After 36 years, survivors of the Israeli attack on the USS Liberty still seek a fair hearing

Originally posted: Jun 27, 2003

(–An anniversary of a terrible American tragedy passes every year, mostly without notice. That won’t continue much longer, however, if some of the survivors have their way.


Now in their 50s, 60s and 70s, survivors of the June 8, 1967 attack on the USS Liberty, a United States Navy intelligence ship, want more attention and closure brought to the incident. The ship was attacked off the coast of Gaza by the Israeli military. It was the fourth day of the Six Day War, also known as the Arab-Israeli War, fought to secure the state of Israel in Palestine.

The day ended with the murder of 34 American sailors and the wounding of 172 others. To date, the not-so-friendly fire reflects the largest peace-time casualty toll for any noncombatant U.S. naval vessel.

The United States was an ally of Israel then and is now. Yet, Israeli jets and gunboats, on a sunny afternoon, fired cannons, launched torpedoes and shot bullets for 75 minutes, according to published reports, leaving observers astonished that the assault on a practically unarmed vessel did not sink her to the bottom of the sea.

Thirty-six years later, survivors are still calling for congressional hearings regarding this tragedy, although Israel has apologized, the U.S. government has accepted, and some financial compensation has been paid.

The Liberty’s Seaman Signalman Joe Meadors is one who doesn’t believe Israel’s excuse, that the U.S. vessel was mistaken for an Egyptian ship.

“Are you trying to tell me that Israeli intelligence is so inept that they couldn’t tell the difference?” asked Mr. Meadors. The then-20-year-old, now 56, was on his second tour of duty with the Liberty at the time and recalled for The Final Call from his Corpus Christi, Texas home what happened on that fateful afternoon.

“We had just secured our gear from a General Quarters drill, when one of the officers watching the surface-search radar noticed some high speed blips coming within our radar range very low. We knew by the height they were aircrafts, so we ran up to the signal bridge to watch what we thought would be just another routine circling of the ship. We saw these aircrafts circle us all the time,” Mr. Meadors explained.

“We saw some jets come up on our starboard side just a mile or two out, then they got just ahead of us, then suddenly peeled off to the left and started firing on us,” he said.

Mr. Meadors suffered shrapnel injury and said the psychological impact will stay with him for life. He received $200 in compensation for his injuries.

He told The Final Call that what might be needed to move the issue forward is the impaneling of a federal grand jury, because of the strong Jewish lobby and the complicity of congressional members and U.S. senior officials, past and present, in its cover-up.

“A war crime has been committed and there is no statute of limitation on murder. If we can get a federal prosecutor who is willing to convene a grand jury to investigate, that might be the way to go,” he said.

“Nearly as bizarre as the attack itself, was the reaction of the American government to the incident,” said author and intelligence expert James Bamford.

He penned “Body of Secrets,” a history on the National Security Agency (NSA), and offers an analysis of the early afternoon attack in his book. He concluded that the assault on the Liberty was not an accident, but deliberate.

“A virtually unarmed American naval ship in international waters was shot at, strafed with rockets, torpedoed, set on fire, then left to sink as crazed gunners shot up the life rafts. The foreign nation then says, ‘sorry about that’ and offers an explanation so outrageous that it is insulting, and the American government accepts it, sweeps the whole affair under a rug, then classifies as top secret nearly all details concerning it,” he said. A total of 821 shell holes were counted in the ship’s superstructure and hull.

Mr. Bamford, until recently, served as Washington, D.C., investigative producer for ABC’s “World News Tonight with Peter Jennings” and in the past has written investigative cover stories for New York Times Magazine, Washington Post Magazine, and Los Angeles Times Magazine. He speculated with The Final Call in an earlier interview, that the ship attack was because of its ability to intercept messages and the possibility of the vessel’s discovery of the butchering and slaughter of civilians and prisoners bound by the hundreds by Israel Defense Forces (IDF), just 12 or so miles away.

“A fact that the entire Israeli army leadership knew about and condoned, according to the army’s own historian,” he said.

Israel claimed that it was the inability to identify the vessel as belonging to the U.S. and confusing it with an Egyptian war ship that led to the deadly assault.

The six-day battle ended June 10, 1967. It was the third war between Israel and its Arab neighbors. A ceasefire was reached on June 9 by the UN Security Council and Israel was provided with the Sinai Peninsula, east of the Suez canal.

With the establishment of a Jewish state came the defeat of the combined armies of Egypt, Syria and Jordan, but today the war for existence in the region still persists.

For more than three decades, crewmen of the Liberty have waged a campaign for an investigation. According to critics, both governments have performed extensive damage control to keep the tragedy out of the public’s eye. Each side of the debate has as many supporters as the other and thousands of letters over the years have been written to congressional leaders.

Jim Ennes was a young 34-year-old lieutenant on the bridge of the vessel when the attack began. He was the first struck in the onslaught and remained hospitalized for more than a year with a fracture and shrapnel throughout his body. Now 70 and residing in Woodinville, Washington, Mr. Ennes’s recollection of events, as well as his sentiment over the attack and America’s response to its servicemen have not been tempered.

“If they (Israel) had compensated for the deaths and injuries and then said, ‘Yes, we did this on purpose and this was a terrible thing to do,’ that’s one thing. But, to pay us off and continue to lie about it and get half the (U.S.) government to lie with them, there is no excuse for that,” Mr. Ennes said.

The U.S. government received $6 million in compensation for the $40 million vessel. The servicemen or their families received anywhere from $50 to $300,000 for death or injury, with some receiving full disability benefits. Some believe that should be the end of inquiries into what happened.

“The survivors of the USS Liberty are still struggling with the fact that their story has never been heard,” former Georgia Congresswoman Cynthia A. McKinney said last year on the House floor of the U.S. Congress. As one of her last acts, upon the anniversary of the attack in June 2002, Ms. McKinney pleaded the case for survivors demanding an investigation.

“This unprovoked attack took place in international waters, and by a trusted ally. The only explanation given to the survivors and their families as to why this attack took place was that it was an accident and that their ship was not identified as being American, regardless of the fact that our flag was proudly flown throughout the attack.

“Unfortunately, that explanation is not good enough for those whose lives have been impacted by this attack, and it should not be good enough for the American people. É We owe them more than a debt of gratitude for their sacrifice; we owe them the truth,” she appealed. [Ms. McKinney faced fierce opposition from Jewish lobbies who financed her successful opposition in last November’s election.]

In a call to the State Department, The Final Call was referred to the department’s web site. One of the postings quote the Secretary of Defense responding to a question of whether there would be a congressional inquiry into the incident.

“I guess the short answer is, I doubt it,” Mr. Rumsfeld said. “My recollection of it is that there’s no question, but that a weapon that came from an Israeli platform did, in fact, do the damage on that American vessel. How it happened, I simply do not know.”

As of late, an impressive number of former American officials have gone on record insisting that the Israeli action was, in fact, deliberate. These include Adm. Thomas H. Moorer, who was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS) at the time of the Liberty incident. He has labeled the episode a “cover-up,” adding that he “cannot accept the claim by the Israelis that this was a case of mistaken identity.”

Paul C. Warnke, then under-secretary of the Navy, has expressed his discontent, as well as former Secretary of State Dean Rusk and David G. Nes, who at the time served as deputy head of the American mission in Cairo, Egypt.

George C. Ball, then under-secretary of State, called the U.S. response to the assault an “elaborate charade. É American leaders did not have the courage to punish Israel for the blatant murder of its citizens,” he said.

“They’re getting older and they are either retired or retiring and don’t want to go to their Maker with this lie on their conscience. I’m waiting on Robert MacNamara (former U.S. defense secretary) to be on his deathbed and give a confession,” Mr. Meadors said regarding why these people were now coming forward.

“We thought it was pretty conclusive before, but now we have almost every senior official of the National Security Agency saying, ‘You’re right,’ and that really helps our case,” Mr. Ennes said.

An honest investigation?

Many inquiries have occurred over the years, including a full Israeli court of inquiry. However, none found any proof that Israel knowingly attacked an American ship. They found that evidence produced by these investigations only cement Israel’s claim of innocence and regret.

“After 10 official U.S. investigations (including five congressional investigations), there was never any evidence that the attack was made with knowledge that the target was a U.S. ship. There is substantial evidence the attack was a tragic mistake caused by blunders of both the U.S. and Israel. Eight U.S. presidents–Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, and Bush (Jr.)–have each accepted the conclusion that the attack was a tragic case of mistaken identity,” commented Federal Judge and retired U.S. Naval Reserve Captain A. Jay Cristol, author of, “The Liberty Incident: The 1967 Attack on the U.S. Navy Spy Ship.”

Based on his doctoral thesis, the book relies on declassified documents and more than 500 interviews with U.S. and Israeli political and military leaders involved in the incident. They include former Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, Admiral Isaac Kidd and former Israel Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was the IDF chief of staff at the time.

The book has been roundly condemned by Liberty crewman survivors as a largely Israeli-sourced treatise, in which the author concludes that the majority of the survivors have a political axe to grind in Washington.

When asked by The Final Call whether he thought the case would ever receive a congressional forum, Mr. Ennes conceded that the possibility of that was grim.

“I don’t think it will go anywhere, because the Congress is too connected to the Israeli lobby to let anything happen. The only place where we will ever be heard and gain support is in the public,” he said.

(For information on the survivors of the USS Liberty, visit