On June 8, 1967, Israel attacked the USS Liberty. Thirty-four American soldiers were killed and 171 were wounded. More than 35 years have passed since that sunny afternoon, but for Joe Meadors, a U.S. Navy signalman on the bridge of the Liberty during the attack, the memories of that tragic day are still fresh.
Israeli planes had circled the Liberty at several points during the morning. When the ship’s radar picked up more aircraft coming up the Liberty’s starboard side, Meadors said the crew assumed it was another reconnaissance mission.
“So what we did was a bunch of us ran up to the Signal Bridge to observe what we thought would just be another circling of the ship,” he said. “The aircraft came up our starboard side pretty low to the surface. They got directly in front of us and turned immediately left and started strafing us from stem to stern.”
It was the height of the Cold War in June 1967 when the Liberty, a Navy ship outfitted with highly sophisticated intelligence-gathering equipment, was on a mission for the secretive National Security Agency. The Liberty had been patrolling off the Egyptian coast in international waters when the Six Day War between Israel and her Arab neighbors broke out. The United States, fearful of being drawn into the conflict, sent as many as five cables to the Liberty to pull back at least 160 kilometers off the coast.
A. Jay Cristol, a federal judge and author of the book The Liberty Incident said a series of communications failures diverted those messages to the Philippines.
“The messages were sent to the Naval Communications Station Philippines,” he said. “Because unbelievable as it may sound, there was no protocol for sending messages to a naval ship from the Army communications station in the Pentagon.”
Judge Cristol, who spent 10 years researching his book, argues that the attack was a tragic mistake and there is no evidence revealing it was intentional. He writes that the Israeli strike can only be understood in the context of the Cold War; the outbreak of war in the Middle East; and the chaos of the battlefield.
Ambassador Richard Parker, the former political counselor at the U.S. Embassy in Cairo in 1967, agrees. He says the White House and the U.S. Navy did a poor job of informing the public and the Liberty crew about what had happened. But he thinks this had more to do with the highly sensitive nature of the National Security Agency and not because the Israelis had deliberately attacked the Liberty.
“I think it was a case of mistaken identity. I don’t see a motive for it,” the ambassador said. “I don’t see what the pay off would be for the Israelis. It would be a very reckless thing for them to do unless they felt that they had a very serious national interest at stake, and I don’t see what that interest was."
"The explanation most people give is that they didn’t want us listening to their radio traffic. The weakness of the argument in my view is that the Israelis had convinced themselves already that they had a green light from us to do what they did," he said. "The war was practically over at that point on the Egyptian front and they were about to start the attack on Syria, but they had not yet decided whether to do that. They had already told us, however, that they were considering doing that. We’d had a chance to object and we did not.”
Liberty survivors have a hard time believing the official explanation. They have formed the Liberty Veterans Association and are circulating a petition asking the U.S. Congress to undertake and conduct a complete and comprehensive public congressional investigation of the attack.
They say previous investigations were limited and looked only into communications failures and damage control procedures. They call the one investigation that recorded the survivors’ testimony, the U.S. Navy Court of Inquiry, a sham whose results were predetermined.
Rear Admiral Merlin Staring was the staff legal officer to Admiral John McCain, who convened the court of inquiry. His job was to review the court’s findings before they were presented to Admiral McCain. But Mr. Staring says the findings were taken from him before he finished his review. Merlin Staring thinks it’s because he had some problems with the report.
“My principal job was to determine whether the findings that the members of the court of inquiry had chosen to record were supported by the evidence that they had gathered and had included in their record,” he recalled.
“And I was proceeding methodically through it, making some notes as I went along, but watching for the evidence to support the findings," the Rear Admiral said. "What concerned me was that not only had I not been able to even reach any conclusions about the validity of the findings that had been recorded by the court of inquiry, but also superficially it was such a sloppy job.”
One disputed fact has been whether or not the Liberty was flying the American flag at the time of the attack. Signalman Meadors said the ship was flying U.S. colors.
“I made periodic trips out to the port wing of the bridge just to make sure that the flag was up,” the Liberty crewmember said. “I noticed on one of my trips the flag had been shot down. So Frank Brown, one of the quartermasters on the ship, and I noticed the flag had been shot down. So we grabbed holiday colors, our largest flag, and went up to the Signal Bridge and hoisted it up the number four port halyard. And that was flying throughout the torpedo attack.”
Mr. Meadors said the Israeli boats ignored his signaling and instead fired on the Liberty. But if the Israelis meant to attack the American ship as some claim, why didn’t they sink the ship?
“They did everything they could to try to finish the job,” James Bamford said. Mr. Bamford is the author of Body of Secrets, an investigative history of the National Security Agency that includes a detailed chapter on the Liberty incident.
“They attacked the ship with napalm, with canon fire, with torpedoes. They did everything they could to blow up the ship. They fired five torpedoes at the ship for example, one of which blew a forty-foot hole into the ship. And then they shot at the life rafts of the people who were trying to escape the ship. So they did everything in their power to sink the ship,” he said.
Mr. Bamford is one of the many people who think a new investigation into the attack is in order. But Judge Cristol said he sees no need for any further investigation.
“I believe the incident has been thoroughly investigated and no additional investigation is necessary,” he said. “Depending on how you count, between 13 and 16 official investigations confirm that the attack on the Liberty was a tragic case of mistaken identity. Another one would probably come to the same conclusion, and that would also probably not satisfy the Liberty survivors.”
While many agree with Judge Cristol and argue that the Liberty case is closed, former Ambassador Richard Parker thinks another look into events surrounding the attack would be beneficial.
“Originally, I thought it would be a waste of time,” he said. “But I think it would be a good idea to have one, under which we brought in Israeli as well as American survivors to give their point of view and perhaps put an end to this. I don’t think they would find anything new. I don’t think the documents to be unclassified are going to say much new about what happened.”
Most survivors doubt the U.S. Congress will call for a fresh investigation into the painful events of that fateful day in 1967. However, they are resolved not to let the world forget how the Liberty was struck and their fellow crewmen who died.