On June 8, 1967, during the Six-Day War between Israel and the Arab States, Israeli fighter planes and torpedo boats attacked the U.S. Navy intelligence ship Liberty for 90 minutes in international waters, following several hours of low-level reconnaissance flights by Israeli aircraft. In the incident, 34 American servicemen were killed and 171 more wounded.
Israel maintains that the attack was a mistake. The Liberty’s surviving crew members, as well as a number of former U.S. government officials — including then-CIA Director Richard Helms and then-Secretary of State Dean Rusk — assert that the attack was deliberate and that Israel knew the ship was American.
Throughout the attack, the Liberty was flying a large American flag. It also had its name painted in English in five-foot letters across the stern.
The following text on the incident is excerpted from the book, Body of Secrets by James Bamford:
In the days following the attack, the Israeli government gave the U.S. government a classified report that attempted to justify the claim that the attack was a mistake. On the basis of that same report, an Israeli court of inquiry completely exonerated the government and all those involved. No one was ever court-martialed, reduced in rank, or ever reprimanded. On the contrary, Israel chose instead to honor Motor Torpedo Boat 203, which fired the deadly torpedo at the Liberty. The ship’s wheel and bell were placed on prominent display at the naval museum, among the maritime artifacts of which the Israeli navy was most proud. . . .
The [Israeli] torpedo-boat crew claimed that they had mistaken the Liberty for an Egyptian troop transport, El Quseir. At the time of the attack, the Egyptian ship was rusting alongside a pier in the port of Alexandria, 250 miles from where the Liberty was attacked, and along that pier El Quseir remained throughout the war. The location of every Egyptian ship would have been a key piece of intelligence before Israel launched its war.
According to the long-secret 1981 NSA [National Security Agency] report:
The fact that two separate torpedo boat commanders made the same false identification only raises the question of the veracity of both commanders. The El-Kasir [El Quseir] was approximately one-quarter of the Liberty’s tonnage, about one-half its length, and offered a radically different silhouette. To claim that the Liberty closely resembled the El-Kasir was most illogical.
The Department of State expressed its view of the torpedo attack in these words:
“The subsequent attack by Israeli torpedo boats, substantially after the vessel was or should have been identified by Israeli military forces, manifests the same reckless disregard for human life. The silhouette and conduct of USS Liberty readily distinguished it from any vessel that could have been considered hostile. . . . It could and should have been scrutinized visually at close range before torpedoes were fired.”
Finally the NSA report, fifteen years after the fact, added:
A persistent question relating to the Liberty incident is whether or not the Israeli forces which attacked the ship knew that it was American . . . not a few of the Liberty’s crewmen and [deleted but probably “NSA’s G Group”] staff are convinced that they did. Their belief derived from consideration of the long time the Israelis had the ship under surveillance prior to the attack, the visibility of the flag, and the intensity of the attack itself.
Speculation as to the Israeli motivation varied. Some believed that Israel expected that the complete destruction of the ship and killing of the personnel would lead the U.S. to blame the UAR [Egypt] for the incident and bring the U.S. into the war on the side of Israel . . . others felt that Israeli forces wanted the ship and men out of the way.
“I believed the attack might have been ordered by some senior commander on the Sinai Peninsula who wrongly suspected that the Liberty was monitoring his activities,” said [NSA deputy director, Dr. Louis] Tordella. His statement was amazingly astute, since he likely had no idea of the war crimes being committed on the Sinai at the time, within easy earshot of the antenna groves that covered the Liberty’s deck.
On the morning of June 8, the Israeli military command received a report that a large American eavesdropping ship was secretly listening only a few miles off El Arish. At that same moment, a scant dozen or so miles away, Israeli soldiers were butchering civilians and bound prisoners by the hundreds, a fact that the entire Israeli army leadership knew about and condoned, according to the army’s own historian. Another military historian, Uri Milstein, confirmed the report. There were many incidents in the Six Day War, he said, in which Egyptian soldiers were killed by Israeli troops after they had raised their hands in surrender. “It was not an official policy,” he added, “but there was an atmosphere that it was okay to do it. Some commanders decided to do it; others refused. But everyone knew about it.”
Israel had no way of knowing that NSA’s Hebrew linguists were not on the ship, but on a plane flying high above. Nevertheless, evidence of the slaughter might indeed have been captured by the unmanned recorders in the NSA spaces. Had the torpedo not made a direct hit there, the evidence might have been discovered when the tapes were transmitted or shipped back to NSA. At the time, Israel was loudly proclaiming — to the United States, to the United Nations, and to the world — that it was the victim of Egyptian aggression and that it alone held the moral high ground. Israel’s commanders would not have wanted tape recordings of evidence of the slaughters to wind up on desks at the White House, the UN, or the Washington Post. Had the jamming and unmarked fighters knocked out all communications in the first minute, as they attempted to do; had the torpedo boat quickly sunk the ship, as intended; and had the machine gunners destroyed all the life rafts and killed any survivors, there would have been no one left alive to tell any stories.
That was the conclusion of a study on the Liberty done for the U.S. Navy’s Naval Law Review, written by a Navy lawyer, Lieutenant Commander Walter L. Jacobsen. “To speculate on the motives of an attack group that uses unmarked planes and deprives helpless survivors of life rafts raises disturbing possibilities,” he wrote, “including the one that the Liberty crew was not meant to survive the attack, and would not have, but for the incorrect 6th Fleet radio broadcast that help was on its way — which had the effect of chasing off the MTBs [motor torpedo boats].”
Since the very beginning, Admiral Thomas H. Moorer, appointed Chief of Naval Operations shortly after the attack, has also been convinced that the assault was deliberate. “I have to conclude that it was Israel’s intent to sink the Liberty and leave as few survivors as possible,” he said in 1997, on the thirtieth anniversary of the assault. “Israel knew perfectly well that the ship was American.”
And in a CIA report received by that agency on July 27, 1967, a CIA official quotes one of his sources, who seems to be an Israeli government official:
[Regarding the] attack on USS LIBERTY by Israeli airplanes and torpedo boats . . . He said that, “You’ve got to remember that in this campaign there is neither time nor room for mistakes,” which was intended as an obtuse reference that Israel’s forces knew what flag the LIBERTY was flying and exactly what the vessel was doing off the coast. [Deletion] implied that the ship’s identity was known six hours before the attack but that Israeli headquarters was not sure as to how many people might have access to the information the LIBERTY was intercepting. He also implied that [deletion] was no certainty on controls as to where the intercepted information was going and again reiterated that Israeli forces did not make mistakes in their campaign. He was emphatic in stating to me that they knew what kind of ship the USS LIBERTY was and what it was doing offshore.
The CIA called the document “raw intelligence data,” and said it was one of “several which indicated a possibility that the Israeli Government knew about the USS Liberty before the attack.”
In fact, another CIA report, prepared in 1979, indicates that Israel not only knew a great deal about the subject of signals intelligence during the 1967 war, but that Sigint was a major source of their information on the Arabs. “The Israelis have been very successful in their Comint [communications intelligence] and Elint [electronic intelligence] operations against the Arabs,” said the report. “During the Six-Day War in 1967, the Israelis succeeded in intercepting, breaking, and disseminating a tremendous volume of Arab traffic quickly and accurately, including a high-level conversation between the late President Gamal Abdel Nasser of the UAR and King Hussein of Jordan. Over the years the Israelis have mounted cross-border operations and tapped Arab landline communications for extended periods. The Israelis have also on occasion boobytrapped the landlines.”
The same CIA report also made clear that after collecting intelligence on the Arab world, spying on the United States was Israel’s top priority: “The principal targets of the Israeli intelligence and security services are:… (2) collection of information on secret U.S. policy or decisions, if any, concerning Israel.”
A mistake or mass murder? It was a question Congress never bothered to address in public hearings at the time. Among those who have long called for an in-depth congressional investigation was Admiral Thomas Moorer, who went on to become chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “Congress to this day,” he said, “has failed to hold formal hearings for the record on the Liberty affair. This is unprecedented and a national disgrace.” Perhaps it is not too late, especially for a Congress that rushes into lengthy hearings on such momentous events as the firing of a few employees from a travel office in the White House.
“I was never satisfied with the Israeli explanation…. Through diplomatic channels we refused to accept their explanations. I didn’t believe them then, and I don’t believe them to this day. The attack was outrageous.”
–former U.S. Secretary of State Dean Rusk
“The evidence was clear. Both Adm. Kidd and I believed with certainty that this attack … was a deliberate effort to sink an American ship and murder its entire crew…. Not only did the Israelis attack the ship with napalm, gunfire, and missiles, Israeli torpedo boats machine-gunned three lifeboats that had been launched in an attempt by the crew to save the most seriously wounded — a war crime….”
–affidavit of U.S. Navy Captain Ward Boston, 9 January 2004
“There is compelling evidence that Israel’s attack was a deliberate attempt to destroy an American ship and kill her entire crew.”
–Admiral Thomas Moorer, Chief of Naval Operations and later Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, 14 January 2004
“Nearly as bizarre as the attack itself was the reaction of the American government to the incident. A foreign nation had butchered American servicemen, sending thirty-four to their graves…. A virtually unarmed American naval ship in international waters was shot at, strafed with rockets, torpedoed, set on fire … then left to sink as crazed gunners shot up the life rafts. The foreign nation then says, sorry about that, and offers an explanation so outrageous that it is insulting, and the American government accepts it, sweeps the whole affair under a rug, then classifies as top secret nearly all details concerning it.”
–James Bamford, The Puzzle Palace
“Yet the ultimate lesson of the Liberty attack had far more effect on policy in Israel than in America. Israel’s leaders concluded that nothing they might do would offend the Americans to the point of reprisal. If America’s leaders did not have the courage to punish Israel for the blatant murder of American citizens, it seemed clear that their American friends would let them get away with almost anything.”
–George Ball, U.S. Undersecretary of State at the time, The Passionate Attachment
“Is there any criminal act that Israel can do without being protected from criticism from the United States? If there is I haven’t seen it. And I haven’t seen it from the Bush Administration or from the Clinton Administration or from any administration before them. But when you consider the influence of Israel’s lobby and its political action committees and the more than $41 million they’ve given to Congress and the White House, is it any wonder Israel is shielded from any shame?”
–U.S. Brigadier General James J. David (Ret.)
“On June 8, 1967, the Israeli government learned that it could get away with murder, literally, and the crime would be covered up, so strong is the influence of the Israel Lobby in our Congress — and indeed, in the White House. And those USS Liberty veterans who survived well enough to call for an independent investigation have been hit with charges of, you guessed it, anti-Semitism.”
–Ray McGovern, former CIA analyst
“To suggest that they [the IDF] couldn’t identify the ship is … ridiculous…. Anybody who could not identify the Liberty could not tell the difference between the White House and the Washington Monument.”
–Admiral Thomas Moorer, former chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, cited in The Washington Post, 15 June 1991, p. 14
“The Israelis control the policy in the congress and the senate.”
–Senator James William Fulbright, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (speaking on the CBS News program Face the Nation, 7 October 1973)
“Israel receives about $3 billion in direct foreign assistance each year, which is roughly one-fifth of America’s foreign aid budget. In per capita terms, the United States gives each Israeli a direct subsidy worth about $500 per year. This largesse is especially striking when one realizes that Israel is now a wealthy industrial state with a per capita income roughly equal to South Korea or Spain.”
–John F. Kennedy School of Government, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy
“The massive aid to Israel is in effect a huge entitlement that enriches the relatively prosperous Israelis at the cost of the American taxpayer. Money being fungible, that aid also pays for the very settlements that America opposes and that impede the peace process.”
–Zbigniew Brzezinski, Foreign Policy
“The Israeli puppeteer travels to Washington. The Israeli puppeteer meets with the puppet in the White House; and then moves down Pennsylvania Avenue and meets with the puppets in Congress; and then takes back billions of taxpayer dollars.”
–Ralph Nader (speaking on the cable network C-Span about the Israeli lobby — AIPAC, 30 June 2004)
“I’ve never seen a President — I don’t care who he is — stand up to them [the Israelis]. It just boggles the mind. They always get what they want. The Israelis know what is going on all the time. I got to the point where I wasn’t writing anything down. If the American people understood what a grip those people have got on our government, they would rise up in arms. Our citizens certainly don’t have any idea what goes on.”
–Admiral Thomas Moorer, former chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff (cited in: They Dare to Speak Out: People and Institutions Confront Israel’s Lobby by Paul Findley, former Illinois congressman)
“Every time we do something you tell me America will do this and will do that… I want to tell you something very clear: Don’t worry about American pressure on Israel. We, the Jewish people, control America, and the Americans know it.”
–Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon (speaking to Shimon Peres, as reported on Israel Radio (Kol Yisrael), 3 October 2001)
“Israel does not permit Palestinians who marry Israeli citizens to become citizens themselves, and does not give these spouses the right to live in Israel. The Israeli human rights organization B’tselem called this restriction ‘a racist law that determines who can live here according to racist criteria.’ Such laws may be understandable given Israel’s founding principles, but they are not consistent with America’s image of democracy.”
–John F. Kennedy School of Government, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy
“I have spent a lot of time in Palestine in recent years…. The Palestinians have had their own land, first of all, occupied and then confiscated and then colonized. They’ve been excluded from their own gardens and fields, and pastures and churches. They have been severely restrained in their movements. They have to have different kinds of passes to go through different checkpoints inside their own lands on their own roads. The Israelis have built more than 200 settlements inside Palestine. They connect these settlements with very nice roads for the Israeli settlers, and then superhighways and so forth going into Jerusalem. Quite often the Palestinians are prevented from even riding on those roads that have been built in their own territory. So this has been in many ways worse than it was in South Africa.”
–former President Jimmy Carter, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid
“Have our Jewish sisters and brothers forgotten their humiliation? Have they forgotten the collective punishment, home demolitions, and their own history so soon? Have they turned their backs on their profound and noble religious traditions. Have they forgotten that God cares deeply about the downtrodden? Israel will never get true security and safety through oppressing another people. A true peace can ultimately be built only on justice.”
–Archbishop Desmund Tutu, Occupation is Oppression, 13 April 2002
“Within the United States, the main driving force behind the Iraq war was a small band of neoconservatives, many with close ties to Israel’s Likud Party. In addition, key leaders of the [Israel] Lobby’s major organizations lent their voices to the campaign for war. According to The Forward, “As President Bush attempted to sell the … war in Iraq, America’s most important Jewish organizations rallied as one to his defense.”
–John F. Kennedy School of Government, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy
“Every year the United Nations General Assembly votes on a resolution entitled, “Peaceful Settlement of the Palestine Question.” And every year the vote is the same: It’s the whole world on one side; Israel, the United States and some South Sea atolls and Australia on the other side. The vote this past year was 164 to 7…. We have all twenty-two members of the Arab League favoring the two-state settlement on the June 1967 border. We have the Palestinian Authority favoring that two-state settlement on the June 1967 border. We now have Hamas favoring that two-state settlement on the June 1967 border. The one and only obstacle is Israel, backed by the United States. That’s the problem.”
–Norman Finkelstein, interviewed by Amy Goodman for the television program, Democracy Now ! , 8 January 2009
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