The USS Liberty: Fifty Years of US Cover-Up

An actual fragment of the USS Liberty saved by crew member Phil Tourney who recalled in his recently released book Erasing the Liberty at a presentation in Denver in 2016. The book is currently in the works to become a full-length featured film. (photo: The Nation Report)

In 1967 the surviving crew members of the USS Liberty endured a military attack by Israel, and have since had to endure the betrayal of its own government, according to those who survived.

In 1967 the Six-day War between Israel and Arab states began with a surprise attack on the Egyptian Air Force while on the ground.  This elimination of Egyptian force from exercising power in the air gave Israel control of air space.

The USS Liberty, a US spy ship that was floating in the Mediterranean Sea about 14 miles off the coast of Egypt was not equipped to defend itself under an attack.

Survivors say that the ship was attacked by four unmarked fighter bombers near the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula.  The ship was also attacked by three motorized torpedo boats and with 2 napalm bombs.  There were 294 personnel on board.  Of those, 34 were killed and 208 were either wounded or injured.

Word was slow to surface about the details surrounding the attack on the US vessel, because survivors of the attack were ordered to secrecy by then President Lyndon Johnson under threat of court-martial.  Survivors could not even discuss details with their own families.

Since then, the sailors have realized a US government cover-up and betrayal and over time, have spoken out.

Phil Tourney after the attack. (courtesy of Phil Tourney)

Phil Tourney is one such survivor who works to inform the public about what happened in his book Erasing the Liberty.  Tourney intends for the attack to be remembered in a full length featured film for which he is currently fundraising across the country to produce.

James Ennes is another.  Ennes was an officer on board the USS Liberty and offers an eyewitness account of the attack and of what followed in his book Assault on the Liberty.

Others are working to keep the issue alive.  On June 4 the Boulder chapter of Veterans for Peace hosted author Ron Forthofer (pictured in photo below) , a retired professor of biostatistics, to hear his research into the bombing of the USS Liberty.

Forthofer says that it was no coincidence that the war lasted six days, “It was a pretty quick war and it was not a surprise that Israel was able to do this within six days.  The US and Israeli intelligence agencies had both determined and predicted that Israel could win a war against the combined forces within a very short period of time.  So this outcome was not a surprise.”

The conditions put in motion to place blame also were premeditated, “The United States had told Israel that it could not attack.  If they did, the United States would not come to its aid if there was a problem.  So [Israelis] had to make it look like Egypt had started the war.  This was something that was fairly easy to do with the complicit media in this country as well as the fact that there were tremendous provocations going on on both sides leading up to the attack by Israel on Egypt.”

Tourney affirms that assertion,”We thought our best buddies in the whole wide world, Israel, was going to be attacked by the Arab States.  We were all in favor of the Israelis.”

But that ally-ship took a turn on June 8.  Survivors said that after acquiring a false sense of security over witnessing Israeli aircraft circling overhead multiple times in the days preceding June 8, that it was thought that the ship was immune from threat.  But according to Tourney, it was unmarked aircraft that returned to launch the attack.

(photo: GTR5)

The attack which began at about 2:00 pm lasted a total of two hours.  Survivors say the attack aircraft were unmarked, a violation of the Geneva Conventions.

Forthofer shared his research with Veterans for Peace,

“This attack was horrendous.  Reports from the crew say that these jets, unlike the surveillance planes, had no markings.  The surveillance planes showed that they were Israeli military vehicles.  There was one crew member who said that he saw an Israeli star of David.  So he was relieved when he saw that, but he was crying when the attack occurred.  But every other crew member that I’ve heard of has said that the planes were not marked.

The jets attacked for about 25 minutes.  There were up to 12 jets, reports say, that were involved in the attack over this 25 minute period.  The Liberty was basically a defenseless intelligence gathering ship.  It had four 50 millimeter machine guns that were used for repelling borders, but it really wasn’t in an condition to fire back.  And according what I’ve been able to find, it did not fire back at all against the attacking jets or against the follow-up attack.

The jets fired bombs, rockets, napalm and machine gun fire for 25 minutes and nine US sailors lost their lives during that period.  And much of the deck was on fire.  With the Liberty riddled with holes, fires burning, and scores of casualty, three Israeli torpedo boats close in for the kill.   The second of these torpedoes ripped through a compartment at mid ship drowning 25 men in the section.  Then the torpedo boats closed within 100 feet of the Liberty to continue the attack with cannons and machine guns resulting in further casualties.  The torpedo opened a hole 39 or 40 feet wide and water rushed in.

This is a section where NSA intelligence men were stationed, so most of the intelligence men were lost.  In addition to the attacks, the US Liberty’s intelligence communications were severed.  Israeli crew were jamming the Liberty’s ability to communicate.  The fact that they were able to target the American channels specifically, said that they knew who they were attacking.  That fact alone is pretty damning. 

 The Liberty, one of the crew members, with the fires and napalm on the deck, and being machine-gunned, was able to climb out and connect a communications channel so that the Liberty was finally able to send out an SOS message to the 6th Fleet which was somewhere between four and five hundred miles to the west. 

According to the Liberty survivors, after the torpedo boats left, more Israeli jets appeared and two Israeli helicopters, containing Israeli military, were prepared to finish off the crew, but before they continued with the attack, they broke contact and turned around.  One of the more shameful things according to the crew, was that they launched three life rafts, and the torpedo boats shot up two of them, and I guess they disconnected the third one by the fire.  This other raft was then floating, and one of the three Israeli torpedo boats picked up the boat and took the life raft boat back with it to its base. 

This one crew member who was able to do the communication, a lot of the Liberty crew think that he saved all their lives because that SOS message got through.”

(photo: GTR5)

At the time, crew members knew that they had been attacked, when, and for how long.  But the question of motive begged an answer.   Much has been written about potential motives.

In 2003 the Moorer Commission, an independent commission headed by Admiral Thomas Moorer, reported on Capitol Hill: “There is compelling evidence that Israel’s attack was a deliberate attempt to destroy an American ship and kill her entire crew.”

The Moorer report went on to state, “In attacking the USS Liberty, Israel committed acts of murder against U.S. servicemen and an act of war against the United States.”

Moore placed blame on President Lyndon Johnson who personally recalled support personnel from coming to the assistance of the dead and wounded, “Those men were then betrayed and left to die by our own government.  U.S. military rescue aircraft were recalled, not once, but twice, through direct intervention by the Johnson administration. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara’s cancellation of the Navy’s attempt to rescue the Liberty, which I personally confirmed from the commanders of the aircraft carriers America and Saratoga, was the most disgraceful act I witnessed in my entire military career.  To add insult to injury, Congress, to this day, has failed to hold formal hearings on Israel’s attack on this American ship. No official investigation of Israel’s attack has ever permitted the testimony of the surviving crew members.”

Both the Israeli and US governments issued inquiries and subsequent reports that blamed “Israeli confusion” about the ship’s identity while claiming that the USS Liberty was not flying a flag nor did it bear any identity markings according to the reports.  The premise of an accidental attack has only traumatized survivors further.  They say that attempts at explaining the attack as an accident is obliterated given the broad daylight under which the attack happened, the length of the attack, the severity of the damage coming from both planes and torpedo boats, the use of napalm bombs, the jamming of communication equipment, the bombing of four machine guns on board, and the destruction and theft of life boats.

Survivors, including Tourney, reject US and Israeli reports.

Concurrent official reports attempted to blame Egypt for the attack.

Forthofer explains, “The idea that Israel tried to sell initially was that this was an Egyptian attack but that didn’t hold any water.  And then they said it was necessary because this was a preemptive or preventative attack.  Then over the years there’s been a number of Israeli military officials that have counteracted that claim as well.”

In his book Body of Secrets: Anatomy of the Ultra-secret National Security Agency, Investigative Journalist James Bamford offers the motive that silencing the Liberty would prevent exposing Israeli military secrets especially regarding Gaza.  Although Tourney says that the US and Israel being allies did not hold secrets from each other, he acknowledges that the USS Liberty was carrying about 200 spies from the US National Security Agency (NSA) along with Russian and Arabic-speaking linguists.

Ennes suggested that preventing the monitoring of radio traffic that might reveal Israel as the aggressor regarding its possible invasion of Syria might explain an attack by Israel on the US, the attack of which Washington had expressed opposition.

Last week The Intercept published two NSA documents previously released by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden that suggest, “The agency has historically counted Israel as an intelligence target even as the nation acted as a key partner in signals collection. This inherent tension in the U.S.-Israeli relationship was also manifest on the Liberty, where the Hebrew translators brought aboard the ship were referred to as “special Arabic” linguists, according to journalist James Bamford, in order to conceal their surveillance of Israeli communications.”

Forthofer offered his own possibilities, which may explain conditions set in place that play out today.  The Liberty had been hovering off the coast of Egypt and Sinai was an important hub where the Israel was maintaining a presence.

“This area was important because Israel had captured anywhere from 300-1000 and the prisoners were ordered to dig their own graves.  Israeli troops just fired on them and they went into their graves.  And Israel didn’t want this news to get out to the world so they were concerned about the Liberty being there.  Whether this was the reason or not, this is one of the reason put forward why Israel would attack the Liberty.  The Liberty was initially scheduled to be on the African coast and then it was ordered once there was a threat of the six day war breaking out that proceed because the United States wanted to capture transmissions, radio transmissions, anything electronic the Liberty could capture.  It was the most advanced spy ship in the world at that time.”

Forthofer theorized even ten years ago about the spreading of violence in the Middle East and the occupation of Gaza and the West Bank in a column he wrote on the 4oth anniversary of the attack”

“The Israeli occupation of Arab lands particularly of the West Bank or Gaza has been brutal.  The fact that the occupation with all of the violations to the Geneva Conventions continues after 40 years provides a severe indictment of the world community.  The US is particularly guilty through its blind support of Israeli policies and aggression.  Through their actions the US and Israel are saying that your international conventions do not apply to them.  They have taken us back to the jungle where might makes right.  Unfortunately the rest of the world does not confront these two rogue nations and thus allows this awful situation to fester and to grow worse.  Unless and until human rights and international law are respected, there will be no peace in the Middle East and it’s likely the violence will spread.”

Forthofer points to the proliferation of current violence in the Middle East, “I think we’ve seen in the following ten years that the violence has spread and there definitely has not been peace in the Middle East.  I can’t believe how bad the conditions continue to get.”

Forthofer traveled to Hebron in 1996 and then again in 2001.  He says that conditions were bad in ’96, but far worse on his second trip during the Second Intifada, “In ’96 I was able to get into Gaza.  In 2001 Gaza was totally off limits.”

In 2001 the International Solidarity Movement began training activists in Denver as a part of observer delegations.  Forthofer was part of this process and said that each activist that went over came back with a report “that was worse than what the previous had seen only a couple of months earlier.”  The training sessions continued over 18 months and Forthofer referred to the deteriorating conditions in observer reports when he said, “And this was before the siege of Gaza had taken place which is a blot on the whole international community that this was allowed to continue.”

A cover-up outside the US government continues to this day.  In their efforts to raise the profile of events in 1967, survivors and their families have made attempts to educate the public.  Survivors said that their efforts have been thwarted by organizations such as the American Legion who not only rejected requests by survivors of the Liberty attack to set up an information table at an American Legion gathering, but called police on those who attempted to pass out Liberty information from outside.  Washington DC police refused to arrest.  The DC Legion refused to introduce a resolution calling for an investigation into the attack to a foreign relations subcommittee of Congress.

Moorer died in 2004 after writing,  “The American people deserve to know the truth about this attack. We must finally shed some light on one of the blackest pages in American naval history. It is a duty we owe not only to the brave men of the USS Liberty, but to every man and woman who is asked to wear the uniform of the United States.”

Survivors plan to meet for the 50th anniversary in Washington DC.

To learn more or to contribute to the movie’s production go here.

Damage to the Liberty (photo: GTR5)

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