The USS Liberty Incident: History & Overview [Annotated]

[Editor’s Note: This is an article appearing in the Jewish Virtual Library and is being annotated to add pertinent information not included in the original article and to footnote relevant comments about items included in the article. The Elephant in the Room is asking, “Given the JVL claim that there were ‘ten U.S. investigations‘ of the attack, and given that your audience is largely American, why don’t you rely upon those ‘ten U.S. investigations‘ of the attack to describe the attack? Why your preference to rely primarily upon Israeli historians and military people who represent the participants who committed War Crimes with impunity during the attack?

[Why not include anything from USS Liberty survivors—your own countrymen?]

by Mitchell Bard

The Israeli attack on the USS Liberty was a grievous error, largely attributable to the fact that it occurred in the midst of the confusion of a full-scale war in 1967. Ten official United States investigations 1 and three official Israeli inquiries have all conclusively established the attack was a tragic mistake.

On June 8, 1967, the fourth day of the Six-Day War, the Israeli high command received reports that Israeli troops in El Arish were being fired upon from the sea, presumably by an Egyptian vessel, as they had a day before. The United States had announced that it had no naval forces within hundreds of miles of the battle front3 on the floor of the United Nations a few days earlier4; however, the USS Liberty, an American intelligence ship under the dual control of the Defense Intelligence Agency/Central Intelligence Agency and the Sixth Fleet5, was assigned to monitor the fighting. As a result of a series of United States communication failures, whereby messages directing the ship not to approach within 100 miles were not received by the Liberty, the ship sailed to within 14 miles off the Sinai coast. The Israelis mistakenly thought this was the ship shelling its soldiers and war planes and torpedo boats attacked, killing 34 members of the Liberty’s crew and wounding 171. Ships from the Sixth Fleet were directed to launch four attack aircraft with fighter cover to defend the Liberty, but the planes were recalled after a message was received at the White House that the Israelis had admitted they had attacked the ship.6

Numerous mistakes were made by both the United States and Israel. For example, the Liberty was first reported — incorrectly, as it turned out — to be cruising at 30 knots (it was later recalculated to be 28 knots). Under Israeli (and U.S.) naval doctrine at the time, a ship proceeding at that speed was presumed to be a warship. The sea was calm and the U.S. Navy Court of Inquiry found that the Liberty’s flag was very likely drooped and not discernible;7 moreover, members of the crew, including the Captain, Commander William McGonagle, testified that the flag was knocked down after the first or second assault.8

According to Israeli Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin’s memoirs, there were standing orders to attack any unidentified vessel near the shore. The day fighting began, Israel had asked that American ships be removed from its coast or that it be notified of the precise location of U.S. vessels.11 The Sixth Fleet was moved because President Johnson feared being drawn into a confrontation with the Soviet Union. He also ordered that no aircraft be sent near Sinai.

A CIA report on the incident issued June 13, 1967, also found that an overzealous pilot could mistake the Liberty for an Egyptian ship, the El Quseir. After the air raid, Israeli torpedo boats identified the Liberty as an Egyptian naval vessel.12 When the Liberty began shooting at the Israelis13, they responded with the torpedo attack, which killed 28 of the sailors14. In 1981, the National Security Agency noted that accounts by members of the Liberty crew and others did not have access to the relevant signal intelligence reports or the confidential explanation provided by Israel to the United States, which were used in the CIA investigation. The NSA concluded: “While these [signal intelligence of Israeli communications] reports revealed some confusion on the part of the pilots concerning the nationality of the ship, they tended to rule out any thesis that the Israeli Navy and Air Force deliberately attacked a ship they knew to be American.”15

The Joint Chiefs of Staff investigated the communications failure and noted that the Chief of Naval Operations expressed concern about the prudence of sending the Liberty so close to the area of hostilities and four messages were subsequently sent instructing the ship to move farther away from the area of hostilities. The JCS report said the messages were never received because of “a combination of (1) human error, (2) high volume of communications traffic, and (3) lack of appreciation of sense of urgency regarding the movement of the Liberty.” The report also included a copy of a flash cable sent immediately after the attack, which reported that Israel had “erroneously” attacked the Liberty, that IDF helicopters were in rescue operations, and that Israel had sent “abject apologies” and requested information on any other U.S. ships near the war zone16

Initially, the Israelis were terrified that they had attacked a Soviet ship and might have provoked the Soviets to join the fighting. Once the Israelis were sure what had happened, they reported the incident to the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv and offered to provide a helicopter for the Americans to fly out to the ship and any help they required to evacuate the injured and salvage the ship. The offer was accepted and a U.S. naval attaché was flown to the Liberty.

The Israelis were “obviously shocked” by the error they made in attacking the ship, according to the U.S. Ambassador in Tel Aviv. In fact, according to a secret report on the 1967 war, the immediate concern was that the Arabs might see the proximity of the Liberty to the conflict as evidence of U.S.-Israel collusion. A second secret report concluded, “While the attack showed a degree of impetuosity and recklessness, it was also clear that the presence of a U.S. naval vessel, unannounced, that close to belligerent shores at a time when we had made much of the fact that no U.S. military forces were moving near the area of hostilities was inviting disaster.”17

Many of the survivors of the Liberty remain bitter18, and are convinced the attack was deliberate as they make clear on their web site.9 In 1991, columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak trumpeted their discovery of an American who said he had been in the Israeli war room when the decision was made to knowingly attack the American ship.4 In fact, that individual, Seth Mintz, wrote a letter to the Washington Post on November 9, 1991, in which he said he was misquoted by Evans and Novak and that the attack, was, in fact, a “case of mistaken identity.” Moreover, the man who Mintz originally said had been with him, a Gen. Benni Matti, does not exist.

Also, contrary to claims that an Israeli pilot identified the ship as American on a radio tape, no one has ever produced this tape.19 In fact, the official Israeli Air Force tape clearly established that no such identification of the ship was made by the Israeli pilots prior to the attack. Tapes of the radio transmissions made prior, during and after the attack do not contain any statement suggesting the pilots saw a U.S. flag before the attack. During the attack, a pilot specifically says, “there is no flag on her!” The recordings also indicate that once the pilots became concerned about the identity of the ship, by virtue of reading its hull number, they terminated the attack and they were given an order to leave the area. A transcript of the radio transmissions indicates the entire incident, beginning with the spotting of a mysterious vessel off El Arish and ending with the chief air controller at general headquarters in Tel Aviv telling another controller the ship was “apparently American” took 24 minutes.5 Critics claimed the Israeli tape was doctored, but the National Security Agency of the United States released formerly top secret transcripts in July 2003 that confirmed the Israeli version.

A U.S. spy plane was sent to the area as soon as the NSA learned of the attack on the Liberty and recorded the conversations of two Israeli Air Force helicopter pilots, which took place between 2:30 and 3:37 p.m. on June 8. The orders radioed to the pilots by their supervisor at the Hatzor base instructing them to search for Egyptian survivors from the “Egyptian warship” that had just been bombed were also recorded by the NSA. “Pay attention. The ship is now identified as Egyptian,” the pilots were informed. Nine minutes later, Hatzor told the pilots the ship was believed to be an Egyptian cargo ship. At 3:07, the pilots were first told the ship might not be Egyptian and were instructed to search for survivors and inform the base immediately the nationality of the first person they rescued. It was not until 3:12 that one of the pilots reported that he saw an American flag flying over the ship at which point he was instructed to verify if it was indeed a U.S. vessel.

In October 2003, the first Israeli pilot to reach the ship broke his 36-year silence on the attack. Brig.-Gen. Yiftah Spector, a triple ace, who shot down 15 enemy aircraft and took part in the 1981 raid on the Iraqi nuclear reactor, said he had been told an Egyptian ship was off the Gaza coast. “This ship positively did not have any symbol or flag that I could see. What I was concerned with was that it was not one of ours. I looked for the symbol of our navy, which was a large white cross on its deck. This was not there, so it wasn’t one of ours.” The Jerusalem Post obtained a recording of Spector’s radio transmission in which he said, “I can’t identify it, but in any case it’s a military ship.”

Spector’s plane was not armed with bombs or, he said, he would have sunk the Liberty. Instead he fired 30mm armor piercing rounds that led the American survivors to believe they had been under rocket attack.20 His first pass ignited a fire, which caused the ship to billow black smoke that Spector thought was a ruse to conceal the ship. Spector acknowledged in the Post interview that he made a mistake, and said he admitted it when called to testify in an inquiry by a U.S. senator.21 “I’m sorry for the mistake,” he said. “Years later my mates dropped flowers on the site where the ship was attacked.”22

None of Israel’s accusers can explain why Israel would deliberately attack an American ship at a time when the United States was Israel’s only friend and supporter in the world.23 Confusion in a long line of communications, which occurred in a tense atmosphere on both the American and Israeli sides (five messages from the Joint Chiefs of Staff for the ship to remain at least 25 miles — the last four said 100 miles — off the Egyptian coast arrived after the attack was over) is a more probable explanation.24

Accidents caused by “friendly fire” are common in wartime. In 1988, the U.S. Navy mistakenly downed an Iranian passenger plane, killing 290 civilians. During the Gulf War, 35 of the 148 Americans who died in battle were killed by “friendly fire.” In April 1994, two U.S. Black Hawk helicopters with large U.S. flags painted on each side were shot down by U.S. Air Force F-15s on a clear day in the “no fly” zone of Iraq, killing 26 people. In April 2002, an American F-16 dropped a bomb that killed four Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan. In fact, the day before the Liberty was attacked, Israeli pilots accidentally bombed one of their own armored columns.25

Retired Admiral, Shlomo Erell, who was Chief of the Navy in Israel in June 1967, told the Associated Press (June 5, 1977): “No one would ever have dreamt that an American ship would be there. Even the United States didn’t know where its ship was. We were advised by the proper authorities that there was no American ship within 100 miles.”26

Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara told Congress on July 26, 1967: “It was the conclusion of the investigatory body, headed by an admiral of the Navy in whom we have great confidence, that the attack was not intentional.”

In 1987, McNamara repeated his belief that the attack was a mistake, telling a caller on the “Larry King Show” that he had seen nothing in the 20 years since to change his mind that there had been no “cover­up.”27

In January 2004, the State Department held a conference on the Liberty incident and also released new documents, including CIA memos dated June 13 and June 21, 1967, that say that Israel did not know it was striking an American vessel. The historian for the National Security Agency, David Hatch, said the available evidence “strongly suggested” Israel did not know it was attacking a U.S. ship. Two former U.S. officials, Ernest Castle, the United States Naval Attache at the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv in June 1967, who received the first report of the attack from Israel, and John Hadden, then CIA Chief of Station in Tel Aviv, also agreed with the assessment that the attack on the Liberty was a mistake.28

The new documents do not shed any light on the mystery of what the ship was doing in the area or why Israel was not informed about its presence. The evidence suggests the ship was not spying on Israel.

Israel apologized for the tragedy immediately and offered on June 9 to compensate the victims. Israel ultimately paid nearly $13 million in humanitarian reparations to the United States and to the families of the victims in amounts established by the U.S. State Department. The matter was officially closed between the two governments by an exchange of diplomatic notes on December 17, 1987.29

close

Keep Up to Date on Our Effort to Honor Our Fallen Shipmates and Ensure the US Government Finally Investigates the Attack on Our Ship

Footnotes
1 The Congressional Research Service researched the question, “Has the US government investigated the June 8, 1967, Israeli attack on the USS Liberty?" The Congressional Research Service concluded they could not find any evidence of a US government investigation of the attack.

Congressional Research Service Response

3 Mr. Bard implies the area had been declared to be a “War Zone” by one or more of the warring parties. In fact, no NOTMARS had been issued warning ships of the danger of sailing in the area.
4 The implication being that announcement removed the responsibility of positively identifying potential targets prior to beginning any attack. It did not. In fact, the Israeli military admitted they positively identified the USS Liberty as not displaying the correct Israeli markings.
5 Don’t know where the DIA and CIA came into the picture. We were under the NSA who told the Sixth Fleet where to position us.
6 There were two flights launched to come to our assistance. According to RADM Larry Geis, Commander, Carrier Division 4, who spoke to the White House after receiving the order to recall the first launch of rescue aircraft, LBJ recalled the aircraft because he “didn’t want to embarrass an ally.” It had nothing to do with any admission allegedly made by the Israeli government.
7 The ship’s weather log that was submitted to the Court of Inquiry shows the wind across the deck was more than enough to hold the flag out in a brisk wind.
8 In what history tells us was the lull between the air and torpedo boat attack Frank Brown and I noticed the flag had been shot down. We raised our largest flag (9 feet x 13 feet) on our Number 4 Port halyard. That flag can be clearly seen in photos taken after the attack.
9

If you look at the tactics used by the Israeli military during its attack you will come away with the conclusion that there WAS “malicious intent” in their attack.

  • Initiated by jamming our radios on both US Navy tactical and international maritime distress frequencies;
  • The attacking aircraft were unmarked;
  • The initial strafing runs by high-speed Mirage aircraft targeted our communication and defensive capabilities;
  • This was followed by slower Mystere aircraft who dropped napalm canisters to drive the crew below decks;
  • Followed by motor torpedo boats who fired five torpedoes at the ship. One struck the ship on our starboard side killing 25 crewmen;
  • Torpedo boats then circled the ship while firing from close range at crewmen trapped topside or stretcher bearers who ventured topside to help our wounded shipmates;
  • Torpedo boats then machine gunned serviceable life rafts we had dropped over the side in anticipation of abandoning ship. This act removed any chance anyone would survive the sinking of our ship; and,
  • This was followed by helos filled with assault troops that couldn’t find a place to disgorge its deadly cargo due to the antenna and halyards blowing wildly in the wind.
11 The State Department researched this claim and determined that no request for info on US ships in the area was made until after the attack.

12 The Israeli torpedo boats approached to literally a stone’s throw of the USS Liberty and identified the freshly painted US Navy ship displaying standard US Navy markings as a 40-year-old, black hulled, rusted-out Egyptian tramp steamer that bore no resemblance to the USS Liberty.

13 Dale Larkins fired a single bullet at the torpedo boats before his gun jammed. After a murderous 30+ minute air attack that single shot “removed all doubt” from the torpedo boat personnel that we were an enemy and continued the attack.
14 The torpedo boat attacked killed 25 on the USS Liberty not 28. But, when was Mr. Bard ever concerned with the truth about the attack?
15 They also never bothered to analyze the actions of the Israeli military in arriving at a determination that because of the contents of documents provided to them by the Israeli military, the attack was not deliberate. See Note 9.
16 The Israeli government never issued any Notice to Mariners declaring the area to be a "war zone."

Israeli Notice to Mariners

17 In other words, it was our fault we were attacked. I guess our presence put every 40-year-old, black-hulled, rusted-out Egyptian tramp steamer at risk of attack by the Israeli military.
18 Many have opined that our outrage is directed at the Israeli military for attacking us and for committing War Crimes during their attack. That is not where our outrage is directed. We are outraged that the US government has allowed an attack on a US Navy ship to be conducted with impunity and without remorse.
19 That conversation is described in a video of Air Force Captain Richard Block.
20

Those armor piercing rounds were used to take out our communications and defensive capabilities. Those Mirage aircraft were followed by slower Mystere aircraft which were armed with (and used) napalm bombs to drive the crew below decks to ensure everyone was trapped below deck when the torpedoes were used. Five torpedoes were fired with only one striking the ship. Had more than one found its mark, all USS Liberty personnel trapped below deck would have perished.

21 No US Senator every held an inquiry into the attack. The closest the attack came to Congressional scrutiny was when Senator Adlai Stevenson threatened the Israeli government with an investigation unless they came to terms on remuneration for the attack. Terms were agreed to, and the investigation was dropped
22

pul-EE-ze! In 2011 Larry Toenjes sailed his sailboat to the position of the attack and held a memorial service. Neither the US nor the Israeli governments accepted an invitation to attend the service. Now you’re telling us that the pilots of the attacking aircraft made a trip to the site of the attack to honor those fallen on the USS Liberty? And haven’t bothered to tell us? Riiiight!

23 We don't give a damn why the Israeli military attacked us. Our concern is that the US government has allowed an attack on a US Navy ship and included War Crimes to be committed with impunity and without remorse.
24 And that absolves the IDF from its duty to ensure the correct identification of the target they are about to attack? Especially given the fact that that identification is made literally from a stone's throw away?
25 What on earth does that have to do with the attack on the USS Liberty? Oh, I forgot. Those were investigated and those investigations determined them to be "friendly fire." You have declared the Israeli attack on the USS Liberty was "friendly fire" and we are suppose to believe you because you say so.
26 Again, this does not absolve the Israeli military from its duty to ensure the identification of the ship they are attacking.
27 If I were on a call between the White House and RADM Larry Geis ordering the Sixth Fleet to stand down and recall the rescue aircraft, I wouldn't remember anything about it either.
28

It is interesting that the State Department would hold a conference about the attack on our ship but not invite a single USS Liberty survivor to participate. As for an assessment about the attack, why not refer to the US government investigation of the attack? That would include evidence and testimony taken under oath. Sadly, that question is rhetorical since there is no such investigation.

29

Not unlike a proceeding in the civilian arena, the “closed book” referenced by Mr. Bard only refers to the civil or monetary side of the equation. Not yet resolved is the criminal side. Issues not yet addressed let alone resolved are the War Crimes committed by both the Israeli and US military during the attack, to wit:

  • The use of unmarked aircraft;
  • The jamming of our radios on both US Navy tactical and international maritime distress frequencies;
  • The slow circling of our ship by Israeli motor torpedo boats as their personnel fired from very close range at USS Liberty crewmen trapped topside and stretcher bearers who ventured topside to help our wounded shipmates;
  • The deliberate machine gunning of life rafts we had dropped over the side in anticipation of abandoning ship. That act removed any chance anyone would survive the sinking of our ship; and,
  • The refusal of the attacking forces to offer aid immediately upon cessation of hostilities.

Most egregious in our minds is the White House ordering the rescue aircraft recalled while we were still under attack and calling for help and the decision of the Sixth Fleet to obey that order. That order is a direct violation of Article 99 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice and carries the possibility of a death sentence upon conviction.

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