(complete text of Chapter Two of the three-volume American edition of Alan Hart’s book Zionism: The Real Enemy of the Jews).
(see also: De Israëlische aanval op de USS Liberty: moord met voorbedachten rade)
Israel insisted (as it still does) that its attack on the Liberty was an unfortunate “accident”, a case of “mistaken identity”.
The attack ought to have been a sensational, headline-grabbing news story, but beyond the fact that an accident had happened and that Israel had apologised, it did not get reported by America’s news organisations. It was too hot an issue for them to handle and pursue. If it had been an Arab attack on an American vessel it would have been an entirely different matter, of course. In that event there would have been saturation coverage with demands for retaliation, with Zionist and other pro-Israeli columnists and commentators setting the pace and tone.
About the attack and its aftermath – the Johnson administration’s cover-up led by the President himself – retired American Admiral Thomas L. Moorer, who was appointed Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) a month after the incident, was subsequently to say to former U.S. Congressman Paul Findley, “If it was written as fiction nobody would believe it.”
The attack itself, Admiral Moorer said to Findley, was “absolutely deliberate.” And the cover-up? “The clampdown was not actually for security reasons but for domestic political reasons. I don’t think there is any question about it. What other reasons could there have been? President Johnson was worried about the reaction of Jewish voters.” (For which read, I add, the awesome power of the Zionist lobby and its many stooges in Congress). The former Chairman of the JCS added: “The American people would be god damn mad if they knew what goes on.”
As it happened, the institutions of government in America did not succeed in keeping the truth covered up because there were eye-witnesses who would not be silenced. They were the survivors of the Liberty’s crew. The first prime source of the detailed information about the actual attack is the book Assault on the Liberty. It was written by Lieutenant James M. Ennes. He was the Officer of the Deck on the Liberty throughout the attack.
On 5 June 1982 there was a reunion of Liberty survivors in the Hotel Washington in Washington D.C. The guest speaker was retired Admiral Moorer. He told the survivors that he had “never been willing to accept the Israeli explanation that it was a case of mistaken identity.” He could not accept that Israeli pilots “don’t know how to identify ships.” It followed, he said, that there “must have been some other motive”, which he was confident “some day will be made public.”
Retired Admiral Moorer’s confidence has not yet been justified. Some of the official documents have been de-classified with the most sensitive (for which read most embarrassing) passages blacked out, but other official documents and reports remain classified, TOP SECRET, and are likely to remain so for as long as America’s pork-barrel politicians are frightened of offending Zionism.
The “motive” for the attack has to be deduced from what happened in the context of the whole war of June 1967 and Dayan’s determination to stop at nothing to create the Greater Israel of gut-Zionism’s mad dream. And the key to complete understanding is knowledge of the Liberty’s capabilities and what its mission was.
A question readers might like to keep in mind is this: When Dayan ordered the attack – he wanted the Liberty to be completely destroyed with the loss of all hands on board – who was the Israeli general who protested and said, “This is pure murder”?
The Liberty’s naval designation was AGTR-5, meaning that it was the fifth ship in a series undertaking “Auxiliary General Technical Research.” It was, in fact, a converted World War II Victory ship – the former Simmons Victory. It had been refitted by the NSA (National Security Agency) for use as a signals intelligence (SIGINT) “platform” – a floating listening post. It had a very sophisticated system of radio antennae including a “Big Ear” sonar-radio listening device with a clear capability range of over 500 miles. Up to that distance the Liberty could intercept virtually any form of wireless communication, including military and diplomatic traffic, telemetry data, rocket guidance and satellite control, among others. It could then decode and process the intercepted messages and relay them back to the NSA at Fort Meade, Maryland, via short-wave radio or through a very special communications system called TRSSCOM, using a 10,000-watt microwave signal bounced off the surface of the moon. The U.S.S. Liberty was America’s most advanced spy ship.
Below decks the communications areas – which housed the computers, listening and decoding devices manned by linguistic experts and other personnel who were changed according to the ship’s mission – were off-limits to the crew, including Captain William I. McGonagle. The communication areas were under the direct control of an NSA technician (managing spook). The on-board NSA controller for the Liberty’s June ’67 mission was known to the crew as “the Major.” With two other civilians he joined the Liberty at Rota in Spain shortly before the spy ship sailed from there for the Middle East on 2 June. The day after Dayan became minister of defence. (A coincidence?)
The Liberty’s movements were controlled by the JCS and the NSA in Washington. With a top speed of 18 knots it was faster than most ships of its kind. On both the forecastle and deckhouse aft of the bridge there were two pedestal-mounted 0.50-calibre Browning machine guns. These four guns, on open mounts without shrapnel shields, were the spy ship’s only defences. Strictly speaking the Liberty was not an unarmed vessel but for all practical purposes it was. Another sitting duck if attacked.
The Liberty’s mission was TOP SECRET and has not been acknowledged to this day.
It was on patrol, listening, because some in the Johnson administration at executive level – perhaps Defence Secretary McNamara especially – did not trust the Israelis to keep their word with regard to the scope of the war.
The Johnson administration had given the green light for Israel to attack Egypt and only Egypt. It was understood that the IDF would have to respond to Jordanian intervention – if it happened, but on no account was Israel to seek to widen the war for the purpose of taking Jordanian or Syrian territory. Apart from President Johnson’s public statement that he was as firmly committed as his predecessors had been to the “political independence and territorial integrity of all the nations in that area”, Washington’s fear was what could happen if the Israelis occupied Syrian territory. If they did there was a possibility of Soviet intervention (for face-saving reasons). Soviet leaders could just about live with the Egyptians being smashed by the IDF but not the Syrians too. Through the CIA the Johnson administration was aware of the IDF’s secret agreement with the Syrian regime. (As revealed in the previous chapter of my book, Syria, in the countdown to war, agreed to put on only a token show of fighting when Israel attacked Egypt). So it, the Johnson administration, was reasonably confident that the Syrians would not seek to widen the war by engaging the Israelis in any serious way. The name of the U.S. counter-intelligence game was therefore preventing Israel from attacking Syria. That was the Liberty’s mission.
When the Liberty was ordered to the Middle East, everybody who needed to know did know that the Israelis would have only a few days in which to smash the Egyptians – because the Security Council would demand a quick end to the fighting and Israel would have to stop when it was shown the international red card. Which meant that when Israel went to war with Egypt, it would be assigning the bulk of its armour to the Egyptian front. The point? If Israel then decided to attack Syria, it would have to re-deploy armour, very quickly, from the Egyptian front to the Syrian front. The orders for any such redeployment would be given by wireless – from Dayan’s Ministry of Defence in Tel Aviv to the commanders in the field and they, naturally, would talk to each other. If there was such radio chatter, the Liberty would pick it up and pass it urgently to the NSA in Washington. President Johnson would then demand that the Israelis abort their intended attack on Syria. So long as the Liberty was on station and functioning, the U.S. would have some control of Israel.
In short the Liberty was the Johnson administration’s insurance policy. It was there to prevent Israel’s hawks going over the top and, on a worst-case scenario, provoking Soviet intervention and possibly World War III. (One could have said then, and one could say with even more point today, that with the Zionist state as its friend the U.S. does not need enemies.)
From Dayan’s perspective… Before he could order an invasion of Syria for the purpose of grabbing the Golan Heights for keeps, the Liberty had to be put out of business.
In what follows it is important to keep two things in mind.
First: It was impossible for the attacking Israelis not to know the identity of their target. From the masthead on the ensign staff the Liberty was proudly flying the standard American flag -five feet by eight feet. The ship’s US Navy markings, GTR-5, were on both sides of its bows in white letters and a figure ten feet high. And the ship’s name was clearly visible on its stern. Not to mention the sophisticated system of radio antennae.
Second: As Stephen Green noted, “The IDF command did not have to consult Jane’s Fighting Ships to learn about the eavesdropping capabilities of the Liberty.” Israeli military intelligence had a very close working relationship with both the CIA and the U.S. Defence Department and knew well that the Liberty could listen to the movement orders for IDF units – movement orders that, on the evening–morning of 7-8 June, would be concerned with rushing units from Sinai to the northern Galilee border with Syria, in preparation for an invasion.
Shortly after 2030 hours local time on the evening of Wednesday 7 June, Israeli aerial reconnaissance reported to IDF Central Coastal Command in Tel Aviv a change in the Liberty’s course. The spy ship was now steaming toward a point on the Israeli coast midway between Tel Aviv and the naval base at Ashdod. The change of course was noted on the Israeli control table. The Liberty was represented by a green symbol indicating a neutral craft – neither foe nor friend. It may or may not have been a coincidence (I think not) that the Liberty’s course change came shortly after the Johnson administration had withdrawn its opposition in the Security Council to a resolution demanding a cease-fire. (The demand meaning that Israel was expected by the U.S. to comply).
At about 2200 hours the Liberty’s sophisticated radar-sensing equipment detected Israeli jets circling the ship. That was not surprising given where the vessel was. The surprise was that fire-control radar was being directed at it. The Israeli jets were homing their rockets as though for an attack.
The small group gathered around the Liberty’s radar screen playfully employed the ship’s electronic countermeasure (ECM) to “spoof” the Israeli pilots. The Liberty’s ECM equipment was of the latest and most sophisticated type and enabled the ship to distort its radar image and send it back to the Israeli planes – making the Liberty appear to be much smaller and then much bigger than it was. First Class Petty Officer Charles Rowley was subsequently to recall that no one took the contact seriously. The Israelis, it was assumed, were only playing games.
They were not; and there was a link between the directing of fire-control radar at the Liberty and what had happened an hour or so earlier. The Office of the U.S. Defence Attaché in Tel Aviv had sent a startling message to the U.S. Army Communications Centre in Washington. By telegram in code the message was that the IDF was planning to attack the Liberty if the ship continued to move closer to the Israeli coast!
It can be assumed that it was only a matter of minutes before everybody in Washington who needed to know did know about Dayan’s threat. (Everybody in Washington’s war loop knew that it was Dayan’s war).
In retrospect two things seem to me to be obvious.
The first is that Dayan ordered the leaking (to the U.S. Defence Attaché) of his intention to attack the Liberty in the hope that the threat alone would cause the controlling American authorities to abort the spy ship’s mission, and thus remove the need for it to be attacked.
The second is that Dayan ordered the jets which circled the Liberty at 2200 hours to direct fire-control radar at the vessel to underline the fact that he was not bluffing – that the spy ship would be attacked if it did not move away. Dayan was assuming that the Liberty would report to its controllers in Washington the fact that Israeli jets had gone through the motions of preparing to attack the vessel.
As it happened the Liberty did not report its 2200 hours contact because of the assumption that the Israeli pilots were playing games. But the Liberty’s failure to report the incident was of no consequence because the report of the U.S. Defence Attaché had weight enough on its own. Washington knew that Israel’s one-eyed warlord was not a man who made empty threats.
There can surely be no dispute about what President Johnson ought to have done given that the lives of 286 Americans on board the Liberty were at stake. He ought to have telephoned Prime Minister Eshkol and said that an Israeli attack on the Liberty would be regarded as a declaration of war on the United States of America, and would provoke an appropriate U.S. response.
But for obvious domestic political reasons Johnson was not going to do that. Instead, and no doubt at the urging of Walt Rostow and others with influence who were for Zionism right or wrong, the President approved the sending of an order for the Liberty to get away from Israel as fast as possible. Over the course of two and a half hours, three frantic messages to that effect were sent, each rated “Pinnacle”, which meant highest priority. Incredibly, none were received by the Liberty.
To this day the U.S. Navy has not offered an explanation, so those of us who don’t like mysteries have to speculate. There are, I think, only two possible explanations.
One is that the messages were inadvertently misrouted and delayed in the convoluted channels and procedures of the Defence Department’s worldwide communications system. That supposes an astonishing degree of inefficiency and incompetence. (The subsequent TOP SECRET Naval Board of Inquiry – “Review of Proceedings on the Attack on the U.S.S. Liberty” – asserted that nobody in the Defence Department was to blame for anything).
The other possible explanation is that somebody in high authority was enraged by President Johnson’s surrender to Dayan for domestic political reasons, and took the necessary steps to see to it that the messages were not transmitted to the Liberty – because he believed that the spy ship’s mission was vital; in turn because he believed that the peace of the world might be at stake if Israel attacked Syria and provoked a Soviet response. This explanation supposes that there was in the Johnson administration one hell of a fight between those who supported Zionism right or wrong – even when doing so was not in America’s best interests, and those who put America’s own interests first.
Does anybody know, really know, which of those two possible explanations is the correct one?
The fact that President Johnson, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the CIA and the NSA had advance notice of Dayan’s intention to attack the Liberty meant that, when the early reports of the attack arrived, they had a choice. In Taking Sides, Stephen Green put it this way: The choice was “either to take retaliatory action against Israel, or to become an accessory after the fact by promoting the fiction that it was somehow an accident.”
Out of fear of offending Zionism and its child it was, of course, the second option that the pork-barrel Johnson administration took, making a cover-up inevitable.
At this point I must pause to acknowledge that I, like most others (the few) who write about the cover-up, would know little that was worth knowing without Stephen Green’s original research. In Peering Into Dark Corners, the title of the first chapter of his book, he told of his epic struggle to make use of the Federal Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) to get access to declassified files from 22 different U.S. government agencies, mainly civilian and military intelligence agencies.
“The FOIA process,” he wrote in 1984 (how appropriate), “has in the past few years become an adversarial one with strong political overtones. Initial requests (for de-classified documents and files) may be simply ignored for months until repeated follow-ups elicit pro forma responses. Once a researcher’s request reaches an active pile, he or she may be threatened with exorbitant search and duplication fees.” He gave an example. In response to one particular request he was informed in writing that servicing it would require “13,000 hours of search time at $16 per hour. If I would just send along the $208,000, they would get cracking on the matter.”
To my way of thinking Green’s most chilling revelation was about the existence of Executive Order 12356. This was promulgated by President Reagan in mid-1982 to permit the re-classification of previously de-classified documents! “The Reagan Justice Department has encouraged a number of federal agencies to avail themselves of this new ‘opportunity’ to return to an era when the processes of government were none of the American people’s business.”
In passing it is also worth noting that Green’s credentials were beyond reproach because he is Jewish. He dedicated his book as follows – “For my father, who would have understood.” Green’s hope was that his book would encourage debate about the need for America to have a more distant and rational relationship with Israel.
Precisely when on Thursday 8 June Dayan ordered the actual attack on the Liberty has never been revealed. There was however a Congressional leak to Green from a named member – Representative Robert L.F. Sikes – of the intelligence working group of the investigating Defence Subcommittee of the House Committee on Appropriations. The leak confirmed among other things the existence of a suppressed report of a secret CIA briefing in which it was stated that Dayan had issued the order over the protests of another Israeli general who said, “This is pure murder.”
The attack, the murder at sea, was in two main phases lasting more than one hour (as we shall see, an intended third and final phase had to be aborted); and it was launched after aerial reconnaissance of the Liberty, in the sunlight of the eastern Mediterranean, over a period of eight hours. As all television cameramen and still photographers know, the sunlight in the eastern Mediterranean has almost magical properties. It is Mother Nature’s assistance for taking perfect pictures.
Dawn on the morning of Thursday 8 June brought with it the promise of another beautiful and clear day. Calm sea. Light, warm breezes. The off-duty crew of the Liberty could not have had it better if they were holidaymakers on a cruise ship. Many were, in fact, looking forward to some sunbathing on the deck.
The aerial reconnaissance of the Liberty started at 0600 hours when a lumbering Israeli Noratlas (a Nord 2051) slowly circled the ship three times.
On the bridge Ensign John Scott, near the end of his watch as the Officer of the Deck, studied the plane through his binoculars.
The French-built Noratlas was a transport plane but this one had been modified by the Israeli Air Force. It was carrying not fighting men of any kind but photographers – the best the Israeli Air Force had (which probably meant they were second to none in the world) – and, to direct them, specialists from the directorate of military intelligence. The pictures that were being taken of the Liberty on this and several subsequent over-flights would determine the precise plan of attack.
If Dayan was to get away with it, the Liberty had to be totally destroyed with no survivors to tell the tale. And the key to complete success when the attack was launched would be taking out the Liberty’s transmitting facilities before it could get off a call for help to the American Sixth Fleet which was not too far away. If the Liberty did succeed in transmitting an S.O.S. when it was being attacked, there was at least the possibility that fighter planes from the Sixth Fleet would be ordered to take on the attackers. The prospect of an aerial dog-fight between U.S. and Israeli warplanes was unthinkable. But that was what Dayan would be risking if his attack planes failed to take out the Liberty’s transmitting facilities with their first rockets. The Noratlas’s prime task was to get the pictures that would enable Israeli pilots to attack the Liberty’s communications facilities with, literally, pin-point accuracy on their first run.
At 0720 hours Lieutenant James Ennes replaced Scott as the Officer of the Deck. By now everybody on the Liberty was well aware that their ship was being examined very, very carefully. The first thing Ennes did was to order a new flag (measuring five feet by eight feet) to be run up the main mast. The old one had been badly sooted on the journey from Rota.
At 0900 hours, in accordance with its original operating orders, the Liberty made a sharp right-hand turn and reduced speed to five knots. The ship was doubling back in a westerly direction roughly parallel to the Egyptian coast north of El Arish. As Ennes ordered the turn, the Liberty was 25 miles from Gaza and less than 30 miles from the nearest point on the Israeli coast. The ship was now perfectly placed to listen to IDF movement orders – orders for many Israeli units in Sinai to turn around and move north, to assist with the consolidation of Israel’s capture of the West Bank and, more importantly, an attack on Syria. (I was in Sinai at the time reporting for ITN, and I saw some of the Israel tanks that had smashed through Egypt’s defences being loaded onto huge lorry-drawn trailers for transportation northwards).
As the Liberty was turning, a single jet aircraft was watching from a distance. Then, at 1000 hours, two delta-winged jets armed with rockets circled the ship three times. On this occasion the planes came close enough for Ennes and other officers on the bridge to see the pilots in their cockpits through binoculars. The odd thing, or so the Americans on the Liberty’s bridge thought, was that the two planes did not seem to have any markings.
In retrospect, it is obvious that the 1000 hours visit was something of a trial run, to enable the pilots to take a view on whether or not the first set of pictures taken by the Noratlas would enable them to attack the Liberty’s communications facilities with pin-point accuracy.
Events suggest that the two pilots who were to lead the attack were not happy and wanted more photographs to enable them to guarantee such pinpoint accuracy. After their report, the Noratlas made three more over flights: at 1030 hours – this time passing directly over the Liberty at a very low level, probably not more than 200 feet: at 1126 hours; and 1220 hours.
At 1310 hours, with lunch over, the crew of the Liberty conducted a series of drills including fire, damage control and gas attack. That took 40 minutes. Captain McGonagle then addressed the ship’s officers and crew. In the normal course of events he would have confined himself to complimenting them (or not) on the job done in the drills. But on this particular afternoon, the fourth of the war – they could see the smoke of battle on the shoreline, he knew that his men were in need of reassurance. After the Noratlas’s fourth reconnaissance over-flight there had been mutterings of fear. The Israelis had obviously identified the Liberty several times over. What, really, did they want?
McGonagle addressed the concern of his ship’s company by stressing that they had been under surveillance by “friendly” forces. Given that and the fact that they (the friendly forces) could not have failed to identify the Liberty, the captain was implying that his men should dismiss from their minds the possibility of an attack. He was saying – without saying – that the Israelis could not attack the Liberty without knowing it was the Liberty they were attacking.
At 1405 hours the “friends” returned, led by three Mirages each armed with 72 rockets and two 30-mm cannons. This time there was no circling. At high speed they came straight for the Liberty, so fast that between the time they appeared as blips on the ship’s radar and the start of their attack, Ennes and others on the bridge barely had time to grab and focus their binoculars.
For seven minutes the three Mirages made furious, crisscross runs, hitting the Liberty with everything they had. The first rockets fired toppled several of the ship’s antennae. After the Mirages and for about another 20 minutes, the air attack was continued by several Mystere fighters. They were slower than the Mirages and therefore more efficient for staffing and dropping canisters of napalm. (Napalm is a highly inflammable petroleum jelly. In Vietnam I witnessed American ground forces using it in flame-throwers to burn entire villages. It can reduce a human body to a handful of black pulp). The fact that the Israelis resorted to use of napalm for their attack on the Liberty is on its own proof enough that Dayan wanted there to be no survivors to tell the tale.
When the first attack was over the Liberty had 621 holes in its sides and decks, including over 100 rocket holes six to eight inches wide: and not counting the shrapnel damage. As author Richard Smith wrote, Israeli pilots with the greatest ease could “butcher a large, slow moving and defenceless target like the Liberty,” and the Mirages’ ordnance, designed to penetrate the armour of tanks, “punched through the Liberty’s 22 year-old shell-plating like a hammer against an old block of cheese.”
Within a minute or so of the start of the attack Captain McGonagle had ordered a report be made to the Chief of Naval Operations. It was an order he gave more in hope than expectation of it being executed – because he was aware that the ship’s transmission facilities had been the first priority for the attacking planes. But… At 1410 hours, five minutes after the attack started, the Liberty’s Chief Radioman, Wayne Smith, did succeed in transmitting an open-channel “Mayday” distress call for assistance. He was subsequently to tell the Navy Board of Inquiry that as soon as the attack started, the participating planes and/or shore-based units were jamming the Liberty’s radios. He recalled that five of the ship’s six shore circuits were very quickly jammed and that whoever was doing it “went searching” for the last circuit. It was on this last circuit that Smith was able to transmit the call for assistance. Because it was an open-channel transmission, the Israelis obviously heard it. The question then waiting for an answer was – would any of the warships of the American Sixth Fleet hear it and, if they did, how would they respond?
Correction – would they be allowed by President Johnson to respond?
Phase two of the attack was executed by three Israeli motor torpedo boats (MTBs). The Liberty’s crew were fighting the fires caused by the air attack when the MTBs announced their arrival by opening up with their 0.20-mm and 0.40-mm guns. Their main task was to sink the Liberty. For that purpose – could there have been any other? – they fired three torpedoes. One struck the communications room dead centre in Number 3 hold, killing in an instant 25 of the 34 men who died in the entire attack. The 25, including the “Major”, were entombed in the flooded wreckage.
Ten years later, the consequences of the combined air and sea attacks were summarised by one of the surviving crew members, Joseph C. Lentini of Maryland, in a letter to the editor of the Washington Star. It was published on 4 October 1977. Lentini wrote: “In less than 39 minutes a fine ship was reduced to a bullet-ridden, napalm scorched and helpless floating graveyard. In those 39 minutes boys brought up in the peaceful aftermath of a horrendous world war experienced their first, and for some their last, trial of fire.”
The Liberty was now listing nine degrees and the MTBs were circling slowly, directing their canon fire at the ship’s bridge and any activity that could be seen on the deck and, also, at the ship’s waterline in an apparent effort to explode its boilers.
What happened next was yet more evidence that Dayan wanted no survivors.
The order “Prepare to abandon ship!” was followed, naturally, by the lowering of the first lifeboats. As they touched the water the Israeli MTBs moved closer and shot them to pieces. Among the Liberty crewmen who witnessed this was Petty Officer Charles Rowley. He also observed the concentration of machine-gun fire on the life-boats still stored on deck. After the attack he carefully photographed the shredded boats, thinking that one day his pictures would help to tell a story. When eventually he told it to Stephen Green, Rowley said, “They didn’t want anybody to live.”
At 1505 or thereabouts (a time to remember) the MTBs suddenly broke off their attack and departed at high-speed in a “V” formation. They went to a distance of about five miles to await further orders.
The Liberty now had no engines, no rudder and no power. And was taking in water.
Nine of its officers and crew were known dead; another 25 were missing and correctly presumed to be dead (in the communications room that had taken the torpedo); and 171 were wounded. Those who were wounded but not incapacitated joined with the other 90 who had survived unscathed and set about collecting bodies, dressing wounds, fighting fires, stringing lights and hand-operated phone sets, repairing the engines and, above all, trying to keep the Liberty afloat.
While they worked on those tasks, two large Israeli SA-321 Super Frelon helicopters put in an appearance and slowly circled the stricken ship. Both were clearly marked with a large Star of David. A rescue mission? No. (Presumably there had not been time to paint out the Stars of David because the attack was not going according to plan. The Liberty was supposed to have been sunk by now).
The cargo bay doors were open and Liberty crewmen could see that both helicopters were crammed with armed troops (Israeli Special Forces). And a machine gun was mounted in each of the cargo bays.
On the Liberty Captain McGonagle gave the order he deemed to be appropriate. “Standby to repel borders!”
As reported by Ennes, the next voice was that of an ordinary sailor, hysterical but logical and probably speaking for many. “They’ve come to finish us off!”
The Israelis had come to do just that, but not yet. For the moment the helicopter pilots and the commanders of the Special Forces on board were under orders to look – to take their measure of the target – and pass by. To await, like the MTBs, further orders.
How was it going to end?
At 1536 hours the MTBs returned, accompanied by two unmarked, armed jets. They were coming for the kill. They were to finish off the Liberty, sink it – the MTBs with more torpedoes; the Special Forces on board the Super Frelon helicopters to do the mopping up, shooting dead any survivors bobbing in the water.
That was to have been the third and final phase of the Israeli attack, gut-Zionism’s final solution, one might say, to the problem of the Liberty and its secrets. There were to be no survivors to tell the tale of what had really happened, and, just as critical from Dayan’s point of view, no survivors to reveal to the American authorities any of the information the Liberty’s complex intelligence apparatus had gathered about the IDF’s preparations for an invasion of Syria.
But it did not happen. At the last minute the third and final phase of the Israeli attack was aborted. The MTBs and the two jets disappeared. Why?
The short answer is that eight aircraft from the U.S. carriers Saratoga and America were on their way to assist the Liberty with orders to “destroy or drive off any attackers.”
The longer answer is the incredible story of the struggle by elements of the U.S. military to overcome the resistance of an American President to go to the assistance of American servicemen who, defenceless, were under attack by a “friend” and ally.
The first attempt to assist the Liberty was what Green described as a “reflexive” one, meaning that it was the instant response – human as well as professional – of the captain of one of the Sixth Fleet’s aircraft carriers, the U.S.S. Saratoga. Its captain was Joseph Tully.
The Saratoga had received the Liberty’s open-channel “Mayday” distress call and enough information to know that the ship was being attacked by what Radioman Smith had described as “unidentified” aircraft.
By chance the Saratoga was conducting an exercise when it picked up the Liberty’s message and four A-1 Skyhawks were launch-ready on its decks. Captain Tully was handed the Liberty’s message by Navigator Max Morris. After a brief discussion with him, Tully ordered the Saratoga to head into the wind. Less than 15 minutes after the start of the Israeli attack, armed U.S. planes were in the air. The estimated flight time to the Liberty was about 30 minutes. The unthinkable – a confrontation between U.S. and Israeli warplanes – was, it seemed, about to happen.
Over the Sixth Fleet’s Primary Tactical Manoeuvring Circuit radio network Captain Tully then informed the fleet’s Commander, Admiral Martin, of the Liberty’s predicament and his response. Martin not only endorsed Tully’s action, he used the same circuit to order the U.S.S. America, the other carrier in Carrier Task Force 60, also to launch planes to protect the Liberty. But… The America did not respond immediately.
In Green’s reconstruction of events, that was because it was not in the same state of alert or readiness as the Saratoga. That might not have been the whole story. There is evidence that Captain (later Admiral) Donald Engen was not going to launch any of the America’s planes immediately even if he could have done so – because he was insisting on playing by the rules to protect his own back and career prospects. What were the rules? Years later former Congressman Findley was to quote Engen as saying: “President Johnson had very strict control. Even though we knew the Liberty was under attack, I couldn’t just go and order a rescue.”
In any event it was only minutes after the Saratoga’s launch that the Commander of Carrier Task Force 60, Rear Admiral Geis, issued an order for the recall of the A-1s and minutes later they were back on the Saratoga’s deck. They were not to respond to the Liberty’s desperate plea for assistance.
One inference is that Captain Engen communicated with Rear Admiral Geis and said something like, “Should we not clear this with our political masters in Washington?” And that Geis replied, “You bet”, or words to that effect.
President Johnson was very quickly informed – presumably by Defence Secretary McNamara – that the Liberty was under attack and that the Saratoga had launched planes to go to its assistance. Hence the order – from the President to the Defence Secretary – to recall the planes. In Findley’s account the Saratoga’s planes were hardly in the air when McNamara’s voice was heard over Sixth Fleet radios, “Tell the Sixth Fleet to get those aircraft back immediately!”
Initially, President Johnson was – as Green put it – determined “that no U.S. aircraft would be thrust into an adversary role with the IDF, whatever the implication for the struggling U.S.S. Liberty.” Initially, and for the usual domestic political reason – fear of offending Zionism – this President was prepared to sacrifice the lives of 286 of his fellow Americans on board the Liberty.
What was about to happen indicates that for the best part of 30 minutes or so following the political decision to abandon the Liberty and its crew, elements of the U.S. military took on the President and shamed him into changing his mind. Their argument would have been to the effect that not going to the assistance of the Liberty was disgraceful and dishonourable in the extreme. It is reasonable to assume that this struggle with President Johnson (and those of his advisers he was taking most notice of – those who supported Israel right or wrong) was led initially by the Sixth Fleet’s Commander, Admiral Martin, to the cheers no doubt, of Captain Tully. But Martin could not have prevailed without the support of the Chief of Naval Operations and most if not all of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
At about 1500 hours (eastern Mediterranean time) President Johnson changed his mind and authorised some action. At 1505 hours a message from COMSIXTHFLT (Commander Sixth Fleet) was transmitted to the Liberty via plain-language radio. (For U.S. Navy file purposes the message was COMSIXTHFLT 081305Z – Z denoting Greenwich Mean Time, which was two hours earlier than eastern Mediterranean/local Liberty/Israeli time.) The message said: “Your flash traffic received. Sending aircraft to cover you. Surface units on the way. Keep situation reports coming.”
As it happened this message was not received by the Liberty because it had no electricity and was off the air.
Question: Was it co-incidence that at about the time the Commander of the Sixth Fleet was sending his message, the Israeli MTBs were ordered to break off their attack and withdraw five miles to await further instructions? I think not. Though the Liberty was unable to receive Admiral Martin’s plain-language radio message, it would have been picked up by IDF monitors. And that would have been enough for those around Dayan who had opposed the attack – in particular the general who had said it would amount to “pure murder” – to press for it to be called off, or, at least, for the situation to be urgently reviewed. It is also possible that President Johnson, desperate in the extreme to avoid a confrontation with the IDF, authorised Walt Rostow to use his network to inform the Israelis that U.S. warplanes were being launched to go to the Liberty’s assistance.
The next sequence of events, military and political, could not have been more dramatic. A writer of fiction would not have dared to invent them.
- At 1516 hours Carrier Task Force 60 (Rear Admiral Geis now had his backside covered) ordered the Saratoga and the America to launch eight aircraft to assist the Liberty and to “destroy or drive off any attackers.”
- At 1520 hours Admiral Martin informed the Commander of U.S. Armed Forces in Europe that aircraft were being deployed.
- At 1536 hours (as previously noted) the Israeli MTBs moved in for the kill.
- At 1539 Admiral Martin informed the Chief of Naval Operations in Washington of the actions being taken. The eight U.S. warplanes were going to be over the Liberty at about 1600 hours, plus or minus.
- Minutes later the Israeli MTBs were ordered to abort their final attack and get the hell out of the area.
- At 1614 the U.S. Defence Attaché in Tel Aviv informed the White House that the Naval Attaché had been called to the Foreign Liaison Office of the IDF to receive a report that Israeli aircraft and MTBs had “erroneously attacked U.S. ship.” It was “maybe Navy ship.” The Israelis, the Defence Attaché reported, “send abject apologies and request info on other U.S. ships near war zone coasts.“
- With that message in his hands, the Commander in Chief of all U.S. forces, President Johnson, ordered the eight U.S. warplanes to abort their mission and return to their carriers. And he accepted Israel’s explanation. The attack on the Liberty had been a ghastly mistake.
Though it will remain a matter of speculation forever and a day – because the most relevant documents have not been declassified and presumably never will be, I think what really happened in the final minutes of what Findley described as “an episode of heroism and tragedy at sea which is without precedent in American history” was as follows.
- Shortly before 1536, when the MTBs were ordered to resume the attack and go for the kill, Dayan said to himself, and perhaps others, something like the following: “We’re in too deep to get out now. Let’s finish the job while we still have time, just about, to destroy the evidence… so that we can blame the Egyptians.”
- When it was clear that U.S. war planes were on their way – the IDF would have detected them – Dayan’s military colleagues (enough of them), led by the general who had opposed the attack when it was only an idea, insisted that the attack be called off, perhaps indicating that they would expose the defence minister if he did not agree. That is one possible explanation. Another is that it was Prime Minister Eshkol himself who spoke to Dayan on the telephone and said, “Stop!”
Rear Admiral Isaac Kidd was assigned the task of presiding over the Naval Board of Inquiry. Confirming a gagging order issued by Defence Secretary McNamara about not speaking to the media, Kidd instructed Liberty survivors who were to give evidence to refer all questions to the commanding officer or executive officer or to himself. He added: “Answer no questions. If you are backed into a corner, then you may say that it was an accident and that Israel has apologised. You may say nothing else.”
Marked TOP SECRET, the Naval Board’s report was completed on 18 June 1967. It has not been declassified to this day.
But the Defence Department did issue an unclassified summary of the “proceedings” of the inquiry. It was a cover-up. It stated that the Naval Board had had “insufficient information before it to make a judgement on the reasons for the decision by Israeli aircraft and motor torpedo boats to attack.”
The contribution to the cover-up by Zionism’s apologists in Congress was swift, well co-ordinated but not very well informed. In the House of Representatives Roman Pucinski from Illinois rose to ask for permission to speak for one minute while they were debating saline water. He said:
“Mr. Speaker, it was with a heavy heart that we learned a little while ago of the tragic mistake which occurred in the Mediterranean when an Israeli ship mistakenly attacked an American ship and killed four of our boys and injured and wounded 53 others. These are the tragic consequences of armed conflict: such mistakes happen frequently in Vietnam. It would be my hope that this tragic mistake will not obscure the traditional friendship we in the United States have with the people of Israel. The Israeli government has already apologised… ”
The printed version of Pucinski’s statement in The Congressional Record for the day was headlined “Tragic Mistake”.
On the floor of the Senate the performances were more impressive. In the first five paragraphs of his statement, Senator Jacob Javits, pro-Israel right or wrong – and a heavyweight and persistent critic of the State Department – referred five times to the accidental nature of the attack. As Green noted, Javits even explained how such a mistake could occur.
“Mr. President, I must say it is a great tribute to the valour of the troops of Israel that this morning I have heard Senator after Senator say that while they were terribly dismayed and saddened by this accident, they understood how it could take place under the terrible stresses the forces of Israel have been under in these last few weeks.” (i.e. because the Zionist state was, allegedly, in danger of being exterminated).
Through its mouthpieces in Congress and elsewhere, and endorsed by the Johnson administration, Zionism’s message to the people of America was, effectively: “Because the attack was a mistake, and because Israel has apologised, let’s forget about it.”
But there must have been a sense of alarm in Zionism’s ranks when, on 19 June, the day after the Naval Board completed its inquiry, the following item appeared in Newsweek’s “Periscope” section.
“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.”
Except in one respect the item contained the essence of the totally shocking truth. In retrospect it can be seen that the item was in error only to the extent that the “someone”, Dayan, was not concerned by any evidence the Liberty had gathered that could prove Israel started the war. Those in Washington’s war-loop knew that. Dayan’s purpose was to prevent the spy ship giving President Johnson warning of his intention to invade Syria.
But the alarm was short-lived. Zionism had enough friends in the mainstream media, and more than enough influence of various kinds to intimidate writers and broadcasters who were not pro-Israel right or wrong, to prevent the matter of what had really happened being pursued in public.
In private the one top-level American official who initially refused to be a party to the cover-up was Secretary of State Dean Rusk. Like all of his predecessors, and because he believed it was his duty to put America’s interests first, he had to live with Zionism’s smears to the effect that he was anti-Israel. Rusk was outraged by the Johnson administration’s collusion with Israel for war. In fact he was so concerned about the damage being done to America’s interests in the Middle East by Johnson’s decision to take sides with Israel that, at a meeting in Luxembourg, he told NATO Secretary General Manlio Brosio and others in attendance some of the truth about the attack on the Liberty.
We know this from a secret telegram that was de-classified in 1983 as a result of Green’s persistence. It was sent by U.S. NATO Ambassador Harland Cleveland to Under-Secretary of State Eugene Rostow, Walt’s brother. Cleveland’s cable said: “Quite apart from Newsweek Periscope item, Secretary’s comments to Brosio and several foreign ministers at Luxembourg about Israeli foreknowledge that Liberty was a U.S. ship piqued a great deal of curiosity among NATO delegations. Would appreciate guidance as to how much of this curiosity I can satisfy, and when.”
It can be taken as read that Walt advised Eugene to do everything he could to shut his boss up.
So far as I am aware, the question nobody has attempted to answer in public is this: Who was the Israeli general who opposed Dayan’s decision to attack the Liberty and said it would amount to “pure murder“?
Despite the fact that in his own memoirs he went along with the fiction that Israeli pilots failed to identify the Liberty as a U.S. ship and that the attack was a tragic mistake, I think it was, very probably, Chief of Staff Rabin – the Israeli leader who, many years later as prime minister, was stopped from advancing the peace process with Arafat and his PLO by an assassin in gut-Zionism’s name. And I think so for a number of reasons.
Rabin was at one with Prime Minister Eshkol in believing that Israel could and should live within its pre-1967 war borders. And as we have also seen, Rabin’s own plan for military action in the summer of 1967 was for a strictly limited operation against Egypt, and only Egypt, a strategy Dayan described as “absurd.”
As it was happening Rabin was opposed to the IDF’s gobbling up of the West Bank. At a meeting of senior officers with Dayan present, Rabin had asked, “How do we control one million Arabs?” He meant: “We won’t be able to. The idea of occupation is madness. We could well be sowing the seeds of catastrophe for the Jewish state.” The only response Rabin got was by way of a correction. A staff officer said: “Actually it’s one million, two hundred and fifty thousand.” As Shlaim noted, Rabin had asked the question to which no one had an answer. The real point was that nobody in the military high command except Rabin wanted to think about the implications of what the IDF was doing. More Arab land was there for the taking, so take it.
Rabin was opposed to an invasion of Syria. In his memoirs he wrote that Dayan ordered the attack on Syria “for reasons I have never grasped.” In my analysis that was Rabin pulling his punches. He knew why Dayan ordered the attack on Syria – to take the Golan Heights to complete the creation of Greater Israel; but he, Rabin, was not going to say so except by implication.
When the Liberty was being attacked, the insider gossip in Israel was that Rabin had “lost his nerve… cracked under the pressure… was drinking heavily… was under the table… a disgrace.” I first heard this gossip from Israeli friends I knew to be very close to Dayan. And it was former DMI Herzog who confirmed to me that such rumours were rife. In retrospect I think the gossip was inspired by Dayan to give him scope to discredit Rabin if the need arose – if he so much as hinted to anybody outside the command circle that he had tried to prevent the attack on the Liberty. (Could it not be said that the idea of attacking the Liberty was enough to drive any rational human being, even an Israeli general, to drink?) The idea that Rabin might have been tempted to make trouble for Dayan is not unthinkable if he shared -and he probably did – Eshkol’s private view of Israel’s warlord.
When the prime minister learned that Dayan had ordered the attack on Syria without consulting or informing himself or Chief of Staff Rabin, he thought about cancelling the order and said of Dayan, to his aide-de-camp, “What a vile man.” That quotation was unearthed by Shlaim. What could have made Eshkol resort to such extraordinary language? My guess is that use of the adjective “vile” reflected most of all the prime minister’s horror at Dayan’s ordering of the attack on the Liberty.
As related by Seymour Hersh, Eshkol also had a pungent way of expressing his grave doubts about the wisdom of keeping occupied territory. After the war Abe Feinberg visited Israel and Eshkol said to him (in Yiddish): “What am I going to do with a million Arabs? They fuck like rabbits.”
With the Liberty taken out of the equation, the first indication official Washington had of Dayan’s intentions thereafter was in the form of a “flash” telegram to Secretary of State Rusk from Evan Wilson, the U.S. Consul General in Jerusalem. (“Flash” was the highest precedence designation for State messages). Quoting the UN’s General Odd Bull, the telegram said that Israel had launched an “intensive air and artillery bombardment” of Syrian positions, and that Wilson assumed it was a “prelude to a large-scale attack.” That message was sent, flashed, at about 1530 hours local time, just before Dayan ordered the MTBs to finish off the Liberty.
Rusk was furious and wanted to take immediate action. The fact that it took him the best part of an hour to get President Johnson’s permission to read the riot act to Israel suggests that he had a considerable amount of internal opposition to overcome. (I can imagine the Rostow brothers joining forces – Eugene in the State Department, Walt in the White House – to have the President clip the Secretary of State’s wings). Rusk’s eventual response was another “flash” message in the form of an instruction to Walworth Barbour, the U.S. Ambassador to Israel. He was ordered, urgently, to approach the Israeli Foreign Ministry at the highest level to express “deep concern” at the new indication of military action by Israel. The text of Rusk’s instruction to Barbour included the following:
“If reported bombardment correct, we would presume it prelude to military action against Syrian positions on Syrian soil. Such a development, following on heels Israeli acceptance cease-fire resolution would cast doubts on Israeli intentions and create gravest problems for [U.S. government] representatives in Arab countries. You should stress we must at all costs have complete cessation Israeli military action except in cases where clearly some replying fire is necessary in self-defence.”
After making his representation as instructed, Ambassador Barbour sought to defend the IDF’s softening up of Syria’s positions by reminding Rusk that Syria had not yet accepted the Security Council’s demand for a cease-fire (as, I add, Jordan and Egypt had actually done and Israel had falsely claimed to have done). It was true that the Syrians were still shooting from fixed positions in their own territory – but in response to the IDF’s bombardment; and, also, because Syria’s leaders were putting on a token show, to enable them to score points against Nasser in the Arab world by claiming that they had held out longer than him. The Johnson administration knew the Syrian regime had honoured its secret pre-war deal with Israel by not advancing its land forces from their defensive positions, so when Rusk flashed instructions to Barbour he knew that the Syrian army posed no threat to Israel.
In reality any hope the Johnson administration had of stopping the Israelis had been destroyed by their attack on the Liberty.
That evening, Thursday 8 June, Nasser intervened to stop the Syrians – in the hope of stopping the Israelis. The Egyptian President sent the following message to his Syrian counterpart, Nur ed-Din al Atassi: “I believe that Israel is about to concentrate all of its forces against Syria in order to destroy the Syrian army and regard for the common cause obliges me to advise you to agree to the ending of hostilities and to inform U Thant immediately, in order to preserve Syria’s great army. We have lost this battle.”
The message ended:
“May God help us in the future. Your brother, Gamal Abdul Nasser.”
That Nasser message, no doubt like all others, was intercepted by Israeli military intelligence. In the margin of a copy of it, Dayan scribbled the following note:
The Syrian leadership took Nasser’s advice and announced its acceptance of the cease-fire. It came into effect at 0520 hours the following morning, Friday 9 June. So far as the Arabs and the organised international community represented by the UN were concerned, the war was over.
The Syrian leadership took Nasser’s advice and announced its acceptance of the cease-fire. It came into effect at 0520 hours the following morning, Friday 9 June. So far as the Arabs and the organised international community represented by the UN were concerned, the war was over.
- taking the lead in demanding that Israel withdraw unconditionally, which would have required the Johnson administration to confront Zionism; or
- admitting that the U.S. had taken sides and was irrevocably committed to Zionism right or wrong – whatever the consequences for America’s own longer term best interests. In this case the world would have known, before 1967 had run its course, that the U.S could not be an honest and therefore an effective broker of peace in the Middle East.