False Flag Attack? The USS Liberty
A false flag attack is when one party stages a fake attack upon themselves, to make it look like an enemy was to blame; thus justifying striking at the enemy. False flag attacks are the central claim made by many conspiracy theories, and one of the most popular is the case of the USS Liberty. This was an American ship in the Mediterranean during Israel's Six Day War with the Arab states in 1967. Although the United States was not involved in the conflict, the ship was attacked and nearly sunk by Israeli forces, killing 34 American sailors. Officially it was a case of accidental friendly fire, for which Israel accepted full responsibility and paid reparations; but many, to this day, consider that it was a false flag attack, and that the Americans and Israel conspired to stage the attack for some hidden purpose.
This is a difficult topic, because the issue of Israel looms large over every part of it. Because Israeli forces are the ones who attacked the ship, and because of the tenuous and divisive nature of the United States' political relationship with Israel, official accounts of the episode tend to walk on eggshells. If you point the finger at Israel, you get called anti-Semitic. If you diplomatically omit any mention of who attacked the Liberty, you get accused of covering it up. Survivors of the Liberty often express frustration over the omission. Citations issued to American sailors after the attack do not mention Israel; the monument at Arlington where six of the sailors are buried does not mention Israel. Survivors feel the United States cares more about appeasing Israel than it does about honoring the American sailors who fought and died. So, be aware that this is an emotional and contentious issue, but it's orthogonal to today's topic. Important as it is, it's mostly — but not entirely — outside the scope of what we're going to talk about today.
However, one part of this that is definitely germane to our topic is that anti-Israel sentiment — driven in no small part by the American hesitance to place the blame for this attack — is, in turn, a major driver of conspiracy theories. Anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment are not the same thing, one is racist and the other is political, and political opinions are perfectly valid; but they definitely feed each other and often pursue the same goals. Together, they guarantee that conspiracy theories placing blame for anything on either Jews or Israel will be around for a long, long time.
The USS Liberty (AGTR-5) was a Belmont-class electronic spy ship. Originally a World War II cargo ship, she was refitted and relaunched in 1964 as what the Navy called a "technical research ship" — nominally doing scientific research or whatever, but actually monitoring radio communications in whatever part of the world they were stationed in. In 1967, the Six-Day War pitted Israel against six Arab nations in a very violent and destructive conflict in which over 10,000 combatants were killed. Amid the prevailing belief that the Soviet Union was providing aid to the Arab states, the Liberty was planted just outside Egypt's territorial waters, listening and learning.
Israeli forces were actively engaged in a hot war; their fingers were on their triggers, and they were on high alert. What follows is the short version of what happened. Israel received reports that the Egyptian city of El-Arish, which Israel had just taken, was being shelled from the sea. The Israelis spotted the Liberty on both radar and by aerial surveillance. Two Israeli Mirage fighters arrived and attacked the ship with 30mm cannons and rockets; as it was not a combat ship, the Liberty had only four inadequate .50 caliber machine guns with which to fight back. Next, two Israeli Super Mystère fighters arrived, strafed it, and dropped napalm bombs, engulfing much of the ship in flames. The attack was broken off when one of the pilots recognized the ship's hull marking AGTR-5 was in the Latin, not the Arabic, alphabet.
Like everything else about the event, there are contradictory accounts of whether these communications to break it off were received by the three Israeli torpedo boats that had been tracking the Liberty. They now closed in, and their commander recognized that the Liberty had no artillery and could not have been shelling El-Arish, so he attempted to radio it for identification. Liberty's Captain McGonagle had only a handheld signal lamp still functioning, which he tried to use to answer; but the Israeli commander recognized that this was how Egyptian ships communicated. He grabbed a book of Egyptian naval vessels, and by the profile of the ship, identified it as the Egyptian transport ship El Quseir and attacked. The three torpedo boats opened fire with their 20mm cannons. They fired five torpedos; four missed, one struck the Liberty's research compartment, killing 25 intelligence servicemen. Only when the torpedo boats were close enough to read the Liberty's markings in Latin letters did they break off as well.
In all, 34 Americans were killed, 171 wounded, and the ship was heavily damaged. The crew was able to save it, but it was never again able to return to service.
Within hours, Israel acknowledged responsibility for the accidental friendly fire attack. Official apologies were made to the United States by the Israeli Prime Minister and Foreign Minister, and Israel paid some $13 million (around $108 million in today's dollars) to the families of the casualties and as compensation for the damage to the ship.
Immediately, a huge number of Americans doubted the accounts. And it wasn't just basement-dwelling, anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists. It included top US government officials, such as Secretary of State Dean Rusk, Admiral Thomas H. Moorer of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and US Senators such as Bourke B. Hickenlooper. All said they didn't believe for a minute that the attack was accidental friendly fire, and that there's no way the Israelis didn't know full well they were attacking an American ship.
In recent decades, the two most public faces of the debate have been the late Ward Boston, an attorney who had been chief counsel to the Naval Board of Inquiry in 1967, who has always maintained that Israel's attack was deliberate; and A. Jay Cristol, a retired attorney in the Judge Advocate General Corps (JAG) who did his later-life PhD thesis on the case. Among the massive amount of previously classified information he collected were audio tapes of Israeli radio communications, recorded during the event by an American EC-121 Warning Star electronic surveillance aircraft. His 2002 book The Liberty Incident: The 1967 Attack on the U.S. Navy Spy Ship gives his conclusion that the attack was a tragic accidental case of misidentification, just as all the official reports had concluded. Boston, however, is notable for responding to the publication of Cristol's book in 2004 by signing a declaration:
His declaration also charged Cristol with being "an Israeli agent," while Cristol has written of a broad network of organizations with Saudi Arabian ties and histories of anti-Semitism whom he believes wrote and then compelled Boston — who was then 81 years old — to sign the declaration. There's no way to avoid it — conspiracy theories involving Israel always mire one in a sty of anti-Semitism.
Nevertheless, conspiracy theorists have more than enough reason to doubt the official finding that the attack was accidental. Among the many points that are either unknown, disputed, or are contradicting, are whether the Liberty was flying an identifiable American flag; whether reconnaissance planes that overflew the Liberty before the attack made any effort to communicate; whether radio communications were being jammed, and by who; whether the Liberty's profile could have actually been mistaken for the El Quseir; how fast was the Liberty going, fast like an Egyptian warship or slow like an American spy ship; who shot first in the conflict with the torpedo boats; were the Israeli aircraft marked; whether the Israeli gunboats fired on the Liberty's survivors as they tried to get into lifeboats; did the radio communications support a right or a wrong identification of the Liberty; and a thousand other details, more than enough to fill the many books written on the subject, most of them by the conspiracy theorists.
And as you can guess, a huge number of investigations were conducted, including military, government, and independent. Every one of them — every single one — concluded that the attack on the Liberty was an accident, resulting from gross negligence, failure to follow procedures, and poor communications; and that Israel bears full responsibility and everyone involved should be punished accordingly. Remember the Liberty was in an active war zone, the Israelis were shooting and being shot at every day, and at the time they turned their weapons on the Liberty it was just one more enemy target. This heightened state was, no doubt, a major contributor to the Israelis' negligence.
These official reports and memoranda include:
But no matter how official, they're all considered bogus by those who insist on the conspiracy version — chief of which are much of the former crew, members of the USS Liberty Veteran's Association which offers a $10,000 prize to anyone who can prove Jay Cristol wrong.
But despite everything — all the reputable people who reject Israel's version of the story, all the accounts making it seemingly impossible that the Liberty was not identified — we have two incontrovertible points, either of which (to the truly skeptical mind) eliminate the possibility that this was a conspiracy, to all reasonable extents.
The first is something common to all large-scale conspiracy theories, which is the implausibility of keeping so many people silent for so many years, without anyone ever once blowing the whistle and revealing the conspiracy. This familiar concept was famously codified in 2016 by science writer David Robert Grimes when he published the seminal paper "On the Viability of Conspiratorial Beliefs," which actually gave the math, allowing us to find a realistic probability that a conspiracy involving a given number of people could go undiscovered for a given period of time. Based on analysis of actual conspiracies through history, Grimes found that you can keep a secret among a small number of people, or keep a secret for a short period of time, much easier than you can keep a secret among a large number of number of for a longer time. The equations are all laid out in his paper, but one example graph he gives shows that for a conspiracy involving 5,000 people to be kept secret for 50 years, the chances that that conspiracy actually existed are essentially zero.
The second is much simpler: Israel had absolutely nothing to gain by attacking the Liberty. They were completely dominating in the Six Day War, largely thanks to heavy support from the United States. Conspiracy theorists have offered a number of frail explanations. One of these is that Israel believed the Liberty was spying on them, not on Egypt — perhaps to learn of Israel's plan to invade the Golan Heights. Well, guaranteed it was spying on them in addition to the Soviet-backed forces, no secret there; but that's the price they paid for having so much support — no way would they ever risk losing it. If, on the other hand, Israel was trying to bring the US into the conflict on their side, they would have staged the attack using Egyptian forces, not their own — this is a shockingly irrational hypothesis. Other potential justifications only get weaker from there. Any number of historians and policy analysts have found no rational reason the Israelis would have done it intentionally.
And of course, the way the attack was done was completely inconsistent with an intentional attack. They would have gone all-in and stayed until the job was done, and leave no witnesses; they wouldn't have stopped after hitting it with only one torpedo, identifying it, and then staying around to render assistance — which is exactly what they did.
But there's really nothing one can say about incidents such as these that has any impact. People unfamiliar with the event are generally open to hearing the historical version; people who have been obsessing over it for decades are certainly not going to change their mind from whichever version they are immersed in. Especially when Israel and anti-Semitism are involved, obsessives are generally so deeply ideologically invested that facts no longer play any role in what they believe. And in light of this, the attack on the USS Liberty is an important lesson for all of us in keeping our priorities straight: keep your emotions separate from your understanding of the facts.
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