The U.S.S. Liberty and the culture of impunity

Israel/PalestineUS Politics
on 31 Comments

The attack on the USS Liberty is one of the great enigmas of US-Israel relations. On June 8, 1967, in the middle of the Six-Day War, Israeli planes attacked an American spy ship, the Liberty, that was in international waters off the coast of Egypt, listening in on secret communications. The attacks appeared to be deliberate, involving numerous passes on a clearly-marked American boat, strafing and napalming. The attack killed 34 Americans and produced very little by way of investigation. It was deemed an accident from the start, although many American officials doubted this conclusion.

The following quotes are from the book, The Attack on the Liberty: The Untold Story of Israel’s Deadly Assault on a U.S. Spy Ship (2009, Simon & Schuster), by James Scott, a longtime journalist living in South Carolina, whose father was an officer on the Liberty.

[With the Liberty] the United States had the capability to intercept and decipher VHF and UHF radio frequencies, common frequencies used for government and military communications…

In the case of the Liberty, the White House, afraid of offending Israel’s domestic backers at a time when it needed support for its Vietnam policy, looked the other way….

Hints of disbelief did emerge, often from small newspapers outside the Beltway. Many puzzled over how Israel’s exceptional military could make such a blunder…

[T]he overall lack of criticism of Israel baffled some senior government leaders. The dogged press corps consistently challenged the administration on its Vietnam policy and ambitious social programs. In the case of the Liberty, the press aimed most of its critical questions at the American government. Israel in contrast enjoyed a reprieve. Reporters soon adopted the phrase ‘accidental attack,’ a description that frustrated Pentagon officials, who felt it minimized the ferocity of the sustained assault that had killed or injured two out of every three men on board…

"We were quite convinced the Israelis knew what they were doing," [Thomas Hughes, director of the State Department’s Intelligence office] later said. "It was hard to come to any other conclusion." Other senior staffers agreed, believing that Israel did not want the United States reading its wartime message traffic….

Despite Jerusalem’s close ties with Washington, many State Department officials–and others in the intelligence community–believed the Jewish state’s survival instinct was so strong that, if necessary, Israel would attack a close ally in the interest of self-preservation…. [According to William Wolle, former State Department:] "The feeling of those of us at the working level in NEA [State Department Bureau of Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs] was that the Israelis had deliberately done this so that we couldn’t read all of their communications, etc. We are their ally but they are not going to trust us when it comes to a wartime situation in terms of what information might get out, what we might pass along to someone. We all felt it was no accident."…

Soon after the Liberty attack, [National Security Agency director Lieutenant General Marshall] Carter appeared before a subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee to discuss the Liberty. [Deputy Secretary of Defense] Cyrus Vance joined him… "Cy Vance just told me to keep my mouth shut," [Gerard] Burke [Carter’s chief of staff] recalled his boss telling him…. "There was absolutely no question in anybody’s mind that the Israelis had done it deliberately," Burke said. "I was angrier because of the cover-up… The only mystery to me was why was the thing being covered up."…

Some of President Johnson’s advisers later regretted the handling of the attack. "We failed to let it all come out publicly at the time," said Lucius Battle, the assistant secretary of state for near eastern and south Asian affairs. "We really ignored it for all practical purposes, and we shouldn’t have." George Ball, the former undersecretary of state prior to [Nicholas] Katzenbach, wrote that the Liberty ultimately had a greater effect on policy in Israel than in the United States. "Israel’s leaders concluded that nothing they migth do would offend Americans to the point of reprisal," Ball wrote. "If America’s leaders did not have the courage to punish Israel for the blatant murder of American citizens, it seemed clear that their American friends would let them get away with anything."

31 Responses

  1. radii
    May 31, 2010, 11:13 pm

    other than USSR the largest, most aggressive and longest-lasting spy operation against the United States is by israel … they have never been our friend nor our ally … we are a useful tool for them and they will fight dirtier than anybody else to maintain leverage over us … the USS Liberty attack is a sad and pathetic example of this acquiescence on our part and it must stop at some point – now seems as good a time as any

  2. Susie Kneedler
    May 31, 2010, 11:16 pm

    Joe Meadors–a survivor of the Israeli attempt to sink the USS Liberty and kill all its crew (witnesses)–was aboard the Free Gaza Flotilla, as one of many humanitarians sailing to liberate Gaza from Israel’s deadly siege. That blockade, we must remember, is an act of war and is illegal under International Law.

  3. Avi
    May 31, 2010, 11:16 pm

    Less than 3 days after the attacks of 9/11, Bush Jr. was giving his usual morning propaganda speech to the gullible reporters. As he finished, he said, “Now watch this drive” and with a smile on his face swung the club and sent that golf ball flying.

    Why am I posting this?

    Because, when it comes to the value of human life, especially American lives, this country’s leadership seems to not give a rat’s ass, be it the lives of sailors or civilian citizens. Of course, Biden and Obama didn’t hesitate to make the obligatory Memorial Day “We regret the loss of life” speech.

    Who the heck is running this country? Who’s at the helm?

    • Dan Kelly
      June 1, 2010, 12:29 am

      Evil, evil people Avi.

    • wondering jew
      June 1, 2010, 1:09 am

      That’s bullshit. The “now watch this drive” occasion did occur, but it did not occur three days after 9/11.

      • Chaos4700
        June 1, 2010, 1:15 am

        Well, I suppose if you’re willing to apologize for the wholesale slaughter of civilians by military force for the crime of being non-Jewish, I suppose apologizing for Dubya is softball.

      • wondering jew
        June 1, 2010, 1:40 am

        Chaos- Remind me never to hire you as my spokesman. You totally misrepresent what I say.

      • Avi
        June 1, 2010, 5:45 am

        The passive-aggressive small-minded wondering chew strikes again. And just like Israel, he’s flailing and overreacting over a trivial issue. Blasphemy….I tells ya.

        Hey chew, grow up.

      • Avi
        June 1, 2010, 5:52 am

        And just to clarify so that the wondering one doesn’t twist my words, the triviality of the issue is the date of the quote. Reminding you of the Israeli attack on the USS Liberty must have hit a nerve, chewy.

  4. Susie Kneedler
    May 31, 2010, 11:23 pm

    Scott’s book also reveals that Israel aimed, in deliberately destroying a defenseless spy vessel, to cover up its aggression in starting–not defending itself against attack–the 1967 war. That pretense of self-defense has enabled Israel to pillage Occupied Palestine and torment its rightful inhabitants for 43 years.

    The betrayed dead and wounded from the USS Liberty give us all the more reason to ask that Pres. Obama uphold values of decency and International Law for all: Palestinians, humanitarians around the world, and U. S. citizens.

    • Walid
      June 1, 2010, 12:06 am

      Add to Israel’s growing list of duplicitous acts, the Entebbe myth that was discussed elsewhere here by Rachel and Droog. British diplomat D.H. Colvin wrote in his report on June 30th, 3 days after the highjacking and before the Israel bogus rescue, “The operation was designed to torpedo the PLO’s standing in France and to prevent what they see as a growing rapprochement between the PLO and the Americans ” and that the hijack was the work of the PFLP, with help from the Israeli Secret Service, the Shin Beit.

      Long before that, there was the Lavon Affair in which Israel had planted bombs in American and British facilities, including a USIA library and a British-owned movie theater to pin the blame on the Muslim Brotherhood and show the Americans that the Egyptians were unreliable allies.

      In light of all these, it makes one wanting to have another look into 911 not such a preposterous idea; is there anything about Israel that isn’t phony?

      • yonira
        June 1, 2010, 12:06 am

        So entebbe never happened? I don’t get what your argument is.

      • Walid
        June 1, 2010, 12:13 am

        Yonira, nobody said Entebbe never happened. Read what is written about Israeli duplicity in this and other operations aimed at sabotaging its allies. It’s bad enough that Israel spies on America to steal its military and industrial secrets but to go as far as killing its people or doing things that get them killed as Petraeus said while it is cashing its cheques is downright obscene.

      • GodsChosen
        June 1, 2010, 12:36 am

        is there anything about Israel that isn’t phony?


        If so, no one has been able to identify it at this late date.

  5. demize
    May 31, 2010, 11:49 pm

    Happy goddamn Memorial day Americans, our leaders are scum. Venal scum.

  6. Jeffrey Blankfort
    May 31, 2010, 11:51 pm

    The attack on the Liberty and the willingness of the Johnson and subsequent administrations made it the defining act in the US-Israel relationship. Israel received the message that the lives of Americans in or out of uniform meant nothing when compared with our relationship to the Jewish state. In short we gave it the license to kill and it has never stopped. Now like a sick animal that is a danger to everything around it, it has to be put away.

    The other culprit in is this affair is what passes for the Palestine solidarity movement which has deliberately avoiding raising the issue of the Liberty though given many opportunities to do so. Whether this has been because the movement has been viscerally opposed to the US military in any form or that it has been halted from doing so by the crypto-zionists that have infiltrated the movement may be a matter for the debate but that they have ignored it is not. That is just one of the reasons that the movement has never connected with the American people; it has simply never tried.

    • Avi
      June 1, 2010, 12:25 am

      But, Jeffrey, what is there to connect? I mean, is ISM supposed to – for strategic reasons – reach out to the American public by speaking out against a superpower that which has ignored the deaths of its own servicemen at the hands of a foreign nation?

      If the American public itself is completely clueless about the USS Liberty, then why is it ISM’s fault?

      Who, outside of retired military circles in the US, is familiar with the USS Liberty incident?

      I honestly don’t see why you’re faulting ISM where there is no fault to be laid?

      The more I think about it throughout my comment now, the more flabbergasted I get.

      Perhaps I’m missing something, but Iranians held a vigil in the wake of 9/11 for the fallen victims. And what was their reward? The US is now laying sanctions on Iran. Meanwhile, Netanyahu who said that 9/11 was good for Israel, is being shielded from criticism by the White House.

      • Avi
        June 1, 2010, 12:26 am


        Meanwhile, Netanyahu, who said that 9/11 was good for Israel, is being shielded from criticism by the White House in light of Israel’s attack on the flotilla.

      • Walid
        June 1, 2010, 12:31 am

        America should get off the pot and release Pollard. Israel got away and continues getting away with anything and everything in the US but America hold on to Pollard for some show or other; it may as well release him and stop the charade.

    • MRW
      June 1, 2010, 12:31 am

      I agree with you, Jeffrey. I wrote the following to rachel at the end of another thread passing into oblivion because she woke up at 12:30 PM today and was distressed by what Israel had done. I doubt she read my post; it was too late in the day. I will republish it here, because today is a marker day. Today is the day that Israel and its freier shit broke with what they perceived as dominion over the USA. What a miscalculation. it’s addressed to rachel. [I have been getting emails from the Christian (which I’m not) religious groups I signed up with to monitor this stuff. Under the radar and tied to the military.]


      “will signal Israeli weakness?”

      The hawks dont get what they did today. Just dont get it.

      I dont know if it’s a national holiday in Canada, but today is Memorial Day, like Nov 11 in Canada. Everyone is home. Everyone is watching TV. It’s barbecues and flag-waving for the military. And the vets remember the USS Liberty that Israel bombed.

      Israel could not have picked a worse day of the year to do this. It has now sunk into the American consciousness that Israel is a dangerous, volatile piece of business with no moral standing and a vile soul. It doesn’t matter whether the occupied country is Gaza or Greenland. Israel completely miscalculated what it did.

      Why? Because there’s one thing you dont do in America, p.h.u.c.k.i.n.g period, not ever. You dont kill aid workers. You dont slaughter Salvation Army people. You dont kill Red Cross personnel, we invented the Red Cross. You dont persecute Peace Corps volunteers.

      Nobody in this country cares what the political issue is, but if they hear some country has done these things, they get an instant hate on, and all the profoundly illogical horseshit about what their soldiers were subjected to, which doesn’t have an ounce of logic to it, doesn’t count for anything. There is no excuse. You dont kill nuns. You dont kill aid workers.

      Israel is now a terrorist country, a North Korea, to Joe Six-Pack, and this will be coming up in their churches, all the non_Christian Zionist, down homey ones. It’s like Israel went to Boy’s Town and slaughtered all the counselors.

      And they are so stupid in Israel they dont understand what they just did.

      • GodsChosen
        June 1, 2010, 12:42 am

        They understand exactly what they did. They deliberated over the details, just as the massacre of the Palestinian police cadets was deliberate. “They are dead because we wanted them dead.” That was their statement.

        Israel is an extreme version of scientology. It’s a cult. Anything that gets in their way is fair game for destruction. The only legitimate aid workers are people who aid israel in some way. The rest are untermenschen, a word they acquired from the Nazis and which they apply to all non-Israelis.

        We are either going to wipe them out or they are going to wipe us out. That’s the gist of it.

      • Colin Murray
        June 1, 2010, 3:44 am

        @ GodsChosen June 1, 2010 at 12:42 am

        Your last paragraph is completely inappropriate. I notice you mix these outrageous calls for violence, in this case an implicit call for genocide, with an occasional rational comment.

        Guys, this joker is a hasbarist plant. Read his comment again and think about. Read the others he has made. He has made several reasonable comments to provide camouflage for sick ones like the preceding.

      • Colin Murray
        June 1, 2010, 3:52 am

        @ GodsChosen June 1, 2010 at 12:42 am

        I just reread my comment and was sickened with the language I chose. I said your comment was “inappropriate” and was reminded of the ridiculous Hilary Clinton inveterate response to Israeli colonization: “It’s not helpful.”

        Your “wipe them out or they are going to wipe us out” is outrageous and should result in an immediate ban. You have gone way the hell over the line.

      • annie
        June 1, 2010, 10:45 am

        colin, you should email phil w/your concerns. collect some data and present it. also you may want to blockquote some past statements for a future thread. personally, i agree highly inflammatory statements are very detrimental and bring disgrace to the site.

      • Walid
        June 1, 2010, 12:51 am

        MRW, Israel may have been lulled by the quasi-total US blackout of the GFM flotilla progress as it took shape and set sail and thought that this too would be blackened out.

        Now Israel is making a big thing about the FGM ships having ties with al-Qayda and that they were transporting arms to Hamas. I think they are starting to believe the stories they make up.

      • droog
        June 1, 2010, 7:41 am

        they must have been Al-qayda ships, thats why the commandos said they only took paintball guns and were suprised at being hit with sticks. They were expecting nice peacefull Al-qayda types who will flee at the sight of paint on their nice white robes.

      • Judy
        June 1, 2010, 8:10 am

        I fully expect to see claims that the Flotilla carried WMD!

      • demize
        June 2, 2010, 1:39 am

        MRW. I think what you said was valid. I f this narritive would get a bit of traction I think it would be very persuasive for just the kind of folks you describe.

  7. Colin Murray
    June 1, 2010, 3:48 am

    Phil, this is an important issue. You hit its relevance on the head with the last sentence. It’s not just history. It’s representative of one of the worst aspects of the ‘special relationship’: covering for, indulging, and enabling Israeli extremism is over the long term helping them commit national suicide.

  8. snapblack
    June 1, 2010, 8:25 am

    June 8 is looming up like an iceberg right now, right in the path of those whose titanic blunder with the Mavi Marmaris has just made it possible for the USS Liberty to finally be avenged. Read the following: ‘Next time we’ll use more force’

    Jerusalem Post, By Yaalov Katz et al, June 1
    Navy prepares for expected arrival of 2 more activist ships.
    Israel will use more aggressive force in the future to prevent ships from breaking the sea blockade on the Gaza Strip, a top Navy commander told The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday.
    “We boarded the ship and were attacked as if it was a war,” the officer said. “That will mean that we will have to come prepared in the future as if it was a war.”
    Is it possible that they, owners of the much vaunted ‘Mossad’ did not figure out that this time the Turkish navy is escorting those two ships? Arrogance meets stupidity…..ahoy there, international pariah state! Down you go!

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