Washington Report on USS Liberty forum





The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, March 2004

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THOSE NOT INVITED TO SPEAK
STEAL THE SHOW
AT STATE DEPARTMENT LIBERTY DISCUSSION

By Delinda C. Hanley

The Department of State hosted on Jan. 12, 2004 a highly charged panel discussion on Israel's June 8, 1967 attack on the USS LIBERTY, which killed 34 Americans and wounded 172. Panelists included historians, an Israeli author, a bankruptcy judge, and a plucky investigative reporter. The State Department did not invite as speakers LIBERTY survivors or other military experts who played key roles in the tragedy. Nonetheless, despite clumsy attempts to silence them, the voices of survivors and their supporters came through lound and clear.

Moderator Dr. Marc Susser, the State Department historian, opened the two-day conference, called to mark the release of the third volume of a trilogy focusing on U.S. foreign policy during the Johnson administration. The latest volume documents U.S. policy directly before, during and after the June 1967 Arab-Israeli war and includes newly declassified documents concerning Israel's attack on the USS LIBERTY.

According to Susser, historians were granted full access to all the Johnson administration's files, and "selected those documents that best told the history of U.S. foreign policy." By law, Susser said, U.S. government documents are open to public scrutiny -- although he admitted that after nearly 37 years, some documents still could not be declassified. In a democracy, the State Department historian stated, people have the right to know, and their government must ensure its actions are not secret forever. (See text on the Offrice of the Historian Web site, .)

Ambassador David Satterfield, deputy assistant secretary of the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, next described the historical importance of the 1967 war, as Israel and the Arabs today make painful choices. Repeatedly referring to Palestinian terrorism, he neglected Israel's brutal attacks on Palestinian civilians, although he did say that Israeli settlement activity in Arab land captured in 1967 must stop. Satterfield's remarks dampened aud- ience expectations for an even-handed U.S. approach to peacemaking.

According to trilogy editor Dr. Harriet Schwar, her department took 26 years to compile this 1,100-page history of U.S. policy in the Middle East, weeding through documents culled from the White House, State Department, CIA, NSA, Navy and other U.S. government records. The most important documents have now been released, Schwar said, with only a few not declassified and a few excised.

As for Israel's attack on its ally's ship, Schwar said her staff found no evidence that the U.S. had overheard Israel's orders to attack the LIBERTY, or any indication that there ever had been any such recordings.

Dr. David Robarge of the Central Intelligence Agency's history staff was proud of the CIA's accurate analysis and unpoliticized intelligence in 1967. U.S. foreign policy mainly consisted of keeping out of the Arab-Israeli war, he said, in order to avoid a larger confrontation with the Soviet Union. As tensions rose in the region, Israel had begged for U.S. arms and assistance, claiming to be the underdog. But CIA intelligence contradicted this claim, indicating Israel would quickly win a war wiwth Arab states without U.S. assistance.

According to University of Arizona Professor Charles Smith, the Johnson administration was well aware that Israel fired the war's first shots. Egypt had been about to send a delegation to Washington, DC to make peace -- but Israel wanted U.S. sympathy, as well as Arab territory. Had the Egyptian delegation met with U.S. officials, Israel would have had no justification to attack.

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Johnson's administration, Smith explained, believed that once Israel had conquered Arab territory, the Jewish state would be able to negotiate a lasting peace settlement from a position of strength.

Dr. David Hatch, technical director at the Center for Cryptologic History, began his remarks on the LIBERTY controversy by saying, "The good news is that information long sought by researchers is now out -- and the bad news is that it does not set- tle it." For three and a half decades the NSA withheld transcripts from an intercept of Israeli helicopter pilots speaking with air controllers and puzzling over the identity of the LIBERTY -- because, Hatch said, they didn't know it was important. The pilots were told to identify the ship, and take any English- speaking survivors to one place and Egyptians to another.

Next to speak was Judge A. Jay Cristol, whose recent book, THE LIBERTY INCIDENT: THE 1967 ATTACK ON THE U.S. NAVY SPY SHIP, was described by one retired government official in the audience as a "brief for a guilty client: Israel." Cristol asked the audience to applaud two LIBERTY survivors in the audience, his "friends" Joe Lentini and Phil Tourney. (In the all-too-brief 15 minutes allotted for questions, the survivors denied being Cristol's friends.) Cristol spent his 15 minutes of fame listing real or imagined fans of his book.

Eventually the bankruptcy court judge turned to Admiral Isaac C. Kidd's Naval Court of Inquiry, which concluded that Israel's attack on the LIBERTY was a mistake. Cristol acknowledged the recent declaration by Captain Ward Boston, the former U.S. Navy attorney who helped Kidd investigate the attack. This document was submitted to State Department panel organizers, but had not been mentioned until that point. Alison Weir, founder of If Americans Knew, passed out copies of the declaration to members of the audience.

Boston states that, despite overwhelming evidence to the con- trary, he and the admiral had been ordered to make a false report and say the attack was an accident. Cristol lambasted Boston both for breakikng his oath to tell the truth in court and for dishonoring the name of Admiral Kidd, who was another of Cris- tol's "friends," as evidenced by a signed photo hanging in the judge's office. The case on the LIBERTY should be closed, Cristol argued, because every investigation has concluded the attack was an accident.

Like a breath of fresh air, investigative journalist James Bamford took his turn at the podium. He gave a concise account of the "planned and deliberate" attack on the LIBERTY and the subsequent cover-up, comparing it to Iran-Contra and other scandals Bamford has investigated over the years. "I wouldn't be in business if the government didn't cover things up," he said.

He expressed indignation that two of the panelists selected by the U.S. State Department represented Israel, while no one was there to represent American LIBERTY survivors.

Scoffing at claims that Israelis believed the ship was an Egyptian horse carrier, Bamford cited a TV interview with the Israeli who was tasked to identify the ship in JANE'S FIGHTING SHIP manual. He then proceeded to read the hard-hitting Boston declaration.

Israel intentionally tried to sink the LIBERTY, Bamford argued, to cover up the massacre of Egyptian prisoners of war in the Sinai. President Johnson's administration then hid the facts to avoid harming ties with Israel.

Bamford, whose book BODY OF SECRETS includes a chapter on the LIBERTY, charged that there never has been an independent investigation of the attack -- in sharp contrast to painstaking, if in- conclusive, investigations after attacks on the USS COLE, U.S. embassies, or the Khobar Towers. Israel investigated the attack, Bamford acknowledged, but said that was like asking Enron to investigate itself. He concluded by calling for a full investigation of the attack on the LIBERTY while those who were there could still tell their story.

Dr. Michael Oren, author of SIX DAYS OF WAR: JUNE 1967 AND THE MAKING OF THE MODERN MIDDLE EAST, said he'd hoped his research into hundreds of pages of Israeli documents would provide the last word. Oren, who works for the Jerusalem-based Shalem Center, said he sympathized with LIBERTY survivors because he, too, had survived a tragic "friendly fire incident" when he was a paratrooper with the Israeli army. He also noted that in 1967 the U.S. endured 5,000 friendly fire incidents in Vietnam.

Oren shifted the blame for the LIBERTY "accident" directly onto the shoulders of Washington, DC, because the U.S. government didn't know the ship was still in the area. The National Security agancy should have notified Israel that its spy ship was in international waters nearby, Oren charged.

Numerous Israeli overflights observed by sunbathing LIBERTY survivors prior to theattack were made by Israeli cargo planes, not surveillance planes, Oren claimed, and therefore Israel had no reports that the ship was in the area. According to Oren, no Israeli planes had noted the ship's American flag or the huge Latin -- not Arabic -- letters on the hull.

The Israeli author -- who sounds like he was born and bred in this country -- then stretched attendees' credulity by saying the marker noting the LIBERTY as a friendly vessel had inexplicably been removed from the Israeli war board. Oren claimed that Israeli fighters were so exhausted by the war they may have committed unfortunate errors, but the they certainly weren't crim- inally negligent.

Oren characterized Americans who still believe the attack on the LIBERTY was intentional as belonging to anti-Israel hate groups or as religious extremists. It would be impossible to hush up evidence of Israeli wrongdoing, he claimed, due to the "porousness of Israeli society."

Oren, too, called for an independent investigation -- although he promised nothing new will turn up. The U.S. would have to answer to why a lightly armed U.S. spy ship was sent into a war zone, he warned.

Dr. Smith summarized the common ground, disagreements and flaws in panelists' interpretation of historical documents. There is still evidence, he suggested, that the government is reluctant to reveal.

Newspaper accounts of the conference concluded that Israel and the U.S. share the blame for Israel's attack on the LIBERTY.

Although the conference was broadcast live on C-SPAN 2, most mainstream media reports did not include the very moving comments and questions posed by LIBERTY survivors in the audience. Joe Lentini said he was appalled to hear "gentlement who were in diapers in 1967" justify what happened to his shipmates. When panel moderator Susser asked Joseph Lentini to ask one question instead of making a comment, Lentini responded there were so many half-truths and misstatements spoken at the conference, he didn't know which question to ask first.

Josie Toth Linen, whose brother Stephen was killed as he tried to identify the marking on the attacking planes, said she had questions about how Israelis knew which frequencies to jam if they didn't know the ship was American. She wondered who recalled the planes sent from the 6th Fleet to help the ship. She asked about the think tank that financed Oren's book... until an irate Susser abruptly cut her questions short and brought the session to a close.

The moderator's treatment of survivors bordered on abusive, according to former Congressman Paul Findley, who watched the session from his home in Illinois. Frustrated audience members shouted, "Let's hear from another survivor [referring to USS LIBERTY Survivor Association President Phil Tourney, who was waiting to speak], one more survivor! Two Israelis and one survivor ... one more survivor has the right to talk."

Others angrily accused the State Department of helping cover up Israel's actions. Few of those in the long line at the mic- rophone had the opportunity to pose their questions in the 15 minutes allotted.

As attendees filed out, journalists swarmed around survivors and their supporters, who finally were given the chance to speak -- even if not by representatives of their own government. A young man wearing a YARMULKE was heard to comment, "I can't believe people are still so upset after all these years!"

While LIBERTY survivors and their supporters were prepared and eager to present their evidence and eyewitness accounts of the Israeli attack on a lightly armed American intelligence ship, they instead were witness to a cover-up in action by the U.S. State Department.

Americans who had the chance to watch the hearing might wonder why their government is afraid to release every document in its possession, no matter how damaging, and hold a congressional investigation in order to set the historica record straight -- once and for all.

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Delinda C. Hanley is news editor of the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs.

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