. "They didn’t want any one of us left alive."
The official reports have been repeatedly rejected as insufficient by Liberty survivors and a sizable group of historians and scholars, who contend that the Israeli attack was deliberate. It was intended, many say, to erase the Liberty before its electronic eavesdropping could discover events Israel was anxious the world not know.
They say as well that a coverup (if not a conspiracy) has kept the truth about the incident from the American public for more than 35 years. They point to crucial NSA intercepts of Israeli radio signals known to have been made during the attack — intercepts that remain classified by the U.S. government in the name of national security. That restriction has already lasted more than a decade longer than the one that cloaked "Ultra" — the most crucial and tightly held code-breaking operation of World War II.
"There has never been a real investigation," says James Bamford, author of "Body of Secrets," a critically praised 2001 investigative history of the NSA that includes perhaps the most concise documented account of the attack on the Liberty. Disinformation was a major strategy employed by the Israelis in the Six-Day War from the beginning, he says, and the U.S. government, preoccupied at the time with the Vietnam War and the Cold War, chose to avoid looking closely at what happened to the Liberty.
"An investigation is what we did after the Cole bombing when we sent agents to Aden, or after the bombings at the embassies in Africa, when we sent agents there to find who was responsible," Bamford says. "Nobody was ever sent to Israel to ask questions about the Liberty. We just took the Israelis’ word for what happened."
A Navy court of inquiry, Bamford says, "concerned itself with the ship’s response to the attack. They never even questioned most of the survivors about why all those Americans died. And neither has Congress to this day."
And unlike the two U.S. pilots who face possible court-martial for the "friendly fire" bombing of Canadian troops last year in Afghanistan, no Israeli has ever been tried or reprimanded for the 205 U.S. casualties on the Liberty. Wrote the colonel who headed Israel’s official investigation into the attack: "I have not discovered any deviation from the standard of reasonable conduct which would justify a court-martial."
In Harm’s Way
To seek out the truth of what happened to the Liberty is to immerse oneself in a maelstrom of conflicting testimony, disputed accounts and questioned motives, not excluding suspicions of anti-Semitism. It is possible, however, to arrive at a basic outline of events using mainly agreed-upon facts.
The Liberty (GTR-5) was what was then known as a General Technological Research Vessel — a converted 455-foot former World War II Liberty ship purportedly investigating science but actually an offshore electronic eavesdropper.
Its real mission was highly secret not only because spy ships might not be welcomed into every port but also because reading another nation’s mail by intercepting radio signals (SIGINT) was seriously forbidden at that time. Despite its thousands of employees, the SIGINT-handling NSA was so secret in 1967 that officially it didn’t exist. In the intelligence community, its initials were said to stand for No Such Agency.
Though it was technically a Navy ship and most of its 295 crewmen were Navy personnel, the Liberty generally reported directly to the NSA. In May 1967 it had been sailing slowly up and down the west coast of Africa, listening in on the messy wars in the Congo and other newly independent colonies.
On May 23, however, with war clouds gathering over Israel and Egypt, the ship was ordered to the eastern Mediterranean. Egypt was a major client state of the Soviet Union, and any Egyptian attack on America’s ally Israel held the danger of dragging the United States into a nuclear war. The NSA had a need to know.
While the Liberty was still steaming eastward, however, Israel on June 5 launched its air force against Egyptian airfields, destroying almost all of that nation’s air power in about 80 minutes.
Informed that war had broken out, the U.S. Navy ordered all its vessels to keep at least 100 miles from the war zone. The NSA and the Joint Chiefs of Staff followed that up with at least five similar orders directed specifically to the Liberty, according to Navy radio transcripts since made public. But the Liberty never received them. A series of bureaucratic bungles that defy logic or explanation delayed the messages for 16 hours and then routed them via Hawaii into some communications twilight zone.
The Liberty took station just outside Egypt’s 12-mile territorial limit off the Gaza Strip at dawn on June 8. Though they knew they were in a war zone and kept careful watch, crew members were relaxed enough to sunbathe when off duty. Israeli planes circled the ship several times at close range. Crewmen waved at the pilots.
Then, shortly before 2 p.m., a flight of delta-wing Mirage jets approached the ship in what Capt. William McGonagle recognized as an attack pattern. He shouted a warning, but before he could sound the ship’s general alarm the planes raked the ship from bow to stern with rockets and cannon fire, killing several sailors, along with the executive officer.
The attack shattered virtually all of the ship’s 45 communications antennae. It took technicians more than 10 minutes to jury-rig enough wire to send an SOS to the 6th Fleet, 500 miles to the north. A radio operator on the USS Saratoga heard the message that the Liberty was under attack but demanded an authentication code that had been blown away by the first shots.
"Listen to the goddamn rockets, you son of a bitch!" Liberty’s radio operator screamed into the microphone, according to one survivor’s account.
Drawing a Bead
Crew members on the Liberty had seen explosions on the beach earlier. The Israelis would later discover that the blasts were caused by Egyptian stragglers blowing up ammunition dumps. But at the time, the Israelis say, they received reports that an unidentified ship was shelling El Arish and sent three high-speed torpedo boats to investigate.
The Liberty was armed with only four 50-caliber machine guns with an effective range of less than two miles. It was cruising at about 5 knots. The Israelis say a plotting error aboard the torpedo boats convinced them that the Liberty was traveling at 30 knots — the rate of a serious warship and more than 10 knots beyond the Liberty’s highest attainable speed. The Israeli navy then summoned the air force to intercept the mysterious vessel.
The Israelis concede that they had investigated the Liberty earlier and had identified it as a U.S. ship. But they say that when a new shift of officers came on duty that information was somehow not passed along, even though the Liberty was the only such vessel within probably 50 miles and the Egyptian navy was effectively nonexistent.
Partial transcripts of Israeli air force communications from the fighters sent to investigate, recently declassified by Israel, reflect more than a little uncertainty about the identity of the Liberty and include at least one suggestion it might be American. But they reflect a greater concern that the jets sink the ship before the navy could share the glory: "Before the navy arrives, it will be a mitzvah [good deed]," says one of the pilots.
The torpedo boats did arrive, however. Uncertain about the identity of their target, they attempted to communicate with signal lights. By this time, however, the Liberty had eight men dead and 75 injured from rockets, cannon fire and napalm. Seeing three torpedo boats approaching in attack formation, the crew assumed the worst and one seaman opened fire before McGonagle could stop him.
The torpedo boats, assuming only an enemy would fire at them, launched their attack and loosed five torpedoes. McGonagle managed to avoid four of them. The fifth, however, blew a 40-foot hole in the Liberty’s starboard side, shattering the ship’s cryptographic compartment and killing most of the men in it. Only heroic damage-control measures by the survivors in the following hours kept the Liberty from sinking before it limped into Malta days later. Shipyard workers there counted more than 800 holes in its superstructure.
Digging for Information
Those are the basic facts of the incident, together with the Israeli explanation for why it happened. There is, of course, far more to the story, including much debate about whether the Liberty’s American flag was visible, whether the Israeli jets were unmarked, whether the Liberty’s lifeboats were targeted by the Israelis. There is debate over whether the Israelis could, as claimed, have mistaken the Liberty for the El Quseir, a decrepit, unarmed 38-year-old Egyptian coastal transport half the size of the Liberty and markedly different in profile.
Such debates are not helped by the narrow focus of the debaters, which tends to exclude the context of the Cold War, including Soviet vessels in the eastern Mediterranean, and an increasingly divisive Vietnam War.
The debates will probably never be resolved. But far more intriguing is the evidence that suggests a U.S. government coverup, past and present, of much surrounding the Liberty incident. The ship’s casualties were vastly underreported initially. Survivors were threatened with court-martial, prison or worse if they talked about the incident. The Pentagon clamped a lid on discussion even as the Liberty was sold for scrap and the shattered pieces of those who died were buried in a common grave in Arlington National Cemetery. Israel eventually paid $6 million in restitution to the survivors of those killed and, in 1980, another $6 million to the U.S. government to end litigation. That $12 million was less than half the cost of the ship’s SIGINT equipment alone.
James M. Ennes Jr., a Liberty survivor whose 1979 book, "Assault on the Liberty," was the first comprehensive effort to tell the crew’s story, has since found a document in the Liberty’s file at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Library in Austin referring to a meeting of the White House "303 Committee" in April 1967, a few months before the outbreak of the Six-Day War. It concerns something called Operation Cyanide, which apparently involved a U.S.-Israeli covert operation that would have stationed a submarine in Egyptian waters.
Asked on camera by the BBC about Operation Cyanide, Rafi Eitan, who was with the Israeli secret service in 1967, smiled cryptically and said: "I know what I am able to tell you and where I have to stop. And here I stop."
When the same interviewers questioned former CIA chief Helms on camera, he confirmed the covert function of the 303 Committee but said, "You’ll have to ask McNamara" about Operation Cyanide. When Robert McNamara, secretary of defense in 1967, was asked on camera about Operation Cyanide, he replied, "I won’t say a word about the Liberty." Why?
When the U.S. Navy finally heard the Liberty was under attack, it was assumed the attackers were Egyptian. Strike aircraft were launched from the carrier Saratoga and elsewhere and Parker, the former ambassador, says he was warned in Cairo that they were en route to the Egyptian capital. But when Israel was identified as the attacker, they were recalled — on direct orders from McNamara, according to several Navy sources. Other third-hand reports cited by Ennes and other authors claim the president himself, despite his belief that the attack was deliberate, ordered the Navy to send no planes to the aid of the Liberty.
Those speculating on reasons for Israel’s attack on the Liberty have asserted it was to prevent Washington from learning of Israel’s coming seizure of the Golan Heights from Syria, or to prevent disclosure of war crimes against Egyptian prisoners of war.
Bamford uncovered a July 27, 1967, CIA report quoting an Israeli official to the effect that Israel knew who the Liberty was and what she was doing, but was unsure who besides the United States might have access to the ship’s intercepts, so it put the Liberty out of commission just to be sure.
There may indeed have been a conspiracy surrounding the Liberty. But Miami Judge A. Jay Cristol, in his 2002 book, "The Liberty Incident," discounts that possibility, quoting an old Marine proverb: "Never attribute to malice what can be blamed on stupidity."
Will we ever learn everything surrounding the attack on the Liberty? Probably not without intense pressure on the government from the public and the media, both of which have been fitful at best in their concern with the 205 U.S. casualties at the hands of a U.S. ally 35 years ago.
Bamford, who clearly won the cooperation of many at the NSA in writing "Body of Secrets," points out that a special public law exempts the NSA from the Freedom of Information Act so that only Congress or the White House has access to what’s classified there.
At the Johnson library, tape recordings of LBJ’s phone calls and office meetings are slowly being declassified, but it will be more than a year before archivists deal with those of June 1967. There is no certainty even then that anything dealing with the Liberty will come to light.
But as debate continues about the U.S. role in the Middle East, a growing chorus of voices is asking why an incident as central to our current involvement in the region as the attack on the Liberty continues to be shrouded for "national security" after so many years.