Who will write the final chapter on Israel’s 1967 confrontation with the U.S. Navy?
The attack on the USS Liberty by Israeli warplanes and torpedo boats on June 8, 1967 has almost faded from memory, but new evidence suggests that the White House might actually have had prior knowledge that the ship would be struck by Israel’s armed forces. In the worst attack ever carried out on a U.S. Naval vessel in peacetime, 34 American sailors and civilian personnel were killed and 171 more wounded in the two hour assault, which was clearly intended to sink the intelligence-gathering vessel operating in international waters collecting information on the ongoing Six-Day War between Israel and its Arab neighbors.
The Israelis and their supporters in the United States have always claimed the attack was a tragic mistake while many of the surviving Liberty crew believe that it was anything but: They assert that the vessel was flying an oversized American flag and was clearly identifiable as a U.S. Navy vessel. The ship’s commanding officer, Captain William McGonagle, was awarded a Congressional Medal of Honor for his role in keeping the ship afloat, though President Lyndon Baines Johnson broke with tradition by refusing to hold the medal ceremony in the White House, or to award it personally, delegating that task to the Secretary of the Navy in an unpublicized presentation at the Washington Navy Yard.
The Liberty crew was sworn to secrecy over the incident and a hastily-convened court of inquiry headed by Admiral John McCain acted under orders from Washington to declare the attack a case of mistaken identity. The inquiry’s senior legal counsel Captain Ward Boston, who subsequently declared the attack to be a “deliberate effort to sink an American ship and murder its entire crew,” also described how “President Lyndon Johnson and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara ordered him to conclude that the attack was a case of ‘mistaken identity’ despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.” The court’s findings were rewritten and sections relating to possible war crimes, such as the machine-gunning of life rafts, were excised. Following in his father’s footsteps, Senator John McCain of Arizona has used his position on the Senate Armed Services Committee to effectively block any reconvening of a board of inquiry to reexamine the evidence. Most of the documents relating to the Liberty incident have never been released to the public.
One of the more intriguing allegations surrounding the Liberty incident is the claim that a United States Navy submarine was in the area when the attack took place. A number of submarine crewmen have surfaced anonymously to say that they were on one of several subs reported to be in the area on intelligence-gathering missions. Some stated their belief that photos were taken of the attack itself, but, fearing reprisals from the government, none would go public with their claims.
More recently, a crewman on the USS Amberjack, a diesel-powered intelligence-gathering sub, has provided an account of his ship’s activities on that day in June to two Liberty survivors. The sailor, Larry Bryant, agreed to go on radio with survivors Phil Tourney and Ron Kukal to discuss his experiences but inexplicably got cold feet and broke off contact. However, several extended phone conversations had already provided some intriguing insights into what had taken place.
Several Liberty crewmen reported seeing a periscope during the attack and it has generally been assumed that it was Israeli, but according to Bryant, it was actually the USS Amberjack. The submarine was near enough to the incident to clearly hear throughout the ship the reverberations of every round fired into the Liberty’s hull. The sub’s crew knew that a U.S. Navy vessel was under attack, but the Amberjack was only lightly armed and in no position to intervene. The sub remained immobile between the Liberty and some of its attackers and the sub’s crewmen feared that they themselves might be hit by the the Israeli warships’ torpedos.
As Larry Bryant was a crewman, he had no idea why the submarine was in that spot on that day, but he did note how the sub had raised its periscope and was observing the attack as it unfolded. More interestingly, the submarine had been equipped with a platform for the mounting of a video camera, which operated through the periscope and the Amberjack both filmed and photographed the entire incident. Some crewmen noted that the Liberty’s large American flag was clearly visible through the periscope during the attack, disputing the subsequent Israeli contention that the ship was not flying any flag.
The Amberjack’s Captain August Hubal, now retired and living in Virginia, has denied that his ship was anywhere near the Liberty on June 8th, but his account is contradicted by the ship’s log which confirms that it was indeed in the area. Hubal, who was described by Bryant as an obsessive, “by the rules” officer who would go to his stateroom and blow his brains out if so ordered, later warned his crew to forget about their role in the Liberty attack or face the consequences. The photos and videos of the incident made by the Amberjack were subsequently couriered to Washington by a ship’s officer, where they were turned over to the Pentagon.
Part of Hubal’s reluctance to discuss what he was doing on that day might be traced to the fact that his vessel was carrying out a clandestine operation in Egyptian waters as part of the Naval Security Group, which was affiliated with the codebreakers of the National Security Agency. Several civilians on the sub were performing the same tasks as their counterparts who were intercepting and decoding radio transmissions on board the Liberty. The Amberjack was equipped with a snorkel, which enabled it to sit on the bottom of the sea immobile and listen to electronic transmissions for long periods of time.
Confirmation that the Amberjack was in the area and that it had made a film and photo record of the attack suggest a number of lines for further inquiry. First and foremost has to be the issue of possible prior knowledge or even connivance by the White House in what was about to take place. Was it happenstance that the submarine was in the same location as the Liberty or was it by design? Was there any advance notice to Washington that an attack might take place? Could the USS Liberty have been an intended victim of a false flag simulated Egyptian attack, leading to American involvement on behalf of Israel in the fighting? Though that line of inquiry might appear implausible, the White House ordered the return of US warplanes sent to assist the Liberty, suggesting that Johnson knew who the attackers were in spite of the fact that the Israelis had covered over their aircraft markings in an apparent attempt to blame the Egyptians. One might also recall the Gulf of Tonkin incident.
Was the video equipment part of the ship’s standard espionage gear or was it installed just prior to the Liberty attack? Was the filming of the attack done on an opportunity basis or was it planned? Was it possibly intended to provide evidence of Egyptian aggression, played for all its worth on the nightly news in America? Most importantly, where are the video and other photos today and why were they not produced at the board of inquiry or subsequently?
To those who object that Lyndon Baines Johnson would not have sunk so low as to allow an American warship to be attacked, it should be observed that LBJ’s refusal to allow air cover might mean that the situation was being managed to produce a “correct” outcome. One might also recall that Lyndon Johnson was possibly the most pro-Israel president in American history, tilting heavily towards the Jewish state on foreign policy issues starting with his time as a congressman all the way through his years in the White House. When he was president he declared a “strategic alliance” with Israel.
The Amberjack story, for all those who would like to see the Liberty saga end either in exonerating Israel or in proving its guilt, provides closure. The attack took place 44 years ago. Whatever classified information or sources and methods used by the intelligence community worth protecting then are surely well beyond their shelf life now. It is time to open the files fully. The activity of the Amberjack, including its classified logs and whatever film and photos it might have taken, should be made accessible, together with the testimony of surviving crewmen. And when that material is fully digested, there should be another court of inquiry to look in the matter finally and completely, incorporating the testimony of all the surviving Liberty crewmen, particularly those who were not heard the first time around because they were in hospital or were restrained by orders not to discuss the incident.
WikiLeaks has demonstrated that the United States has a secret government that operates with little in the way or transparency or restraint. Unfortunately, it has had that kind of government for a long time, and the fate of the USS Liberty could be a manifestation of how the White House might actually have colluded in the deaths of American servicemen and then engaged in a cover-up to conceal what it had done. It’s time to open the windows and introduce a breath of fresh air. Lyndon B. Johnson is gone and so is his Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara, both of whom left the USS Liberty to its fate. But there are many survivors who are still looking for answers. It is time to provide what they need and give them peace.