The Israeli attack on the USS Liberty was a grievous error, largely attributable to the fact that it occurred in the midst of the confusion of a full-scale war in 1967. Ten official United States investigations and three official Israeli inquiries have all conclusively established the attack was a tragic mistake.
On June 8, 1967, the fourth day of the Six-Day War, the Israeli high command received reports that Israeli troops in El Arish were being fired upon from the sea, presumably by an Egyptian vessel, as they had a day before. The United States had announced that it had no naval forces within hundreds of miles of the battle front on the floor of the United Nations a few days earlier; however, the USS Liberty, an American intelligence ship under the dual control of the Defense Intelligence Agency/Central Intelligence Agency and the Sixth Fleet, was assigned to monitor the fighting. As a result of a series of United States communication failures, whereby messages directing the ship not to approach within 100 miles were not received by the Liberty, the ship sailed to within 14 miles off the Sinai coast. The Israelis mistakenly thought this was the ship shelling its soldiers and war planes and torpedo boats attacked, killing 34 members of the Liberty's crew and wounding 171. Ships from the Sixth Fleet were directed to launch four attack aircraft with fighter cover to defend the Liberty, but the planes were recalled after a message was received at the White House that the Israelis had admitted they had attacked the ship.
Numerous mistakes were made by both the United States and Israel. For example, the Liberty was first reported — incorrectly, as it turned out — to be cruising at 30 knots (it was later recalculated to be 28 knots). Under Israeli (and U.S.) naval doctrine at the time, a ship proceeding at that speed was presumed to be a warship. The sea was calm and the U.S. Navy Court of Inquiry found that the Liberty's flag was very likely drooped and not discernible; moreover, members of the crew, including the Captain, Commander William McGonagle, testified that the flag was knocked down after the first or second assault.
According to Israeli Chief of Staff Yitzhak Rabin's memoirs, there were standing orders to attack any unidentified vessel near the shore.1 The day fighting began, Israel had asked that American ships be removed from its coast or that it be notified of the precise location of U.S. vessels.2 The Sixth Fleet was moved because President Johnson feared being drawn into a confrontation with the Soviet Union. He also ordered that no aircraft be sent near Sinai.
A CIA report on the incident issued June 13, 1967, also found that an overzealous pilot could mistake the Liberty for an Egyptian ship, the El Quseir. After the air raid, Israeli torpedo boats identified the Liberty as an Egyptian naval vessel. When the Liberty began shooting at the Israelis, they responded with the torpedo attack, which killed 28 of the sailors. In 1981, the National Security Agency noted that accounts by members of the Liberty crew and others did not have access to the relevant signal intelligence reports or the confidential explanation provided by Israel to the United States, which were used in the CIA investigation. The NSA concluded: “While these [signal intelligence of Israeli communications] reports revealed some confusion on the part of the pilots concerning the nationality of the ship, they tended to rule out any thesis that the Israeli Navy and Air Force deliberately attacked a ship they knew to be American.”2a
The Joint Chiefs of Staff investigated the communications failure and noted that the Chief of Naval Operations expressed concern about the prudence of sending the Liberty so close to the area of hostilities and four messages were subsequently sent instructing the ship to move farther away from the area of hostilities. The JCS report said the messages were never received because of “a combination of (1) human error, (2) high volume of communications traffic, and (3) lack of appreciation of sense of urgency regarding the movement of the Liberty.” The report also included a copy of a flash cable sent immediately after the attack, which reported that Israel had “erroneously” attacked the Liberty, that IDF helicopters were in rescue operations, and that Israel had sent “abject apologies” and requested information on any other U.S. ships near the war zone.
Initially, the Israelis were terrified that they had attacked a Soviet ship and might have provoked the Soviets to join the fighting.3 Once the Israelis were sure what had happened, they reported the incident to the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv and offered to provide a helicopter for the Americans to fly out to the ship and any help they required to evacuate the injured and salvage the ship. The offer was accepted and a U.S. naval attaché was flown to the Liberty.
The Israelis were “obviously shocked” by the error they made in attacking the ship, according to the U.S. Ambassador in Tel Aviv. In fact, according to a secret report on the 1967 war, the immediate concern was that the Arabs might see the proximity of the Liberty to the conflict as evidence of U.S.-Israel collusion.3a A second secret report concluded, “While the attack showed a degree of impetuosity and recklessness, it was also clear that the presence of a U.S. naval vessel, unannounced, that close to belligerent shores at a time when we had made much of the fact that no U.S. military forces were moving near the area of hostilities was inviting disaster.”3b
Many of the survivors of the Liberty remain bitter, and are convinced the attack was deliberate as they make clear on their web site. In 1991, columnists Rowland Evans and Robert Novak trumpeted their discovery of an American who said he had been in the Israeli war room when the decision was made to knowingly attack the American ship.4 In fact, that individual, Seth Mintz, wrote a letter to the Washington Post on November 9, 1991, in which he said he was misquoted by Evans and Novak and that the attack, was, in fact, a “case of mistaken identity.” Moreover, the man who Mintz originally said had been with him, a Gen. Benni Matti, does not exist.
Also, contrary to claims that an Israeli pilot identified the ship as American on a radio tape, no one has ever produced this tape. In fact, the official Israeli Air Force tape clearly established that no such identification of the ship was made by the Israeli pilots prior to the attack. Tapes of the radio transmissions made prior, during and after the attack do not contain any statement suggesting the pilots saw a U.S. flag before the attack. During the attack, a pilot specifically says, “there is no flag on her!” The recordings also indicate that once the pilots became concerned about the identity of the ship, by virtue of reading its hull number, they terminated the attack and they were given an order to leave the area. A transcript of the radio transmissions indicates the entire incident, beginning with the spotting of a mysterious vessel off El Arish and ending with the chief air controller at general headquarters in Tel Aviv telling another controller the ship was “apparently American” took 24 minutes.5 Critics claimed the Israeli tape was doctored, but the National Security Agency of the United States released formerly top secret transcripts in July 2003 that confirmed the Israeli version.
A U.S. spy plane was sent to the area as soon as the NSA learned of the attack on the Liberty and recorded the conversations of two Israeli Air Force helicopter pilots, which took place between 2:30 and 3:37 p.m. on June 8. The orders radioed to the pilots by their supervisor at the Hatzor base instructing them to search for Egyptian survivors from the “Egyptian warship” that had just been bombed were also recorded by the NSA. “Pay attention. The ship is now identified as Egyptian,” the pilots were informed. Nine minutes later, Hatzor told the pilots the ship was believed to be an Egyptian cargo ship. At 3:07, the pilots were first told the ship might not be Egyptian and were instructed to search for survivors and inform the base immediately the nationality of the first person they rescued. It was not until 3:12 that one of the pilots reported that he saw an American flag flying over the ship at which point he was instructed to verify if it was indeed a U.S. vessel.6
In October 2003, the first Israeli pilot to reach the ship broke his 36-year silence on the attack. Brig.-Gen. Yiftah Spector, a triple ace, who shot down 15 enemy aircraft and took part in the 1981 raid on the Iraqi nuclear reactor, said he had been told an Egyptian ship was off the Gaza coast. “This ship positively did not have any symbol or flag that I could see. What I was concerned with was that it was not one of ours. I looked for the symbol of our navy, which was a large white cross on its deck. This was not there, so it wasn't one of ours.” The Jerusalem Post obtained a recording of Spector's radio transmission in which he said, “I can't identify it, but in any case it's a military ship.”7
Spector's plane was not armed with bombs or, he said, he would have sunk the Liberty. Instead he fired 30mm armor piercing rounds that led the American survivors to believe they had been under rocket attack. His first pass ignited a fire, which caused the ship to billow black smoke that Spector thought was a ruse to conceal the ship. Spector acknowledged in the Post interview that he made a mistake, and said he admitted it when called to testify in an inquiry by a U.S. senator. “I'm sorry for the mistake,” he said. “Years later my mates dropped flowers on the site where the ship was attacked.”
None of Israel's accusers can explain why Israel would deliberately attack an American ship at a time when the United States was Israel's only friend and supporter in the world. Confusion in a long line of communications, which occurred in a tense atmosphere on both the American and Israeli sides (five messages from the Joint Chiefs of Staff for the ship to remain at least 25 miles the last four said 100 miles off the Egyptian coast arrived after the attack was over) is a more probable explanation.
Accidents caused by friendly fire are common in wartime. In 1988, the U.S. Navy mistakenly downed an Iranian passenger plane, killing 290 civilians. During the Gulf War, 35 of the 148 Americans who died in battle were killed by friendly fire. In April 1994, two U.S. Black Hawk helicopters with large U.S. flags painted on each side were shot down by U.S. Air Force F-15s on a clear day in the no fly zone of Iraq, killing 26 people. In April 2002, an American F-16 dropped a bomb that killed four Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan. In fact, the day before the Liberty was attacked, Israeli pilots accidentally bombed one of their own armored columns.8
Retired Admiral, Shlomo Erell, who was Chief of the Navy in Israel in June 1967, told the Associated Press (June 5, 1977): No one would ever have dreamt that an American ship would be there. Even the United States didn't know where its ship was. We were advised by the proper authorities that there was no American ship within 100 miles.
Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara told Congress on July 26, 1967: It was the conclusion of the investigatory body, headed by an admiral of the Navy in whom we have great confidence, that the attack was not intentional.
In 1987, McNamara repeated his belief that the attack was a mistake, telling a caller on the Larry King Show that he had seen nothing in the 20 years since to change his mind that there had been no coverup.9
In January 2004, the State Department held a conference on the Liberty incident and also released new documents, including CIA memos dated June 13 and June 21, 1967, that say that Israel did not know it was striking an American vessel. The historian for the National Security Agency, David Hatch, said the available evidence “strongly suggested” Israel did not know it was attacking a U.S. ship. Two former U.S. officials, Ernest Castle, the United States Naval Attache at the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv in June 1967, who received the first report of the attack from Israel, and John Hadden, then CIA Chief of Station in Tel Aviv, also agreed with the assessment that the attack on the Liberty was a mistake.10
The new documents do not shed any light on the mystery of what the ship was doing in the area or why Israel was not informed about its presence. The evidence suggests the ship was not spying on Israel.
Israel apologized for the tragedy immediately and offered on June 9 to compensate the victims. Israel ultimately paid nearly $13 million in humanitarian reparations to the United States and to the families of the victims in amounts established by the U.S. State Department. The matter was officially closed between the two governments by an exchange of diplomatic notes on December 17, 1987.