USS Liberty

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On June 8, 1967, Israeli aircraft attacked the USS Liberty, which was operated by the U.S. Navy and the U.S. National Security Agency (NSA) while sailing in international waters off the Gaza Strip. The attack killed 34 sailors and injured 172 more. Press reports of the time repeated official claims the attack was an accident in which two missiles were inadvertently launched at a suspected Egyptian freighter during the Six Day War.

In a book about the incident, Assault on the Liberty (1979), Capt. James Ennes details a far different scenario. He says Israeli pilots surveilled the ship throughout the morning, sometimes flying close enough that the pilots waved at men on the ship's superstructure. Early that afternoon, Israeli aircraft began strafing the ship, firing rockets that penetrated its compartments, napalm on its decks, then torpedos that ripped through the haul, which was responsible for the bulk of the NSA and Naval intell fatalities below deck. In what Ennes described as a sustained attack, fighter jets launched two missiles into the ship's radio room, killing the radio operators. Ennes says Israeli boats fired at sailors who fled the burning ship in life rafts. Photographs of the ship reveal hundreds of bullet holes, extensive fire damage and a gaping hole in the side.

In Body of Secrets, 2002, author James Bamford (see also: Operation Northwoods) reports the ship was operated in alternate months by either the NSA or the Navy. Bamford says the ship was under Navy command the day of the attack. His account and others speculate that Israel silenced the ship to prevent the U.S. from intervening when Israel acted against U.S. advice and used the Six Day War as a pretext to seize the Golan Heights.

Though Israel apologized and paid reparations to survivors and to families of victims killed in the Liberty attack, Israeli leaders continue to maintain the attack was a case of mistaken identity. Supported by photographic evidence of large letters identifying the ship, and by a widely-recognized policy that the ship sailed under a U.S. flag, Ennes maintains pilots could not have been mistaken about who they were attacking.

News items

ASSOCIATED PRESS 10/22/03: (Toronto Star) WASHINGTON [1]

A former navy lawyer who helped lead the military investigation of the 1967 Israeli attack on the USS Liberty that killed 34 American servicemen says former president Lyndon Johnson and his defence secretary, Robert McNamara, ordered that the inquiry conclude the incident was an accident.
In a signed affidavit released at a Capitol Hill news conference, retired captain Ward Boston said Johnson and McNamara told those heading the navy's inquiry to "conclude that the attack was a case of 'mistaken identity' despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary."

By Nicholas M. Horrock, UPI Chief White House Correspondent, WASHINGTON, Oct. 22 (UPI) [2]

A private commission headed by a former chief of naval operations, retired Adm. Thomas H. Moorer, made public an affidavit by retired Capt. Ward Boston, formerly of the judge advocate general's office and one of two senior naval officials investigating the attack.
"The evidence was clear. Both Admiral (Isaac) Kidd and I believed with certainty that this attack, which killed 34 America sailors and injured 172 others, was a deliberate effort to sink an American ship and murder its entire crew. I am certain that the Israeli pilots that undertook the attack as well as their superiors who had ordered the attack, were aware the ship was American."
Though Boston had made these charges informally, this was the first time a sworn affidavit supported them. Boston said he had been a serving naval officer and followed orders keeping quiet about his knowledge for 36 years. "I am outraged at the efforts of apologists for Israel in this country to claim this attack was a case of 'mistaken identity,'" he wrote. "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, a retired Navy pilot and member of judge advocate's office, published a book in 2002 that found the attack was accidental.

Formerly classified internal NSA report concludes this attack was intentional and whitewashed after the fact.

Attack on the Uss Liberty, Edited form of NSA Report SRH-256. NSA Operations Officer and Analyst William D. Gerhard. Aegean Park Press; (April 1, 1996)

Outside resources