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Unveiling the Attack on the USS Liberty

By Andrew Holliday : Fri, Jan 8, 2010 Share [+]

The attack on the USS Liberty was intentional and mishandled.

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n June 8th, 1967, in the midst of the Arab-Israeli Six Day War, the USS Liberty came under attack by Israeli air and naval forces in an event that would come to be known as 'The Liberty Incident.' The USS Liberty was a technical research vessel of the US Navy charged with collecting and processing foreign communications between Soviet and Arab militaries during the Six Day War. Official government reports from both Israel and the U.S. claim that the attack was non-deliberate and completely accidental.

USS Liberty
USS Liberty (AGTR-5) underway in Chesapeake Bay, 29 July 1967, upon her return
from the Mediterranean Sea. She had been attacked and seriously damaged by Israeli
air and surface forces while operating off the Sinai Peninsula on 8 June 1967, during
the "Six-Day War", and was subsequently repaired at Malta. :: United States Navy

While on a surveillance mission 15 miles off the coast of the Sinai Peninsula, the USS Liberty was attacked by Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) aircraft and motor torpedo boats at about 2 in the afternoon when a torpedo boat commander falsely identified the Liberty as the Egyptian freighter El Quseir. The commander quickly ordered an airstrike on the ship, and following the aerial attack, allowed for torpedo boats to close in and inflict further damage upon the Liberty, leaving a hole 40 feet wide in the hull of the ship. Ultimately thirty-four Americans were killed and 171 Americans wounded in the attack. Israel later apologized for the incident, explaining that its air and naval forces had simply mistaken the Liberty for the El Quseir, a much smaller Egyptian ship, and so the United States found no reason to continue probing such a matter. Several highly disputed aspects of the incident arising from such claims that a US flag was visible on the USS Liberty, the speed and size of the Liberty distinguished it from most ships native to the local waters of the area, and distinct ship markings on the Liberty's hull made it a clear U.S. vessel, have continued to stir however, making the unveiling of such a tragic "accident," to this day, all the more necessary.

For anyone, especially
trained IDF Naval Officers,
to mistake a refitted cargo
ship like the USS Liberty for a
ship capable of shooting shells 20
miles to El Arish is unbelievable.

ccording to the survivors of the Liberty, the ship was "flying the Stars and Stripes before, during, and after the attack except for a brief period when one of the flags was shot down and replaced with a larger flag." In an official US Navy Court of Inquiry, the Israeli pilots responsible for the aerial attack denied seeing a flag though America survivors claimed that the flags were visible due to clear weather. The Court concluded that due to the lack of wind and slow speed of the Liberty (5 knots or 6 mph), simply flying the flag may not have been enough for fighter pilots from the air to identify the flag's colors. In 2003 however, 42 years after the attack, it was noted in the Moorer Commission which took place on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. that "new evidence of intercepted radio communications between attacking Israeli pilots and the Israeli War Room, recorded by a U.S. Navy EC-121 spy plane, in which the Israeli pilots report seeing Liberty's American flag flying, had been collected by investigative author James Bamford — for 9 years the Washington Investigative Producer for ABC's World News Tonight with Peter Jennings". Such a report reveals that the Israeli pilots had, 42 years earlier, lied to the US Navy Court. In addition, and this is hypothetically speaking, even if the pilots were unable to see the flag in full because of the ship's speed and lack of wind, the torpedo boat officers, at sea-level, should have had no problem with properly identifying the ship before commencing an attack. As trained naval officers, they would have had adequate training in at-sea ship identification and therefore should have been able to identify the Liberty. To counter this reality, Israeli officers involved in the attack made another questionable claim — that after receiving reports that El Arish was under artillery fire from the sea, which was when the Israeli Central Coastal Command sent three torpedo boats to investigate, the torpedo boat officer had reported that the Liberty was moving at 30 knots (approx. 35mph/55kph) upon changing course headings — so as to justify the Israeli fleet's suspicion of (and, therefore, attack of) the U.S. vessel. This goes against previous evidence found by the US Court of Inquiry, however, stating that the Liberty was traveling at a languid 5 knots (approx. 6mph/9kph) and had kept a steady course westward. Interestingly enough, disregarding both reports, the USS Liberty's top speed was officially recorded by the Navy to be around 18 knots, therefore invalidating both the torpedo boat officer's claim and the U.S. Court's claim.

USS Liberty/El Quseir Ship comparison

In further defense, Israel claimed that the USS Liberty and the El Quseir, the Egyptian freighter they thought they were attacking, were not very distinct from each other. This claim stems from the fact that the USS Liberty, like the El Quseir, was a civilian freighter before it was refitted for military service. Upon closer examination however, it is clear that the USS Liberty and El Quseir were clearly distinguishable from each another. The most obvious difference is the size of the two ships; the El Quseir was 83 meters long whereas the USS Liberty was 139 meters long. The size difference alone should have made the IDF realize that a mistake had been made. Additionally, the El Quseir's on-deck apparatus such as smokestacks and pole-masts were slanted backward whereas the USS Liberty's apparatus were vertical, making the distinction between the two ships furthermore noticeable. Again, while the pilots could have mistaken the USS Liberty for the Egyptian ship from certain angles in the air, the torpedo boat captains were knowledgeable IDF naval officers who should have been able to realize their error, thus preventing the attack. And considering the fact that the initial reason for the Israeli boats' dispatch was to investigate an unidentified 'enemy' ship that was possibly shelling El Arish from the sea, for anyone, especially trained IDF Naval Officers, to mistake a refitted cargo ship like the USS Liberty for a ship capable of shooting shells 20 miles to El Arish is unbelievable.

Furthermore, the USS Liberty had very distinct markings on her hull. In large letters were the symbols "GTR-5" which identified the USS Liberty as a National Security Agency (NSA) intelligence vessel on the morning of the attack. Having knowledge of a US ship in the area, the pilots of the Israeli fighter bombers should have double checked to make sure they weren't attacking an ally. According to the Clifford report which was directed by Chairman of the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board, Clark M. Clifford, "the Liberty's U.S. Navy distinguishing letters and number (GTR-5) were painted clearly on her bow." Also in the report was the statement that "the Liberty's name was clearly painted in English on her stern... [and so] the ship's configuration and her standard markings were clearly sufficient for reconnaissance aircraft and waterborne vessels to identify her correctly." If the ship's markings had been clear and legible as stated in the Clifford report, the officers aboard the torpedo boats should have been able to identify the USS Liberty as an American vessel before commencing such an attack, especially since the El Quseir would have had written on its hull, letters in Arabic.

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