While this particular episode is mentioned in Israeli and Palestinian Voices: A Dialogue with both Sides, I have a more detailed account of this hideous attack here.
On June 8, 1967 Israeli aircraft and torpedo boats attacked the USS Liberty, a state-of-the-art US Navy intelligence collection platform sailing in international waters off the Sinai, killing 34 of the 294 crew members and wounding 174.
On this the 48th anniversary of that unprovoked attack intercepted Israeli messages leave no doubt that the sinking of the USS Liberty was the mission assigned to the attacking Israeli warplanes and torpedo boats as the Six-Day War raged in the Middle East.
Recently declassified NSA documents offer irrefutable evidence that Israeli knew it was attacking a US Navy vessel that was flying an American flag and in weather conditions that were ideal to ensure easy identification.
The Israeli court of inquiry that examined the attack, and absolved the Israeli military of criminal culpability, came to the opposite conclusion. It declared “No American or any other flag appeared on the ship.”
Yiftsah Spector, the first Israeli pilot to attack the ship, told the Jerusalem Post that there was “positively no flag. I couldn’t identify it but it was a military ship.”
According to John Crewdson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who wrote a detailed account of the attack which was published in both the Chicago Tribune and the Baltimore Sun on October 2, 2007, the Jerusalem Post account differed dramatically from the one that rolled off the teletype that day in 1967 behind the sealed vault door at Offutt Air Force Base in Omaha, where Steve Forslund worked as an intelligence analyst for the 544th Air Reconnaissance Technical Wing, then the highest-level strategic planning office in the Air Force.
“The ground control station stated that the target was American and for the aircraft to confirm it,” Forslund recalled. “The aircraft did confirm the identity of the target as American, by its American flag. The ground control station ordered the aircraft to attack and sink the target and ensure there were no survivors.”
Forslund’s recollections are supported by two other Air Force intelligence specialists, working in widely separate locations, who also saw the transcripts.
“It was clear that the Israeli aircraft were being vectored directly at the USS Liberty,” they said. “Later, around the time the Liberty got off a distress call, the controllers seemed to panic and urged the aircraft to complete the job and get out of there.”
Some of the Israeli pilots did not want to attack according to the transcripts. “This is an American ship. Do you still want us to attack?” they asked. Ground control came back and said, “Yes, follow orders.”
Perhaps the most persuasive argument that the transcripts existed, according to Crewdson, came from the Israelis themselves. In a pair of diplomatic cables sent by the Israeli ambassador in Washington, Avraham Harman, to Foreign Minister Abba Eban in Tel Aviv. Harman said that a source the Israelis code-named ‘Hamlet’ was reporting that the Americans had “clear proof that from a certain stage the pilot discovered the identity of the ship and continued the attack anyway.” Harman repeated the warning three days later, advising Eban that the White House was “very angry” and that “the reason for this was that the Americans had findings showing that our pilots indeed knew that the ship was American.” Israeli historian, Tom Segev, in his recent book “1967” showed that Harman’s source was Arthur Goldberg, then US Ambassador to the United Nations.
Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Thomas Moorer helped lead an independent commission to investigate what happened to the USS Liberty. The findings were made public in October 2003 and concluded that:
The attack by a US ally was a deliberate attempt to destroy an American ship and kill its entire crew.
The attack included the machine-gunning of stretcher-bearers and life rafts.
President Johnson’s White House deliberately prevented the US Navy from coming to the defense of the USS Liberty. Never before in naval history had a rescue mission been cancelled when an American ship was under attack.
The surviving crew members were later threatened with court martial, imprisonment or worse if they talked to anyone about what happened to them. They were abandoned by their own government.
In his book The Gulag Archipelago, the Russian dissident Alexandr Solzhenitsyn warned about what silence does to the foundations of justice.
“In keeping silent about evil, in burying it so deep within us that no sign of it appears on the surface, we are implanting it, and it will rise up a thousand fold in the future. When we neither punish nor reproach evildoers, we are not simply protecting their trivial old age, we are ripping the foundations of justice from beneath new generations.”
This book is available for purchase here.