Attack on the Liberty

Lifting the 'fog of war'

By David C. Walsh

The damaged U.S. intelligence ship Liberty arrived in Malta. An Israeli torpedo blew a 40-foot hole in the Liberty's hull. U.S. Navy Naval Historical Center photo collection

March 28, 2004

The bare bones are these: The intelligence ship Liberty, AGTR-5, on June 8, 1967 was describing a slow, dogleg pattern a little less than 13 miles off the Egyptian coast in the Eastern Mediterranean. Without warning, rocket-firing Israel jets, followed after an interval by torpedo boats, pummeled her to near-death; 821 separate holes would later be counted in the scorched superstructure.

An Israeli torpedo blew a 40-foot hole in the Liberty's hull, devastating the cryptological spaces below decks and killing 25 U.S. National Security Agency technicians. The spy ship's defensive armament comprised a mere four machine-guns. These had been judged adequate, insofar as she was a noncombatant in international waters. The Israeli attack continued for an hour and a quarter. When the smoke cleared, 34 Americans were dead, another 172 lay wounded.<.p>

The story of the intelligence ship in a sense resembles the Liberty herself: both refuse to go down. The heartbreaking saga is kept afloat by mutually antagonistic partisans I dub them the "deliberates" and the "accidentalists."

Periodically, the dispute flares anew, each side throwing punch and counterpunch. Some strikes are errant, or glancing, or below the belt; others, solid hammer blows the recovery from which seems impossible.

Occasionally, as now, the action is in synch. In one "corner" are a retired Navy JAG captain-cum-judge and the government of Israel; in the other, Liberty survivors, former leaders of the highly secret National Security Agency and other spooky types. The judge, A. Jay Cristol, has written a controversial book, "The Liberty Incident." It alleges that the furious attack on the U.S. Navy ship (tasked by the NSA and the Pentagon's Joint Chiefs of Staff) was what Israel since 1967 has claimed: a "friendly-fire" accident, the sort that bedevils every war.

For their part, Liberty supporters assert that the ex-Navy lawyer is merely the latest, albeit most effective, in a long series of apologists for Israel. He is helping Israel engage in a decades-long campaign of disinformation and deceit, they maintain. Some harbor their own "conspiratorial" suspicions, i.e., that Israel paid for the many research trips Cristol made to the Jewish state over many years. Regardless, they say the present round of rhetorical combat has exposed their nemesis as highly selective in the use of records, disingenuous and desperate. "He's on the ropes!" exclaims one. Perhaps. But with skeins of the story ever spreading, knotty issues left to be untied and core truths waiting to be teased out, neither side can declare "case closed."

The sad slugfest continues.

In June 2003, I published an investigative article in the United States Naval Institute's Proceedings magazine; one that drew on some unusually well-informed people. These weren't Israelis (Judge Cristol supplies those), but American intelligence leaders. They were addressing the tragedy for the first time; partly, some said, because of the Cristol book. Also included were interviews and conversations with the Liberty's surviving cryptanalysts and other specialists.

In total, they pointed the way toward an unsettling conclusion: The Cristol/Israeli explanation of "accidental attack in the fog of war" may have grown so threadbare as to be virtually unsustainable.


Two former NSA directors Adm. Bobby Ray Inman, Gen. William Odom and two ex-deputy directors Gen. John Morrison and Oliver Kirby told me that there has never been any question at the agency but that Israel's attack on the Liberty was deliberate.

Kirby, for example, is "absolutely certain" about this. A storied career NSA official, Kirby had founded the ELINT program under which the Liberty and her several sister ships operated. "It was my baby," he said in an interview last year.

Pressed about what made him sure the Israelis wanted to destroy the Liberty, Kirby said it was because he'd personally analyzed the SIGINT intercepts of their communications gleaned from various American intelligence sources. These disclosed: 1) that the on-scene attackers that June 8 correctly identified the ship, and 2) that regardless, Israeli commanders at an as-yet-unknown level instructed them to annihilate the Liberty.

Why had Kirby not gone public with this astonishing disclosure?

"No one had asked me the right questions before," he told me.

In an interview Feb. 24, 2003, retired Air Force Major General John Morrison, the agency's then second in command (and Kirby's successor), said he had been informed at the time of Kirby's findings and endorsed them. William Odom, former NSA Director and retired Army lieutenant general, said on March 3, 2003 that on the strength of such data, the attack's deliberateness "just wasn't a disputed issue" within the agency.

On March 5, 2003, retired Navy Admiral Bobby Ray Inman, NSA director from 1977-81, said he "flatly rejected" the Cristol/Israeli thesis. "It is just exceedingly difficult to believe that [the Liberty] was not correctly identified." Inman said his conclusions were based on his talks with NSA senior officials who had direct knowledge at the time. All four officials said they were unaware of any agency official at any time who dissented from the "deliberate," conclusion, based on the intelligence. These men's comments undergird those recorded by other writers over at least two decades.

In fact, the number of intelligence professionals who rejects the accidental, or related "mistaken identity" explanation is growing. In 2002, the late Richard Helms, then director of Central Intelligence, finally added his authoritative voice to the "deliberates," telling the Navy Times the attack was "no mistake." Previously, the then NSA director, Gen. Marshall Carter, and his deputy, Louis Tordella, said likewise.

USS Liberty Veterans Association historian James Ennes (author of the 1980 book "Assault on the Liberty," now updated) says more apostates to the official Israeli and United States position are being heard from in sworn affidavits. For example, two ex-USAF Intelligence personnel state that the damning electronic signals they monitored had been captured by an NSA-operated EC-130 flying near the attack, translated and disseminated worldwide. Hundreds of technicians and intelligence specialists around the world had access to these intercepts. At least a few are now coming forward to discuss what they saw.

Here it's worth reiterating something key to this dimension of the accidentalists vs. deliberates contest. The intercepts referenced by Odom, Helms, Kirby et al (whose existence the NSA officially denies) were real-time intelligence gleaned as the attack commenced. By contrast, the NSA-held material Cristol succeeded in declassifying, which he insists validates his view, appear limited to after-action reports by Israeli helicopter pilots. They'd arrived to survey the damage from the attack and played no role in it.

In any case, the disparity between these intelligence officials' revelations and the official, steadfast American government position "no evidence of deliberateness" is as enormous as it is remarkable. Obviously, people like Helms (who as director coordinated the entire United States intelligence community) Inman, Morrison, et al were among the world's most knowledgeable. Thus, it seems difficult to understand why during so many years spent probing the Liberty, Cristol apparently caged only one of like rank for book jacket blurbs. And even this source ex-Naval Intelligence director Rear Admiral Thomas A. Brooks now contradicts the judge. He observes in the open-source intelligence journal he edits that the case is not closed.

In any event, why the dearth of American intelligence professionals among sources cited by Cristol? Are they to be lumped in with the "conspiracists," pro-Arabs, etc.?

Cristol does not say. (Various questions to him during the preparation of my Proceedings piece went unanswered, on the grounds, he wrote me, that I was biased.)

The explanation is simple, Liberty men believe. They were steered clear of because their judgments would have collided with the "accidentalist" thesis.


The Liberty story entails an important ancillary question. How did this catastrophe occur and why would Israel in 1967 much less tightly tethered to the American lifeline than now commit such an outrage?

Those I interviewed are like others who have spoken to the disaster for the past 36 years: They profess not to know about motive. Speculation here is as rife as it is, at times, sensational.

Was the coordinated attack to prevent Washington from learning of an Israeli massacre of Egyptian prisoners of war on the Sinai coast nearby? (The killings were belatedly reported in 1995). Or, more plausibly, did the Israelis put the eavesdropping Liberty out of commission to conceal Israel's impending attack on Syria to seize the strategic Golan Heights?

Why did Defense Secretary Robert McNamara and Chief of Naval Operations Adm. David McDonald shout orders to the two carrier commanders to recall jets sent to help the Liberty, which was then still under deadly attack? (This, according to Liberty's deck officer James Ennes, quoting an electronic technician aboard the Liberty who had "patched" McNamara and Martin together with the carrier skippers through the Naval Communications Station at Port Laerty, Morocco).

Did LBJ fear political retaliation at home if he punished Israel? I don't know. I can say that McNamara once told me, as he has others in virtually identical language, that "I have no recollection of the Liberty, and therefore can be of no assistance to you." This is a dumbfounding remark, given the former defense chief's ability to recount decades-old conversations verbatim.

Such tangential questions, interesting and provocative as they are, remain for the future to answer. But they pale before the issue of responsibility, what United States intelligence experts at the highest levels say they knew and now publicly maintain = about the attack. The curtain of official silence long enshrouding the Liberty seems to be slowly rising, and the fog of war lifting. This can only be to the good for all concerned; and for history.

Human costs

Never before or since, according to survivors, has a Navy vessel come under such concerted "friendless" fire, with officialdom's reaction being anything less than outrage. Calls for punishment in like circumstances do seem invariably quick and clarion. Witness for example Japan's 1937 attack on the United States gunboat Panay, North Korea's seizure of the Navy intelligence ship Pueblo in 1968 and the terrorist attack on the Navy destroyer Cole in 2000.

This failure by any administration to probe the motive for the tragedy is wrenching for all who experienced the horror of the attack, cryptologic technicians and seamen alike. As Dr. Richard Kiepfer, the ship's overwhelmed physician, has written, "Never before in the history of the United States Navy has a Navy Board of Inquiry ignored the testimony of American military eyewitnesses and taken, on faith, the word of their attackers." A harsh judgment.

Kiepfer was referring to a perfunctory hearing convened barely a week following the attack, memorable to survivors mainly for its frequent rejection of testimony and evidence that tended to implicate Israel in a deliberate attack. Shockingly, the court's chief legal counsel, Capt. Ward Boston, in 2002 told Navy Times the naval court was, in fact, a politicized sham. Its conclusions, he declared, had been preordained to exonerate Israel.

Last month, Boston expanded upon those views in an interview with the Union-Tribune. He told Union-Tribune reporter James Crawley that a judgment of "no evidence of deliberate intent" was ordered from Washington to spare Israel embarrassment. Formerly, Cristol had supposed Boston would support him.

The debate on such things rages still. But the aggrieved victims, their families and next of kin aren't really interested in legal minutiae, foreign lobbies or the intrigues of power politics or geo-strategies. They seek what they've always been, and likely always will be, denied: a public forum with official sponsorship but without back-room meddling; the opportunity to express grievances before fellow citizens, and to demand answers to volatile questions left too long unanswered.

The questions are fundamental. To their own government: Why did you abandon us during the attack and ignore us until now? And to Israel: Why did you kill our friends?

History's judgment

Would it serve for the United States to call Israel to book at this late date, to insist the attackers be surrendered for questioning along with relevant paperwork and evidence; say, the orange life raft an Israeli torpedo boat seized after allegedly machine-gunning it and two others in the water?

At least one senior Navy lawyer has said, yes. In 1986, Lt. Cmdr. Walter Jacobsen, writing in the Naval Law Review, argued the case for reopening the Liberty matter. Jacobsen based his argument partly on his belief that the attack violated international law and that the machine-gunning of life rafts released from the Liberty constituted a war crime. No statute of limitations exists for murder or war crimes.

One probe might examine what the men saw and heard and wrote down in deck and radio intercept logs during and after the attack. That would reveal, they insist, the miscarriage of justice of the hastily convened naval court of inquiry.

The second might go to motive: why Israel attacked this virtually unarmed, clearly unthreatening vessel on the high seas, and, per the Watergate process, ask "what the Johnson administration knew and when it knew it."

This is, few would disagree, a calamity a major historic controversy with possible toxic ramifications to this day. Does this country owe anything to the surviving crew, their next of kin and the public? Certainly not a public reading of every encrypted message. But also, not the boilerplate and obfuscation that have been trotted out for the past 36 years and that smack so transparently of cover-up. At a time when enormous amounts of intelligence and other government records dating to the 1960s have been declassified and released, Washington ought to come clean about the Liberty, no matter how embarrassing that might prove.

Until that happens, the ghosts of the Liberty's dead will find no peace.

Walsh is a journalist based in Washington, D.C. Last June he published "Friendless Fire?" in the U.S. Naval Institute's Proceedings magazine.