During the 4th day of Israel's conflict with Egypt (known as the Six Day War), on June 8, 1967 a United States intelligence gathering vessel, the USS Liberty, was attacked by Israeli warplanes and torpedo boats. After a brief exchange of fire from both sides, Israelis suddenly ceased their attack and Israeli torpedo boats moved in to extend help to the Liberty's crew. Sadly, 34 crew members died and 171 were wounded. The Israelis immediately apologized to the U.S. for the attack and assumed full responsibility in which they stated the Liberty was mistaken for the Egyptian vessel El Quesir. Millions of dollars were paid in compensation by Israel to Liberty attack victims, their families, survivors and the U.S. government itself.
Not only did a 1967 U.S. Navy Court of Inquiry investigate the Liberty attack, but five other investigations took place afterwards in which each concluded that the event was a friendly fire incident. Despite the formal inquiries and the conclusion they came to many conspiracy theories came about many of which, unfortunately, continue to this day. One alleges that Israel attacked the Liberty in order to distract the U.S. from its planned attack on the Golan Heights (which the Johnson Administration was said to oppose). Another theory states Israel attacked the vessel in order to drag the United States into the country's conflict with Egypt in which the country would blame the Egyptians for the attack. Author James Bamford went so far as to claim that Israel attacked the Liberty so as to distract from their armed forces slaughtering Egyptian prisoners in Sinai. The theory most articulated by conspiracists is that not only were Americans on board were killed in cold blood but the U.S. government covered the affair up in order to appease the Israeli lobby.
Both the U.S. and Israel released a host of declassified information related to the Liberty attack. The ship's commanding officer, Captain William McGonagle, placed the vessel within its assigned destination of approximately 13 miles of the Egyptian coast line in order for NSA staff on board at the time to monitor Soviet communications with the Egyptian military. Multiple communications were transmitted to the Liberty to withdraw to at least 100 miles from the Egyptian shore. Unfortunately, due to a mishap with the Six Fleet's communication apparatus the messages to withdraw ended up in the Philippines and did not reach the ship until the day after the Israeli attack. Prior to the incident, the Sixth Fleet's command declined a request by the Liberty's skipper for a destroyer escort since it was determined the vessel was in international waters and would not be the subject of any threat or danger. The United States also declined a request by the Israeli ambassador during the outbreak of the Six Day War to coordinate communications between the two countries and Israel was not informed of the Liberty's presence.
At 11:24 A.M. an Egyptian rocket attack was conducted on an Israeli arms depot at El Arish. Israeli forces saw the U.S.S. Liberty from a 20 mile distance assuming it was an Egyptian vessel and incorrectly concluded the rockets hailed from the ship. Israeli forces did confirm the identity of the Liberty at 5 a.m. that morning, unfortunately, the information Israeli military personnel had on hand that would have informed those assuming their duties for the morning shift were not communicated to the ones taking over. Consequently, an attack was immediately ordered at 1:51 p.m. in which both Israeli jets and torpedo boats engaged. Evasive maneuvers were conducted but, unfortunately, they were not enough for the Liberty to escape the gun fire of the planes nor the torpedoes launched from Israeli ships in which each attack was within approximately 20 to 30 minutes of the other. Despite heavy smoke eminating from the ship one Israeli torpedo boat commander saw the markings of the Liberty after ordering his vessel to get closer. Upon concluding the Liberty was American in origin he ordered a cease fire and communicated an offer of help and medical attention.
Like I explained earlier, the USS Liberty attack was the subject of six inquiries conducted by the U.S. military and Congress combined. Audio tape transcripts introduced as evidence during the U.S. Navy's investigation clearly indicate that during both air and sea attacks the Israelis did not know they were attacking an American ship but immediately disengaged within minutes when they did. The ship was attacked within minutes not hours (as some conspiracists claim) and that combat at high speeds and long distances make positive identification very difficult. In all of the testimony and facts acquired in the declassified material about the case from both Israel and the United States there is no evidence to support the accusation nor any alleged motive that Israel purposely attacked the Liberty.
It makes no sense that a smaller, less powerful country would attack another whose military is larger in size and scope. Admittedly the United States was neutral during the Six Day War but both countries considered each other allies. Furthermore, in addition to the ship not having any Hebrew linguists on board, there was a nine hour gap between the first sighting where the ship was positively identified and when she was attacked. It would have given the vessel's crew that amount of time to relay any information of alleged wrong-doing by the Israeli military in which IDF could have jammed any transmissions from the Liberty prior to the attack which was conducted in broad daylight.
While the deaths and injured Americans on the ship were tragic, if the evidence is considered carefully the attack on the Liberty was nothing more than a case of mistaken identity. One of many that unfortunately do happen during war. For example, two days before the Liberty incident Israeli jets accidentally attacked an IDF convoy near Jenin in the West Bank. A day before that IAF jets bombed IDF Sherman tanks in the battle for Jerusalem while just hours before the Liberty attack a column of IDF Sherman tanks was mistakenly attacked by Israeli jets. During the Suez War of 1956, Israeli forces attacked the British destroyer the HMS Crane which was misidentified for an Egyptian Z-class destroyer. In 1988 a U.S. Navy vessel erroneously shot down an Iranian jet airliner killing 290 passengers while on patrol in the Persian Gulf. Let's not forget the most infamous case of friendly fire was the tragic death of Pat Tillman during the invasion of Afghanistan in which the U.S. Army unsuccessfully tried to cover up the reasons for his untimely demise.
Like any other conspiracy theory, such allegations not only cannot stand up to factual scrutiny but are telling of the people who transmit them. I also think that many of the surviving members of the ship who have jumped on the Blame Israel First bandwagon do so in order to not only obtain publicity for their miserable existences. James Ennis, for example, was a crypto officer on the ship and wrote the first book on the Liberty attack but that does not mean he was in any better position to know the true intent of the Israelis. I think the remaining, living Liberty crew members twist and distort the truth about the incident hoping to pressure politicians for money and benefits similar to how Vietnam war veterans brow beat members of Congress into doling out entitlements linking an ever expanding list of illnesses (including lung and prostate cancer) to exposure to Agent Orange.
Like the old saying goes, facts are stubborn things and I am sure there are still many questions about the attack on the USS Liberty that may never be answered. I also have no doubt that the facts may never satisfy doubters of the official story. But facts don't stop conspiracy theorists from using the Liberty incident to benefit off of the fears and outrage of others. The lie in and of itself of about Israel intentionally attacking the Liberty is nothing more than that and a continued slander not just of the country but one of many ways anti-Semites use such incidents as a method to degrade the Jews and demonize their homeland.
The 45th anniversary of the incident commemorated last month and in the future should be used to honor the service and memory of those who lived and died that day in 1967. It should also serve as a reminder not only of the tragedies war but that the truth, and not conspiratorial lies, should prevail in terms of the details about actual events.