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

Israel/PalestineUS Politics
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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."

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