Decades have passed since the U.S.S. Liberty, an intelligence gathering ship of the United States Navy was attacked by air and naval forces of the Israeli military, with resultant fatalities and injuries to American servicemen. A cover up followed, as has an enduring silence on the matter by both American and Israeli governments. However, evidence assembled over the years has confirmed that the attack was not predicated on “human errors, unfortunate coincidences and equipment failures on both the American and Israeli sides”, as Michael Oren, an Israeli former ambassador to the U.S. once argued; rather it was a deliberate action contrived by the leaders of Israel. This is an excerpt from an essay I wrote in 2017 entitled, “The Six Day War: Myth and Reality”.
“But Sir, It’s an American Ship.”
“Never Mind, Hit Her!”
– Conversation between an Israeli pilot and the IDF War Room.
The ruthless use of propaganda as a means of camouflaging Israel’s true objectives lies behind one of the most notorious events of the Six Day War: the sinking of the USS Liberty. This murderous act of Israeli aggression against its ally, the United States, was played down as a case of attacking a target mistakenly under the fog of war.
An American intelligence gathering vessel bristling with antennae and flying the stars and stripes, the Liberty was cruising off the coast of Egypt on June 8th when attacked by a combination of Israeli air and naval forces. Thirty-four of its crew -were killed and 174 left wounded. The attack, which was almost certainly ordered by General Dayan, had occurred at a most sensitive stage of the war.
The Israelis, whose rout of the Egyptian army had brought about the unwanted burden of policing more prisoners of war than they could handle, had reached el Arish where hundreds of captured Egyptian soldiers had been executed. Some had been forced to dig their own graves while others were buried by native Bedouin tribesmen after Israeli soldiers had shot them and left the bodies rotting in the desert sun. The Liberty was well-placed to listen in on these events given that el Arish is a port city on the Mediterranean coast.
The other issue of crucial importance concerned Israel’s strategic conduct of the war. After its conquest of the Sinai Peninsula, Israel’s intention was to order many of its units to turn around and be redeployed so as to consolidate the capture of the West Bank and also to provide reinforcement for the units charged with attacking Syria and taking the Golan Heights.
Far from entertaining thoughts of a life or death struggle with its Arab foes which could possibly result in the mass extermination of its citizens, Israeli calculations were based on achieving certain victory. However, this would need to be accomplished within a limited time scale after which it leaders were aware that a UN Security Council-brokered ceasefire would have to be implemented.
While Israel had obtained the blessing of President Lyndon Johnson to go to war, it did not have America’s consent so far as taking over the West Bank and Syrian territory was concerned. Such actions it was felt might provoke an intervention by the Soviet Union.
Thus it was that with victory complete in the Sinai and two days left of the war, the Israelis did not want the Americans eavesdropping through the Liberty when its troops were rerouted northwards. Such was the secrecy behind the planned incursion into Syria that Prime Minister Eshkol was not told of the plan by Dayan until after he had ordered the attack on the Golan Heights.
After being closely monitored by Israeli reconnaissance planes, the Liberty was subjected to a sustained attack lasting for about two hours. The ship endured waves of attacks by strafing jets and projectiles fired from motorized torpedo boats. Crew who attempted to launch lifeboats were targeted by machine guns and napalm bombs were dropped. The intention appeared to be to sink the the ship and leave no survivors. This would have left it open for the attack to be blamed on Egypt.
Miraculously, the ship was kept afloat and a distress signal sent after having had both its tactical and distress frequencies jammed by the Israelis. Twelve fighter jets and four tanker planes stationed on the USS Saratoga, an aircraft carrier of the nearby American Sixth Fleet, were sent into action to defend the Liberty but were recalled by US Defence Secretary Robert McNamara. Once the Israelis knew that the American fleet had received word of the attack, they were quick to inform the Americans that their ship had been hit by mistake.
A cover up was effected by the Johnson administration under pressure from an ever more assertive Israeli lobby which had threatened to smear Johnson with the accusation of blood libel. Alongside this allegation of anti-Semitism would be a refusal by Jewish organisations to fund Johnson if he chose to run for reelection the following year.
Although the establishment cover up over the attack on the Liberty persists to this day several prominent American officials have over the years gone on the record to contradict the hastily arrived official verdict that it had been a mistake; Dean Rusk, a former US Secretary of State, and Admiral Thomas Moorer who was the Chairman of the Joint Chief’s of Staff at the time of the incident being among the most prominent of these dissenters.
In a perceptive insert in Newsweek magazine’s ‘Periscope’ column dated June 19th 1967, a staff writer offered the following thesis:
Although Israel’s apologies were officially accepted, some high Washington officials believe the Israelis knew the Liberty’s capabilities and suspect that the attack might not have been accidental. One top-level theory holds that someone in the Israeli armed forces ordered the Liberty sunk because he suspected it had taken down messages showing that Israel started the fighting.
Tape recordings of the dialogue of Israeli personnel during the attack which were available to American officials soon after the incident have been made public in recent years. On separate occasions, a voice is heard clearly identifying the Liberty as an American vessel. The position that the destruction of the USS Liberty was a tragic error is no longer tenable.
© Adeyinka Makinde (2017 & 2019)
Adeyinka Makinde is a writer based in London, England.