On June 8, 1967, during the Six-Day War in which Israel attacked Egypt, Jordan and Syria, the USS Liberty, an electronic surveillance ship, was stationed in international waters about 30 miles northwest of Arish, the largest Egyptian city on the Sinai Peninsula. She was flying a large 5' x 8' stars and stripes American flag.
Lt. Commander James Ennis, the Electronic Materials Officer, was on the bridge that morning. He recalls that just after 9:00, a twin-engine Noratlas surveillance plane overflew the Liberty several times, followed a few minutes later by two French-made Dassault Mystères, all unmarked with insignia of any country. Incognito. Crew members testified that when the Msytère fighters first overflew the Liberty, they were close enough, 200' off the deck, for sunbathing sailors to wave to the pilots and for them to wave back. Minutes later two more Mystères arrived and attacked the Liberty with 30-mm cannons. One hour later, three torpedo boats sped toward the Liberty and launched three torpedoes, one blew a 40' x 40' hole in her hull, killing 26 NSA technicians and linguists working below the waterline.
Ennis and other surviving Liberty crew members testified that the Mystère pilots first targeted the Liberty's communication gear, preventing it from transmitting a distress signal to the U.S. 6th Fleet until one quick-thinking sailor duct-taped an antenna to the bridge. The torpedo boats then shot up and sank three life rafts that the Liberty's commanding officer, Captain William L. McGonagle, had ordered into the water after the first attack.
When it was all over - the attacks spanned two hours from start to finish, as long as Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor - 34 U.S. sailors were dead and 171 wounded, a 70% casualty rate, the worst attack on a U.S. Navy vessel since World War II. Incredibly, the Liberty stayed afloat and limped into Malta for repairs. Citations for the Liberty's crew: a Medal of Honor, two Navy Crosses, 11 Silver Stars and more than 200 Purple Hearts. The Mystére pilots jammed all five of the Liberty's emergency channels, but one SOS got through. Navy fighters were launched from the America and the Saratoga, two U.S. carriers only 40 minutes flying time away, but were recalled on orders from Defense Secretary Robert McNamara. The reason? U.S. Navy and intelligence services had quickly identified the unmarked fighters and torpedo boats as Israeli.
J.Q. "Tony" Hart, then a chief petty officer assigned to a Navy relay station in Morocco, told the Chicago Tribune in 2007 that he listened in on McNamara's call, and in ordering the carrier pilots to stand down, McNamara stated, "President Johnson is not going to go to war or embarrass an American ally over a few sailors."
In response to formal U.S. protests and demands for an explanation, Israel first claimed that it had asked the Pentagon to identify any U.S. ships in the area and was told there were none. Then, that the Liberty was not flying its flag and did not respond to calls to identify itself, and finally that in the "fog of war," its pilots had mistaken the Liberty for an Egyptian ship, El Quiser. In the law, this is called pleading in the alternative; in short, if you don't believe our first explanation, here's a second and a third.
President Lyndon Johnson was skeptical, but under pressure from American Jewish leaders he accepted Israel's story, and McNamara instructed Adm. Isaac C. Kidd Jr., who presided over the official U.S. Navy Court of Inquiry, to issue findings that the attack was a case of “mistaken identity and gross negligence," but not malice." It was a whitewash, and almost no one in Washington was buying it.
The Liberty was bristling with large antennas and radar dishes. El Quiser was a 1920s-era horse carrier, half the Liberty's length and one-quarter her displacement, that had been parked and rusting away for years at an Alexandria dock. Admiral Thomas H. Moorer, then Chief of Naval Operations, told the Washington Post that the Liberty was “the ugliest, strangest looking ship in the U.S. Navy, [. . .] it looked like a lobster, [. . .],“ and for the Israelis "to suggest that they could not identify [it] is . . . ridiculous . . . [like not being able] to tell the difference between the White House and the Washington monument [. . .] Israel knew perfectly well the ship was American.”
In a cable to Avraham Harman, Israel's Ambassador to the U.S., Secretary of State Dean Rusk stated, "At the time of the attack, the Liberty was flying the American flag and its identification was clearly marked in large white letters on its hull . . . readily visible from the air. . . . There is every reason to believe that the Liberty was identified, at least its nationality determined, one hour before the attack." And after the Liberty's flag was shredded by cannon fire, the crew replaced it with a much larger 13' American flag, but the attacks continued. Rusk later wrote, "I didn't believe them [Israelis] then, and I don't believe them now."
U.S. intelligence analysts working in three different NSA listening posts around the world say that within hours after the attack they read transcripts of intercepted communications confirming that the Israelis knew they were attacking a U.S. naval vessel. Air Force Capt. Richard Block, commanding an intelligence unit on Crete, recalls that in the transcripts he read, "way beyond Top Secret," the Israeli pilots asked the ground controller, "This is an American ship. Do you still want us to attack?" The response? “Yes, follow orders." Steven Forslund, on duty at Offutt Air Force Base in Omaha, recalled, "The ground controller stated that the target was American and for the aircraft to confirm it, . . . the aircraft did confirm the identity of the target as American, by the American flag . . . and the controller ordered the aircraft to attack and sink the target and leave no survivors.”
In 2007, Oliver Kirby, NSA Deputy Director in 1967, told the Chicago Tribune that he had personally read the transcripts of recordings in which one Israeli pilot stated, "We've got him in the zero [in the sights]," and another asked, "Can you see the flag?" Answer: "Yes, it's U.S., it's U.S." Kirby: "They said it several times, so there wasn't any doubt in anybody's mind that they knew it."
In 2010, two months after the publication of James M. Scott's Attack on the Liberty, the Untold Story of Israel's Deadly 1967 Attack on a U.S. Spy Ship, Lt. Commander Ennis got a call from Evan Toni, who identified himself as the pilot of one of the first Mystères to overfly the Liberty, and that he immediately recognized it as a U.S. Navy vessel, but when he radioed Israeli command for instructions, he was ordered to "attack." Toni told Ennis that he refused, and immediately upon landing back at Ashrod airbase was arrested for disobeying orders.
But what motive did Israel have for attacking the Liberty and trying to sink her? The most likely is that Israel did not want the U.S. to know that it was planning to attack Syria and invade the Golan Heights just hours before a cease-fire was to take effect. Lyndon Johnson was on record saying that the U.S. would oppose any attempt by the Israelis to take the Golan from Syria, and if the U.S. had known of the plan in advance, Israel would have come under intense White House pressure to call it off.
On another tack, some analysts said that Israel may have wanted the U.S. to think that the Liberty had been attacked by Egyptian or Syrian planes, bringing the Americans into the conflict on the Israeli side. Ron Grantski, a technician with top-secret crypto clearance on the Liberty, told the Modesto Bee in 2017 that he intercepted a message that "the Israelis were going to attack a ship and blame it on the Arabs," but recalls ruefully, "[I didn't know] it was our ship they were going to attack." In 1982, Grantski returned from the first reunion of the USS Liberty Veterans Association to hear this message on his answering machine: "You better stop talking about the Liberty or something will happen to you."
It would not have been the first time Israel used a "false flag" ploy. In 1954, concerned that Egyptian president Gamel Abdel Nasser might soon direct his rapidly modernizing military against Israel, the Mossad (Israeli equivalent of the CIA) recruited Egyptian Jews to plant bombs in British-owned libraries and cinemas in Egypt, hoping to put the blame on the Muslim Brotherhood and so induce Great Britain to keep its troops in the Suez Canal zone as a buffer between Egypt and Israel. But the operation was botched, the would-be bombers were arrested and jailed, and two were executed.
This became known as the "Lavon Affair," because it forced the resignation of Israeli Defense Minister Pinhas Lavon. Publicly, Israel denied any involvement and refers to it today only as "that unfortunate business," but in 2005 Israel honored three surviving bombers with IDF military ranks for "their service to Israel."
In a 2001 documentary, Cover Up: Attack on the U.S. Liberty, six survivors, including Lt. Commander Ennis, recounted that, when their ship arrived in Malta after the attack, they were divided into small groups, debriefed and instructed, “You are never, repeat, never to discuss this with anyone, not even your wives . . . if you do, you will be court-martialed . . . and end your lives in prison – or worse.” Why would Navy brass give that kind of order to men who had just lost 34 of their shipmates?
In 2003, Admiral Moorer chaired an Independent Commission of Inquiry, including Admiral Kidd, Rear Admiral Merlin Staring, former Judge Advocate General of the Navy, Marine Corps General Raymond G. Davis, and James Akins, former U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia.
The Commission concluded that “Israel had committed acts of murder against American servicemen and an act of war against the United States.” Ward Boston, USN (Ret.), chief counsel to the Navy’s 1967 Court of Inquiry, told the Commission in a sworn affidavit that "this attack . . . was a deliberate effort to sink an American ship and kill the entire crew.” Adm. Kidd frequently referred to the Israelis as “murderous bastards,” and the Commission called the official Court of Inquiry “a cover-up without precedent in American naval history.” On October 7, 2004, John Conyers, Jr. (D. Mich.) read the Commission’s findings into the Congressional Record.
Interviewed in 1983, Admiral Moorer said: “I've never seen a President - I don't care who he is - stand up to them [the Israelis]. It just boggles the mind. . . . If the American people understood what a grip those people have on our government, they would rise up in arms.”
George Ball, Undersecretary of State and U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, wrote later: "The ultimate lesson of the Liberty attack had far more import for Israel than the U.S., [because] Israel's leaders concluded that . . . if America's leaders did not have the courage to punish Israel for the murder of American citizens, . . . then their American friends would let them get away with almost anything."