The Trouble With the USS Liberty

USS Liberty

There are some chapters in America’s history books that will never be fully closed.  Decades after the Iran-contra affair, the Vietnam War, and Watergate, professional and amateur historians alike keep the events of the past alive, advancing their versions of events with a dogged persistence that borders on the fanatical.  Like minds tend to congregate, leading to the formation of “sides,” and these conversations can take on a character of political stratification very quickly.

If there is a single event in American history that absolutely forces historians into ready-made camps of opposing views, however, it is the Israeli attack on the USS Liberty.  There is compelling evidence to support both prevailing accounts of this event – that it was deliberate and covered up or that it was a tragic accident – but it is very difficult to cobble the objective arguments made by both sides together in such a way that escapes the passionate and polarized debate that surrounds the events of June 8th, 1967.

Amidships starboard hull and superstructure attack damage.
Amidships starboard hull and superstructure attack damage.

What is known, or at least agreed upon by both sides of this debate, is that Israeli fighter planes and torpedo boats did indeed attack the USS Liberty as it sailed off the coast of Egypt, carrying out surveillance of the ongoing war between Israel and its well-armed neighbor.  After 40 minutes of bombardment, 34 American sailors were dead and 174 wounded – nearly the entire crew.  The cause of this attack is what separates one version of events from the other.

Numerous theories have developed which argue that Israel’s attack was deliberate; the attack upon a well-marked American ship, which some sailors recall flying no less than three American flags, lasted long enough to beggar belief that the Israelis believed they were attacking the Egyptian El Quseir.

Likewise, defenders of Israel have called into question many of the supporting details that accompany this theory: they vigorously deny that the Israelis were attempting to sink the ship to cover up details of an alleged massacre that it had just been uncovered, or that Israel was attempting to conduct a false flag operation to lure Americans into the war against Egypt. Each side has its share of weak arguments.

Conspiracy theorists point to the findings of retired Admiral John Moorer, former Chief of Naval Operations and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  The findings of this independent inquiry, often referred to as the Moorer Commission, were read into the Congressional record in 2003, and some of the oft-quoted portions are a matter of public record: “There is compelling evidence that Israel’s attack was a deliberate attack to destroy an American ship and kill her entire crew.”

Israeli Motor Torpedo Boats (MTBs) in formation, circa 1967. These were the MTBs that attacked USS Liberty. Photo: קודקוד צהוב – CC BY-SA 3.0
Israeli Motor Torpedo Boats (MTBs) in formation, circa 1967. These were the MTBs that attacked USS Liberty. Photo: קודקוד צהוב – CC BY-SA 3.0

The attack was certainly deliberate, but does this necessarily preclude a case of mistaken identity?  It goes on to detail allegations of a substantial cover-up, details of which have emerged over the years from interviews with crewmen and senior Navy staff alike – but this is a separate line of argument which states Israel knew that the ship was American before attacking.

Others argue that Moorer’s adherents are advancing these arguments to weaken the undeniably strong relationship between Israel and the United States, pointing to the substantial volume of declassified documents to discredit claims of a cover-up.

The argument that the Liberty’s state of the art surveillance system had discovered evidence of an Israeli massacre of Egyptian POWs is refuted by opposing claims that Liberty’s surveillance capacity was not, in fact, good enough to uncover such information, and furthermore, that if such discoveries had taken place, sinking the ship while it was within striking distance, and certainly radio distance, of an American fleet would be a curious move.

USS Liberty (AGTR-5) underway in Chesapeake Bay.
USS Liberty (AGTR-5) underway in Chesapeake Bay.

It is more difficult to debunk claims of an orchestrated coverup – indeed, president Johnson could very well have wanted to salvage American’s relationship with Israel, and the damage was done – but thus far, no bulletproof evidence of a deliberate Israeli strike has emerged, even after decades of declassification.

It seems unlikely that any amount of evidence, if suddenly discovered by either side, would put to rest claims of Israeli false flag operations, but it is clear from the evidence provided by both sides that the American fleet was fully aware of the nationality of their attackers during the assault.

Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE