June 8th marked the 46th anniversary of the Israeli attack on the USS Liberty during the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. As readers may recall, the USS Liberty was an U.S. Navy signals intelligence collection ship that Israeli aircraft and torpedo boats attacked for over an hour in international waters off Egypt in an attempt to sink it. It was the first such attack on a U.S. Naval vessel since WWII.
US Sixth Fleet Rear Admiral Lawrence Geis launched two rescue attempts from U.S. aircraft carriers nearby, but Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara ordered that the aircraft be returned to the carrier both times. RADM Geis later told the Liberty's senior Naval Security Group officer, Lt. Commander David Lewis, that after McNamara ordered the aircraft be returned to the carrier the second time, he requested confirmation of the order and the reason for it. This time President Johnson took the phone and ordered the recall with the comment that he did not care if the ship sank, but that he would not embarrass an ally.
Thirty four American servicemen were killed and 171 wounded, over two thirds of the Liberty's crew of 294. Ironically, the first vessel to offer the stricken Liberty assistance was a Soviet destroyer. The offer of assistance was declined.
Adm. John McCain Jr., the commander of U.S. naval forces in Europe and father of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), chose Adm. Isaac Kidd Jr. to preside over a formal Court of Inquiry. Participants, however, claim that the court was charged only to determine whether any shortcomings on the part of the Liberty's crew had contributed to the injuries and deaths that resulted from the attack, not to assign culpability, and that Navy investigators refused to allow testimony showing that the attack was deliberate or that Israel's explanation was untrue. Although Kidd and Navy Capt. Ward Boston, the inquiry's counsel had estimated that a thorough inquiry would take six months, McCain gave them only a week to complete their work.
Crew members were ordered to remain silent and threatened with court-martial if they talked. They were dispersed on separate assignments, no two together. After President Johnson died their silence ended when Liberty survivor Lt. Commander James M. Ennes, Jr., published his book, Assault on the Liberty, in 1980.
The Israeli Government and the American Jewish Anti-Defamation League have insisted since 1967 that the attack was a case of mistaken identity. They claim that the Israel Defense Force (IDF) had mistaken the Liberty for the smaller Egyptian El Quseir, a mercantile type built in 1929.
Liberty survivors of the Israeli attack insist that the circumstances were such that Israel had to have known that it was attacking an American signals collection ship and killing American servicemen.
In 2002 Boston told the Navy Times that the naval court was a politicized sham with conclusions preordained to exonerate Israel. In 2004, he signed an affidavit stating he knew from personal conversations he had with Admiral Kidd that U.S. President Lyndon Johnson and U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara had ordered Admiral Kidd to conclude that the attack was a case of "mistaken identity" despite "overwhelming evidence to the contrary."
Ernie Gallo is President of the USS Liberty Veterans Association (LVA). During a recent lunch with Gallo following a memorial service at Arlington Cemetery, Gallo noted that he saw a parallel between the 1967 Israeli attack on the USS Liberty and the attack on Americans in Benghazi on September 11, 2012. In both cases, Gallo observed, US intelligence officers called for help while under attack and none came.
Other parallels are:
As the Liberty's request for back-up by destroyer escort had been denied, so multiple security related requests by Ambassador Stevens and the diplomatic mission in Libya had been denied.
As Gregory Hicks, Deputy Chief at the U.S. Embassy in Libya, told congressional investigators he believed that the U.S. military could have prevented the deadly Benghazi attack on the Annex if fighter jets had been promptly deployed, so Liberty survivors believe that the two squadrons of Navy fighter-bombers that were recalled could have arrived in time to prevent the torpedo attack that took 26 American lives.
Both incidents happened when a Democrat was President.
Accusations of a White House cover-up exist in both cases.
One important difference exists, however: Contrary to Congress's vigorous reaction to the 9/11/12 attack on American facilities in Benghazi and accusations of a White House cover-up, Congress has never shown the slightest interest in investigating what Liberty survivors insist and most senior administration officials in 1967, from Secretary of State Dean Rusk on down, including the heads of CIA and NSA, believed was a deliberate attack on the Liberty. In fact, the Israeli assault on the Liberty remains the only major maritime event in American history that has not been investigated by the Congress.
Gallo can speak about the incident with equanimity and eschews contact with and offers of support from anti-Semitic groups and individuals. He believes that any relationship with such groups and people would only provide ammunition to detractors and undermine the LVA's on-going efforts to get Congress to open an investigation of what happened in the eastern Mediterranean that sunny June day in 1967.
Gallo supports Congress's pressing the White House for more information on Benghazi and would like to see the same effort carried out investigating the attack on the Liberty.
Readers with internet access and interest in reading more about this controversial and highly debated incident can read more about the case each side makes by Googling "USS Liberty." Chicago Tribune senior correspondent John Crewdson published an article in the Tribune on October 2007 entitled "New revelations in attack on American spy ship" that can also be found on-line. Assault on the Liberty, an eye witness account by James M. Ennes, Jr., is available in paperback.
The thoughts outlined above represent my personal views and not the views of my former employer.
Dennis Lamb retired from the CIA in 2002 after serving 30 years in its Directorate of Operations as a Case Officer and as an Intelligence Analyst.