Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Israeli Pilots Knew US Spy Ship Was American Before 1967 War Attack

Israeli air control twice told pilots during the 1967 Six Day War that a U.S. spy ship they were attacking was American, according to a new book on the USS Liberty affair.

Israel has always claimed that the June 8, 1967 attack on the spy ship Liberty, which killed 34 U.S. Navy sailors and wounded another 170, many seriously, was a case of mistaken identity, a "tragic accident."

But according to "The Attack on the Liberty: The Untold Story of Israel's Deadly 1967 Assault on a U.S. Spy Ship," by James Scott, Israeli pilots who radioed the Liberty's hull number to their air controller were told two times that the spy ship was "probably American."

Nevertheless, Israeli fighters jets and torpedo boats continued to attack the spy ship, which was flying an American flag and plying international waters as it monitored Israeli and Egyptian radio traffic during the June 1967 war.

Israel's goal in the brutal air and sea assault on the Liberty was twofold, says Scott, whose father served on the Liberty: to prevent the spy ship from learning about Israeli troop movements, and to kill anyone aboard who could later identify the attacking aircraft as Israeli.

Despite Israel's eventual annihilation of Arab forces in less than a week, in its opening hours and days the outcome of the war was far from certain.

And Israel could not be certain of American support in those days.

Only 11 years earlier, in the Suez Crisis of 1956, President Dwight D. Eisenhower had forced Israel to call off a planned attack on Egypt with French and British collusion.

Some published accounts have suggested that Israeli wanted to prevent the U.S. from intercepting its radio traffic about an ongoing massacre of Egyptian troops in the Sinai, or from eavesdropping on the Israeli command's instructions to ready its nuclear weapons in case the war went badly.

But Scott says he never found any corroboration for either theory.

Israel never wavered from its stance that the attack on the Liberty was anything but a mistake, although angry U.S. officials had quickly concluded it was deliberate.

Besides repeatedly raking the defenseless ship with cannon fire and bombs, Israeli jets also dropped napalm on American sailors running about the deck trying to save the ship, reports Scott, an award winning former reporter for the Charleston Post and Courier.

"There clearly were individuals inside Israel's chain of command who knew this was an American ship in time to prevent the fatal torpedo boat attack that left more than two dozen of the Liberty's sailors dead," Scott says.

Yet the Israelis informed Johnson administration officials that they were innocent -- and outraged by such suggestions.

That prompted the State Department's number two official, Nicholas B. Katzenbach, to summon Israel's ambassador Abraham Harman, Scott writes.

"The secret memo of the meeting," Scott writes, "declassified 33 years later, records Katzenbach telling the Israeli ambassador" that Tel Aviv's initial protest "contains some statements they might find hard to live with if the text some day became public."

Nevertheless, the American protest remained muted. President Lyndon B. Johnson didn't want to alienate Jewish Americans who were prominent supporters of his civil rights agenda, especially when many were already deserting him over the Vietnam war.

"The beleaguered president, anxious to retain Jewish support and refocus on Vietnam, couldn't afford the domestic political controversy," Scott writes.

Katzenbach told him in an interview, "It was no helping getting a lot of people angry at the Israelis.

"If the Israelis screw up the relations, then the Jewish groups are going to bail out the Israelis. It ends up with a more difficult situation than you would have otherwise," Katzenbach said.

Years later, an Israeli pilot who participated in the Liberty attack, Yifta Spector, told Scott he'd like to apologize personally to his father.

Scott told his father to come to Israel, where he was conducting research for the book. They met the pilot outside of his house on a dusty street corner in a Tel Aviv suburb, Scott said.

"He stuck out his hand and said, 'We came within 300 meters of each other.'"

"I'm sorry," the old pilot told his father.

"That's all my father wanted to hear for all those years," Scott said.

"Just somebody who would say they were sorry."

Sources: Spy Talk Blog

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