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Did US and Israel Lie about the 1967 USS Liberty Incident?

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Editor's Note:

This is a special 2-part series on new evidence obtained 
by the Chicago Tribune. The second part will be delivered 
to you tomorrow. After 40 years, the truth needs to be 
revealed. 

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                Video Clip Of The Week

  US Had Foreknowledge of Israeli Attack On Syria

On September 20, Israel attacked Syria under mysterious 
circumstances. Both Israeli and US governments maintained 
silence on the nature of the attack and a compliant media 
followed suit. But there were a few isolated reports in 
the media. 

View: US Had Foreknowledge of Israeli Attack On Syria 
   
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Did US and Israel Lie about the 1967 USS Liberty Incident?
-By John Crewdson, Chicago Tribune senior correspondent

Bryce Lockwood, Marine staff sergeant, Russian-language 
expert, recipient of the Silver Star for heroism, ordained 
Baptist minister, is shouting into the phone. 

"I'm angry! I'm seething with anger! Forty years, and I'm 
seething with anger!" 

Lockwood was aboard the USS Liberty, a super-secret spy 
ship on station in the eastern Mediterranean, when four 
Israeli fighter jets flew out of the afternoon sun to 
strafe and bomb the virtually defenseless vessel on 
June 8, 1967, the fourth day of what would become known 
as the Six-Day War. 

For Lockwood and many other survivors, the anger is mixed 
with incredulity: that Israel would attack an important 
ally, then attribute the attack to a case of mistaken 
identity by Israeli pilots who had confused the U.S. 
Navy's most distinctive ship with an Egyptian horse-
cavalry transport that was half its size and had a dis-
similar profile. And they're also incredulous that, for 
years, their own government would reject their calls for 
a thorough investigation. 

"They tried to lie their way out of it!" Lockwood shouts. 
"I don't believe that for a minute! You just don't shoot 
at a ship at sea without identifying it, making sure of 
your target!" 

Four decades later, many of the more than two dozen Liberty 
survivors located and interviewed by the Tribune cannot 
talk about the attack without shouting or weeping. 

Their anger has been stoked by the declassification of 
government documents and the recollections of former 
military personnel, including some quoted in this article 
for the first time, which strengthen doubts about the U.S. 
National Security Agency's position that it never intercept-
ed the communications of the attacking Israeli pilots -- 
communications, according to those who remember seeing 
them, that showed the Israelis knew they were attacking an 
American naval vessel. 

The documents also suggest that the U.S. government, 
anxious to spare Israel's reputation and preserve its 
alliance with the U.S., closed the case with what even 
some of its participants now say was a hasty and seriously 
flawed investigation. 

In declassifying the most recent and largest batch of 
materials last June 8, the 40th anniversary of the attack, 
the NSA, this country's chief U.S. electronic-intelligence-
gatherer and code-breaker, acknowledged that the attack had 
"become the center of considerable controversy and debate." 
It was not the agency's intention, it said, "to prove or 
disprove any one set of conclusions, many of which can be 
drawn from a thorough review of this material," available 
at http://www.nsa.gov/liberty . 

An Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman, Mark Regev, called 
the attack on the Liberty "a tragic and terrible accident, 
a case of mistaken identity, for which Israel has official-
ly apologized." Israel also paid reparations of $6.7 
million to the injured survivors and the families of those 
killed in the attack, and another $6 million for the loss 
of the Liberty itself. 

But for those who lost their sons and husbands, neither 
the Israelis' apology nor the passing of time has lessened 
their grief. 

One is Pat Blue, who still remembers having her lunch in 
Washington's Farragut Square park on "a beautiful June 
afternoon" when she was a 22-year-old secretary for a law 
firm. 

Blue heard somebody's portable radio saying a U.S. Navy 
ship had been torpedoed in the eastern Mediterranean. A 
few weeks before, Blue's husband of two years, an Arab-
language expert with the NSA, had been hurriedly dispatched 
overseas. 

As she listened to the news report, "it just all came 
together." Soon afterward, the NSA confirmed that Allen 
Blue was among the missing. 

"I never felt young again," she said. 

Aircraft on the horizon 

Beginning before dawn on June 8, Israeli aircraft regularly 
appeared on the horizon and circled the Liberty. 

The Israeli Air Force had gained control of the skies on 
the first day of the war by destroying the Egyptian air 
force on the ground. America was Israel's ally, and the 
Israelis knew the Americans were there. The ship's mission 
was to monitor the communications of Israel's Arab enemies 
and their Soviet advisers, but not Israeli communications. 
The Liberty felt safe. 

Then the jets started shooting at the officers and enlisted 
men stretched out on the deck for a lunch-hour sun bath. 
Theodore Arfsten, a quartermaster, remembered watching a 
Jewish officer cry when he saw the blue Star of David on 
the planes' fuselages. At first, crew members below decks 
had no idea whose planes were shooting at their ship. 

Thirty-four died that day, including Blue, the only 
civilian casualty. An additional 171 were wounded in the 
air and sea assault by Israel, which was about to celebrate 
an overwhelming victory over the combined armies of Egypt, 
Syria, Jordan, and several other Arab states. 

For most of those who survived the attack, the Six-Day War 
has become the defining moment of their lives. 

Some mustered out of the Navy as soon as their enlistments 
were up. Others stayed in long enough to retire. Several 
went on to successful business careers. One became a Secret 
Service agent, another a Baltimore policeman. 

Several are being treated with therapy and drugs for what 
has since been recognized as post-traumatic stress dis-
order. One has undergone more than 30 major operations. 
Another suffers seizures caused by a piece of shrapnel 
still lodged in his brain. 

After Bryce Lockwood left the Marines, he worked construct-
ion, then tried selling insurance. "I'd get a job and get 
fired," he said. "I had a hell of a time getting my feet 
on the ground." 

With his linguistic background, Lockwood could have had a 
career with the NSA, the CIA, or the FBI. But he was too 
angry at the U.S. government to work for it. "Don't talk 
to me about government!" he shouts. 

U.S. Navy jets were called back 

An Israeli military court of inquiry later acknowledged 
that their naval headquarters knew at least three hours 
before the attack that the odd-looking ship 13 miles off 
the Sinai Peninsula, sprouting more than 40 antennas cap-
able of receiving every kind of radio transmission, was 
"an electromagnetic audio-surveillance ship of the U.S. 
Navy," a floating electronic vacuum cleaner. 

The Israeli inquiry later concluded that that information 
had simply gotten lost, never passed along to the ground 
controllers who directed the air attack nor to the crews 
of the three Israeli torpedo boats who picked up where the 
air force left off, strafing the Liberty's decks with their 
machine guns and launching a torpedo that blew a 39-foot 
hole in its starboard side. 

To a man, the survivors interviewed by the Tribune rejected 
Israel's explanation. 

Nor, the survivors said, did they understand why the 
American 6th Fleet, which included the aircraft carriers 
America and Saratoga, patrolling 400 miles west of the 
Liberty, launched and then recalled at least two squadrons 
of Navy fighter-bombers that might have arrived in time to 
prevent the torpedo attack -- and save 26 American lives. 

J.Q. "Tony" Hart, then a chief petty officer assigned to a 
U.S. Navy relay station in Morocco that handled communi-
cations between Washington and the 6th Fleet, remembered 
listening as Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, in Washing-
ton, ordered Rear Adm. Lawrence Geis, commander of the 
America's carrier battle group, to bring the jets home. 

When Geis protested that the Liberty was under attack and 
needed help, Hart said, McNamara retorted that "President 
[Lyndon] Johnson is not going to go to war or embarrass an 
American ally over a few sailors." 

McNamara, who is now 91, told the Tribune he has "absolute-
ly no recollection of what I did that day," except that "I 
have a memory that I didn't know at the time what was going 
on." 

The Johnson administration did not publicly dispute 
Israel's claim that the attack had been nothing more than 
a disastrous mistake. But internal White House documents 
obtained from the Lyndon B. Johnson Presidential Library 
show that the Israelis' explanation of how the mistake had 
occurred was not believed. 

Except for McNamara, most senior administration officials 
from Secretary of State Dean Rusk on down privately agreed 
with Johnson's intelligence adviser, Clark Clifford, who 
was quoted in minutes of a National Security Council staff 
meeting as saying it was "inconceivable" that the attack 
had been a case of mistaken identity. 

The attack "couldn't be anything else but deliberate," 
the NSA's director, Lt. Gen. Marshall Carter, later told 
Congress. 

"I don't think you'll find many people at NSA who believe 
it was accidental," Benson Buffham, a former deputy NSA 
director, said in an interview. 

"I just always assumed that the Israeli pilots knew what 
they were doing," said Harold Saunders, then a member of 
the National Security Council staff and later assistant 
secretary of state for Near Eastern and South Asian affairs.

"So for me, the question really is who issued the order to 
do that and why? That's the really interesting thing." 

The answer, if there is one, will probably never be known. 
Gen. Moshe Dayan, then the country's minister of defense; 
Levi Eshkol, the Israeli prime minister; and Golda Meir, 
his successor, are all dead. 

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Many of those who believe the Liberty was purposely attack-
ed have suggested that the Israelis feared the ship might 
intercept communications revealing its plans to widen the 
war, which the U.S. opposed. But no one has ever produced 
any solid evidence to support that theory, and the Israelis 
dismiss it. The NSA's deputy director, Louis Tordella, 
speculated in a recently declassified memo that the attack 
"might have been ordered by some senior commander on the 
Sinai Peninsula who wrongly suspected that the LIBERTY was 
monitoring his activities." 

Was the U.S. flag visible? 

Though the attack on the Liberty has faded from public 
memory, Michael Oren, a historian and senior fellow at The 
Shalem Center in Jerusalem, conceded that "the case of the 
assault on the Liberty has never been closed." 

If anything, Oren said, "the accusations leveled against 
Israel have grown sharper with time." Oren said in an 
interview that he believed a formal investigation by the 
U.S., even 40 years later, would be useful if only because 
it would finally establish Israel's innocence. 

Questions about what happened to the Liberty have been 
kept alive by survivors' groups and their Web sites, 
a half-dozen books, magazine articles and television 
documentaries, scholarly papers published in academic 
journals, and Internet chat groups where amateur sleuths 
debate arcane points of photo interpretation and torpedo 
running depth. 

Meantime, the Liberty's survivors and their supporters, 
including a distinguished constellation of retired admirals 
and generals, have persisted in asking Congress for a full-
scale formal investigation. 

"We deserve to have the truth," Pat Blue said. 

For all its apparent complexity, the attack on the Liberty 
can be reduced to a single question: Was the ship flying 
the American flag at the time of the attack, and was that 
flag visible from the air? 

The survivors interviewed by the Tribune uniformly agree 
that the Liberty was flying the Stars and Stripes before, 
during and after the attack, except for a brief period in 
which one flag that had been shot down was replaced with 
another, larger flag -- the ship's "holiday colors" -- that 
measured 13 feet long. 

Concludes one of the declassified NSA documents: "Every 
official interview of numerous Liberty crewmen gave 
consistent evidence that indeed the Liberty was flying an 
American flag -- and, further, the weather conditions were 
ideal to ensure its easy observance and identification." 

The Israeli court of inquiry that examined the attack, and 
absolved the Israeli military of criminal culpability, came 
to precisely the opposite conclusion. 

"Throughout the contact," it declared, "no American or any 
other flag appeared on the ship." 

The attack, the court said, had been prompted by a report, 
which later proved erroneous, that a ship was shelling 
Israeli-held positions in the Sinai Peninsula. The Liberty 
had no guns capable of shelling the shore, but the court 
concluded that the U.S. ship had been mistakenly identified 
as the source of the shelling. 

Yiftah Spector, the first Israeli pilot to attack the ship, 
told the Jerusalem Post in 2003 that when he first spotted 
the Liberty, "I circled it twice and it did not fire on me. 
My assumption was that it was likely to open fire at me 
and nevertheless I slowed down and I looked and there was 
positively no flag." 

But the Liberty crewmen interviewed by the Tribune said the 
Israeli jets simply appeared and began shooting. They also 
said the Liberty did not open fire on the planes because it 
was armed only with four .50-caliber machine guns intended 
to repel boarders. 

"I can't identify it, but in any case it's a military 
ship," Spector radioed his ground controller, according 
to a transcript of the Israeli air-to-ground communications 
published by the Jerusalem Post in 2004. 

That transcript, made by a Post reporter who was allowed 
to listen to what the Israeli Air Force said were tapes 
of the attacking pilots' communications, contained only 
two references to "American" or "Americans," one at the 
beginning and the other at the end of the attack. 

The first reference occurred at 1:54 p.m. local time, two 
minutes before the Israeli jets began their first strafing 
run. 

In the Post transcript, a weapons system officer on the 
ground suddenly blurted out, "What is this? Americans?" 

"Where are Americans?" replied one of the air controllers. 

The question went unanswered, and it was not asked again. 

Twenty minutes later, after the Liberty had been hit 
repeatedly by machine guns, 30 mm cannon and napalm from 
the Israelis' French-built Mirage and Mystere fighter-
bombers, the controller directing the attack asked his 
chief in Tel Aviv to which country the target vessel 
belonged. 

"Apparently American," the chief controller replied. 

Fourteen minutes later the Liberty was struck amidships by 
a torpedo from an Israeli boat, killing 26 of the 100 or 
so NSA technicians and specialists in Russian and Arabic 
who were working in restricted compartments below the 
ship's waterline. 

Analyst: Israelis wanted it sunk 

The transcript published by the Jerusalem Post bore scant 
resemblance to the one that in 1967 rolled off the tele-
type machine behind the sealed vault door at Offutt Air 
Force Base in Omaha, where Steve Forslund worked as an 
intelligence analyst for the 544th Air Reconnaissance 
Technical Wing, then the highest-level strategic planning 
office in the Air Force. 

"The ground control station stated that the target was 
American and for the aircraft to confirm it," Forslund 
recalled. "The aircraft did confirm the identity of the 
target as American, by the American flag. 

"The ground control station ordered the aircraft to attack 
and sink the target and ensure they left no survivors." 

Forslund said he clearly recalled "the obvious frustration 
of the controller over the inability of the pilots to sink 
the target quickly and completely." 

"He kept insisting the mission had to sink the target, and 
was frustrated with the pilots' responses that it didn't 
sink." 

Nor, Forslund said, was he the only member of his unit to 
have read the transcripts. "Everybody saw these," said 
Forslund, now retired after 26 years in the military. 

Forslund's recollections are supported by those of two 
other Air Force intelligence specialists, working in widely 
separate locations, who say they also saw the transcripts 
of the attacking Israeli pilots' communications. 

One is James Gotcher, now an attorney in California, who 
was then serving with the Air Force Security Service's 
6924th Security Squadron, an adjunct of the NSA, at Son 
Tra, Vietnam. 

"It was clear that the Israeli aircraft were being vectored 
directly at USS Liberty," Gotcher recalled in an e-mail. 
"Later, around the time Liberty got off a distress call, 
the controllers seemed to panic and urged the aircraft to 
'complete the job' and get out of there." 

Six thousand miles from Omaha, on the Mediterranean island 
of Crete, Air Force Capt. Richard Block was commanding an 
intelligence wing of more than 100 analysts and crypt-
ologists monitoring Middle Eastern communications. 

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