Al Jazeera investigates the USS Liberty attack in ‘The Day Israel Attacked America’

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On June 8, 1967, in the midst of the Six Day War, a state of the art intelligence ship controlled by the National Security Agency was sitting near Egypt in international waters when it was attacked by unmarked Israeli aircraft  who strafed its decks and dropped napalm.  An unmarked Israeli naval vessel torpedoed its target five times.  For seventy-five minutes Israel pummeled the unarmed U.S.S. Liberty and when it was over 34 Americans were dead and 172 wounded which amounted to two-thirds of the ship’s crew.   Israel owned up to the attack but claimed it was an accident, that the ship was mistaken for an Egyptian vessel.

“The Day Israel Attacked America,” a 50 minute video produced by Al Jezeera, offers proof that Israel deliberately intended to destroy the Liberty.  The video broadcasts for the first time ever audio exchanges in Hebrew between the pilots and ground control.   At least three times, starting at 5:15 a.m, ground control is told the ship is American.   By 2:00 pm, ground control commands the pilot to attack the ship.  An argument ensues when the pilot reminds his superiors the ship is American.  Ground control confirms the order and the pilot is forced to obey.

Through interviews with now elderly Liberty crewmen, Part I of the video covers what happened and how Israelis assuredly knew the ship was American.  The crew point to the ship’s huge American flag visible “for miles.”  One man described how earlier in the day an Israeli marked plane swooped low enough for he and the pilot to wave at one another, and he felt comfort that an ally was near.   Several men explain that only an ally can know a ship’s frequencies.   To a man, they are convinced that it was an intentional assault.  If, as the Israelis claim, it was an accident, then, as one veteran put it, it was the best planned accident in history.

Most dismaying to the Liberty’s crew was the belated response by the U.S. Sixth Fleet aircraft carrier 500 miles away to send fighter jets to the scene.  Even more inexplicable, indeed personally devastating to the surviving crew, was the cover-up.   Not only were the men ordered not to discuss any of the events, especially not with journalists, but the gag order applied to their families as well.

Subsequent government reports excluded crew testimony damaging to Israel, such as, that life boats were machine gunned by the Israelis and the jar of napalm collected by one sailor mysteriously disappeared.   Basically the U.S. government accepted Israel’s “my dog ate my homework” excuse and a lame apology.  In 1980, the Americans sought $17 million compensation for damage to the Liberty. The Israelis counter offered $6 million.  Done deal.  The crew and family members of the dead received compensation but to this day remain painfully aggrieved by the betrayal.

Part II of the video explores the confounding why? of it all.   Why did Israel attack the Liberty?   Why did American fighter jets delay a response?  Why did the U.S. government not treat Israel’s action for the war crime that it was?   What was the Liberty’s real mission in the region? Why is the subject today not grounds for outrage among Americans?

As to the first question, the video proposes that the Israelis had promised U.S. officials it would be a limited war and not a land grab.  Having captured Jerusalem and crushed the Egyptians, the Israelis were poised to invade the Golan Heights and they wanted to keep this secret from the Americans, and they did so by debilitating all the ship’s sophisticated surveillance.  But that theory doesn’t explain in any way why the Israelis clearly tried to sink a U.S. spy ship and backed off only when U.S. retaliatory fighter jets finally came to the rescue.

In addition to the Golan Heights invasion, the U.S.S Liberty Memorial website offers two additional possible motives:

It is possible that [the Israelis] were afraid Liberty might learn and report to the United States that Israeli forces were executing up to 1,000 Egyptian Prisoners of War at El Arish at the very moment that Liberty was just 13 miles off the shore.

It is also possible that USS Liberty was attacked to prevent the ship from reporting a deliberate massacre of 14 Indian United Nations peacekeepers that took place in Gaza shortly before Israel’s attack on USS Liberty.

President Lyndon Johnson believed the attack was intentional and he leaked his opinion to Newsweek.  When that sourcing was then leaked, the Israelis rallied their forces. If Johnson did not change his position they would cry “blood libel” and accuse him of gross anti-Semitism.  As Bobby Ray Inman, former NSA director, put it in the video, it was “blackmail” pure and simple.  If Johnson decided to run for reelection he would get nowhere when the “Jewish lobby” waged the campaign that it threatened to. One legacy of the Liberty affair is that similar coercive tactics against politicians have been employed to this day to great success.

The Israelis had captured and hauled away the entirety of Egypt’s surface to air missiles made in the Soviet Union, including the maintenance manuals.  These were the same pesky missiles that the Vietnamese used to shoot down American aircraft left and right in that pesky war LBJ just couldn’t seem to defeat.   The Israelis turned the weaponry over to the Americans.   As a reward, the following year, aid to Israel increased four-fold and the government kept the Liberty issue out of the public eye and tacitly accepted Israel’s accident/mistaken identity excuse.

“The Day Israel Attacked America” is definitely worth watching to get your feet wet on this subject.   But it has limitations.   It doesn’t interview a single Israeli and it doesn’t present other evidence that seemingly implicates U.S. intelligence as a partner to the Israeli crime.  A 2002 BBC video, “Dead in the Water,” interviewed the late former CIA Director Richard Helms who stated that Israel “intended to attack the ship” and it has “no excuse to say it was a mistake.”   Yet, when asked about U.S. intelligence involvement, he told the BBC they’d have to ask former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, which BBC did, but McNamara categorically denied the allegation on camera.

The BBC also interviewed James Ennes, an officer on the Liberty’s bridge, who spent years searching for answers which culminated in his book, Assault on the Liberty: The True Story of the Israeli Attack on an American Intelligence Ship.  Scouring the Liberty records in the LBJ Library in Texas, Ennes stumbled upon a smoking gun – a one-page memo of the minutes of the 303 Committee held in advance of the war in April 1967.   The Committee consisted of a handful of top level intelligence and government officials who examined black operations and devised plausible deniability for the executive branch in the event of public discovery of an attack.  The memo relates to a clandestine joint US-Israeli effort to blame Egypt for the sinking of the Liberty.  The BBC examines how this false flag plot was foiled, but it was not able to answer a number of questions that remain to this day.

It  is interesting that the “The Day Israel Attacked America” has come out at a moment when U.S.-Israeli relations are perhaps at their lowest point in history.   The nadir results from the American public’s increasing refusal to accept Israeli war crimes in Gaza,  routine blackmail of Congress by the same tactics used against LBJ, and the ongoing brazen theft of Palestinian land in the Occupied Territories. This video has the potential to tip the scales even more given how highly emotionally Americans respond when land, property or people are attacked by a foreign force.

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Thanks for this. I don’t have access to Al Jazeera, so I particularly appreciate it. The history deserves to be known. It was a betrayal and blatant criminal act. Likewise, the American complicity in the coverup. That coverup has contributed to the on-going American guilt in enabling the dispossession and… Read more »

Americans have many, many scores to settle with the Israelis and their US Lobby and the US politicians who have protected them. Israel Charged with Systematic Harassment of U.S. Marines By Donald Neff Former Time Magazine Bureau Chief, Israel Washington Report, March 1995 It was 12 years ago, on… Read more »

As to the why: an account in Stewart Steven’s generally Israel-friendly The Spymasters Of Israel and summarized in the study linked below (search for “signals”) claims Israeli intelligence intercepted signals from Egypt to Jordan reporting Egyptian defeat, and instead sent the Jordanians deceptive signals boasting of great victories to lure… Read more »

Again with the blood libel. If President Johnson, a product of the rough and tumble world of cutthroat Texas politics buckled under the pressure of the Israel Lobby, than that lobby must be insanely powerful. Imagine, turning the loyalty of the Commander in Chief against those who died serving under… Read more »

I was told the truth of this matter many years ago by my late best friend, a former ranking U.S. Naval officer who had met the commander of the torpedo boat sent to finish Liberty off. They met in a Yacht Club when both were retired and the Israeli confirmed… Read more »