The Liberty Incident

Interview of Robert S. McNamara

Transcript of a telephone interview of Robert S. McNamara (RSM) by A. Jay Cristol (AJC) on Friday, 17 December 1993. Mr. McNamara has reviewed the tapes and transcripts of this interview and granted permission for its publication after the correction of some punctuation, the correction some other technical imperfections, and the deletion of several vocalized pauses ("uh").
Mr. McNamara stressed that all of his telephone conversations with the Joint Chiefs and other military commanders and officers were recorded. On his recommendation I filed a FOIA request with the Department of Defense seeking tapes or transcripts of conversations of Robert S. McNamara recorded on June 8, 1967. The results of that FOIA request will be posted when received.

RSM: I apologize for not being able to take your call yesterday.

AJC: No problem sir. I am, as I say, I was just about, I was going to call you and, I spoke to Ms. Moore and she said 9:00.

RSM: Well, I glanced through the papers you sent up in November and to tell you the truth, I really have very little to add to what my testimony was before the Senate, but I know that there have been allegations, relatively recent past, within the past few months, I guess, that we, the President and presumably me, knew that the Liberty was going to be attacked and that the Israelis were going to do it and God knows what all. I have never seen any basis for substantiating those and my recollection today is that the testimony I gave before the Committee, I guess it was chaired by Gore, was correct then and as far as I know, is correct today.

AJC: I personally believe that what you had 26 years ago was probably more up to date in your mind than your recollection this much later.

RSM: That's certainly the case.

AJC: And of course, the testimony speaks for itself.

RSM: Yeah.

AJC: But if I could run by you...

RSM: Oh, go ahead; go ahead.

AJC: For example: There are claims that when the aircraft that launched to defend the Liberty...

RSM: Right.

AJC: Were recalled, that they were recalled by your voice and then that wasn't sufficient for the people out there, and so the President himself got on the telephone and...

RSM: I'm not sure I read that it was my voice that recalled them but I did read or somebody spoke to me about a belief that the President personally recalled the aircraft; that is just absolutely inconceivable to me. In the first place it is inconceivable. The person who was a reporter, who was talking to me about this, and I don't recall that he alleged that I, that there was a hearing of my voice, but I do recall that a reporter either spoke to me or wrote that planes took off from a U.S. carrier to apparently, I don't know what, to attack the planes that were attacking the Liberty or something like that, and the President personally recalled them to the carrier. I told the, whoever it was, the reporter that was absolutely inconceivable to me. I can't imagine the President doing anything like that. The line of communication to a carrier, for example, would certainly be through the military channels; through the Chiefs. By the way, I knew by '67, but I didn't know earlier, that at least some of the early period I was in the Defense Department, I didn't really know that the record...that communications between the Chiefs or between a person such as me, using the military channels that went through the Chiefs, were all recorded, and in some ways, that's a very sound procedure, for example, I'm, I'm doing some work now on Viet Nam and my communications with the Commander-in-Chief of the Pacific Fleet, in relation to the Tonkin Gulf incident which Hickenlooper, I see raises in that Congressional testimony that you sent to me were recorded, and therefore, today I can go back and examine what I said to Admiral Sharp and what he said to me about the attacks that Hickenlooper is referring to in connection with the Liberty. Hickenlooper says "well, we started a war over the attack on the Maddox and the Turner Joy and the Tonkin Gulf and here we are allowing Israelis to attack the Liberty and we don't do a goddamn thing. But the interesting point is that the communication with the, with CINCPAC, commander-in-Chief of the Pacific Fleet, relating to the Tonkin Gulf incident was all recorded. Now if there are recordings of my voice to the carrier or the President's voice to the carrier, fine, but I, I would defy anybody to find them, because I just don't think the communications took place.

AJC: Well, nothing that I have found indicates that happened, but...

RSM: But, I would say this...If it did happen, I would think there would be tapes of that.

AJC: There are some wild claims. I have uncovered, so far, 12 of 13 official U.S. investigations which all came to the same conclusion that you came to, the C.I.A., the Clifford Report, Admiral Kidd's Court of Inquiry, and there are 13 other stories which are, some are more fantastic than each other, it's unbelievable, but some of the tales that are told as to the intrigue and conspiracy theories that people have come up with...

RSM: Well, one of the things I would suggest to you is that, this is typical. I mean that this meaning an error is typical, when the, you remember the Korean aircraft that was shot down over Russia...

AJC: Yes sir.

RSM: ...a few years ago whatever it was called...

AJC: 007

RSM: That's right. At the time, I remember Reagan lashed out at the Russians, so this is what you expect of, of what do we call them criminals, and I said I was absolutely sure I knew what had happened, that some poor commander, Soviet commander, sitting there with his gun pointing in the sky monitoring their airspace concluded this was an enemy aircraft, and just shot it down and that didn't have a damn thing to do with the people in the Kremlin.

I think all the evidence since then points to that. And the reason I was so certain of my position at the time when the 007 was shot down was, that that I had been involved in those things. As a matter of fact, I think I mentioned in response to Hickenlooper, that shortly before the Liberty was attacked, through error, or at least I thought the investigation showed it was through error.

We had had a similar situation in [Cam Pha] Harbor where the President and I had been very, very much opposed to the Chief's plan to attack some targets in the [Cam Pha] area. And one of the reasons we were opposed to it was that there was a Russian ship in the harbor at the time and we were fearful, the Chiefs didn't want to attack the Russian ship, but we were fearful that through error, the ship would be hit and the Chief said My God no, this is a daylight raid and the target is some distance from where the ship is tied up and we guarantee you that there will be no attack on the ship. So I was at home, so finally the President and I gave in and the attack took place and my recollection is, I was at home on a Sunday, it was not long before the Liberty was hit and I was home on a Sunday and the Pentagon called and said get down here immediately. Those goddamned Russians are liars, cheaters and so on. They were claiming we attacked their ship and we know we didn't and we've examined all the evidence and the crews when they came back, the debriefings and it's absolutely clear we didn't attack them and we think you should say that publicly on T.V. So I go down to the Pentagon and I say these damn lying Russians, its what you'd expect of them, they say we attacked their ship, we didn't, and they are just trying to create an incident. Well, a few months later; so that was the case, as far as the [Cam Pha] case was concerned. At about the time I was talking to the Committee on the Liberty, we learned it was much later, and this is the only time it happened to me in seven years in the Department. We learned that at a low level, there had been a cover-up. A General Officer from the Pentagon went out to Thailand just on an inspection trip and he happened to visit the base from which these aircraft that had attacked had been launched. And in the course of his conversation, he learned that when they came back the gun camera on one of the planes had shown that the Russian ship had been attacked so a Major ordered the destruction of the film of the gun camera. It was never reported. Now my only point related to this long circuitous story is, that these things happen. You know human beings are fallible we all make mistakes and therefore, when I saw that Korean plane shot down, I was pretty sure I knew what had happened and it is plausible to me that the same thing happened in connection with the Liberty; human error.

AJC: Well, there are some folks that say Israelis never make mistakes; therefore, it couldn't have been a mistake.

RSM: Let me tell you, they do. They are pretty damn good. I'll agree to that but they do make mistakes.

AJC: I've uncovered quite a number. In fact, I think right near where the Liberty incident occurred at Abu Ageila, that one of the biggest tank battles of the 1956 war occurred between two of their own units.

RSM: Sure.

AJC: But there have been claims by this fellow, Ennes, who wrote the book "Assault on the Liberty" which, to my great surprise, is supported by Admiral Tom Moorer, that the aircraft that were launched from the carriers America and Saratoga to go to the aid of the Liberty were armed with nuclear weapons.

RSM: I just can't believe it. I do not believe that. I don't care whether Tom Moorer said it or didn't say it. I just don't believe that.

AJC: Well, I've talked with Vice Admiral Don Engen, who was Commanding Officer of the America; and with the Strike Operations Officer, Jerry Johnson, who retired as a four star a while ago who was on the Saratoga; and with several of the pilots and my information from those sources is that they were armed with bull-pup missiles.

RSM: The reason I say I can't believe it is, that's a totally inappropriate weapon for dealing with the kind of potential attackers of the Liberty. You don't need nuclear weapons. Conventional explosives will do all that you need to do. That is just totally inconceivable to me. I've never heard that, by the way.

AJC: Well...

RSM: I can't imagine why Moorer would ever endorse that. Is that in writing or...

AJC: Well, the allegation is made by Ennes, the fellow who was an officer aboard the Liberty who was wounded.

RSM: Yeah.

AJC: And then he wrote a book and he makes this claim in the book and, I thought it was incredible because my with experience in the military and 18 years as a Naval Aviator, I know you don't just launch nuclear weapons on a moment's whim.

RSM: Of course not.

AJC: And to collect them and arm them and be prepared to launch them, that doesn't make any sense but I did want to run that by you...

RSM: To the best of my knowledge, I never heard of it but I don't believe it.

AJC: Several other points, if I may. The Phil Goulding's book, on page 97,...

RSM: I glanced at that. Yes.

AJC: He makes mention that, he says within a half hour you and the Joint Chiefs concluded that the Soviet attack was not likely. In talking to Dean Rusk, he told me that when the group met in the Situation Room that they were very much concerned because they didn't know who had attacked and they were really worried about where this going. Was it the Russians? Was it going to lead to a nuclear exchange? Was World War III coming? Then he said that there was a sense of relief when the word came through that it was the Israelis that had attacked.

RSM: Let me suggest something on that. I don't recall that Situation Room meeting at all, as you could imagine, its, whatever it was, 20-odd or 30 years ago. My memory is not very good on that, but there is a possible explanation of that or a possible way you could check whether Dean's recollection is correct. An odd thing happened in those days, and I don't know whether it happened before or after the Liberty. I would guess it was before and if it was, it makes Dean's explanation a little less likely. What happened was, I went into.... I arrived at the Pentagon at 8:00 in the morning and one morning, it was shortly after the Israelis attacked the Egyptians, knocked them out, so it was almost surely before the Liberty incident. The Liberty incident occurred when? It was in early July...?

AJC: June the 8th, sir.

RSM: June 8th, oh I'm sorry. Yes. Well, it may have been after the Liberty, but in any event, it might have been before and this you could check and it throws a little light on Dean's comment. After the Israelis preempted the Egyptian strike which all of us believed was coming...we...Johnson, Dean, and I thought we had persuaded the Israelis not to preempt, because we feared that if the Israelis preempted the Egyptian attack which they wished to do in order to reduce their casualties, we feared that if the combat, escalated conflict, escalated, and we ultimately were required to come in, in support of the Israelis, the American people would be less likely to support U.S. support of the Israelis, if the Israelis had attacked first. Even though we knew and the Israelis knew that the Egyptians were about to attack. In any event, it turned out that, contrary to our beliefs, Johnson, Rusk and I had not been persuasive with the band of Israelis. They did preempt. They knocked the hell out of the Egyptians and then also, the Jordanians. And then we were concerned that the Russians might back the Syrians in responding to the Israeli attack on the Egyptians and the Jordanians for fear, perhaps, that the Israelis were then going to attack the Syrians so the Sixth Fleet was moving to the west in the Mediterranean. They were moving towards Gibraltar and with the President's authority, we turned it around and sent it steaming back toward, not toward Israel, but to the east. Not to support an Israel attack on Syria at all, but rather to have it relatively near Israel in the event the Soviets supported a Syrian attack on Israel. So that was the condition. In any event, I arrived at my office at 7:00, either just before or just after the Liberty attack and at 7:15 a.m., the telephone rang and it was the Duty Officer, we had a General officer or an Admiral in the War Room on duty 24 hours a day, seven days a week and the Duty Officer said that Secretary Kosygin is on the Hot Line and wants to talk to the President. What should we tell him? I said, "Well, why do you call me?" Now, you won't believe this but this is now June '67 and the Hot Line was installed following the Cuban Missile Crisis so it probably was installed in early '63 so the damn thing had been there four years and he said to me "Well, I'm calling you because the Hot Line ends in the Pentagon." I didn't even know that. It had never been used other than by the sergeants who tested it to make sure that the thing worked. And, of course, it was a teletype, it wasn't a telephone. In any event, the thing ended in the Pentagon. So I said to the Duty Officer, "Well, I don't know," our defense budge then was about $40 billion. I said, "You take a few thousands of dollars out of that $40 billion and you figure out how the hell to patch this Hot Line from the Pentagon over to the Situation Room in the White House and I'll call the President and we'll figure out what to do." So I called the President, I knew...this was about 7:30 by now, and I knew he was asleep, but he had a sergeant outside his door. Poor sergeant. The sergeant would take the calls. And when I called him, the sergeant answers, and I said "I want to speak to the President," and he says, "The President is sleeping," and I said "Hell, I know he is asleep Sarge, wake him." He said, "He doesn't like to be awoken." And I said "Look goddamn it, wake the President." So the President comes on the phone, he said "What in the hell are you calling at this time of the morning for Bob?" And I said "Well, Kosygin is on the Hot Line Mr. President and wants to speak to you. How would you wish to handle it?" He said, "My God, what do you think we ought to do?" I said, "Why don't we reply that you'll go down to the terminal in 15 minutes or so, and respond to him then and in the meantime, I'll call Dean Rusk, and Dean and I will meet you in the Situation Room in 15 minutes." So he said, "Fine." So we go over, and we get Dean and the three of us meet down there and the message comes in, I'm not entirely clear now whether the first message said what I'm about to say, or whether it was the second message, but in any event, a message over the Hot Line said "If you want war you're going to get war." Now the reason that the Soviets said that was that they saw the Sixth Fleet steaming back there and they interpreted that as our determination to back an Israeli attempt against Syria and they just wanted to make clear that they wouldn't tolerate it. So I mention all this simply to throw light on why, if this Hot Line incident came after the Liberty, then I think Dean's report of what happened in the Situation Room, when we got information on the Liberty attack is credible, if it came, if the Hot Line came before the Liberty, I would think it's less credible. In any event, I don't recall.

AJC: Are you familiar with the report made by Clark Clifford in his capacity as Chairman of the President's Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board?

RSM: Well, I may have heard about it but have no recollection at the moment.

AJC: Apparently, that report came to the same conclusion you did but for some reason, it is still classified. I was wondering...could you give me any guidance or suggestion on how to request declassification of that. I think, at this point, it's no longer particularly sensitive and I've talked to several congressional staffers who are cleared to read it and have read it and said there is really nothing new in it...

RSM: I don't know. There is a very rigid procedure on how you get these damn things. My secretary came in this morning and reminded me that some months ago I had, maybe a year ago, I'd just written to the FBI an asked if I could have access to my file. I was just curious what the file said and, I think, there is now a public policy that any citizen can have access to his FBI file. Then my secretary came in this morning and literally, a half-hour ago, and said, "You know, we've never, although months have passed, we've never gotten that information." I mention this only to say the same damn thing applies to declassification. It takes forever. And this answer is I don't know who to apply to.

AJC: I see.

RSM: If you just apply, I think if you wrote to.... What I would suggest is you just write the Secretary of Defense and say that you would like to know the procedure for obtaining declassification of that particular document and he won't reply but somebody in his office surely will.

AJC: Well, thank you sir. And what about the, is there a log kept on the Hot Line messages?

RSM: Oh sure. Sure. Now, I'm certain there is. I have made no effort to get access to it, but at some point, as a matter of fact, I will probably do so, because I may do some writing about that period. But the answer is, I'm certain there is a log kept. And also, I would guess the incident I'm referring to, the first use of the Hot Line, in particular this point, and I think my memory is correct, my memory may be wrong in believing that the first Hot Line message from Kosygin was "If you want war, you'll get war", but I'm sure that as part of the exchange that message came through. In any event, I'm absolutely positive there was a Hot Line call from Kosygin to the President shortly after the Israelis attacked the Egyptians.

AJC: Well, I know that was, that clearly was the first time it went into use, during the '67 war.

RSM: That's correct.

AJC: There were several Hot Line messages that day. Like at 9:48 in the morning cause...

RSM: What day was it?

AJC: The 8th of June.

RSM: So the Hot Line was used the 8th of June and the Liberty incident was also on the 8th?

AJC: Well I think the Hot Line may have been used before the 8th of June for...but I mean it was the first time it was used, but strangely enough at 9:48 in the morning, there was a Hot Line message from Kosygin to Johnson and at 9:49, Walt Rostow called the President with the news of the attack on the Liberty.

RSM: Yeah.

AJC: And then going through President's Log, again at 11:00 there was Johnson to Kosygin on the Hot Line telling him that they had the word, that it was a mistake and Israel had attacked and then again...

RSM: I think it might be interesting for you just to, assuming you could check it, I don't know.

AJC: Well, I will certainly try...

RSM: The logs, you might, you might check a day or two earlier. When did the Israelis attack the Egyptians?

AJC: They attacked at 7:15 on the morning of the 5th.

RSM: On the 5th. So, I would guess that the earliest the Hot Line message that I refer to might have come through would be the 7th, maybe.

AJC: I will try and go to the period of the war, the 5th say through the 10th.

RSM: I think I would do that and see whether because I am almost positive that, in fact I know the Hot Line was activated before 9:30 or 11:00 in the morning, on some morning, I don't know which morning, but I'm almost positive of that.

AJC: Do you have any suggestions as to any other person that I should interview in connection with my research project?

RSM: Well, I'm just trying to think. Let's see, this is '67. Have you talked with whoever was Secretary to the Navy at the time, I don't know who it might have been probably...

AJC: No, I didn't talk to the Secretary of the Navy.

RSM: June '67, I don't know whether Paul Mitchell was Secretary at the time or not.

AJC: I talked to the Commander of the Sixth Fleet...

RSM: Well, he wouldn't know...

AJC: And I talked to Admiral McDonald who was Chief of Naval Operations.

RSM: Oh, well look, Mc Donald would know more than the Secretary of the Navy, so...

AJC: And then of course, I think probably the most knowledgeable person was Admiral Kidd who did the Court of Inquiry.

RSM: Yeah.

AJC: And...

RSM: Sounds to me as though you have done everything that could possibly be done.

AJC: And I've talked to another member of the Board and the Counsel for the Board and I have a pretty extensive list, but I always ask that question hoping that when the reference goes back to people I've already interviewed, then I'll know I'm done.

RSM: Well, I congratulate you on the thoroughness of your research. It sounds very good to me. I wish you well on your project.

AJC: Well, I thank you and I'll just tell you one little anecdote. When I was in Israel at the U.S. Embassy and I asked the U.S. Naval Attache, this was a few years ago, if he had a personal opinion as to whether or not this was a mistake and he said, "Well the only time in all my naval career that I was ever wounded was when I was serving on the U.S.S. Worden out off of Viet Nam and we were attacked by Air Force F4s.

RSM: This is my point. We all make mistakes. And it took me a long time to learn it back in the Defense Department, but boy I tell you, Harold Brown had somewhat of the same experience. He was with me then but later became Secretary, as you know. He told me after he had finished his tour as Secretary, he said "The first information he always received was always wrong."

AJC: I think Goulding goes into that in detail in his book.

RSM: That's no exaggeration but, but that's what he said. The reason he said it was so often the information he received was wrong and that's just human.

AJC: And of course many times you receive just a fragment and inferences are drawn from the fragment.

RSM: You're absolutely right, you're absolutely correct. And beyond that we're almost, we see things through our emotions and we frequently attach to, well you know it as a Judge, better than I do, we frequently attach to evidence our emotional beliefs.

AJC: Well, I can't thank you enough for taking the time to talk with me and let me also tell you how much I enjoyed spending those couple of days with you in Miami at that Seminar...

RSM: Thank you. I did, too. Thanks very much, Judge.

AJC: Any my very best wishes for a healthy and happy new year and joyous holiday season.

RSM: Very good. Same to you, sir.

AJC: Thank you, sir. Bye.