The Lie that Won’t Die: The U.S.S. Liberty Attack Slander

Israelis may think that Richard Falk is no friend of theirs, but, in a way, they are wrong; the redoubtable professor emetrius of international law at Princeton is arguably one of the better advertisements of the mendacity and unhinged lunacy that pervades the anti-Israel, pro-terror left.

Falk, in 1979, authored one of the true classics of Western useful idiocy, “Trusting Khomeini,” where he decried the depiction of the Ayatollah Khomeini by certain American leaders as “fanatical, reactionary, and the bearer of crude prejudices” as wrong, and added that this was done “in a manner calculated to frighten.”

Then, evincing that matchless precsience for which he has come to be known, he predicted that  “having created a new model of popular revolution based, for the most part, on nonviolent tactics, Iran may yet provide us with a desperately-needed model of humane governance for a third-world country,” and, excoriating the naysayers, asserted that, “To suppose that Ayatollah Khomeini is dissembling, seems almost beyond belief.”

More recently, Falk has become something of a champion in the fever swamps of the left, tagging Israel as an apartheid state, accusing her of genocide, and comparing her to the Nazis. On the 9/11 attacks, he has also argued that “there have been questions raised here and there and allegations of official complicity made almost from the day of the attacks,” and that there are “well-evidenced doubts about the official version of the events: an al Qaeda operation with no foreknowledge by government officials.”

And now, courtesy of Annie Robbins of Mondoweiss, we see Falk speaking last week about the “realities of the Israel Palestine conflict and how it has distorted the American reality,” before the St. Marks Episcopal Cathedral in Seattle, where he added a new talking point on his resume of slanders upon the Jewish state: the attack on the USS Liberty, which occurred 45 years ago last June 8.

Long believed to have been an accident by both Israeli and American experts and higher ups, Falk resurrected this loathsome canard of the anti-Israel left because, in his view it

“…illustrates for me the fundamental distortion of our sense of reality that has been fostered by this disturbing relationship between our government and the government of Israel because this attack on the USS Liberty was a deliberate attack by the Israeli government. It has been well confirmed including by former CIA operatives, [and by] Stephen Green among others, and the reason for this attack was that this ship was listening to the messages between Tel Aviv and the Israeli forces on the Egyptian border. And the Israeli leadership, particularly the military commander Moshe Dayan, at the time didn’t want the US to hear the Israeli plan to attack Syria and occupy Golan Heights. And the US at that time was very nervous about doing anything in Syria because that could easily draw the Soviet Union into the conflict and escalate the situation in ways that were potentially extremely dangerous. So there was a motive for attacking the USS Liberty.


And what I think is really extraordinary about this is that Israel, the supposed closed ally, would conduct such an attack. The ship was well marked and in international waters, but what is more revealing and more disturbing is that the American government would suppress the reality of what happened and engage in a cover-up all these years that was originally ordered by Lyndon Johnson, the president at the time.”

Every word uttered above is a complete and total fabrication, staggering in its mendacity. Of course, lies and fabrications about the attack on the USS Liberty are, and have long been, used as a tool to foment tension and discord between Israel and America on the part of haters and enemies of Israel (including Muslim organizations both here and abroad), so Falk’s remarks were hardly a shock.

Unfortunately, such viewpoints are not confined to the anti-Israel left, and Falk is far from alone in these views. Last Friday, at a Veterans for Peace commemoration in Cedar Rapids, Iowa observing the 45th anniversary of the attack, more than a few stepped forward to accuse Israel of deliberately attacking the ship, and the U.S. of covering it up at Israel’s behest. It was pretty ugly.

Said former Illinois Congressman Paul Findlay, who attended the event, as reported by The Gazette,

Findley, 90, said the planes and boats attacking the Liberty “could not possibly” have been unaware that it was a U.S.vessel. He and others have alleged that Israel meant it to look as though Arab forces had launched the attack; Carpenter told the Courier he thought Egyptwas the source at first.


“There’s been a cover-up mandated from the first hour by (then-President Lyndon Johnson), which every succeeding administration has honored,” Findley said. “The attempted sinking of the ship was followed by an enhanced U.S. relationship with Israel.


“Both sides took part in a deceitful commentary about the attack.”

Later that same day Senator John McCain, while speaking in California, was harassed by hecklers shouting “What about the cover-up for Israel of the USS Liberty?!”

Similar scenes, sadly, were enacted at veterans organizations all over the country.

Why is it so difficult for people who would otherwise have no animus toward Israel to believe the worst when the facts as we now know them today so clearly dictate otherwise?

Here, in any event, is what really happened.

On June 8, 1967, on the fourth day of the Six-Day War between Israel and the Arabs, the USS Liberty, an American intelligence gathering vessel, was strafed and bombed by Israeli Warplanes and then converged upon by torpedo boats in an obvious effort to sink her. After a brief exchange of fire and a torpedo that slammed into the Liberty‘s starboard side, the Israeli vessels abruptly ceased attacking, and extended help and immediate medical attention to the Liberty‘s crew. 34 Americans died and 171 were wounded in the attack. The Israelis, who said they had mistaken the Liberty for the Egyptian warship El Quseir, immediately apologized to the U.S. for the attack, and assumed full responsibility. They would eventually pay some $12 million in compensation to the victims and their families, to survivors, and to the US government.

A slew of American and Israeli inquiries, including a 1967 Navy Court of Inquiry convened in Malta by Rear Adm. Isaac C. Kidd Jr., generally substantiated the Israelis’ explanation that the attack was an accident. But the inquiries also raised more questions than they answered, and these questions were by no means limited to those hostile to Israel; they were also harbored by some of Israel’s strongest supporters in the Johnson Administration. Why did the Israelis attack a neutral ship without provocation? How had they failed to see the Liberty’s flag or the painted markings on her hull after several overflights by their aircraft? How could they confuse the Liberty with the El Quseir?

For the next three decades the absence of satisfactory answers to these questions would help spawn a cottage industry of books and conspiracy theories asserting that Israel had deliberately attacked the Liberty and that the US government had covered it up. And Israel’s motive? It was asserted that the Israelis had done so to prevent the Liberty from revealing their impending seizure of Syria’s Golan Heights, a move that Washington was said to have opposed. It was also asserted that the Israelis may have done so in an attempt to blame the Egyptians and thus draw America into the conflict. Another theory, posited by author James Bamford, asserted that the Israelis attacked the Liberty to conceal a massacre of Egyptian prisoners in the Sinai. The Israelis, all had argued, had thus killed 34 Americans in cold blood and the American government had covered it up, influenced, aided and abetted by the all-powerful pro-Israel lobby, at whose pleasure they serve.

In 1997, the Americans and the Israelis released a bushel of top-secret documents and other evidence in observance of the 30-year declassification rule on the Liberty attack, and these cleared up many of the mysteries that had long dogged the incident. It was shown that despite a warning from the White House to the American Sixth Fleet to keep its ships within a 250 mile arc from the Egyptian coast, the Liberty‘s handlers in the NSA disregarded the order and put the Liberty within 12.5 miles of the coast to eavesdrop on Egyptian military communications with the Soviet Union. Five communications were sent by the Navy’s European headquarters to the Liberty for her to pull back at least 100 miles. However, due to the Six Fleet’s bulky communications apparatus, the messages got diverted to the Philippines and did not reach the Liberty until the day after she was attacked. Furthermore, the request of the Liberty’s skipper for a destroyer escort was denied by the Sixth Fleet CIC on the grounds that “the Liberty is a clearly marked US ship in international waters…and not a reasonable subject for attack.” A request by the Israeli ambassador at the outset of the conflict that the US provide a naval liaison to coordinate communications between the two countries was refused by the US, and thus no one informed Israel of the Liberty‘s presence in the area.

Israeli aircraft spotted the vessel in the early morning of June 8. The pilot could not make out the flag, but spotted a hull marking that read “GTR-5” and the headquarters identified the ship as the USS Liberty. However, with the change in watch in the Israeli HQ at 11:00am, the officers, following standard operating procedure for removing old information from the board, had erroneously assumed that the Liberty had left the area; when the Liberty was spotted earlier at 5:00am she was identified at the further south west end of the control board and headed westward at 15 knots, and it was only natural that they assumed six hours later that she was some 90 miles further along that course by that time, and thus far away from the area encompassed by the control board. When an explosion rocked an Israeli arms depot at El Arish at 11:24am, the Israelis, spotting the vessel in the vicinity,  incorrectly assumed it was an Egyptian warship bombarding them, and sent three torpedo boats to engage it.

Through a series of miscalculations from the motor torpedo boats sent to engage the vessel, including that of the vessel’s speed, the Israelis concluded, from about 20 miles distance, that the ship was an enemy vessel at about 1:51pm. That is when they ordered the first air strike on the Liberty, which they thought to be an Egyptian vessel shelling them.

The skipper of the Liberty then executed a 90 degree starboard turn to the south, eventually turning 283 degrees west. The Israelis, pursuing what they thought was an Egyptian warship heading home, called in for air support, and two Mirage fighters (named air mission “Kursa”), closing in on the Liberty from the west at 1:57pm, raked her with 30mm cannon fire in three strafing runs until their ammo was spent. The first air attack had lasted three and a half minutes.

By this time Commander McGonagle, the Liberty skipper, though seriously wounded, ordered the ship to turn right full rudder 360 degrees to the north. The second air attack (referred to as air mission “Royal”), at 2:06pm, was by a squadron of three Mysteres fighters returning from bombing Egyptian infantry. Hastily recalled from this ground support mission, they raked the Liberty with bombs, napalm, and cannon fire—hardly appropriate ordinance for attacking a naval vessel.

At 2:11pm transcripts of communications between the Israeli pilots and HQ show that during the second strafing run an Israeli pilot recognized the Latin markings on the hull of the ship: “Pay attention! Ship’s marking is Charlie Tango Romeo 5” (i.e., CTR 5—the Israeli pilot in fact misidentified the hull markings; they were GTR-5) and adds, “She looks like a minesweeper.” An air controller named Menachem, Chief Air Controller at Air Control South in the Sinai, then unhelpfully garbled the pilot’s misidentification of the ship’s markings even further as “Charlie Senator Romeo,” i.e., CSR.

When this is reported to HQ, Colonel Shmuel Kislev, the Chief Air Controller at the Kirya in Tel-Aviv, obviously now hysterical with the prospect that they could be attacking a neutral vessel, now screams “Leave her! What ship is this?” He then immediately orders the Royal leader and his wingman to disengage, and cancels the third air attack deployment headed to attack the ship (which was code named flight mission “Nixon,” consisting of two French-built Mystere IV’s armed with 500lb iron incendiaries that would surely blown the Liberty right out of the water, and with all hands). This second air attack had lasted about five minutes.

The Israeli Motor Torpedo Boat (MTB) skipper, Commander Oren, arriving at the scene at 2:24pm, consulted his intelligence manual and, viewing the silhouette of a smoke-engulfed ship some six thousand yards distant and directed westward toward the sun at an elevation of 50 degrees and azimuth 88 degrees, concluded that the ship was the Egyptian freighter El Quseir, and the skippers on the other two torpedo boats reached the same conclusion themselves. Oren attempted to signal the ship, asking for identity; getting no response, he ordered the MTBs into battle formation. At 2:30pm Naval HQ gave the go ahead to attack.

The Israeli MTB’s caught up with the Liberty as a sailor on board her then opened up fire on them with .50 caliber machine guns, not receiving McGonagle’s order not to fire on the approaching craft; the Israeli MTBs then returned fire with 20mm and 40mm cannon, and at 2:35pm fired back torpedoes. Four missed but one hit the Liberty’s starboard side midship, killing 25 sailors.

At 2:41pm the Israeli MTB captain cut off the attack. At 2:45pm the IDF Navy log reads “May be Russian nationality, based on writing on aft”; the Israelis thought they might be attacking a Russian vessel. When the Israeli boat captain got close enough to identify the hull markings of the Liberty, now listing badly, he recognized the Latin markings on the hull, and offered help and medical attention to the survivors at 3:03pm.

These are the circumstances of the attack. What may be inferred from them?

Professor Falk asserts that the Liberty was “well marked and in international waters,” and thus could not have been plausibly misidentified by the Israelis. Is he right?

The 1967 US Navy Court of Inquiry stated that “the calm conditions and slow ship speed may well have made the American flag difficult to identify.”

But let’s say this was not the case, and that there was sufficient wind. Is there any evidence that the Israeli pilots could have known they were attacking an American ship or that they could have seen the flag, even if it were extended by wind? No, there is not.

In the first place the pilots were sent to attack a ship, not to reconnoiter or identify it. Secondly, the strafing runs on the first attack were a head-on attack of the Liberty’s bow. The Liberty was cruising at about five knots westward and the Mirage fighter was approaching it head-on eastward at about 600mph, or at about 1000 feet per second. In the attack run it had 2-3 seconds at most to fire its guns and pull off the target before getting closer than 3000 feet. Was it really possible to positively identify a 5×8 foot flag in the proscribed time of 2-3 seconds (at most), and at the speed of 600mph and a distance of in excess of 3000 feet? Hardly.

Audio tapes transcripts indicate that the Israelis did not know they were attacking an American ship in both air attacks and, five minutes into the second air attack, immediately disengaged when they did.

All available evidence, including IDF Navy logs, indicate that the Israeli boat captain misidentified the ship, then engulfed with smoke, at 6000 yards distance at about 2:30 pm, incurred fire from the Liberty as they approached her at 2:35pm, returned it, cut off the attack at 2:41pm pending further ID, got close enough to identify the Latin hull markings of the Liberty, and offered help and medical attention to the survivors at 3:03pm.

Those are the facts. The air attacks occurred in minutes, not hours, of intense combat at high subsonic speeds and long distances, rendering positive ID difficult to say the least, and the naval attacks lasted about ten minutes from distances of thousands of yards while being fired on, making positive ID also difficult. The only logical inference that can be drawn from them is that the attack was a case of mistaken identity. There is, in all the hundreds of pages of declassified material from both countries, not a shred of evidence to support the contention thatIsraeldeliberately sought to attack and sink the USS Liberty. None whatsoever.

Also, there are many other logical and evidentiary problems concerning the intentional attack theory.

The first is a plausible motive for the Israelis to have knowingly attacked a ship belonging to their strongest ally. On this count, no one has yet produced a plausible motive. The notion that the Israelis attacked the Liberty to conceal a massacre of Egyptian prisoners in the Sinai, as author James Bamford has asserted, or to hide their pending seizure of the Golan Heights from Syria from the United States as Professor Falk has asserted, are both contradicted by a) the absence of any evidence that any such massacre in the Sinai ever took place, and b) diplomatic cables showing that Washington was well informed of the Israelis’ impending attack, and had not objected. Again, there is no plausible motive for the Israelis to have knowingly attacked an American ship.

Secondly, it begs the question why the Israelis, if they had indeed been tracking the Liberty from the early morning to the moment of the attack as many have claimed, would knowingly allow the Liberty into the combat zone, reconnoiter the ship for nine hours, thus giving the Liberty nine priceless hours to relay the very information that the attack was supposed to silence, before finally attacking her in broad daylight. It makes no sense.

Third, even if the Israelis were monitoring the communications of the Liberty as Professor Falk suggests, they would have heard nothing to concern them because they would have known that the Liberty wasn’t even monitoring their communications, as the Liberty had no Hebrew linguists.

Fourth, if the Israelis were monitoring their communications, and heard, or sought to prevent them from hearing, something disturbing, and were able to jam the Liberty’s frequencies, why wouldn’t they have just done that rather than something as dangerous as attacking an American vessel?

Fifth, if it was really the intention to destroy and sink the ship, why did the air controller Col. Shmuel Kislev order the “Royal” air mission to cease attacking at 2:11 pm and scrub the “Nixon” air mission of two Mystere IV aircraft armed with 500 lb. iron bombs? If not cancelled, the Nixon air mission would have reached the Liberty in half the time it was taking the MTB’s, and would surely have blown the Liberty to smithereens with all hands; one 500lb fragmentation bomb to the boiler would have detonated her like a hand grenade. Again, why cancel the mission if the intent was to destroy and sink the Liberty, and kill all the survivors?

The attack on the Liberty, in fact, was a classic case of friendly fire. After winning the battle of Chancellorsville in 1863, Stonewall Jackson was accidentally killed by his own Confederate troops. On the first day of the German invasion of Poland September 1, 1939, a platoon of German soldiers fired their rifles on what they thought to be an enemy plane that had been flying about them, causing the plane to come crashing down into their midst; out stepped a raging Luftwaffe general in charge of ground-air coordination. On February 22, 1940 a German bomber sank two German destroyers in the North Sea, killing 578 German sailors. During the 1956 War the Israelis attacked a British destroyer, the HMS Crane, that it had mistaken for an Egyptian Z-class destroyer. The largest tank battle of the 1956 War occurred at Abu Ageila where two Israeli tank units fought each other to a standstill. On June 5, 1967 The IAF bombed a column of IDF Sherman tanks in the battle for Jerusalem, and did so again on June 8, just a few hours before the attack on the Liberty. Many, many more instances could be cited.

(Note to the reader: Part II of this article is published here.)

About the Author
Robert Werdine lives in Michigan City, Indiana, USA. He studied at Indiana University, Purdue University, and Christ Church College at Oxford and is self-employed. He is currently pursuing advanced degrees in education and in Middle Eastern Studies.