The Six Day War in 1967 saw Israel vanquish its Arab enemies in a stunning defeat on land, sea and in the air. There is one event, however, that remains a blemish in Israel’s victory – the attack on the US Navy ship Liberty on June 8.
Israeli warplanes and navy ships strafed and torpedoed the USS Liberty, an American spy ship sailing off the Israeli shores in the Mediterranean Sea, on the fourth day of the war. Thirty-four crew were killed and 170 wounded in the attack. An official US and Israeli investigation determined that the attack was an accident. Israel apologized and paid compensation to the families of the victims.
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But even now, 44 years later, the attack remains the subject of theories purporting intrigue, conspiracies and cover-ups by those who believe the truth as yet to be told.
“The evidence is overwhelming that it was a tragic case of mistaken identity,” Judge A. Jay Cristol, a former US aviator, federal courts judge and author of The Liberty Incident, told The Media Line.
Interviewed on the eve of the publication of a revised edition of his 2002 book, Cristol asserts that newly declassified transcripts and histories prove equivocally that Israel thought it was attacking an Egyptian military supply ship when it ordered its jets and torpedo boats to attack.
The Miami judge has spent over two decades investigating the case. He has tracked down nearly every figure involved in it and fought court battles to win the release of secret tapes of the attack made by the US National Security Agency (NSA).
“The bottom line of the book confirms what [US President Lyndon] Johnson discovered, what the president’s foreign advisory board concluded, the CIA, the National Security Agency, the State Department, the US Navy’s court of inquiry, and several congressional inquires all concluded,” Spector says.. “It was a tragic mistake.”
But some survivors insist that there never was an official US government investigation into the attack.
“I have contacted the historians of both the US House of Representatives and the US Senate. Both told me that they cannot find any reference in the documents available to them of any congressional investigation of the attack on our ship,” says Joe Meadors, president of the Liberty Veterans Association, told The Media Line.
Meadors, who served on the ship at the time of the attack, says he remains “puzzled” by the repeated claims that the US government had conducted an investigation of the attack “given how easy it is to refute by contacting the US government.”
Cristol’s book, however, lists five congressional investigations since 1967. Asked what he suggested was left to uncover, Cristol says he can’t imagine anything.
“I don’t’ think there is anything left to be investigated. It’s all out there. I think the dissemination of the facts is of some value,” he says. “Even Liberty crew members who read my book or became aware of the facts agreed that it was a tragic case of mistaken identity, while other Liberty crew members who have been more or less captured by the anti-Israel side of the issue have called their fellow crew members ‘traitors,’ which I think is very sad.”
One of the most telling, and chilling, parts of the book is a transcript of the Israeli Air Force audiotapes of the radio transmissions made before, during and after the attack. This reporter also heard the tapes of the attack. There are a number of dramatic moments, including jockey calls by a pilot that it would be a "mitzvah" to sink the ship before the Navy arrived and another says it was “easier than MiGs,” a reference to the main type of fighter jet used by the Egyptian Air Force at the time.
The pilots speak only before and after they act. There are full minutes of almost total silence as they stage the attack and racking up casualties.
The pilots of the four jets that attacked the Liberty remained anonymous for decades. One died in 1979 in an aviation accident, and in 2003, one of them agreed to give this reporter an exclusive interview of his impressions from that fateful day.
He is Yitfach Spector, a famous Israeli pilot who went on to become a triple ace, shooting down 15 enemy aircraft, and taking part in the infamous 1981 raid on the Iraqi nuclear reactor. He was finally dismissed from the Air Force in 2003 for signing a letter with other pilots protesting the policy of targeted killings of Palestinian terrorists.
Brig.-Gen. (ret.) Spector says in that interview that the Americans aboard the Liberty were “lucky” he wasn’t carrying any iron bombs otherwise he would have sunk the ship.
“There was a mistake. Mistakes happen. As far as I know, the mistake was of the USS Liberty being there in the first place,” says Spector, who at the time was deputy squadron commander of the 101st and used the code name “Kursa” during the attack.
"I was told on the radio that it was an Egyptian ship off the Gaza coast. Hit it. The luck of the ship was that I was armed only with light ammunition against aircraft. If I had had a bomb it would be sitting on the bottom today like the Titanic. I promise you," Spector says.
Cristol and Spector remain baffled about the persistence of the conspiracy theories that assert that Israel deliberately attacked the ship. Some theories suggest Israel hit the ship because it picked up communications that Israel was about to invade Syria, or was massacred prisoners of war. Cristol suggests it had to do with anti-Israel sentiments.
“There are people who are anti-Israel or who are on the other side of the Arab-Israeli conflict and because the United States-Israel relationship is so strong and so good they find very few ways to attack it. This is one of the focal points on which they like to aim when they are attempting to attack and destroy that relationship,” Cristol says.
Cristol balks at speculation that perhaps the Israeli Air Force had let him listen to tapes that had been tampered with to cut out embarrassing or incriminating transmissions. He says the tapes jive too perfectly with the NSA recordings to be fake.
“It would have been rather difficult for the Israelis, not even knowing of the existence of these tapes, to have created these transmissions that they recorded that coincided with the transmissions which were on the US tapes. It’s pretty clear that the tapes are authentic,” Cristol told The Media Line.
“When I started I was naive. I thought merely collecting the information
and the data and putting it in one place and publishing it would
resolve the problem. But I am sad to say that the anti-Israel people and
the conspiracy people are not interested in the facts. They are only
interested in attacking Israel. They’re not concerned with truth and
they don’t hesitate to tell lies and make false statements for the
purpose of achieving their goal which is attacking the US-Israel
relationship,” Cristol says.
“I don’t know if it will ever go away,” he says.
Despite various inquiries one question has remained paramount on the
minds of Joe Meadors and his fellow survivors: why were we ordered to be
abandoned while still under attack and calling for help? Asked why he
thought the Israelis would attack the Liberty
, Meadors says: “I don’t
know and really don’t care.”