New revelations in attack on American spy ship
Veterans, documents suggest U.S., Israel didn't tell full story of deadly '67 incidentBryce Lockwood, Marine staff sergeant, Russian-language expert, recipient of the Silver Star for heroism, ordained Baptist minister, is shouting into the phone.
"I'm angry! I'm seething with anger! Forty years, and I'm seething with anger!"
Lockwood was aboard the USS Liberty, a super-secret spy ship on station in the eastern Mediterranean, when four Israeli fighter jets flew out of the afternoon sun to strafe and bomb the virtually defenseless vessel on June 8, 1967, the fourth day of what would become known as the Six-Day War.
For Lockwood and many other survivors, the anger is mixed with incredulity: that Israel would attack an important ally, then attribute the attack to a case of mistaken identity by Israeli pilots who had confused the U.S. Navy's most distinctive ship with an Egyptian horse-cavalry transport that was half its size and had a dissimilar profile. And they're also incredulous that, for years, their own government would reject their calls for a thorough investigation.
"They tried to lie their way out of it!" Lockwood shouts. "I don't believe that for a minute! You just don't shoot at a ship at sea without identifying it, making sure of your target!"
Four decades later, many of the more than two dozen Liberty survivors located and interviewed by the Tribune cannot talk about the attack without shouting or weeping.
Their anger has been stoked by the declassification of government documents and the recollections of former military personnel, including some quoted in this article for the first time, which strengthen doubts about the U.S. National Security Agency's position that it never intercepted the communications of the attacking Israeli pilots—communications, according to those who remember seeing them, that showed the Israelis knew they were attacking an American naval vessel.
The documents also suggest that the U.S. government, anxious to spare Israel's reputation and preserve its alliance with the U.S., closed the case with what even some of its participants now say was a hasty and seriously flawed investigation.
In declassifying the most recent and largest batch of materials last June 8, the 40th anniversary of the attack, the NSA, this country's chief U.S. electronic-intelligence-gatherer and code-breaker, acknowledged that the attack had "become the center of considerable controversy and debate." It was not the agency's intention, it said, "to prove or disprove any one set of conclusions, many of which can be drawn from a thorough review of this material," available at www.nsa.gov/liberty.
An Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman, Mark Regev, called the attack on the Liberty "a tragic and terrible accident, a case of mistaken identity, for which Israel has officially apologized." Israel also paid reparations of $6.7 million to the injured survivors and the families of those killed in the attack, and another $6 million for the loss of the Liberty itself.
But for those who lost their sons and husbands, neither the Israelis' apology nor the passing of time has lessened their grief.
One is Pat Blue, who still remembers having her lunch in Washington's Farragut Square park on "a beautiful June afternoon" when she was a 22-year-old secretary for a law firm.
Blue heard somebody's portable radio saying a U.S. Navy ship had been torpedoed in the eastern Mediterranean. A few weeks before, Blue's husband of two years, an Arab-language expert with the NSA, had been hurriedly dispatched overseas.
As she listened to the news report, "it just all came together." Soon afterward, the NSA confirmed that Allen Blue was among the missing.
"I never felt young again," she said.
Aircraft on the horizonBeginning before dawn on June 8, Israeli aircraft regularly appeared on the horizon and circled the Liberty.
The Israeli Air Force had gained control of the skies on the first day of the war by destroying the Egyptian air force on the ground. America was Israel's ally, and the Israelis knew the Americans were there. The ship's mission was to monitor the communications of Israel's Arab enemies and their Soviet advisers, but not Israeli communications. The Liberty felt safe.
Then the jets started shooting at the officers and enlisted men stretched out on the deck for a lunch-hour sun bath. Theodore Arfsten, a quartermaster, remembered watching a Jewish officer cry when he saw the blue Star of David on the planes' fuselages. At first, crew members below decks had no idea whose planes were shooting at their ship.
Thirty-four died that day, including Blue, the only civilian casualty. An additional 171 were wounded in the air and sea assault by Israel, which was about to celebrate an overwhelming victory over the combined armies of Egypt, Syria, Jordan, and several other Arab states.
For most of those who survived the attack, the Six-Day War has become the defining moment of their lives.Some mustered out of the Navy as soon as their enlistments were up. Others stayed in long enough to retire. Several went on to successful business careers. One became a Secret Service agent, another a Baltimore policeman.
Several are being treated with therapy and drugs for what has since been recognized as post-traumatic stress disorder. One has undergone more than 30 major operations. Another suffers seizures caused by a piece of shrapnel still lodged in his brain.
After Bryce Lockwood left the Marines, he worked construction, then tried selling insurance. "I'd get a job and get fired," he said. "I had a hell of a time getting my feet on the ground."
With his linguistic background, Lockwood could have had a career with the NSA, the CIA, or the FBI. But he was too angry at the U.S. government to work for it. "Don't talk to me about government!" he shouts.
U.S. Navy jets were called backAn Israeli military court of inquiry later acknowledged that their naval headquarters knew at least three hours before the attack that the odd-looking ship 13 miles off the Sinai Peninsula, sprouting more than 40 antennas capable of receiving every kind of radio transmission, was "an electromagnetic audio-surveillance ship of the U.S. Navy," a floating electronic vacuum cleaner.
The Israeli inquiry later concluded that that information had simply gotten lost, never passed along to the ground controllers who directed the air attack nor to the crews of the three Israeli torpedo boats who picked up where the air force left off, strafing the Liberty's decks with their machine guns and launching a torpedo that blew a 39-foot hole in its starboard side.
To a man, the survivors interviewed by the Tribune rejected Israel's explanation.
Nor, the survivors said, did they understand why the American 6th Fleet, which included the aircraft carriers America and Saratoga, patrolling 400 miles west of the Liberty, launched and then recalled at least two squadrons of Navy fighter-bombers that might have arrived in time to prevent the torpedo attack—and save 26 American lives.
J.Q. "Tony" Hart, then a chief petty officer assigned to a U.S. Navy relay station in Morocco that handled communications between Washington and the 6th Fleet, remembered listening as Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, in Washington, ordered Rear Adm. Lawrence Geis, commander of the America's carrier battle group, to bring the jets home.
When Geis protested that the Liberty was under attack and needed help, Hart said, McNamara retorted that "President [Lyndon] Johnson is not going to go to war or embarrass an American ally over a few sailors."
McNamara, who is now 91, told the Tribune he has "absolutely no recollection of what I did that day," except that "I have a memory that I didn't know at the time what was going on."
The Johnson administration did not publicly dispute Israel's claim that the attack had been nothing more than a disastrous mistake. But internal White House documents obtained from the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library show that the Israelis' explanation of how the mistake had occurred was not believed.
Except for McNamara, most senior administration officials from Secretary of State Dean Rusk on down privately agreed with Johnson's intelligence adviser, Clark Clifford, who was quoted in minutes of a National Security Council staff meeting as saying it was "inconceivable" that the attack had been a case of mistaken identity.
The attack "couldn't be anything else but deliberate," the NSA's director, Lt. Gen. Marshall Carter, later told Congress.
"I don't think you'll find many people at NSA who believe it was accidental," Benson Buffham, a former deputy NSA director, said in an interview.
"I just always assumed that the Israeli pilots knew what they were doing," said Harold Saunders, then a member of the National Security Council staff and later assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern and South Asian affairs.
"So for me, the question really is who issued the order to do that and why? That's the really interesting thing."
The answer, if there is one, will probably never be known. Gen. Moshe Dayan, then the country's minister of defense; Levi Eshkol, the Israeli prime minister; and Golda Meir, his successor, are all dead.
Many of those who believe the Liberty was purposely attacked have suggested that the Israelis feared the ship might intercept communications revealing its plans to widen the war, which the U.S. opposed. But no one has ever produced any solid evidence to support that theory, and the Israelis dismiss it. The NSA's deputy director, Louis Tordella, speculated in a recently declassified memo that the attack "might have been ordered by some senior commander on the Sinai Peninsula who wrongly suspected that the LIBERTY was monitoring his activities."
Was the U.S. flag visible?Though the attack on the Liberty has faded from public memory, Michael Oren, a historian and senior fellow at The Shalem Center in Jerusalem, conceded that "the case of the assault on the Liberty has never been closed."
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