Behind the USS Liberty Cover-up

For decades, Israel has exercised strong influence over U.S. policies in the Mideast via its highly effective Washington lobby, but that power was tested in 1967 when Israeli warplanes strafed the USS Liberty killing 34 American crewmen, an incident revisited in a new documentary reviewed by Maidhc Ó Cathail.

By Maidhc Ó Cathail

The Day Israel Attacked America,” an investigation into Israel’s deadly June 8, 1967 attack on the USS Liberty at the height of the Arab-Israeli Six-Day War, was aired recently on Al Jazeera America.

Directed by British filmmaker Richard Belfield, the documentary confirms not only that the attack on the U.S. Navy spy ship was deliberate, an undisputed fact long accepted by all but the most shameless Israeli apologists, but reveals, perhaps for the first time, how Tel Aviv was able to induce the U.S. government to cover up an attack that killed 34 and injured 171 of its own seamen by a supposed “ally.”

USS Liberty (AGTR-5) receives assistance from units of the Sixth Fleet, after she was attacked and seriously damaged by Israeli forces off the Sinai Peninsula on June 8, 1967. (US Navy photo)

USS Liberty (AGTR-5) receives assistance from units of the Sixth Fleet, after she was attacked and seriously damaged by Israeli forces off the Sinai Peninsula on June 8, 1967. (US Navy photo)

“It was especially tough for Lyndon Johnson, to date the most pro-Israeli American president in history,” the film’s narrator observed. According to Tom Hughes, the State Department’s director of intelligence and research at the time of the Liberty attack, “Johnson was in a very tough mood.”

As an indication of Johnson’s initial firm stance, Hughes recalled that Johnson briefed Newsweek magazine off the record that the Israelis had attacked the Liberty, suggesting that they may have done so because they believed that the naval intelligence-gathering ship had been intercepting Israeli as well as Egyptian communications.

A post-interview leak revealing that it was the President himself who had briefed the media about the attack on the Liberty alarmed the Israeli embassy in Washington and its friends in the major Jewish organizations, who intimated that Johnson’s Newsweek briefing “practically amounted to blood libel.”

The documentary’s narrator said declassified Israeli documents now show that “they were going to threaten President Johnson with ‘blood libel’, gross anti-Semitism, and that would end his political career.”

“Blackmail!” retired U.S. Navy admiral Bobby Ray Inman frankly summed up Israel’s strategy to deal with Johnson. “[T]hey know if he is thinking about running again he’s going to need money for his campaign,” said Inman, who from 1977 to 1981 directed the National Security Agency, the U.S. intelligence agency under whose aegis the USS Liberty had been dispatched to the eastern Mediterranean. “So alleging that he’s blood-libeling is going to arouse the Jewish donors.”

The Israeli government hired teams of lawyers, including close friends of Johnson, the narrator added, and began an “all-out offensive” to influence media coverage of the attack, leaning on them “to kill critical stories” and slant others in Israel’s favor.

“There was a campaign mounted to see what could be done about returning Johnson to his normal, predictable pro-Israeli position,” Hughes said. “Efforts were to be made to remind the President of the delicacy of his own position, that he personally might lose support for his run for reelection in 1968.”

Israelis Bearing Gifts

Noting the cleverness of Israel’s tactics, the documentary revealed that after having identified the Vietnam War as Johnson’s “soft spot” it quietly provided him with “two extraordinary gifts.”

The first addressed the President’s bitterness toward many American Jewish organizations and community leaders over their opposition to his Vietnam policy. But as the Liberty crisis unfolded, Hughes said, “they were suddenly becoming more silent on Vietnam.” Johnson was made to understand that taking a more “moderate” position toward Israel over the attack would benefit him politically.

The second gift was a vital military one. The U.S. military attaché in Tel Aviv received a surprise visit. “I think I have something you might be interested in,” a senior Israeli intelligence officer told him. The Israelis had just crossed the Red Sea to capture the Egyptian military’s Soviet-supplied surface-to-air missiles, the same ones the North Vietnamese were using to bring down American aircraft on a daily basis.

As a show of gratitude, the U.S. government gave the Israelis two gifts in return. The Johnson administration resupplied them with the weapons they had used in their six-day land grab of territory from Egypt, Jordan and Syria. The White House also decided to water down the Defense Department’s inquiry into the attack on the Liberty.

As Hughes explained, “Soon Johnson did respond, and took a much more lenient line and wished that the whole incident could be put behind us as soon as possible.”

Johnson’s “softer approach” to Israel was reflected in the U.S. Navy inquiry then underway onboard the Liberty. As one of the survivors recalled, the Liberty’s crew began to realize that “a cover-up was descending” upon them. Among key testimony ignored was the strafing of the Liberty’s deck with napalm and the machine-gunning of the sinking ship’s lifeboats.

Without interviewing any Israelis involved in the attack, the U.S. court of inquiry rushed out a report, hurriedly completed in a mere 20 days, exonerating Israel from blame. Tel Aviv quickly followed up with its own report that concluded that the whole incident was “a series of mistakes, and that no one was to blame.”

Ignoring a secret telegram from its ambassador in Washington advising that Tel Aviv admit its guilt in light of America’s possession of an incriminating audio tape of the attack, Israel instead shifted its focus to repairing the damage to its relationship with the U.S.

“The Israelis have always been very skillful at tracking what the U.S. government is doing, saying, thinking, and effort[s] to influence it,” Inman pointed out. “And the great advantage they have as compared to other countries is their influence on the Congress.”

A timely Washington Post report noted that “the Jewish lobby could help determine the outcome of 169 of the 270 electoral votes needed to win the White House.”

As Johnson considered his re-election prospects, Hughes said the “emotive” language used in earlier Pentagon press releases disappeared and was replaced by “a much more bland and neutral-sounding discourse.”

“But whatever was said to journalists,” the narrator added, “every U.S. intelligence head believed that the attack was intentional.” As one of them colorfully wrote at the time, “a nice whitewash for a group of ignorant, stupid and inept xxxxxxxx.” Though shown but not mentioned in the film, the next sentence of the intelligence chief’s letter stated the obvious: “If the attackers had not been Hebrew there would have been quite a commotion.”

“The Jewish community has always been more generous than many of their other counterparts in supporting financially elections, political causes,” Inman observed. “In the process, that does translate into influence.”

Israel’s White House Friends

Israel’s influence inside the White House was even more significant. “Many of Johnson’s closest friends and advisors were pro-Israeli, and they reported back to Tel Aviv on his every move,” the film asserted.

If anything, this understated Israeli influence. As Grace Halsell, a staff writer for Johnson, later wrote, “Everyone around me, without exception, was pro-Israel.”

Thanks to its supporters surrounding Johnson, the narrator claimed that the Israeli government was able to constantly shift its story “to counter whatever new intelligence the White House received.”

To protect their contacts’ identity, the Israelis used codenames in their communications with them. “The Day Israel Attacked America,” however, revealed for the first time the identities of four of these pro-Israeli eyes and ears inside the Johnson administration.

“Hamlet” was Abe Feinberg, one of the most influential fundraisers ever in Democratic Party politics, whose phone calls Johnson couldn’t afford to ignore; “Menashe” was Arthur Goldberg, the U.S ambassador to the United Nations; “Harari” was David Ginsberg, a prominent Washington lawyer who represented the Israeli embassy; and “Ilan” was Supreme Court Justice Abe Fortas, a longtime Johnson confidant who had dined with the President on the eve of the Six-Day War.

It would hardly be an overstatement to say that the President owed his political career to “Ilan”/Fortas. As biographer Robert A. Caro has written, Johnson “largely through the legal genius of his ally Abe Fortas, managed, by a hairbreadth, to halt a federal court’s investigation into the stealing of the 1948 election,” in a reference to LBJ’s first Senate race.

According to the documentary, it was “Menashe”/Goldberg who supplied Israel with the key intelligence. Goldberg warned the Israelis that the U.S. had an audio tape that confirmed the Israeli pilots knew the Liberty was an American ship before they attacked.

“The strategy worked,” concluded Belfield’s documentary. “The U.S.-Israeli relationship proved to be stronger than the killing and injuring of more than 200 Americans.”

But it wasn’t always a foregone conclusion. As Hughes put it, “The American-Israeli relationship was very much at stake, and it was brought back from the precipice.”

“The Day Israel Attacked America” ends with a scene of surviving veterans of the USS Liberty laying a wreath on their murdered comrades’ memorial headstone and a prescient observation by the U.S. undersecretary of state at the time of the attack.

“It seemed clear to the Israelis that as American leaders did not have the courage to punish them for the blatant murder of American citizens,” George Ball noted, “they would let them get away with anything.”

Maidhc Ó Cathail is a widely published writer and political analyst. He is also the creator and editor of The Passionate Attachment blog, which focuses primarily on the U.S.-Israeli relationship.

25 comments for “Behind the USS Liberty Cover-up

  1. andreas w. mytze
    November 17, 2014 at 06:25

    very interesting, this conversation….The “key word” here to me seems: LBJ.
    Only n o w , after decades of silence, his murderous acts are in the open (see also the books by Roger Stone, Barr McClellan, Charles A. Crenshaw, among others). So, thank you, Zachary Smith!

  2. Abe
    November 16, 2014 at 16:30

    On June 8, 2005 the USS Liberty Veterans Association submitted A Report of War Crimes Committed Against the USS Liberty, June 8, 1967 to the Department of Defense in accordance with the DoD Law of War Program.

    The War Crimes Report lists allegations of acts committed during the attack on the USS Liberty, including:

    • The jamming of the USS Liberty’s radios on both US Navy tactical and international maritime distress frequencies;
    • The use of unmarked aircraft by the forces attacking the USS Liberty;
    • The deliberate machine gunning of life rafts the USS Liberty crew had dropped over the side in anticipation of abandoning ship; and
    • The recall of two flights of rescue aircraft that had been launched from Sixth Fleet aircraft carriers. After those flights were recalled, Sixth Fleet personnel listened to the USS Liberty crew’s calls for help as the attack continued knowing they were forbidden to come to the crew’s assistance.

    The Department of Defense has unilaterally waived its obligation under the Department of Defense Law of War Program by refusing to investigate the allegations contained in the War Crimes Report. The Department of Defense has also refused to provide a speaker to address the crew of the USS Liberty and explain their actions with regard to the War Crimes Report.

  3. Abe
    November 16, 2014 at 16:22

    The Day Israel Attacked America

  4. JWalters
    November 13, 2014 at 19:28

    Israel attacked not only a US ship called Liberty. Israel is attacking the very liberty of the US. What the Soviet Union could not do, the Israelis are doing.

  5. Björn Lindgren
    November 13, 2014 at 05:17


    Alan Hart has published an excellent article on USS Liberty, titled, “Israel’s Attack on the USS Liberty – The full story,” at, at his homepage, 7 June 2012.

    Cheers, Björn Lindgren

  6. Nite Owl
    November 12, 2014 at 23:34

    The israelis don’t care one whit about what the American people think of them. They bought the entire political process and they did it with US taxpayer money they had Congress vote to give them. How long will the American people allow a foreign country run their government or are they happier being slaves to a foreign power?

  7. John P
    November 12, 2014 at 20:54

    This story confuses me. Aircraft were sent from a US carrier to go to the Liberty’s aid but they needed presidential approval. Johnson told them to turn back as if his mind was already set on accepting the action. Perhaps he was worried about attacking Israeli forces attacking an American ship and what that might produce, but surely the duty is to protect your men.

  8. Sally Brown
    November 12, 2014 at 18:35

    The lives of non-Jews mean very little to the Israelis. Look what they did here, look what they did in the refugee camp in Lebanon, look what they’re doing in Gaza. The US is only a Useful Idiot to them.

  9. Brendan
    November 12, 2014 at 17:50

    From 42:30 in the Al Jazeera program – “No one wants to talk about the ‘why?'”

    “The big secret the Israelis wanted to protect was their next move. They had told the Americans this was to be a limited war and not a land grab. But on June 8, 1967 their forces were poised to seize the Golan Heights and invade Syria, something they wished to keep from the White House until they’d done it.”

  10. Brendan
    November 12, 2014 at 17:14

    The Day Israel Attacked America
    Al Jazeera English

    • incontinent reader
      November 12, 2014 at 19:22

      Thanks for the link. Unfortunately, when you activate it- at least here in the States- the YouTube message says “the uploader has not made this video available in your country”, which may cause one to wonder if it is an intentional attempt to deny access to Americans who would like to view the video.

      An alternative site at which one can view the documentary is:

      • DoesItMatterAnymore
        November 13, 2014 at 00:11

        Its blocked there as well.. Hrm..

        • incontinent reader
          November 14, 2014 at 14:48

          You’re right. That must have happened within a day or two. Too bad, it is an excellent documentary, and dealt as much with the coverup and political manipulation of the inquest after the fact as the actual attack. Hopefully, it will become available later, even if one has to pay for it.

      • Brendan
        November 13, 2014 at 01:56

        The link I gave looks like it’s part of a genuine Al Jazeera Youtube channel but somebody doesn’t seem to want to show that video in some parts of the world.

        Your link works OK here in Europe.

        • David James Vickery
          November 13, 2014 at 12:07

          The video is working for me in Morocco, and I will share it on my Facebook wall.

  11. Bob Loblaw
    November 12, 2014 at 17:00

    Whenever I bring up the USS Liberty (usually June 8th) my friends and acquaintances’ eyes glaze and they suggest either that I hate Jews, or need a tinfoil hat.

  12. Zachary Smith
    November 12, 2014 at 16:56

    That the Israeli attack on the USS Liberty was deliberate is a settled issue. The “whys” of the matter continue to be a mystery to me. Every now and then I think I’ve about got it figured out, but then everything comes unraveled again.

    Israel was certainly murdering Egyptian POWs while the USS Liberty was nearby. Yes, that’s a war crime and an abomination, but even if the Liberty had somehow gathered actual audio and video records of the event, that just didn’t rise to the level of attacking an ‘ally’s’ naval vessel, IMO.

    I try to avoid conspiracy notions, but sometimes there just isn’t anything else to consider. The Gulf of Tonkin false flag operation actually happened. Is it possible Lyndon Johnson was attempting another one with Israel to finish off Egypt once and for all? Lots of the ‘nuts’ sure think so. It’s really difficult to explain the withdrawal of the US aircraft sent to try to save the Liberty. Was Johnson involved with that, or were the commands strictly those of the unspeakable McNamara? I don’t know. In any event, some kind of joint operation with the Israelis would solve the problem of why they deliberately attacked the Liberty.

    Perhaps there is a simpler explanation for why Johnson ordered the coverup – he may have been blackmailed by a pre-planned “honeypot” operation.

    It seems that Johnson had a goal of showing he was a better man than JFK by tackling just about anything in skirts. Sometime before the 1967 Land Grab War the Israelis may have set him up with an especially fine mistress.

    What would have been the reaction in the “mainstream” media if it had been revealed he was shacked up with a pretty Jewish spy who did ‘sleepovers’ in the White House? Perhaps his groveling was to keep that whole matter quiet. Once committed, he didn’t stint. The Medal of Honor award for the Liberty’s captain was a very low-key affair handled by the Navy Secretary and not the White House.

    For now I’ll opine that the Israeli motive for shutting down the Liberty’s intelligence collections was to prevent the US from learning about the magnitude of the shift of Israeli forces to the north to attack Syria. But even that doesn’t explain why they attempted to sink the ship with no survivors. A minimal attack which merely disabled the ship could have been passed off as an accident far more convincingly. Perhaps the ‘nuts’ know something I don’t….

    • Jada Thacker
      November 12, 2014 at 22:20

      Joe and Zachary,

      Your use of the term “false flag” in reference to the Gulf of Tonkin affair is dubious.

      A “false flag” operation is when a party commits aggression usually against its own friendly forces under the flag of the enemy, thus providing an excuse for retaliation. The Reichstag fire, set by the Nazis, but blamed by them on the Communists, is a classic example of a “false flag” operation.

      Merely inventing aggression, thus to justify retaliation — as in the Tonkin affair — is not a “false flag” event. And the Liberty attack had nothing to do with false flags so far as I can see.

    • Zachary Smith
      November 13, 2014 at 01:40

      In my post I do believe I mentioned the term “nuts”. A quick google search quickly unearthed an example. And there were many others among the result list.

      The real story is that President Johnson, who was being battered in the polls over the Vietnam War and facing a general election loss and even losing the DNC primary, ordered the Israelis to bomb the USS Liberty to create a casus belli to secure a Gulf of Tonkin style resolution to explode the world into war because in America everybody loves an outraged and indignant president who will use the full force of the military at the slightest provocation, even a government planned false flag attack.
      The USS Liberty, however, encompasses far more than a murderous psychopathic American president resorting to hideously evil deeds to get re-elected. In addition to ordering the total destruction of the USS Liberty and sending 294 Americans to a watery grave in the Mediterranean Sea, LBJ also ordered the nuclear bombing of Cairo, an event specifically designed to create a nuclear war by blaming the entire USS Liberty affair on Russia or Egypt. More horrifying, it’s documented that US planes were on emergency standby orders as pilots waited on the runways in their planes armed with nuclear weapons. The nuclear bombing of Cairo was called off only 3 minutes before the nuclear bomb drops.
      As fate would have it, LBJ’s plan blew up in his face and the world got a reprieve from a nuclear US induced holocaust. How did it happen? First, it must be understood that the USS Liberty was supposed to be destroyed and sunk within minutes and without any survivors.

      The fellow certainly didn’t err on the last & bolded part. The Israelis did just about everything they could to sink the Liberty. Aircraft with cannon and rockets and napalm. Small naval craft with torpedoes and cannon. And commando-carrying helicopters (with fighter cover) standing by to finish the job.

      *** Perhaps you might offer an opinion as to why the Israelis were so desperate to sink the Liberty while killing everybody aboard the vessel. ***

      Regarding the “false flag” business, technically you’re correct. However, the term has, in common usage, been widened to include many sorts of misleading/war-inciting events. I’m writing casual blog posts, not a textbook. I’d have thought that was fairly obvious from the spelling/grammar errors and generic typos in many of my posts.

      • Joe Tedesky
        November 13, 2014 at 09:24

        Thanks Zachary I could not have said it better…JT

    • F. G. Sanford
      November 13, 2014 at 08:19

      Zachary, have you ever noticed how often hair-splitters employ their only strategy? The “Holocaust Deniers” find some example where the numbers don’t exactly tally, and tout that as “proof” that the whole thing was a lie. Another strategy they frequently use is the “isolated event” canard, implying that atrocities were the work of “a few bad apples”. My Lai and Abu Ghraib fall into that category. Operation Phoenix in Vietnam between 1967 and 1972 killed between 26 and 41 thousand victims, most of them tortured to death. One of their favorite tactics was electrodes attached to the genitals to which electric current was applied with a hand-crank generator. They fondly referred to that as “Bell Telephone Hour”. This is one of the milder techniques they employed; most torture victims did not survive.

      There were plenty of noble, patriotic and dedicated Americans who went to Vietnam as true believers, and they served valiantly. Plenty of them came home still believing. That is a complex enigma, and space does not permit a post-mortem. Regarding AGTR-5, no matter how the “hair splitters” want to parse the facts, the operation (-Israeli jets had their markings painted out-) was classic “false flag”. The goal of a false flag operation is the fabrication of a pretext. The particulars are irrelevant, but become fertile ground for dissembling, which in a well constructed operation is a decided advantage. Had the ship sunk and the occult particulars remained a mystery, the world today would be very different. And anyone who questioned the “official” narrative would be mercilessly ridiculed as a “conspiracy theorist”. Pretending that the reality is otherwise is at best self-deception – at worst it is intellectual dishonesty.

    • Zachary Smith
      November 14, 2014 at 14:52

      I was curious why Mr. Thacker didn’t answer my simple question, so I took the liberty of researching his output. Tuns out that there are certain subjects about which he has been totally mum.

      This curious event was explained to my satisfaction when I learned what he did for a living. Working at a ‘private’ school means living on a tightrope over a high canyon, and lip glue is one of the survival methods.

      Since I found nothing odious in his stuff I did locate, I’m going to assume that simple prudence is the basis for the non-reply.

      BTW, I have relatives in similar situations, and I constantly preach to them to assume somebody is always watching everything they do, and to behave accordingly.

  13. Joe Tedesky
    November 12, 2014 at 14:28

    If ever there was a story about wrong headed influence on the American government, this got to be one of them. What gets me, is how Johnson used the ‘false flag’ of the Gulf of Tonkin incident to escalate war in Vietnam, yet the USS Liberty nothing!

    The Israeli influence on the US is pathetic. Truman only recognized Israel as a state after he realized there were more Jewish voters than Arab voters. Even now one has to wonder at how much America’s actions are really Israeli wishes being fulfilled.

  14. dahoit
    November 12, 2014 at 14:26

    Then,they were (alleged)American citizens (4 named)supposedly working for America,but now its even worse,avowed Zionist dual citizens are all over the inner workings of our govt.,working for a foreign entity at American expense.It’s beyond comprehension.
    The main problem being the MSM has not one outlet with an opposing viewpoint(other than crazy Fox,but that’s just for the rubes passions) about anything today,they are all interventionist,pro globalization,pro illegal immigration and totally in the tank for Israel.Only web sites,have any reality viewpoints,and the web is now disparaged by some as a bogus news venue,in the ultimate twist by the Ziomonsters.

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