The US’s relationship with Israel was not always as rosy as it is now
In 1967, the Israeli air force attacked with machine guns, rockets, and napalm an American spy ship sailing in international waters off the coast of Israel and Egypt during the Six Day War.
The attack was continued by the Israel navy PT boats which struck the Liberty with torpedoes and machine gun fire as the crew was trying to save the ship. The American spy ship was engaged in communication intercepts of the armies fighting, both Egyptian and Israeli.
An American airplane, also intercepting communications, was in the vicinity, and was able to record most of the transmissions between the Israeli aircrafts and their controller. The communications between the PT boats and their controller were also recorded by the Americans.
When the attack got underway, the USS Liberty called for help. The US had an aircraft carrier nearby. Eight planes were loaded and fuelled and sent immediately to protect the Liberty. The planes were recalled on the order of McNamara. As the USS Liberty continued to call for assistance, the planes were again dispatched and recalled, this time reportedly by President Johnson. The US navy failed to go to the rescue of one of their own ships.
The attack broke off only when a US officer in Tel Aviv went to the Israeli Defense Ministry to demand it to stop. Faced with direct accusation, the Israeli government had no choice but to recall the PT boats and stop the air attacks.
The intention of the Israelis was to sink the USS Liberty before the US government could react. The incompetence of the Israeli navy and air force led them to fail in this mission -- remarkable that a virtually unarmed vessel could face up to these attacks but the Israelis were unable to succeed.
So much for the hype about their military skills, they were unable to deal with a lightly-armed ship. At the end, in an act of hypocrisy, the Israeli boats asked if the Americans needed assistance. The captain of the Liberty said “no.”
The US brought the Liberty back to their shores, but it was almost completely destroyed. The navy, of course, convened a board that found that the attack on the Liberty was unprovoked and deliberate. The crew testified that the ship could be easily identified as it was flying a large, prominent US flag.
Although not available to the navy review board, the communication intercepts were completely clear: The attacking pilots told their controller that it was an American ship as they could see the flag; they were told to follow their orders and attack the ship. There was never any doubt by the leaders of the CIA and the NSA (which handles communication intercepts) that this was a deliberate attack on an American naval ship.
Admiral McCain (father of Senator McCain), who was in charge of the Atlantic fleet, reversed the findings of the navy board and, ignoring all the evidence, found that it was a case of misidentification. He acted under the directive of McNamara and President Johnson.
Another Big Lie.
There were 34 persons killed and 171 wounded of the crew of the Liberty. The Israeli government reluctantly paid a pittance to the families of the dead American sailors and a small amount for the destruction of the ship. The amount paid for these murders and the destruction of the USS Liberty were so small as to be an insult. No actions were taken by the Israeli government against those who were responsible. This was a clear message that the attack was a state-sponsored act.
The secretary of state, the CIA director, and the head of the NSA all stated that the attack on the USS Liberty was a deliberate act of aggression by the Israeli government. The actions of the president of the United States bordered on treason in rejecting the use of force to protect his own forces. The actions of Robert McNamara are in a similar category. As an American, I feel shame to write of such behaviour.
The Israelis, of course, have a problem. They attacked an American naval ship for reasons which have never been explained. Now, they certainly want to have the historical record tell the story of an accidental attack due to misidentification. The second part of the story is the cover-up attempt sponsored by the Israeli government. This is another case of the Goebbels Big Lie at work.
The first point of defense was to deny that the Liberty carried the American flag or that it could not be seen. Unfortunately, the communication intercepts clearly have the Israeli pilot attacking the ship reporting that he can see the American flag and told to attack anyway.
The Israelis produced a fake photograph of the USS Liberty showing a very small flag. Unfortunately, they were caught asserting this was a photo taken by the attacking force when it was taken when the Liberty was docked and photoshopped to make it appear as if the ship was at sea.
Next, the Israelis sponsored a book by an American bankruptcy judge which took the position that this was misidentification and made use of only part of the NSA intercepts. This was a major project and provided a strong defense to the Israeli position, but its bias has been exposed.
There remains a strong effort by survivors to insist that the guilt of the Israeli government be taken up by the US government which so far has officially agreed with the claim of misidentification.
No one has actually given a motive for this vicious attack. But proof that this attack was carried out as a deliberate act in full knowledge that it was an American ship is incontrovertible. This was murder.
No one has been held accountable. It is a stain on McNamara and Johnson that will not wash away. The US should never forget that Israel is a false friend who cannot be trusted and is prepared to attack and kill Americans with no morality or principle.
Forrest Cookson is an American economist.