They Dare to Speak Out
by Paul Findley
THE ASSAULT ON ASSAULT
After thirty-five years, James M. Ennes, Jr., a retired officer of the U.S. Navy, is still having difficulty prying loose documents that shed light on the worst peacetime disaster in the history of our navy. In this quest, he has encountered resistance by the Department of Defense, the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the book publishing industry, the news media, and the Israeli Foreign Ministry. The resistance, seemingly coordinated on an international scale, is especially perplexing because Ennes's goal is public awareness of an episode of heroism and tragedy at sea that is without precedent in American history.
As the result of a program of concealment supported by successive governments in both Israel and the United States, hardly anyone remembers the miraculous survival of the USS Liberty after a devastating assault by Israeli forces on June 8, 1967, left 34 sailors dead, 171 injured, and the damaged ship adrift with no power, rudder, or means of communication.
The sustained courage of Captain William L. McGonagle and his crew in these desperate circumstances earned the Liberty a place of honor in the annals of the U.S. Navy. But despite energetic endeavors, including those of Ennes, who was officer of the deck that day, awareness of the incident remains dim and obscure. His stirring book-length account of the attack, Assault on the Liberty, itself continues to be under heavy assault twenty-two years after its publication.
The episode and its aftermath were so incredible that Admiral Thomas L. Moorer, who became chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff a month after the attack, observes, "If it was written as fiction, nobody would believe it."(1)
Certain facts are clear. The attack was no accident. The Liberty was assaulted in broad daylight by Israeli forces who knew the ship's identity.(2) The Liberty, an intelligence- gathering ship, had no combat capability and carried only light machine guns for defense. A steady breeze made its U.S. flag easily visible. The assault occurred over a period of nearly two hours--first by air, then by torpedo boat. The ferocity of the attacks left no doubt: the Israeli forces wanted the ship and its crew destroyed.
The public, however, was kept in the dark. Even before the American public learned of the attack, U.S. government officials began to promote an account of the assault that was satisfactory to Israel. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee worked through congressmen to keep the story under control. The president of the United States, Lyndon B. Johnson, ordered and led a cover-up so thorough that sixteen years after he left office, the episode was still largely unknown to the public--and the men who suffered and died have gone largely unhonored.
The day of the attack began in routine fashion, with the ship first proceeding slowly in an easterly direction in the eastern Mediterranean, later following the contour of the coastline westerly about fifteen miles off the Sinai Peninsula. On the mainland, Israeli forces were winning smashing victories in the third Arab-Israeli war in nineteen years. Israeli Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin, announcing that the Israelis had taken the entire Sinai and broken the blockade on the Strait of Tiran, declared: "The Egyptians are defeated."(3) On the eastern front, the Israelis had overcome Jordanian forces and captured most of the West Bank.
At 6:00 A.M. an airplane, identified by the Liberty crew as an Israeli Noratlas, slowly circled the ship, then departed. At 9:00 A.M., a jet appeared at a distance, then to the left of the ship.(4) At 10:00 A.M., two rocket-armed jets circled the ship three times. They were close enough for their pilots to be observed through binoculars. The planes were unmarked. An hour later the Israeli Noratlas returned, flying not more than 200 feet directly above the Liberty and clearly marked with the Star of David. The ship's crew members and the pilot waved at each other. The plane returned every few minutes until 1:00 P.M. By then, the ship had changed course and was proceeding almost due west.
At 2:00 P.M., all hell broke loose. Three Israeli Mirage fighter planes headed straight for the Liberty, their rockets taking out the forward machine guns and wrecking the ship's antennae. The Mirages were joined by Mystere fighters, which dropped napalm on the bridge and deck and repeatedly strafed the ship. The attack continued for more than twenty minutes. In all, the ship sustained 821 holes in her sides and decks. Of these, more than 100 were rocket-sized.
As the aircraft departed, three torpedo boats took over the attack, firing five torpedoes, one of which tore a forty-foot hole in the hull, killing 25 sailors. The ship was in flames, dead in the water, listing precariously, and taking on water. The crew was ordered to prepare to abandon ship. As life rafts were lowered into the water, the torpedo boats moved closer and shot them to pieces. One boat concentrated machine gun fire on rafts that were still on deck as crew members there tried to extinguish the napalm fires. Petty Officer Charles Rowley declares, "They didn't want anyone to live."
At 3:15 P.M., the last shot was fired, leaving the vessel a combination morgue and hospital. The ship had no engines, no power, no rudder. Fearing further attack, Captain McGonagle, despite severe leg injuries, stayed at the bridge. An Israeli helicopter, its open bay door showing troops in battle gear and a machine gun mounted in an open doorway, passed close to the deck, then left. Other aircraft came and went during the next hour.
U.S. air support never arrived. The USS SARATOGA was only thirty minutes away, and, with a squadron of fighter planes on deck ready for a routine operation, it was prepared to respond to an attack almost instantly. But the rescue never occurred. Without approval by Washington, the planes could not take aggressive action, even to rescue a U.S. ship confirmed to be under attack. Admiral Donald Engen, then captain of the USS AMERICA, a second U.S. carrier in the vicinity, later explained: "President Johnson had very strict control. Even though we knew the Liberty was under attack, I couldn't just go and order a rescue."(5) The ship's planes were hardly in the air when the voice of Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara was heard over Sixth Fleet radios: "Tell the Sixth Fleet to get those aircraft back immediately."(6) They were ordered to have no part in destroying or driving off the attackers.
Shortly after 3:00 P.M., nearly an hour after the Liberty's plea was first heard, the White House gave momentary approval to a rescue mission, and planes from both carriers were launched. At almost precisely the same instant, the Israeli government informed the U.S. naval attache in Tel Aviv that its forces had "erroneously attacked a U.S. ship" after mistaking it for an Egyptian vessel, and offered "abject apologies." With the apology in hand, Johnson once again ordered U.S. aircraft back to their carriers.
When the second launch occurred, there were no Israeli forces to "destroy or drive away." Fifteen hours of lonely struggle to keep the wounded alive and the vessel afloat were ahead for the Liberty and its ravaged crew. Not until dawn of the next day would the Liberty see a U.S. plane or ship. The only friendly visit was from a small Soviet warship. Its offer of help was declined, but the Soviets said they would stand by in case need should arise.
The next morning, two U.S. destroyers arrived with medical and repair assistance. Soon the wounded were transferred to the carrier hospital by helicopter. The battered ship then proceeded to Malta, where a navy Court of Inquiry was to be held. The inquiry itself was destined to be a part of an elaborate program to keep the public from knowing what had really happened.
In fact, the cover-up began almost at the precise moment that the Israeli assault ended. The apology from Israeli officials reached the White House moments after the last gun fired at the Liberty. President Johnson accepted and publicized the condolences of Israeli Prime Minister Levi Eshkol, even though readily available information showed the Israeli account to be false; the CIA had learned a day before the attack that the Israelis planned to sink the ship.(7) Nevertheless, congressional comments largely echoed the president's inter- pretation of the assault, and the nation was caught up in euphoria over Israel's stunning victories over the Arabs. The casualties on the Liberty got scant attention. Smith Hempstone, foreign correspondent for the WASHINGTON STAR, wrote from Tel Aviv, "In a week since the Israeli attack on the USS Liberty, not one single Israeli of the type which this correspondent encounters many times daily--cab drivers, censors, bartenders, soldiers--has bothered to express sorrow for the deaths of these Americans."(8)
The Pentagon staved off reporters' inquiries with the promise of a "comprehensive statement" once the official inquiry, conducted by Admiral Isaac Kidd, was finished.(9) Arriving at Malta, Kidd gave explicit orders to the crew: "Answer no questions. If somehow you are backed into a corner, then you may say that it was an accident and that Israel has apologized. You may say nothing else." Crew members were assured they could talk freely to reporters once the summary of the Court of Inquiry was made public. This was later modified. They were then ordered not to provide information beyond the precise words of the published summary.
The court was still taking testimony when a charge that the attack had been deliberate appeared in the U.S. press.(10) An ASSOCIATED PRESS story filed from Malta reported that "senior crewmen" on the ship were convinced the Israelis knew the ship was American before they attacked. "We were flying the Stars and Stripes and it's absolutely impossible that they shouldn't know who we were," a crew member said. The navy disputed the story, saying the United States "thoroughly accepted the Israeli apology."
With the testimony completed, Admiral Kidd handcuffed himself to a huge box of records and flew to Washington where they were examined by Chief of Naval Operations Admiral McDonald, as well as by congressional leaders before the long-awaited summary statement was issued.(11) When it was finally released, it was far from comprehensive.(12) It made no attempt to fix blame, focusing instead almost entirely on the actions of the crew.
The censored summary did not reveal that the ship had been under close aerial surveillance by Israel for hours before the attack, or that during the preceding twenty-four hours Israel had repeatedly warned U.S. authorities to move the Liberty.(13) It contained nothing to dispute the notion of mistaken identity. The navy erroneously reported that the attack lasted only six minutes instead of seventy minutes, and falsely asserted that all firing stopped when the torpedo boats came close enough to identify the U.S. flag. The navy made no mention of napalm or of life rafts being shot up. It even suppressed records of the strong breeze that made the ship's U.S. flag plainly visible.
The report did make one painful revelation: Before the attack, the Joint Chiefs of Staff had ordered the Liberty to move farther from the coast, but the message "was misrouted, delayed, and not received until after the attack."(14)
Several newspapers criticized the Pentagon's summary. The NEW YORK TIMES said it "leaves a good many questions unanswered."(15) The WASHINGTON STAR used the word "cover-up," called the summary an "affront," and demanded a deeper and wider probe.(16) Senator J. William Fulbright, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, after a closed briefing by Secretary of State Dean Rusk, called the episode "very embarrassing." The STAR concluded: "Whatever the meaning of this, embarrassment is no excuse for disingenuousness."
In early July, the Associated Press quoted Micha Limor, identified as an Israeli reservist who had served on one of the torpedo boats, as saying that Israeli sailors noticed three numbers on the ship as they circled the Liberty, but insisted that the numbers meant nothing to them.(17) Lieutenant James M. Ennes, Jr., a cypher officer recovering in a hospital from shrapnel wounds, was incredulous when he read the Limor story. (18) He had been officer of the deck. He knew that the ship's name appeared in large letters on the stern and that the hull number was plainly visible on the bow. He knew also that a breeze made the ship's U.S. flag easily visible during the day. He had just ordered a new 5- by 8-foot flag displayed early on the day of the attack. By the time the torpedo boats arrived, that flag had been shot down, but an even larger (7- by 13-foot) flag was mounted in plain view from a yardarm. He knew that the attackers, whether by air or surface, could not avoid knowing it was a U.S. ship. Above all, he knew that Liberty's intercept operators had heard the Israeli reconnaissance pilots reporting to Israeli headquarters that the ship was American.
Disturbed by the Limor account and the exchange of public messages concerning the assault, Ennes determined to unravel the story. During the four months he was bedridden at Portsmouth, Virginia, he collected information from his shipmates. Later, while stationed in Germany, he recorded the recollections of other crew members. Transferred to Washington, D.C., he secured government reports under the Freedom of Information Act, and he also obtained the full Court of Inquiry report, which was finally, after nine years, declassified from being top secret in 1976.
The result was Ennes's book, ASSAULT ON THE Liberty, published in 1980, two years after he retired from the navy. I first read the book while crossing the Atlantic as a member of a congressional delegation. Amazed by its contents, I shared it with several colleagues, who were equally astounded. Ennes discovered "shallowness" in the court's questioning, and a, failure to follow up "on evidence that the attack was planned in advance," as well as evidence that interceptors from two radio stations heard an Israeli pilot identify the ship as American.(19) He wrote that the court ignored the ship's log, which recorded a steady breeze blowing and included confirming testimony from crewmen, and erroneously concluded that attackers may not have been able to identify the flag's nationality: the flag, according to the court, "hung limp at the mast on a windless day."
Concerning Israeli motives for the attack, Ennes wrote that Israeli officials may have decided to destroy the ship because they feared its sensitive listening devices would detect Israeli plans to invade Syria's Golan Heights. (Israel invaded Syria the day after the Liberty attack, despite Israel's earlier acceptance of a ceasefire with its Arab foes.) A BBC television documentary titled DEAD IN THE WATER was broadcast several times in England and in several European markets--but not in the United States. The documentary reported a different theory: Israel wanted to destroy the Liberty, confident that Egypt, not Israel, would be blamed. Israel hoped this would provoke sufficient American outrage against Egypt that the United States would enter the war in alliance with Israel.
Ennes learned that crewmen sensed a cover-up even while the Court of Inquiry was taking testimony at Malta.(20) He identified George Golden, the Liberty'S engineering officer and acting commanding officer, as the source of the Associated Press story that charged that the attack was deliberate. Golden, who is Jewish, was so outraged at the prohibition against talking with reporters that he ignored it--risking his future career in the navy to rescue a vestige of his country's honor.
The U.S. embassy at Tel Aviv relayed to Washington the only fully detailed Israeli account of the attack--the Israeli Court of Inquiry report known as "Israeli Preliminary Inquiry 1/67." The embassy message also contained the recommendation that, at the request of the Israeli government, the account not be released to the American people.(21) Ennes believes this is probably because both governments knew the mistaken identity excuse was too transparent to believe.(22)
Another request for secrecy was delivered by hand to Eugene Rostow, undersecretary of state for political affairs.(23) It paralleled the message from the embassy at Tel Aviv, imploring the Department of State to keep the Israeli Court of Inquiry secret because "the circumstances of the attack [if the version outlined in the file is to be believed] strip the Israeli navy naked."(24) Although Ennes saw that message in an official file in 1977, by 1984 it had vanished from all known official files. Ennes believes that Israeli officials decided to make the Israeli navy the scapegoat in the controversy. With the blame piled on its navy, the orphan service that has the least clout in Israel's military hierarchy, Israel then asked the United States to keep the humiliation quiet. United States officials agreed not to release the text of the Israeli report.
LEGAL ADVISER'S REPORT BECOMES TOP SECRET
During this same period, in the weeks immediately following the assault on the Liberty, an assessment of "Israeli Preliminary Inquiry 1/67" was prepared by Carl F. Salans, legal adviser to the secretary of state. It was prepared for the consideration of Eugene Rostow. The report, kept top secret until 1983 and apparently given only cursory examination by Secretary of State Dean Rusk, examines the credibility of the Israeli study and reveals as has no other single document the real attitude of the U.S. government toward the Israeli attack on the USS Liberty. It was a document too explosive to release.
Item by item, Salans demonstrated that the Israeli excuse could not be believed. Preparing the report immediately after the attack, he relied mainly on the limited information in Admiral Isaac Kidd's Court of Inquiry file. Kidd never interviewed Ennes, Golden, or any of the other principal witnesses, but he found enough evidence to thoroughly discredit the Israeli document. The factors that Salans examined were the speed and direction of the Liberty, aircraft surveillance, identification by Israeli aircraft, identification by torpedo boats, flag and identification markings, and the time sequence of attacks. In each instance, eyewitness testimony or known facts disputed Israel's claims of innocent error.
For example, the Israeli report contended that the Liberty was traveling at a speed of twenty-eight to thirty knots, hence behaving suspiciously. Its actual speed was five knots. Israeli reconnaissance aircraft claimed to have carried out only two overnight missions, at 6:00 A.M. and 9:00 A.M. Aircraft actually flew over the Liberty eight times before opening fire, the first at 6:00 A.M. and the last at 1:00 P.M. The Israeli report charged that the Liberty, after refusing to identify itself, opened fire. Captain McGonagle testified that the only signals by the torpedo boats came from a distance of 2,000 yards when the attack run was already launched and torpedoes were on their way. The Israeli torpedo boats' blinker signals could not be seen because of intermittent smoke and flames. Not seeing them, the Liberty did not reply. The Israeli report contended that the Liberty did not display a flag or identifying marks. Five crewmen testified that they saw the U.S. flag flying the entire morning. When the flag was shot away during the air attack, another, larger, flag was hoisted before the torpedo onslaught began. Hull markings were clear and freshly painted. The Israelis tried to shift responsibility by asserting that the attack originated because of reports that the coastal area was being shelled from the sea. Salans said it should be clear to any trained observer that the small guns aboard the Liberty were incapable of shore bombardment.
The Salans report was forwarded September 21, 1967, to Undersecretary of State Rostow. This means that high officials of the administration knew the falsity of Israeli claims about the Liberty soon after the assault itself.
With a document in hand that so thoroughly refuted Israel's claims, the next logical step obviously would be its presentation to the Israeli government for comment, followed by publication of the findings. Instead, it was stamped "top secret" and hidden from public view, as well as from the attention of other officials of our government and its military services, along with the still-hidden Israeli report. Dean Rusk, secretary of state at the time, says that he has "no current recollection" of seeing the Salans report. He adds, however, that he "was never satisfied with the Israeli purported explanation of the USS Liberty affair."
The cover-up of the Salans report and other aspects of the episode soon had agonizing implications for U.S. security. If the navy had been candid about the Liberty episode even within its own ranks, the nation might have been spared the subsequent humiliation of an ordeal that began five months later when North Korean forces killed a U.S. sailor and captured the USS PUEBLO and its entire crew. The agony ended when the crew was released after experiencing a year of captivity under brutal conditions.
PUEBLO commander Lloyd M. Bucher later concluded that, had he been armed with the facts of the disaster in the Mediterranean, he might have prevented the PUEBLO episode.(25) In the late summer of 1967, still ashore but preparing to take command of the ill-fated ship, Bucher learned of the Liberty's misfortune. Headed for hostile waters near North Korea, he believed his mission would profit from the experience and asked for details. Bucher recalls how his request was brushed aside: "I asked my superiors about the disaster and was told it was all just a big mistake, that there was nothing we could learn from it."(26) When he later read Ennes's book, Bucher discovered that the Liberty crew had encountered many of the same problems his ship faced just before its capture. Both ships had inadequate means for destroying secret documents and equipment, and, in a crisis, even the ship itself. Both had serious shortcomings in control procedures. Bucher blames "incompetency at the top" and "lack of response to desperate calls for assistance during the attack." He speaks bitterly of the PUEBLO'S ordeal:
We had a man killed and fourteen wounded. Then a year of pretty damned severe brutality, which could have been prevented had I been told what happened to the Liberty. It's only because that damned incident was covered up as thoroughly as it was.
The cover-up of the attack on the Liberty had other, more personal consequences. On recommendation of the U.S. Navy, William L. McGonagle, captain of the Liberty, was approved by President Johnson for the nation's highest award, the Congressional Medal of Honor. According to Ennes, the captain "defied bullets, shrapnel, and napalm" during the attack and, despite injuries, stayed on the bridge throughout the night. Under his leadership, the eighty-two crewmen who survived death and injury had kept the ship afloat despite a forty-foot hole in its side, and managed to bring the crippled vessel to safe harbor.
McGonagle was an authentic hero, but he was not to get the award with the customary style, honor, ceremony, and publicity. It would not be presented personally by the president, nor would the event be at the White House. The navy got instructions to arrange the ceremony elsewhere. The president would not take part. It was up to the navy to find a suitable place. Admiral Thomas L. Moorer, who had become chief of naval operations shortly before the order arrived, was upset.(27) It was the only Congressional Medal of Honor that, in his experience, would not be presented at the White House. He protested to Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, but the order stood. No voice of protest came from the legislature for which the medal is named.
The admiral would have been even more upset had he known at the time that the White House delayed approving the medal until it was cleared by Israel. Ennes quoted a naval officer as saying: "The government is pretty jumpy about Israel. The State Department even asked the Israeli ambassador if his government had any objection to McGonagle getting the medal. 'Certainly not,' Israel said."(28) The text of the accompanying citation gave no offense: it did not mention Israel.
The secretary of the navy presented the medal in a small, quiet ceremony at the navy yard in Washington. Admiral Moorer said later that he was not surprised by the extraordinary arrangements.(29) "They had been trying to hush it up all the way through." Moorer added, "The way they did things, I'm surprised they didn't just hand it to him under the 14th Street Bridge."
Even tombstone inscriptions at Arlington National Cemetery perpetuated the cover-up.(30) As with McGonagle's citation, Israel was not mentioned. For fifteen years, the marker over the graves of six Liberty crewmen read simply, "died in the Eastern Mediterranean." There was no mention of the ship, the circumstances, or Israel. Visitors might have concluded that they died of natural causes. Finally, survivors of the ship banded together to form the USS Liberty Veterans Association and launched a protest that produced a modest improvement. The cover-up was lifted ever so slightly in 1982, when the cemetery marker was changed to read, "Killed USS Liberty." The dedication event at grave site was as quiet as the McGonagle ceremony had been years before. The only civilian official of the U.S. government attending, Senator Larry Pressler, promised further investigation of the Liberty episode, but did nothing.
"We get lots of promises," Ennes says, "but no action." He relates the following example:
Senator Kennedy once promised to look into the issue and spent a year supposedly reviewing my book and files we sent. Eventually he wrote to say, "Everything humanly possible must be done to find the truth about the USS Liberty." Fine, we said, so conduct an investigation. You can do that alone as a U.S. senator. He never answered that or several follow-up letters.
The national cover-up of the event went so far as to dictate the phrasing of letters of condolence to the survivors of those killed in the assault. In such circumstances, next of kin normally receive a letter from the president setting forth the facts of the tragedy and expressing profound feelings over the hardship, sacrifice, and bravery involved in the death. In fact, letters by the hundreds were then being sent to next of kin as the toll in Vietnam mounted.
To senior White House officials, however, death by Israeli fire was different from death at the hands of the Vietcong. A few days after the assault on the Liberty, the senior official in charge of President Johnson's liaison with the Jewish community, Harry McPherson, received this message from White House aide James Cross:
Thirty-one navy personnel were killed aboard the USS Liberty as the result of the accidental attack by Israeli forces. The attached condolence letters, which have been prepared using basic formats approved for Vietnam War casualties, strike me as inappropriate in this case. Due to the very sensitive nature of the whole Arab- Israeli situation and the circumstances under which these people died, I would ask that you review these drafts and provide me with nine or ten different responses which will adequately deal with this special situation.(31)
The "special situation" led McPherson to agree that many of the usual paragraphs of condolence were "inappropriate." He suggested phrases that de-emphasized combat, and that ignored the Israeli role and even the sacrifice involved. Responding to the "very sensitive nature" of relations with Israel, the president's staff set aside time-honored traditions in recognizing those killed in combat.(32) McPherson suggested that the letters express the president's gratitude for the "contribution to the cause of peace" made by the victims and state that Johnson had tried to avert the Israeli-Arab war.
While Washington engaged in this strange program of cover-up, Liberty crewmen could remember with satisfaction a moment of personal pride, however brief.(33) On the afternoon of June 10, 1967, as the battered ship and its crew prepared to part company with the USS AMERICA for their journey to Malta and the Court of Inquiry, Captain Donald Engen ordered a memorial service for those who had died during the assault. Held on the deck of the AMERICA, where more than 2,000 sailors were gathered, the service was an emotional moment. Afterward, as the ships parted, Engen called for three cheers for the Liberty crew. Petty Officer Jeffery Carpenter, weakened from loss of blood, occupied a stretcher on the Liberty's main deck. Crewman Stan White lifted one end of the stretcher so Carpenter could see as well as hear the tribute being paid by the carrier. "Such cheers!" Engen told me. "Boy, you could hear the cheers echo back and forth across the water. It was a very moving thing."
It was the only "moving thing" that would be officially bestowed in tribute to the heroic crew.
"THIS IS PURE MURDER"
Books have perpetuated myths about the Liberty. Yitzhak Rabin, military commander of Israeli forces at the time, declared in his memoirs, published in 1979, that the Liberty was mistaken for an Egyptian ship: "I must admit I had mixed feelings about the news [that it was actually a U.S. ship]--profound regret at
having attacked our friends and a tremendous sense of relief [that the ship was not Soviet]."(34) He wrote that Israel, while compensating victims of the assault, refused to pay for the damage to the ship "since we did not consider ourselves responsible for the train of errors."
Lyndon Johnson's own memoirs, titled VANTAGE POINT, continued the fiction that the ship had been "attacked in error."(35) Although his signature had appeared on letters of condolence to thirty-four next of kin, his memoirs reported the death toll at only ten.(36) He cited 100 wounded; the actual count was 171. He added, "This heartbreaking episode grieved the Israelis deeply, as it did us." Johnson wrote of the message he had sent on the hotline to Moscow, in which he assured the Soviets that carrier aircraft were on their way to the scene and that "investigation was the sole purpose of these flights." He did not pretend that protection and rescue of the ship and its crew were among his objectives, nor did he record that the carrier aircraft were never permitted to proceed to the Liberty even for "investigation." The commander in chief devoted only sixteen lines to one of the worst peacetime naval disasters in history.
Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, identified in a CIA report as the officer who personally ordered the attack, made no mention of the Liberty in his lengthy autobiography.(37) According to the CIA document, Dayan had issued the order over the protests of another Israeli general who said, "This is pure murder."
The cover-up also dogged Ennes in the marketing of his book.(38) Despite high praise in reviews, book orders routinely got "lost," wholesale listings disappeared mysteriously, and the Israeli lobby launched a far-flung campaign to discredit the text. The naval base in San Diego returned a supply of books when a chaplain filed a complaint. Military writer George Wilson told Ennes that when the WASHINGTON POST printed a review, "It seemed that every phone in the building had someone calling to complain about our mention of the book." The ATLANTA JOURNAL called Ennes's ASSAULT ON THE Liberty a "disquieting story of navy bungling, government cover-up and Israeli duplicity that is well worth reading."(39) The COLUMBUS DISPATCH called it "an inquest of cover-up in the area of international political intrigue." Journalist Seymour Hersh praised it as "an insider's book by an honest participant," and the prestigious Naval Institute at Annapolis called it "probably the most important naval book of the year."(40)
Israel took swift measures to warn U.S. readers to ignore the reviews. The Israeli Foreign Office charged, "Ennes allows his very evident rancor and subjectivity to override objective analysis," and that his "conclusions fly in the face of logic and military facts." These charges, Ennes later said, were "adopted by the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith for distribution to Israeli supporters throughout the United States." A caller to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee was told that the book was "a put-up job, all lies and financed by the National Association of Arab Americans."(41) Ennes said the "emotional rhetoric" caused "serious damage to sales and a marked reluctance of media executives to allow discussion of this story."
As the result of radio talk shows and lecture platforms on which Ennes appeared, he heard from people "all over the country" who had been frustrated in efforts to buy his book.(42) Several retail book stores, seeking to order the book from the publisher, Random House, were given false information--they were told the book did not exist, or that it had not been published, or that it was out of print, or that it was withdrawn to avoid a lawsuit.
Talk show host Ray Taliaferro caused a stir one Sunday night in 1980 when he announced over San Francisco radio station KGO that he would interview Ennes the following Sunday.(43) More than 500 protest letters poured into the station, but the program went on as scheduled. Public response was overwhelming, as listener calls continued to stream in for a full hour after the two-hour show with Ennes had ended. Two phone calls arrived threatening Taliaferro's life--one on a supposedly private line.
At the invitation of Paul Backus, editor of the JOURNAL OF ELECTRONIC DEFENSE, Ennes wrote a guest editorial in 1981 on the implications of the Liberty incident, stating that friendly nations sometimes feel compelled to take hostile actions.(44) In the case of the Liberty, he added:
Because the friendly nation . . . is the nation of Israel, and because the nation of Israel is widely, passionately, and expensively supported in the United States, and perhaps also because a proper inquiry would reveal a humiliating failure of command, control, and communications, an ade- quate investigation . . . has yet to be politically palatable.
Backus was stunned when the owners of the magazine, an organization of military- and defense-related executives known as the Association of Old Crows, ordered him not to publish the Ennes editorial. Association spokesman Gus Slayton wrote to Backus that the article was "excellent," but said "it would not be appropriate to publish it now in view of the heightened tension in the Middle East." Backus, a retired navy officer, resigned. "I want nothing more to do with organizations which would further suppress the information," he stated. The Ennes piece was later given prominent play in a rival magazine, DEFENSE ELECTRONICS, and the issue became a popular reprint, selling for three dollars a copy.
As Ennes lectured at universities in the Midwest and West in 1981 and 1982, he encountered protests in different form. Although most reaction was highly favorable, hecklers called him a liar and an anti-Semite, and protested to administrators against his appearance on campus. Posters announcing his lectures were routinely ripped down. Wording, identical to that used by the Israeli Foreign Office and B'nai B'rith in their attacks on the book, appeared in flyers distributed by local "Jewish student unions" as Ennes spoke to college audiences.
Criticism of Ennes's book seemed to be coordinated on a national--even international--scale. After National Public Radio broadcast the full text of the book over its book-reading network, local Anti-Defamation League spokesmen demanded and received the opportunity for a tenminute rebuttal at the end of the series.(45) The rebuttal in Seattle was almost identical to the wording of a document attacking the book that was issued by the Israeli Foreign Office in Jerusalem. Both rebuttals matched verbatim a letter criticizing Ennes that had appeared in the Jacksonville, Florida, TIMES-UNION.
Ennes's misfortunes took an ironic turn in June 1982 when ABC'S NIGHTLINE canceled the broadcast of a segment it had prepared on the fifteen-year reunion of the Liberty crew. The show was preempted by crisis coverage of Israel's invasion of Lebanon, which had begun the day before. In early 1983, NIGHTLINE rescheduled the segment, but once again Israel intruded, this time when Moshe Arens, Israel's new ambassador to the United States, took the allotted time. Subsequently, the edited tape and fifteen reels of unedited film disappeared from the studio library.
Ennes's book may have cost the former captain of the ill-fated PUEBLO an appearance on ABC's GOOD MORNING AMERICA television show in 1980.(46) Bucher was invited to New York for a post-captivity interview. Suddenly the invitation was withdrawn. A studio official told Bucher only that he had heard there were problems "upstairs," but then he asked Bucher, "Did you have a book review published recently in the WASHINGTON POST?" He had indeed. The review had heaped praise on Ennes's book.
Later in 1983, the Jewish War Veterans organization protested when the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) quoted Ennes to support its call for "proper honors" for those killed on the Liberty, and again when James R. Currieo, national commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, referred to the "murderous Israeli attack."(47) Currieo excited Jewish wrath even more when he published in the VFW magazine a letter to President Reagan inviting the White House to send a representative to the cemetery to help honor the men who died. There was no reply.
Twenty-two years after publication of ASSAULT ON THE Liberty, Ennes is still receiving a steady flow of correspondence about the episode, particularly through the book's official Web site at www.ussLiberty.org. Elected by his shipmates as their official historian, he became editor of THE USS Liberty NEWSLETTER. Another retired officer, Admiral Thomas L. Moorer, applauds Ennes's activities and still wants an investigation.(48) He scoffs at the mistaken identity theory, and says he hopes Congress will investigate. If it does not, he favors reopening the navy's Court of Inquiry. He adds, "I would like to see it done, but I doubt seriously that it will be allowed."
Asked why the Johnson administration ordered the cover-up, Moorer is blunt: "The clampdown was not actually for security reasons but for domestic political reasons. I don't think there is any question about it. What other reasons could there have been? President Johnson was worried about the reaction of Jewish voters." Moorer maintains that the attack was "absolutely deliberate" and adds, "The American people would be goddamn mad if they knew what goes on." Indeed: Ennes learned from a U.S. Air Force intelligence analyst that "the Israelis not only knew we [on the Liberty] were American but were deeply frustrated and angry when the Liberty did not sink quickly as intended."(49)
Thirty-five years after the assault, Ennes has written a new edition of his book and finds glimmers of hope:
Every attempt to hide this story seems to bring more attention. This past year brought a sixty-minute docu- mentary, produced by CBS News Productions, that was broadcast by The History Channel--much to the dismay and over the heated objections of the Israeli Embassy and various spokesmen for Israel, who did all in their power to block it. CAMERA, a leading pro-Israel propa- ganda arm, produced an extended and angry critique of the film, accusing survivors and CBS of producing a "propaganda-laden bogus history" that is deliberately distorted and anti-Semitic. The History Channel's report was aired as scheduled and rebroadcast later. Although CAMERA urged The History Channel not to sell a video version, it was made available anyway. In June 2002 London's BBC released anew documentary called DEAD IN THE WATER. It reveals secret collabor- ation between Washington and Tel Aviv during the Six- Day War. A new book, called Operation Cyanide, argues that carefully laid plans were made to sink the Liberty, and that the United States was as much to blame as Israel for what happened.(50)
A number of other authors have also released in-depth analyses of the crisis and subsequent cover-up. In his Ph.D. dissertation THE USS Liberty; DISSENTING HISTORY VS. OFFICIAL HISTORY, John E. Borne painstakingly compares two versions of the Liberty attack--those of official U.S. history and the testimony of the Liberty crew--and refutes, point by point, the erroneous claims of the former, noting also the often contradictory explanations offered by various Israeli sources. Most striking to Borne is the extent to which the American government involved itself in a cover-up of the truth:
Above all, the [Johnson] administration had the power to silence the crewmen and even to order them to make statements agreeing with the official version of the event. The crewmen hoped to somehow attract attention to their claims, but their hope was in vain. All factors seemed to combine to silence the crewmen, to make their story, even if heard, seem unbelievable, and to favor the administration view of the matter.(51)
Donald Neff's WARRIORS FOR JERUSALEM uses government records released through the Freedom of Information Act to add historical detail to the Liberty tragedy. Of the painful revelations Neff makes, especially tragic is the fact that Liberty captain McGonagle, upon hearing of the outbreak of hostilities and well before approaching Israel, requested protection from the U.S. Sixth Fleet commander, Vice Admiral William I. Martin. The request was denied, according to Admiral Martin, because the Liberty was "a clearly marked United States ship in international waters, not a participant in the conflict and not a reasonable subject for attack by any nation."(52) Neff also mentions the fact that, when U.S. officials were having second thoughts and decided to order the Liberty away from the area of fighting, two messages conveying that order were not delivered.
James Bamford's BODY OF SECRETS also mentions the failed correspondences, noting that U.S. government inquiries immediately following the episode "dealt principally with such topics as the failure of the naval communications system and how the crew of the ship performed during the crisis. No American investigators ever looked into the 'why' question or brought the probe to Israel, the scene of the crime." The details uncovered by Bamford, induding President Johnson's cover-up in order to preserve Jewish votes, were simply lying in a box in the back of the National Security Agency Museum--no one had bothered to check for them before.(53)
Response to Bamford's book has been varied. Ambassadors and Middle East experts have spoken with knowledge of the event, one noting that the evidence Bamford and others have provided is "strong evidence that this was a deliberate attack." Supporters of Israel are less forthcoming about the actual event: Thomas Neumann, executive director of the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA), claimed that--"though I have not personally read the book"--Bamford's allegations were nonetheless clearly anti-Semitic.(54)
HE WANTED TO AVOID "HURT FEELINGS"
I occasionally return to Capitol Hill, where I am always on the lookout for a member of Congress who might be brave enough to seek hearings, at long last, on the Israeli assault on the USS Liberty. The surviving crew members richly deserve the official, public recognition the hearings would bring. Mrs. Findley and I, both navy veterans, have attended several of their annual reunions, each a bittersweet experience with neglected military heroes. A hearing should be conducted while survivors of the tragedy are still alive to provide details. The cover-up is an indignity that keeps from the history books a record of rare heroism.
One day in early 1990 1 stopped to see Charles Bennett of Florida, who was just starting his twenty-first and final two-year term in the House of Representatives. Over the years he had become a congenial symbol of rectitude, dignity, and diligence, and was much respected by his colleagues. Never fully recovered from a leg injury during army service in World War II, he was a familiar sight, scurrying, with the aid of a cane, to take part in every vote and quorum call. He declined to take part in congressional study missions, better known as junkets, because he considered them a waste of taxpayer money.
I believed it a perfect moment to seek Bennett's leadership for hearings on the Liberty. He was in his final term in Congress, meaning that Israel's lobby could do him no harm in the next election; he served as chairman of the seapower subcommittee of the House Committee on Armed Services; and he knew he would never achieve his long-standing ambition to be chairman of the full committee, as his Democratic colleagues in the House had recently discarded the seniority system for choosing committee leadership by elevating Les Aspin to the chairmanship. This decision passed over several more senior colleagues, induding Bennett.
I reasoned that Bennett would welcome the responsibility of chairing hearings that would fully disclose, on public record, what actually happened to the Liberty and its crew. I was wrong. He welcomed me to his office with warmth, but when I stated my mission, he displayed the first anger I had ever observed in this usually quiet, reserved colleague. He stood and said: "I won't do it. All the hearings would do is hurt the feelings of some of my good Jewish friends in my district." He spoke with such vehemence that I knew the interview was over. I excused myself, astounded that this highly patriotic colleague with a long record of loyalty to the armed services would fiercely reject hearings for navy heroes out of concern for the embarrassment the truth might cause a few of his constituents. Their feelings, it seems, rated higher than the pain that the Liberty survivors have suffered for thirty-five years.
A CALL FOR JUSTICE
Despite the awesome power of Israel's U.S. lobby, Liberty survivors have a voice in the House of Representatives, thanks to Democrat Cynthia McKinney, Georgia's first African American congresswoman. Long a supporter of civil and human rights, she was the only member of Congress to attend a massive rally held April 20, 2002, on Washingtons National Mall to express solidarity with the Palestinian people. Two months later, she introduced the following speech into the Congressional Record, a fitting testimonial to the determination of the Liberty crew:
Mr. Speaker, I speak to commemorate and recognize the tragic attack that took place against the USS Liberty on June 8, 1967. Although thirty-five years have come and gone since this historic event, the survivors of the USS Liberty are still struggling with the fact that their story has never been heard. While there has never been an official investigation into this event, we have learned from survivor accounts that for over seventy- five minutes the Israeli defense forces attacked the USS Liberty, killing 34 American soldiers and wounding an additional 171. With over 85 percent of the crew either dead or wounded, they somehow managed to keep the ship afloat after being hit by over a thousand rounds of rocket, cannon, machine gun, napalm hits, and even a direct hit from a torpedo. This unprovoked attack took place in international waters, and by a trusted ally. The only explanation given to the survivors and their families as to why this attack took place was that it was an accident and that their ship was not identified as being American, regardless of the fact that our flag was proudly flown throughout the attack. Unfortunately, that explanation is not good enough for those whose lives have been impacted by this attack, and it should not be good enough for the American people. Let's not wait another thirty-five years before we provide the survivors an official investigation into why this attack took place and allow them to tell their story. We owe them more than a debt of gratitude for their sacrifice; we owe them the truth.
The navy's official Court of Inquiry was a sham. Both the admiral who headed the inquiry and his legal counsel knew it was phony. In retirement, U.S. Navy Captain Ward Boston, who served as court counsel, admitted that they privately disputed the court's official conclusion that the assault was a case of mistaken identity. Boston told a reporter for the NAVY TIMES that both he and Rear Admiral Isaac Kidd, who served as president of the court, privately agreed that the Israeli forces knew they were attacking a U.S. Navy ship. In explaining why he participated in the sham, Boston said, "In military life, you accept the fact that if you're told to shut up, you shut up. We did what we were told." Former CIA director Richard Helms said, "It was no accident."(55)
It is a pity that Senator John McCain, a prisoner-of-war survivor and an authentic hero of the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam War, was duped into publicly endorsing the phony findings of the Court of Inquiry. After reading THE Liberty INCIDENT, the latest attempt to cover up Israel's perfidy, written by a former navy pilot who is a federal judge, McCain wrote: "After years of research for this book, Judge A. Jay Cristol has reached a similar conclusion to one my father [then chief of Naval Operations] reached in his June 18, 1967, endorsement of the findings of the Court of Inquiry. I commend Judge Cristol for his thoroughness and fairness, and I commend this work."(56)
The episode leaves one wondering if someone ordered the federal judge to write the book-length whitewash of the Court of Inquiry whitewash. NOTES
Jim Ennes and Joe Meadors
Jim Ennes and Joe Meadors