Earlier this week Haaretz once again showed itself to be head and shoulders above U.S. media in addressing issues of Israel’s influence inside U.S. politics when it published a major inquiry into one of the lingering mysteries of the 1967 Six-Day War: Why did Israeli jets and boats attack the USS Liberty, a spy ship, on the fourth day of the war, killing 34 Americans and wounding scores of others?
The article reaches no fresh conclusions about the reason for the attack, or why it was swept under the rug with an apology and a handshake, but its headline is enormously provocative —
‘But Sir, It’s an American Ship.’ ‘Never Mind, Hit Her!’
And those lines are taken from a new American book on the case, a study that the U.S. press is ignoring. That’s the problem here; Haaretz is confronting a U.S. mystery head on during an important anniversary when no US media will touch the story.
Our business here is not to credit one theory or another about the attack on the Liberty. We could accept the view, which the Haaretz article endorses, that the attack was a mistake or “screw-up” in the fog of war. But as Haaretz states, the evidence is ambiguous, and conspiracy theories about the attack still abound. And the chief adherents of these theories are survivors of the attack or family members, or U.S. Navy supporters.
What is unquestionable is the magnitude of the attack: it was a grave blow to the burgeoning U.S.-Israel special relationship, yet President Lyndon Johnson, who was far more friendly to Israel than John Kennedy, was willing to let the matter pass without a blow-up. That pattern, of letting the Liberty attack go as just some kind of misunderstanding, has persisted to this day in the American media silence about the case even on its 50th anniversary.
The coverage has largely been international. Three years ago Al Jazeera did an investigation of the case, concluding:
The top Israeli commanders, [former CIA official Bobby Ray Inman] explained, had known exactly what they were doing when they attacked the Liberty and when it came to holding them to account, the US government rolled over for them.
Google news results for the USS Liberty today, and it’s fascinating. Our leading journals have nothing to say about the 50th anniversary of the Liberty. Besides the Haaretz story, all the leading results are for letters to the editor from people who can’t forget the Liberty. Like this from Allan Gehring in Florida to the Berkshire Eagle, alleging an official coverup:
News media that learned of the attack were warned not to run stories on the assault by powerful forces within our society and, as a result of that suppression, most Americans still do not know about the assault.
Or this one from Frank Malone in the Spokane Spokesman-Review, echoing our point and going further:
We have recently remembered a number of notable anniversaries, including D-Day. However, I saw no coverage of the 50th anniversary of the Israeli attack on the USS Liberty, which was in international waters during the Six Day War. Thirty-four Americans were killed and 171 were injured. This attack included the war crime of machine-gunning Americans who were in the water.
Israel apologized and made the explanation that it was a mistake. After 50 years, the National Security Administration will not release its confidential details. If the Israeli narrative were true, no one would have an objection to transparency.
Or this juicy one from Les Jordan to the Register-Guard in Eugene, Oregon, also alleging a coverup.
Adm. Thomas Moorer called the attack “pre-meditated murder.” Capt. Ward Boston said that he was outraged that anyone, let alone “apologists for Israel,” could call the Liberty incident a case of mistaken identity. The CIA’s Richard Helms observed that “few in Washington” could believe that the attack was a fluke.
Then there was President Johnson, who ordered a stand-down of any Liberty defense during the two-hour aggression. At the time he was entertaining Mathilde Krim in the White House. Krim was a former Irgun operative and one of his watchers.
Again, we’re not endorsing the conspiratorial view, but what a pity that only Haaretz can touch the story on this anniversary, as more and more principals vanish from the scene.
Here are two interesting passages from the Haaretz story. One quotes at length from a new US book on the matter. That book must be hard to find in the United States!
Israel apologized and paid compensation to the victims’ families. Israeli and American commissions of inquiry found that the attack was a mistake. But naturally, as often happens in such events, to this day there are some who believe Israel attacked the ship with malicious intent. . .
A new book published in May in the United States (its authors include several survivors of the attack) promises that “the truth is being told as never before and the real story revealed.” The 302 pages of “Remember the Liberty!: Almost Sunk by Treason on the High Seas” include quite a number of documents, testimonies, arguments and information that were gathered in the subsequent 50 years . . .
The book includes, among other things, a CIA document from November 1967 that is still partially censored. In the document, which is also on the official CIA website, an anonymous source is quoted as saying: “They said that [then-Israeli Defense Minister Moshe] Dayan personally ordered the attack on the ship, and that one of his generals adamantly opposed the action and said, ‘This is pure murder.’”. . .
On the other hand, the new book quotes a story reported by former U.S. Ambassador to Lebanon Dwight Porter, who recounted a conversation between an Israeli pilot and the Israel Air Force war room, which was allegedly picked up by an NSA aircraft and inadvertently cabled to CIA offices around the world:
Israeli pilot to IDF war room: This is an American ship. Do you still want us to attack?
IDF war room to Israeli pilot: Yes, follow orders.
Israeli pilot to IDF war room: But sir, it’s an American ship – I can see the flag!
IDF war room to Israeli pilot: Never mind; hit it.
Haaretz is not convinced the attack had higher-ups’ approval, but it cites an Israeli historian’s diggings raising questions about that narrative, and documents the Israeli belief that the attack could open a “malignant wound” in U.S.-Israel relations:
In response to a recent request by historian Adam Raz. . . the Israel State Archives posted hundreds of documents on its website related to the USS Liberty affair. . .
[Raz] refuses to accept the assertion that the claims Israel hit the ship deliberately are a conspiracy.
One of the documents Raz found among the hundreds of papers published by the State Archives is the Israeli Foreign Ministry correspondence that was sent from New York to Jerusalem.
“Menashe informed us we had better be very careful. He doesn’t have complete information but he knows that Issaschar is very angry about our letter. The reason is apparently that the Americans have findings that show our pilots were in fact aware the ship was American,” according to the document.
And later: “Menashe believes there is a recording on the ship of the conversations between the ship and our pilots, in which the ship’s crew said the ship is American. Menashe says that, in his opinion, our only chance of getting out of the crisis is to punish someone for negligence.”
In another document, which is also now posted online by the State Archives, the Israeli Embassy in Washington writes to the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem under the heading “Urgent.”
“We must change the abovementioned letter, because we certainly won’t be able to say there is no basis for the accusation that the identity of the ship was determined by Israeli planes prior to the attack,” it declares.
In other documents, which are fascinating in themselves, there is documentation of Israeli preparations for the U.S. investigation and the demands for compensation that were to follow.
“The issue has turned into a malignant wound, which involves serious dangers for all of our relationships on all levels here, whose friendship was ours until now and which are crucial to our status in the United States. In other words, the president, the Pentagon, public opinion and the intelligence community. Do you realize that the president is also the supreme commander of the U.S. armed forces?” wonders the Israeli Embassy in Washington, in a telegram to the Foreign Ministry.
The piece concludes in the camp of Amir Oren and Tom Segev, Israeli historians who have treated the event as a mistake without malicious intention. Credit Haaretz with the courage to raise the question — which is more than we can say for the New York Times and the Washington Post.