A Fresh Look at a Disgraceful Episode: James Scott’s The Attack on the Liberty

Forty-two years ago today the USS Liberty, a U.S. spy ship sailing in international waters north of the Sinai Peninsula, sustained a series of aerial and torpedo attacks by Israeli defense forces. Thirty-four U.S. servicemen died and 171 crew members were injured in the relentless assault.

The details of the extensive damage, suffering, and horrific destruction, including the valiant efforts to save the severely injured crew and to keep the ship afloat, are disclosed in James Scott’s riveting new book, The Attack on the Liberty: The Untold Story of Israel’s Deadly 1967 Assault on a U.S. Spy Ship.

The author’s sobering account of the human suffering and carnage during the deadly air and sea attacks draws the reader into a surreal story of heroism, tragedy, despair, and ultimately dishonor by the military branch which warned the surviving crew members not to discuss the details of the attacks to anyone.  (See also this Seattle Times article on Scott’s book.)

Leaving Malta on a New Mission

The 455-foot reconnaissance ship had monitored early developments in the six-day war betweenIsrael and neighboring Arab states near the coast of Egypt. On the fourth day of the war, theUSS Liberty sustained heavy damage after a barrage of fire from Israeli jets. The jets strafed the ship from bow to stern with rocket missiles, cannon shells and machine gun rounds. Cannon fire left bowling-ball size holes in the upper deck of the ship. Israeli torpedo boats fired on theLiberty. A direct torpedo hit killed 26 and severely crippled the ship causing it to list badly.

USS Liberty after attack, with 40-foot wide torpedo hole below the waterline

Crew members worked round the clock, many with twisted pieces of shrapnel lodged in their bodies that resulted in punctured internal organs and severe internal bleeding, in a valiant effort to restore the ship’s communications system after the radio antennae and transmitters were taken out by Israeli missile and rocket fire.

(Last month electronics technician Terry Halbardier received a Silver Star for connecting a cable between an antenna and a radio transmitter during the air assault on the Liberty. Halbardier’s body, left leg, and both arms were hit with shrapnel but the 23-year-old shipmate prevailed despite his wounds and his efforts allowed a radioman to send a Mayday distress call to the U.S. Sixth Fleet. His vital role in restoring the ship’s radio transmitter is believed to have ultimately saved the ship from further attacks.)

Electronics Technician Terry Halbardier received a Silver Star for his heroism in the USS Liberty attack.

Investigators found some 821 rocket and cannon holes that knocked out all of the ship’s 45 antennae. Napalm canisters plastered burning petroleum jelly over parts of the upper deck and created surface temperatures of nearly 3,000 degrees.

Scott notes that the bombing raids, “had shattered portholes, ripped open metal doors, and destroyed the forward machine gun tubs, where sailors had died desperately trying to save the ship. Charred and blistered paint covered much of the port side from the combination of napalm and the 110 gallons of gasoline that had furiously burned on deck.”

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Many of the injured were severely ripped up by flying shrapnel, including razor-sharp metal shards that had penetrated internal organs and in some caused non-stop bleeding. The doctor onboard worked round the clock to treat the injured despite little surgical experience. Sponges were used to soak up the blood where internal hemorrhaging created large deposits and shutdown vital organs among the gravely wounded. Arm to arm blood transfusions were administered in some cases.

Rescue crews from a tug boat sailed as close as a thousand yards behind the ship as theLiberty made its way across the Mediterranean. “The majority of the damage,” Scott notes, “was below the waterline and in the ship’s most sensitive spot, the NSA’s top-secret hub. Seawater flowed freely through flooded compartments as the Liberty steamed west, washing classified papers and bodies into the Mediterranean.” One diver retrieved a body that had been in the water three days, first in the flooded compartments following the torpedo strike and then floating out to sea. The diver noted that a piece of shrapnel struck the back of the sailor’s head and “[t]he exit wound caused the face to explode. Peering through his mask, [the diver] saw what looked like the man’s brains and skin hanging down in the water.”

Debunking Myths

Scott dissects several lingering myths that overshadow the Liberty incident.

Israeli pilots and naval personnel misidentified the USS Liberty.

The notion that the Liberty was fired on erroneously and mistaken for the Egyptian ship El Quseir, a vessel half as big as the Liberty, has been thoroughly discredited. Naval investigators, admirals, former Johnson administration officials, and National Security Agency and State Department officials reject the claim that Israel fired on the Liberty in error.

The Israeli attacks on a U.S. naval ship were accidental.

The actions of the Israeli forces and extent of the destruction indicate that Israeli perpetrators were neither randomly “trigger happy” nor unaware that the targeted ship was an American ship. The author’s father John Scott, a Liberty survivor, was on deck watch on the morning of the attacks and witnessed a reconnaissance plane which “made 3 runs fore and 2 aft in a figure eight pattern…and headed back towards Tel Aviv.”

The apology by the Israeli government and eventual settlement to the families of theLiberty’s dead crewmembers adequately resolved Israel’s culpability in the attacks.

Reparations were paid to the families of the dead and wounded Liberty sailors in two installments (one for $3.3 million and another in March 1969 for $3.5 million). Israelsettled on $6 million to cover damages to the ship, a figure lower than the settlement U.S.officials requested.

The naval inquiry into the attacks absolved Israel’s actions.

Scott quotes Rear Admiral Thomas Brooks, a former director of naval intelligence, who “described the treatment of the Liberty’s crew as a ‘national disgrace.’ The Navy was ordered to hush this up, say nothing, allow the sailors to say nothing….The Navy rolled over and played dead.”

President Johnson ordered Attorney General Nicholas Katzenbach to press the Israelis for reparations “to the injured and the families of the men killed and make sure the payments were generous.” Katzenbach, when asked by the book’s author if “he had ever demanded to know why Israel attacked….’No,’ he said. ‘What good would it do? What would it tell you?’”

Why Did They Do it? Israel’s Motivations for Attacking the USS Liberty

The big unanswered question is what motivated the Israelis to attack a defenseless U.S. ship in international waters. Scott presents a convincing case that the attacks were deliberate and intentional, but offers little insight into the question of the day: Why?

According to Scott, “William Dale, the embassy’s second in command, suspected that the Israelis feared that the intelligence collected by the Libertymight fall into Arab hands. The Department often sent telegrams with intelligence information to multiple embassies. A pro-Arab American diplomat stationed inDamascus, Beirut, or Cairo might pass along information to his contacts, a dangerous wartime proposition for Israel.”

Scott also quotes former NSA director Bobby Ray Inman as saying that former NSA Deputy Director Louis Tordella believed that Israel did not want a repeat of the 1956 Suez Crisis when Eisenhower pressured the Jewish state into withdrawing from territories it had captured. Inman stated that “[Tordella’s] view was that [the Israelis] didn’t want to run a risk that we would detect exactly what they were going to do and try to bring it to a halt with a lot of pressure before they achieved their objectives. … They knew exactly what the ship was and what it was doing and therefore it was, in his [Tordella’s] view, a deliberate act to try to protect the plans until they finished what they were going to do [in the Six-Day War].”

According to a 2006 declassified internal history report, the CIA position  had changed over the years and, given the mounting evidence, it discounted the idea that the attack was a mistake. Former CIA Director Richard Helms cast doubt on the notion that the attack was the result of Israeli blunders. “I don’t think there can be any doubt that the Israelis knew exactly what they were doing,” Helms said, “Why they wanted to attack the Liberty, whose bright idea this was, I can’t possibly know. But any statement to the effect that they didn’t know that it was an American ship and so forth is nonsense.”

Admiral John S. McCain, Sr., Sen. John McCain’s father, barred investigators from traveling to Israel during the naval investigation. Yet the Navy’s full report—released eight days after the incident—concluded that the attack was a case of mistaken identity. The full report was kept from the public record for a full decade until it was declassified and then it omitted “all the evidence that contradictedIsrael’s explanations.”

Scott also seems well aware of the dynamics of ethnic politics and the influence that organized Jewish interests played in the awkward tip-toe responses on the part of the Johnson administration. Scott describes Johnson’s sensitivities to organized Jewish political activists within the Democratic Party as an overriding concern, which seemed to drive the conduct of the administration’s handling of the aftermath of the attacks on the Liberty.

In particular, Scott points out how pro-Israel Johnson was, surrounding himself with Jewish advisors, increasing aid to Israel, etc. However, despite all this concern for Jewish interests, the Jewish community did not support Johnson’s war:

Despite Johnson’s lavish support of Israel, many American Jews refused to back the Vietnam War, a source of frustration inside the administration as antiwar rallies increased and the president’s popularity plummeted. Jews had become so prominent in the antiwar movement that it sparked a protest button: “You don’t have to be Jewish to be against the war in Vietnam.” Johnson, who viewed Vietnam and Israel as small countries threatened by Soviet-backed adversaries, struggled to understand that disconnect.

In the end, the infuriating aspect of Scott’s research on how the Johnson administration handled the USS Liberty incident is that he shows that political considerations and sensitivities to Jewish ethnopolitical interests—an unpopular war in Vietnam, growing disenchantment with the administration’s foreign policies, the domestic influence of Jewish anti-war activists, and Israel’s victory in the six-day war—triumphed over the lives of U.S. servicemen.

What is truly pathetic is that quite a few top people in the Johnson administration (including Johnson himself) were privately enraged over the Israeli attacks and the cavalier response on the part of Israeli officials. Israel issued a brief apology for the attacks but failed to investigate or bring to justice the officials who ordered the attacks. To this day, no one conclusively knows how far up the Israeli chain-of-command the orders to attack the Liberty originated.

That someone in Israel’s military structure did so and continues unaccountable for this deadly, unprovoked massacre is a disgrace to the heroic efforts of the Liberty’s crew who deserve a full accounting—from the U.S. and Israeli governments—of this sordid ordeal.

The Attack on the Liberty: The Untold Story of Israel’s Deadly 1967 Assault on a U.S. Spy Ship, by James Scott; Simon and Schuster, 2009; 374 pp., $27.

Kevin Lamb (email him), a freelance writer, is a former library assistant for Newsweek, managing editor of Human Events, and assistant editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report. He is the managing editor of The Social Contract.