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Return of the USS Liberty

Return of the USS Liberty

A new book accuses Israel of deliberately attacking an American ship in June 1967.


In 2001, major newspapers and media outlets reported the release of a new book, "Body of Secrets" by James Bamford. The book contains a number of unfounded and far-fetched accusations against Israel. In media interviews, Bamford has at times gone beyond the charges in his book. Let's put these accusations to rest.

In June 1967, an American ship manned by U.S. sailors and National Security Agency (NSA) personnel ventured close to the shores of the Sinai Peninsula. Too close. The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations declared that no American ships were within 400 miles of the conflict. The NSA issued orders to pull the ship away from the shore, but because of communications snafus, the orders arrived days later. Too late for the USS Liberty.

On June 8, Israeli planes and torpedo boats attacked the ship, leaving 34 crewmen dead and 177 wounded. The Liberty limped into port in Malta, and the controversy began almost immediately: Did Israel deliberately attack the USS Liberty?

Ten official U.S. inquiries and three Israeli inquiries concluded that the attack was a tragic case of mistaken identity. No American ships were supposed to be there. Egyptian warships were believed to be in the area. Large explosions were taking place along the Sinai shore, and Israeli troops believed they were under naval bombardment. Israeli pilots and sailors, in the midst of the '67 war swirling on three fronts, raced to attack what they believed to be an Egyptian ship.

For 25 years Israel's detractors have attempted to use the tragic incident as a wedge between the United States and Israel. Other than some of the embittered Liberty crew and die-hard conspiracy theorists, the charge that Israel deliberately attacked a ship of its most important ally found few takers.

Now with the release of "Body of Secrets," author James Bamford reveals secrets about the National Security Agency – and in doing so charges that Israel deliberately attacked the USS Liberty.

Why would Israel do such a thing?

Bramford claims that on the day prior to the Liberty incident, Israeli troops were massacring hundreds of Egyptian POWs and civilians in El Arish. Bamford concludes: "Israel's commanders would not have wanted tape recordings of evidence of the slaughters to wind up on desks at the White House, the UN or the Washington Post."

Since the book's release last week, Bamford has been interviewed by National Public Radio,, CNN and others.

Bamford's analysis is skewed by his palpable distaste for the Israeli state.

The New York Times review found the section on the USS Liberty the "weakest" part of the book. "It hardly seems plausible," writes reviewer Joseph Finder, "that Israel would deliberately attack an American ship, killing dozens of sailors, risking a confrontation with a superpower and its only ally – in short, perpetrating one massacre in order to cover up another. Perhaps Bamford's analysis has been skewed by his palpable distaste for the Israeli state."

Bamford's anti-Israel attitude goes well beyond the USS Liberty attack. He charges Israel with decades of human rights violations and war crimes. Of the 1967 war, he writes, "The extensive war crimes were just one of the deep secrets Israel had sought to conceal since the start of the conflict... to hide much of the war behind a carefully constructed curtain of lies. Lies about the Egyptian threat, lies about who started the war, lies to the American president, lies to the UN Security Council, lies to the press, lies to the public... Into this sea of lies, deception, and slaughter sailed the USS Liberty." (page 203)

Incredibly, while accusing Israel of all those lies, Bamford ignores the calls for Israel's eradication issued by Arab leaders, Egyptian President Nasser's precipitous expulsion of UN peacekeepers along the border, and the closing of the Straits of Tiran which was a clear casus belli. In the words of President Johnson, "If a single act of folly was more responsible for this explosion than any other, it was the arbitrary and dangerous announced decision that the Strait of Tiran would be closed."

Bamford's charge of Israeli atrocities is actually a recap of an article written by a USS Liberty officer in a 1996 edition of the virulently anti-Israel "Washington Report on Middle East Affairs."

In an interview on NPR's "Fresh Air" program, Bamford related that at the moment of the alleged massacre, "the Liberty, which was an enormous United States eavesdropping factory, was sitting only about 13 miles off the coast, fully capable of eavesdropping on what was going on on the shore." And on page 236, Bamford writes that "on the morning of June 7, the Israeli military command received a report" that the Liberty was "secretly listening" while the war crime was taking place.

According to USS Liberty logs, however, as of midnight between June 7 and June 8, the ship was still 150 miles from the nearest coastal point of Israel and 50 miles north of the coast of Egypt. It did not reach its "Point Alpha" (18 miles east of the Sinai town of El Arish) until 8:38 a.m. on June 8.

Another gross inconsistency is Bamford's claim that National Security Agency officials provided him with secret documents which concur that the attack was deliberate. As reported on CNN, Bamford says that a secret NSA plane was overhead listening to Israel's attack on the Liberty, confirming the attack was deliberate.

No such fact has ever been published. No alleged transcript has ever been produced. Indeed, if an official U.S. aircraft was overhead, why didn't Israeli radars looking for enemy aircraft pick it up? Moreover, wouldn't an American NSA aircraft witnessing an attack on one of its ships attempt to seek assistance? No such distress calls were noted in any of the official inquiries.

According to a Baltimore Sun review of the book, an NSA spokesman uncharacteristically spoke out against Branford's slander. "We do not comment on operational matters, alleged or otherwise; however, Mr. Bamford's claim that the NSA leadership was 'virtually unanimous in their belief that the attack was deliberate' is simply not true," the spokesperson said.

In fact, contrary to Bamford's sensationalistic work, a variety of exhaustive research concludes that Israel made a mistake that was by no means deliberate.

One important top-secret NSA document in the U.S. National Archives is entitled "Attack on the USS Liberty" (SRH-256). The 77-page brief, declassified in 1983, concludes: "Reexamination of Israel's explanation of why its air and naval forces attacked the Liberty reveals egregious errors in both command judgments and operational procedures."

Egregious errors, yes. Deliberate murder, no!

This document is the subject of a doctoral thesis by A. Jay Cristol, who happens to be Chief Judge of the U.S. federal bankruptcy court in Florida. A former U.S. Navy flyer in the wars in Korea and Viet Nam, he knows ships and planes inside and out. Plus, as a former navy lawyer who served in the Pentagon, he is well-versed in the ways and command structure of the U.S. Navy. He served a total of 38 years in the U.S. Navy and Naval Reserve. Cristol reviews the gamut of conspiracy theories, and after exhaustive research, including more than 220 interviews, concludes: "This research project supports the validity of the conclusions of the official investigations, that the incident was the result of a series of tragic mistakes."

More important information on the Liberty appears in this month's edition of Azure: "USS Liberty: Case Closed" by Michael B. Oren.

Some of Bamford's interviews and reviews:


New York Times:

May 5, 2001

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The opinions expressed in the comment section are the personal views of the commenters. Comments are moderated, so please keep it civil.

Visitor Comments: 7

(7) Brent McGuire, April 29, 2003 12:00 AM


I, an American have been led to think that the attack was a conspiracy, but I have found "holes" in most theories. The same as I have found flaws in the Israeli reports of june 8th 1967. Untill there is something that I find credible I choose to not believe either side.

(6) Bryan Yeatter, March 16, 2003 12:00 AM

Unfortunately, these things happen

Jonathan Tepper writes "One should read Bamford's 'Body of Secrets' rather than simply labelling it anti-semitic." The truth is that reading it tends to confirm Bamford's anti-semitism. Bamford mentions the radio transmission intercepted by the NSA EC121 in which the sighting of the U.S. flag is announced, and makes the self-serving statement "If the Israelis did see the flag, then the attack was cold-blooded murder." He deceptively describes the radio transmission regarding the flag before going on to describe the attack itself. This flagrant journalistic sleight of hand will be easily spotted by any discerning reader and should raise a red flag regarding Bamford's integrity. Marvin Nowicki, a Hebrew linguist aboard the NSA aircraft, has publicly contradicted Bamford's deceptive sequencing of events. He has said all along that the attack ceased immediately following the broadcast announcing the sighting of the flag.
Mr. Tepper also poses the question: "How were the brilliant IDF and Mossad able to pull off such a successful war, knowing where all the Egyptian planes, units and ships were and not know that the USS Liberty was American?" Considering the fact that the U.S. government did not even know where Liberty was, how can we expect the Israelis to have known? The JCS had drafted a number of messages to Liberty instructing her to stand off, all of which were sent but apparently went astray. The change of orders instructed Liberty to stay at least 100 miles off the Sinai coast, but at the time of the attack Liberty was 12-14 miles off Sinai. For ANY ship to venture so close to a war-torn coast without informing ANY of the belligerents is unbelievable. The fact that the U.S. government did not inform the Israelis (or the Egyptians, for that matter) of Liberty's arrival in the area suggests that the JCS assumed that Liberty had received her orders to stand off. Obviously the Israelis were not the only ones to screw up.
Friendly fire is disturbingly common in war. Consider the Canadian soldiers killed by U.S. forces in Afghanistan last year and the British soldiers killed by U.S. forces in the 1991 Gulf War. When an Iraqi jet fired missiles on the USS Stark in 1987, 37 U.S. servicemen died (more than the number lost in the attack on Liberty, I might add). It was accepted as an unfortunate mistake. How interesting that only the Israelis are held up to a different standard. Just one day prior to the attack on Liberty, the Israelis bombed and strafed one of their own armored columns near Jenin. If the IDF are to be expected to know the whereabouts of every American ship, then they should also know the whereabouts of their own divisions. Therefore, the attack on their own men must have also been deliberate, right?
It is very interesting that a forgotten incident on June 2, 1967--just six days before the attack on Liberty--involved U.S. fighter bombers which accidentally attacked a Soviet ship in the North Vietnamese harbor of Cam Pha. Viktor Sokolov, the Soviet ship's captain, said "We were bearing all the markings of the Soviet government. A Soviet flag was flying from the stern mast. The stack was painted with a red stripe and a hammer and a sickle...The visibility was excellent. There is no possibility of talking about an accidental attack. The American pilots aimed their guns at the central superstructure where the crewmen live and work."
But it was an accident. So was the attack on the Liberty. Unfortunately, these things happen.

(5) James Gotcher, January 1, 2003 12:00 AM

Right, and the holocaust never happened either, I suppose?

While a deliberate attack on a U.S. ship by the IDF does not fit into your idealized view of the Israeli government or the IDF, it happened. Attempts to rewrite “inconvenient” historical incidents are common.

Some people, who cannot handle the monstrosity of the holocaust, have attempted to deny that it ever happened. They offer superficially convincing “factual” arguments in support of their belief. Some of these people do this out of guilt, while others do it because they “just can believe that something like that could happen.”

No matter how much you want to believe that the Israelis would not deliberately attack and kill Americans in furtherance of their national goals, it happened. To the extent that this issue is not confronted, it will continue to remain a problem.

Let me offer some food for thought. The U.S.S. Liberty was a U.S. Navy ship assigned to gather communications intelligence for the National Security Agency. In 1967, when I worked for a component of the NSA, I recall seeing the order of battle and routes of march of both the Israeli and Arab armies about twelve hours before the six day war broke out. Isn’t is curious that NSA had no advance warning of the October, 1972 buildup or attack on Israel? Certainly, if they had such information, they would have shared it with our Israeli allies, wouldn’t they? Only a true cynic would think that maybe this was “payback” for the Liberty.

(4) , May 7, 2001 12:00 AM

the truth

As a former member of the US military,I was in intelligence,Ihave no doubt about what happened.The only reason the Liberty was there was to play both sides of the conflict.We were feeding information to the Syrians.We got caught and while I mourn the loss of life on the Liberty the real culprit was my government..

(3) , May 7, 2001 12:00 AM

Another racist heard from....

So we have someone who is trying to re-write history with his own anti-Zionist version. What else is new? How many times have we witnessed the incredible and outrageous lies about the Jewish people? It will only end when these "attention getters" lose their forums.

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