The U.S.S. Liberty was suddenly and deliberately attacked on June 8, 1967—a date that should live in infamy—by naval and air forces of the state of Israel.  Although the lone vessel, conducting surveillance in international waters, identified herself as an American craft—as if the 12-foot-tall and soon-to-be-shot-up Old Glory were not enough—she withstood a sustained attack by Israeli fighter jets and gunboats that strafed and torpedoed the Liberty, killing 35 and wounding 170 of her crew.  (The crew’s 70-percent casualty rate included seamen shot as they loaded the wounded into lifeboats.)

Curiously, President Lyndon B. Johnson ordered that the attack be designated “a case of ‘mistaken identity’ despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary,” according to the senior legal counsel to the Navy’s investigation of the incident.  An affidavit from (retired) Capt. Ward Boston, released at a Capitol Hill news conference in late October, broke 36 years of silence ordered by his superiors.  (The publication of Jay Cristol’s The Liberty Incident, an “insidious attempt to whitewash the facts,” was too much for Captain Boston to stomach.)  His affidavit was released along with the corroborating findings of an independent commission consisting of retired military men (e.g., a chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff) and a former ambassador to Saudi Arabia, James Akins.  The commission wants the official naval report rescinded, a new court of inquiry convened, and, for the first time, congressional investigations.

Ever since her crew endured successive barrages of Israeli rockets, bullets, and napalm, the Liberty’s surviving crewmen have been joined by many high-ranking government officials (though never while in office) in claiming that an atrocity had been covered up—first, by President Johnson; later, by Milquetoast congressmen. 

This situation has spawned speculation.  The attack occurred during the Six Day War, and the Liberty’s surveillance from off the coast of the Sinai Peninsula may have proved nettlesome for the Israelis, who evidently monitored the ship’s communiqués with Washington.  Perhaps, as the commission’s report suggested, Israel intended to sink the ship and to blame Egypt in order to bring the United States into the war—a tactic that would have been similar to the Mossad’s demolition of U.S. installations in Egypt in the 1950’s, which it made appear the work of Cairo in the hope of destroying U.S. relations with the new Nasser government.  (The Liberty’s captain, William L. McGonagle, received the Congressional Medal of Honor for heroically saving the ship from destruction, though he was presented it by a minor official in a private ceremony instead of at the White House by the President—the only such case in the last century.)  Yet, until the attack is fully investigated, any speculation will remain just that.

After a speedy investigation conducted in private, the Navy found “no evidence that the attack was deliberate.”  However, such crewmen as James E. Ennes, Jr., the officer on deck on the day of the attack, have called the inquiry a vehicle for a cover-up.  Although Ennes was “the only officer who personally witnessed most of the pre-attack reconnaissance,” which lasted around five hours, with Israeli pilots flying low enough to exchange waves with the sailors, “my testimony,” he says, “along with that of other key officers, lookouts, and vital witnesses whose testimony pointed toward a deliberate attack, was kept out of the official record.”  Furthermore, the U.S. government accepted at face value Israel’s explanation that the two-hour-long attack in daylight was a mere accident: No one in the Israeli armed forces was ever questioned by Americans nor, for that matter, taken to task back home.  Especially exasperating to military men is that Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara and President Johnson never had to explain why they personally recalled aircraft sent to aid the Liberty.  Never before in the Navy’s history had a rescue mission been cancelled when a ship was under attack.

The attack on the Liberty is a scandal that remains unknown to most Americans because of the effectiveness of its cover-up.  Many men who demanded justice—or, at least, a memorial to the ship’s crew—have been accused of antisemitism.  In fact, an examination of the Liberty massacre would justify not antisemitism but a prudential skepticism toward the intentions and goodwill of “our friend and ally, the only democracy in the Middle East.”

At the news conference at the Capitol, one veteran raised a poignant question ignored by politicians who fear the wrath of Israel’s Amen Corner.  Adm. Thomas Moorer, the chief of naval operations in 1967 and later the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, asked: “Why would our government put Israel’s interests ahead of our own?”