A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The USS Liberty Incident: Still Starting Fights After All These Years

I'm a day late on this one; that may happen during the convalescence period; but 43 years ago yesterday, the USS Liberty, collecting intelligence signals in the eastern Mediterranean, was attacked by Israeli aircraft, leaving 34 Americans dead. Forty-three years later, you can get a good argument going among Mideast watchers (or in the "Communcations" section of The Middle East Journal) by producing a new book or article on the subject of whether Israel knew it was attacking an American ship (fervently believed by the US intelligence community and the Liberty survivors, as well as critics of Israel), or a tragic mistake (Israel's explanation, and that of most of its defenders). It doesn't divide easily on pro-Israeli/anti-Israeli lines; many who were in the State Department or NSA at the time were pro-Israeli but convinced it was deliberate. (And as an aside, a Liberty survivor was on board the Gaza aid flotilla.)

For background, the Wikipedia article offers an introduction. For a sampling of the "deliberate" argument, there are the USS Liberty Veterans' Association website, survivor Jim Ennes' USS Liberty Memorial; and NSA watcher James Bamford has argued the "deliberate" side forcefully, though I can't locate a website by him. On the "accident" side, the most fully researched and argued case is in A. Jay Cristol's 2002 book The Liberty Incident, which either decides the issue once and for all (if you assume it was an accident), or, to be fair, at least dispels some myths that have lingered about the case (if, like me, you still have doubts). Cristol maintains a website with documents and links.

Given the huge number of trees and, more recently, bandwidth that have given their all to fuel this debate over four decades, I'm not going to shed any major new light here, but do have a few comments. Due to a couple of coincidental factors, I've had to deal with the Liberty a few times at MEJ, mostly in flame wars related to the publication of new books such as Cristol's. Now, as it happens, my distinguished predecessor as Editor of MEJ, Richard Parker (former Ambassador to Algeria, Lebanon, and Morocco), was Political Officer at the US Embassy in Cairo in June 1967. He has written a lot about 1967, in his book The Politics of Miscalculation in the Middle East and elsewhere, hosted an anniversary conference and edited the proceedings (The Six-Day War: A Retrospective), and has retained an avid interest in the subject.

Ambassador Parker lived through the Liberty incident at first hand, and has sometimes described himself as "the only Gentile in the US government who believes it was an accident." That against-the-grain condition, Dick's natural tendency to welcome a good argument, and his links to The Middle East Journal, all mean we have often been the venue for the debate, most recently when Parker reviewed Cristol favorably.

My own take: unlike Dick Parker, I wasn't there. I was finishing my sophomore year of college. I don't know what happened. I've read the major books on both sides and I still don't know for sure. Cristol has knocked down some of the arguments for it being deliberate, but not all of them. I do have a nagging feeling that something's missing. Neither the "Israel knew it was American and attacked it deliberately" nor the "It was a tragic mistake" explanation accounts for all the data. If it was deliberate, the why is a problem: to cover up the planned attack on the Golan? It was in the wrong place, and the timing is wrong. To cover up a war crime in the Sinai? Nobody's successfully substantiated that. For some other reason? If it was an accident, it was an incredibly stupid one, as the Liberty had a large US flag, was broadcasting its identity, etc.

There may be a clue out there. In 2007, Israeli scholars/journalists Isabella Ginor and Gideon Remez published Foxbats over Dimona, a revisionist look at 1967 based on interviews with veterans of the ex-Soviet Union and memoirs published in obscure ex-Soviet veterans' publications, not to mention Soviet-era documents. It was a controversial book, welcomed by those who want to portray 1967 as a Soviet-Arab plot against Israel, but despite the many favorable reviews it received from folks like Daniel Pipes, it also received powerful reviews from Foreign Affairs and from Professor Mark Katz in (ahem) The Middle East Journal. (That, in turn, sparked a spirited exchange between Ginor and Remez and Ambassador Parker in MEJ.) Here's their Amazon page. Personally — and I've discussed this with Ginor and Remez so I hope they won't mind me mentioning it here — I think they may overstate what the Soviets were prepared to risk, but that they do bring new evidence to the table.

The Liberty does get a chapter in their book, and when I read it I was struck by the fact that while nothing they reveal answers all the questions, it could provide a missing link: a Soviet role, or even just both the US and the Israelis treading cautiously to to avoid engaging the Soviets, could have been a factor. There's always been a question about why the US recalled aircraft dispatched from the carrier Saratoga; one explanation has been they may have been armed with nuclear weapons. Of course they weren't going to nuke the Israelis; but could they have pulled back from providing air cover for Liberty out of concern Russian ships in the area would think they were the target? Ginor and Remez find hints of two or three Soviet ships and perhaps submarines operating in the general area of the Liberty. They don't draw firm conclusions, but could his be the missing link in the Liberty debate?

I don't know. I do suspect that either nuclear issues or issues of Soviet involvement would be the sensitive issues that would still not have been declassified, and it does seem as if somebody somewhere is covering up something, even if you accept Israel made a mistake.

Will we ever know for sure? Lots of people on each side are confident they already know. I admit that I don't. Heck, we still don't know for sure who ordered the killing of Admiral Darlan in 1942. (Before the comments start, note I didn't say there were no obvious suspects. There are too many.)

1 comment:

David Mack said...

Arriving in Jerusalem in late summer in 1967, I found that Israelis were indignant that anyone would suspect them of intentionally attacking a US Navy ship but unwilling to talk further about the event. After reading Dick Parker's book, The Politics of Miscalculation in the Middle East and his subsequent commentaries, I have reached my own personal theory about Israeli decision making, a different conclusion than Ambassador Parker's, defenders of Israel and critics of Israel, but one that explains the apparent contradictions between what the Israelis logically should have wanted and what they actually did. Consider the "fog of war" and the felt need to take immediate action as an explanation, even though it is not an excuse. The top Israeli decision makers were uncertain why our spy ship was in "their war zone," so they assumed it would not be in Israel's interest. No time for diplomacy, they concluded, and they hurriedly ordered the Israeli military to "get the ship out of there." By the time the order was fleshed out and transmitted way down the line to the people taking action it had the additional "by whatever means are necessary" attached to it.