On June 8, 1967, the USS Liberty, an electronic surveillance vessel, was steaming in international waters off the coast of Egypt. The Six-Day War was raging, and Israel was headed toward an unequivocal victory over the Arab Coalition.
It was a clear day, with good visibility. Without warning, Israeli military aircraft attacked the Liberty with rockets, machine guns, and napalm. Approximately 30 minutes later, three Israeli motor torpedo boats attacked, launching five torpedoes. Four missed, but one torpedo exploded against the hull of the Liberty, killing 25 of her crew.
These are indisputable facts.
And that’s about where agreement ends. What is known as the USS Liberty incident is still shrouded in mystery. The official position is, and has been since June of 1967, that the attack was a terrible mistake. Years later, Israel did pay a small amount as restitution to the families of the 34 killed and 171 injured crew members. And a token payment for damage to the ship was made to the U.S. government.
But the fundamental question—why did this happen?—has never been answered to the satisfaction of the surviving crew members, those in the intelligence community close to the initial reports, and the naval officers involved in the court of inquiry. The fact that the NSA still has not fully declassified all documents only fuels the conspiracy speculation.
Why did the Navy order the crew of the Liberty to never speak about the events, under threat of imprisonment? Why did Admiral McCain order the court of inquiry to complete its investigation within a week of the attack, when a thorough investigation would take 6 months of longer? Why did President Johnson order Naval jets launched from the Saratoga, 400 miles to the west of the Liberty, to return to ship?
There are too many people with first-hand knowledge of the attack—crew members, intelligence officers reading teletype reports of the attack, military crewmen recording intercepted Israeli aircraft communications, and Naval officers involved in the aftermath investigation—who all insist, to this day, that the attack was unambiguously deliberate, to simply dismiss their statements. Many of these individuals have repeatedly called for a comprehensive and independent investigation to set the record straight.
Even if you disbelieve the firsthand reports, it is incredulous to think that the Liberty could be mistaken as anything other than a U.S. Naval vessel. She was flying an American flag (Israel disputes this, but it just doesn’t make sense that she would be sailed close to a war zone and not have her flag displayed), her hull number was clearly visible, and the ship’s name also visible on the stern.
But why would Israel want to sink the Liberty? And, more troubling, why would President Johnson be unwilling to intervene with every asset in the region to assist the Liberty? Many theories have been put forward. Israel wanted to block the Liberty from intercepting radio transmissions on the eve of the invasion of the Golan Heights… Israel wanted to destroy evidence, possibly collected by the Liberty, concerning a massacre of Egyptian prisoners (this allegation is in dispute)… Israel wanted to draw the U.S. into the conflict by laying blame for the attack on Egypt.
As time passes and those involved in the incident die, and evidence is destroyed or lost, perhaps the truth will never be known with certainty.
To learn more, follow the links in this post. As far as motive goes, I’ve put forward my own hypothesis in my novel, Hunting Savage.