Saturday, November 9, 2019

The Best Short Explanation for Why the USS Liberty Conspiracy Theory is Off-Base

The USS Liberty after being attacked by Israeli warplanes

The blogger behind A Blog for Dallas Area Catholics has written a neat little summary of the issues surrounding the 1967 Israeli attack on the USS Liberty. It is contained within a larger piece discussing the anti-Israeli views of some traditionalist Catholics and other members of the anti-establishment right.

I first encountered USS Liberty conspiracy people on the left. Since anti-Israel and outright anti-semitic views now largely emanate from the left, this was not surprising. But it's also not surprising to learn that some of them can be now be found among nationalists, America Firsters, hard-core Trumpers, "groypers" and the like.

I suppose I'm in some ways a nationalist and America Firster, but I also believe that there's no better way to put America First than to often put Israel first, at least among our allies. It's prudential as well as just.

That's right, justice isn't only for Catholics.

No, Israel didn't deliberately or intentionally attack the USS Liberty. It's a silly and more and more often malicious conspiracy theory. What follows is one of the best short explanations as to why the theory is off-base.
The attack on the USS Liberty on June 8, 1967, is one of those incidents in history that has attracted far more attention and controversy than it has any right to. A US surveillance ship in international waters was attacked by Isreali fighter aircraft on the 4th day of the Six Day War. Israeli aircraft were constantly traversing this region of the Mediterranean going to and from targets in Egypt, whose military they obliterated in the course of a few days. The USS Liberty was in the area under NSA orders to gather intelligence on both sides, but particularly the Egyptians, who used mostly Soviet hardware. The ship was strafed and torpedoed repeatedly, with 34 men killed, 171 wounded, and the ship almost sunk. 
Israel quickly apologized for the attack and paid some degree of compensation, but ever since, many people, including a number of the Liberty’s survivors, have claimed that the vessel was deliberately attacked by Israel, for what reason is never quite made clear, or makes much sense. The US was at that time Israel’s largest and just about only ally. How Israel would benefit from this attack is also far from clear. 
But, some survivors and those who feel the attack was deliberately made claim, Israel had to know it was a US ship! It was flying an American flag! Israel had been notified of the ship’s presence! Unfortunately, the notification of the ship’s presence never made it to the Israeli Air Force and the squadron involved in the attack. False reports of Egyptian ships shelling Israeli units in Sinai caused alarm in Israel’s chain of command. Aircraft were dispatched to investigate. They found the Liberty, and attacked. 
But still, the flag! They should have known it was a US ship! Also, the Liberty was a converted freighter, which looks nothing like a warship. They should have, they must have known. 
This is where a little knowledge of military history enters in. In fact, misidentification of ships by aircraft is a constant, severe, and ongoing problem. Air force pilots are rarely well trained in ship identification. Even naval aviation pilots often make severe mistakes. How severe? A few examples: 
  1. British pilots attacked US ships in several of the Malta convoys during WWII in the same region – the Mediterranean. 
  2. US pilots at Coral Sea, the Eastern Solomons, Santa Cruz, and the Philippine Sea constantly misreported attacks. The Japanese did the same in all these battles, and more. The Japs sank USS Neosho, an 8000 ton oiler, at the Coral Sea, and thought they had sunk the USS Lexington, a 40,000 ton, 900 foot long aircraft carrier (they did, later). US pilots reported sinking battleships and aircraft carriers when they had actually slightly damaged a freighter or a destroyer. US pilots attacked US ships. German pilots attacked Italian ships. This kind of thing happened all the time. There were literally dozens of such incidents. 
  3. At the invasion of Sicily, Allied warplanes attacked allied ships of the invasion fleet right off the coast, in spite being briefed that is exactly where they would be! 
And these were largely aircraft piloted by very experienced men who were experts in identifying ships! It goes to show how incredibly difficult it is to ID a ship from a fast moving aircraft. And fast moving is very relative. Those mistakes in WWII were made by men flying aircraft at perhaps 250 kts. A jet fighter will be going twice that speed, making identification all the more difficult. During the infamous Gulf of Tonkin incident, Vice Admiral and later Vice Presidential candidate James Stockdale came within an ace of unloading his ordinance on a US destroyer, mistaking it for a North Vietnamese PT boat, which is about 1/6th the size of a destroyer. 
The same applies to the torpedo boats which attacked the Liberty. While not as common as aircraft friendly fire attacks on ships, in the fog of war instances of “blue on blue” or accidental attacks by surface ships are still quite frequent. During WWII, the motor torpedo boats – PT boats in US parlance – were a frequent source of accidental, US-on-US attacks. One particularly famous incident was during the 2nd Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, when the US’ best battleship admiral in history, Willis Augustus Lee, had to make an emergency, plain-language, unencrypted call to the nearby PT boat squadron base to keep them from attacking his ships. And that, too, was a close run thing. Now, most of these same side surface ship attacks occurred at night, when visibility is of course much worse, but they have been known to happen at day. So, what happened with the Liberty is not all that surprising. 
And I think that’s one of the reasons this has become such a persistent conspiracy theory, one maintained, to a large degree, by some of the Liberty’s survivors. If I’m right, their suffering and the deaths of their friends were the result of an accident, and thus devoid of meaning. That’s a hard thing to take. It’s too much for some people. So, instead of accepting this likelihood, they have created a mythos that the attack was deliberate.
Read the rest of the piece, where the blogger more generally discusses the phenomenon of anti-Israeli sentiment among some on the right, here.


  1. Mahound, normally I just love your stuff, but this one is off base.

    "Conspiracy"? That'd all be very nice, except-- Israel itself now openly admits the attack was deliberate, and that the boats & planes involved knew very well exactly what the Liberty was. The optics of the 1967 war were more important.

    This is just ONE link of many out there.

  2. No reason for Israel to attack (repeatedly)? The USS Liberty was collecting information about THEM as well as about the other side.

  3. If you put a ship in a war zone, don't act surprised if you are attacked by one or both sides.

  4. I served on board a cruiser homeported out of the Charleston Naval Base from 1972-76. I found out that the USS Liberty and other spy ships were tied up at a pier on the base. Again, I was there in 1967 and the Liberty had been attacked in 1967.---The U.S. was trading information with Egypt and Israel warned US spy ships off. The US refused to respond so they were attacked by Israeli war planes.