This is the first time I’ve ever written publicly about the issue of the USS Liberty, the American espionage vessel that was attacked by Israeli forces during the Six-Day War.
I’ve never written about it before because there was scant substance to write about. The facts we have don’t extend much beyond this: Israeli planes attacked the Liberty, followed by a sea attack by an Israeli ship. The incident left 34 American sailors dead and 170 more injured, some severely. Two US squadrons were mobilized after the attack on the Liberty started and were then called back. Israel claimed the attack was a case of mistaken identity and apologized, and a US investigation was pursued, but only a quick one, which ended with American acceptance of Israel’s excuse and the matter was closed.
Today, we really don’t know much more than that. But the Chicago Tribune brought the incident back up this week, and so, despite the fact that the article really doesn’t shed any new light on the episode, I feel the urge to say something about this.
The attack on the Liberty has provided great fodder for conspiracy theorists for the past four decades. The surviving sailors who have spoken publicly have all been unanimous in rejecting the Israeli claim that they did not see the American flag flying on the ship. The one major point the Tribune article provides is much more conclusive evidence that indeed, the Israeli pilots were fully aware that they were attacking an American ship. This isn’t a big surprise, frankly; Israel’s explanation on this score was never all that credible. The Liberty was not off-course or in an unexpected place and there was no reason ever offered as to why the ship would not have been flying its colors.
But the conspiracy theorists have repeatedly used this incident to prove how much fealty the US gives to Israel, and frankly, that doesn’t make a lot of sense. The US commitment to Israel in 1967 was a lot more tenuous and more slender than it is today. There is no credible evidence that Israel would be able to get away with an intentional attack on an American ship in those days, even if one wants to argue that their influence is so great today that they could (a claim I would not agree with, as is obvious from my recent post on the Israel Lobby).
But the fact is, Israel’s explanation for the incident is not credible as it stands, and the lack of serious investigation by the United States is also inexplicable based on the evidence we have now. The question, in particular, of why two squadrons were scrambled in response and then recalled (likely on direct instructions from Washington, possibly from as high a source as Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara) is an open one, not explained by any facts we have at hand, other than the mere fact of the event.
The mystery around this issue invites the worst kind of anti-Israel venom. It is obvious to anyone who looks at this incident with even a modicum of critical thinking that a secret or secrets are being kept. The conspiracy theorists have, fortunately, not come up with any explanations that are any more credible than the official ones. Just as the official version of the story has gaping holes, no one has explained what could possibly be of such great importance to Israel that they would risk making an enemy of the US by attacking the Liberty. This was, after all, an obvious possibility if Israel did indeed know that the ship was American.
The ongoing shroud of mystery about the Liberty is a real danger to Israel. Despite the Tribune article, most Americans are unaware that Israel attacked and crippled an American ship forty years ago in an unprovoked attack. It goes without saying that if this incident becomes public with the information we have now, Israel’s standing in the eyes of the American public will take an enormous hit. Maybe it should, but we don’t have anything approaching the full story, and thus any backlash in any direction is not justified. It would, nonetheless, happen if the story was public.
The truth about the Liberty needs to come out. It is obvious form the behavior of the two squadrons of fighters from the US Sixth Fleet that someone somewhere in the American chain of command was as complicit in this as anyone in Israel. Moreover, Israel was at war and the way the Israeli military works, a great deal of power is in the hands of commanders of lesser stature especially during a war. It is entirely possible that whatever happened here was the result of decisions made well below the level of the Prime Minister, Defense Minister and even the most senior military officials. It’s equally possible that Israeli leaders up to and including Prime Minister Levi Eshkol were involved.
The point is we don’t know. Neither the official story nor any of the alternatives offered pass the laugh test. We should know what happened here. Should this story get more public traction, as it might, whether now or some day later, it will be explosive. The families of the sailors who were killed, those survivors who are living with the after-effects of this attack and the American and Israeli publics deserve more than they have gotten. The secrecy around the Liberty invites speculation of the rankest sort. Those involved are mostly dead or near the end of their lives. It is hard to imagine that the truth here will be as harmful as the cover-up has the potential to be.