The USS Liberty Attack
Posted: December 16, 2003
Updated: October 6, 2008
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.
- September 25-28, 2008: Three USS Liberty Veterans Association members, including Ernie Gallo, the association’s president, embarked on a speaking tour in Connecticut and New York, making several stops at public libraries and churches. At one event in Suffern, New York, Gallo argued that the USS Liberty incident “was a microcosm of what happened in June 1967. Something diabolical changed at that time." The organizer of the Suffern presentation, Rich Siegel, is affiliated with the group We Hold These Truths (WHTT).
- September 27, 2008: Philip Tourney, a former USS Liberty Veteran Association president, and Mark Glenn, a contributor to the American Free Press, an anti-Semitic, conspiracy-oriented publication, discussed the Liberty veterans’ tour of Connecticut and New York on their weekly radio show, “Liberty Hour.” The show, which started broadcasting in February 2008 and is dedicated to discussing the USS Liberty incident, is carried on the Republic Broadcasting Network, a conspiracy-oriented Internet radio station. During the broadcast, Glenn denounced the Jewish community for “whining about the Holocaust that went on 60 years ago” while suppressing the truth about what happened to the Liberty, as well as about “inaccuracies of the Holocaust story or the anomalies that took place on 9-11, particularly all of the Israeli spies.” He further claimed, and Tourney concurred, that the Liberty incident was “directly related” to “the price of gas, terrorism, 9-11, the cost of food” and the government plan to bailout troubled banks.
- November 3-5, 2007: The USS Liberty Blog was launched, apparently by Mark Glenn’s Crescent and the Cross. The Blog features many anti-Semitic articles, as well as announcements related to activities by members of the USS Liberty Veterans Association and supporters. Its first postings were of two articles by Eileen Fleming, an anti-Israel activist, and a radio interview with Tourney. In her article, Fleming called for a “second American revolution” to free the U.S. from Israel’s hold, which, she argued, was most evident in the Liberty incident and subsequent cover-up. (The month before Fleming and Tourney spoke at an anti-Semitic conference at Irvine, California called No More Wars for Israel, which was organized by Glenn. See below for more details.) Later Blog postings included an article by Tourney (posted on July 2008), in which he argued that U.S. support for Israel is putting America on the path to destruction, claiming that American politicians have put the “right to exist” of “the Jewish state” before any U.S. interest and stating: “No more wars for Israel. No more money, no more nothing.” Tourney further used classic anti-Semitic stereotypes to describe Israel, portraying it as a parasite that consumes the body of its host—the United States. He talked of Israelis as rich and evil, describing “their black hearts” and “vacant souls.” He even blamed the American economic slowdown and foreclosure crisis on American support for Israel, in an apparent attempt to turn popular discontent to hate toward Israel.
- October 2007: Phillip Tourney spoke at a conference in Irvine, California, called No More Wars for Israel that was organized by Hesham Tillawi and Mark Glenn and featured several anti-Semitic speakers including Willis Carto, Michael Collins Piper and Kaukab Siddique. Following the two-day event, organizers posted online a videotaped message from Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, supposedly recorded specially for the conference, in which he condemned Zionism as a racist movement and a danger to world peace. The conference was praised on David Duke’s Web site for its contribution to the fight “against world Zionism and Jewish supremacism.”
- October 2, 2007: The Chicago Tribune published an extensive special report on the USS Liberty by senior correspondent John Crewdson. While the report claimed to include “new revelations” and “documents” that challenge the official U.S. position about the incident, no substantive new information or “documents” were included. The report, which was misleading in its description of the circumstances of the incident, included several testimonies that were not new; most were based on an interpretive recollection of the events, including some that had already been debunked or proven unreliable. For example, the Tribune relied on Andrew Kilgore as a source for what former American ambassador to Lebanon Dwight Porter allegedly said about the incident, not mentioning that Kilgore has a long history of anti-Israel activity. The article also cited an unnamed CIA officer who allegedly quoted a “Libyan naval captain who was listening that day,” as further proof that the attack was not done in error.
- April 2007: The Liberty News, newsletter of the USS Liberty Veterans Association, included several articles that attack Israel as illegitimate and Zionism as racism. One article by James Abourezk, former US Senator and founder of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee—a critique of a book by Ilan Pappe—claimed that in 1948, the Palestinians were victims of a meticulously prepared “ethnic cleansing” carried out by the Zionist movement since the majority of them “wanted no part in the violence being introduced into their homeland by the Jewish military.” Abourezk also wrote that the Holocaust “became a bonanza for the Zionist movement” and claimed that the vote in the UN in favor of establishing a Jewish state was an “injustice” and, from a legal perspective, should not be seen as binding. Abourezk quoted a Jewish friend, whose name he withheld: “Israel has nothing to do with Judaism, but it has everything to do with fascism.”
Other articles in the issue included one recommending Jimmy Carter’s book, Palestine Peace Not Apartheid, and another by a representative from the Council for the National Interest that called on the U.S. to engage with Hamas and claimed that “the Israel Lobby” controls Congress. The newsletter also included a second article by Abourezk, in which he praised the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Asad and claimed that “the Israeli Lobby” has blocked a recent legislation in Congress because it could have become an obstacle to a war against Iran.
- September 2, 2006: Tito Howard, USS Liberty survivor and producer of a USS Liberty Veterans Association’s film about the attack, Loss of Liberty, spoke at a conference of the American Free Press and Barnes Review—both newspapers that advance the views of Holocaust deniers, anti-Semites and white supremacists. The conference was attended by many of the leading Holocaust deniers and anti-Semites in the country.
- January 30, 2006: The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee sent e-mails to supporters asking that they “contact Congress and the Pentagon” to “support [the] request for war crimes report on the attack on the USS Liberty.”
- June 8, 2005: The USS Liberty Veterans Association handed a report on “war crimes committed against U.S. military personnel, June 8, 1967” to the Secretary of the Army. According to the Association, it submitted the report based on a Department of Defense Directive issued in March of the previous year which included some language about investigating war crimes. The 35-page report, which is posted to the Association’s Web site, did not include any new information about the USS Liberty incident, and there were significant omissions in its description of the events. It accused Israel of “war crimes” and claimed that Israel was waging a campaign to vilify the ship’s survivors as “neo-Nazis.” It concluded with the following statement: “The only conceivable reason for this failure [to investigate the attack] is the political decision to put the interests of Israel ahead of those of American servicemen, employees, and veterans.”
- 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.
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)
- 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."
- U.S. 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."
- Israeli Report
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
Arguing that Israel did 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:
- 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.
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.
- 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