On June 8, 1967, Israeli war planes and torpedo boats attacked the USS Liberty, an intelligence gathering ship, while it was on a signals collections mission in international waters off the Sinai Peninsula during the Six-Day War.
It was the first attack on a U.S. navy vessel since Pearl Harbor, and the first attack on America by a Middle East nation. Of the 294-member crew, 34 Americans died and 174 were wounded during an attack that lasted as long as the attack on Pearl Harbor.
The ship, armed only with four machine guns, was first strafed by Israel Defense Forces aircraft, which took out its communication antennas so it could not radio for help. The Liberty was then bombed, hit with napalm and torpedoed.
It remains the only peacetime attack on a U.S. naval vessel that Congress formally refuses to investigate. As a result, some believe North Korea was emboldened to seize the USS Pueblo on Jan. 23, 1968, as that intelligence engaged in routine surveillance.
Israel claimed it mistook the Liberty for an enemy vessel. Surviving crewmen say that was not possible.
One cannot imagine the horror the crew went through, nor their anger that the White House twice called back aircraft assistance that Rear Admiral Lawrence Geis launched from carriers after a crewman jerry-rigged an antenna in the midst of the attack and sent an SOS call.
While recalling rescue planes a second time, President Lyndon Johnson reportedly told Geis he didn’t care if the ship sank, he wasn’t going to embarrass an ally. The mystery is how Johnson knew the attackers were Israelis. Not even the crewmen knew their attackers’ identities because unmarked aircraft were used.
This, plus survivors’ orders to keep silent about the attack or risk life in prison — or worse — and an investigator’s allegation before he died that a cover up had been ordered by Admiral John McCain., Jr., father of current U.S. Sen. John McCain, R-AZ, have led to conspiracy theories.
It wasn’t until Johnson died in 1973 — 12 years after the attack — that surviving crewmen broke their silence. Their voices have been joined by a litany of other interested parties, Israelis and pro-Israeli Americans.
Survivor James M. Ennes, Jr., a lieutenant commander, published “Assault on the Liberty” in 1980. John Crewdson, senior correspondent with the Chicago Tribune, published an examination of the incident entitled “New revelations in attack on American spy ship” in October 2007. It still is online.
Searching produces many more sources, including a BBC documentary video. Perhaps one of the most compelling things written about the attack came in 2002 and courtesy of Pravda, a Russian newspaper.
Journalist Sergey Stefanov sat down with a former Russian submarine captain and historian, Nikolay Cherkashin, to discuss a statement by one of the Liberty survivors that the crew had been offered aid by a nearby Soviet destroyer. Cherkashin says he has found no evidence such a ship was in the area on the night of the attack, and he brings up a book, “History of the Mossad,” by Joseph Daichman.
In that book, Daichman says the Liberty was clearly an American ship, and that it was attacked by the Israelis to prevent the gathering of communications on the whereabouts of Israeli forces. Specifically, Daichman wrote Israelis had a right to bomb the Liberty because they feared the intelligence it gathered on troop deployments would be intercepted by the Soviet Union and, in turn, passed to their enemies.
“This is a very cynical version,” Stefanov quotes Cherkashin as saying, “I even couldn’t have thought that I would ever read it.”
It is not clear why Daichman would write about the attack on the USS Liberty in a “History of the Mossad,” which is Israel’s external intelligence service. His explanation for the attack sounds plausible, though, and his expressed belief that the “attackers” had the right to engage the Liberty sounds like something Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu would say.
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• Dennis Lamb, of Chelsea, retired from the CIA in 2002 after serving 30 years in its Directorate of Operations as a case officer and intelligence analyst. The thoughts outlined above represent his personal views and not those of his former employer. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org