The crime took place on June 8, 1967 during Israel's "Six Day" war against Egypt, Syria and Jordan. On the third day of the conflict Israeli forces launched a two-hour air and naval attack on the USS Liberty which was in international waters 14 miles off the coast of Egypt. At least a dozen unmarked Israeli aircraft dropped napalm, and shot 30 mm cannon shells and rockets into the ship over a period of a half hour. Then an assault followed from torpedo boats involving torpedoes and machine gun fire. 34 Americans were killed and 172 were wounded.
The attack on the Liberty began at 1358 (military time). The Liberty was the most sophisticated intelligence ship in the world in 1967 and the first thing hit after the gun mounts were the antennae and the bridge. Nevertheless the radio operator managed to send this distress signal from Captain McGonagle: "Under attack by unidentified jet aircraft, require immediate assistance." Eleven minutes later the USS Saratoga acknowledged receiving the message and Captain Joseph M. Tully ordered 12 F-4 jets and other refueling aircraft to go to the assistance of the Liberty and informed Sixth Fleet Commander Admiral William Martin. The planes were about 40 minutes away. They wouldn't have arrived in time to stop the air attack, but could have prevented the torpedo attacks in which the majority of sailors were killed. Yet within minutes after launch an order came down from the flagship, the USS Little Rock, to recall the planes. There's an account that it was done on orders from Defense Secretary Robert McNamara.
Sixth Fleet carrier division commander Lawrence Geis transmitted the message to the Saratoga to recall the planes, but he also told Captain Tully to prepare to launch planes 90 minutes later. At 1450 the order was given to send another group of rescue planes and at 1545 they took off. At 1639 McNamara ordered the recall of these planes. Reportedly Geis demanded confirmation of that recall order from the next higher up in the command, President Lyndon Johnson. Johnson confirmed it and told him that he would not have his allies embarrassed.
The reports about what McNamara and LBJ said are from an account by Liberty intelligence officer David Lewis who said he met privately with Geis after Liberty survivors had been rescued. He said Geis had wanted to assure him that the Saratoga had tried to help. Geis died in 1980 so he can't confirm Lewis' account, but surely there are records about these messages and orders about what went on that day in the Sixth Fleet buried in Navy files.
What would be the charge against McNamara? He denied aid to American troops when they were under deadly attack and as a result 20 some men died and many more were injured. I'm no lawyer, but I've been told that the applicable crime is treason.
There's also the matter of obstruction of justice for ordering a cover-up. There was a hasty Naval Court of Inquiry set up to find out what happened to the Liberty. The senior legal counsel for the court was Captain Ward Boston. Admiral Isaac Kidd was president of the Court. In an affidavit signed on January 9, 2004 Captain Ward (now retired) swears that, "Both Admiral Kidd and I believed with certainty that this attack was a deliberate effort to sink an American ship and murder its entire crew. I am certain that the Israeli pilots that undertook the attacks, as well as their superiors who had ordered the attack were aware that the ship was American. I know from personal conversations I had with Admiral Kidd that President Lyndon Johnson and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara ordered him to conclude that the attack was a case of mistaken identity' despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary."
The evidence that the attack was deliberate does seem "overwhelming". Here are some of the facts featured in a 2004 report by the Independent Commission of Inquiry into the Israeli Attack on the USS Liberty that concluded the attack was no accident.
· Israeli planes had observed the Liberty for eight hours before the attack
· June 8 was a clear day with unlimited visibility
· Survivors testify that a 5 by 8 American flag was flying all day on the Liberty until it was shot away and replaced by an even larger flag.
· The flag was flying in a 12-knot breeze for most of the afternoon.
· The Liberty's five American radio channels were jammed during the attack. The Egyptian military did not broadcast on those frequencies.
· The Israelis machine-gunned the three life rafts the crew put out when it appeared the attack had let up. (This would assure there would be no survivors).
· The Israelis claimed the Liberty had been mistaken for an Egyptian ship. However the Egyptian ship, a 1920's era horse carrier was a quarter the size of the Liberty
Who was this Independent Commission? Its chairperson was Admiral Thomas Moorer (Ret.). Moorer had a storied career. He was one of the first pilots off the ground during the attack on Pearl Harbor. In his long career he held posts of chief of the Pacific fleet, later chief of the Atlantic fleet and eventually Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The other members of the commission were General of the Marines Raymond G. Davis, former Assistant Commandant of the Marine Corps, Rear Admiral Merlin Starling, former Judge Advocate General of the Navy and Ambassador James Akins, former U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia. You could hardly ask for more expertise.
A last line of defense for those who claim that the Israeli attack was an accident concerns the question of motive. Why would Israel attack its "only friend in the world"? Well, for one Israel had plenty other friends. Recall it had fought a war in '56 alongside Britain and France without US support. Though it does seem quite mad for Israel to purposely attack the US that doesn't mean it didn't happen. Some theorize Israel wanted to sink the Liberty and blame it on Egypt as a way of getting US support, a supersized version of what their agents did in Cairo during the "Lavon Affair". Others think Israel wanted to cover up its plans for a ground attack on Syria. So let's find out. Even 40 years later a thorough investigation could come up with most of the truth.
If the Congress had any gumption it would demand the facts. We give Israel multi-billions a year. Congress could require that our Israeli client allow a team of naval investigators and translators examine internal Israeli military documents. Let them interview the Israeli pilots and commanders involved in the assault. Give the investigators a free hand to review all relevant US records.
Robert McNamara has never suffered a day for his crimes. After leaving the Johnson Administration he was appointed head of the World Bank and he held that post for 13 years. In 1995 he wrote a successful memoir "In Retrospect" and in 2003 was subject of an Academy Award winning documentary. He never apologized for anything, least of all to the men he purposely betrayed on the Liberty.