October 30th, Doha – In 1967, at the height of the Arab / Israeli Six Day War, the Israeli Air Force attacked the USS Liberty, a US Navy spy ship that was monitoring the conflict from the safety of international waters in the Mediterranean. Israeli jet fighters twice identified the ship as American before hitting the vessel with rockets, cannon-fire and napalm, before three Israeli torpedo boats moved in to launch a second more devastating attack.
Though she didn’t sink, the Liberty was badly damaged. Thirty four US servicemen and civilian analysts were killed, another 171 were wounded. Later Israel apologized for what it claimed to be a tragic case of mistaken identity. It said that it had believed the ship to be hostile Egyptian naval vessel. US President Lyndon Johnson was privately furious but publicly the White House chose not to challenge the word of its closest Middle East ally and accepted that the attack had been a catastrophic accident.
However, as this exclusive Al Jazeera investigation will reveal, fresh evidence throws new light on exactly what happened that fateful day and the cover up that followed:
- Exclusive: Audio tapes from Israeli jets, proved Israel identified the USS Liberty as American before its forces attacked the ship in 1967.
- Exclusive: first reveal of the network of pro-Israel agents inside the Lyndon Johnson administration – identified in declassified Israeli documents by codenames – who fed secret information back to Jerusalem and worked to sway the president to cover up the attack on the Liberty
- Sole dissenting voice in the Israeli camp, documents show, was the Ambassador to US, Avraham Harman, who sent a secret cable noting the audio tapes existence, and saying those responsible should be put on trial
- Several of America’s most senior intelligence and State Department officials were convinced Israel intentionally targeted an American ship. Despite those convictions, the US Government, aware of the tapes, and receiving Russian made weapons haul from Israel, deliberately covered up the extent of the attack, and released inaccurate, watered-down reports that exonerated Israel of blame
- A media blackout on the ship and the families was issued, and a team of 300 Maltese workers worked 6 weeks to repair the ship and hide the damage before it arrived back in the US.
The Day Israel Attacked America will broadcast at 2000GMT on Thursday 30th October on Al Jazeera English, and for US audiences 31 October, 10pm EST on Al Jazeera America.
Notes/Audio tape transcript
Al Jazeera’s The Day Israel Attacked America reveals exclusive real time audio tape from Israeli jets on 8 June, proving that Israel identified the USS Liberty as American before its forces attacked the ship. The tapes, broadcast for the first time, shows Israeli forces further confirmed it as an American ship more than twenty minutes before firing a torpedo which killed 25 Americans.
Audio tapes of the Israeli armed forces’ radio traffic on the day of the attack discuss the identification of the vessel before the attack at 2pm:
Pilot: Is it an American?
Second Pilot: How do you mean an American?
Control tower: What’s that you say? No comment.
The ship is bombarded by Israeli jets. The jets pull out. Three Navy Israeli torpedo boats close in..
- Israel confirms ship’s identity again
Pilot: what state does the ship belong to?
Control tower: American
The initial reaction from the US administration in 1967 Government was one of outrage:
Bill Wolle, in charge of the Arab /Israel desk at the State Department in 1967: “I was told urgently to go up to the seventh floor to sit in because The Secretary of State himself, Dean Rusk, had summonsed Ambassador Harman of Israel to come in urgently, so I sat through the meeting taking notes and in a loud voice the Secretary was really demanding some explanation for why and what had happened. The Ambassador himself seemed to be ignorant of the incident. He immediately said ‘I can’t believe what you’re telling me. It would be impossible, it would be unheard of.”
The Al Jazeera documentary further outlines that President Johnson initially leaked to Newsweek magazine that Israel was at fault, triggering a vehement response from Israeli officials and Israel’s supports in the United States. Declassified Israeli documents show they planned to threaten President Johnson with “blood libel,” gross anti-Semitism – unless he moderated his stance and that would end his political career.
Tom Hughes, Director of the State Department Bureau of Intelligence and Research at the time of the Liberty attack, told Al Jazeera: “The fact that Johnson himself was the leaker and briefer of Newsweek was soon leaked. And this alarmed the Israeli Embassy and their leading friends in the Jewish organisations. The Israeli Embassy regarded this as a major problem and that what Johnson had told Newsweek practically amounted to blood libel.”
Israel proceeded to manage the Whitehouse by hiring a teams of lawyers – some of whom were close friends of Lyndon Johnson – and began a campaign to manipulate the President back to a pro-Israel stance. The film reveals for the first time the names of those close advisors who passed on critical US intelligence to Israel.
Tom Hughes: “There was a campaign mounted to see what could be done about returning Johnson to his normal predictable pro-Israeli position.”
The first targeted one of Johnson’s political weaknesses, the growing US domestic opposition to the war in Vietnam.
Tom Hughes: “One of Johnson’s complaints about Israel was that many of the Jewish organizations and the leaders in the Jewish community were opposing him on Vietnam. And they were suddenly becoming more silent on Vietnam as the Liberty crisis moved on, so he also knew that it was a move back in his favour if he was moderate on Israel.”
Second, an Israeli senior intelligence officer delivered to the American military attaché in Israel, Russian surface to air missiles which they had seized in Egypt. This would greatly assist the Americans who were losing planes to those same Russian missiles in Vietnam.
Admiral Bobby Ray Inman, former Director of National Security Agency. “An Israeli military commander] took some helicopters and went across the Red Sea to the surface to air missile sites and not only captured them but took back everything, the launchers, the missiles, the maintenance manuals, the rest of it. And then he went to the US Embassy, to the Attaché and said, ‘I think I may have something you might be interested in” Because those were the same missiles that our aircraft flying over North Vietnam were encountering day to day and counter measures was a huge issue.”
Johnson’s softer approach to Israel was immediately reflected in the post-incident US inquiry, already which had begun onboard the Liberty. It reported in just twenty days. Much key evidence was ignored, no Israelis were interviewed, and in the end it exonerated them from blame. The Israeli government’s own report concluded that the whole affair was a series of mistakes and that no one was to blame.
Admiral Bobby Ray Inman: “I think a conscious decision was made to sweep it under the rug to put it behind. My reading is that the US government had made a decision to accept the apology and reject the rationale but don’t push it further.”
Meanwhile the badly damaged Liberty was taken to Malta for extensive repairs. Over six weeks, 300 Maltese workers toiled around the clock – re-welding and painting over covering the damage caused by hundreds of shells and bullets and fitting new steel plates over the gaping hole in the hull caused by an Israeli torpedo. The ship was then sailed back to the US where it was met by relatives and the media.
Lloyd Painter (Liberty crew member): “We looked like basically nothing really happened. So it was great for the press to downplay what really happened to us.”
But 168 bags of body parts and smashed equipment, recovered from the Liberty shattered interior, were quietly removed from the vessel after it docked, taken to an incinerator and destroyed.
The following year American aid to Israel increased fourfold. And President Johnson agreed to a treaty – classified above TOP SECRET – with Israel for the mutual exchange of intelligence. The arrangement which is still in place today, is code named, STONE RUBY.
Over the 47 years since the attack, successive American administrations, both Republican and Democrat, have refused to deal with why the Liberty was attacked.
Dave Lucas: (Liberty crewmember) “It’s important to not forget what happened and to continue to try to find out why it happened and who made it happen… “When I walk up to the mass grave. I still feel a connection with those people. Hard to explain but it’s still there. I want to remember that connection as long as I can. What we shared. What we felt.”
For interview requests with the Veterans and Government officials featured, and the filmmakers, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org