Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, June 1999, page 62
The Liberty Incident
By A. Jay Cristol, Univ. of Miami, 1997.
Reviewed by John E. Borne
|Another Assault on Assault on the Liberty Washington Report editor’s note: The dispute over the June 8, 1967 attack by Israeli aircraft and torpedo boats on the USS Liberty, a “ferret” electronic intelligence-gathering ship operated for the U.S. National Security Agency by the U.S. Navy, in which 34 Americans were killed and 171 injured, burst into the open with publication of Assault on the Liberty by James Ennes. The author was one of the survivors who were dispersed by the Navy under the threat of discharge from the Navy and imprisonment if they ever discussed their experience. Ennes, a ship’s officer who witnessed the attack from the Liberty’s deck, waited until he had retired from the Navy before daring to publish his carefully researched account, which subsequently has been supported by fellow survivors. Later, The Atlantic Monthly, which follows an Israeli-government line, published an article obviously designed to refute facts in books by Ennes and other authors on the subject.
John E. Borne then published a book based upon his Ph.D. thesis, refuting the Atlantic Monthly article and also including additional facts that had emerged after more people, including U.S. diplomats, retired and broke their silence. A. Jay Cristol then published his own doctoral thesis and sought, despite the new facts to the contrary, to re-establish the Israeli claim that the attack was accidental. For its June 1999 issue, on the 32nd anniversary of the assault on the Liberty, the Washington Report asked Dr. Borne to review Dr. Cristol’s book. The review is printed below.
This is a dissertation at the University of Miami by A. Jay Cristol, a rear admiral in the U.S. Naval Reserve and a federal judge. It is, he states, the result of 10 years work and hundreds of interviews. In this work, Cristol intends to show that: (1) the attack on the USS Liberty was accidental; (2) the attack was brief and little more than a strafing; (3) those who claim that the attack was deliberate are “driven by economic, political or emotional motives” (in particular by anti-Semitism); (4) these opposing theories are not supported by any evidence (my emphasis).
Above all, Cristol does not want the reader to know that this whole topic is subject to debate, with two sides to many of the points discussed.
He begins his argument by stating that there have been 13 reports on the Liberty issue, l0 American and 3 Israeli. All 13, he claims, conclude that the attack was accidental, and together they make a “consensus” on this subject.
In contrast to this “official consensus,” he describes a varied collection of books, articles and speeches which claim that the attack was deliberate. He does not discuss the arguments of these works, but instead examines the motives of the authors. He portrays most of them as “in the Arab camp.”
Cristol is obsessed with the Arab-Israeli conflict and all discussion of the Liberty is subordinate to this. Some time ago James Ennes, a Liberty survivor and author of a best-selling book charging that the attack was deliberate, was negotiating with the editor of Retired Officer Magazine to write an article on the Liberty . Cristol wrote to the editor to oppose the printing of Ennes’ article. He did not dispute Ennes’ facts or logic, but instead said that printing the article would “open up a new front in the Arab-Israeli conflict.”
In dealing with documents related to the Liberty matter, the reader must be wary and skeptical. In many cases the conclusion of a report will contradict evidence in the report. In other cases, the report was later criticized as dishonest or slanted. In all cases the reader should be made aware of these internal contradictions and these criticisms. Cristol does not do this. Instead, he rearranges the data or reinterprets the substance of the investigation or report.
An example of this is Cristol’s portrayal of a meeting of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in July 1967. Then-Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara was testifying, and there was a dispute between him and Sen. Bourke Hickenlooper (R-IA).
If an observer reads the committee transcript, it is clear that the senators all believed that the attack on the ship was deliberate, and did not believe McNamara’s statements to the contrary. During this exchange, McNamara simply lied to the senators, telling them that a Naval Court had concluded that the attack was accidental. (The court specifically avoided any statement about Israel’s motives.) The senators did not realize that McNamara had lied to them.
Incredibly, Cristol rearranges this debate to make it seem that the committee believed that the attack was accidental. He quotes a statement by McNamara, “the attack was not intentional,” as if it were a report from this committee and so lists it in his group of reports. (The committee issued no report.) Cristol speaks of the “friendly questions” from the senators, when in fact all questions were skeptical or hostile. The debate ends with Hickenlooper complaining angrily that it is apparently not possible to get at the truth.
A second example concerns the National Security Agency report of 1981. It is true, as Cristol claims, that the conclusion of the report states that the Israelis mistook the Liberty for the Egyptian ship El Quesir . However, internal evidence in the report is at odds with this conclusion. The NSA men discuss Israeli motives for the attack, and make it clear that they consider the attack deliberate. In addition, the NSA leader wrote “nice whitewash” across the cover of the Preliminary Inquiry, an Israeli report which is part of Cristol’s “consensus.” Cristol never informs his readers of these caveats.
Many of the other reports deal with communications problems, and discuss the Liberty affair only incidentally. None of the reports deal with the accident/deliberate issue as such. Only the Naval Court and the NSA report included interviews with the crewmen. Also, Cristol does not discuss the Salans Report, by the legal adviser to the State Department, who points out the inconsistencies of the Israeli reports. The Salans Report would have marred the smooth picture of “consensus” which Cristol tries to present. Cristol speaks of the hundreds of interviews which he conducted. Only six of these were with the crewmen, and these were brief. He did not attempt to interview such key figures as the radio operator and the signal man.
To make his case, Cristol presents a view of the attack which differs from that of the crewmen in many important respects. In this portrayal he describes only the Israeli view, and the reader has no way to know that he is hearing only one side of a debate.
(1) Cristol says that the Israeli planes circled the ship just before the attack, looking for a flag. Crewmen say the planes came in shooting with no circling.
(2) Richard Sturman, radio operator, says that the ship’s radio was jammed by the Israelis. Cristol does not mention this.
(3) Cristol claims that the attack ended at about 1440. The crewmen all say that the attack by the motor torpedo boats (MTBs) continued for 40 minutes more.
(4) A dozen men testify that they put life rafts into the water to abandon ship, and these rafts were sunk by the MTBs. Crystal does not mention this.
(5) Many crewmen say that there were armed men in the Israeli helicopters which hovered near the ship after the attack. Crewmen believed that these men were there to “finish them off.” Cristol makes no mention of this.
(6) Cristol claims that the flag was drooping, and could not be seen by the Israeli pilots in any event. Crewmen say that the flag stood out in the wind. In particular, we have the testimony of Joe Meadors, the signal man. He states that during a short lull in the attack of the MTBs he was on the bridge and saw one of the MTBs moving slowly alongside the ship, 50 feet away. Israeli seamen were on deck, observing the bridge, and just beyond the bridge was the ship’s flag, flying in the wind.
Such testimony, given under oath, would create a serious problem for the Israelis. Cristol deals with this simply by not interviewing Meadors.
Cristol ends his work with a hope for “closure.” There can never be such closure until all testimony and documents are considered and discussed.
John E. Borne is the author of The USS Liberty: Dissenting History vs. Official History.