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 armoured forces were racing deep into the 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 U.S. National Security Agency, and packed with the latest signals and electronic interception equipment.
The ship bristled with antennae and electronic "ears" including TRSSCOMM, which delivered real-time intercepts to Washington.
It was 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, waves of Israeli Mystere and Mirage-III fighter-bombers attacked with rockets, napalm, and cannon, concentrating on the ship's antennae and electronic dishes. Liberty was left afire, listing. Eight of her crew lay dead, 100 wounded, including Commander William McGonagle.
At 1424, Israeli torpedo boats attacked, raking the burning Liberty with 20 and 40 mm shells. At 1431 a torpedo hit the Liberty amidships, where the signals intelligence systems were located. Twenty-five more Americans died.
At 1515, the crew were ordered to abandon ship. Israeli warships poured machine-gun fire into the life rafts, sinking two. As American sailors were being massacred, a rescue mission by U.S. Sixth Fleet carrier aircraft was aborted on orders from the White House.
An hour after the attack, Israeli warships and planes returned. Commander McGonagle gave the order to repel boarders, but the Israelis, probably fearing intervention by the Sixth Fleet, departed.
Liberty was shattered but defiant, her flag still flying. Israeli attacks killed 34 U.S. seamen and wounded 171 out of a crew of 297, the worst loss of U.S. 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 said it had mistaken Liberty for an ancient Egyptian horse transport.
U.S. Secretary of State, Dean Rusk, and Joint Chiefs of Staff head, Adm. Thomas Moorer, insisted the Israeli attack was deliberate.
So did three CIA reports. One asserted Israel's defence minister, Gen. Moshe Dayan, had ordered the attack. Reports that the savaging of Liberty was deliberate were hushed up by President Lyndon Johnson and Defence Secretary Robert McNamara. The White House and Congress accepted Israel's explanation. Israel later paid a token reparation of US$6 million.
But surviving Liberty crew members would not be silenced.
They kept demanding an inquiry and tried to tell their story of a deliberate attack to the media.
Israel's government worked behind the scenes to thwart these efforts, going so far as having pro-Israeli groups accuse Liberty's survivors of being "anti-Semites" and "Israel-haters."
Major TV networks cancelled interviews with the crew. A book about Liberty by James Ennes was dropped from distribution.
The attack on Liberty faded 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 U.S. Navy EC-121 intelligence aircraft, flying overhead, electronically recorded the attack. The U.S. aircraft crew provides evidence Israeli pilots knew they were attacking a U.S. Navy ship flying the American flag.
Why try to sink a vessel of a benefactor and ally? Most likely because Liberty's intercepts contradicted Israel's claim, made at the war's start on June 5, that Egypt had attacked Israel, and that Israel's air assault on three Arab nations was in retaliation. In fact, Israel began the war by a devastating, Pearl Harbor-style attack that caught the Arabs in bed and destroyed their air forces.
Washington had warned Israel not to invade Syria, which had remained inactive while Israel fought Egypt. Bamford says Israel's planned offensive against Syria was abruptly postponed when Liberty appeared off Sinai, then launched once it was knocked out of action. Israel's claim Syria had attacked first could have been disproved by Liberty.
Liberty's intercepts also may have shown Israel seized upon 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 preferred to cover up the attack rather than anger a key constituency and fiscal backer of the Democrats. 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, but in an obscure ceremony at the Washington Navy Yard. Crew members' graves were inscribed, "Died in the Eastern Mediterranean."
A member of President Johnson's staff believed that Johnson offered Jewish liberals unconditional backing of Israel, and a coverup of the Liberty attack, in exchange for liberals toning down their criticism of his policies in Vietnam.
Israel, which claims it fought a war of self-defence in 1967, will be displeased by Bamford's revelations. Those who believe Israel illegally occupies the West Bank and Golan will be emboldened.
More important, the U.S. government's coverup of the premeditated attack on Liberty has now burst into the open and demands an investigation. After 34 years, the voices of Liberty's dead and wounded seamen must finally be heard.
Eric can be reached by e-mail at [email protected]
Letters to the editor should be sent to [email protected]
Toronto Sun <[email protected]> 29 April 2001
First display on aaargh: 10 May 2001
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