‘But Sir, It’s an American Ship.’ ‘Never Mind, Hit Her!’ When Israel Attacked USS Liberty [Annotated]

‘The Americans have findings that show our pilots were aware the ship was American,’ a newly published document by the State Archives says

by Ofer Aderet in Ha’aretz Jul 11, 2017 5:51 PM1

Amid the jubilee celebrations for the Six-Day War, the tragic story of the American spy ship USS Liberty – which was bombed by an Israeli fighter jet and torpedo boats on June 8, 1967 in the eastern Mediterranean – was somewhat overlooked. Thirty-four American sailors were killed in the Israeli attack and many others were wounded.

The technical research ship USS Liberty arrives at Valletta, Malta, having been attacked by Israeli aircraft and torpedo vessels in the Mediterranean, 8th June 1967. Credit: Getty Images

The Makings of History / Myth vs. plot

Turning a blind eye

Israeli communications said to prove IAF knew Liberty was U.S. ship

Israel apologized2 and paid compensation to the victims’ families.3 Israeli and American commissions of inquiry found that the attack was a mistake.4 But naturally, as often happens in such events, to this day there are some who believe Israel attacked the ship with malicious intent.5

A conspiracy? Healthy suspicion? Call it what you will. A new book published in May in the United States (its authors include several survivors of the attack) promises that “the truth is being told as never before and the real story revealed.” The 302 pages of “Remember the Liberty!: Almost Sunk by Treason on the High Seas”6 include quite a number of documents, testimonies, arguments and information that were gathered in the subsequent 50 years.

Historian and Kulanu MK Michael Oren: “Attempts to explain why Israel was interested in attacking the Liberty have failed thus far.”7 Credit: Ofer Vaknin

The authors’ bottom line is that then-U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson was behind the attack, in an attempt to blame then-Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser – an excuse that would then enable the United States to join the Six-Day War.

The book includes, among other things, a CIA document from November 1967 that is still partially censored. In the document, which is also on the official CIA website, an anonymous source is quoted as saying: “They said that [then-Israeli Defense Minister Moshe] Dayan personally ordered the attack on the ship, and that one of his generals adamantly opposed the action and said, ‘This is pure murder.’” There is no dispute about the authenticity of the document, but clearly not every sentence written in an intelligence document is the unvarnished truth.

On the other hand, the new book quotes a story reported by former U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon Dwight Porter, who recounted a conversation between an Israeli pilot and the Israel Air Force war room, which was allegedly picked up by an NSA aircraft and inadvertently cabled to CIA offices around the world:

The CIA document. Still partly censored, 50 years on. Credit: CIA

Israeli pilot to IDF war room: This is an American ship. Do you still want us to attack?

IDF war room to Israeli pilot: Yes, follow orders.

Israeli pilot to IDF war room: But sir, it’s an American ship – I can see the flag!

IDF war room to Israeli pilot: Never mind; hit it.

Both the CIA document and the quote have already been published in the past. The book revives them as part of its attempt to prove its thesis.8

Historian (and current Kulanu lawmaker) Dr. Michael Oren, who researched the affair in depth, rejects out of hand attempts to claim Israel attacked the USS Liberty deliberately.

Haaretz asked Oren last week if he has any doubts about his assertion that Israel didn’t deliberately attack the spy ship.

“There is no doubt,” he says. “Not even the smallest percentage. I’ve taken part in wars. I know what ‘friendly fire’ is. There’s a lot of chaos. It was a classic screw up.

A classic screw up, especially in wartime, has more than one reason. It’s a sequence, a chain of screw ups.”

Oren adds: “I’m a historian. I have to stick with the facts.9 I can’t get into conspiracies and theories. A historian must proceed on the basis of the data before him. Today, almost all the papers have been publicized, including the texts of the recordings of the U.S. spy plane and spy submarine.10

“Attempts to explain why Israel was interested in attacking the Liberty have failed thus far,” he continues. “They’re trying to answer the question ‘Why?’ and they’re having difficulty. It began with the claim that the Liberty discovered the Israel Defense Forces’ intentions or preparations to occupy the Golan Heights. And then they said it had homed in on some preparations in Dimona [the site of Israel’s nuclear reactor]. And finally, that it had listened in on the slaughter of Egyptian prisoners of war – I don’t know how slaughter sounds on the communications network. All kinds of bizarre theories.

“If we start with the assumption that the attack was deliberate and planned in advance, the question is why. And nobody answers this question. The answer is that it wasn’t planned.

“What continues to fuel these conspiracy theories?” Oren asks. “The subject is revived every few years. It is part of a ‘theory’ that Israel, together with Russia and China, spies on the United States. As Israel’s ambassador to the United States I saw this undercurrent, which is also sometimes anti-Semitic.”

No smoking gun

In response to a recent request by historian Adam Raz (“The Battle Over the Bomb,” 2015, Hebrew), the Israel State Archives posted hundreds of documents on its website related to the USS Liberty affair.

Raz perused the material and pulled out several fascinating documents that are likely to add more questions to those already in existence – or, if you will, provide some convincing material for conspiracy theorists.

Raz, who wrote a fascinating article about Israel’s nuclear secrets in last week’s Hebrew Haaretz supplement, doesn’t like the C-word: “conspiracy.” He stresses that, as a historian, he finds the word unacceptable. “Was the so-called ‘rotten business’ [a failed Israeli sabotage operation in Egypt in 1954] also a conspiracy? So what’s a conspiracy?” he wonders.

He believes the documents arouse enough questions to ensure historians won’t be filing the affair away in the archives. He’s fully aware of the fact that the “smoking gun” won’t be found in the papers in the State Archives, because if Israel really had intended to hit the ship, that would have been known only to a handful of people. But he refuses to accept the assertion that the claims Israel hit the ship deliberately are a conspiracy.

One of the documents Raz found among the hundreds of papers published by the State Archives is the Israeli Foreign Ministry correspondence that was sent from New York to Jerusalem.

“Menashe informed us we had better be very careful. He doesn’t have complete information but he knows that Issaschar is very angry about our letter. The reason is apparently that the Americans have findings that show our pilots were in fact aware the ship was American,” according to the document.

And later: “Menashe believes there is a recording on the ship of the conversations between the ship and our pilots, in which the ship’s crew said the ship is American. Menashe says that, in his opinion, our only chance of getting out of the crisis is to punish someone for negligence.”

In another document, which is also now posted online by the State Archives, the Israeli Embassy in Washington writes to the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem under the heading “Urgent.”

“We must change the abovementioned letter, because we certainly won’t be able to say there is no basis for the accusation that the identity of the ship was determined by Israeli planes prior to the attack,” it declares.

In other documents, which are fascinating in themselves, there is documentation of Israeli preparations for the U.S. investigation and the demands for compensation that were to follow.

“The issue has turned into a malignant wound, which involves serious dangers for all of our relationships on all levels here, whose friendship was ours until now and which are crucial to our status in the United States. In other words, the president, the Pentagon, public opinion and the intelligence community. Do you realize that the president is also the supreme commander of the U.S. armed forces?” wonders the Israeli Embassy in Washington, in a telegram to the Foreign Ministry.

“In the grave situation that has been created, the only way to soften the result is for us to be able to announce to the U.S. government already today that we intend to prosecute people for this disaster. We have to publicize that in Israel already tonight,” according to a Foreign Ministry letter. “This activity is the only way to create the impression, both to the U.S. government and the public here, that the attack on the ship was not the result of malicious intent by the Israeli government – I repeat, the Israeli government – or authorized groups in the IDF. For obvious reasons, it is crucial that our announcement about prosecuting those who are to blame be publicized before – I repeat, before – the publication of the American report here.”

The papers also contain several “amusing” anecdotes, such as the description of a U.S. Independence Day party that was held at the U.S. Embassy in Israel after the disaster.

“I was presented to the commander of the USS Liberty, which is here for repairs. He spoke freely about what happened and expressed his full confidence that it was a tragic mistake,” according to one of the Foreign Ministry documents. “When asked in my presence, how long the ship’s trip to the United States would take, he replied with a smile, ‘About two weeks – unless we encounter Israeli planes again.’”11

Much ink has been spilled in the past 50 years about the Liberty. In 2015, Amir Oren wrote a fascinating Haaretz Hebrew article that tried to eliminate all the conspiracy theories. “Senior American officials bequeathed a large number of incriminating quotes, but the plain and consensual truth is that a series of mistakes and screw ups caused the IDF to land a lethal blow against a vessel belonging to Israel’s most important ally,” he wrote.

Tom Segev, in an equally interesting 2012 article, also came out against the various theories. “None of the four people who could have ordered an attack on an American ship – Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, Mossad chief Meir Amit, Defense Minister Moshe Dayan and Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin – was daring and crazy to that extent,” he wrote.

However, he concludes with a slight note of doubt: “Over the years, various pieces of evidence have emerged that seem to support Israel’s claim that the ship was fired on by mistake.12 However, a number of questions still hover over the affair, and these nourish the conspiracy theories.”

1 In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, any copyrighted work is archived here under fair use law for educational and research purposes in accordance with our nonprofit educational mission. The opinions rendered are the authors’ and not necessarily those of this website.
2 Israel apologized for what they have alternatively claimed to be a “mistake,” a case of “mistaken identity,” or a deliberate attack on a ship not displaying the correct Israeli markings. Had there been an investigation of the attack there wouldn’t be so much confusion about why they attacked.
3 Israel paid compensation only after a threat by Senator Adlai Stevenson to investigate the attack. Israel paid and Senator Stevenson withdrew his threat.
4 There were a number of investigations conducted by various US government agencies but none of those investigations were of the attack. As a result of a request from this author, the Congressional Research Service responded to the question, “Has the US government investigated the attack on the USS Liberty?” The Congressional Research Service could find no such investigation. https://bit.ly/3Hvttf6
5 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.
6 https://www.amazon.com/Remember-Liberty-Almost-Sunk-Treason-ebook/dp/B07281WLWL https://www.amazon.com/Remember-Liberty-Almost-Sunk-Treason-ebook/dp/B07281WLWL
7 The inability to present a logical reason for the attack is a red herring used to divert the discussion away from the well documented facts about how the attack was conducted. Some have argued that a reason for the attack must be determined before any investigation of the attack is initiated.
8 This is what authors writing about historical events do as a matter of course. Mr. Adaret suggests that doing so in this case is improper and part of a nefarious agenda.
9 Then why don’t you? You base your opinion on what supports your predetermined theory and ignore the rest. Try talking to USS Liberty survivors. Listen to the people who saw the unmarked aircraft; who heard the jamming of our radios on both US Navy tactical and international maritime distress frequencies; who were trapped topside as Israeli motor torpedo boats slowly circled our ship while firing from close range at anything that moved; who witnessed the helo-borne assault troops hover very close to the port wing of our bridge; who witnessed the deliberate machine gunning of serviceable life rafts that had been dropped over the side in anticipation of abandoning ship (which removed any chance anyone would survive the sinking of our ship. How many times have you broken your arm patting yourself on your back while telling the people how complete your research into the attack on our ship was? But it wasn’t. You know it. And so do we.
10 Israel partisans routinely mis-characterize the content of the NSA tapes by ignoring the NSA description of the conversations and claim that those intercepts prove the attack was the error in misidentification the IDF claims. They don’t. Israel partisans would have you believe the NSA intercept officers turned their tape recorders on just in time to record the conversation and then immediately turned them off. The first recording (104) is 15 minutes. The second recording (105) is 32 minutes. The third recording (106) is 4 minutes. That’s it! Why doesn’t the NSA release the rest of their intercepts?
11 Are we supposed to ignore the fact that they repaired the USS Liberty in a drydock in Malta–not Israel? And that we were back in CONUS long before July 4, 1968? I can understand the need for levity but I wish Mr. Raz would have given us a head’s up that he was going to refer to a document in Israel State Archives that is so outrageous and so easily fact-checked by talking to us. Did I say “by talking to us?” I realize it reeks of heresy among Israeli Historian circles, but I suggest that in order to write a history of the attack on the USS Liberty you should spend some time interviewing USS Liberty survivors.
12 They must be powerful pieces of evidence, indeed, to overcome the facts of how the Israeli military prosecuted their attack that clearly show the attack was deliberate and with the intention of ensuring no one survives the sinking the USS Liberty. If he is so confident that his “powerful pieces of evidence” absolve the Israeli military of any wrongdoing why doesn’t Mr. Segev support our effort to ensure the attack is investigated by the US government? Does he think his duty to the truth about the attack on our ship ends with the mention of this mysterious evidence? He is, after all, a historian.