Viewers’ Guide to the History Channel’s “Cover Up: Attack on the USS Liberty”

A History Channel program to be broadcast on the evening of August 9 will reportedly charge that the US and Israel have covered up the facts behind the attack by Israeli jets and torpedo boats on a US intelligence-gathering ship during the 1967 Six Day War. The USS Liberty was steaming more than 10 miles off the coast of El Arish on June 8, 1967 when Israeli jets, responding to reports of shelling from the sea, attacked the ship with cannon and napalm. Soon afterwards Israeli torpedo boats arrived at the scene and also attacked after first being fired upon by the Liberty. The Israeli seamen later explained they mistook the Liberty for an Egyptian ship, the El Quesir, but when they realized their target was a US ship, they ceased fire and offered assistance. Tragically, thirty-four US personnel were killed in the attack, and another 171 were wounded.

Since the attack certain crewmen of the Liberty have charged that Israel deliberately and knowingly attacked the US ship, and have advanced increasingly complicated and even bizarre theories to explain Israel’s alleged motivation for such an act. In addition, author James Bamford has cited similar baseless theories in his two books on the National Security Agency – the actual intelligence gathering by the Liberty was the responsibility of personnel from the NSA.

The History Channel program, featuring extensive interviews with Liberty crew members, was originally scheduled to air some months ago, but was postponed in order to also include interviews with Israeli representatives, who had originally been excluded from the documentary.

Some Key Points to Watch For

• Many of the Liberty crewmen interviewed by the History Channel have in the past routinely charged – and will presumably charge in the program – that the US government, especially the Congress, has failed to investigate the attack on the Liberty because of supposed Jewish political power. In fact, contrary to these claims, there have been at least six government investigations which reached relevant conclusions as to the intent and state of knowledge of the Israeli attackers and commanders. Those investigations, and their results, are as follows:

Report Date issued Conclusion
C.I.A. report June 13, 1967 no malice; attack a mistake
U.S. Navy Court of Inquiry June 18, 1967 mistaken identity
Report by Clark Clifford July 18, 1967 no evidence ship was known to be American
Senate Select Committee on Intelligence 1979/1981 no merit to claims attack was intentional
National Security Agency 1981 Mistaken identity
House Armed Services Cmtee 1991/1992 No support for claims attack was intentional

The last investigation was spurred by White House Chief of Staff John Sununu, who, after meeting with Liberty veterans, referred them to Representative Nick Mavroules, chairman Subcommittee on Investigations of the House Armed Services Committee. After a one year investigation the matter was closed, the investigators evidently finding nothing to support conspiracy claims. (The Liberty Incident, Doctoral Dissertation, Judge A. Jay Cristol.)

Will the History Channel inform viewers that the Liberty incident has been extensively investigated, with no evidence uncovered that would indicate Israel knowingly attacked a US ship?

When interviewing those who still claim there have been no, or only inadequate, investigations, will the History Channel inform viewers to the contrary?

• The sworn testimony before the US Navy Court of Inquiry of many of the Liberty crew members contradicts charges that some of them are now leveling. For example, based on the claims of crewman Lloyd Painter, the History Channel website description of the program initially charged that the attacking Israeli jets and torpedo boats were unmarked. Unmarked attackers would strongly suggest that the US ship had been deliberately targeted in some sort of conspiracy. But, in fact, the ship’s captain, Cdr. William McGonagle, testified that he had identified the torpedo boats as Israeli, leading him to conclude that the attack had quite possibly been a mistake:

When the boats reached an approximate range of 2,000 yards, the center boat of the formation was signaling to us. Also, at this range, it appeared that they were flying an Israeli flag. This was later verified. It was not possible to read the signals from the center torpedo boat because of the intermittent blocking of view by smoke and flames. At this time I yelled to machine gun 51 to tell him to hold fire. I realized that there was a possibility of the aircraft having been Israeli and the attack had been conducted in error. (Sworn testimony of Cdr. William L. McGonagle, June 14, 1967; emphasis added)

According to History Channel executives, the film will summarize this testimony with the narration that “Captain McGonagle believes the torpedo boats may be Israeli and orders a cease fire.” Such a characterization would be extremely inaccurate and misleading.

Will the History Channel accurately recount to viewers Cdr. McGonagle’s sworn testimony that the torpedo boats were Israeli, and his conclusion during the attack that if the attacking jets were also Israeli, then the “attack had been conducted in error”?

• Many who claim that the attack must have been intentional argue that the Israeli jets and torpedo boats could not have missed the Liberty’s US flag, and therefore must have attacked knowing the ship was American. James Ennes, Jr., a Lieutenant on the Liberty, and one of the leading conspiracy proponents, makes this point repeatedly in his book Assault on the Liberty.

It is therefore quite ironic that Mr. Ennes, who was extensively interviewed by the History Channel, also argues in his book it would have been impossible for Cdr. McGonagle to recognize the flags and markings on the Israeli boats:

McGonagle must have been mistaken about sighting the Israeli flag at this point in the attack. For one thing, it would have been practically impossible to identify a tiny and wildly fluttering Star of David a mile away, particularly since any flags displayed by the torpedo boats would have streamed back, away from McGonagle and out of his line of sight. (Assault on the Liberty, p 149; )

Cdr. McGonagle, who had binoculars, obviously did not agree.

So, Ennis claims, the Israelis must have seen the US flag, but it was impossible that at exactly the same time the Americans could have seen the Israeli flag.Will the History Channel inform viewers of this glaring contradiction in Ennes’s position?

• In its web description of the program the History Channel eventually replaced “unmarked” attackers with “uniden
tified” attackers, a better though still inaccurate characterization. According to a History Channel executive, the program will not in its narration allege that the attackers were unmarked, but the charge will be leveled in an interview by crewman Lloyd Painter.

Curiously, Mr. Painter did not mention this charge in his sworn testimony. Lt. Painter testified, under oath, that as the jets first strafed the ship (which would be before they passed over the ship) he was:

… looking through the porthole at the gun mounts. I was looking through the porthole when I was trying to contact these two kids, and I saw them both; well, I didn’t exactly see them as such. They were blown apart, but I saw the whole area go up in smoke and shattered metal. And, at about the same time the aircraft strafed the bridge area itself. The quartermaster, quartermaster third class Pollard was standing right next to me, and he was hit, evidently with flying glass from the porthole… we both hit the deck, as well as Mr. O’Malley, who was my JOOD at the time. As soon as the first strafing raid had been made, we sounded general quarters alarm. The captain was on the bridge. He was in the pilot house at this time. I don’t know whether he was hit then or not, I can’t remember. It was so smokey. I took off for my general quarters station, which as I said before, was repair three on the mess decks. On the way down I was running as fast as I could. (Testimony of LTJG Lloyd C. Painter, June 14, 1967)

Thus, according to Lt. Painter’s sworn testimony he was looking at the Liberty’s gun mounts as the jets attacked, at which point he quite understandably “hit the deck.” When the first strafing run was over, Lt. Painter ran as fast as he could to his station below decks; he was therefore in no position to determine whether the attacking jets were marked or unmarked. At no point in his testimony did he claim that the jets were unmarked or even that he was in a position to tell.

Will the History Channel inform viewers that Lt. Painter’s sworn testimony contradicts the claims he makes before the cameras concerning “unmarked jets”?

• Another Liberty crewman, Signalman Russell David, has stated that he saw a Star of David on the attacking jets, contradicting Lt. Painter’s claims that the jets were unmarked.

Since the History Channel includes Lt. Painter’s charge, does it also include Signalman David’s refutation?

• There are also indications that Mr. Painter will claim on camera that when the USS Liberty put life rafts in the water these were machine-gunned by Israeli torpedo boats, which if true could well be a violation of the laws of war.

If Mr. Painter does indeed level this charge in the documentary he is contradicting both his own sworn testimony before the Court of Inquiry, and that of his Captain. The Court’s opening question to Lt. Painter, after name, rank and organization, was:

On 8 June 1967, at about 1400 hours, an incident occurred aboard the USS Liberty in which the vessel was attacked. Would you please relate to this Court of Inquiry what you recall concerning that incident?

Nowhere in his response did Lt. Painter mention anything about Israeli attacks on life rafts in the water. On the contrary, he testified that most of the life rafts had been damaged and set alight during the prior jet attacks on the ship, and that he and his crew pushed many of these burning life rafts overboard:

At this time [after the torpedo attack], the DC central passed the word to prepare to abandon ship. We then filed out to our life rafts which were no longer with us because they had been strafed and most of them were burned, so we knocked most of them over the side… All during this time in Repair Three, my men were fighting fires and knocking burning life rafts, etc.

What possible reason could Lt. Painter have had for omitting in his testimony the charge which he now makes, that Israel attacked the Liberty’s life boats after they were put in the water? Or does he claim that he did testify to this before the Court of Inquiry but that his testimony was tampered with? Does he therefore charge that even the US Navy is part of an alleged coverup?

Whatever the reason for the divergence between Mr. Painter’s present claims and his testimony, Captain McGonagle also never mentioned any attack on life boats during his testimony. On the contrary, he testified that after the torpedo attack some crewmen mistakenly put life boats in the water, and that he ordered them to stop because the ship was in no danger of sinking:

No bodies were noted in the vicinity of the ship following the explosion. Several life rafts, however, were released and placed into the water by various crew members whom I was unable to communicate with prior to their placing the boats in the water. They exercised their initiative on the scene, and no fault can be found with their estimate, not having the information that I had. When the messenger was sent to tell them to leave the lifeboats alone, that the ship was in no danger of sinking at that time, but that the lifeboats might be needed at a later time, no additional lifeboats were placed in the water.

Does it seem reasonable that Cdr. McGonagle, having mentioned in his testimony the placing of the life boats in the water, would somehow forget to tell the Court of Inquiry that these life boats were then attacked by Israel?

Will the History Channel inform viewers of the blatant contradictions between Mr. Painter’s sworn testimony and his present charges?

• The Israeli jets that attacked the Liberty were diverted from other targets, and consequently were armed with napalm rather than iron bombs. In a premeditated and deliberate attack meant to sink a ship, no aviator in the world would choose napalm over iron bombs. In the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor, for example, iron bombs sunk US battleships in minutes, and the Liberty, a converted freighter, was no battleship.

Will the History Channel inform viewers of the unlikelihood that Israel would attack any ship, much less a US ship, with such inappropriate weapons if the attack were premeditated rather than done at the spur of the moment?

• Friendly fire – mistaken attacks against allies or one’s own forces – are an unfortunate reality. For example, of the 24 British soldiers killed in the Gulf War, nine were as the result of a mistaken US attack. (AP, August 28, 1992)

That US air attack, on British armored personnel carriers in broad daylight, bore eerie similarities to the Liberty incident. According to press accounts:

… they had been killed on a clear day well behind the allied front line while awaiting instructions and relaxing inside their vehicles.

British officials contend that the two American pilots whose air-launched Maverick missiles turned the pair of vehicles into human incinerators e
ither ignored radio instructions or misread map coordinates. The pilots of the A-10 “tankbuster” warplanes contend they never received the coordinates and relied instead on information passed on by a fellow American F-16 jet fighter pilot as he left the area for refueling.

The conflict between the two accounts has left the parents puzzled and angry, their outrage compounded by the refusal of the U.S. government to provide direct testimony from the pilots to a coroner’s inquest taking place here – and by Britain’s refusal to press the case. (Washington Post, May 18, 1992)

The American pilots say they mistook the two British armored vehicles for Iraqi tanks because they were not displaying colored panels or other markings identifying them as allied vehicles. The British Defense Ministry, as well as witnesses at the hearings, insisted all of the vehicles, 30-ton armored personnel carriers called Warriors, were clearly showing friendly markings…

… When the first missile hit, Lance Cpl. Peter Fyfe said at the inquest on Friday, the men had just returned to the vehicle after stretching their legs.

Suddenly there was a tremendous explosion, “My mates were screaming and my hair was on fire and pieces of shrapnel were in my thigh,” said Corporal Fyfe, who was badly wounded. Three or four minutes later, a second missile slammed into another of the vehicles. (New York Times, May 11, 1992)

How could the US pilots misidentify and attack British armored vehicles in broad daylight in the desert? Is it possible they couldn’t tell the difference between the APC’s of our British NATO allies and the Soviet-supplied ones used by Iraq? How could they have missed the special markers that identified the vehicles as British?

The answer, of course, is that in the fog of war the US A-10 pilots missed the markers by mistake and misidentified the British armored vehicles, just like the Israelis who missed the Liberty’s flag (which was hanging down in still air) and misidentified her as an Egyptian ship.

The History Channel has run countless programs on the Gulf War – and not a single one has even suggested that the US knowingly attacked these British forces. Why then is the History Channel airing a documentary that suggests under similar circumstances that Israel deliberately attacked a US ship?

Another instructive example of mistaken attack occurred on June 2, 1967, just a few days before the Liberty incident, but this involved a US attack against the Russian freighter Turkestan in the North Vietnamese harbor of Cam Pha. According to the Soviet Captain of the vessel:

We were bearing all the markings of the Soviet government, a Soviet flag was flying from the stern mast. The stack was painted with a red stripe and a hammer and sickle… The visibility was excellent. There is no possibility of talking about an accidental attack …(As quoted in Cristol, p 158)

Secretary of Defense McNamara mentioned this incident in testimony to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1967:

Secretary McNamara: …In the case of the attack on the Liberty, it was the conclusion of the investigatory body headed by an Admiral of the Navy in whom we have great confidence that the attack was not intentional. I read the record of the investigation, and support that conclusion, ….

It was not a conscious decision on the part of either the Government of Israel–

Senator Hickenlooper: Perhaps not.

Secretary McNamara: (Continuing) To attack a U.S. Vessel.


Secretary McNamara: No. There is no evidence that the individuals attacking the Liberty knew they were attacking a U.S. ship, and there is some evidence, circumstantial, that they did not know it.


Secretary McNamara: Senator Hickenlooper, I don’t want to carry the torch for the Israeli. It was an inexcusable error in judgment.


Secretary McNamara: And an inexcusable error of professional tactics. I would simply point out to you that, at the same time, I was denying that we had struck a Russian ship in Haiphong Harbor [sic] and I proved to be in error. These errors do occur. We had no more intention of attacking a Russian ship than Israel apparently did of attacking an American ship. (Cristol, p 95-96)

Will the History Channel provide needed context to viewers by explaining that friendly fire incidents are unfortunately very common, and that the US has often been the attacking party, as in the examples above?

The disturbing statements of a leading Liberty crewman

James Ennes, one of the leading conspiracy proponents among the former Liberty crewmen, who was interviewed extensively by the History Channel, has made extreme statements that border on the anti-semitic in e-mail discussions on Prodigy. For example, in a message dated June 8, 1992 referring to Israeli Jews, Mr. Ennes stated:

… Consider their dilemma: For generations they wanted their own country as a haven from racists. Finally they got it. Gradually they learned that their “leaders” obtained the new country by murdering and frightening away the original owners. Gradually they learned that the new leaders were actually the worst kind of self- centered, amoralistic murderers – worse than the people they sought to flee from.

This was too much of a moral dilemma for many of them. Some drew silent. Others turned against the people who betrayed them and now led their new country. Others pretended that all was well and that the new country was surrounded by extremists and that this condition justified every kind of brutal excess.[sic] And over the years they have instilled this narrow view in their children who now accept it as religious dogma. It is a very sad situation indeed.

Of course, the people that Jews fled from were first and foremost the Nazis, so Mr. Ennes is saying that Israel’s leaders are “amoralistic murderers” who are “worse” than the Nazis.

In another message dated July 22, 1992, Mr. Ennes stated:

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… the fact is Israel would have no enemies if they did not constantly raid their neighbors, steal their land, take their water and kill their children.

Mr. Ennes’s statements are nonsense copied directly from his apparent good friends in the pro-Arab propaganda industry. Clearly, if before the attack on the Liberty Mr. Ennes was not an extreme anti-Israel partisan, he has become one since. His allegations concerning the Liberty must be viewed in that unpleasant context.

Will the History Channel disclose to viewers Mr. Ennes’s fanatical anti-Israel agenda? Will they disclose similar anti-Israel partisanship by certain other Liberty crewmen, who have perhaps been led astray by Mr. Ennes?

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