Chapter 7 by Paul Findley
"THE ASSAULT ON ASSAULT"...The USS Liberty
(This article is rather longish and I did not post it all; I would suggest printing it out for later reading. The book "Deliberate Deceptions" with all the contents may also be gotten from one's local library.)
Certain facts are clear. The attack was no accident. The Liberty was assaulted in broad daylight by Israeli forces who knew the ship's identity.(2) The Liberty, an intelligence- gathering ship, had no combat capability and carried only light machine guns for defense. A steady breeze made its U.S. flag easily visible. The assault occurred over a period of nearly two hours--first by air, then by torpedo boat. The ferocity of the attacks left no doubt: the Israeli forces wanted the ship and its crew destroyed.
The public, however, was kept in the dark. Even before the American public learned of the attack, U.S. government officials began to promote an account of the assault that was satisfactory to Israel. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee worked through congressmen to keep the story under control. The president of the United States, Lyndon B. Johnson, ordered and led a cover-up so thorough that sixteen years after he left office, the episode was still largely unknown to the public--and the men who suffered and died have gone largely unhonored.
The day of the attack began in routine fashion, with the ship first proceeding slowly in an easterly direction in the eastern Mediterranean, later following the contour of the coastline westerly about fifteen miles off the Sinai Peninsula. On the mainland, Israeli forces were winning smashing victories in the third Arab-Israeli war in nineteen years. Israeli Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin, announcing that the Israelis had taken the entire Sinai and broken the blockade on the Strait of Tiran, declared: "The Egyptians are defeated."(3) On the eastern front, the Israelis had overcome Jordanian forces and captured most of the West Bank.
At 6:00 A.M. an airplane, identified by the Liberty crew as an Israeli Noratlas, slowly circled the ship, then departed. At 9:00 A.M., a jet appeared at a distance, then to the left of the ship.(4) At 10:00 A.M., two rocket-armed jets circled the ship three times. They were close enough for their pilots to be observed through binoculars. The planes were unmarked. An hour later the Israeli Noratlas returned, flying not more than 200 feet directly above the Liberty and clearly marked with the Star of David. The ship's crew members and the pilot waved at each other. The plane returned every few minutes until 1:00 P.M. By then, the ship had changed course and was proceeding almost due west.
At 2:00 P.M., all hell broke loose. Three Israeli Mirage fighter planes headed straight for the Liberty, their rockets taking out the forward machine guns and wrecking the ship's antennae. The Mirages were joined by Mystere fighters, which dropped napalm on the bridge and deck and repeatedly strafed the ship. The attack continued for more than twenty minutes. In all, the ship sustained 821 holes in her sides and decks. Of these, more than 100 were rocket-sized.
As the aircraft departed, three torpedo boats took over the attack, firing five torpedoes, one of which tore a forty-foot hole in the hull, killing 25 sailors. The ship was in flames, dead in the water, listing precariously, and taking on water. The crew was ordered to prepare to abandon ship. As life rafts were lowered into the water, the torpedo boats moved closer and shot them to pieces. One boat concentrated machine gun fire on rafts that were still on deck as crew members there tried to extinguish the napalm fires. Petty Officer Charles Rowley declares, "They didn't want anyone to live."
At 3:15 P.M., the last shot was fired, leaving the vessel a combination morgue and hospital. The ship had no engines, no power, no rudder. Fearing further attack, Captain McGonagle, despite severe leg injuries, stayed at the bridge. An Israeli helicopter, its open bay door showing troops in battle gear and a machine gun mounted in an open doorway, passed close to the deck, then left. Other aircraft came and went during the next hour.
U.S. air support never arrived. The USS SARATOGA was only thirty minutes away, and, with a squadron of fighter planes on deck ready for a routine operation, it was prepared to respond to an attack almost instantly. But the rescue never occurred. Without approval by Washington, the planes could not take aggressive action, even to rescue a U.S. ship confirmed to be under attack. Admiral Donald Engen, then captain of the USS AMERICA, a second U.S. carrier in the vicinity, later explained: "President Johnson had very strict control. Even though we knew the Liberty was under attack, I couldn't just go and order a rescue."(5) The ship's planes were hardly in the air when the voice of Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara was heard over Sixth Fleet radios: "Tell the Sixth Fleet to get those aircraft back immediately."(6) They were ordered to have no part in destroying or driving off the attackers.
Shortly after 3:00 P.M., nearly an hour after the Liberty's plea was first heard, the White House gave momentary approval to a rescue mission, and planes from both carriers were launched. At almost precisely the same instant, the Israeli government informed the U.S. naval attache in Tel Aviv that its forces had "erroneously attacked a U.S. ship" after mistaking it for an Egyptian vessel, and offered "abject apologies." With the apology in hand, Johnson once again ordered U.S. aircraft back to their carriers.
When the second launch occurred, there were no Israeli forces to "destroy or drive away." Fifteen hours of lonely struggle to keep the wounded alive and the vessel afloat were ahead for the Liberty and its ravaged crew. Not until dawn of the next day would the Liberty see a U.S. plane or ship. The only friendly visit was from a small Soviet warship. Its offer of help was declined, but the Soviets said they would stand by in case need should arise.
The next morning, two U.S. destroyers arrived with medical and repair assistance. Soon the wounded were transferred to the carrier hospital by helicopter. The battered ship then proceeded to Malta, where a navy Court of Inquiry was to be held. The inquiry itself was destined to be a part of an elaborate program to keep the public from knowing what had really happened.
In fact, the cover-up began almost at the precise moment that the Israeli assault ended. The apology from Israeli officials reached the White House moments after the last gun fired at the Liberty. President Johnson accepted and publicized the condolences of Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, even though readily available information showed the Israeli account to be false; the CIA had learned a day before the attack that the Israelis planned to sink the ship.(7) Nevertheless, congressional comments largely echoed the president's inter- pretation of the assault, and the nation was caught up in euphoria over Israel's stunning victories over the Arabs. The casualties on the Liberty got scant attention. Smith Hempstone, foreign correspondent for the WASHINGTON STAR, wrote from Tel Aviv, "In a week since the Israeli attack on the USS Liberty, not one single Israeli of the type which this correspondent encounters many times daily--cab drivers, censors, bartenders, soldiers--has bothered to express sorrow for the deaths of these Americans."(8)
The Pentagon staved off reporters' inquiries with the promise of a "comprehensive statement" once the official inquiry, conducted by Admiral Isaac Kidd, was finished.(9) Arriving at Malta, Kidd gave explicit orders to the crew: "Answer no questions. If somehow you are backed into a corner, then you may say that it was an accident and that Israel has apologized. You may say nothing else." Crew members were assured they could talk freely to reporters once the summary of the Court of Inquiry was made public. This was later modified. They were then ordered not to provide information beyond the precise words of the published summary.
The court was still taking testimony when a charge that the attack had been deliberate appeared in the U.S. press.(10) An ASSOCIATED PRESS story filed from Malta reported that "senior crewmen" on the ship were convinced the Israelis knew the ship was American before they attacked. "We were flying the Stars and Stripes and it's absolutely impossible that they shouldn't know who we were," a crew member said. The navy disputed the story, saying the United States "thoroughly accepted the Israeli apology."
With the testimony completed, Admiral Kidd handcuffed himself to a huge box of records and flew to Washington where they were examined by Chief of Naval Operations Admiral McDonald, as well as by congressional leaders before the long-awaited summary statement was issued.(11) When it was finally released, it was far from comprehensive.(12) It made no attempt to fix blame, focusing instead almost entirely on the actions of the crew.
The censored summary did not reveal that the ship had been under close aerial surveillance by Israel for hours before the attack, or that during the preceding twenty-four hours Israel had repeatedly warned U.S. authorities to move the Liberty.(13) It contained nothing to dispute the notion of mistaken identity. The navy erroneously reported that the attack lasted only six minutes instead of seventy minutes, and falsely asserted that all firing stopped when the torpedo boats came close enough to identify the U.S. flag. The navy made no mention of napalm or of life rafts being shot up. It even suppressed records of the strong breeze that made the ship's U.S. flag plainly visible.
The report did make one painful revelation: Before the attack, the Joint Chiefs of Staff had ordered the Liberty to move farther from the coast, but the message "was mi
Several newspapers criticized the Pentagon's summary. The NEW YORK TIMES said it "leaves a good many questions unanswered."(15) The WASHINGTON STAR used the word "cover-up," called the summary an "affront," and demanded a deeper and wider probe.(16) Senator J. William Fulbright, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, after a closed briefing by Secretary of State Dean Rusk, called the episode "very embarrassing." The STAR concluded: "Whatever the meaning of this, embarrassment is no excuse for disingenuousness."