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 Posted Saturday, July 24, 1999

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They Dare to Speak Out by Paul Findley

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Part II


Chapter 6 (continued)

Legal Adviser's Report Becomes Top Secret

DURING this same period--the weeks immediately following the assault on the Liberty, an assessment of the "lsraeli Preliminary Inquiry 1/67" was prepared by Carl F. Salans, legal adviser to the secretary of state. It was prepared for the consideration of Eugene Rostow. The report, kept top secret until 1983 and apparently given only cursory examination by Secretary of State Dean Rusk, examines the credibility of the Israeli study and reveals as has no other single document the real attitude of the U.S. government toward the Israeli attack on the USS Liberty. It was a document too explosive to release.

Item by item, Salans demonstrated that the Israeli excuse could not be believed. Preparing the report immediately after the attack, he relied mainly on the limited information in Admiral Isaac Kidd's court of inquiry file. He never heard Ennes, Golden, nor any of the principal witnesses. He found enough there to discredit the Israeli document thoroughly. The items Salans examined were the speed and direction of the Liberty, aircraft surveillance, identification by Israeli aircraft, identification by torpedo boats, flag and identification markings, and time sequence of attacks. In each instance, eyewitness testimony or known facts disputed the Israeli claims of innocent error.

For example, the Israeli report contended that the Liberty was traveling at a speed of 28 to 30 knots, hence behaving suspiciously. Its actual speed was five knots. Israeli reconnaissance aircraft claimed to have carried out only two overflight missions, at 6:00 and 9:00 A.M. Aircraft actually overflew the Liberty eight times, the first at 5:15A.M. and the last at 12:45 P.M.

The Israeli report charged that the Liberty, after refusing to identify itself, opened fire. Captain McGonagle testified that the only Signals by the torpedo boats came from a distance of 2,000 yards when the attack run was already launched and torpedoes on their way. The blinker signals could not be read because of intermittent smoke and flames. Not seeing them, the Liberty could not reply. Immediately thereafter it was hit by a torpedo and 25 sailors died instantly.

The Israeli report contended that the Liberty did not display a flag or identifying marks. Five crewmen testified that they saw the naval ensign flying the entire morning and until the attack. When the flag was shot away during the air attack, another larger flag was hoisted before the torpedo onslaught began. Hull markings were clear and freshly painted. The Israelis tried to shift responsibility by asserting that the attack originated through reports that the coastal area was being shelled from the sea. Salans said it should be clear to any trained observer that the small guns aboard the Liberty were incapable of shore bombardment.

The Salans report was forwarded September 21, 1967, to Under Secretary of State Rostow. This means that high officials of the administration knew the falsity of Israeli claims about the Liberty soon after the assault itself.

With a document in hand so thoroughly refuting the Israeli claims, the next logical step obviously would be its presentation to the Israeli government for comment, followed by publication of the findings.

Instead, it was stamped "top secret" and hidden from public view, as well as the attention of other officials of our government and its military services, along with the still-hidden Israeli report. Dean Rusk, secretary of state at the time, says that he has "no current recollection" of seeing the Salans report. He adds, however, that he was never satisfied with the Israeli purported explanation of the USS Liberty affair."

The cover-up of the Salans report and other aspects of the episode soon had agonizing implications for United States security.

If the Navy had been candid about the Liberty episode even within its own ranks, the nation might have been spared the subsequent humiliation of an ordeal that began five months later when North Korean forces killed a U.S. sailor and captured the USS Pueblo and its entire crew. The agony ended when the crew was released after experiencing a year of captivity under brutal conditions.

Pueblo commander Lloyd M. Bucher later concluded that if he had been armed with facts of the disaster in the Mediterranean, he might have prevented the Pueblo episode.

In the late summer of 1967, still ashore but preparing to take command of the ill-fated ship. Bucher learned of the Liberty' s misfortune. Headed for hostile waters near North Korea, he believed his mission would profit from the experience and asked for details. Bucher recalls how his request was brushed aside: "I asked my superiors about the disaster and was told it was all just a big mistake, that there was nothing we could learn from it." When he later read the Ennes book, Bucher discovered that the Liberty crew had encountered many of the same problems his ship faced just before its capture. Both ships had inadequate means for destroying secret documents and equipment, and, in a crisis, even the ship itself. Both had serious shortcomings in control procedures. Bucher blames "incompetency at the top" and "lack of response to desperate calls for assistance during the attack." He speaks bitterly of the Pueblo' s ordeal:

We had a man killed and 14 wounded. Then a year of pretty damned severe brutality which could have been prevented had I been told what happened to the Liberty . It's only because that damned incident was covered up as thoroughly as it was.

The cover-up of the attack on the Liberty had other, more personal consequences. On recommendation of the Navy Department, William L. McGonagle, captain of the Liberty, was approved by President Johnson for the nation's highest award, the Congressional Medal of Honor. According to Ennes, the captain "defied bullets, shrapnel and napalming" during the attack and, despite injuries, stayed on the bridge throughout the night. Under his leadership, the 82 crewmen who had survived death and injury had kept the ship afloat despite a 40-foot hole in the side and managed to bring the crippled vessel to safe harbor.

McGonagle was an authentic hero, but he was not to get the award with the customary style, honer, ceremony and publicity. It would not be presented personally by the president, nor would the event be at the White House. The Navy Department got instructions to arrange the ceremony elsewhere. The president would not take part. It was up to the Navy to find a suitable place. Admiral Thomas L. Moorer, who had become chief of naval operations shortly before the order arrived, was upset. It was the only Congressional Medal in his experience not presented at the White House. He protested to the Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara, but the order stood. From the two houses of the legislature for which the medal is named came not a voice of protest.

The admiral would have been even more upset had he known at the time that the White House delayed approving the medal until it was cleared by Israel. Ennes quoted a naval officer as saying: "The govemment is pretty jumpy about Israel. The State Department even asked the Israeli ambassador if his government had any objection to McGonagle getting the medal. 'Certainly not,' Israel said." The text of the accompanying citation gave no offense: it did not mention Israel.

The secretary of the Navy presented the medal in a small, quiet ceremony at the Navy Yard in Washington. Admiral Moorer said later he was not surprised at the extraordinary arrangements. "They had been trying to hush it up all the way through." Moorer added, "The way they did things I'm surprised they didn't just hand it to him under the 14th Street Bridge."

Even tombstone inscriptions at the Arlington National Cemetery perpetuated the cover-up. As with McGonagle's citation, Israel was not mentioned. For fifteen years the marker over the graves of six Liberty crewmen read simply,"died in the Eastern Mediterranean." No mention of the ship, the circumstances, or Israel. Visitors might conclude they died of natural causes. Finally, survivors of the ship banded together into the USS Liberty Veterans Association and launched a protest that produced a modest improvement. The cover-up was lifted ever so slightly in 1982 when the cemetery marker was changed to read, "Killed USS Liberty ." The dedication event at gravesite was as quiet as the McGonagle ceremony years before. The only civilian official of the U.S. government attending, Senator Larry Pressler, promised further investigation of the Liberty episode but two years later had done nothing.

The national cover-up even dictated the phrasing of letters of condolence to the survivors of those killed in the assault. In such circumstances, next of kin normally receive a letter from the president setting forth the facts of the tragedy and expressing profound feelings over the hardship, sacrifice and bravery involved in the death. In fact, letters by the hundreds were then being sent to next of kin as the toll in Vietnam mounted.

To senior White House officials, however, death by Israeli fire was different from death at the hands of the Vietcong. A few days after the assault on the Liberty, the senior official in charge of President Johnson's liaison with the Jewish community, Harry McPherson, received this message from White House aide James Cross:

Thirty-one [sic] Navy personnel were killed aboard the USS Liberty as the result of the accidental [sic] attack by Israeli forces, The attached condolence letters, which have been prepared using basic formats approved for Vietnam war casualties, strike me as inappropriate in this case.

Due to the very sensitive nature of the whole Arab-Israeli situation and the circumstances under which these people died, I would ask that you review these drafts and provide me with nine or ten different responses which will adequately deal with this special situation.

The "special situation" led McPherson to agree that many of the usual paragraphs of condolence were "inappropriate." He suggested phrases that de-emphasized combat, ignored the Israeli role and even the sacrifice involved.

Responding to the "very sensitive nature" of relations with Israel, the president's staff set aside time-honored traditions in recognizing those killed in combat. McPherson suggested that the letters express the president's gratitude for the "contribution to the cause of peace" made by the victims and state that Johnson had tried to avert the Israeli-Arab war.

While Washington engaged in this strange program of coverup, Liberty crewmen could remember with satisfaction a moment of personal pride, however brief. On the afternoon of June 10, 1967, as the battered ship and its crew prepared to part company with the USS America for their journey to Malta and the court of inquiry, carrier Captain Donald Engen ordered a memorial service for those who had died during the assault. Held on the deck of the America where more than 2,000 sailors were gathered, the service was an emotional moment. Afterwards, as the ships parted, Engen called for three cheers for the Liberty crew. Petty Officer Jeffery Carpenter, weakened from loss of blood, occupied a stretcher on the Liberty's main deck. Crewman Stan White lifted one end of the stretcher so Carpenter could see as well as hear the tribute being paid by the carrier. "Such cheers!" Engen told me. "Boy, you could hear the cheers echo back and forth across the water. It was a very moving thing."

It was the only "moving thing" that would be officially bestowed in tribute to the heroic crew.

"This Is Pure Murder"

Books have perpetuated myths about the Liberty . Yitzhak Rabin, military commander of Israeli forces at the time, declared in his memoirs published in 1979 that the Liberty was mistaken for an Egyptian ship: "I must admit I had mixed feelings about the news [that it was actually a U.S. ship]--profound regret at having attacked our friends and a tremendous sense of relief [that the ship was not Soviet]." He wrote that Israel, while compensating victims of the assault, refused to pay for the damage to the ship "since we did not consider ourselves responsible for the train of errors."

Lyndon Johnson's own memoirs, Vantage Point, continued the fiction that the ship had been "attacked in error." Although his signature had appeared on letters of condolence to 34 next of kin, his memoirs reported the death toll at only ten. He cited 100 wounded; theactual count was 171. He added, "This heartbreaking episode grieved the Israelis deeply, as it did us."

Johnson wrote of the message he had sent on the hotline to Moscow in which he assured the Soviets that carrier aircraft were on their way to the scene and that "investigation was the sole purpose of these flights." He did not pretend that protection and rescue of the ship and its crew were among his objectives, nor did he record that the carrier aircraft were never permitted to proceed to the Liberty even for "investigation." The commander-in-chief devoted only sixteen lines to one of the worst peacetime naval disasters in history.

Moshe Dayan, identified in a CIA report as the officer who personally ordered the attack, made no mention of the Liberty in his lengthy autobiography. According to the CIA document, Dayan had issued the order over the protests of another Israeli general who said, "This is pure murder."

The cover-up also dogged Ennes in the marketing of his book. Despite high praise in reviews, book orders routinely got "lost," wholesale listings disappeared mysteriously, and the Israeli lobby launched a far-flung campaign to discredit the text. The naval base in San Diego returned a supply of books when a chaplain filed a complaint. Military writer George Wilson told Ennes that when the Washington Post printed a review, "lt seemed that every phone in the building had someone calling to complain about our mention of the book."

The Atlanta Journal called Ennes's Assault on the Liberty a "disquieting story of Navy bungling, government cover-up and Israeli duplicity that is well worth reading." The Columbus Dispatch called it "an inquest of cover-up in the area of international political intrigue." Journalist Seymour Hersh praised it as "an insider's book by an honest participant," and the prestigious Naval Institute at Annapolis called it "probably the most important naval book of the year."

Israel took swift measures to warn U.S. readers to ignore the reviews. The Israeli Foreign Office charged, "Ennes allows his very evident rancor and subjectivity to override objective analysis," and that his conclusions fly in the face of logic and military facts." These charges, Ennes later said, were "adopted by the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith for distribution to Israeli supporters throughout the United States." A caller to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee was told that the book was "a put-up job, all lies and financed by the National Association of Arab Americans." Ennes said the "emotional rhetoric" caused "serious damage to sales and a marked reluctance of media executives to allow discussion of this story."

As the result of radio talk shows and lecture platforms on which Ennes appeared, he heard from people "all over the country" who had been frustrated in efforts to buy his book. Several retail book stores, seeking to order the book from the publisher, Random House, were given false information -- they were told the book did not exist, or that it had not been published, or that it was out of print, or that it was withdrawn to avoid a law suit.

Talk show host Ray Taliaferro caused a stir one Sunday night in 1980 when he announced over San Francisco radio station KGO that he would interview Ennes the following Sunday. Over 500 protest letters poured into the station, but the program went on as scheduled. Public response was overwhelming, as listener calls continued to stream in for a full hour after the two-hour show with Ennes had ended. Two phone calls arrived threatening Taliaferro's life -- one on a supposedly private line.

At the invitation of Paul Backus, editor of the Journal of Electronic Defense, Ennes wrote a guest editorial in 1981 on the implications of the Liberty incident, stating that friendly nations sometimes feel compelled to take hostile actions. In the case of the Liberty, he added,

Because the friendly nation is the nation of Israel, and because the nation of Israel is widely, passionately and expensively supported in the United States, and perhaps also because a proper inquiry would reveal a humiliating failure of command, control and communications, an adequate investigation ... has yet to be politically palatable.

Backus was stunned when the owners of the magazine, an organization of military and defense-related executives known as the Association of Old Crows, ordered him not to publish the Ennes editorial. Association spokesman Gus Slayton wrote to Backus that the article was "excellent" but said "it would not be appropriate to publish it now in view of the heightened tension in the Middle East." Backus, a retired Navy officer, resigned: "I want nothing more to do with organizations which would further suppress the information." The Ennes piece was later given prominent play in a rival magazine, Defense Electronics which later found it a popular reprint at $3 a copy.

As Ennes lectured at universities in the midwest and west in 1981 and 1982, he encountered protests in different form. Although most reaction was highly favorable, hecklers called him a liar and an anti-Semite and protested to administrators against his appearance on campus. Posters announcing his lectures were routinely ripped down. Wording identical with that used by the Israeli Foreign Office and B'nai B'rith in attacks on the book appeared in flyers distributed by local "Jewish Student Unions" as Ennes spoke to college audiences.

Criticism of the Ennes book seemed to be coordinated on a national -- even intemational -- scale. After National Public Radio read the full text of the book over its book-reading network, alert local Anti-Defamation League spokesmen demanded and received the opportunity for a 10-minute rebuttal at the end of the series. The rebuttal in Seattle was almost identical with a document attacking the book issued by the Israeli Foreign office in Jerusalem. Both rebuttals matched verbatim a letter criticizing Ennes that had appeared in the Jacksonville (Florida) Times-Union.

Ennes's misfortunes took an ironic turn in June 1982 when ABC's Nightline cancelled the broadcast of a segment it had prepared on the 15-year reunion of the Liberty crew. The show was pre-empted by crisis coverage of Israel's invasion of Lebanon, which had begun the day before. In early 1983, Nightline rescheduled the segment, but once again Israel intruded; this time an interview with its new U.S. ambassador, Moshe Arens, took the allotted time. Meanwhile, the edited tape and 15 reels of unedited film had disappeared from the studio library. (Ennes's book may have cost the former captain of the ill-fated Pueblo an appearance on ABC's "Good Morning America" television show in 1980. Bucher had been invited to New York for a post-captivity interview. Suddenly the interview was withdrawn. A studio official told Bucher only that he had heard there were problems "upstairs," but then he asked Bucher, "Did you have a book review published recently in the Washington Post ?" He had indeed, a review which heaped praise on the Ennes book).

Later in 1983, the Jewish War Veterans organization protested when the Veterans of Foreign Wars quoted Ennes to support its call for "proper honors" for those killed on the Liberty and again when James R. Currieo, national commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, referred to the "murderous Israeli attack." Currieo excited Jewish wrath even more when he published in the VFW magazine a letter to President Reagan inviting the White House to send a representative to the cemetery to help honor the men who died. There was no reply.

Four years after publication of Assault on the Liberty, Ennes is still receiving a steady flow of mail and telephone calls about the episode. Elected by his shipmates as their official historian, he became editor of The USS Liberty Newsletter . Meanwhile, not wishing to be fettered to an endless struggle of conscience, he is writing another book on an unrelated subject and trying to leave the Liberty matter behind. He finds it cannot be left behind. The book continues to generate a swirl of controversy that will not go away.

Another retired officer, Admiral Thomas L. Moorer, applauds Ennes's activities and still wants an investigation. He scoffs at the mistaken identity theory, and says he hopes Congress will investigate and if it does not, he favors reopening the Navy's court of inquiry. He adds, "I would like to see it done, but I doubt seriously that it will be allowed."

Asked why the Johnson administration ordered the cover-up, Moorer is blunt: "The clampdown was not actually for security reasons but for domestic political reasons. I don't think there is any question about it. What other reasons could there have been? President Johnson was worried about the reaction of Jewish voters."

Moorer says the attack was "absolutely deliberate" and adds, "The American people would be goddam mad if they knew what goes on."

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