Insiders and Angry Survivors Speak Out On The Deadly Assault On A U.S. Naval Vessel
By Paul Craig Roberts
19/06/08 "Hustler" -- -- -JUNE 8, 1967. On the fourth day of the Six Day War between Israel and Egypt, Syria and Jordan, the USS Liberty was positioned in international waters off the coast of Egypt. Israeli aircraft had flown over the vessel in the morning and had reported that it was American.
In close proximity to the war zone, the Liberty’s crew was reassured by the presence of Israeli aircraft. But at 2:00 p.m., sailors sunbathing on the deck saw fighter jets approaching in attack formation. Red flashes from the wings of the fighters were followed by explosions, blood and death. A beautiful afternoon in the eastern Mediterranean suddenly became a nightmare. Who was attacking the Liberty and why?
The attack on the Liberty was an attack on the United States of America. The Liberty was an intelligence ship. Its purpose was to monitor Soviet and Arab communications in order to warn both Tel Aviv and Washington should the Soviets enter the war on behalf of their Arab allies. The Liberty was armed only with four machine guns to repel boarders. Its request for a destroyer escort had been denied.
The assault on the Liberty is well documented. With no warning, the Liberty was attacked by successive waves of unmarked jets deploying cannons, rockets and napalm. The attacking jets jammed all of the U.S. communications frequencies, an indication they knew the Liberty was American.
The air assault failed to sink the ship. About 30 minutes into the attack, three torpedo boats appeared. Flying the Star of David, the vessels were not on a rescue mission. They proceeded to attack the Liberty with cannons, machine guns and torpedoes. One torpedo struck the Liberty midship, instantly killing 25 Americans while flooding the lower decks. The Israeli torpedo boats later struck the life rafts the Liberty crew had launched when preparing to abandon ship, sending the message that there would be no survivors.
At approximately 3:15 two French-built Israeli helicopters carrying armed troops appeared over the Liberty. Phil Tourney could see their faces only 50 to 60 feet away. He gave them the finger. Surviving crew members are convinced the Israelis were sent to board and kill all survivors. The Israeli jets destroyed the Liberty ’s communication antennas.
While under attack, crew members strung lines that permitted the ship to send a call for help. Once notified, the Sixth Fleet commander ordered the carriers USS America and USS Saratoga to launch fighters to drive off or destroy the attackers. The unencrypted order was picked up by Israel, which immediately called off its attack. The torpedo boats and the hovering helicopters sped away. Tel Aviv quickly notified Washington that it had mistakenly attacked an American intelligence ship, and the U.S. fighters were recalled. However, a subsequent rescue mission was aborted by direct orders from Washington.
The USS Liberty suffered 70% casualties, with 34 killed and at least 171 wounded. Although the expensive, then-state-of-theart vessel was kept afloat by the heroic crew, it later proved unsalvageable and was sold as scrap.
Why Didn’t Help Come?
No explanation has ever been given by the U.S. government for Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and President Lyndon B. Johnson’s orders for the Sixth Fleet to abort a rescue mission. Lieutenant Commander David Lewis of the Liberty told colleagues that Admiral L.R. Geis, commander of the Sixth Fleet carrier force, informed him that when he challenged McNamara’s order to recall the rescue mission, LBJ came on the line and said he didn’t care if the ship sank; he wasn’t going to embarrass an ally. The communications officer handling the transmission has given the same account.
Dead in the Water—a 2002 BBC documentary on the Israeli raid—reported that confusion about the attacker’s identity almost resulted in a U.S. assault on Egypt. Richard Parker, at the time this country’s political counselor in Cairo, confirmed in the documentary that he received official communication that an American retaliatory attack on Egypt was imminent.
The U.S. government’s official position on the USS Liberty corresponds with Israel’s: The attack was unintentional and a result of Israeli blunders. This is the official position despite the fact that Lyndon B. Johnson’s CIA Director Richard Helms, Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Assistant Secretary of State Lucius Battle and a long list of Naval officers, government officials and Liberty survivors are on record saying the Israeli attack was intentional.
According to Helms, Battle and the minutes of a White House meeting, Johnson believed the attack was intentional. Helms says LBJ was furious and complained when the New York Times buried the story on page 29, but that the President finally decided he had to publicly accept Israel’s explanation. “The political pressure was too much,” Helms said.
U.S. communications personnel, intelligence analysts and ambassadors all report having read U.S. intercepts of Israeli orders to attack the Liberty. In one intercept an Israeli pilot reports that the Liberty is an American ship and asks for a repeat and clarification of his orders to attack an American ship.
An Israeli who identified himself as one of the pilots involved later came to America and met with U.S. Representative Pete McCloskey and Liberty survivors. The airman said he had refused to participate in the attack when he saw that the target was an American ship. He was arrested upon returning to base.
The Liberty flew the Stars and Stripes. The ship’s pendant number GTR-5, measured several feet in height on both sides of the bow. On the stern the name of the vessel was clearly denoted in large letters of the Latin alphabet. Mistaking the Liberty for an Egyptian ship, as Israel claims to have done, was impossible.
Tattered Flags Show Ferocity of the Attacks: The Israelis claim the Liberty flew no flag, but two U.S. flags full of holes from the attack exist. When the first was shot down, crewmen replaced it. Measuring 13 feet across, this flag—bearing battle scars—is on display at the NSA’s National Cryptologic Museum in Fort Mead, Maryland.
Admiral John S. McCain Jr., the father of the current U.S. senator, ordered Admiral Isaac C. Kidd and Captain Ward Boston to hold a court of inquiry and to complete the investigation in only one week. In a signed affidavit, Captain Boston said President Johnson ordered a coverup and that he and Admiral Kidd were prevented from doing a real investigation. Liberty survivors were ordered never to speak to anyone about the incident. Their silence was finally broken in 1980 when Random House published Lieutenant Commander James Ennes Jr.’s book Assault on the Liberty.
It is now established fact that the attack on the Liberty was intentional and was covered up by President Johnson and every administration since. There has never been a Congressional investigation, nor have the majority of survivors ever officially testified. Moreover, testimony that conflicted with the coverup was deleted from the official record.
Disgusted by the U.S. government’s official stance discounting the survivors’ reports, Admiral Thomas Moorer—retired Chief of Naval Operations and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff—organized and headed a commission to make public the known facts about the attack and coverup. The Moorer Commission also included Admiral Merlin Staring (former Judge Advocate General of the U.S. Navy), Marine Corps General Raymond G. Davis and James Akins (onetime U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia).
The commission’s October 22, 2003, report concluded: “That there is compelling evidence that Israel’s attack was a deliberate attempt to destroy an American ship and kill her entire crew.
“That fearing conflict with Israel, the White House deliberately prevented the U.S. Navy from coming to the defense of USS Liberty by recalling Sixth Fleet military rescue support while the ship was under attack.
“[That] surviving crew members were later threatened with ‘court-martial, imprisonment or worse’ if they exposed the truth; and [the survivors] were abandoned by their own government.
“That there has been an official coverup without precedent in American naval history.
“That a danger to our national security exists whenever our elected officials are willing to subordinate American interests to those of any foreign nation.”
Why did Israel attack the Liberty?
Was something supersecret going on that is so damaging, it must be protected at all cost? Some experts believe Tel Aviv decided to sink the Liberty because the ship’s surveillance capability would discover Israel’s impending invasion and capture of Syria’s Golan Heights, an action opposed by Washington.
Others believe Israel was concerned the Liberty would discover Israel’s alleged massacre of hundreds of Egyptian POWs, which supposedly happened contemporaneously with the attack on the U.S. ship. Still others believe that Israel intended to blame the attack on Egypt in order to lure America into the war. It is known that the United States was providing Israel with reconnaissance and that there were joint U.S.-Israeli covert operations against the Arabs, undertakings Washington was desperate to keep secret.
Survivors with whom I spoke said the attack was the easy part of the experience. The hard part has been living with 40 years of official coverup and betrayal by the U.S. government. One survivor said that he was asked to leave his Baptist church when he spoke about the Liberty, because the minister and fellow churchgoers felt more loyalty to Israel than to a member of the congregation who had served his country. His church’s position was that if our government believed Israel, the survivors should also.
Survivor Phil Tourney said that “being forced to live with a coverup is like being raped and no one will believe you.”
Survivor Gary Brummett said he “feels like someone who has been locked up for 40 years on a wrongful conviction.” Until the U.S. government acknowledges the truth of the attack, Brummett says the survivors are forced to live with the anger and dismay of being betrayed by the country they served.
Survivor Bryce Lockwood has been angry ever since June 8, 1967. The torpedo that killed his shipmates, wrecked his ship and damaged his health had been manufactured in the USA.
Survivor Ernie Gallo told me he “has been haunted for four decades” by the knowledge that his commander in chief recalled the U.S. fighters that could have prevented most of the Liberty ’s casualties.
Liberty survivors say it is difficult to know which is worse: Israel’s intentional attack on an American ship or the U.S. government’s participation in a conspiracy with Israel to keep the truth from the American people.
Every American should be troubled by the fact that the President of the United States and the secretary of defense prevented the U.S. Sixth Fleet from protecting a U.S. Naval vessel and its 297-man crew from foreign attack. They should also be troubled that the President ordered the Navy to determine the attack was unintentional and that the coverup ordered by Lyndon B. Johnson in 1967 remains the official position of the U.S. government.
Note: This article is based entirely on documented sources and on interviews with six Liberty survivors, as well as Captain Ward Boston and Bill Knutson, the executive officer of the USS America fighter squadron dispatched on the first aborted rescue mission. For additional information, see USSLiberty.org.
Dr. Paul Craig Roberts, an assistant secretary of the U.S. Treasury during the Reagan Administration, is a former associate editor of the Wall Street Journal and coauthor of The Tyranny of Good Intentions.