Wednesday, Apr 25, 2001 10:48 PM UTC

The assault on the USS Liberty

Experts respond to new evidence that the deadly 1967 attack on a U.S. spy ship by Israeli forces was deliberate.

While researching “Body of Secrets,” his new book on the National Security Agency, James Bamford uncovered a cache of records documenting attempts on the part of the Johnson administration to cover up the fact that Israeli forces deliberately attacked the USS Liberty, a spy ship, off the coast of Sinai in June 1967, killing 34 sailors and wounding 171 others. Bamford also discovered that an American spy plane overheard the attack — which Bamford argues was intended to discourage the U.S. from observing Israeli army activities in the area, including the massacre of Egyptian prisoners — and captured communications indicating that the Liberty’s attackers knew the ship was American. One National Security Agency official told Bamford that the attack was portrayed by both the U.S. and the Israeli governments as accidental because “some senior officials in Washington wanted above all to protect Israel from embarrassment.” Bamford’s research adds weight to long-held insider beliefs that the attack was deliberate. Experts on the Middle East respond to an April 23 New York Times article about the revelations.

Ambassador David Mack, vice president of the Middle East Institute
People in the Navy, who were obviously very concerned about this, and veterans of the intelligence community, took very seriously the charge that this was a deliberate Israeli attack. Like so many things, there’s probably still some controversy about it, but it is my impression — and this is without my having been privy to any of the actual intelligence about it — that there is very strong evidence that this was a deliberate attack by some part of the Israeli military establishment. The level to which it was authorized, I don’t know. There was a lot of circumstantial evidence that made it very difficult to believe that they did not know the identity of this ship or that somehow they thought it was an Egyptian ship. All of that is pretty hard to believe. It was very embarrassing for the Johnson administration. I really don’t know that much about it, but I would assume that they did not want to get into a big public clash with Israel. That’s speculation on my part.

I was in Israel the year after the Liberty incident. I remember talking to very knowledgeable Israelis whose reaction was indignant. The possible motive, however, is not hard to figure out. The Liberty knew what the state of the battle was in the Sinai. They knew whether Israel was in danger of being overrun, as some Israelis were claiming for purposes of gaining international support, or whether, by contrast, the Israelis were mopping up on the Egyptians, which was, of course, what was happening. It’s conceivable that at some level in the Israeli hierarchy the view was that higher reasons of state required them to get the vessel out of there. Or maybe they tried to scare it out and the flow of instructions from the political level to the military level was distorted. It happens.

[The revelations] might affect Prime Minister Sharon [he was a major general at the time], although maybe it couldn’t affect his political career, since he seems to have recovered from a lot of events in his past that caused him to be held in very low esteem even within Israel. I don’t remember what his involvement was at the time.

Thomas Neumann, executive director of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs
The allegations have been going on for a long time and it’s unsubstantiated and probably incorrect. James Bamford has attacked Israel before. It’s not the first time. He did it in “The Puzzle Palace” and from what I understand — though I have not personally read the book — he hasn’t come up with any new information. He has added to his anti-Semitic and anti-Israel allegations.

Bamford’s key allegation is that the Israelis bombed the Liberty in order to prevent information from getting out that Israel was winning the 1967 war and, therefore, imposing a cease-fire on Israel. The only problem with that thesis is that the very same day that the Liberty was bombed there was a headline in the New York Times that said: Israel routs the Arabs, approaches Suez, breaks blockade, occupies old Jerusalem, agrees to U.S. cease-fire and the United Arab Republic rejects the offer. That puts Bamford’s contention against the headline in the New York Times that makes his contention irrational. He’s just reiterating allegations. It’s unsubstantiated stuff. Bamford doesn’t come to the table as a clean scholar. He comes to the table having made these kinds of charges against Israel in the past.

Phyllis Bennis, director of the Middle East Project and fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies
I don’t have any independent information about the new evidence. In Israel, there has been a long-standing assumption that it was a deliberate attack. I don’t know about government officials, but at least at the popular level, a number of Israeli intellectuals have long understood that this was known to be a U.S. ship. The significance of it is more on the level of why is it that so few Americans have even heard of the Liberty? Why is that people don’t even know about it?

It also points to the question of the special relationship between the U.S. and Israel, which wasn’t really created until after the 1967 war. I, and many other analysts, believe that it was very much tied to the degree to which Israel proved its military prowess in that war — this small, new country that had always been, up until that time, seen as rather weak and uncertain in terms of its role in the region and as an ally. I don’t think it was taken all that seriously prior to 1967. Suddenly, it became clear that it could play a major role in the Cold War context, both regionally and ultimately internationally. It was after that time — ironically enough, despite the attack on the Liberty — that Israel developed into this junior partner of the U.S. and the enormous amounts of military and economic and absolute diplomatic and strategic protection that we now see.

The Johnson administration kept this quiet because it happened during the period that the potential value of Israel was emerging. I can only assume, and this is conjecture on my part, that it has something to do with that recognition. If you’re going to try and recalibrate your relationship with a country that you hadn’t had that kind of a public embrace of before — the U.S. had always had good relations with Israel from 1948 on but they weren’t close in the same way — it’s very difficult to do so in the wake of public outrage at the notion that the Israelis had knowingly fired on a U.S. ship and sailors had been killed. I can only conjecture that that was why. At this point in time, I have no doubt that Sharon will manage to spin this in as quiet and nondamaging way as he can.

Ambassador Richard Murphy, senior fellow for the Middle East, Council on Foreign Relations
I don’t know what [Bamford] brought in as new proof. But these are the allegations I’ve heard over the years, that there was no question that they knew it was an American ship. The Israelis did not want us getting as close as we were getting to the blow-by-blow account of the 1967 war. Israel will probably choose to ignore these allegations. They paid compensation to the victims’ families after a lengthy wait. It caused a lot of irritation in the U.S. government that they took so long to settle it. They paid without admission of responsibility or admission that they had any knowledge that the ship was American.