ATTACK ON THE LIBERTY: TRAGIC ERROR OR PREMEDITATED ASSAULT?
Review by Amb. (ret.) William N. Dale
The Liberty Incident. The 1967 Israeli Attack on the U.S. Navy Spy Ship By A. Jay Cristol. ( Dulles, VA: Brassey’s, Inc., 2002. Pp. xx, 293. $27.50 cloth.)
“Captain Cristol. . .describes the attack in great detail and arrives at the conclusion that it was a tragic error.”
Captain A. Jay Cristol’s background was ideal for an examination of the June 8, 1967 attack on the U. S. intelligence-gathering ship, Liberty. During the Korean War, he flew many missions from the aircraft carrier, Princeton. Upon his return to civilian life he joined the Naval Reserve and flew volunteer missions during the Vietnam conflict. After eighteen years as a Navy aviator, he shifted to naval (and civilian) law where he spent the next twenty years of his impressive career before becoming a federal bankruptcy judge. The dissertation for his doctoral degree is this present volume, which maintains that the highly publicized and still controversial Israeli assault on the Liberty was a tragic accident.
The author claims that the Israeli military did not realize the ship was American until after the Liberty had been strafed by Israeli planes and torpedoed by Israeli torpedo boats. Cristol used all the available evidence with considerable skill to prove his thesis. His naval background enabled him to describe the fighting with great precision so that the reader could easily visualize the attack in which thirty-four Americans were killed and many more injured.
Captain Critstol enjoyed significant cooperation from the Israeli military, which facilitated his access to the officers involved and to the audio taped conversations of the Israeli pilots and air controllers on that fateful day. His sources in the U. S. government were not as extensive, but did include Captain Ernest Castle, the naval attaché in the U. S. Embassy in Tel Aviv at the time of the attack, Rear Admiral Isaac Kidd, who headed the board of inquiry, and other Americans involved in the incident. Cristol utilized the Freedom of Information Act to obtain access to many of the official U. S. documents. His study also included the U. S. Navy Court of Inquiry proceedings and other investigations bearing on the incident.
Written in a clear, logical, and detailed manner, Cristol’s account described the background of the attack, including the Six Day War itself, and the complex of errors which accounted for the presence of the U. S. intelligence-gathering ship just off the coast where the fighting was in progress. The captain also described the morale problem of the Israeli Navy, which was overly anxious to leave its mark on the history of the war as the Israeli Army had already done. He then describes the attack in great detail and arrives at the conclusion that it was a tragic error. In the subsequent chapters, the author examined the official reports, which arrive at the same conclusion. Finally, he surveys the many reports and stories, which have accused the Israelis of deliberately assaulting the American ship. According to Cristol, all of these “revisionist” accounts are false.
Not surprisingly, Cristol’s conclusions have been subject to much criticism. First of all, his observation that there were thirteen investigations of the incident appears to have been an exaggeration. The U. S. Navy court seems to have done as thorough a job as possible considering the time restraints it encountered in its investigation. Incredibly, it did not even query any Israeli. Many of the later inquiries based their opinions on the naval court’s conclusion that there was no evidence the attack was premeditated. The Congressional investigations cited by the author were actually hearings on other subjects in which the Liberty incident was only briefly mentioned. The Israeli investigations also reached the conclusion that the attack was accidental. The U. S. government has yet to conduct a thorough and official investigation.
One of the claims examined by Captain Cristol is that of Ambassador Dwight Porter who was in charge of the Beirut embassy at the time of the attack. The ambassador claimed that he had seen an intercept of a conversation in which an Israeli pilot who had reported that the Liberty was an American ship was ordered by Israeli Air Force headquarters to proceed with the assault. Cristol maintains that the Beirut embassy was too far away from the scene of the attack to have been able to intercept such messages and that Porter’s story had varied over the years. The author’s doubts, notwithstanding, if Ambassador Porter–a highly experienced Foreign Service Officer–maintains that he saw these intercepts, then the chances are very great that he did so.
In Cristol’s account that an Israeli plane had observed and reported the presence of the Liberty early in the morning of September 8, he noted that the naval authorities had placed a wedge on their plotting board representing it. An Israeli naval officer later removed it so that headquarters would have no record of it when it was rediscovered, its identity questioned, and the ship attacked. If there was any possibility that an American ship was in the area, it seems improbable that any naval officer would have removed the wedge representing it from the plotting board without mentioning to his colleagues that it was a U. S. ship. If the Israelis knew from morning on that the ship was American and for one or more reasons decided to destroy its ability to monitor Israeli military movements, this would have been a point at which a tragic accident story could emerge.
This is not to say that the Israelis actually made a premeditated attack, but to show that it was possible to disguise it. Captain Cristol, nonetheless, makes a very detailed and convincing argument that the attack on theLiberty was accidental. His conclusions are based on a decade and a half of study, but controversy still shrouds this tragic event.