It is often assumed that Israel was on the defensive in the Six-Day War of June 1967. That is testimony to the success of its propaganda, because the reality was very different. “From the very beginning,” wrote James Bamford in Body of Secrets (2001), “an essential element in the Israeli battle plan seemed to have been 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.” The facts reveal that being Israel’s main ally did not mean that American citizens were safe. The story of the attack on the USS Liberty by the Israeli air force and navy still has the power to shock, as has the official cover-up that has persisted ever since.
Israel launched air attacks against Egypt’s airfields at 7.45am on 5th June 1967. Within a couple of hours most of the Egyptian air forces was destroyed on the ground. At the same time, Israeli tanks scythed across the Sinai Desert heading for the Suez Canal and its troops initiated fighting on the borders with Syria and Jordan. False reports, meanwhile, claimed that Egypt had launched a major attack on Israel, which was fighting back in self-defence, a familiar refrain ever since. By mid-morning, Foreign Minister Abba Eban was telling the US ambassador in Tel Aviv “an ever larger curtain of lies” and claimed that Israel had “no intention of taking advantage of the situation to enlarge its territory.” Another lie.
As the fighting raged, the USS Liberty, a surveillance ship operated by America’s National Security Agency (NSA) took up a holding position off the Sinai coast, in international waters. The ship was identified by a number of Israeli aircraft; radio traffic showed them reporting the ship’s identification code “GTR-5” back to headquarters. The number was emblazoned in large, bold letters on the ship’s bows.
By 9.30am the minaret of the mosque in El-Arish was visible to the crew of the Liberty. Unknown to them, at that time Israeli forces were “engaged in a criminal slaughter”. Not only were Indian peacekeepers with the UN in Sinai killed by Israeli tanks, and fourteen others were killed by an Israeli attack on the UN compound in Gaza, but around 60 Egyptian prisoners of war were also killed in cold blood by Israeli forces next to the mosque. In another incident near El-Arish Airport, 150 prisoners of war were shot by the Israelis. According to evidence collected by Israeli journalists, altogether around 1,000 Egyptian prisoners of war were killed, including 400 in El-Arish. “The extensive war crimes were just one of the deep secrets Israel had sought to conceal since the start of the conflict,” alleges James Bamford. Hence, the “carefully constructed curtain of lies”.
At midday on the 8th June 1967, an Israeli army commander reported that “a ship was shelling the Israelis”. This was patently untrue as the Israeli navy and air force had by then been monitoring Liberty for 6 hours. Even so, the order was given to attack the US vessel. Israeli motor torpedo boats left Ashdod harbour at 12.05pm, followed by fighter aircraft armed with armour-piercing cannon.
The Israeli boats sighted the Liberty at 1.41pm and gave the order for the aircraft to attack. Survivors of the attack confirmed that the fighters had no identification markings on them. It was, to all intents and purposes, an attack by unknown assailants.
Israel’s Mirage jets raked the American ship “from bow to stern” several times. Later examination estimated that it was hit more than 800 times. Although neither the Israelis nor the crew of the USS Liberty knew about it at the time, the attack was monitored by an American spy plane flying high above. This remained a closely-guarded secret for many years until Bamford was shown the papers during his research.
At 2.24pm Israeli torpedo boats attacked the USS Liberty with gunfire before lining up and firing enough torpedoes “to sink an aircraft carrier”; only one of them actually hit the ship. Life rafts thrown overboard by the American sailors were fired at by the Israelis and damaged. It was clear, survivors said, that the Israelis were intent on sinking the ship and making sure that there were no witnesses to what they had done. Half an hour later, aircraft from the US Sixth Fleet were sent to the Liberty’s aid. Bizarrely, messages telling the ship to leave the area and its own SOS signals had not been received at either end, or had been ignored.
Within hours of the attack, “Israel asked President Johnson to quietly bury the incident.” As the ship limped into Malta a couple of days later, unnamed sources in Washington suggested blocking press photographs so that public opinion against Israel would not be inflamed. The surviving crew members were threatened with courts-martial if they revealed anything about the attack.
Israel, meanwhile, claimed that the attack was a mistake; a case of “mistaken identity”, despite the large US flag flying from the mast and the clear “GTR-5” on the bows. No one has ever even been prosecuted or even reprimanded for the attack. In fact, “Israel chose instead to honour Motor Torpedo Boat 203 which fired the deadly torpedo at the USS Liberty.”
In all, 34 members of the crew of the USS Liberty were killed by Israel’s murderous attack; 170 were wounded. According to Alan Hart, the subsequent clampdown “was not actually for security reasons but for domestic political reasons… President Johnson was worried about the reaction of Jewish voters.” (Zionism: The real enemy of the Jews, volume 2, 2007)
Israel’s General Moshe Dayan had actually given notice of his intent to attack the Liberty because he wanted no witnesses to the war crimes being committed by his troops in Sinai and Gaza. Hart claims that President Johnson, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the CIA and the NSA knew this. As such, when the early reports of the attack arrived, they had a choice. “In Taking Sides, Stephen Green put it this way: The choice was, ‘either to take retaliatory action against Israel, or to become an accessory after the fact by promoting the fiction that it was somehow an accident.'”
We know which path they took. To this day no official inquiry has been conducted by the US government into the Israeli attack on the USS Liberty. Compensation has been paid but campaigners in the US still insist that the crew were “attacked by Israel and betrayed by the US”; they want justice.
US tax dollars keep the Israeli military well-oiled and ready for action, while Israel spies on its closest ally and most loyal supporter and, as the USS Liberty incident demonstrates, is ready to kill Americans as and when necessary. The attack on the Liberty was no error, it was deliberate; Dayan’s threat proves that to be the case. How long will the survivors of the attack and their families have to wait before this is acknowledged by the US government and an official investigation is held?
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.