'Liberty' Author Responds to Readers
The Post's review Sunday of James Scott's "The Attack on the Liberty -- The Untold Story of Israel's Deadly 1967 Assault on a U.S. Spy Ship" has generated a flood of reader response. It is striking that an event more than 40 years old can still inspire a range of passions, as indicated in the nearly 150 comments posted. We asked James Scott to review the comments and provide his response.
James Scott ...
John Lancaster's review of my new book on the 1967 Israeli attack on the American spy ship U.S.S. Liberty has stirred a lot of online debate - much of it heated - among Washington Post readers in recent days. One reader argued that the United States should retaliate and sink an Israeli ship and call it an accident. Another urged Congress to investigate. Others have criticized Israeli and American Middle East policy.
Some readers are equally passionate in their defense of Israel for what it has always maintained was a tragic accident. Many point out that Israel was a close American ally, involved in a hectic and fast-paced war in the desert and had everything to lose by attacking a U.S. ship. Both sides point to many of the same documents - though with differing interpretations - to hammer home their points.
Some of the attacks unfortunately have digressed into name-calling and religious smears.
None of this is new. Many of the questions and issues related to the Liberty were the subject of fierce debate behind closed doors in Washington in 1967. Because these questions were never thoroughly answered then, many have become the subject of dissertations, books, documentaries and fodder for countless chatrooms. Despite being scrapped decades ago, the Liberty is very much with us today.
The Liberty is a particularly sensitive issue in that it involves a close American ally whose population is made up mostly of people of the Jewish faith. That religious and political backdrop was a factor in 1967 when President Johnson and his advisors opted to de-emphasize the attack rather than tangle publicly with Israel and risk a clash with American Jews, an important constituency for the president, then mired in the Vietnam War. Decades later, the Liberty debate at times can digress into charges of anti-Semitism against those vocal in support of the crew. Other times, various hate groups have seized the cause, not because of any concern for the survivors, but to use it as a tool to wound Israel. This is unfortunate. Liberty Veterans Association President Ernie Gallo complained about this in his online comment. The attack on the Liberty should not be about faith, but about militaries and governments and the decisions made by policymakers.
Why bring this up now, a few readers have asked? The attack happened more than four decades ago; it's old news. I think the heated posts in recent days reflect the frustrations and tensions that resonate 42 years later and more than justify the need to reexamine the Liberty story. Furthermore, the American and Israeli governments have declassified many Liberty records (though not all) in recent years. In addition, many former administration officials, State Department leaders, Navy officers and intelligence officials, who years earlier were reluctant to talk openly, are now retired and willing to discuss what happened and why. We have a far greater understanding of the context and the decision-making process than we have ever had before.
One reader wrote that there are "thousands of cases of friendly fire" yet the Liberty always seems to rise to the top. I think one of the reasons it does is the circumstances of the attack never fit the mold of a typical friendly fire incident. Most such assaults are over in seconds, maybe minutes, and occur at night, in inclement weather and otherwise poor conditions. In contrast, the attack on the Liberty lasted approximately an hour and happened on a clear and sunny afternoon. The attack was exceedingly brutal, leaving 821 shell holes in the ship in addition to a 39-foot torpedo hole. Those facts have made it hard - both in 1967 and today - for many to believe it could have been simply friendly fire.
More importantly, as we now know from declassified Israeli documents, some Israeli personnel in fact knew the Liberty was an American ship. Early in the attack an Israeli pilot radioed in the Liberty's hull number, and that information was passed to the Israeli Navy. Others inside Israel's chain of command also later testified that they were aware of the ship's identity before the torpedo strike. This is unfortunate, because had Israel stopped the attack at that point more than two dozen lives would have been saved. Based on this information, Israel's ambassador to the United States in 1967, Avraham Harman, insisted that some of the attackers be prosecuted and that American journalists be invited to cover the trial, which unfortunately never happened.
A couple of readers said that a thorough American investigation cleared Israel of wrongdoing. The reality is the U.S. Navy conducted a very shallow investigation in 1967, which remains a contentious point among those close to the Liberty story. The court of inquiry tasked to examine the assault lasted only eight days and called only 14 Liberty sailors to testify. Some witnesses were asked as few as a half dozen questions. American investigators never visited Israel, interviewed the attackers or reviewed Israel's military records. The final transcript of testimony of the Navy's investigation was only 158 pages. Compare that to the investigation the Navy conducted in the wake of North Korea's seizure of the spy ship U.S.S. Pueblo seven months later. More than 100 witnesses testified in that probe, generating a transcript that ran more than 3,300 pages.
The United States instead relied on Israel to conduct its own investigation of the attack, which ultimately exonerated those involved. That's part of the reason for the continued debate. When asked by a historian for his most prominent memory of the Liberty, former Vice Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Horacio Rivero Jr. answered: "My anger and frustration at our not punishing the attackers." Many American policymakers and survivors argue that if the attack was an error, why was no one to blame? The Israeli jurist who examined the case wrote that Israel's forces acted reasonably under wartime circumstances. A different standard might have applied had Israel not been at war. Nicholas Katzenbach, who at the time was second in command of the State Department, said the failure to prosecute anyone cemented the idea that the attack was not an accident. Prosecuting the attackers, as Israel's ambassador suggested, would have gone a long way to ending the affair.
Some readers have pointed out that Israel apologized and paid reparations to the crew, families of the men killed and the U.S. government. Why won't the issue go away? The case was really never about money. I think many wanted a better explanation as to why this happened--why so many died--and for those responsible to be punished. Those were some of the same demands that the State Department made, but ultimately failed to obtain. Given the close nature of U.S.-Israeli relations, those are answers that America could have and should have pressed for. While it may have been uncomfortable for policymakers at the time, I don't think it would not have caused any long-term harm to U.S.-Israeli relations, and I think would have prevented the Liberty from becoming the controversial issue that it now is more than four-decades later.
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