Documents would help answer historical mystery
An ongoing Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request reveals that the U.S. government is still refusing to release at least 302 pages of documents concerning the unprovoked attack 54 years ago in the Mediterranean Sea on an American spy ship, the U.S.S. Liberty, during the Six-Day War between Israel and Egypt along with Jordan and Syria.
The June 8, 1967, attack by Israeli air and naval forces—carried out with rockets, torpedoes, and napalm—killed 34 Americans and injured 174. The Israeli attackers machine gunned three lifeboats that had been launched by the crew to save the most seriously wounded.
A survivor stated that the ship’s deck afterwards looked “like the floor of a slaughterhouse, with pieces of flesh, bone, hair, various organs and everything else…held in place by dried blood.”
Larry Bowen, president of the U.S.S. Liberty Veterans Association, stated that “it is unconscionable that more than fifty years after the attack that killed or wounded scores of my shipmates, the U.S. government is still refusing to give the survivors and the American public all of the information they have.”
Documents still being withheld include a two-volume 1967 U.S. House of Representatives Appropriations Committee report—containing at least 126 pages—in National Security Agency (NSA) custody.
The late Robert L. F. Sikes, who was an Appropriations Committee member, said this report contains testimony from a Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) witness that on June 7, 1967, the Israeli government threatened to attack the U.S.S. Liberty if she were not moved away from Israel.
The CIA has “denied in full” a request to release three other documents totaling 173 pages and identified by the Agency as containing information relevant to the attack. Until now, the CIA had never publicly acknowledged the existence of these documents.
Earlier this year the CIA released three one-page information reports from June and October of 1967. According to these reports, sources in Tel Aviv stated: “Israel’s forces knew exactly what flag the LIBERTY was flying” and Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan “personally ordered the attack” on the Liberty over the objections of senior military officers, one of whom characterized the attack as “pure murder.”
Although the motive remains open to speculation, one of the reports states that the U.S.S. Liberty was targeted because it was jamming Israeli military communications.
The CIA reports were first released with redactions in the 1970s. A State Department record indicates there are at least three other documents from 1968 and 1977 pertaining to the information reports that the CIA has neither released nor acknowledged.
FOIA Lawsuit by Coast Guard Veteran
The FOIA case was filed by Michelle Kinnucan, a Coast Guard veteran from Seattle who learned about the Liberty attack when she was on her way to Guam in 1983 and heard journalist James Bamford speak to Larry King about his book on the NSA, which covered the Liberty attack.
She is being represented by Davis, Wright, Tremaine LLP, which specializes in FOIA requests and has a good track record in securing the release of classified documents.
Kinnucan told CAM in an exclusive interview that the CIA is claiming that they are withholding the documents for national security purposes but asked, “what would be jeopardized if they were released given that the Liberty attack occurred 54 years ago?”
Responding to her own question, she said “the Naval Court of Inquiry said that the Liberty attack was a case of mistaken identity, but the full record is not being released because the evidence of mistaken identity is questionable at best.”
Kinnucan stated further that “the CIA intelligence reports of the incident are the key to the FOIA request. In 1977, CIA Director Stansfield Turner had CIA intelligence indicating that the [Liberty] attack was ordered by high officials in the Israeli military, but none of the TV or radio networks dug deeper into the story like I’m trying to do now.”
According to Kinnucan, a number of theories have been advanced about what provoked the attack.
One is that the Israelis were afraid of U.S. intelligence gathering on Israel—which would have found that the Israelis were planning to invade the Golan Heights [Syrian territory—in violation of a cease-fire agreement] and caused the Johnson administration to pressure Israel to back off.
The Israelis also may have feared that the NSA had acquired information about Israeli war crimes in Gaza during the Six-Day War—including most notably the execution of POWs who were buried in mass graves—and did not want the information to get out.
An even more sinister theory is that the Liberty attack was planned by high-echelon members of the Johnson administration as a “false flag incident” that was to be blamed on Egypt and designed to justify a wider war in the Middle East.
Kinnucan is concerned that the NSA and CIA will use delay tactics to keep the vital documents from the public even if the FOIA lawsuit is successful, as they will appeal the case if they lose.
Davis, Wright, Tremaine LLP Attorney Caesar Kalinowski IV, however, stated in an interview that the courts have been less willing in recent years to accept the assessment that national security is achieved by secrecy and to block the release of documents that can help better inform the public about what their government has done with taxpayer dollars.
Kalinowski hopes that this would be especially true with regards to the assault on the U.S.S. Liberty, where the survivors families have a right to know what happened to their loved ones.
The Liberty attack occurred on the fourth day of the Six-Day War in which the Israelis humiliated Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser who was described afterwards as a “living corpse.”
The war had been planned for years in advance, with Israel engaging in deliberate provocations.
Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin admitted in August 1982 that, “in June 1967 we had a choice. The Egyptian army concentrations in the Sinai approaches did not prove that Nasser was really about to attack us. We must be honest with ourselves. We decided to attack him.”
Afterwards, Israeli reporter Amos Elon drove through the strategic pass from Central Sinai to the Suez Canal and found a “shocking valley of death, littered with [Egyptian] corpses and hundreds of burning tanks and trucks in the now familiar cloud of smoke and the disgusting sweet smell of burning human flesh.”
As many as 1,000 Egyptian prisoners were executed, including 400 in the sand dunes of el Arish, with the tacit support of the Israeli army leadership including Moshe Dayan and future Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
Fighting in the war extended to Jordan and Syria whose armies were also decimated. The Israelis took control of East Jerusalem, site of the Wailing Wall which had not been under Jewish control since Roman times, and occupied the West Bank and Sinai including Gaza, looting and destroying Arab homes and villages and torturing Arab prisoners.
The Johnson administration provided crucial military support to Israel, including an emergency supply of armored personnel carriers, tanks, and other military equipment.
The war helped achieve a number of U.S. strategic objectives—including embarrassing the Soviets by smashing the armies of a state they had been arming over the past years (Egypt) and weakening Nasser, a pan-Arab socialist whom the CIA had tried to overthrow.
Fifty-five percent of Americans supported Israel in the war, compared to only four percent the Arabs.
Moshe Dayan and his customary eye-patch donned all the major magazine covers, symbolizing the masculine prowess and military astuteness seemingly lacking among American generals in Vietnam.
Democratic Representative Wayne Hays of Ohio stated that the U.S. should trade 400 fighter jets for Dayan.
These comments captured the wide adulation for Dayan and Israel at the time, which prevented any questioning of its role in the Liberty incident.
U.S. Government Cover-Up
In 2001, it was disclosed that the NSA had a plane hovering overhead—a Navy EC-121 ferret—whose intercepts show the Liberty attack was deliberate.
NSA Director Marshall Carter was told by future Secretary of State Cyrus Vance to “keep his mouth shut” about this.
Highly suspicious also was the fact that; a) a nearby U.S. submarine the Amberjack did not signal for help; b) prior warning messages from the office of the U.S. Defense attaché were misrouted or delayed in convoluted channels through the Pentagon’s worldwide communications system which normally worked perfectly, and c) White House records were distorted to coverup the timing of when President Lyndon B. Johnson received notification of the Liberty attack.
Not wanting to embarrass the Israelis, Johnson never mentioned the Liberty attack in his daily press briefing. Surviving crew were barred from talking to the press and threatened with court martial if they ever spoke about the episode.
Johnson sent Clark Clifford, a staunch supporter of Israel, to head an investigation which concluded it was all a mistake—though the ship was known to have flown an American flag. Clifford had been called to the White House two hours before the Liberty attack was reported, indicating advanced planning or foreknowledge.
As further evidence of a conspiracy, Johnson ordered Defense Secretary Robert S. McNamara to stop efforts by Sixth Fleet Commanders to come to the Liberty’s rescue, leaving the sailors to suffer without help for eighteen hours.
McNamara told Rear Admiral Lawrence Geis, Sixth Fleet Carrier Division Commander, that “President Johnson is not going to…embarrass an American ally over a few sailors.”
Johnson told Geis that “I want that goddam ship going to the bottom. No help—recall the wings.”
These comments lend plausibility to the black flag thesis—as Johnson may have wanted the ship sunk to provide a pretext for a war that could restore his reputation in the midst of the Vietnam debacle.
In 1796, George Washington warned in his farewell address about entangling alliances which might lead to “participation in quarrels and wars…without adequate inducement or justification” adding that citizens devoted to the favored nation could mislead public opinion and influence or awe the public councils, with its tools and dupes “usurping the applause and confidence of the people to surrender their interests.”
Washington’s warnings appear prophetic today in considering the United States entanglement in Israel’s destructive wars and coverup of the Liberty incident in betrayal of its own soldiers.
Phillip F. Nelson, with Ernest A. Gallo, Ronald G. Kukal and Phillip F. Tourney, foreword by ex-CIA analyst Ray McGovern, Remember the Liberty! Almost Sunk by Treason on the High Seas (Walterville, OR: Trine Day, 2017), 156. ↑
Nelson, Remember the Liberty! 92. ↑
Sikes as cited in Stephen Green, Taking Sides: America’s Secret Relations with a Militant Israel (New York: William Morrow & Co., 1984), 239. ↑
Walter L. Jacobsen, “A Juridical Examination of the Israeli Attack on the USS Liberty,” 36 Naval Law Review 69 (Winter 1986), 17-18. ↑
Harriet Dashiell Schwar, ed., 516. Editorial Note, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1964–1968, Volume XIX, Arab-Israeli Crisis and War, 1967, Edward C. Keefer, series ed. (Washington, D.C.: U.S. G.P.O., 2004), 1016-1017. ↑
The lawsuit being litigated for the plaintiff by attorneys from Davis Wright Tremaine LLP. Select documents, including case pleadings, CIA productions, and related materials, may be downloaded from: <https://spaces.hightail.com/space/oMuiiUFaID>. ↑
Turner, it should be noted, lied to the U.S. public, telling Senator James Abourezk (D-S.D.) that the CIA’s conclusion was that the attack on the Liberty was a mistake. ↑
For an advancement of this view, see Donald Neff, Warriors for Jerusalem: The Six Days That Changed the Middle East (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1985), 265. In Taking Sides, Green suggests the messages form the ship revealed that Israel had started the Six-Day War. The invasion of the Golan ultimately resulted in the leveling of almost 130 villages by the IDF and displacement of 80,000 people. See Baruch Kimmerling, Politicide: The Real Legacy of Ariel Sharon (London: Verso, 2006), 28. ↑
James Bamford, Body of Secrets: Anatomy of the Ultra-Secret National Security Agency (New York: Anchor Books, 2002), ↑
Nelson, Remember the Liberty! The incident would have succeeded if the entire ship was sunk as was allegedly planned. ↑
Nelson, Remember the Liberty!, 35. A letter from Israeli General Moshe Dayan acknowledging the Israeli strategy of provocations was released after his death in 1997 by his daughter Yael Dayan, a Knesset member. According to Dayan, at least 80% of the clashes before the Six-Day War broke out were the result of Israeli provocations, mostly the result of sending armored tractors to plow ground along the Syrian border in the demilitarized zone. The goal of Israel was to provoke a war to expand its territory and gain access to vital water resources. ↑
Neff, Warriors for Jerusalem, 251, and Green, Taking Sides, 201. ↑
Bamford, Body of Secrets, 235; James Scott, The Attack on the Liberty: The Untold Story of Israel’s Deadly 1967 Assault on a U.S. Spy Ship (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2010), 221; and “Israeli Killings of POWs in 1967: Alleged Deaths of Hundreds Said Known to Leaders,” Newsday, August 17, 1995. ↑
See Neff, Warriors for Jerusalem, 285. Indian UN peacekeepers were machine-gunned to death by Israeli troops, which Dayan rationalized under the claim that Indian troops had helped Arabs during the war. ↑
Scott, The Attack on the Liberty, 193. ↑
Bamford, Body of Secrets, 235; Scott, The Attack on the Liberty, 221. ↑
Nelson, Remembering the Liberty!, 33; Scott, The Attack on the Liberty; Green, Taking Sides, 226. Comparisons with the Gulf of Tonkin incident are eerie, as the Pentagon claimed in that case that a clerical error led to McNamara receiving misinformation about an alleged second attack on an American naval ship. However, the system normally worked perfectly, leading to the conclusion that there was behind the scenes manipulation in both cases. ↑
Nelson, Remember the Liberty!, 106. ↑
Nelson, Remember the Liberty! 80. ↑
Nelson, Remember the Liberty!, 106, 211. Senior American officials contemplated sinking the ship to block reporters from photographing the damage. ↑
Nelson, Remember the Liberty!, 79. ↑
Nelson, Remember the Liberty!, 79. ↑
With no eyewitnesses, Egypt would have more easily been blamed for the attack which Johnson calculated would have produced a surge of patriotic fury that would have justified going to war against it and then overthrowing Nasser. Nelson, Remember the Liberty!, 106. Nelson—who wrote another book accusing Johnson of being the mastermind behind the JFK assassination—suggests that Johnson was mentally unstable by this point in his presidency and that he was a sociopath who would do anything to gain and sustain power. ↑
George Washington quoted in George W. Ball and Douglas B. Ball, The Passionate Attachment: America’s Involvement with Israel, 1947 to the Present (New York: W.W. Norton, 1992), 10. ↑
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About the Author
Jeremy Kuzmarov is Managing Editor of CovertAction Magazine.
He is the author of five books on U.S. foreign policy, including Obama’s Unending Wars (Clarity Press, 2019), The Russians Are Coming, Again, with John Marciano (Monthly Review Press, 2018), and Warmonger. How Clinton’s Malign Foreign Policy Launched the U.S. Trajectory From Bush II to Biden (Clarity Press, 2023).
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