Nearly every former senior government and military official who has examined Israel's 1967 attack on the USS Liberty agrees it was deliberate. Now, thanks to the publication of Judge A. Jay Cristol's book, The Liberty Incident: the 1967 Attack on a U.S. Navy Spy Ship, they are going public. Cristol's book tour included a December 2002 presentation at the Naval Historical Center in Washington, DC, where he touted his version of the attack which, based primarily on Israeli sources, he says was unintentional. Ironically, it looks like what actually was unintentional is that Cristol's efforts to quell the debate have had exactly the opposite effect.
Reading reports of Cristol's whitewash of the devastating attack, which killed 34 American crewmen and wounded 172 others, was the last straw for Captain Ward Boston, senior legal counsel for the Navy's Court of Inquiry. Commander-in-Chief Naval Forces Europe, Boston and the late Rear Admiral Isaac "Ike" Kidd were given just one week by Admiral John McCain (father of Sen. John McCain) to investigate the attack and gather testimony from survivors still on board the crippled ship. Captain Boston asked each witness to tell his story for a court stenographer.
"There is no question in my mind that those goddamned bastards tried to kill everyone on board," Boston told the Washington Report. "I was the counsel. I put witnesses on. I talked to kids never exposed to combat who'd seen their friend's head blown off. Kids who were crying as they told me what they'd gone through. Those boys who had their heads blown away were not out fighting [the Israelis]. They were sunbathing. They weren't even given a chance to get to their machine guns."
Boston also watched the bodies of the dead carried out of the hold, and saw boys throw up as they retrieved body parts and mopped up after the shelling and torpedo attack. He recalled seeing the shot-up U.S. flags that had clearly marked the ship as an American vessel. Boston flatly dismisses the claims of Cristol and Israel that Israeli fighter pilots mistook the electronically advanced spy ship, complete with an 18-foot-wide satellite dish, a microwave dish, and antennae, for the El Quseir, a 1920s-era Egyptian horse transport ship.
The Navy captain heard survivors' testimonies that the Israelis even shot up the Liberty's lifeboats after they were lowered into the waters to save the crew. That testimony was excised from the official record at some point after it left Boston's hands. (The tattered rafts now are proudly displayed in an Israeli museum.) Boston recalls shaking hands with Liberty skipper Commander William McGonagle, who had a big hole in his leg. "He thanked me later for that handshake," Boston recalled, "because it made some shrapnel pop out of his hand."
"Those boys who had their heads blown away weren't even given a chance to get to their machine guns."
When Boston suggested going to Tel Aviv to have the Israelis tell their side of the story, he was told, "You can't do it. Come on home and present the evidence you have."
Armed with a gun to protect the evidence, which he had attached to himself with handcuffs, Admiral Kidd, along with Captain Boston took the records to London. As the week allotted for gathering testimony came to an end, the team gathered 20 people to type up the report, which ended up being three inches thick. After all the evidence painstakingly collected was turned over to the U.S. Embassy there, the report may have been altered. "I made lots of corrections which are no longer in the report," Captain Boston told the Washington Report. "There are even pages missing."
A U.S. Embassy official in London told Kidd that he and his men must keep quiet. Ten days after the attack, the Navy's Court of Inquiry, despite all the evidence to the contrary, somehow exonerated Israel and ruled the attack was a case of mistaken identity. Following the Court proceedings in London, Admiral Kidd returned to Washington, DC and called Boston, with whom he was very close. "We have to be quiet," he said. "We can't talk to the media."
"LBJ [President Lyndon B. Johnson] had ordered us to put the lid on it. Don't talk about it," Boston told the Washington Report. "And after 35 years of active duty, when I get an order, even from a yellow-bellied superior, I follow those orders. All this time I've kept quiet until this [explicative deleted, Cristol] book came out."
After years of obeying those orders, Captain Boston broke his silence on June 26, 2002, when he told Marine Corps Times reporter Bryant Jordan the attack was deliberate (see "Israel Attack on USS Liberty ÔNo Accident' Says Helms" published in the Navy Times July 2, 2002).
Boston said he just had to speak out after reading Cristol's claim that Kidd, in interviews conducted in the early 1990s, had said Israel's attack was not intentional. The captain told the Washington Report that he finds it hard to believe Cristol's version of interviews with the now deceased Admiral Kidd, a man Boston greatly admired. "Admiral Kidd called me two hours after an interview with Cristol," Boston related, "and said, ÔI think Cristol's an Israeli agent.'"
According to Boston, both he and Admiral Kidd always believed that, despite the Court's official conclusion, the Israelis knew the ship was American. "I have strong patriotic feelings," he explained. "I believe the CIA slogan, Ôthe truth will out,' and hate the Israeli Mossad's motto: ÔWin By Deception.'"
"Madder Than Hell"
"Cristol now says I recanted my interview with the Navy Times. That makes me madder than hell," Boston said. "I have not recanted one thing. If anything, now I'm going to speak out louder than before and tell people what Admiral Kidd told me. He and I were very close. He said, Ôthose sons of bitches knew what they were doing when they killed innocent sunbathing kids. They tried to sink that ship.'" Cristol may now be kicking himself for waxing so eloquently about Boston's qualifications and skills, and calling him a "man of integrity" on pg. 149 of his book.
Liberty survivor James Ennes, author of the groundbreaking book Assault on the Liberty, also had numerous conversations with Admiral Kidd over the years. Kidd never characterized the attack as an accident. In fact, Ennes says Kidd told him many times, "You are on the right track, Jim. Just keep on probing. Keep on doing what you're doing."
When asked why he thought the U.S. government has covered up the attack for 36 years, Captain Boston replied: "Iraq, Vietnam, the Libertyit's the same old story. When people are in power they don't want to upset people who may help them get reelected. Maybe people didn't want the world to see that Israelis were slaughtering Egyptian prisoners of war. Maybe Johnson was afraid of upsetting potential voters."
As a captain and staff legal officer in London, retired Admiral Merlin Staring reviewed the Court of Inquiry's report in 1967. Before he could finish, however, the report was taken away. Based on what he read, however, Staring, who later became the Navy's top JAG officer, has said the evidence did not support the "accidental" attack contention.
Last year Richard Helms, CIA director at the time of the attack, agreed that "it was no accident." Helms also told Marine Corps Times correspondent Jordan on May 29, 2002, "I've done all I can. I don't want to spend the rest of my life in court testifying about the incident."
Helms' book, A Look Over My Shoulder, written in collaboration with William Hood, describes the Liberty attack as "one of the most disturbing incidents in the six days [war] Israeli authorities subsequently apologized for the accident, but few in Washington could believe that the ship had not been identified as an American naval vessel."
Admiral Rufus Taylor, Helms' deputy, told his boss, "To me, the picture thus far presents the distinct possibility that the Israelis knew that Liberty might be their target and attacked anyway..."
A fine article by David Walsh was released in the Naval Institute Proceedings on June 3, 2003, (available on the USNI Web site at <http://www.usni.org>). Walsh's well-documented article notes that even Clark Clifford, chairman of President Johnson's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board and a great supporter of Israel, called Israeli claims that the attack was accidental "unbelievable." Clifford told the president, "Something had gone terribly wrong and then it had been covered up. I never felt the Israelis had made adequate restitution or explanation for their unprovoked actions."
U.S. Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Walsh's article adds, had said there was "every reason to believe that the USS Liberty was identified, or at least her nationality determined one hour before the attack." Finally, Walsh notes, former NSA and CIA director Admiral Bobby Ray Inman, based on his talks with NSA seniors at the time,"flatly rejected" the Cristol/Israel thesis.
Former Chief of Naval Operations and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Admiral Thomas Moorer has been on the record for some time as saying the attack on the Liberty was deliberate. Among those agreeing with him are then-NSA Director Marshall Carter, Carter's deputy, Louis Tordella, NSA "Liberty Incident" analyst Walter Deeley, and Hayden Peake, professor of intelligence history at the Joint Military Intelligence College and a retired CIA officer.
Assistant Secretary of Defense for Command, Control, Communications and Intelligence John Stenbit told an audience at a conference on "Transforming National Security and Protecting the Homeland," held April 15 to 17 in Vienna, VA, that the Israelis had warned the U.S. to move the USS Liberty or they would sink it. His comments appeared in the Israeli daily Jerusalem Post and elicited a letter to the editor in the online section of the magazine. Both the letter and the article have mysteriously vanished from the Web site.
In addition to the many Americans noted above, Israelis and even Russians are adding to the public record on the attack. Nikolay Cherkashin, who has spent years investigating the Liberty tragedy, quoted a recently published Russian translation of Joseph Daichman's History of the Mossad, which states that it was perfectly clear to Israelis that the Liberty was an American ship and that the attack was committed to deprive the U.S. "of its eyes and ears."
Daichman also argues that Israel had every right to attack the American ship. If the Liberty had reported that Israeli troops had moved from the Egyptian borders to the Syrian front, the Soviets, if they were eavesdropping on the U.S., could have warned the Arabs. Eliminating any eyes and ears, Israel was able to attack Syria and capture the Golan Heights.
Daichman also speculates that Israel may have tried to sink the ship and blame Egypt, and thus provoke a lethal U.S. response. That theory is the theme of the documentary "Dead in the Water," nominated for Best Documentary at the Vancouver Film Festival, and the new Operation Cyanide book by Peter Hounam.
Despite overwhelming new testimony, however, Cristol's version of the attack on the Liberty is gaining notoriety. Michael Oren's Six Days of War won an award for best history book at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books. According to Ennes, Oren's chapter on the treacherous attack echoes Cristol's version, which Ennes describes as "pure Israeli spin and truth distortion."
That's not surprising, of course, since in his book's acknowledgements Oren thanks the Shalem Center, where he is a senior fellow and "under whose auspices this book was researched and written." The center describes its senior fellows program as "promoting the research and writing of agenda-shaping work." Its journal, Azure, with editorial offices in Jerusalem and Washington, DC, "champions a strong, free and Jewish State of Israel for the future of the Jewish people."
"Cristol, though discredited at every turn, continues to hawk his book," Ennes says, "arguing endlessly that the attack was a tragic accident and that we who say otherwise are simply either anti-Semites or blinded by blood and what he calls the Ôfog of war.' Cristol will be promoting his book in August and speaking at a large veterans' forum in Pigeon Forge, TN," Ennes told the Washington Report. He added, "Knowing the views of most veterans who know about the Liberty, I cannot imagine that Cristol will be well received."
"Will the Liberty remain a sort of ÔFlying Dutchman,' sailing forever around her poor men's souls?" Walsh concludes his Liberty article by asking. Until a congressional investigation gives survivors the opportunity to tell their stories before they die, and Americans can examine top-secret reports still shrouded in secrecy, the Liberty's ghost will not rest.
Delinda C. Hanley is news editor of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.