The Truth of Why LBJ Wanted the USS Liberty to Sink: Getting Israel to Help Ensure His Reelection — A Thumbnail Version

A Look Behind the Scenes, showing how LBJ Moved his Pawns – including the men aboard the USS Liberty – on a Global Chessboard as he Schemed to Win Reelection in 1968. And the Four Faces of Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas – Simultaneously counseling LBJ, liaising with Israel, and member pro tempore of the National Security Council.

(Excerpted / reedited for context, from Remember the Liberty!)

LBJ Proclaims Himself “King of the World”

One instance of how Lyndon B. Johnson’s delusions surfaced occurred in 1965, while flying high on Air Force One, when he proclaimed to several reporters on board that he had become the most powerful man in the world, as he announced to them that he was basically now the “King of the World.” Johnson had invited four reporters from the press pool into his suite to share cocktails with him in his quarters. They were flying high above his domain, which was now the entire world. He was in an ebullient mood, and this phase of his mania was strengthened with each drink from his glass of Cutty Sark scotch.

As he sat in his huge, elevated, custom-designed leather chair (the crew called it “The Throne,”) with the reporters arrayed around him in their smaller cloth seats, he decided to remind this select group of reporters about how fortune had smiled on them that day, to be in the presence of the single most important person in the world. Suddenly, Johnson declared, “Look around the world: Khrushchev’s gone. Macmillan’s gone. Adenauer’s gone. Segni’s gone. Nehru’s gone. Who’s left – de Gaulle?’’ AP reporter Frank Cormier said that Johnson sneered as he uttered the French president’s name: Remember the Liberty!:... Phillip F. Nelson, Ron... Best Price: $12.75 Buy New $10.00 (as of 07:20 UTC - Details)

“Then, leaning back in his massive ‘throne chair,’ LBJ thumped his chest in Tarzan fashion and loudly bellowed, ‘I am the King!”[1]

Lyndon Johnson was known, arguably more so than any other president, as one who moved his subordinates — like a King moved pawns — into other positions as it suited his future needs. This was illustrated by such examples as Arthur Goldberg, who in 1965 had been happy to have a safe and secure position on the Supreme Court, until LBJ decided he needed to have him become the ambassador to the U.N. That was because of Johnson’s awareness of Goldberg’s strong attachment to Israel, and its Zionist leadership, which would become a great need when an operation — that would become known as the 1967 “Six Day War” — was then being planned, and would suddenly materialize two years later.

Questions Posed by Nicholas deB. Katzenbach 40 Years After-the-Fact

Nicholas Katzenbach, who was moved by President Johnson from the Justice Department and appointed as an assistant secretary of state a few months before the Liberty attack, may have inadvertently exposed revealing clues as to what was really going on behind the scenes during the Six Day War and the USS Liberty attack on June 8, 1967.  Within his 2008 memoir, Some of It Was Fun: Working with RFK and LBJ, he cited a number of points that still concerned him, over forty years later, which had never made sense to him.

There is no indication that Katzenbach had any foreknowledge of the attack, in fact, there are numerous indications that he was nowhere near being “in the loop.”  He stated that most administration officials, including Navy personnel, did not believe the Israeli explanation that it was “a case of mistaken identity.” And he acknowledged that Johnson accepted the apology for political reasons, but felt that Israel should have offered the families “generous compensation,” with an implicit understanding that they would be reimbursed. Moreover, Katzenbach admitted that the State Department had angered many in the Jewish community through its issuance of a statement of neutrality, which was considered in retrospect as unwise.[2]

That “neutrality statement” began during a State Department briefing when some of the officials became giddy over Israel’s successes. As described by Grace Halsell in her article, “How LBJ’s Vietnam War Paralyzed His Mideast Policymakers”: “With a wide smile, Eugene Rostow said, ‘Gentlemen, gentlemen, do not forget that we are neutral in word, thought and deed’.”[3]

Shortly thereafter, press spokesman Robert J. McCloskey repeated those words for reporters. This statement caused much consternation among the Israeli leadership and within the White House. According to the memoirs of Joseph Califano, the reason it was such a “political problem [that] reached white heat” was because it could be interpreted as an invocation of the Neutrality Act, which meant that Israelis would be constrained from raising money in the United States and that might prevent the United States from shipping supplies to Israel. Califano said that Abe Fortas was among those who expressed concern to him about that issue, however it was in the context of his having “deep reservations” that it applied.[4]

Behind the Scenes at the “303 Committee” – April, 1967

Abe Fortas, a sitting Supreme Court justice, was also simultaneously serving in three other unofficial positions: as one of Johnson’s primary advisers, as a liaison between Johnson and Israeli leaders, and attending meetings of the National Security Council, thereby becoming directly involved in the planning of the Six-Day War. The paradox created by Justice Fortas, in facilitating President Johnson’s efforts to subvert constitutional, legal, moral and ethical rules of conduct, and assisting the president to commit U.S. military might to support a war of aggression by a U.S. ally on its neighbors, should not go unnoticed, as it has inherently proven to have been the case for some five decades.

Even as he played these multiple roles, he seemed oblivious to the innate conflict of interests they invoked. Fortas had previously been Johnson’s personal lawyer for over twenty years, including having played a primary role in Johnson’s theft of the 1948 senatorial election and being his chief collaborator in the months after JFK’s assassination – to squelch the multiple Senate investigations into Johnson’s criminal past. Throughout all of it, he was a personal witness to Johnson’s long history of criminal activity, clearly becoming one of Johnson’s primary enablers/sycophants.

The Nascent Plot to Sink the USS Liberty

As detailed in my book Remember the Liberty, preparations for the attack on the USS Liberty were delegated by Johnson to the “303 Committee,” – a sub-group of the National Security Council named for the elegant corner office of the Executive Office Building where it met. It was located physically next door to the White House, but figuratively an extension of it, reserved as a second office assigned to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff [JCS]. According to Richard Helms, that committee was “… simply a device for examining covert operations of any kind, and making a judgment on behalf of the president, so he wouldn’t be ‘nailed’ with the thing if it failed.”[5]  But under Johnson, the function of the group was much more proactive in creating plans than merely reviewing the products of others.

In 1967, the “303 committee” was composed of the under secretary of state for political affairs (Foy D. Kohler, formerly the ambassador to the Soviet Union), the deputy secretary of defense (Cyrus Vance), the CIA director (Richard Helms), the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (General Earle Wheeler) and the President’s national security adviser (Walt Rostow). This committee controlled all covert CIA operations.[6]

Regardless of its name, or the president, the committee was always directly under the control of the president to whom it served, and was, therefore, as James Reston, the New York Times columnist observed, “above even the Joint Chiefs of Staff … charged with approving intelligence missions all over the world.”[7] Clearly, and implicitly it should be noted as well, it was also above the CIA and its director, who also served on it as merely one of its members.

The preponderance of the evidence indicates that the 303 Committee’s planning, in collaboration with Israeli leadership, for Israel’s war with her neighbors (beginning shortly after the 1964 election[8]), included a sub-plot to have Israel attack the USS Liberty which was added at Johnson’s direction, for purposes that only a deluded and psychotic mind could conjure: By sacrificing his own ship and all the men aboard, through an attack by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) — but putting the blame on Egypt — he could join Israel in its war, kill his hated enemy Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser, and win the approbation of voters who had come to dislike him for his handling of Vietnam, thereby ensuring another landslide election in 1968.

And LBJ’s psychosis is well documented — though not openly discussed in “polite social settings” or anywhere within the “mainstream media” — through statements from people who observed him in meltdowns: During much of his presidency, including especially the run-up to the Liberty incident, President Johnson suffered many instances of such a tortured mind-set — including numerous instances of psychotic behavior — as described by several of his former aides, military officers or others who had the misfortune of serving him as detailed below. [9]

Together with Israeli representatives, the men on the “303 Committee” created a plan called “Frontlet 615” [i.e. staged for June 15] that included a number of subparts, one of which establishes that these plans began their development no later than the last quarter of 1964 or the earliest months of 1965, since elements of the larger plan were already operational in the latter part of 1965.[10]

Proof of the involvement of the 303 Committee in planning the operation was inexplicably exposed by the LBJ Library in what appeared to be a series of inadvertent errors. As described by Wikipedia (though they missed the significance of their finding): [11]

  • In 1988, the Lyndon Johnson Library declassified and released a document from the USS Liberty archive with the “Top Secret – Eyes Only” security caveat (Document #12C sanitized and released 21DEC88 under review case 86–199).
  • This “Memorandum for the Record” dated 10 April 1967 reported a briefing of the “303 Committee” by General Ralph D. Steakley. According to the memo, General Steakley “briefed the committee on a sensitive DOD project known as FRONTLET 615,” which is identified in a handwritten note on the original memorandum as “submarine within U.A.R. waters.

When the war was started ten days before its scheduled beginning (June 15, 1967) it threw Johnson’s plot to sacrifice his best spy-ship into disarray: He had planned it to be a pretext to join Israel in its fight against LBJ’s mortal enemy Nasser, who he thought was a dangerous puppet of Moscow.  To ensure the war did not end before the Liberty arrived in its position, Johnson had ordered U.N. Ambassador Arthur Goldberg to resist efforts to obtain a ceasefire at the United Nations, where a disagreement regarding the language about the definition of territories had materialized.[12]

But three other points raised by Katzenbach must also be considered in relation to tracing the events as they unfolded in the White House. Whether taken separately, or together as a whole, these confusing and contradictory statements should have raised multiple red flags:

  1. Katzenbach stated that Israel initially refused to pay anything toward compensation for the victims because it was a regrettable accident. Others made similar statements, including George Ball, who also noted that Israel’s apology was “reluctant and graceless” and that the reparations for the families of the men killed and the injured survivors were “parsimonious and slow in coming.” [13]    Ball also admitted that Johnson had tried to downplay the enormous damage to the ship and the thirty-four dead and scores of other wounded sailors through an “elaborate charade” to silence the crew, but acknowledged that the “sordid affair” was too damaging to ever “possibly be concealed.” His poignant conclusion was that the Israelis decided that if they could get by with an attack of this enormity, they could “get away with almost anything.”[14] Though Ball would eventually be proven right, the fact is that for thirteen years, the atrocity was well-hidden, and the story would unravel very slowly over many decades; even now, most Americans have never heard of it. If Israel alone had been at fault for this egregious, inexplicable “error” – given the close dependency it had to the United States as its primary ally – then a logical presumption would be that they would have certainly understood the need to at least act contritely, to acknowledge and apologize for the error, and offer to make a generous financial settlement with the victims of such an accident involving their most important patron; they should not need to be coerced into doing that, even if it was all for “show,” just to get the monkey off their back. But according to Katzenbach, George Ball and the many others, that was not happening.

However, there are three counterpoints to the premise of Israeli diffidence:

  • If the Israeli officials felt that they had been put into an impossible position in the first place by the American president — to attack his own ship, for his own political purposes, and that they were being forced into having to accept the blame and “bite the bullet” when things went wrong and the ship didn’t sink — then it follows that their reaction was not as insensitive as Katzenbach and the others have interpreted it.
  • Perhaps they felt that they had been “had” by the psychotic American president, and they did not relish the idea of then becoming the scapegoat for something they –- specifically the “Godfather” of Israel, David Ben-Gurion –- had even desperately tried to warn against; Ben-Gurion furiously berated Yitzhak Rabin so severely for acquiescing to it that it caused Rabin to suffer a nervous breakdown just days later, forcing him to “sit out” the Six Day War that he had helped plan.
  • Looking at it from that prism, their resistance to quickly make amends, and paying restitution to the victims, seems a bit less “unreasonable.” And that leads to a clearer understanding of why Mr. Katzenbach struggled with these questions for the last half of his life — as well, to an ephinay of what actually happened. Pending release of all the files that remain closed, on both continents, this issue will remain, as Winston Churchill once famously said about Russia: “A riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.”

2. Another point that Katzenbach made was that President Johnson, curiously, “did not want to anger the Israelis any further.” This assertion, considering the circumstances, is quite astounding, given that — even under the ostensible cover story, that the “incident” was merely a case of “mistaken identity”– still put the onus on Israel to make matters right, at least to act contritely and with an adequate level of remorse for the awful “mistake.” Could Israel have used their operational knowledge of the plot’s origins (the likely source of their “anger” over how the story was being handled) as blackmail?

3. Finally — and even more confusing than any of the other points that Katzenbach stated — was Johnson’s decision “to make little effort to obtain a ceasefire” for several days. What possible explanation might there be for LBJ wanting to delay a peaceful solution? Was it because of his re-election hopes, and that, at that point his plot to sink the Liberty had not been completed? That may be an explanation for why Johnson, and Goldberg at the U.N., deliberately stalled the efforts going on by the United Nations (June 6-8) to secure an early peace, because he still wanted – desperately – to buy time for having the Liberty in place for the attack and, after it had sunk, to blame Egypt for it as a pretext for him to attack Cairo with nuclear weapons.

It is “proof of the pudding” — that Johnson had been obsessed with his desire to seize the opportunity of joining Israel in an all-out attack on Egypt — that the bombers were already on their way to Cairo when they were called back, after it became clear that the Liberty had not sunk after being hit by a torpedo.[15]  Only that random synchronicity–which some call “Devine Intervention”–forced the abrupt cancellation of the clandestine operation, thus preempting Johnson’s high-risk, psychotically-induced attack that would likely have provoked a response by the Soviet Union and the potential of the use of nuclear weapons, and with it, “World War III.”

A Summation of Nicholas Katzenbach’s Perplexations, and a Possible Explanation.

Considering all of the questions raised by Mr. Katzenbach in his memoirs forty years after the attack, the rationale stated above seems to be the only plausible possible explanation: That this was all part of a grand move in a chess game the psychotic president was playing, as he acted out his role as the “King of the World.”

The otherwise astute Katzenbach — who had been unwittingly involved in the cover-up of the attack — was still pondering these enigmas forty years later, as if he had still not comprehended how dangerously deluded the President had become. Or, perhaps he decided to bring forth his doubts in a more unconventional way — mirroring how his own official, rather unique, portrait was done by an abstract artist — in his attempt to provoke readers into looking deeper into the many enigmas left in the wake of the USS Liberty attack and consequent cover-up.

In 1973, Nicholas Katzenbach wrote an article in the magazine Foreign Affairs about his concerns with the use of “covert operations abroad,” in the wake of the then-recent discoveries of how President Johnson had repeatedly used such devices for his own politically-inspired goals, citing Vietnam as one; though he avoided a direct mention of the still-secret attack on the USS Liberty, it may have been the subject of his oblique reference to “the impossibility of controlling” covert operations abroad .

Clearly, he had wrestled with the conundrum for the rest of his life, and it had resurfaced as he wrote his memoirs. It is a poignant reminiscence on how so many men, who had observed Lyndon Johnson in dynamic real time, failed to completely understand him — not merely then, but for many decades thereafter.

But he was not alone in that, as it seems that nearly everyone else around President Johnson gave him “the benefit of the doubt,” based mostly on his contrived legacy as a great and magnanimous civil rights advocate. Yet even that record — for anyone who reflects momentarily on historic fact, rather than legendary myths — shows that Johnson had a long, inglorious history of being an unrepentant racist.

His life-long desire to be ranked high in the order of “great presidents” was the catalyst for him to erect the false “legacy” that he knew would put him on the “right side” of history and give him “dispensation” from the many reckless treasons he had managed to cover up to hide his real legacy. So far, with a lot of help from the compliant press and mythmaking “historians and biographers,” his efforts to redeem himself through “blue smoke and mirrors” have worked quite well.


[1] Albertazzie, Ralph, The Flying White House: The Story of Air Force One, New York: Coward, McCann & Geoghegan, Inc., 1979, p. 247.

[2] Katzenbach, Nicholas, Some of It Was Fun: Working with JFK and LBJ. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2008, pp. 251–252.

[3] Halsell, Grace “How LBJ’s Vietnam War Paralyzed His Mideast Policymakers”, Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, June 1993, Page 20 (

[4] Califano, Joseph, The Triumph & Tragedy of Lyndon Johnson, New York: Simon &
Shuster, 1991, pp. 204-205

[5] See internet video “BBC Documentary ‘Dead in the Water’ (at approx. 46:45)

[6] Evans, Rowland and Novak, Robert. “The CIA’s Secret Subsidy to Israel” Washington Post, Feb. 24, 1977

[7] Reston, James, New York Times, May 7, 1969

[8] Nelson, Phillip F., Remember the Liberty! Almost Sunk By Treason on the High Seas, Walterville, OR TrineDay, 2017, p. 23 (Ref. Evans, Rowland and Novak, Robert. “The CIA’s Secret Subsidy to Israel” Washington Post, Feb. 24, 1977

[9] For a summary of their testimonies, see Remember the Liberty! Pp. 23-27 (Ref: Robert Caro, Master of the Senate, pp. 626-630; 634-636; 832; Caro, The Path to Power, p. 100, Robert Dallek, Flawed Giant, pp. 627-28; D. Jablow Hershman, Power Beyond Reason: The Mental Collapse of Lyndon Johnson, pp. 11, 16, 104-105, 212;  Muslin and Jobe, Lyndon Johnson: The Tragic Self: A Psychohistorical Portrait. p. 206 ; Robert Winter-Berger, N., The Washington Pay-off. pp. 64-66; Gen. Charles Cooper, A Marine’s Story of Combat in Peace and War pp. 3–5;  Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., Journals: 1952–2000, p. 280-306;  Richard Goodwin, Remembering America, p. 402-403; 416; 419;

[10] Op. Cit. (Nelson, pp. 37-43]

[11] Wikipedia — USS Liberty Incident. See:

[12] Op. Cit (Katzenbach, pp. 251–252)

[13] Ball, The Passionate Attachment: America’s Involvement with Israel, 1947 to the Present, New York: W. W. Norton & Co, 1992, pp. 57 – 58

[14] Ibid.

[15] Hounam, Peter, and John Simpson, Operation CyanideWhy the Bombing of the USS Liberty Nearly Caused World War III. Chatham, Kent, UK: Mackays of Chatham, Ltd., 2003, pp. 181-183. Also See YouTube: “Documentary on the USS Liberty: Dead in the Water,” (@ 25.30),