Thursday, October 4, 2007

Recently Declassified Documents Revive Questions About The Israeli Attack On The USS Liberty

The Chicago Tribune has published a long and detailed piece by John Crewdson, examining the Israeli attack on the USS Liberty in 1967, in the light of recently released documents. As Crewdson found out,
four decades later, many of the more than two dozen Liberty survivors located and interviewed by the Tribune cannot talk about the attack without shouting or weeping.

Their anger has been stoked by the declassification of government documents and the recollections of former military personnel, including some quoted in this article for the first time, which strengthen doubts about the U.S. National Security Agency's position that it never intercepted the communications of the attacking Israeli pilots -- communications, according to those who remember seeing them, that showed the Israelis knew they were attacking an American naval vessel.

The documents also suggest that the U.S. government, anxious to spare Israel's reputation and preserve its alliance with the U.S., closed the case with what even some of its participants now say was a hasty and seriously flawed investigation.
The documents are available from the National Security Agency, here.

In this excerpt, Crewdson describes the attack:
Beginning before dawn on June 8, Israeli aircraft regularly appeared on the horizon and circled the Liberty.

The Israeli Air Force had gained control of the skies on the first day of the war by destroying the Egyptian air force on the ground. America was Israel's ally, and the Israelis knew the Americans were there. The ship's mission was to monitor the communications of Israel's Arab enemies and their Soviet advisers, but not Israeli communications. The Liberty felt safe.

Then the jets started shooting at the officers and enlisted men stretched out on the deck for a lunch-hour sun bath. Theodore Arfsten, a quartermaster, remembered watching a Jewish officer cry when he saw the blue Star of David on the planes' fuselages. At first, crew members below decks had no idea whose planes were shooting at their ship.

An Israeli military court of inquiry later acknowledged that their naval headquarters knew at least three hours before the attack that the odd-looking ship 13 miles off the Sinai Peninsula, sprouting more than 40 antennas capable of receiving every kind of radio transmission, was "an electromagnetic audio-surveillance ship of the U.S. Navy," a floating electronic vacuum cleaner.

The Israeli inquiry later concluded that that information had simply gotten lost, never passed along to the ground controllers who directed the air attack nor to the crews of the three Israeli torpedo boats who picked up where the air force left off, strafing the Liberty's decks with their machine guns and launching a torpedo that blew a 39-foot hole in its starboard side.

To a man, the survivors interviewed by the Tribune rejected Israel's explanation.
In the following excerpt, Crewdson describes the "investigation":
Rather than investigating how and why a U.S. Navy vessel had been attacked by an ally, the Navy seemed interested in asking as few questions as possible and answering them in record time.

Even while the Liberty was still limping toward a dry dock in Malta, the Navy convened a formal Court of Inquiry. Adm. John McCain Jr., the commander of U.S. naval forces in Europe and father of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), chose Adm. Isaac Kidd Jr. to preside.

The court's charge was narrow: to determine whether any shortcomings on the part of the Liberty's crew had contributed to the injuries and deaths that resulted from the attack. McCain gave Kidd's investigators a week to complete the job.

"That was a shock," recalled retired Navy Capt. Ward Boston, the inquiry's counsel, who said he and Kidd had estimated that a thorough inquiry would take six months.

"Everyone was kind of stunned that it was handled so quickly and without much hullabaloo," said G. Patrick March, then a member of McCain's staff in London.

Largely because of time constraints, Boston said, the investigators were unable to question many of the survivors, or to visit Israel and interview any Israelis involved in the attack.

Rear Adm. Merlin Staring, the Navy's former judge advocate general, was asked to assess the American inquiry's report before it was sent to Washington. But Staring said it was taken from him when he began to question some aspects of the report. He describes it now as "a hasty, superficial, incomplete and totally inadequate inquiry."

Staring, who is among those calling for a full congressional investigation on behalf of the Liberty's survivors, observed in an interview that the inquiry report contained several "findings of fact" unsupported by testimony or evidence.

One such finding ignored the testimony of several inquiry witnesses that the American flag was flying during the attack, and held that the "available evidence combines to indicate the attack on LIBERTY on 8 June was in fact a case of mistaken identity."

There are also apparent omissions in the inquiry's report. It does not include, for example, the testimony of a young lieutenant, Lloyd Painter, who was serving as officer of the deck when the attack began. Painter said he testified that an Israeli torpedo boat "methodically machine-gunned one of our life rafts" that had been put over the side by crewmen preparing to abandon ship.

Painter, who spent 32 years as a Secret Service agent after leaving the Navy, charged that his testimony about the life rafts was purposely omitted.

Ward Boston recalled that, after McCain's one-week deadline expired, Kidd took the record compiled by the inquiry "and flew back to Washington, and I went back to Naples," the headquarters of the 6th Fleet.

"Two weeks later, he comes back to Naples and calls me from his office," Boston recalled in an interview. "In that deep voice, he said, 'Ward, they aren't interested in the facts. It's a political issue and we have to put a lid on it. We've been ordered to shut up.'
I think you should read the whole article (mirrored here).

The Tribune has also published a companion piece, also by Crewdson, describing how Congressional inquiries into the incident never seemed to go anywhere. You should read that too (here or here).