The Administration was successful in its attempts to muffle and hide the questions surrounding the attack. The public was unaware of any issue, and the men were completely silenced.
Burial of six sailors from USS Liberty off Newport RI near bouy #3
The administration moved at once to isolate the men and to control news stories about the attack through CHINFO (Chief Information Office) and its PAs (public affairs officers).
- News was coordinated and centralized in the Pentagon.
- The LIBERTY crewmen were forbidden to talk to reporters except under conditions arranged by the PA officers. Control of the men came in two phases. From June 8 to 28, when the summary of the Naval Court was completed, the men were told that they could not speak at all. After June 2l they were told that they could speak only by repeating the exact words of the Summary.
- The crewmen were forbidden to speak of the matter even to members of their families. There were threats of demotion, dishonorable discharge loss of pensions and even possible imprisonment for those who might disobey.
- The crewmen were kept from the press by every possible means. Armed guards were stationed near the wounded men in the hospitals on the carriers, in Naples, and in Landshut, Germany. The crewmen on shore in Malta were under constant watch and were given daily orders to avoid the press.
- Only one newsman, Irving R. Levine of NBC News, tried to break through this wall of isolation. He came from Rome to interview Captain McGonagle but instead was given an interview with Admiral Kidd.
- The men were not allowed to merely remain silent. On the carrier AMERICA, in Malta, and later in Norfolk, they were ordered to take part in press conferences and told what to say. PA officers rehearsed the men and were present during the interviews.
- The Departments of State and Defense kept a close watch to see how "favorable" and "unfavorable" stories were reported.
- The crewmen were desperate to break out of their isolation and tell their story to the world. In the single case where a crewman managed to speak to a reporter the PA apparatus immediately put out a "counter story" through Reuters.
- The Naval Court and its Summary were themselves exercises in press control. The Summary presented the LIBERTY attack as the Pentagon wished it to be seen, leaving out all dissenting evidence from the crewmen.
The press was blithely unaware of the wall of censorship which the administration had built around the men and the incident, and made no attempt to break through. Instead the papers and journals contented themselves with comments upon the press releases from the US and Israeli governments, while awaiting the Naval Court summary.
In general, the Israelis, in official statements and in unofficial press releases, told three different stories of the attack. (1) They said that the ship had no flag or identification mark. (2) They said that the ship seemed to be an Egyptian ship disguised as American. In this version, the flag and identification were visible, part of the "disguise". (3) They presented the story of Micha Limor, identified as witness and participant, who told of a mysterious silent ship with no one on deck, which would not respond to signals or gunfire or pause for identification.
The press emphasized now one and now another of these inconsistent stories. No paper tried to analyze or summarize the stories, but instead one story was added to another. The press was mildly critical of Israel in the weeks after the attack, but there was no serious analysis. If there had been serious consideration, there would have been a question of the absurdity of the claim that the ship had no flag or identification. What possible purpose could be served by such insane behavior? Furthermore the ID number could be clearly seen on photos of the ship immediately after the attack, thus giving the lie to Israeli claims.
The complete lack of curiosity on the part of the press was illustrated on June 18, when the Naval Court was still in session. On that date two stories appeared in THE NEW YORK TIMES, side by side on the same page, given opposite accounts of the attack and of the hearings.
One dispatch was from Colin Frost of AP. He got his story from Lt. George Golden in a Malta bar. Golden denied regulations to speak to him. The story said in part:
A responsible source said today that senior crewmen of the LIBERTY were convinced that Israel's air and boat attack....was deliberate....They have testified to that effect before the navy inquiry court now in closed session...."We were flying the stars and stripes, and its absolutely impossible that they didn't know who we were", a survivor said. "This was a deliberate and planned attack."
The other story was an unsigned dispatch from Reuters:
Officers from the LIBERTY today rejected the idea that the attack was deliberate. One of the officers said that anybody who said the attack was deliberate was "out of his mind."
The Reuters story is a false and planted story, hastily rranged for the administration to counter the Frost story.No officer of crewmen of the LIBERTY, including Captain McGonagle, EVER said that the attack was accidental, and no crewmen on Malta spoke to a Reuters reporter or to any other reporter except Frost.
These two contrasting stories should have signaled to any interested observer that a public relations war was underway. However, there was no resonance to this event. No US paper picked up the Frost story (except for the Rome Daily News) and CHINFO noted with satisfaction that the story produced no echoes and no curiosity.
The American press was often critical of Israel and skeptical about Israeli claims in the first few weeks after the attack on the Liberty. However, this original critical view did not result in any follow up by journalists. No paper or magazine sent a reporter to contact the crew, and the press criticism remained speculative and unverified.
From June 10 to 28, while the Navy worked to organize the Naval Court report, there was much journalistic speculation. On June 16 Drew Pearson and Jack Anderson wrote in their syndicated column that the attack had been planned in advance and was too well coordinated to have been accidental.
Burial of six sailors from USS Liberty off Newport RI near bouy #3
On June 19 NEWSWEEK'S "Periscope" stated that "some high Washington officials" suspected that the attack was deliberate; the ship had been attacked because it had evidence that Israel had begun the fighting.
On June 26 US NEWS said that US officials did not believe that the attack was accidental. The reason for the attack was not clear, however, and the magazine said that "the full story may never be told". (Here was an odd instance of surrendering before the battle was begun; a magazine which sends no reporters to contact the crew complains that the full story may never be told).
On June 27 William Buckley in NATIONAL REVIEW issued to most emphatic and angry statement of all the commentators: "Is the LIBERTY episode being erased from history? So it would seem.... What has happened to our prying journalistic corps and our editors, normally so indignant at suppression of the news?....We believe that a joint select committee of Congress should investigate the strange case of the USS LIBERTY....It remains logically possible that the Israeli command ordered the attack"....
On June 28 the Naval Court Summary was published, and it was criticized in most papers and magazines for failing to answer important questions. However, after this date the press began to increasingly favor the Israelis in their comments, for reasons which are not clear. For instance, the journals accepted the Israeli claims that the LIBERTY had no flag or other signs of identification, despite the testimony of the crew and the statements in the Summary. The stories which at first seemed to promise vigorous investigation fizzled out without results. Drew Pearson and Jack Anderson never followed up on their original claim that the attack was planned in advance, and in fact never referred again to the topic. (Years later, when LIBERTY crewmen asked him for more information on the topic, Anderson claimed to have no memory of the issue and could provide no information.)
Similarly, NATIONAL REVIEW did not follow up on Buckley's original claims. There were no more articles on the subject in NATIONAL REVIEW until September 5, when James Kilpatrick wrote "June 8 at 1400 Hours". Although Buckley had called for aggressive reporting, Kilpatrick was bland and hesitant. He reviewed some of the questions concerning the attack, without reaching any conclusion, and decided that "the questions beg for answers" but provided no answers. (Several years later I wrote to Buckley to ask why the magazine had changed its view so radically, but I received only a frivolous answer that "NATIONAL REVIEW chooses its battles".)
There were no more stories on the issue in 1967, and only two in 1968, both closing the books on the case. US NEWS and NEWSWEEK in their final articles ignored any previous skepticism and accepted as fact the Israeli claims that LIBERTY showed no flag or other signs of identification.
Torpedo hole as seen from drydock in Malta
We should note also the record of the NEW YORK TIMES on the LIBERTY issue. First, there is the TIMES editorial of June 10, 1967, declaring that the attack was accidental. At this time the ship was beginning its journey to Malta for an investigation. The editors knew nothing except that the ship had been attacked; Israel had claimed the attack was accidental; and wounded seamen (quoted in the TIMES of June 10, in fact) had declared that the attack was intentional. Nevertheless the TIMES never hesitated to declare the attack an accident, prior to all investigation, and has never wavered in this stand. The TIMES on June 18 printed contradictory stories side by side but did not investigate to see which story was true, and did not show much interest. On July 7, 1967 it printed the account by Micha Limor, which conflicted with all accounts to date, but did not seem to be concerned about the conflict.
THE TIMES for over three decades has had a policy of avoiding any mention of THE LIBERTY insofar as possible, as is illustrated by the following Orwellian account. In late August 1967 the American Legion met in Boston for its annual convention. The Legion passed a dozen resolutions, most of them relating to the Vietnam War. However, Resolution No. 508 dealt with THE LIBERTY and demanded an official inquiry into the attack. THE TIMES covered the convention in detail and wrote about the various resolutions debated and adopted. There was no mention, however, of No. 508, the LIBERTY resolution.
During the summer of 1967 there was much discontent in the State Department and the National Security Council over the LIBERTY matter. Secretary Rusk and Congressman Abernathy said that the Congress was enraged and absorbed in the issue, and that there was much hostility toward the official story. Rusk told his colleagues in Luxembourg that the attack was deliberate, and Hickenlooper and other senators were still angry in July when confronting McNamara. None of this discontent or political current was reported in the TIMES at the time, but was only discovered and reported later by the LIBERTY men and their newsletter.
The record of the press on the LIBERTY issue is an odd one, with silences, unexplained reversals of view, and especially failure to investigate by contacting the crew. The case presented by the US and Israeli governments was a flimsy one, and one crusading journal determined to find the truth could have destroyed the entire official history.
The attack on the USS Liberty is a shameful chapter in our history. The answers of why the attack occured, and the US
response however are easier to explain. With the most recent Freedom of Information Act documents, and the comprehensive
history of the National Security agency by James Bamford titled Body of Secrets a clear picture is rendered. During the
Six Day War, the Joint Chiefs needed rapid intelligence on the ground situation in Egypt, fearing possible US and
USSR involvement. Remember that the Israeli Military, was then, principally armed by the French, not the US. Land based
stations, like the one in Cyprus were too far away to collect the narrow line-of-sight signals used by air defense radar, fire
control radar and microwave communications. The airborne SIGINT platforms, C-130s and EC_121s were limited to
about 5 hour stints in their "orbit areas" and couldn't provide sustained collection. That left the ships, which were all NSA
vessels. With the USS Oxford, Jamestown, Georgetown, and Belmont in the Pacific, and the USS Muller off Cuba,
that left the USNS Valdez and the USS Liberty. The Valdez was passing Gibraltar, going back to the States and the
USS Liberty was tasked.
By June 8, three days into the war, the Egyptian prisoners in the Sinai had become nuisances with no place to house them,
or enough Israleis to watch them. At El Arish, eavesdropping within eyeshot was the USS Liberty. The crew witnessed
the execution of sixty unarmed Egyptian prisoners, hands tied behind their backs. About 400 more prisoners were executed
in this fashon in El Arish by the Isralei army officers that day. This has been verified by Isralei military historian Aryeh
Yitzhaki, based on testimony from dozens of soldiers who admitted killing POWs. As many as 1000 other Egyptian POWs
were killed this way in the Sinai. Also 14 Indian peacekeepers flying the UN flag were killed in an apparently deliberate
attack. With the killing of the unarmed UN forces, the Israleis had crossed the Rubicon, and committed themselves to no
surviving witnesses. By 10:55 am, Senior Isralei officials knew for certain that an American surveillance ship was in their midst.
It had been positively identified by Isralei naval headquarters and clearly visible to the forces at El Arish. Commander Pinchas
Pinchasy, the naval liason at IAF referenced the "GTR-5" designation ( clearly painted on bow and stern, port and starboard
adjacent to "USS LIBERTY") in Janes Fighting Ships. His report of "an electromagnetic audio-surveillance ship of the
U.S. Navy, named Liberty, whose marking was GTR-5", was received at Isralei Naval Headquarters in Haifa, and survives to
Here's the kicker: for 35 years the NSA has hidden the fact that one of its planes was overhead during the slaughter,
eavesdropping the attack, A Navy EC-121 ferrett out of Athens. The intercepts from that plane, which answer some of
the key questions about the attack, remain among the NSAs most guarded secrets. All Americans should demand thier
And remember, we Liberals can be patriotic too.