New questions on 1967 Israeli attack on U.S. intelligence ship
Steve Schell
November/December 2003

Searing heat and terrible noise came suddenly from everywhere. Instinctively I turned sideways, presenting the smallest target to the heat. Heat came first, and it was heat-not cannon fire-that caused me to turn away. It was too soon to be aware of rockets or cannon fire.

"We're shooting!" I thought. "Why are we shooting?" The air filled with hot metal as a geometric pattern of orange flashes opened holes in the heavy deck plating. An explosion tossed our gunners high into the air-spinning, broken, like rag dolls.

My first impression--my primitive, protective search for something safe and familiar that put me emotionally behind the gun-was wrong. We were not firing at all. We were being pounded with a deadly barrage of aircraft cannon and rocket fire.

-From "Assault on the Liberty," by James S. Ennes, Jr.

James Ennes was a bridge officer on board the USS Liberty, an intelligence-gathering ship that was cruising international waters off the Egyptian coast on June 8, 1967. Israeli planes and torpedo boats opened fire on the Liberty at what became known as the outbreak of the Israeli-Arab Six-Day War. The attack killed 34 Americans, and more than 170 were wounded.

Since that time, the incident has been the subject of much controversy. Israel asserted that the ship was attacked because it was thought to be an Egyptian vessel, the El Quiser-a claim that most survivors deny, saying that the Liberty was flying the US Flag at the time (The USS Liberty is 455 ft. long, while the El Quiser is only 275 feet long). The Johnson administration accepted Israel's claim of mistaken identity without a challenge.

But at a press conference on Capitol Hill on October 22, 2003, Retired Capt. Ward Boston released a signed affidavit stating that former President Lyndon Johnson and former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara ordered those leading the Navy's inquiry at the time to find that the incident was a case of mistaken identity, as Israel had claimed. Boston was senior legal counsel to the Navy's 1967 inquiry into the matter and said that he had remained silent about the apparent cover-up because "when orders come ... I follow them." But Boston says that the recent publication of the book, "The Liberty Incident" concluding that the attack was unintentional, caused him to come forward.

"I am outraged at the efforts of apologists for Israel in this country to claim this attack was a case of 'mistaken identity,'" Boston wrote in his affidavit. "In particular, the recent publication of Jay Cristol's book, the 'Liberty Incident,' twists the facts and misrepresents the views of those of us who investigated the attack. It is Cristol's insidious attempt to whitewash the facts that has pushed me to speak out." Cristol is a retired Navy pilot and member of the judge advocate's office.

A private commission headed by Former Chief of Naval Operations, retired Adm. Thomas H. Moorer, released Boston's statement. On the commission with Moorer were retired General Raymond G. Davis, a 34-year Marine Corps veteran, and retired Admiral Merlin Staring, former Judge Advocate General of the US Navy. The commission's findings add fuel to the raging debate on Israeli influence in Washington. Moorer's commission is demanding that Capitol Hill committees launch investigation into the matter and rescind the official Navy report.

There are, of course, discrepancies between Israel's version of the incident and the reports of sailors aboard the Liberty. Israel claims that only aircraft were used in the attack and that the Liberty was not flying a US flag. The sailors reported that both jets and torpedo boats were used and that when they tried to launch lifeboats for the wounded, the torpedo boats sank them. The sailors also report that their communications were jammed and then, when they finally got through to the USS Saratoga, a carrier sailing near Crete, American aircraft were launched to assist, but were recalled before they could render any assistance. Moorer told the Associated Press that he had interviewed officers on the USS Saratoga, where the planes were based, who said the White House ordered them to abandon the rescue. Ennes'book has this to say regarding the attempted rescue:

"Schematic, this is Rockstar. We are still under attack by unidentified jet aircraft and require immediate assistance."

"Roger, Rockstar," said Saratoga. "We are forwarding your message."

Aircraft-carrier sailors know that certain airplanes are always spotted near the catapults where they are kept fueled, armed and ready to fly. They are maintained by special crews, they are flown by carefully selected pilots, and they are kept under special guard at all times. These are the "ready" aircraft. To visitors, they are almost indistinguishable from other aircraft, but they are very special aircraft indeed, and their use is an ominous sign of trouble. They carry nuclear weapons.

No one in government has acknowledged that ready aircraft were sent toward Liberty, and no messages or logs have been unearthed to prove that nuclear-armed aircraft were launched; moreover, there is no indication that release of nuclear weapons was authorized under any circumstances, or that ready aircraft, which normally carry nuclear weapons, were launched toward Liberty, and that the Pentagon reacted to the launch with anger bordering on hysteria. Widely separated sources have described the launch and subsequent recall of those aircraft in detail, and the circumstances are compelling.

According to a chief petty officer aboard USS America, the pilots were given their orders over a private intercom system as they sat in their cockpits. A United States ship was under attack, they were told, and they were given the ship's position. Their mission was to protect the ship. Under no circumstances were they to approach the beach.

"Help is on the way!" This short message was received by a Liberty radioman and quickly passed to nearly every man aboard...

...A Flash precedence Teletype message from COMSIXTHFLT coursed quickly through the Morocco communication relay station, destined for the Pentagon, State Department and the White House:

USS LIBERTY REPORTS UNDER ATTACK BY UNIDENTIFIED JET AIRCRAFT. HAVE LAUNCHED STRIKE AIRCRAFT TO DEFEND SHIP. It seemed only seconds later that a new voice radio circuit was patched into the room that was now becoming a nerve center for Liberty communications...Every man in the room recognized the voice as that of the Secretary of Defense, Robert S. McNamara, and he spoke with authority: "Tell Sixth Fleet to get those aircraft back immediately," he barked, "and give me a status report."

A few minutes later the Chief of Naval operations himself came on the air. The circuit was patched through to the Sixth Fleet flagship, and Admiral David L. McDonald bellowed: "You get those fucking airplanes back on deck, and you get them back now!"

The larger questions are, why would Israel deliberately attack a US ship and claim otherwise? Why would the US put Israel's interests ahead of our own? Why would the administration abandon the crew of the Liberty by recalling rescue planes and then cover up that fact for years to come? Israel's motives have never been ascertained. This is why an impartial investigation is critical. It has been speculated that Israel intended to sink the Liberty, leaving no survivors. In doing so, Israel could then have blamed Egypt for the attack, thereby bringing the US into the war. It is also possible that the Liberty was gathering intelligence about activities that Israel did not want revealed, for example, the massacre of Egyptian prisoners of war that was then occurring in the Sinai (It wasn't until August 1995 that the Israeli press lifted the veil in its interviews with a number of witnesses and members of the military who took part in the crime).

Whatever the case, the findings of the independent commission cannot be simply brushed aside as another conspiracy theory. As recommended by the commission, no less than a new Court of Inquiry by the Department of the Navy, operating with Congressional oversight is necessary to determine the facts surrounding this tragedy. If Israel indeed deliberately attacked the Liberty, it should be held accountable.

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