The USS Liberty, a US intelligence gathering ship, was steaming more than 10 miles off the coast of El Arish on June 8, 1967, the fourth day of the Six Day War, when at around 2 P.M. Israeli jets, responding to reports of shelling from the sea, attacked with cannon and napalm. Soon afterwards Israeli torpedo boats arrived at the scene and also attacked after first being fired upon by the Liberty. The Israeli seamen later explained they mistook the Liberty for an Egyptian ship, the El Quesir, but when they realized their target was a US ship, they ceased firing and offered assistance. Tragically, thirty-four US personnel were killed in the attack, and another 171 were wounded. Adding to the tragedy is that the Liberty should not have been there at all – with war already underway, it had been ordered by US commanders to stay 100 miles away from the coast. But a series of mistakes by communications personnel delayed the message from reaching the ship until after the attack.
The Israelis have always maintained that the attack on the Liberty was a tragic mistake, caused by the fog of war. They immediately apologized for the attack and later paid compensation to the families. But certain crewmen of the Liberty have charged that Israel deliberately and knowingly attacked the US ship, and have advanced increasingly complicated and even bizarre theories to explain Israel’s alleged motivation for such an act. In addition, author James Bamford has cited similarly baseless and contradictory theories in his two books on the National Security Agency (the actual intelligence gathering by the Liberty was the responsibility of NSA personnel).
Some Liberty crewmen and likeminded conspiracists have also charged that the US government, including the Congress, has failed to investigate the attack on the Liberty. In fact, contrary to these claims, there have been at least six government investigations which reached relevant conclusions as to the facts of the attack. Those investigations, and their results, are as follows:
June 13, 1967
No malice; attack a mistake
U.S. Navy Court of Inquiry
June 18, 1967
Report by Clark Clifford
July 18, 1967
No evidence ship was known to be American
Senate Select Committee on Intelligence
No merit to claims attack was intentional
National Security Agency
House Armed Services Committee
No support for claims attack was intentional
The last investigation was spurred by White House Chief of Staff John Sununu, who, after meeting with Liberty veterans, referred them to Representative Nick Mavroules, chairman of the Subcommittee on Investigations of the House Armed Services Committee. After a one year investigation the matter was closed, the investigators evidently finding nothing to support conspiracy claims or any Israeli intentions to attack a US ship. (The Liberty Incident: The 1967 Attack on the U.S. Navy Spy Ship , by Judge A. Jay Cristol, Potomac)
Claims by certain USS Liberty crewmen vs. their sworn testimony
It is instructive to compare some of the claims by conspiracists, including some of the crewmembers, with sworn testimony by those same crewmembers.
• For example, crewmember Lloyd Painter claimed in a History Channel documentary that he saw “unmarked jets, no markings whatsoever” pass over the ship, thus clearly implying that the attack was intentional and premeditated. Painter’s claim contradicts his sworn testimony before the U.S. Navy’s Court of Inquiry, in which he makes no such assertion. Lt. Painter testified, under oath, that as the jets first strafed the ship (which would be before they passed over the ship) he was:
... looking through the porthole at the gun mounts. I was looking through the porthole when I was trying to contact these two kids, and I saw them both; well, I didn't exactly see them as such. They were blown apart, but I saw the whole area go up in smoke and shattered metal. And, at about the same time the aircraft strafed the bridge area itself. The quartermaster, quartermaster third class Pollard was standing right next to me, and he was hit, evidently with flying glass from the porthole... we both hit the deck, as well as Mr. O'Malley, who was my JOOD at the time. As soon as the first strafing raid had been made, we sounded general quarters alarm. The captain was on the bridge. He was in the pilot house at this time. I don't know whether he was hit then or not, I can't remember. It was so smokey. I took off for my general quarters station, which as I said before, was repair three on the mess decks. On the way down I was running as fast as I could. (Testimony of LTJG Lloyd C. Painter, June 14, 1967)
Thus, according to Lt. Painter’s sworn testimony he was looking at the Liberty’s gun mounts as the jets attacked, at which point he quite understandably “hit the deck.” When the first strafing run was over, Lt. Painter ran as fast as he could to his station below decks; he was therefore in no position to determine whether the attacking jets were marked or unmarked. At no point in his testimony did he claim that the jets were unmarked or even that he was in a position to tell.
Contrary to Lt. Painter’s claim that the attacking jets were “unmarked,” Signalman Russell David testified that he saw Israeli insignia on the attacking jets and reported this to the Captain. Most conspiracy theorists have ignored David’s testimony.
• Conspiracy theorists have also ignored Captain McGonagle's sworn testimony that the attacking torpedo boats were flying Israeli flags:
When the boats reached an approximate range of 2,000 yards, the center boat of the formation was signaling to us. Also, at this range, it appeared that they were flying an Israeli flag. This was later verified. It was not possible to read the signals from the center torpedo boat because of the intermittent blocking of view by smoke and flames. At this time I yelled to machine gun 51 to tell him to hold fire. I realized that there was a possibility of the aircraft having been Israeli and the attack had been conducted in error. (Sworn testimony of Cdr. William L. McGonagle, June 14, 1967; emphasis added)
• Claims have been made by Mr. Painter that Israeli torpedo boats machine-gunned Liberty life rafts that had been placed in the water, which if true could be a violation of the laws of war:
PAINTER: I climbed the ladder and opened the hatch and looked out to the sea, and what I saw was the Israeli torpedo boats machine gunning our life rafts in the water as they floated behind our ship.
But once again Mr. Painter contradicts both his own sworn testimony before the Court of Inquiry, and that of his Captain. The Court’s opening question to Lt. Painter, after name, rank and organization, was:
On 8 June 1967, at about 1400 hours, an incident occurred aboard the USS Liberty in which the vessel was attacked. Would you please relate to this Court of Inquiry what you recall concerning that incident?
Nowhere in his response did Lt. Painter mention anything about Israeli attacks on life rafts in the water. On the contrary, he testified that most of the life rafts had been damaged and set alight during the prior jet attacks on the ship, and that his crew pushed many of these burning life rafts overboard:
At this time [after the torpedo attack], the DC central passed the word to prepare to abandon ship. We then filed out to our life rafts which were no longer with us because they had been strafed and most of them were burned, so we knocked most of them over the side... All during this time in Repair Three, my men were fighting fires and knocking burning life rafts, etc.
What possible reason could Lt. Painter have had for omitting in his testimony the charge which he now makes, that Israel attacked the Liberty’s life boats after they were put in the water? Why does he now fail to mention that in fact he and his crew pushed the burning life rafts overboard?
Whatever the reason for the divergence between Mr. Painter’s present claims and his testimony, Captain McGonagle also never mentioned any attack on life boats during his testimony. On the contrary, he testified that after the torpedo attack some crewmen mistakenly put life boats in the water, and that he ordered them to stop because the ship was in no danger of sinking:
No bodies were noted in the vicinity of the ship following the explosion. Several life rafts, however, were released and placed into the water by various crew members whom I was unable to communicate with prior to their placing the boats in the water. They exercised their initiative on the scene, and no fault can be found with their estimate, not having the information that I had. When the messenger was sent to tell them to leave the lifeboats alone, that the ship was in no danger of sinking at that time, but that the lifeboats might be needed at a later time, no additional lifeboats were placed in the water. (Testimony of Cdr. McGonagle)
Does it seem reasonable that Cdr. McGonagle, having mentioned in his testimony the placing of the life boats in the water, would somehow forget to tell the Court of Inquiry that these life boats were then attacked?
Most historians would agree that it is highly improper to allow someone who has testified under oath, like Mr. Painter, to later contradict that testimony in an article or documentary without informing readers or viewers of the contradiction, and without vigorously confronting the person to explain the contradiction. Unfortunately few writers on the Liberty incident have done so.
One of the key charges leveled by conspiracy theorists, and some of the crew members, is that the Israeli jets and torpedo boats could not have missed the Liberty’s US flag, and therefore must have attacked knowing the ship was American. James Ennes, Jr., a Lieutenant on the Liberty, and one of the leading conspiracy proponents, makes this point repeatedly in his book Assault on the Liberty.
It is therefore quite ironic that Mr. Ennes also argues in his book it would have been impossible for Cdr. McGonagle to recognize the flags and markings on the Israeli boats:
McGonagle must have been mistaken about sighting the Israeli flag at this point in the attack. For one thing, it would have been practically impossible to identify a tiny and wildly fluttering Star of David a mile away, particularly since any flags displayed by the torpedo boats would have streamed back, away from McGonagle and out of his line of sight. (Assault on the Liberty, p 149 )
Cdr. McGonagle, who had binoculars, obviously did not agree. In addition, the Israeli jets attacked the Liberty along the length of the ship, so that Liberty’s flag would also have “streamed back, away from” the “line of sight” of the pilots.
Mr. Ennes has also made the absurd claim that some sort of Israeli jamming prevented the Liberty from transmitting or receiving any signals during most of the time the ship was under attack:
While we were trying to send our message for help there was some sort of obvious jamming, there was a buzz saw sound that blocked all of the frequencies. The jamming seemed to cover everything at all times unless [sic] the very few seconds that missiles were in the air, and then it stopped, and during those times they got out our message.
Mr. Ennes’s assertion raises an obvious question. According to Ennes and many conspiracists the Liberty was attacked to prevent it from intercepting sensitive Israeli radio messages. But why would the Israelis bother to attack the ship if as Ennes claims they were able to jam all the Liberty’s frequencies? Why not just jam the frequencies and avoid the risk of attacking a US ship?
It should also be noted that Ennes’s claim that the Liberty’s outgoing signals were jammed is physically impossible. The Liberty would have been able to send its distress calls no matter what jamming the Israelis might have attempted. (The technical reason is that incoherent radiation sources cannot interfere with eachother.)
• Many conspiracy theorists have also charged that the Israeli torpedo boats fired first, and only then did the Liberty fire back. Cdr. McGonagle explicitly stated in his sworn testimony that the Liberty fired first, even as he recognized the boats as Israeli and tried to get his gunners to hold their fire:
MCGONAGLE: In the latter moments of the air attack, it was noted that three high speed boats were approaching the ship from the northeast on a relative bearing of approximately 135 at a distance of about 15 miles. The ship at the time was still on course 263 true, speed unknown, but believed to be in excess of five knots. At no time did the ship stop during the air attack. It is believed that the time of initial sighting of the torpedo boats, the time was about 1420. The boats appeared to be in a wedge type formation with the center boat the lead point of the wedge. Estimated speed of the boats was about 27 to 30 knots. They appeared to be about 150 to 200 yards apart. It appeared that they were approaching the ship in a torpedo launch attitude, and since I did not have direct communication with gun control or the gun mounts, I told a man from the bridge, whose identity I do not recall, to proceed to mount 51 and take the boats under fire. The boats continued to approach the ship at high speed and on a constant bearing with decreasing range. About this time I noticed that our Ensign had been shot away during the air attack and ordered DAVID, signalman, to hoist a second Ensign from the yardarm. During the air attack, our normal Ensign was flying. Before the torpedo attack, a holiday size Ensign was hoisted. [Unreadable] standby for torpedo attack from starboard. I did not have an accurate ship's position at this time, but I knew that to the left of the ship's course at that time lie shoal waters and by turning to the left I would be approaching land closer than had been given me in directives which I held in that instant in time. I realized that if I attempted to turn to starboard, I would expose a larger target to the torpedo boats. I elected to maintain a heading of 283 at maximum speed. When the boats reached an approximate range of 2,000 yards, the center boat of the formation was signalling to us. Also, at this range, it appeared that they were flying an Israli (sic) flag. This was later verified. It was not possible to read the signals from the center torpedo boat because of the intermittent blocking of view by smoke and flames. At this time, I yelled to machine gun 51 to tell him to hold fire. I realized that there was a possibility of the aircraft having been Israli and the attack had been conducted in error. I wanted to hold fire to see if we could read the signal from the torpedo boat and perhaps avoid additional damage and personnel injuries.
The man on machine gun 51 fired a short burst at the boats before he was able to understand what I was attempting to have him do. Instantly, on machine gun 51 opening fire machine gun 53 began firing at the center boat. From the starboard wing of the bridge, 03 level, I observed that the fire from machine gun 53 was extremely effective and blanketed the area and the center torpedo boat. It was not possible to get to mount 53 from the starboard wing of the bridge. I sent Mr. LUCAS around the port-side of the bridge, around to the skylights, to see if he could tell QUINTERO, whom I believed to be the gunner on machine gun 53, to hold fire until we were able to clarify the situation. He reported back in a few minutes in effect that he saw no one at mount 53. As far as the torpedo boats were concerned, I am sure that they felt they were under fire from the USS LIBERTY. At this time they opened fire with their gun mounts and in a matter of seconds one torpedo was noted crossing astern of the ship at about 25 yards.
• The Israelis have stated that when the torpedo boats realized the Liberty was a US ship they stopped the attack and offered assistance. Mr. Ennes has termed this “the purest of baloney”:
They claim that they came alongside and immediately offered help. Well, that is the purest of baloney. Instead of offering help, they circled us several times, machine gunning anything that moved. Pulled out, came in, machine gunned the life rafts in the water.
Despite Mr. Ennes’s denial, the Captain testified that the Israelis did indeed offer help:
MCGONAGLE: Immediately after the ship was struck by the torpedo, the torpedo boats stopped dead in the water and milled around astern of the ship at a range of approximately 500 to 800 yards. One of the boats signalled by flashing light, in English, “Do you require assistance”?
This was confirmed, under oath, by Chief Communications Technician Harold J. Thompson:
THOMPSON: ... I was asked to report to the bridge, which I did. When I got up there, Signalman David was attempting to rig a hand light. I assisted him. We went to the starboard wing of the bridge and one torpedo boat was making a run straight at us off the starboard beam while the other two stood off. At the Captain’s direction, David sent, “US Naval Ship” “US Naval Ship.” When they were about 500 yards off, the torpedo boat turned astern and came up on the stern on the starboard side and flashed, “do you need help.” ... The Captain ... said “no, thank you.” We sent this back to the boat ... and saw on the last part of that message ... “Do you want us to standby?” I passed this word to the Captain. He said, “no, thank you.” We sent this to the patrol boat. They came up along the port side, I say roughly 100 yards off, flashed “good luck” ... and disappeared. That was the last we saw of them.
In addition, note that contrary to Ennes’s claim, neither the Captain nor Chief Communications Technician Thompson mention any Israeli machine gun attacks on the Liberty after the torpedo attack; on the contrary, they both recounted Israeli offers of assistance. Did they somehow fail to notice that the Israelis kept “machine gunning anything that moved,” or did Mr. Ennes once again lie?
• Another claim by some conspiracy theorists is that Israel attacked the Liberty to prevent the US from learning about Israel’s plans to attack Syria. This is nonsense for at least two reasons:
1. At its location off El-Arish, the Liberty was in no position to eavesdrop on any Israeli plans concerning Syria, because such plans would not have been discussed over the Israeli communications net so far to the south.
2. On June 8th at 11:30 AM, before the Liberty was attacked, Israel’s Chief of Military Intelligence briefed the US Ambassador to Israel, Walworth Barbour, and President Johnson’s close aide, Harry McPherson. According to Ambassador Barbour’s now- declassified cable summarizing that briefing, the Israelis told the Americans that:
... the principal task of the IDF now was to exploit its success. There still remained the Syrian problem and perhaps it would be necessary to give Syria a blow to get more quote elbow room unquote.
Obviously the Israelis would not have attacked an American ship to hide their intentions to retaliate against Syria, if they had already revealed those intentions to senior American representatives.
• The Israeli jets that attacked the Liberty were diverted from other targets, and consequently were armed with napalm rather than iron bombs. In a premeditated and deliberate attack meant to sink a ship, no aviator in the world would choose napalm over iron bombs. In the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor, for example, iron bombs sank US battleships in minutes, and the Liberty, a converted freighter, was no battleship.
• Friendly fire – mistaken attacks against allies or one’s own forces – are an unfortunate reality of war. For example, of the 24 British soldiers killed in the Gulf War, nine were as the result of a mistaken US attack. (AP, August 28, 1992)
That US air attack, on British armored personnel carriers in broad daylight, bore eerie similarities to the Liberty incident. According to a report in the Washington Post:
... they had been killed on a clear day well behind the allied front line while awaiting instructions and relaxing inside their vehicles.
British officials contend that the two American pilots whose air-launched Maverick missiles turned the pair of vehicles into human incinerators either ignored radio instructions or misread map coordinates. The pilots of the A-10 “tankbuster” warplanes contend they never received the coordinates and relied instead on information passed on by a fellow American F-16 jet fighter pilot as he left the area for refueling.
The conflict between the two accounts has left the parents puzzled and angry, their outrage compounded by the refusal of the U.S. government to provide direct testimony from the pilots to a coroner’s inquest taking place here – and by Britain’s refusal to press the case. (Washington Post, May 18, 1992)
One week earlier the New York Times had reported:
The American pilots say they mistook the two British armored vehicles for Iraqi tanks because they were not displaying colored panels or other markings identifying them as allied vehicles. The British Defense Ministry, as well as witnesses at the hearings, insisted all of the vehicles, 30-ton armored personnel carriers called Warriors, were clearly showing friendly markings...
... When the first missile hit, Lance Cpl. Peter Fyfe said at the inquest on Friday, the men had just returned to the vehicle after stretching their legs.
Suddenly there was a tremendous explosion, “My mates were screaming and my hair was on fire and pieces of shrapnel were in my thigh,” said Corporal Fyfe, who was badly wounded. Three or four minutes later, a second missile slammed into another of the vehicles. (New York Times, May 11, 1992)
How could the US pilots misidentify and attack British armored vehicles in broad daylight in the desert? Is it possible they couldn’t tell the difference between the APC’s of our British NATO allies and the Soviet-supplied ones used by Iraq? How could they have missed the special markers that identified the vehicles as British?
The answer, of course, is that in the fog of war the US pilots missed the markers by mistake and misidentified the British armored vehicles, just like the Israelis who missed the flag (which was hanging down in still air) of the USS Liberty and misidentified her as an Egyptian ship.
Another instructive example of mistaken attack occurred on June 2, 1967, just a few days before the Liberty incident, but this involved a US attack against the Russian freighter Turkestan in the North Vietnamese harbor of Cam Pha. According to the Soviet Captain of the vessel (as quoted in Cristol):
We were bearing all the markings of the Soviet government, a Soviet flag was flying from the stern mast. The stack was painted with a red stripe and a hammer and sickle... The visibility was excellent. There is no possibility of talking about an accidental attack ...( Cristol, p 4-5)
Secretary of Defense McNamara mentioned this incident in testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1967:
Secretary McNamara: ...In the case of the attack on the Liberty, it was the conclusion of the investigatory body headed by an Admiral of the Navy in whom we have great confidence that the attack was not intentional. I read the record of the investigation, and support that conclusion, ....
It was not a conscious decision on the part of either the Government of Israel--
Senator Hickenlooper: Perhaps not.
Secretary McNamara: (Continuing) To attack a U.S. Vessel.
Secretary McNamara: No. There is no evidence that the individuals attacking the Liberty knew they were attacking a U.S. ship, and there is some evidence, circumstantial, that they did not know it.
Secretary McNamara: Senator Hickenlooper, I don't want to carry the torch for the Israeli. It was an inexcusable error in judgment.
Secretary McNamara: And an inexcusable error of professional tactics. I would simply point out to you that, at the same time, I was denying that we had struck a Russian ship in Haiphong Harbor [sic] and I proved to be in error. These errors do occur. We had no more intention of attacking a Russian ship than Israel apparently did of attacking an American ship. (Cristol, p 156)
Another claim by conspiracy theorists, especially John Borne, author of The USS Liberty: Dissenting History vs. Official History, concerns US carrier pilots who were allegedly called back after they had taken off to help the Liberty during the attack. Borne claims that the pilots were so upset at this that “although on active duty they wrote a magazine article about this, a most unusual action,” and he indicates in a footnote (number 27) that the supposed article appeared in a magazine called Counterattack. In the footnote Borne also asserts, in classic conspiratorial style, “The article was in July 1967. All copies around that date are missing in New York libraries and I have not yet been able to locate other copies.” Has Borne never heard of interlibrary loan? Harvard has the magazine in its Widener Library – it is a journal of the far-right, alleging communist conspiracies under every bed. While there is mention of the attack on the Liberty in the issue of July 14, 1967, there is no article written by the pilots or any other personnel involved in any way with the Liberty incident. Mr. Borne’s claim that the US pilots wrote an article in this magazine is pure fantasy.
• Appendix: The disturbing statements of a leading Liberty crewman
James Ennes, perhaps the leading conspiracy proponent among the former Liberty crewmen, has made extreme anti-Jewish and anti-Israel statements in e-mail discussions on the Prodigy internet service. For example, in a message dated June 8, 1992 referring to Jews, Mr. Ennes stated:
... Consider their dilemma: For generations they wanted their own country as a haven from racists. Finally they got it. Gradually they learned that their “leaders” obtained the new country by murdering and frightening away the original owners. Gradually they learned that the new leaders were actually the worst kind of self-centered, amoralistic murderers - worse than the people they sought to flee from.
This was too much of a moral dilemma for many of them. Some drew silent. Others turned against the people who betrayed them and now led their new country. Others pretended that all was well and that the new country was surrounded by extremists and that this condition justified every kind of brutal excess.[sic] And over the years they have instilled this narrow view in their children who now accept it as religious dogma. It is a very sad situation indeed.
Of course, the people that Jews fled from were first and foremost the Nazis, so Mr. Ennes is saying that Israel’s leaders are “amoralistic murderers” who are “worse” than the Nazis.
In another message dated July 22, 1992, Mr. Ennes stated:
... the fact is Israel would have no enemies if they did not constantly raid their neighbors, steal their land, take their water and kill their children.
Mr. Ennes’s statements are nonsense copied directly from his apparent good friends in the pro-Arab propaganda industry. Clearly, if before the attack on the Liberty Mr. Ennes was not an extreme anti-Israel partisan, he has become one since. His allegations concerning the Liberty must be viewed in that unpleasant context.