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Letter from USS Liberty Survivor
Book Says Israel Intended 1967 Attack on U.S. Ship
By JAMES RISEN, New York Times April 23, 2001
WASHINGTON, April 22 - Israel's attack in 1967 on the intelligence
ship Liberty, which killed 34 American sailors and wounded 171 others,
was deliberate, according to a new book on the National Security
Agency, disputing the longstanding Israeli claim that the attack was
The book, "Body of Secrets," by James Bamford, provides a detailed
recounting of the Israeli attack on the American eavesdropping ship,
along with new evidence in an incident that has been debated ever
since. Mr. Bamford wrote an earlier book on the security agency, "The
Puzzle Palace," published in 1982.
The Liberty, a slow, lightly armed Navy ship that was working with the
security agency to monitor the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, was attacked
from both the air and sea by Israeli forces off the Sinai coast on
While the Israeli government said the incident was an accident, it did
pay modest reparations to the victims and their families. But Mr.
Bamford writes that the Israeli explanation is a cover story for a
deliberate attack meant to prevent the United States from
eavesdropping on its military activities. And the book provides
evidence from crew members of an American spy plane that overheard the
While Israeli planes and boats were attacking the Liberty, the
American plane, a Navy EC-121 intelligence-gathering aircraft, was far
overhead, and recorded Israeli conversations, Mr. Bamford wrote.
And the crew heard Israeli pilots talking about seeing an American
The Israelis did not have any idea "that witnesses were present high
above," Mr. Bamford writes in "Body of Secrets," which Doubleday is to
publish on Tuesday. The National Security Agency "has hidden the fact
the one of its planes was overhead at the time of the incident,
eavesdropping on what was going on below," he wrote. "The intercepts
from that plane, which answer some of the key questions about the
attack, are among N.S.A.'s deepest secrets."
The aircraft crew did not hear the Israelis mention the Liberty by
name, but did hear enough to piece together the fact that Israeli
forces were attacking a ship flying the American flag.
"Although the attackers never gave a name or hull number, the ship was
identified as flying an American flag," one air crew member recalled
in an interview with Mr. Bamford. "We logically concluded that the
ship was the U.S.S. Liberty."
Surviving crew members of the Liberty also believed that the Israeli
attack was deliberate, according to those interviewed in Mr. Bamford's
book. Before the attack, Israeli planes flew over the Liberty
repeatedly, they noted, and could have clearly seen what it was.
During the attack, they could also see that it was flying an American
flag, they told Mr. Bamford.
Mr. Bamford argues that the Liberty attack came at a time when
President Lyndon B. Johnson was anxious to avoid worsening relations
with Israel in the midst of the Middle East crisis. The Israeli
government gave Washington a classified report to show that the attack
was a mistake, and the Johnson administration then discounted the
"Despite the overwhelming evidence that Israel had attacked the ship
and killed the American servicemen deliberately, the Johnson
administration and Congress covered up the entire incident," Mr.
But security agency officials never believed the Israeli excuses, Mr.
Bamford said. "The senior leadership of N.S.A. officials who had
unique access to the secret tapes and other highly classified evidence
was virtually unanimous in their belief that the attack was
deliberate," he wrote.
Walter Deely, who was a senior N.S.A. official at the time of the
attack and who was ordered to conduct a secret study of the Liberty
for the agency, told Mr. Bamford that his review showed "there is no
way they didn't know that the Liberty was American."
John Morrison, an Air Force major general who was deputy chief of the
agency's operations at the time of the attack, told Mr. Bamford that
"nobody believes that explanation."
The Johnson administration's control of the press and the silencing of
the crewmen was deliberate, thorough and successful. A good indication
of this success was the fact that the issue died out and was all but
forgotten by the autumn of 1967. The promotion of an official history,
and the suppression of a dissenting history, was unnoticed in the
press at the time and by historians and scholars later. It would
require the efforts of the men themselves to raise the question as to
whether a false history of an event in 1967 had been created and
accepted without much protest by the world at large, or even much
awareness of what had happened. By 1968 the attack on the ship had
become a mere footnote to history.
The crewmen were scattered all over the world. However, some kept in
touch with each other and sent information to James Ennes who was
gathering material for a book on the subject. His book, ASSAULT ON THE
LIBERTY, was published in 1980 and this led to a revival of the debate
which had lasted briefly in 1967.
The crewmen gained the support of many important men who had been
connected to the LBJ administration. Among these were Dean Rusk,
former Secretary of State; Admiral Thomas Moorer, formerly head of the
Joint Chiefs of Staff; Richard Helms, formerly head of the CIA; and
presidential advisers George Ball and Lucius Battle. They also were
backed by some newspaper columnists and by individual scholars such as
A book by an eyewitness of such an important event should have aroused
controversy. However, despite having favorable reviews in THE
WASHINGTON POST and many military magazines, the book was largely
ignored and not reviewed. The crewmen realized that they needed to
make greater efforts, and in August 1981 some of them published the
first issue of LIBERTY NEWS, a newsletter promoting their cause. In
June 1982 they met for their first reunion, and formed the LIBERTY
VETERANS ASSOCIATION, to meet every three years and advocate a new
investigation of the attack.
In trying to make themselves heard in the world, the crewmen faced
many problems. First, organized antisemitic groups tried to associate
themselves with the LIBERTY men, and the LVA had to learn to avoid
what seemed at first to be friendly approaches by these groups.
Secondly, the partisans of Israel from 1980 onward increasingly relied
upon accusations of antisemitism in attacking the LIBERTY men. This
reached a climax in the 1997 dissertation by A. Jay Cristol, THE
LIBERTY INCIDENT. Cristol described the contest between the LIBERTY
men and the supporters of Israel as "another front in the Arab-Israeli
conflict", and, without evidence, claimed that the LVA had been "taken
over" by sinister and secretive (Arabic) forces.
Third, there were many books on the attack which presented a false
story, aside from the books by backers of Israel, and the LVA tried to
criticize and refute these. This LIBERTY campaign has gone on for 21
years. However, recently there has been a new event which may do much
to promote their cause, and we can fast forward to describe this.
On April 23, 200l, Doubleday published BODY OF SECRETS, a study of the
National Security Agency, by James Bamford, a journalist who had
previously written a bestseller, THE PUZZLE PALACE, on the same
subject. The book contains a chapter on THE LIBERTY which provides new
information on the attack. Early in June 1967, as the war began, the
NSA secretly established a Navy signal intelligence center at the
Athens airport. From this center the NSA sent out EC-121 planes on a
pattern of patrol which took them over the area where the LIBERTY was
and where the attack took place. The planes flew at altitudes of
12,000 feet or more and their presence was unknown to either the
LIBERTY or the Israelis. This meant that there was an electronic
witness to the attack. The listeners in the EC-121 heard the Israelis
(both the pilots and the torpedo boat men) make references to the flag
on the ship during the attack. Since the Israelis have insisted for
the past 34 years that there was no flag on the ship, and this was
their most basic argument, it means that their story has been false.
Former Chief Marvin Nowicki, a Hebrew linguist in the plane, recorded
"most if not all of the attack" and heard references to the flag
during the attack. The tapes sent back to NSA headquarters convinced
the senior leadership of NSA that the attack was deliberate. Marshall
Carter, director of NSA, appointed a small task force led by Walter
Deeley, a senior official of the agency, to keep track of all
information on THE LIBERTY. Unlike other probes, this one included all
the intercept tapes from the EC-121. In the end, Deeley came to the
conclusion: "There was no way that they didn't know THE LIBERTY was
American". NSA Director Carter agreed: "There was no other answer than
that it was deliberate", he told Bamford. NSA's deputy director, Louis
Tordella, agreed, and said this to Congressman George Mahon (D, Tex.),
a member of a small "working group" in Congress investigating the
matter. Deputy chief John Morrison, a US Air Force Major General,
agreed, saying that, "The only conjecture we ever made that made any
sense is that the Israelis did not want us to intercept their
communications at that time."
The NSA's G Group, who analyzed all the intercepts from both LIBERTY
and the EC=121, were convinced that the attack was deliberate and no
mistake. Another NSA review, conducted 15 years later and classified
TOP SECRET/Umbra, agreed and ridiculed the Israeli explanations. There
was unanimity on this and no dissent. Speculation as to the Israeli
motivation varied. Some NSA men believed that Israel expected the
destruction of the ship would lead the US to blame Egypt and bring the
US into the war on the side of Israel. Others felt that Israeli forces
simply wanted the ship out of the way. The NSA men knew what the tapes
told; but they were surprised to find that some senior officials in
Washington wanted above all to protect Israel from embarrassment.
Tordella recorded his dissent when told that some unnamed Washington
authorities wanted to order the LIBERTY sunk in order that newsmen
could not photograph her and inflame public opinion against Israel.
The information which Israel feared would be known to the world,
Bamford believes, concerns the killing of Egyptian prisoners near El
Arish. These killings, and the fact that the killings were well known
throughout the Israeli Army, is discussed at length by Bamford. All
this means that the LIBERTY men have been telling the truth for 34
years when they insisted that the American flag was easy for the
Israelis to see. It also means that the Israelis have lied for 34
years, helped by the Johnson administration.
© 2001 John Borne. All rights reserved.
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