'The USS Liberty': America's Most Shameful Secret

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NEW
YORK – On the fourth day of the 1967 Arab Israeli War, the intelligence
ship ‘USS Liberty’ was steaming slowly in international waters,
14 miles off the Sinai Peninsula. Israeli armored forces were racing
deep into Sinai in hot pursuit of the retreating Egyptian army.

‘Liberty,’
a World War II freighter, had been converted into an intelligence
vessel by the top-secret US National Security Agency, and packed
with the latest signals and electronic interception equipment. The
ship bristled with antennas and electronic ‘ears’ including TRSSCOMM,
a system that delivered real-time intercepts to Washington by bouncing
a stream of microwaves off the moon.

‘Liberty’
had been rushed to Sinai to monitor communications of the belligerents
in the Third Arab Israeli War: Israel and her foes, Egypt, Syria,
and Jordan.

At
0800 hrs, 8 June, 1967, eight Israeli recon flights flew over ‘Liberty,’
which was flying a large American flag. At 1400 hrs, waves of low-flying
Israeli Mystere and Mirage-III fighter-bombers repeatedly attacked
the American vessel with rockets, napalm, and cannon. The air attacks
lasted 20 minutes, concentrating on the ship’s electronic antennas
and dishes. The ‘Liberty’ was left afire, listing sharply. Eight
of her crew lay dead, a hundred seriously wounded, including the
captain, Commander William McGonagle.

At
1424 hrs, three Israeli torpedo boats attacked, raking the burning
‘Liberty’ with 20mm and 40mm shells. At 1431hrs an Israeli torpedo
hit the ‘Liberty’ midship, precisely where the signals intelligence
systems were located. Twenty-five more Americans died.

Israeli
gunboats circled the wounded ‘Liberty,’ firing at crewmen trying
to fight the fires. At 1515, the crew were ordered to abandon ship.
The Israeli warships closed and poured machine gun fire into the
crowded life rafts, sinking two. As American sailors were being
massacred in cold blood, a rescue mission by US Sixth Fleet carrier
aircraft was mysteriously aborted on orders from the White House.

An
hour after the attack, Israeli warships and planes returned. Commander
McGonagle gave the order. ‘prepare to repel borders.’ But the Israelis,
probably fearful of intervention by the US Sixth Fleet, departed.
‘Liberty’ was left shattered but still defiant, her flag flying.

The
Israeli attacks killed 34 US seamen and wounded 171 out of a crew
of 297, the worst loss of American naval personnel from hostile
action since World War II.

Less
than an hour after the attack, Israel told Washington its forces
had committed a ‘tragic error.’ Later, Israel claimed it had mistaken
‘Liberty’ for an ancient Egyptian horse transport. US Secretary
of State, Dean Rusk, and Joint Chiefs of Staff head, Admiral Thomas
Moorer, insisted the Israeli attack was deliberate and designed
to sink ‘Liberty.’ So did three CIA reports; one asserted Israel’s
Defense Minister, Gen. Moshe Dayan, had personally ordered the attack.

In
contrast to American outrage over North Korea’s assault on the intelligence
ship ‘Pueblo,’ Iraq’s mistaken missile strike on the USS ‘Stark,’
last fall’s bombing of the USS ‘Cole’ in Aden, and the recent US-China
air incident, the savaging of ‘Liberty’ was quickly hushed up by
President Lyndon Johnson and Defense Secretary Robert McNamara.

The
White House and Congress immediately accepted Israel’s explanation
and let the matter drop. Israel later paid a token reparation of
US $6 million. There were reports two Israeli pilots who had refused
to attack ‘Liberty’ were jailed for 18 years.

Surviving
‘Liberty’ crew members would not be silenced. They kept demanding
an open inquiry and tried to tell their story of deliberate attack
to the media. Israel’s government worked behind the scenes to thwart
these efforts, going so far as having American pro-Israel groups
accuse ‘Liberty’s’ survivors of being ‘anti-Semites’ and ‘Israel-haters.’
Major TV networks cancelled interviews with the crew. A book about
the ‘Liberty’ by crewman James Ennes’ was dropped from distribution.
The Israel lobby branded him ‘an Arab propagandist.’

The
attack on ‘Liberty’ was fading into obscurity until last week, when
intelligence expert James Bamford came out with Body
of Secrets
, his latest book about the National Security
Agency. In a stunning revelation, Bamford writes that unknown to
Israel, a US Navy EC-121 intelligence aircraft was flying high overhead
the ‘Liberty,’ electronically recorded the attack. The US aircraft
crew provides evidence that the Israeli pilots knew full well that
they were attacking a US Navy ship flying the American flag.

Why
did Israel try to sink a naval vessel of its benefactor and ally?
Most likely because ‘Liberty’s’ intercepts flatly contradicted Israel’s
claim, made at the war’s beginning on 5 June, that Egypt had attacked
Israel, and that Israel’s massive air assault on three Arab nations
was in retaliation. In fact, Israel began the war by a devastating,
Pearl-Harbor style surprise attack that caught the Arabs in bed
and destroyed their entire air forces.

Israel
was also preparing to attack Syria to seize its strategic Golan
Heights. Washington warned Israel not to invade Syria, which had
remained inactive while Israel fought Egypt. Bamford says Israel’s
offensive against Syria was abruptly postponed when ‘Liberty’ appeared
off Sinai, then launched once it was knocked out of action. Israel’s
claim that Syria had attacked it could have been disproved by ‘Liberty.’

Most
significant, ‘Liberty’s’ intercepts may have shown that Israel seized
upon sharply rising Arab-Israeli tensions in May-June 1967 to launch
a long-planned war to invade and annex the West Bank, Jerusalem,
Golan and Sinai.

Far
more shocking was Washington’s response. Writes Bamford: ‘Despite
the overwhelming evidence that Israel attacked the ship and killed
American servicemen deliberately, the Johnson Administration and
Congress covered up the entire incident.’ Why?

Domestic
politics. Johnson, a man never noted for high moral values, preferred
to cover up the attack rather than anger a key constituency and
major financial backer of the Democratic Party. Congress was even
less eager to touch this ‘third rail’ issue.

Commander
McGonagle was quietly awarded the Medal of Honor for his and his
men’s heroism – not in the White House, as is usual, but in an obscure
ceremony at the Washington Navy Yard. Crew member’s graves were
inscribed, ‘died in the Eastern Mediterranean..’ as if they had
be killed by disease, rather than hostile action.

A
member of President Johnson’s staff believed there was a more complex
reason for the cover-up: Johnson offered Jewish liberals unconditional
backing of Israel, and a cover-up of the ‘Liberty’ attack, in exchange
for the liberal toning down their strident criticism of his policies
in the then raging Vietnam War.

Israel,
which claims it fought a war of self defense in 1967 and had no
prior territorial ambitions, will be much displeased by Bamford’s
revelations. Those who believe Israel illegally occupies the West
Bank and Golan will be emboldened.

Much
more important, the US government’s long, disgraceful cover-up of
the premeditated attack on ‘Liberty’ has now burst into the open
and demands full-scale investigation. After 34 years, the voices
of ‘Liberty’s’ dead and wounded seamen must finally be heard.

May
2, 2001

Eric
Margolis [send
him mail
] is foreign correspondent for the Toronto Sun.

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