Attack on USS Liberty - A Mystery That Won't Go Away
By John Omicinski, Gannet News Service
WASHINGTON -- Thirty-four years after the spy ship USS Liberty was strafed, bombed, napalmed and blasted by Israeli attack jets and torpedo boats, scores of survivors still wait for Congress and the Pentagon to conduct a public investigation.

The June 8, 1967, Israeli air and sea attack killed 34 Americans -- Navy men and National Security Agency employees -- and wounded 171. Its unit casualty ratio of 69 percent is among the worst in U.S. history.

U.S. officials since the President Johnson years have thrown a blanket of secrecy over the USS Liberty disaster, but like Banquo's ghost in "Macbeth," it keeps reappearing to haunt the halls of Congress and the Pentagon.

It will be the focus of a History Channel documentary scheduled for 6 p.m. MDT Thursday, the first extensive TV treatment ever done by an American organization.

Veterans aren't confident the new attention will win sympathy on Capitol Hill.

"If the entire population of the country went after them with baseball bats, they still would not cough up an honest investigation," said John Gidusko, electronic maintenance officer aboard the ship.

"Congress won't touch it with a 10-foot pole. . . . The country really let us down," said George Golden of Virginia Beach, Va., the Liberty's engineering officer who won a Silver Star for heroism. Golden directed construction of a lumber brace that shored up an enormous torpedo hole torn into the Liberty's hull, allowing the crippled ship to limp across the Mediterranean to Malta.

But when he got back home and made speeches at Lions Club luncheons, said Golden, the Navy ordered him to stop.

"The Navy gave me a few dollars for a new sea bag and for a camera that got hit with shrapnel," John Hrankowski of Greece, N.Y., a fireman aboard the ship.

"I got no apologies from Israel or from the USA. Just got told to shut up."

John Borne, who has written a book about the Liberty case, says the veterans have been ignored by liberal and conservative lawmakers alike because the issue appeals neither to the left nor the right.

"They didn't fit into any category, so they didn't get support," said Borne.

Much is known about the case; much is not known.

When the attack occurred on a bright, sunny day, the USS Liberty was about 15 miles off the Sinai coast, sailing a back- and-forth, elliptical course.

It was loaded to the gunwales with electronic equipment and NSA experts monitoring radio traffic during the Arab-Israeli War.

The Liberty was taking orders directly from the Pentagon and from the NSA. That split command was one of Liberty's problems.

At the last moment, the Joint Chiefs of Staff agreed with the NSA that the Liberty could do a good job even if it were 100 miles away.

But orders telling it to move got lost and didn't arrive in time.

Israel eventually took blame, calling it a mistake and saying no pilot or torpedo boat crewmen saw a U.S. flag on the ship. The veterans sharply disagree.

But many questions hang like tangled threads from a 34-year-old suit.

Was the Liberty flying the American flag? Vets say absolutely yes. The Israelis have said none was seen. Also, Israelis say there was little wind, so perhaps a flag hung limply. Weather reports at the time of the attack, however, say the wind was blowing at 12 knots, a good breeze at sea.

Did Washington know that Israel would invade Syria, as it did the next day? Or did Israel want the Liberty destroyed so its plans would not be betrayed to the United States before a victory in Syria was a fait accompli?

Why did Capt. Joe Tully, skipper of the carrier USS Saratoga stationed off Crete, recall 12 fighter-bombers before they could help the beleaguered Liberty? Adm. Lawrence Geis, 6th Fleet commander at the time, told wounded Liberty officer Dave Lewis his orders came directly from Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, according to Borne.

Did Johnson come on a direct line and tell the admiral, "We are not going to embarrass an ally," as Geis told the wounded officer? Borne said Lewis told him that Geis said Johnson "did not care if the Israelis sank the ship."

How could Adm. Thomas Moorer, chairman of the Joint Chiefs at the time, call it a "wanton sneak attack" meant to "sink the Liberty and leave as few survivors as possible," while McNamara concluded, "These errors do occur"?

And Dean Rusk, secretary of State in 1967, said in a British TV documentary years later that he "never myself accepted the Israelis' purported explanation. Accidents don't occur through repeated attacks by surface vessels and by aircraft. It obviously was a decision taken pretty high up because it involved combined forces."

Liberty skipper Capt. William McGonagle won the nation's highest award, the Medal of Honor. But why was McGonagle's award ceremony staged at the out-of-the-way Washington Navy Yard, when most recipients are honored front- and-center at the White House?

Why did Rear Adm. Isaac Kidd, director of the official inquiry, threaten Liberty survivors -- even before official questioning started in Malta -- with courts-martial, fines, and dishonorable discharges if they told what happened outside of the inquiry, as several Liberty crewmen charged?

And why did Adm. John McCain, commander of U.S. Naval Forces Europe (and father of the Arizona senator) override many objections and questions from Staff Legal Officer Merlin Staring and ramrod the Naval Court of Inquiry report?

Sen. McCain also has brushed off Liberty veterans, saying in one letter, "The United States government has thoroughly investigated the incident."

How could the Israelis, with a global reputation as sharp military operators, have mistook, as they claimed, the USS Liberty -- "the ugliest, strangest looking ship in the U.S. Navy" according to Moorer -- for a much smaller Egyptian coastal transport, the El Quseir, which wasn't a warship?

Why did the Pentagon frantically try to order the USS Liberty to move 100 miles offshore several days before the attack, and why did the communications become stalled, somehow, in the Philippines?

In any Washington controversy, a call for public hearings is a predictable response by lawmakers. Yet, none has been held.

Over the years, at least five secret investigations on Capitol Hill have produced no public reports.

Freedom of Information Act requests by Liberty veterans have been denied on secrecy grounds.

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