The Liberty Incident

The Totality of the Evidence Says "Mistake"

by Captain A. Jay Cristol, USNR (Ret.)

A response to the article "Friendless Fire" by David Walsh which was published in the June 2003 issue of the U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings (58-64). An abridged version of this reply was published in the September 2003 issue of the U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings.

David Walsh's article "Friendless Fire, Liberty Revisited" in the June 2003 issue of U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings mentions my name 55 times, as well as my book, "The Liberty Incident," and my dissertation. He writes with lots of style but very little accuracy. He describes my research as supporting Israel's position about the attack. My research examines the ten most significant official United States investigations of the incident (five of them congressional) as well as dozens of widely different conspiracy theories. In addition, I studied the Israeli investigations and conducted my own independent investigation in the United States, Israel, Egypt and England. My research is primarily a review of the Official United States position, not an argument on behalf of Israel. I earned a Ph.D. from the Graduate School of International Studies at the University of Miami for ten years of research, culminating in a doctoral dissertation "The Liberty Incident" which is on file in the Library of Congress, Number 98-135842. Then I wrote a book, "The Liberty Incident" which updates the research to 2002. Many items of original evidence which were too voluminous to print in the book or the dissertation may be viewed as original documents on my website. The last element of my research was completed on July 7, 2003 when the National Security Agency released the last bits of significant classified data.

The article does not disclose that Walsh has supported Liberty conspiracy stories for over a decade. He told the intentional attack story to Thames TV in 1986 and was the author of a Liberty aftermath piece published by the Kuwaiti News Agency in June 1988. The Proceedings article identifies Walsh as a consultant on the Thames TV video "Attack on the Liberty" and on the 20/20 television program (21 May 1987). The Proceedings article does not report that the Thames program did not adopt his conspiracy theories and that the 20/20 program with Barbara Walters and Hugh Downs flatly rejected the intentional theory and concluded with the statement "because there are mistakes."

The Walsh article contains at least 25 false or inaccurate statements, all of which are discussed in my book, "The Liberty Incident". Because of space limitations in the U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings only two of Walsh's false statements could be discussed in my comments and discussion letter published in the September issue. More detailed response is provided in this article.

A standout box titled "Former NSA Officials Agree" and signed David Walsh, states that four top NSA officials confirmed to Mr. Walsh that they know of no one at the National Security Agency who does not believe the attack on the Liberty was intentional. Walsh quoted former NSA officials, "Israeli pilot conversations recorded during the attack...made it absolutely certain they knew it was a U.S. ship" and that they were "unaware of any agency official...who dissented from the deliberate conclusion." This is the same claim made previously by James Bamford. However, on April 24, 2001 the Baltimore Sun reported:

Yesterday, an NSA spokesperson questioned a point made in the book about the USS Liberty. "We do not comment on operational matters, alleged or otherwise; however, Mr. Bamford's claim that the NSA leadership was 'virtually unanimous in their belief that the attack was deliberate' is simply not true."

The Liberty was the platform for performance of an NSA mission. Twenty-five NSA personnel died in the attack. The NSA had every reason to be angry with Israel and to blame Israel for the attack.

On January 21, 2003, after being denied release of the audio tapes the NSA EC-121 recorded on June 8, 1967, I brought suit in federal district court to compel the NSA to declassify and release the tapes of transmissions recorded June 8, 1967 and other related information. For years, the conspiracy theory supporters have claimed that these tapes contain transmissions of the Israeli fighter pilots reporting the sighting of an American flag on the Liberty before and during the attack as stated by Walsh in his article. Additional intentional attack theories include the Liberty's NSA compartment recording incriminating transmissions as well as a U.S. submarine nearby making intercepts of incriminating material.

On July 7, 2003, the NSA gave up defending my lawsuit and released to me the original recordings made by their EC-121 aircraft, the translations of the transmissions, work papers on the translations and the secret messages sent by the NSA to the White House on June 22, 1967. All this material may now be seen on the National Security Agency website as well as this website. In addition to the released material, the NSA put three specific conspiracy myths to bed. The NSA confirmed they had no recordings of any Israeli transmissions intercepted before, during, or after the attack made by the USS Liberty, nor any such intercepts from a U.S. submarine, and no intercepts by the EC-121 aircraft before or during the attack. What the NSA did release was the recorded transmissions of Israeli helicopter pilots being dispatched to a ship that had been identified as Egyptian and which confirmed that the American flag on the Liberty was not observed by the Israeli helicopter pilots until 1512, some 30 to 45 minutes after the attack was over and while Israel was attempting to conduct rescue operation. A reading of the NSA translations makes it quite clear that the Israelis did not identify the Liberty as American until almost three quarters of an hour after the attack had terminated.

But the NSA went further. It declassified an additional portion of page 64 of the NSA 1981 report on the attack of the Liberty. That newly declassified material, posted on the NSA website on July 8, 2003 says:

While these reports [the NSA EC-121 intercepts] revealed some confusion on the part of the pilots concerning the nationality of the ship, they tended to rule out any thesis that the Israeli Navy and Air Force deliberately attacked a ship they knew to be American.

Mr. Walsh quotes former CIA director Richard Helms, who said in a memoir published 35 years after the attack, that in his opinion the attack was deliberate. Walsh did not mention that Helms also said in that same book that he was not involved in the CIA inquiry about the Liberty incident and also that the opinions he expressed in the book were not the official positions of the CIA.

What is the official position of the CIA? On September 19, 1977, the Director of Central Intelligence appeared on the ABC television program Good Morning America and stated that it was the considered opinion of the CIA that the Israeli government had no knowledge of the USS Liberty prior to the attack. On February 27, 1978, the Director of Central Intelligence responded by letter to five questions put to the agency by Senator James Abourezk. In response to question 5:

Finally, could I have your judgment and that of the Agency you head, based on information acquired by the Agency from all sources, that the Israeli attack on the USS Liberty was deliberate or an honest mistake?

Admiral Stansfield Turner, Director of Central Intelligence, responded:

It remains our best judgment that the Israeli attack on the USS Liberty was not made in malice toward the United States and was a mistake.

Mr. Walsh claims that Admiral Thomas Moorer supports the deliberate theory. However he fails to mention that while Admiral Moorer was CNO, the seventh and final endorsement on the U.S. Navy Court of Inquiry by the Office of the CNO approved the report of the Court of Inquiry. The Court of Inquiry made 52 Findings of Fact. The most significant findings were:

1. Available evidence combines to indicate the attack on the USS Liberty on 8 June was in fact a case of mistaken identity.
6. There are no available indications the attack was intended against a U.S. ship.

The Court of Inquiry report was endorsed (first endorsement) by Commander in Chief Naval Forces, Europe, Admiral John S. McCain (father of Senator John McCain) as follows:

15. The foregoing comments by the convening authority lead to an overall conclusion that the attack was in fact a mistake.

Walsh quotes James Ennes and the Liberty Veterans Association, "the Court's Findings of Fact were unsupported by the evidence, contravening Navy Rules of Procedure." In the third Endorsement to the report, Judge Advocate General, Rear Admiral Wilfred Hearn concluded: "8. The proceedings in this Court of Inquiry have been conducted in substantial compliance with the requirements of the manual of the Judge Advocate General and are therefore legal."

Mr. Walsh states (p. 59) that Air Force Major General Morrison (Ret.) was offended and Army Lieutenant General Odom (Ret.) was astonished when told of a display in a museum honoring the attackers of the Liberty. I would likewise be offended and astonished if I learned of such a display. Rear Admiral Zeev Almog (Ret.), a former Chief of the Israel Navy and Rear Admiral Nir Maor (Ret.), the present curator of the Israel Navy Museum at Haifa, were offended and astonished upon reading Walsh's claim because it is false. There is not now, nor has there ever been, a display in the Israel Navy Museum "honoring the attackers" of the Liberty or even mentioning the tragic incident. On display in the museum is the bell and helm of a torpedo boat which participated in the attack. It is there because it was the last Israeli Navy motor torpedo boat to be decommissioned, along with numerous other bells and helms of other decommissioned Israel Navy ships. It is marked only with a small plaque in both Hebrew and English which simply reads "Bell and helm of motor torpedo boat 203". I included a picture of the helm and plaque in my dissertation. Mr. Walsh has not produced one shred of evidence to support his false claim.

James Ennes is quoted (p. 61) as saying that his testimony was not entered into evidence at the U.S. Navy Court of Inquiry, however, Mr. Ennes has never disclosed the context of that testimony. When I began my research Mr. Ennes was one of the first people I contacted. He was kind enough to sell me some material about the Liberty Veterans Association but declined to talk to me or to respond to my letter dated August 14, 1988 asking him to disclose the specific items of evidence upon which he relied. (It should be noted that since Mr. Ennes was wounded in the first minutes of the air attack and taken below decks, his personal knowledge of what followed is limited.) Mr. Ennes does not offer evidence, he merely repeats charges.

Walsh refers to the "Salans Report", as does Ennes, terming it "devastating". How a comparison by Salans of three reports, each of which concluded that the attack was a tragic mistake, is "devastating" to the mistake explanation is difficult to understand. Serious researchers may read it and reach their own conclusions.

Walsh claims I have ignored the survivors (p. 62). I have communicated with various survivors and supplied them, at their request, with documents and audio tapes at no charge. I attended the 1991 annual meeting of the Liberty Veterans Association at the invitation of Liberty Veterans Association President, George Golden. Substantial interesting material provided by Liberty crew members is included in my book.

Walsh refers to Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara as the "supernova" of my admirers but claims his stock answer to Liberty researchers is "I remember nothing about the incident." I have no way of knowing what "stock answer" Secretary McNamara gave to other researchers. Perhaps after 36 years his memory is not as complete as it was when he testified before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations in July 1967, about a month after the event which was investigated by his Department of Defense. When I taped an interview with Secretary McNamara on 17 December 1993, his memory and knowledge of the incident were also quite good.

Walsh quotes Ennes (p. 62) "not a single one of us [survivors] agrees with Cristol." While I have declined to name survivors who believe the attack was a mistake because I do not wish to make trouble among ship-mates, one Liberty officer (who was awarded the Silver Star and Purple Heart on June 14, 1968 for his heroism on that terrible day for saving lives and contributing to saving the ship) stated his agreement with my conclusion that the attack was a tragic mistake in an email dated July 16, 2003 to John Gidusko, a former Liberty crewman. Gidusko responded by email calling him a "traitor."

We are blessed to live in a free country where we may form any opinion we chose. A reasonable person who wishes to make an intelligent decision should view all of the evidence, separate the charges from the evidence and then reach whatever conclusion is most persuasive based on the totality of the evidence.

The Liberty remains as Walsh describes her, "a sort of flying Dutchman, sailing forever" sadly propelled on her unending voyage by the dual powers of the public appetite for conspiracy stories and by pure hate of persons and organizations with their own agendas who continue to irritate and manipulate the survivors without concern for the agony they cause. The conspiracy buffs and hate-mongers will not let healing or closure of this 36 year old wound take place. The crew of the Liberty suffered harshly while performing military service on behalf of the United States. They justly earned their Medal(s) of Honor, Silver and Bronze Stars, and other awards for valor. They are entitled to be honored and respected for their service and their sacrifice. It is now time to allow their wounds to heal and for closure. God bless the gallant crew of the USS Liberty and God bless America.