By John Lancaster
Sunday, July 12, 2009
THE ATTACK ON THE LIBERTY
The Untold Story of Israel's Deadly 1967 Assault on a U.S. Spy Ship
By James Scott
Simon & Schuster 374 pp. $27
Few events in modern military history have spawned as many conspiracy theories as Israel's attack on a U.S. Navy spy ship, the Liberty, during the Six-Day War in June 1967. For those too young to remember, the Liberty was collecting intelligence off the Gaza Strip when, literally out of the blue, it was strafed, bombed and finally torpedoed in a horrific hour-long assault that killed 34 of its men and wounded 171, many of them gravely. The ship was operating in international waters, and the United States, then as now, was Israel's closest ally. How could Israel have made such a blunder?
Israel's official explanation -- that the ship was mistaken for an Egyptian horse-and-troop carrier -- raised as many questions as it answered. Hours before the assault, Israeli reconnaissance aircraft repeatedly buzzed the Liberty, which should have cleared up any confusion as to its identity. After all, the Liberty was twice the size of the Egyptian vessel and cut a distinctive profile with its thicket of eavesdropping antennae, to say nothing of its U.S. Navy markings and American flag. To this day, many Liberty survivors -- as well as some former U.S. officials -- contend that Israel's vaunted military could not possibly have carried out such a sustained and ferocious assault except as a deliberate act.
A new book, "The Attack on the Liberty," by James Scott, stops short of a final verdict on that charge. Still, after reading this comprehensive and compelling account, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Israel's actions were, at a minimum, criminally negligent -- and harder still to understand why no one in Israel was punished. For this, the United States also bears some of the blame. Drawing on newly declassified documents and interviews with survivors and former officials, Scott argues that the Johnson administration deliberately soft-pedaled the incident to avoid straining relations with an important Cold War ally and its American backers.
Scott, a South Carolina journalist, is the son of a Liberty survivor and has a good feel for life on board the converted World War II cargo vessel. For example, nearly half the crew were "spooks" -- such as linguists and cryptologists -- who lived by themselves and looked down their noses at ordinary sailors, or "deck apes." The captain, William McGonagle, comes across as something of a martinet, known to rouse sleeping sailors to berate them for minor lapses; by contrast, his second-in-command, Philip Armstrong, was an easygoing sort who liked to invite junior officers into his cabin for belts of prohibited scotch.
The attack began around 2 p.m. on the fourth day of the war, when the Liberty was about 17 miles from the coast. Almost without warning, French-made Israeli fighter jets tore into the lightly defended ship with rockets, cannons and napalm. "Shells smashed portholes, ripped gashes in sealed metal doors," Scott writes. "Dead and injured sailors, many of whom had been chipping paint seconds earlier, littered the decks." Eventually, a torpedo fired by an Israeli patrol boat ripped a 39-foot-wide hole in the Liberty, flooding lower compartments. Nearly 17 hours passed before help arrived from other U.S. Navy ships. In the meantime, surviving officers and crew struggled valiantly to aid the wounded and keep the listing vessel afloat. McGonagle, who suffered a concussion and shrapnel wounds, remained in command throughout the ordeal and later was awarded a Medal of Honor. Armstrong was killed.
The record of the Navy's civilian and military leadership was less inspiring. Though privately furious, U.S. officials lied about the nature of the Liberty's mission and, Scott writes, were so eager to avoid stirring up public anger toward Israel that at one point they contemplated scuttling the ship to prevent news organizations from photographing the damage. Adm. John McCain, Jr., the father of the Arizona senator and 2008 presidential candidate, comes in for especially sharp criticism. As the head of the Navy's inquiry, Scott writes, McCain understood that a "report critical of Israel would trigger diplomatic ramifications for the State Department and create domestic political trouble for the beleaguered White House, which now wanted to deemphasize the attack." As a consequence, he contends, McCain barred his investigators from traveling to Israel to interview the attackers and allowed only a week to complete the probe, "less time than it took to bury some of the dead."
Scott cites transcripts of conversations between the Israeli pilots and air controllers in Tel Aviv to show that at least some Israeli commanders were aware of the Liberty's identity before the attack. He also shows that many U.S. officials -- including then-CIA director Richard Helms -- were privately scornful of Israel's explanation. Some believed the attack may have been ordered by a battlefield commander who feared that Israel's combat orders, if detected by the Liberty, might somehow leak to the Arabs.
Scott clearly has his own suspicions, though he produces no smoking-gun evidence to support the charge of a deliberate attack, perhaps because none exists. In that sense, his book is likely to disappoint the conspiracy theorists as much as it angers proponents of the "fog of war" defense offered by Israel. But Scott is wise to leave the speculating to others. The story is shocking enough as it is.
John Lancaster is a former Middle East correspondent for The Washington Post.