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Unfriendly Fire

In 1967, at the height of the Six Day War, Israeli jets strafed and firebombed a seemingly hostile ship near the Sinai coast. Israeli torpedo boats quickly converged to finish the job, then abruptly ceased fire and offered assistance to the battered crew. Israel had attacked the USS Liberty. In all, 34 Americans died, and 171 were injured. Israeli leaders apologized promptly and profusely, explaining that they had mistaken the Liberty for an enemy vessel--an explanation that subsequent investigations in both the United States and Israel upheld. Israel compensated the injured sailors and the families of those killed. And that's where the story should have ended. After all, accidental attacks, though tragic, are common in war. In 1967 alone, "friendly fire" killed 5,373 Americans fighting in Vietnam.

But the controversy over the Liberty attack has endured, generating conspiracy theories, ethnic defamation, and charges of mass homicide. And, although a series of recently declassified documents seem to exonerate the Israelis once and for all, a new book, Body of Secrets: Anatomy of the Ultra-Secret National Security Agency, has resurrected the canard by setting forth what is arguably the most audacious theory of all: that the Israelis deliberately attacked the Liberty to cover up a massacre of Egyptian prisoners of war. Written by James Bamford, a former ABC News producer, and published by Doubleday, the book has enjoyed a largely respectful, and frequently credulous, reception in the American press. Yet Body of Secrets has no more basis in fact than its predecessors. Indeed, it may be the shoddiest screed of all.

The Liberty's fateful voyage began on June 2, 1967, when it set sail from Spain for the Middle East. Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser had just ousted U.N. peacekeepers from the Sinai, blockaded Israeli shipping through the Tiran Straits, and prepared the Arab world for a war of Israel's destruction. A wary White House instructed the Sixth Fleet to stay "outside an arc whose radius is 240 miles from [the Egyptian city of] Port Said." But, according to communications recently released by the National Archives, the Liberty's handlers in the National Security Agency ignored the order and directed the ship to a point just outside Egypt's territorial waters, a mere 12.5 miles, where it could eavesdrop on Egyptian officers and their Soviet advisers. Five subsequent cables from the Navy's European headquarters warned the Liberty to pull back to at least 100 miles, but the Navy's overly sophisticated radio system diverted them to the Philippines, and none reached the ship in time.

Approaching the battle area at dawn, the Liberty's skipper, Commander William L. McGonagle, requested a destroyer escort, only to be reminded by the commander of the Sixth Fleet that the "Liberty is a clearly marked United States ship in international waters ... and not a reasonable subject for attack by any nation." Israel, meanwhile, requested that the United States provide a naval liaison to facilitate its communication with the Navy. Israeli Ambassador Avraham Harman had warned the White House that "if war breaks out, we would have no telephone number to call, no code for plane recognition, and no way to get in touch with the U.S. Sixth Fleet." The United States never approved the liaison, nor did it inform Israel of the Liberty's arrival in the area.

Although it arrived too late to fulfill its original mission--most of Sinai had already fallen to Israel, so there were no Egyptian troops there to spy on--the Liberty nevertheless began patrolling between Port Said and Gaza, in a lane rarely used by commercial freighters and declared by Egypt as off-limits to neutral shipping. On June 8, just before six o'clock in the morning, an Israeli pilot reported finding a naval craft ("gray, bulky, with its bridge amidships") 70 miles west of Gaza. Though he did not report seeing a flag, he made out the hull marking "GTR-5," which was enough for Israeli commanders to identify the ship as the USS Liberty and to mark it as a neutral vessel on their control board. But at eleven o'clock in the morning, the watch at Israeli naval headquarters changed. The new officers, following procedures for removing old information and assuming the Liberty had sailed away, cleaned the board. For Israeli forces, the Liberty had ceased to exist.

It would prove a key error. Less than a half-hour later, Israeli soldiers in the Sinai coastal town of El Arish heard a violent explosion. The cause was probably a detonation in an ammunition dump, but when the Israelis saw a ship off the coast, they assumed it was bombarding them, prompting the Israeli navy to dispatch three torpedo boats. The boats' commanders had standing orders to fire on any vessel going faster than 20 knots--a speed then attainable only by warships--and, miscalculating their target's speed as 30 knots, they prepared to attack.

At that point, the Liberty turned toward Egypt. Worried they would lose their prey, Israeli naval commanders called in the air force. Two Mirages quickly swooped in. Returning from a bombing run, they were armed only with 30millimeter cannons and air-to-air missiles--hardly ideal for attacking a boat. But, failing to see either flags or markings on the ship, they strafed it. Minutes later came a second group of planes, equally ill-suited for a naval engagement: They carried napalm, a weapon used against land targets. But they dropped their canisters anyway, and one set fire to the deck, enshrouding the ship in smoke.

It was at this junction that one Israeli pilot finally recognized Latin, not Arabic, letters on the hull, prompting Israeli air controllers to call off the action immediately. But, thanks to a breakdown in communications--again, a common occurrence in the heat of battle--the order never reached the navy. Israeli torpedo boats caught up with the Liberty just as one of the American sailors on board, heedless of McGonagle's order not to fire on the approaching craft, opened up with a deck gun. The Israeli captain consulted his intelligence manual, concluded that the ship shooting at him was the Egyptian naval freighter El Quseir, and fired back torpedoes. Just one hit, but it killed 25 men. The torpedo boats then closed in and circled the ship, strafing it with machine-gun fire, until the captain of one boat saw "GTR-5" on the hull. He immediately halted fire, extended help to the Liberty, and called for rescue helicopters.

For many years following the attack, these details remained unknown--hidden in classified U.S. documents. And, in their absence, conspiracy theories flourished. The most damning made its debut in 1979, when Jim Ennes Jr., a former officer from the Liberty, published a book, Assault on the Liberty, arguing that the Israelis knew precisely who and what they were attacking. The Liberty's hull was distinctly marked, Ennes wrote, and a large American flag flew from its mast; yet Israeli ships and planes fired anyway. The motive? Israel, Ennes said, wanted to hide its impending conquest of Syria's Golan Heights, an invasion Washington opposed. The fact that the Israelis offered to assist the ship when they could easily have sunk it, or were unlikely to risk conflict with their most important ally, did not daunt Ennes.

Ennes's theory found its way into Donald Neff's Warriors for Jerusalem (a pseudo-history of the Six Day War) and Stephen Green's sensationalist Taking Sides: America's Secret Relations with a Militant Israel. Rowland Evans and Robert Novak took up the charge in their syndicated political column, as did a 1987 special on ABC's "20/20." Joining the cavalcade was Bamford, whose 1982 book The Puzzle Palace denounced Israel for masking its Golan aggression with "a violent act of terrorism" against the Liberty. Former American officials, such as Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Thomas Moorer and U.N. Ambassador George Ball, have endorsed Ennes's theory. By 1995 an article in The International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence could claim that "all serious scholarship on the subject accepts Israel's assault as having been perpetrated quite deliberately." (Ironically, only Arab authors believed the attack was accidental, insisting that the Liberty had actually been spying for Israel.)

Then, in 1997, American and Israeli archives, observing the 30-year declassification rule, began releasing top-secret documents relevant to the case. On the U.S. side, these included the minutes of the Naval Board of Inquiry; communications between the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the White House, and the Sixth Fleet; and internal CIA and National Security Agency (NSA) memoranda. Jerusalem made available the findings of three military investigations and a wealth of relevant diplomatic correspondence. Together, the new sources enabled researchers to reconstruct the precise sequence of events as described above. They also provided one other crucial piece of evidence: Diplomatic cables showed that Israel had informed Washington of its intention to attack Syria and that Washington had not objected--which eliminated Israel's supposed motive for the crime.

So why are we still talking about the Liberty? Because Bamford, in his book, has discovered a new motive for Israel's alleged conspiracy. The day of the attack, he says, Israeli soldiers slaughtered 1,000 Egyptian civilians and prisoners of war near El Arish because they had become "nuisances" to their captors. The Liberty, Bamford goes on to explain, intercepted messages about the murders--and the Israelis feared word of their deeds might leak out. And so, Bamford concludes, they dispatched their armed forces with orders to kill. "[T]he Israelis had massacred civilians and prisoners in the desert," he writes, "and now they were prepared to ensure that no American survived the sinking of the Liberty."

There are a lot of reasons to question Bamford's credibility, starting with his rather curious reading of Middle Eastern history. For example, Bamford says Israel initiated hostilities against Syria and Jordan, when it happened the other way around. There's also the fact that he cites not one shred of evidence to prove that the Liberty ever intercepted a message about the alleged massacre. And then there's the question of whether such a massacre occurred at all. Israel captured more than 10,000 Egyptians in the Six Day War, but there are no known records--Israeli, American, Egyptian, or U.N.--of the Israelis mistreating them, let alone shooting them. Egypt has ruled the Sinai for over 20 years, yet it has never uncovered any mass grave. While there were certainly isolated incidents of Israeli abuses, there's simply no reason to believe the massacre of 1,000 Egyptians ever took place. Indeed, Bamford's evidence on this point, which consists of a few testimonials, falls apart under even light scrutiny.

Consider, first, the statement of Gabi Bron, who today covers the Knesset for Yediot Aharonot, Israel's largest daily. In the book, Bamford says Bron witnessed a massacre of 150 Egyptian prisoners at El Arish, citing a press clipping in which Bron is quoted as follows: "The Egyptian prisoners of war were ordered to dig pits and then army police shot them to death." But the Bron statement refers not to a mass killing of Egyptians but to an isolated incident: the execution of five Palestinian guerrillas who had posed as Egyptian soldiers after killing Israelis. Bamford would have learned this if, instead of relying on a clip, he had actually spoken to Bron, who is easily reachable. "The one hundred and fifty POWs were not shot, and there were no mass murders," Bron told me when I called. "In fact, we helped prisoners, gave them water, and in most cases just sent them in the direction of the [Suez] Canal."

As further corroborating evidence, Bamford cites a statement by Aryeh Yitzhaki, a former historian of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). In the statement--which Bamford also clipped from the press--Yitzhaki talks of compiling a report, which the army later suppressed, on mass killings. "Defense Minister Moshe Dayan and Chief of Staff [Yitzhak] Rabin and the generals knew about these things," Yitzhaki is quoted as saying. "No one bothered to denounce them." But, once again, the source himself contradicts Bamford's interpretation. "In no case did Israel initiate massacres," Yitzhaki wrote me. "On the contrary, it did everything it could to prevent them." Yitzhaki admits that hundreds of Palestinian commandos were killed around El Arish. But that was in combat, he says, after they ambushed the IDF supply columns. Moreover, that battle took place on the night of June 9, more than a day after the attack on the Liberty.

Bamford does cite an anonymous Egyptian who confirms the massacre. But, being anonymous, the source is impossible to verify. In addition, Bamford tries to prove guilt by association--or, at least, proximity--by noting that Israeli troops near El Arish were commanded by Ariel Sharon, the man "indirectly responsible" for the 1982 massacres in Lebanon. But Sharon's divisions were in Nakhle, more than 40 miles from El Arish; the coastal area was under the command of Israel Tal, a man not known for right-wing views.

Finally, Bamford relies on the recollections of Marvin E. Nowicki. Today, Nowicki is a retired political scientist from Southern Illinois University. In 1967 he was a chief petty officer aboard an NSA aircraft spying on Israel. Fluent in Hebrew and Russian, Nowicki was listening to Israeli transmissions on the afternoon of June 8 when another translator mentioned hearing something about an "American flag." The voice emanated from a surface vessel, which Nowicki later deduced was one of the torpedo boats.

Bamford seizes on that as grounds for indictment: "If the Israelis did see a flag, then the attack was cold-blooded murder--like the hundreds of earlier murders committed that day at El Arish." Cunningly, he inserts Nowicki's recollections immediately before his description of the torpedo attack, creating the impression that the Israelis first saw the flag, then fired. Further spliced into Nowicki's account are bloodthirsty quotes from Israeli pilots, as if Bamford were in possession of the spy plane's tapes. But the quotes were snipped, out of context, from a transcript of IDF communications made available to a 1987 Thames Television special on the Liberty. That very same transcript proved that the pilots went to great lengths to identify the ship and took considerable risks to rescue its survivors, whom they assumed were Egyptian.

Nowicki had given Bamford his written testimony in the misguided belief that the author planned to extol the NSA's legacy. That document, provided to me by Judge A. Jay Cristol, a former naval aviator and author of a forthcoming book on the Liberty, unequivocally states: "Our intercepts showed the attack to be an accident on the part of the Israelis." Nowicki explains that the torpedo boats reported sighting the flag after the action had begun and stopped firing immediately. He later reiterated this conviction in a letter to The Wall Street Journal, affirming that "the aircraft and MTBs [Motor Torpedo Boats] prosecuted the Liberty until their operators had an opportunity to get close-in and see the flag, hence the references to the flag."

Having laid out his theory of the attack, Bamford moves on to the alleged cover-up. Following the assault on the Liberty, he writes, American Jewish organizations conspired with the Johnson administration to quash any investigation of Israel. "With an election coming up, no one in the weak-kneed House and Senate wanted to offend powerful pro-Israel groups and lose their fat campaign contributions." No evidence whatsoever is presented to support this slur, which belies Bamford's contention that "critics [of Israel] are regularly silenced by outrageous charges of anti-Semitism."

One would hardly expect such shoddy work to garner serious attention. But it has. Writing in The New York Times on April 23 ("BOOK SAYS ISRAEL INTENDED 1967 ATTACK ON U.S. SHIP"), James Risen relayed Bamford's claims intact, without any attempt to solicit a countervailing view. In The Wall Street Journal, Timothy Naftali lauded Body of Secrets as an "authoritative and engaging book." National Public Radio invited Bamford on the syndicated talk show "Fresh Air," where he accused Israel of committing "massive war crimes" against Egyptian soldiers and civilians. The interviewer, Neal Conan, never challenged him. Indeed, only one critique to date--Joseph Finder's in The New York Times Book Review--dared to question Bamford's sources or the logic of Israel "perpetrating one massacre in order to cover up another."

In his book, Bamford accuses Israel of fomenting "lies about who started the [1967] war, lies to the American President, lies to the U.N. Security Council, lies to the press, lies to the public." But Bamford is the one peddling untruths. And it's time the American press called him on it.

Michael Oren is a senior fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem. His book on the 1967 Six Day War will be published by Oxford University Press in 2002.

By Michael Oren