June 05, 2007
USS Liberty: Error? Probably. Reinvestigate? Certainly.
Among the Mideast Six-Day War's 40th anniversary issues will be the June 8, 1967 attack by Israeli military forces on the USS Liberty, an American naval intelligence ship. In international waters near Egypt's Sinai peninsula, the vessel was torpedoed by Israeli Navy vessels, following repeated strafings/napalmings by Israeli Air Force planes. A special remembrance was held at the Navy Memorial (7th and Penn) in DC on June 8. Despite my own newer conclusion that the incident was indeed a result of Israeli errors, rather than an assault with foreknowledge of the ship's American nationality, I do think the incident should receive long overdue U.S. public investigation and hearings .
After some recent close examination I have reached a fairly solid conclusion -- contra many survivors of the attack and alot of credible experts -- that the attacks on the ship by Israeli forces resulted from culpably negligent Israeli wartime failures and errors, rather than high-level orders to sink an American spy ship, as many believe.
Haste prevents me from a long rehashing of the myriad detailed facts and issues but I may update, respond, add links, or follow up here to address some detailed points. (Warning to those reading this on the more international-focused and run Aqoul blog: this and any followup will be very America-centric in tone and substance.)
UPDATE: Having visited the memorial ceremony in DC, one thing that was annoying was the absence of Israel sending a representative to express continued condolences and apology; such would go far to smooth the acrimony of the accusations. There was apparently an official Navy ceremony at Arlington National Cemetary; I don't believe there was a representative there either.
As of my last checking, the USS Liberty entry on Wikipedia reasonably fleshes out the basics. On the fourth day of the 1967 Mideast war, in the early afternoon, the barely-armed USS Liberty -- a navy ship carrying National Security Agency code and language specialists to spy on the warring parties (and probably Soviet activity) -- was nearly sunk by Israeli planes and boats; over 30 were killed and over 170 wounded, the highest US navy casualty rate since the Second World War. The torpedo hit concentrated the deaths among the intelligence workers in the lower levels. (A more interesting and detailed retelling is this recently declassified National Security Agency paper, which is also extensively cited in this complaint by USS Liberty veterans seeking a war crimes investigation by the Pentagon.) James Ennes, of the Liberty crew, has a riveting book worth reading on the event (even if I disagree with his conclusion about the attack's origins.)
The view that the USS Liberty attack was made in error or failure of identification is actually more or less the official one of both the American and Israeli governments. Academic consensus is nearly the opposite. Now joining that non-official consensus that the Israeli attack was executed with foreknowledge of its target's Americanness is former Australian prime minster Tim Fischer: "I now believe the evidence all points to it being a deliberate attack by Israel."
I think he is wrong, but he is right when he states that "the US Congress. . .still need[s] to get to the bottom of this saga."
For even if one considers the event a nasty snafu-fest (as I do), there are enough unanswered questions, unsatisfied grievances, and useful lessons to demand a public hearing.
Prior to going there, however, caution should be noted about a key language issue that muddies up the discussion of the Liberty incident, and should be brought into stark relief.
The Language Issue: Deliberate v. Accidental
One thing that hampers a reasonable analysis, even by dispassionate observers, is the fact that discussion of the Liberty incident often is reduced to a debate on whether the attack was either "deliberate" or an "accident". Such careless terminology skews the debate unfairly in favor of those who think it was the result of a high-level Israeli decision to sink an American ship.
Well, it's simply impossible to assert the attack was an "accident", and not "deliberate"! Of course it was "deliberate". The Israeli planes and ships weren't randomly lobbing projectiles and explosives into the air and water and by dumb luck they all happened to land on the USS Liberty. The attack (more precisely, the attacks) were unquestionably deliberate repeated attempts to sink a floating vessel, and kill much or even all of its crew.
So the question should really be phrased, was it fundamentally error in identification or was it done with foreknowledge of the ship's purpose and nationality?
When one sees a discussion phrased in terms of deliberate or accidental, one's critical faculties should ramp up to red alert level.
For the time being, stipulate with me that the attacks were the result of snafus. Nevertheless, one will still find that there are lots of unanswered questions. These are just a few:
Did President Johnson, as rumored, order off rescue airplanes so as not to embarass an ally?
Why exactly did US military command call back rescue airplanes?
Why did the Israeli ship commander claim he had identified it as a rather different vessel, the Egyptian al-Quseir?
Why did Israeli officials -- or did they -- first also allege the al-Quseir misidentification, and then also claim the Liberty flew no flag?
Why did Israeli pilots fail to take into account the existence or significance of the flag and other markings on the ship?
What were no Israeli personnel even reprimanded, much less punished, for their actions?
Why did Israel play a degree of hardball, after offering apologies and compensation for the dead and injured, in negotiating compensation for the damage to the ship?
Why did Israel lose track of the USS Liberty after surveilling it the same morning?
Why didn't the US Navy send at least a token overflight after the attack to assure the Liberty that it was under protection?
Why did the Liberty crew and commander testimonies differ on some matters?
What was up with the torpedo ships' commander -- apparently he disregarded orders to stand down, missed the reflagged ship's identity, and gave barely credible explanations afterward (ship mistook for el-Quseir, a flashback to an earlier encounter with an Egyptian ship, etc.)?
Did America adequately keep the Israelis informed of the whereabouts of the ship? Should they have?
And, extra-grimace-inducing , did the Israeli torpedo boats really machine gun the inflated life rafts?
Some overlapping and additional worthy questions are here.
The above alone demand an explanation and raise a presumption of a "war crime" against an American crew, even if the errors were ones of stupidity and zealotry, and not a willful attack on a ship foreknown to be American. Yes, the incident needs a public airing, perhaps most of all to satisfy the crew who justly feel neglected and betrayed by ally and country alike.
Was It an Error?
Yes, I do think so, though "a series of errors and failures" is more accurate to say.
Recently I have given serious in-depth consideration to the matter, prompted by the anniversary and after stumbling on some documents in US official records. On top of that, certain recent events subjectively remind me of the very real possibility of serious screwups in wartime targetting, even by trained professionals in top-class militaries -- especially the double air attack on a British military unit by American pilots killing one British soldier in the invasion of Iraq in 2003. Add to that this recent classic photo of Israel's defense minister looking (repeatedly) through binoculars, with the lens caps over the lenses. Such is a great reminder to never attribute to malice what you can to stupidity.
(Also, I recently testified under oath to memories of decades ago, and saw how honest and even good memory about things, colored by logical inferences from intervening events, supplemented by accurate conclusions from related but ultimately different facts, and combined with bias towards a preferred outcome, can skew memory of details to the point where one can find oneself directly refuted by documents from the period, without necessarily having a poor memory or being dishonest. This is significant for the USS Liberty issue when confronting reports of relatively recent statements now appearing which purport to recall still-undocumented Israeli conversations from the USS Liberty attack. I do believe that honest memory overall can be more reliable than not, but it is a very very slippery thing.)
Another Problem: The Fetish Issue
In the past, my general assumption had been the USS Liberty attack was made with foreknowledge of taking out an American ship, but the closer and deeper I got into the facts, the less I was convinced, and ultimately unconvinced -- more or less decisively. I should note, though, that as one follows the debate, one can see it getting fundamentally thrown off all logical course by mentalities that make a fetish of either Israel's virtues or its vices.
The former set of fetishists, those like authors Cristol or Oren, who act more like Israel's defense attorneys than fact-finders, typically stink up the debate by accusing those on the opposite side who claim the sustained attack's purpose was to sink a known American spy ship of manifesting anti-Semitism or "conspiracy-thinking". In fact, the strong suspicion of foreknowledge that arises from the event has been embraced by a wide spectrum of credible observers, including the Secretary of State at the time, a CIA chief, and a former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
And it is unseemly, within our American habits of dialogue, to disdain heroic American sailors who are outraged about what they underwent -- the worst attack on an American ship in decades -- even if they are wrong in interpretation of what they experienced.
Perhaps most important of all, such writers' or advocates' fetishism of Israel's virtues obscures the point they validly want to make -- that Israeli forces screwed up when attacking the Liberty. By attempting to turn a reckless drunk driving crash into a near-inevitable innocent one, they assist the inference that there is a more sinister cover-up going on, especially when aided by the slimier methods of the Israel lobby -- namely accusations of malicious bias and anti-Semitism.
In some respects also, I think some of those who insist the Liberty attack was merely a "tragic accident" (I do not speak specifically here of writers Cristol or Oren) and need no further investigation actually fear an inquiry because in the back of their minds they believe that maybe the attack really wasn't an error, and frantically don't want that to come out.
On the other side, conflating the need to examine the episode with denunciation of Israel's other misdeeds or with the sledgehammer abusivenenss of its American domestic lobby only hurts in getting to the bottom of things. The Liberty sailors' survivors' site at one point refers to "notorious apologists for Israel". Do we talk like that in America? About naval matters? That's more al-Ahram than Annapolis. We don't even say that about Allen Dershowitz, who is indeed a notorious apologist for Israel, at least as far as legalizing torture is concerned.
Why, also, does the allegation of a war crime, presented to the Pentagon by the USS Liberty sailors, go into a shrill and irrelevant denunciation of the domestic Israel lobby at the end? Just make the case and close.
Such noise interferes with getting to the facts.
The Evidence Issues
The raw factual problem in dealing with the Liberty episode is basically this: for those who claim the attack was ordered on a known American ship, there really is no demonstrated motive for such a planned attack, and far more important than that, every motive NOT to do it.
Further, on close examination there really is no hard evidence that the Israeli attackers foreknew they were hitting an American ship. Of course, there is OVERWHELMING evidence, both circumstantial and direct, that the attacking planes and ships, and their commands, SHOULD HAVE KNOWN the ship was American prior to any aggressive act, and even more so during the attacks. But there is no hard reliable evidence they indeed did know in advance of the ship's identity, and there is little to say for sure what and when they actually knew during or after the attacks. Together the two factors -- a) greatly negative motives and incentives for attacking, and b) absence of direct evidence of foreknowledge -- add up to something far less than a planned attack on a US ship.
Still, the persistence of the attacks during the afternoon of June 8, 1967 despite many factors (a flag, the ship's configuration) yields something far more than the mere innocent "tragic error" that many who run interference for Israel want to project.
The Problem: No Motive & No Evidence of Knowledge
To establish the Israeli naval and air attacks were done with foreknowledge requires an ENORMOUS burden of proof, one that is not there the closer one looks.
* What possible motive would make risking a shooting war with the United States, armed with nuclear weapon-bearing ships and aircraft in the area, while that nation is one's chief supporter in a war one is winning? And to launch an attack it presumably would want to cover up slowly in broad daylight with marked or distinguishable attacking equipment and vehicles.
Such a compelling motive had better be a damn good one, speculative or otherwise, and most likely as well, a looming obvious one, if it so big.
Certain motives have been offered, some very plausible sounding if speculative. But they don't add up. These include an attempt to bring the United States into direct conflict with Egypt by pretending it was an Egyptian attack, fear imputed to Israel of the intelligence ship having learned of the planned Israeli attack on Syria for that day, or covering up a massacre of Egyptian prisoners by Israeli forces in the Sinai peninsula near the USS Liberty as it listened to communications.
None of the above would have been worth the risk of far more violently antagonizing and undoing the very American support it was feared that discovery of such information would have undone. Not to mention also opening another front in a multifront war with both superpowers now hostile.
Direct Hard Evidence of Foreknowledge Missing
There really is no direct evidence of any Israeli foreknowledge of the identity of the ship. None. And I have looked for it. There are occasional recollections of seeing transcripts in which Israeli pilots or someone is saying to attack an American ship. This is worth probing, but it is memory of second-hand transcripts of a long time ago, and the most senior and close-to-the-scene of the recollectors has stated he thought the Liberty incident was a case of mistaken identity Anything is possible with such imprecise recollections -- an incorrect time-line, sarcasm lost in a written translation (the American flag being wrongly dismissed as a false flag flown by a presumed Egyptian ship), etc. without even factoring in bias or outright dishonesty.
(Alot is also made of the flag flying issue. Part of that, I suspect, is legitimate anger by the sailors over being slandered by Israel, or an Israel supporter or two, with allegations the crew did not fly the flag, when in all probability they actually did (and also heroically reflagged at high risk). That is in addition to the anger of the flag's significance being ignored by the actual attacking planes and ships. But seeing a flag and taking it seriously are two different issues, just as seeing an orange roof (a signifier of NATO) and according it due significance are two different things, as seen in this transcript where American pilots talk about the orange top of the vehicles over and over but attack a British unit anyway. I have seen a longer version of the dialogue where they may mention it at least one more time.)
One interesting fact also: no credible Israeli has come forward saying "we knew what we were doing, hitting an American ship", and Israel is a nation of refuseniks,of Mordechai Vanunu exposing its nuclear secrets, and of public access to archives whose data undermine some serious founding mythology. Other Israeli secrets have gotten out rapidly. Although clouded by euphemism, it became known publicly within months after Israeli agents attempted secret attacks on American facilities in 1950s Egypt in order to drive a wedge between Egypt and the US. (Lavon Affair) Jonathan Pollard the spy was caught red-handed. Victor Ostrovsky wrote a widely published book on secret Mossad methodology and practice. Yitzhak Rabin's memoirs tell of expelling thousands of civilian Arabs from towns when the country was founded.
Now, the USS Liberty attack was done by multiple ordinary military forces, not trained dedicated spies. If it was abuzz that an American ship was ordered to be hit, something or someone would have leaked by now.
I may update with more detail on these issues.
I suggest that to get a closer idea of what really happened, we try to determine what overall scenario is most credible. Let me compare the Error scenario from various sources, with the Foreknowledge one.
The Error view as I see it is basically that an ammunition explosion convinced Israeli forces in the Sinai wrongly that they were being shelled from the sea. Torpedo boats and planes went out in hot pursuit of a phantom ship. They find nothing except a ship several miles out. Maybe they miscalculated the ship's speed at the time too further adding to confusion as to the type of ship they were encountering. In any event, the airplanes contact command, command tells them nothing friendly or neutral is in the area. That error happened because after some patrols had spotted the Liberty in the morning, basically in transiting to the afternoon shift at command the marker for the Liberty on the map was removed as part of a careless and stupid routine periodic cleaning of location information, and not followed up on.
The eager-to-attack-and-avenge planes overfly the Liberty from above. They see no characteristic Israeli paint symbol on the decks (not the side) and assume it is hostile; they attack again and again and again and again; machine gun fire, napalm, maybe rockets or missiles. They jam all kinds of frequencies. At some point, they see a flag, talk about it perhaps, and begin to have doubts. They back off, tell their command their doubts. Ground relays it to the navy. It transmits slowly across bureaucracies; the navy, seeing the suspect ship's already under attack goes through the formalities of trying to guess which Egyptian ship it is (al-Quseir, looks close enough to it, dammit) but then closes for the kill on a pre-blasted ship of Arabs they feel had just bombed (or aided in the bombing of) Israeli forces on the shore. They do try to exchange lamp messages but can't figure out what to do with the response so they ignore it. (They may not even know the roman alphabet well enough to pay attention to anything written on the ship.) The right to attack is a no-brainer anyway as the air force has already treated the ship as hostile. It's now time for the navy to be part of the war and get a part of an historic victory.
They may also have gotten fired on by USS Liberty machine guns acting in desperate self-defense; either way, they torpedo the American ship at least twice, hitting once, and shoot and shoot the ship with machine gun fire. (They shoot the life rafts thrown overboard too, apparently.) They circle the ship and then suddenly it begins to sink in that something is wrong -- the flag, the writing, the sailors they do see? Whichever, they break off and leave. Helicoptered troops, with Stars of David on their helicopters, now come in and circle (on the ship the order is to "repel boarders"). They realize it's probably American and back off. Indeed, the boarders never boarded.
The ship is left full of holes, listing, and full of injured and dying. Meanwhile the US navy, having heard the distress call of the LIberty being attacked by unidentified aircraft, cancels a dispatch of aircraft to intervene, probably because the planes have nuclear weapons on one set and the next set of planes are sent as word comes from the Israelis that they had mistakenly attacked the ship and stopped, and there is no need to pursue.
Now the other "foreknowledge" scenario would have one believe that in the middle of a war it was winning, Israel decided to risk nuclear war with the supportive United States for the following reason: well, no one can still quite figure it out. Secrecy of the Golan attack -- but everyone knew it was going to happen and no one cared that much. Cover up an atrocity -- Israeli military units massacred Israeli Arab villagers in the previous war in 1956 and there was only token punishment and it had no effect on the international politics.
We would have to believe Israeli command decided to destroy a prized American intelligence ship, one that also monitored Soviet activity (the chief supporter of the Arab side). And that it decided to do so without leaving a trace, but they then go about doing it in broad daylight, without using ship-sinking iron bombs (just missiles, bullets and napalm), and use combined slow navy and airforces, exposing the operation to multiple persons in their own forces who would have direct knowledge of the event. They do this secret operation in a sea full of watching Soviet spy subs who wouldn't mind embarrassing Israel or the United States. They don't use a submarine of their own. They do it in a slow manner allowing time for help messages to get out to the US fleet. They use planes of distinctively Israeli use, not captured Soviet ones, and even the attacking torpedo boats may have had an Israeli flag, while the troops which were helicoptered in, came on vehicles with Stars of David on them. (How many eyewitnesses now? Three boat crews, a half-dozen planes, helicopters full of soldiers). And, if some accounts are true, these secret attackers openly discuss an American flag on the radio, instead of using code words or cleverly referring to it as an Egyptian ship.
And that suddenly, while winning the preplanned attack on the barely-armed sitting duck Liberty, they stop and back off, leaving a boatload of angry witnesses.
I'll go with the Error scenario instead.
Reckless and criminal error, almost certainly, but error.
There are questions, and they should be answered, but the presumption that it was done in error carries far more weight.
Some additional things to note about the event being a result of errors:
The ERROR view is NOT, repeat NOT, the same as the Israeli excuse of mistaking the USS Liberty for the only vaguely similar Egyptian al-Quseir ship. That was just an after-the-fact cover story to explain a screw up. At best there may have been a tentative ID ("hey, that looks something like the ship in Jane's"), if ever made at all by the torpedo ship commander, and so it was then later offered to cover up the reckless screwups.
The ERROR view is NOT, repeat NOT, the same as saying that the US flag wasn't flying or even visible on the LIberty, it only avers that it was ignored, not seen, or not looked-for for a period of time.
The ERROR view is NOT, repeat NOT, that the ship wasn't marked as an American ship, the ERROR view is that the attackers were too busy attacking to care, or too stupid to let it sink in.
The ERROR view is NOT necessarily the conventional Israeli version that is offered.
The ERROR view does NOT at all preclude, and it even supports the possibility, that there might yet be intense political pressure to avoid investigational pursuit of the incident, and that there might be intense motivation to affirmatively perform serious coverups and falsification of the record, given that there is a heaping helping of embarrassment -- personal, professional, and political -- to go around in even the non- "deliberate" view of events.
An interesting note about identity:
Alot of issue is made out of the fact that the Israeli pilots and torpedo boat commanders or crews must have known the Liberty was American. After all, they were trained military persons and so forth. But one thing telling emerges from close examination: the Liberty crew did not uniformly or thoroughly know who their attackers were throughout the incident and after. (One sailor did not know who the attackers were until he read it in the press after the ship's crew was rescued by navy ships over a day later.) This failure to identify was the case even though the Liberty had just been regularly patrolled by Israeli ships all morning, was a NAVAL INTELLIGENCE SHIP (full of military linguists), and was being hit by distinctive French-design planes used only by the Israeli air force in that area. The Liberty failed to make a confirmed identity, despite dire need to do so, even though Arab air forces had been destroyed, and the ships and helicopters used in the incident appear to have had Israeli markings, if not also design.
What that says is that in the heat of things, reading the fine print does not always happen. It should not be surprising that Israelis can fail at that too.
In all, there are still questions of fact and principle, and they should be answered. The incident should be addressed in public and formally and the answers finalized. The crew and ship's complement should receive public apologies from their own government, and from Israel, if not also directly from the attacking crews (compensation to victims, and an apology to the US government has already been made). And the Pentagon should follow through on the Liberty veterans' request for a war crimes investigation.
Even if it is just to clarify the kind of errors that took place.
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"Add to that this recent classic photo of Israel's chief of staff looking (repeatedly) through binoculars, with the lens caps over the lenses"
Peretz isn't the chief of staff.He's the defence minister(who is usually a politician,not a military man).
The Chief Of Staff actually has the binoculars put on the right way(the guy to the left)
Posted by: Saim at June 5, 2007 07:14 PM
Interesting. I actually just happened to read, an hour ago, a part of Robert Fisk's new autobiography (The Great War for Civilization; a surprisingly good read so far, given that I'm normally no fan), where he talks about a somewhat similar incident in the Iran-Iraq war. An Iraqi jet rocketed a US ship, the USS Stark, causing 37 killed (note: a couple more than on the Liberty).
According to Fisk, who turns disturbingly polemical, the US was not interested in making a fuss about this, but instead started shifting the blame towards Iran, for carrying the moral responsibility etc etc, even though Iraq confessed and apologized (in a teary-eyed letter by Saddam personally, no less). There were disagreements about whether the ship was inside what Iraq had proclaimed a no-fly zone, or not, and some conspiracy theories were making the rounds about this being a botched attempt to frame Iran; it seems the thing was never investigated properly, partly because of Iraqi restrictions on investigators.
Fisk thinks it really was an error, and tried to find the pilot after 2003, but with no luck. He's mostly interested in the US reaction to the incident, seeing it as basically sweeping 37 dead under the carpet to save an undeclared ally from embarrassment. Looks like he's right on that count -- it would certainly be in the headlines still today (or today especially), had Iran been responsible.
It's page 267 and onwards in my hardback English edition, if anyone's got the book. Also some on Wikipedia, with links to the US report. I haven't read that, and I won't, but for Liberty buffs who want to move on, tafaddal.
Posted by: alle at June 5, 2007 08:04 PM
Posted by: Tom Scudder at June 5, 2007 08:53 PM
What possible motive would make risking a shooting war with the United States, armed with nuclear weapons, while it is one's chief supporter in a war one is winning? ...It had better be a damn good one, speculative or otherwise, and most likely, an obvious one if it so big.
Perhaps this bit from p. 367 of Leo Rosten's The Joys of Yiddish will shed some light on Israeli military motivations, though sadly it was much more apt when the book was first published in 1968 than it is now:
"The Israeli Cabinet was discussing the endless and seemingly insoluble problems that Israel confronted...Whereupon one member of the Cabinet said, 'I have an idea. Let's declare war on the United States!'
His colleagues looked at him incredulously. 'Declare war on the United States? Israel? Are you crazy? A war like that would last half an hour!'
'Exactly,'said the minister. 'And the United States, having won, would do what she always does: rebuild the vanquished country, build roads, harbors, hospitals; lend money, give free aid, send food, remodel everything! What better fate for us than to be beaten by the United States?'
'But,' said a cynic, 'suppose we win?'
USS Liberty Incident (along with many other military misadventures) is something that I'd been deeply fascinated by for a long time. I will say that Matt's account is probably one that's closest to my own suspicions: military tends to attract (and to a degree, encourage) shoot-first-ask-questions-later types. They often make mistakes and shoot the wrong people at the wrong time--which are seized upon by their enemies as evidence of unspeakable atrocities (a prima facie example of this is the Rape of Belgium during World War I, where stupid although tragic actions by trigger-happy German conscripts fed the British propaganda machine for years.) Their superiors try to cover up their actions because letting the mistakes become public knowledge would risk undermining the prestige of the military--a big no-no in countries where military virtues are extolled over civilian ones, like Imperial Germany or modern day Israel (and, I'm most saddened to see, the present day United States). Yet, the cover up gives the air of something much more sinister and planned...feeding even more conspiracy theories. I've always wondered how much of various Balkan "atrocities" in recent years were really mistakes of this sort--not too unlikely considering many militiamen were probably drunken undisciplined louts with automatic weapons.....but this is a digression, of course.
Saim -- will correct asap, thanks. Pedantry welcomed on this type of topic.
Posted by: matthew hogan at June 6, 2007 02:25 AM
There really is no direct evidence of any Israeli foreknowledge of the identity of the ship.
Are you suggesting here solely its American identity? It would be reckless under any conditions to attack a naval vessel sailing in international waters without some effort to establish its flag.
One interesting fact also: no credible Israeli has come forward saying "we knew what we were doing, hitting an American ship" etc.
Weak ground here. The stakes involved, i.e. fatal damage to Israeli interests among the US public due to unprovoked murder of American sailors, would be awfully higher than the outing of the odd spy, no? If the evidence for motive and intent is plausible, then Israeli contrariness is a weak counter argument.
The general tone of incredulity is also weakened by the notion that the US would have ever, for whatever reason, abandoned or attacked Israel. The Israelis could have sunk an aircraft carrier and nothing would have happened.
Coming relatively close to the Gulf of Tonkin incident, an 'unprovoked' attack on US warships in international waters that led to what was already an unpopular war, I further doubt the US government's inclination to assert deliberate intent. people were wondering why North Vietnam would provoke the US into a war. Apparently they did.
This is a super job. But I can't help but cringe a little when my Persian friends remind me of how the USS Vincennes, an ultra-modern ship with state of the art electronics, managed to mistake a commercial Iranian airliner for a military fighter and shoot it down in Iranian airspace killing hundreds, including dozens of children.
The US and Israel are always afforded the "Hey, shit happens" defense, while the darker skinned versions of humanity get to glow in the dark.
Posted by: jr786 at June 6, 2007 07:52 AM
Are you suggesting here solely its American identity? It would be reckless under any conditions to attack a naval vessel sailing in international waters without some effort to establish its flag.
No, the very opposite, that it is clearly culpable, probably criminal, negligence.
Me: One interesting fact also: no credible Israeli has come forward saying "we knew what we were doing, hitting an American ship" etc.
Comment -- Weak ground here. The stakes involved, i.e. fatal damage to Israeli interests among the US public due to unprovoked murder of American sailors, would be awfully higher than the outing of the odd spy, no? If the evidence for motive and intent is plausible, then Israeli contrariness is a weak counter argument.
I only advance the lack of a leak as a supportive indication of the absence of a preplanned attack on an American ship. The absence of evidence IS evidence of absence (just not conclusive evidence), contra Rumsfeld, and whoever thinks otherwise is at war with common sense.
Generally controversial things leak over time, through inadvertence, gossip, carelessness etc. Hard to keep a hot secret. Things embarassing to Israel's core policies - nuclear secrets, role in forcing out Palestinian refugees, cruelty of the occupation, attacking friendly countries -- do leak out and have leaked out. Something like the Liberty incident, where there were dozens of Israeli witnesses and alot of reason to assume not all involved would have agreed to the action, or even have been disciplined enough to keep it under wraps (ordinary soldiers and sailors), something would have slipped out by now.
But also you are reversing the burden of proof in the overall analysis. Plausible theories are not evidence, just cool things to think about. Advancing the idea that Israel would act counter to apparent interest requires very hard proof, not merely plausible explanation.
And Israel still did have reason to fear a strong US response. Nuclear-armed planes nearly did arrive. 11 years earlier the US came down hard in response to an attack on Egypt (in 1967 the sentiment was quite different). The overt and quite deadly attack on a US military target still has repercussions today.
Most important, assuming Israel felt so safe in its status that it could attack an American ship with impunity, there is certainly nothing the ship could have found out in the first place that would not have been able to be hushed up through use of the same popularity, without an attack on the ship.
In other words, if one felt safe enough to sink a shipful of American sailors, one would also not be too worried worry if that ship had discovered plans to attack Syria, or picked up indications of an anti-Arab atrocity, or needed to trick the US into siding against Egypt by sinking a ship.
Posted by: matthew hogan at June 6, 2007 06:53 PM
I see your points. However, I can also see how the investigations could lead a person to cry foul.
For example, on P. 33 (i.e. the pdf number, not the actual doc) visibility is reported at 10 miles, while the ship's position is 13 nautical miles from the coast. From this position, it can 'visually sight' the minaret at Al-Aria but somehow cannot identify a jet flying at 5,000 feet at a distance of 3-5 miles. Not even with an electronic signature? This a US Navy intelligence gathering ship in a war zone, btw.
For no other reason than being in 'the current situation and shallow water' (13 miles from the coast) the Captain decides to destroy superceded intelligence materials. Why? Seems like a strange order to give under less than pressing circumstances. Besides, the attack began with the ship at 25.5 miles from shore, even though the report states that the ship had been cruising at 5 knots. The Israelis believed that it was an Egyptian ship that had been shelling their troops. A battleship might reach a range of 26 miles; even if it had been at 13 miles, the position of the ship at first sighting, that would be far out of range of the Egyptian ship's guns.
More interesting is page 34 where Terry McFarland, the manual morse code operator is...what? Whatever he was doing is boxed out from the document (with the exception of some names, I think it's the only place where the box-out deletion occurs).That was at c1400. In the Israeli review it states that at c.1420 the Israeli torpedo boat commander asked the ship to identify itself and received a signal in return: "Identify yourself first". What kind of signal? In what language? Even in Morse code the question of language applies. Curious.
Numerous questions emerge from even a cursory reading. The JCS asks: Was there any SIGINT reflection from the ship? That's an important question that's never answered. Almost 50' elapsed between the attack and an order from 6th Fleet to assist the ship. Where's the ship's radio traffic? I could go on but there are certainly enough question to warrant a complete investigation, as you suggest. Seems like a case of 'single bullet' theory or Occam's Razor. The real maguffin, I think, is the preoccupation with all the lost intelligence material.
Posted by: jr786 at June 7, 2007 11:41 AM
"I see your points. However, I can also see how the investigations could lead a person to cry foul."
Absolutely, which is why there should be a public definitive one in the US.
I do think, though, that you are applying too much thinking. The incident has far more indications of sheer glandular-induced and communications-relay stupidity than complex calculations.
(Personally, my suspicion (glad to retract if wrong) is that the torpedo boats' commander had a psychological point-to-prove related to past performance with an Egyptian ship, and saw a golden opportuity to be part of an historic already-mythic Israel victory, but in which the Israeli navy was an orphan so far. So he disregarded orders to double-check, shot first, and asked questions later, and only pro-forma ones at the time.)
Posted by: matthew hogan at June 7, 2007 12:28 PM
I´ve never doubted that it was a heat of the moment accident on the part of the Israelis. My point in including some of the curiosities was to call attention to what seems to be a bit of an anomaly, namely the ship's position. Simply stated, my own suspicion is that the ship was a lot closer than 13 nautical miles to the coast at the moment it was first buzzed by Israeli aircraft. Either that or the minaret at Al-Ahia is pretty damned tall. And yes, I could think of a lot of reasons why the US would want to deny that the ship was closer than that. The Israelis shot up the ship, so they took the complete fall.
Two years ago I spent quite a bit of time examining the de-classified NSA report on the Gulf of Tonkin incident, in which ships' positions remains a question mark, as it later would with the Pueblo, for which we have another two years to wait before declassification.
My point is that it wasn't just Israeli negligence. The simplest explanation for what turned out to be a series of accidents and mis-communications started with the ship being inside territorial waters.
Posted by: jr786 at June 7, 2007 01:07 PM
"My point is that it wasn't just Israeli negligence. The simplest explanation for what turned out to be a series of accidents and mis-communications started with the ship being inside territorial waters. "
That wouldn't surprise me totally and I should add it to the list of questions, if not implied already.
At the time, in 1967, if one reads the newspapers the "Liberty cover-up" referred more to the nature of the ship (at that time publicly said to be a "research ship" investigating the possibility of evacuation of American citizens (tee-hee-hee)) and some questions about where it was exactly.
I do think the Israelis would hammer the point more clearly if it had been in Egyptian territorial waters more definitively. My understanding, perhaps wrong, is that it was outside of Egyptian waters sailing in a circle and heading southwardish toward Egypt at the time of first attacks.
Of course, alot of questions hang on what the US told Israel in terms of warning about the ship; otoh the US didnt want to have to inform foreign governments what its spies were up to in presumably legitimate areas.
Now, come to think of it, that kind of makes sense why the US, at least then, would not pursue the investigation more deliberately (aside from the close political US-Israeli ties) as it might reveal some dangerous carelessness and rule breaking -- especially as a US ship in Egyptian waters would give less deniability to Arab claims of US supporting Israel directly, and in violation of Arab sovereign space.
It would also explain why the US ambassador to Egypt asked the Secy of State for an explanation and "it had better be a good one" as to why the Libery had been torpedoed not far from Egypt's shore.
(OTOH-- there are real time transmissions of Liberty distress messages).
Posted by: matthew hogan at June 7, 2007 01:31 PM
"In the Israeli review it states that at c.1420 the Israeli torpedo boat commander asked the ship to identify itself and received a signal in return: "Identify yourself first". What kind of signal? In what language? Even in Morse code the question of language applies. Curious."
I do believe that was generally agreed to have been an exchange of Aldis lamp-type visual signals, the content of which is still hotly debated I think.
Posted by: matthew hogan at June 7, 2007 01:34 PM
In a bit of a hurry at the moment but later will calculate what the height of the minaret would have to be in order to be visible at 13 nautical miles, given the curvature of the earth and all.
Posted by: jr786 at June 7, 2007 01:56 PM
For the geographic range, you can use this table as a shortcut: http://www.vulcanonline.org/georange.php3
Given the stated distance of 13 nautical miles (about 24 km) the minimum height of the minaret would have be about 45 meters. I used two methods to calculate and got more or less the same result.
The report states that the ship used the minaret as a navigational aid, meaning that more than just the very top was visible, I should think. I used the formulas to solve for the height of the minaret, of course, and 45 m certainly is reasonable, at least in my experience. If it's substantially less, than the distance given, 13nm, is incorrect. All depends on the actual height of the minaret then.
Posted by: jr786 at June 8, 2007 09:03 AM
Don't forget to factor in the height of the observer on the ship, if you haven't already. That allows the minaret to be shorter but still visible. An observer 6 meters off the ground would see the tip of a 45m minaret 20nm off (at least according to the table I linked). This assumes very clear visibility, so that's also a factor.
Note that the BBC is featuring a story June 8 on the long controversy around the bombing of the USS Liberty. Looks like many are finally more willing to examine the attack and the motivations, perhaps especially as Bush may be preparing something similar to justify US or Israeli bombing of Iran.
I disagree with the author, there is no way this attack was not deliberate.
The Liberty was twice as big as the Al Qasir and had a completely different outline. It was one of the few ships in the world that had such anarray of antennas and to include the huge dish antenna on the rear part of the ship. The Egyptians had nothing like it. The Israelis knew all about the Egyptian Navy.
Prior to the attack Israeli reconnissance aircraft had flown over the Liberty repeatedly at fairly close range, our guys waved at the plane.
The Egyptian do not mark their ships with hull numbers the way we do. The recon planes were close enough to see the hull numbers. The sea was calm, the numbers would not have been obscured by waves. The ship was not making enough way to cause a bow wave to obscure the numbers.
The Liberty crew states that their flag was clearly visible when the Israeli fighters attacked. That it was not hanging limply. The day was clear. the Israeli planes could clearly see that the ship was (A) Way bigger than anything they knew was in the Egyptian Navy (B) Possessed of a antenna array that was extremely unique, very obvious and not like anything in the Egyptian Navy (C) Had hull numbers not like anything in the Egyptian navy (D) Was flying a large visible American Flag - I believe the crew (E) Was not behaving like a ship at war (IE moving at high speed, zigzagging, trying to get away from the coast) or doing anything that an Egyptian ship could reasonably be expected to do given Israel's total air supremecy at the time
The Liberty crew reported electronic Jamming as soon as the attack occurred. To Jam someone's radios you must first find the frequency and listen in. There is no way that the Jamming of the Liberty's distress calls could have occurred without the Jamming station having listened in to identify frequencies first. People just don't randomly Jam parts of the spectrum for the hell of it.
When the Israeli Torpedo boats attacked, the Liberty sailors reported seeing 5 torpedo wakes, one of which hit the ship. The Israeli torpedo boats were designed to carry four torpedos but likely were only carrying two because of the excess top weight caused by carrying extra guns. It is likely tha the Israelis fired six torpedos and that one either malfunctioned or its wake simply wasn't seen. This is the most plausible explanation for why the Israelis didn't try to torpedo the Liberty again prior to closing to engage with gunfire. They were most likely simply out of torpedos.
According to the testimony of the Liberty crew, the torpedo boats then closed to within a hundred or so meters and POURED machinegun and automatic cannon fire (20mm and 40mm) into the Liberty. The boats traveled at a relatively leisurely pace to give their gunners a more stable platform. The Israelis shot at anyone on deck and at anyplace on the ships superstructure that looked like it might be holding people. They shot at men trying to launch life rafts and at the life rafts themselves. Numerous witnesses from the crew attest to this.
The withdrawal of the PT boats is co-incidental with the final success of the Liberty in getting a distress call out and the response that the Saratoga was sending planes to help.
Too much for me to swallow as a friendly fire incident. An accident? BS! More like a botched assasination.
To compare this incident to a friendly fire incident in 1991 where a US fighter plane killed some Brits in armored vehicles is ludicrous. There were literally hundeds of armored vehicles in that desert and very few terrain features. The pilots in that incident were at fault to be sure, but it's hardly the same thing as attacking a single ship in the ocean.
Furthermore the ferocity of the attack on the Liberty belies Israeli naval history. In 1956 they captured a fully functional Egyptian destroyer on the high seas after it was disabled in a gun battle with Israeli ships. If the Israelis would do that for a destroyer why was their attack on a supposed "Horse carrier" so overwhelming? The ship was obviously unarmed to any practical purpose, why not just capture it, or attempt to. You can always sink it if it resists. The Israelis had total air superiority as well as PT boats that both outgunned the old freighter and could literally run rings around it. So why the attack like it was the battle of Midway? The ship, if Egyptian, was theirs for the taking.
Sorry, there is just no way the Israelis did not know that this was an American ship.
But I agree with the author of this on one point. There needs to be a REAL investigation of this - as opposed the plethora of whitewashes that have occurred to date.
CDR McGonagle getting his MoH in the WA Navy Yard. That was a goddamned disgrace. Talk about the best traditions of the Naval Serice - DON'T GIVE UP THE SHIP!! - that guy set the standard. He deserved better from his government.
Posted by: martin at June 8, 2007 11:34 PM
There was a long and intense scholarly debate over the USS Liberty over at H-Diplo circa 2000-2001 which you can access here:
key word "USS Liberty"
Posted by: zenpundit at June 11, 2007 11:33 AM
Thanks for that link, may add an update.
Posted by: matthew hogan at June 11, 2007 12:17 PM
Wow, you sir, are a liar and a tool of the Israeli/neo-con propaganda machine. I hope no one listens to your drivel.
Posted by: Alex at June 13, 2007 05:53 PM
"you sir, are a liar and a tool of the Israeli/neo-con propaganda machine. . . ."
Thank you, thank you, thank you. If you are for real, it's been decades since I heard anything like that even remotely directed at me.
Except the "tool" part, I've been called that countless times by itself.
Posted by: matthew hogan at June 13, 2007 07:10 PM
A more serious answer for you shortly, perhaps in an update entry. I do think I addressed most of your points, however, the one on jammming is worth pursuing from the experts and the details.
In any event, the Liberty veterans' filing of the war crimes memo certainly should be responded to and acted on; as well, Congress should open up all these issues.
It is disgraceful that there is no public hearing on an attack by multiple forces of a foreign country that inflicted casualties on a US navy ship engaged in lawful presence. Error or done with foreknowledge, they need their "day in court". And the Navy Yard award of the Medal of Honor (in fairness the Navy Yard is a major historic naval place, but still) was a slap.
And where were the Israelis at the memorial events this weekend?
Posted by: matthew hogan at June 13, 2007 07:36 PM
I suspect it was a series of mistakes, which always seems improbable unless one considers how many things are going on, and how many things can go wrong. Armies attack the wrong targets all the time. I think friendly fire injury ratios in war are typically 10 to 15%. Recently in Afghanistan, a US pilot bombed and killed a group of Canadian soldiers, and this is an era with computerized maps, instant communication, clearer zones of action and during a far less desperate one-front war.
As well, the US's close relationship to Israel is quite recent, and although allied at the time, it is quite possible there was intelligence info and details that was not being shared (ie the location and design of the ship).
Either way, I don't think it deserve a congressional hearing, simply because there are so many pressing current matters that the US is not dealing with - including a very large number of questionable activities being performed by the executive branch.
Got to take issue with you here, "The US and Israel are always afforded the "Hey, shit happens" defense"".
a) If you mean we are letting Israel off the hook here: It just doesn't make any sense that they would do it on purpose, unless you assume that they are just evil and malicious. Even then, why would they stop the attacks? Wouldn't they just keep attacking until all the Americans/witnesses were dead. Israel has never shown any interest in attacking the US.
b) If you mean Israel was let off the hook too easily by the US, it's extremely common for allies to do that. Neither the UK nor Canada caused any sort of incident about the US's recent accidental killing of their soldiers.
Everyone's who has looked at military history knows that accidents happen. Indeed, it would be really unusual if the only thing people did perfectly without any mistakes whatsoever was to wage war.
Posted by: Dan at July 1, 2007 03:22 PM
A good analysis Mr. Hogan. I am one to look dimly upon conspiracy theories, mainly because they fail at their foundation in that they posit a level of competence from the product of group thought that has no basis in reality. Conspiracy Theories are often enabled by officials after the fact attempting to cover their bare asses, and their incompetence to achieve this provides fuel for the theories.
Case in point: a contributing factor in The WTC-7 collapse was very probably Giuliani's 5th floor emergency command center's basement fed diesel electric generators, which fueled a fire for 5 hours on the fifth floor. Even the very good Popular Mechanics 911 conspiracy theory debunking article danced well clear of the topics who, what and why when they discussed the fifth floor of WTC-7:
-- -- [
"...a fifth-floor fire burned for up to 7 hours. 'There was no firefighting in WTC 7,' Sunder says. Investigators believe the fire was fed by tanks of diesel fuel that many tenants used to run emergency generators. Most tanks throughout the building were fairly small, but a generator on the fifth floor was connected to a large tank in the basement via a pressurized line. Says Sunder: 'Our current working hypothesis is that this pressurized line was supplying fuel [to the fire] for a long period of time.'
Yet nobody wants to upset the image of Giuliani, and the theories persist.
One area I do feel you omitted is the possibility of an Israeli fighter pilot cowboy being the cause. Neither the U.s. or the Israeli governments would be likely to publicly admit this, if it were true. Bamford's description (I believe in The Puzzle Palace, but I could be wrong) of the incident seemed to place a lot of his belief in it being deliberate in the differences between a rusting Egyptian horse carrier and a modern US Intelligence gatherer, which I believe can be explained by the bare ass covering I mentioned earlier. Not necessarily indicative of prior intent, but instead a lame attempt to cover-up stupidity.
Posted by: PseudoCyAnts at July 2, 2007 02:09 AM
I.m behind on a promised followup, but quickly --
for pseudocyants --
The point on the fighter pilots is sort of key to what I am saying, the only reason I give the torpedo ships priority is that Israeli sources claim that the ships first reported spotting the Liberty; it all might be that the planes did first. Either way the hotrodding shoot first mentality was there though the torpedo ships did the most damage and probably had the closeness to be the most responsible for the errors and the largest damage.
I agree on other priorities for Congressional investigations but the bottom line is that the Liberty may be the most decorated crew percentage wise, suffered the worst post WWII damage and has a lot to teach future events. Most important, the sailors need to get it off their chest.
I dont like calling the "foreknowledge" theory a conspiracy theory because it is not a knee-jerk/prejudiced/paranoid leap of conspiratorial faith to assume that an attack by two separate organized military forces over a space of time on the same target, an espionage center, might not have command level decisions at the root.
Posted by: matthew hogan at July 2, 2007 05:14 AM