The tragic assault by Israeli forces during the Six Day War in 1967 on an American vessel, the USS Liberty, has been a source of controversy and conspiracy theories since it occurred. Several government investigations have concluded that the attack, in which 34 American servicemen were killed and many more injured, was carried out in error. Furthermore, every piece of information declassified to date - most recently in June 2004 - has supported this conclusion.
Much of this information is available to anyone with an Internet connection. Nonetheless, many continue to allege that Israel attacked the Liberty knowing that it was an American ship and that they were killing American servicemen. For detractors of Israel, the incident - and the alleged U.S. government cover-up that followed - powerfully demonstrates the treachery and power of the Jewish State and its American supporters. The story, told from this perspective, has become a propaganda tool to undermine the legitimacy of Israel.
This article debunks the leading conspiracy theories suggesting that Israel acted malevolently.
On June 8, 1967, during the Six Day War, Israeli war planes and torpedo boats attacked the USS Liberty, an intelligence gathering ship, while it was on a surveillance mission off the shores of El Arish, in the Sinai Peninsula. 34 Americans died and 171 were injured. Israel claimed it mistook the Liberty for an enemy vessel. Several Israeli and U.S. investigations corroborated that claim.
In 1999, moreover, a National Security Agency report from 1981 was released claiming that "the tragedy resulted not only from Israeli miscalculation but also from faulty U.S. communications practices." Since July 2003, this report has been available on the NSA Web site accompanied by a recording of radio communications between Israeli pilots made by a U.S. spy plane on the scene throughout the episode.
The NSA report and other documents declassified since the incident - including a trove of government materials released in January 2004 - support findings that the bombing was a case of mistaken identity. Some of the different investigations and their conclusions are listed below.
The most thorough non-governmental treatment of the bombing is A. Jay Cristol's The Liberty Incident (2002). Cristol, a U.S. bankruptcy judge and former U.S. Navy lawyer, concludes that "the totality of evidence establishes that the attack on the USS Liberty was a tragic case of mistaken identity that resulted from a compounding of bad mistakes perpetrated by both the United States and Israel, and nothing more." He analyzes, and meticulously debunks, previous books, articles and TV productions that argue that the attack was intentional and government investigations only cover-ups.
Despite the abundance of evidence that the bombing was a tragic mistake, conspiracy theories alleging that Israel intentionally attacked the Liberty have been a hallmark of conspiratorial anti-Israel propaganda since 1967. (Perhaps unsurprisingly, a number of Liberty crewmen believe the attack was intentional.)
Why is the Liberty incident so popular among anti-Israel conspiracy theorists? The reasons are clear. If Israel knowingly attacked and killed Americans, the views of radical critics of the country are confirmed with graphic clarity. These views include: a) the belief that Israel will turn against the U.S. whenever it suits its interests; b) the belief that Israel's control over the American political and military structure is so great that it can openly kill Americans because it knows that officials at every level will work together to cover up the crime; and c) the belief that Israel is a terrorist state.
What would Israel's motive have been? The argument that Israel knowingly attacked an American ship has always lacked a convincing motive. Possibilities have included:
Keeping U.S. from learning of surprise attack against Syria. In 1976, James Ennes, probably the most active critic of the official account - and one of the ship's survivors - claimed in his book Assault on the Liberty that Israel was then planning a surprise attack against Syria and feared U.S. interference; its bombing of the Liberty, he claimed, was an effort to disrupt American's ability to gather intelligence about the plan. Previously classified material released in 1997 by both Israel and the U.S. demonstrated that Israel had already informed the U.S. of its intentions, however. The theory should have disappeared thereafter, yet it resurfaced in a poorly researched History Channel production that aired in 2001 called Cover Up: Attack on the USS Liberty.
Hiding war crimes. Another possible motive was offered by James Bamford in his 2000 book Body of Secrets. Bamford claimed that Israel mounted the attack because it worried that the Liberty would learn of the nearby killing of hundreds of Egyptian POWs by the Israeli army. In fact, no evidence has been found to corroborate a war crime charge, and Cristol has shown that Bamford's account has little credibility. For example, Bamford quotes Marvin Nowicki, a Hebrew linguist on the U.S. surveillance aircraft that recorded the attacking Israeli pilots, to support his theory that the Israelis knew the ship to be American. Cristol reveals, however, that Nowicki stated in an exchange of letters with Bamford that "our intercepts, never before made public, showed the attack to be an accident on the part of the Israelis."
Drawing U.S. into war. The idea that Israel hoped to draw the U.S. into the Six-Day War has been suggested by Adm. (ret.) Thomas Moorer, a former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a leader in the effort to expose the alleged governmental cover-ups of the attack. (He chairs the group whose new "findings" occasioned the October 22, 2003, press conference, below). Moorer has stated that Israel planned to sink the ship and then implicate Egypt, thereby pushing the U.S. to fight with Israel. However, by June 8, 1967 - the day of the attack- Israel had already destroyed most of the Egyptian air force and was advancing rapidly in the Sinai; the country was only days from victory and did not need U.S. assistance. Moreover, the initial Israeli attack could not have sunk the ship (the ordnance fired on the Liberty was inadequate to sink it), and Israel did not make any attempt to conceal its involvement in the attack after realizing the Liberty was American.
June 3, 2004: Based on previously unreleased audiotapes made available by the Israeli Air Force, The Jerusalem Post published a transcript of radio and telephone transmissions between Israeli pilots and air controllers involved in the attack on the Liberty. The transcript gives a minute-by-minute account from the perspective of the Israeli forces - beginning just before the attack and continuing until the Israelis recognize the ship's identity and halt the action. The transcript of the tapes indicates that Israel did not know the ship was American when it attacked.
January 12-13, 2004: To coincide with the release of new documents, the State Department convened a panel to address the Liberty attack. While the panelists, representing both defenders and critics of Israel's intentions, failed to reach a consensus, the previously classified materials revealed no new evidence to cast in doubt the official U.S. position - that Israel did not know the Liberty was an American vessel when it attacked.
October 22, 2003: Capt. Ward Boston, a retired Navy lawyer, released a statement at a Washington, D.C., press conference that appeared to give Liberty conspiracy theorists a strong boost. Claiming that he felt the need to respond to the publication of Cristol's The Liberty Incident, Boston, counsel to the Court of Inquiry in the Navy's investigation into the case, said, "I am outraged at the efforts of the apologists for Israel in this country to claim that this attack was a case of 'mistaken identity.'" His remarks were included as part of an "independent investigation" into the bombing by Liberty Alliance, which convened the press conference and describes itself as "an organization dedicated to obtaining an honest investigation of Israel's attack on the USS Liberty and the official cover-up that followed." Boston also claimed that White House officials at the time - including Secretary of State John McNamara and President Lyndon Johnson - had ordered investigators to conclude "that the attack was a case of 'mistaken identity'" - i.e., that it had been unintentional.
Boston's credibility In the Navy investigation, Boston and Rear Admiral Isaac C. Kidd, who served as president of the Court of Inquiry, were the first to meet the ship's crew and conduct interviews. However, according to his own account, Boston's evidence of a cover-up derives not from his own part in the investigation but solely on alleged conversations with Admiral Kidd, who purportedly told him he was forced to find that the attack was unintentional.
Kidd died in 1999 and there is no way to verify Boston's allegations. However, Cristol argues that the "documentary record" strongly indicated that Kidd "supported the validity of the findings of the Court of Inquiry to his dying day." Responding to Boston, he added: "As a close friend of 'Ike' Kidd, I could also repeat statements made by 'Ike' to me, but those statements would be equally in violation of the dead man statute [in court, testimony about statements of deceased persons is inadmissible]." Cristol dedicated his book to Kidd. Most relevantly, Boston's new statement reveals nothing new about what actually happened during the attack on the Liberty on June 8, 1967.
October 10, 2003: Israeli Brig. Gen. (res.) Yiftah Spector (since retired), who participated in the Liberty attack, agreed to discuss it publicly for the first time. Spector was the first pilot to get to the ship; he identified it as a military vessel that was not Israeli but could not make a specific identification. "My assumption was that it was likely to open fire at me and nevertheless I slowed down and I looked and there was positively no flag. Just to make sure I photographed it," Spector told The Jerusalem Post (Oct. 10, 2003).
The photo is copied in Cristol's The Liberty Incident along with a minute-by-minute analysis of how Israeli forces who had eye contact with the Liberty, including Spector, made several mistakes in reading the markings on the ship and describing its features to command. "This ship was on an escape route from the El Arish area, which at that same moment had heavy smoke rising from it," Spector said.
Because Israel was by then in control of both ground and air venues, it was thought that the war vessel, which could be seen on the horizon from the shore of El Arish, was bombing the Israeli army - explaining the smoke nearby. According to Spector, a U.S. Senate Committee interviewed him twice shortly after the war.
(It may be noted that Spector was recently dismissed from the Israeli air force for signing a letter protesting the Israeli policy of targeted killing.)
July 16, 2003: Ward Boston told the Arab News 1 , an English-language Saudi publication, that after the naval court had reached its conclusions, Adm. Kidd told him: "We have to be quiet. We can't talk to the media," and that President Johnson "had ordered us to put a lid on it."
True or false, this allegation is far less stinging than Boston's October 2003 claims. His remarks do not necessarily suggest that the government acted deceptively, let alone that the president rigged the investigation. It is not clear why Boston later changed his account.
Boston also claimed that he and Adm. Kidd both thought the attack was deliberate and says that Kidd told him: "Those guys knew what they were doing when they killed innocent sunbathing kids. They tried to sink that ship." He went on to explain why he thought the U.S. government still covers up the attack:
Iraq, Vietnam, the Liberty - it's the same old story. When people are in power they don't want to upset people who may help them get re-elected. Maybe people didn't want the world to see that Israelis were slaughtering Egyptian prisoners of war. Maybe Johnson was afraid of upsetting potential voters.
I have strong patriotic feelings. I believe the CIA slogan, "The truth will out," and hate the Israeli Mossad's motto "Win by deception."
Official reports related to the Liberty incident (a sampling, selected from A. Jay Cristol's book The Liberty Incident - uncited statements in quotation marks are from the reports)
U.S. Navy Court of Inquiry, June 18, 1967
" Available evidence combines to indicate the attack on the Liberty on 8 June was in fact a case of mistaken identity."
CIA Report, June 13, 1967
The attack was a mistake. In 1978, in a response to an inquiry, Director of Central Intelligence Stansfield Turner wrote: "It remains our best judgment that the Israeli attack on the U.S.S. Liberty was not made in malice toward the United States and was a mistake."
Joint Chiefs of Staff, Russ Report, June 9-20, 1967 General Russ did not make any findings about the actual attack. The report compiled all message traffic and contains no evidence that the attack was not a mistake.
Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, Clifford Report, July 18, 1967
"The information thus far available does not reflect that the Israeli high command made a premeditated attack on a ship known to be American…. "
National Security Agency, 1981
"Liberty was mistaken for an Egyptian ship as a result of miscalculation and egregious errors."
Ram Ron Commission of Inquiry, June 16, 1967
"[T]he attack on the ship by the Israeli Defense Forces was made neither maliciously nor in gross negligence, but as a result of a bona fide mistake."
Arguing that Israel did not know the Liberty was an American ship
A. Jay Cristol, The Liberty Incident: The 1967 Israeli Attack on the U.S. Navy Spy Ship, 2002, Cristol's is the most extensive research of the attack on the Liberty; it includes not just research into the incident itself, but also a very effective analysis of the various conspiracy theories regarding the incident. The Web site is also updated with comments on Ward Boston's affidavit.
National Security Agency Web site: http://www.nsa.gov/docs/efoia/released/liberty.html
Michael B. Oren, "Unfriendly Fire: Why did Israeli troops attack the USS Liberty?" The New Republic, July 23, 2001.
Michael B. Oren, "The USS Liberty: Case Closed," Azure, Spring 5760/2000. http://www.azure.org.il/9-Oren.htm
Arguing that Israel did know the Liberty was an American ship
James Bamford, Body of Secrets; Anatomy of the Ultra-Secret National Security Agency, 2001.
James Ennes, Assault on the Liberty, 1976.
Rowland Evans and Robert Novak, "Remembering the Liberty," The Washington Post, November 6, 1991. (Much of the article is based on the testimony of Seth Mintz, who claims to have been inside the Israeli war room during the attack. Mintz responded to the Post in a November 9 letter in which he denies the quotes related to him. Many details about Mintz's story seem questionable.)
Paul Findley, They Dare Speak Out: People and Institutions Confront Israel's Lobby, 1985 (The book does not deal specifically with the Liberty incident, but it includes a discussion of the incident in which Findley mentions some of the conspiracy theories.)
Liberty News, newsletter of the USS Liberty Veterans Association. The association was formed following a reunion of Liberty survivors in 1982. In 2002, Philip Tourney, the group's president, spoke at a conference held by the Institute for Historical Review, a California-based organization dedicated to promoting Holocaust denial.
Major Web sites implicating Israel:
The USS Liberty Memorial Web Site
If Americans Knew
USS Liberty Court of Inquiry
1 The account in the Arab News also appeared in the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs; Boston's revelations were first published a year before in the Marine Corps Times.