14 January 2004
13 January 2004
Conference coincides with release of "Foreign Relations 1964-1968"
By David Shelby
Washington File Staff Writer
Washington -- More than 35 years after Israel's attack on the U.S. signals intelligence ship U.S.S. Liberty, the event remains a source of lively controversy between those who believe the attack was the result of an unfortunate series of errors and those who insist it was a deliberate act on the part of Israel.
The U.S. State Department hosted a panel discussion on the events surrounding the attack in conjunction with the January 12 release of the Office of the Historian's 19th volume of "Foreign Relations 1964-1968."
The latest volume in this series of reports, which aims to present an apolitical exposition of documents relevant to the formation of U.S. foreign policy, deals specifically with the events surrounding the 1967 Arab-Israeli War and contains several passages directly related to the attack on the Liberty.
But while the report draws upon some previously classified documents in its analysis of the events, it does not succeed in laying the controversy to rest. This was evident as representatives of the two sides of the issue squared off in debate at the State Department.
All of the parties agreed on the general outline of the events of June 8, 1967. The U.S.S. Liberty was sailing with the U.S. Sixth Fleet, but was acting on the orders of the National Security Agency (NSA). Previously declassified information from the NSA has confirmed that the ship was sent into the area to monitor Egyptian transmissions for any indication that Soviet personnel were operating with the Egyptian forces.
Following the outbreak of hostilities, several messages were sent to the Liberty instructing her to stay at least 100 miles offshore, but for some reason, these messages were not received. The ship proceeded with her initial orders to take up position the morning of June 8, 14 miles off the northern shore of Sinai, which was in international waters but within the war zone.
Several Israeli planes passed over the Liberty during the morning hours, and all parties agree that Israeli surveillance planes identified the ship as a friendly vessel.
Nevertheless, at 2:00 pm, Israeli jets attacked the ship, flying six strafing runs and dropping napalm on the deck. Twenty minutes later, Israeli torpedo boats launched an attack, blowing a hole in the starboard hull.
Of the ship's crew, which numbered 294 men, 34 were killed and 172 were wounded. The crew managed to keep the ship afloat long enough to limp into the port of Malta, but the vessel was deemed unsalvageable and was sold for scrap.
The agreement of pundits and scholars who have studied and written about the event ends there.
An Israeli report issued after an internal enquiry into the affair confirms that Israeli surveillance planes identified the ship as a friendly vessel during the early morning hours but says that the friendly identification marker was removed upon the changing of the guard at Israeli Navy headquarters at 11:00 am. The report explains that this was a standard procedure based on the assumption that a vessel sighted several hours earlier would no longer be in the vicinity.
Shortly after the changing of the guard, Israeli headquarters received reports from Israeli infantry forces in El-Arish in the Sinai indicating that they had come under attack from an Egyptian vessel stationed offshore.
According to the Israeli report, Israeli torpedo boats dispatched to the area spotted the Liberty moving in the direction of Port Said, Egypt and assumed it was an Egyptian vessel headed home.
The Israelis claimed to have estimated the Liberty's speed at 30 knots, although the U.S. Navy says the ship was only traveling at five knots. At 30 knots, the Israeli report said, the Israeli torpedo boats would not have been able to catch up with the ship before it reached Port Said.
Consequently, the report explains, airpower was called in to disable the vessel. After several strafing runs, one of the pilots noted the ship's markings and alerted Israeli air command, which then called off the air attack.
Nevertheless, the torpedo boats, still under Naval command, continued to approach the vessel and reported coming under machine gun fire. At that point, the report says, the Israeli vessels responded with a torpedo attack.
Critics of the Israeli version of the story find it implausible that anyone in a decision-making capacity in Israel would not have known that the Liberty was an American ship. They cite the numerous overflights and Israel's acknowledgement that its pilots had identified the ship as American.
The critics of the Israeli version of events also note that the Liberty was flying an American flag at the time of the attack and that an even larger flag was hoisted after the initial strafing blew off the first flag.
The Israelis maintain that no flag was noted at the time of the attack and say that the pilots were simply under orders to verify that it was not an Israeli vessel -- an identification that they would have made based on deck markings.
Reports differ on the altitude of the attacking jets' initial overflights and on whether or not the pilots would have been able to identify the flag that was 1.5 meters wide and 2.4 meters long.
The critics of the Israeli version also maintain that the Egyptian ship for which the Liberty was allegedly mistaken -- the cargo ship El-Quseir -- bore no resemblance to the Liberty.
Critics of the Israeli version are also critical of the U.S. government for not carrying out a full investigation of the incident.
The U.S. Navy issued a report based on its own internal enquiry into evidence gathered from crewmembers and other personnel attached to the Sixth Fleet. The critics say the evidence has been tampered with and that the report was altered due to pressure from Washington.
The critics are less certain about what motivation Israel would have to deliberately attack a U.S. vessel. Some have offered the explanation that the Israelis attacked for fear that the spy ship was gathering information on Israel's planned foray into Syria.
Other scholars say this seems unlikely because the Israelis had already informed American officials of these plans. Still others have suggested that the Israelis attacked for fear that the Americans were monitoring alleged executions of Egyptian POW's.
The newly released State Department report does not appear to resolve any of the outstanding controversy, as the documents upon which it is based do not shed light on operations or decision making processes internal to Israel.
The report does, however, offer insight into how the event was perceived and dealt with in the highest foreign policymaking circles in Washington. It contains communications between President Lyndon Johnson and many of his key advisors including Special Assistant Walt Rostow, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and Secretary of State Dean Rusk.
It also contains communications between the State Department and the Defense Attache at the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv as well as internal reports from the National Security Council, the Defense Department and the Navy.
The Washington-Moscow hotline, established in 1963 following the Cuban missile crisis, received its first use during the 1967 War, and the new report includes several messages exchanged between Soviet Premier Alexei Kosygin and President Johnson.
In all, the report conveys a picture of an administration that perceived the unraveling events in the framework of the Cold War. Assumptions and assessments were made with an eye to the global balance of power between the United States and the Soviet Union.
When the Liberty first came under attack, the initial assumption seems to have been that Soviet backed Egyptian forces were responsible, and the Sixth Fleet scrambled several fighters to protect the ship.
When Israeli officials notified the U.S. defense attache that they were responsible for the attack and offered their apologies, the fighters were recalled. The attitude in Washington was one of dismay that the Israelis could make such an error.
This latest volume of the Foreign Relations report, analyzing the events from mid-May 1967 through the passage of United Nations Security Council resolution 242 in November 1967 may be accessed online at the State Department's website:
(The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)