In 2014, I was completing a book about Lyndon Johnson. Titled “Faustian Bargains,” it focused on Johnson’s cronies and hangers-on, the favors he extracted from them and the bribes he offered in exchange. It portrayed the man as one of the great hypocrites in history, a racist who sponsored a civil rights bill. Johnson was a ruthless character who has been granted credibility by servile biographers.
Several writers I know believe that he had foreknowledge of the Kennedy assassination. I wasn’t sure. But I was glad to be done with him.
One evening, just before “Faustian Bargains was published, I received a call from a researcher based in Austin, Texas who had a question for me. Will you be discussing Johnson and his role in the attack on the USS Liberty? I drew a blank.
I had never heard of the USS Liberty. Yet what if there was crucial information about Johnson that had eluded me. As soon as I hung up, I looked up “USS Liberty,” on google and there it was: films, narratives, interviews and a documentary called “Dead in the Water” that raised many questions about the hidden history of this event.
I discovered that so successful had been the cover-up of this murderous attack on unarmed sailors that much of the general public knew nothing about this extraordinary episode in American history in which an American intelligence ship had been attacked by a close and much favored ally, the state of Israel. On the afternoon of the attack, Israel admitted its role. Occurring in the midst of the 1967 Six Day War, this attack was so vicious and protracted, involving rockets and machine guns and napalm as well as boats firing torpedoes, that it was apparent that the objective was to sink the Liberty and drown everyone on it; there were to be no survivors.
I added a chapter about the USS Liberty to “Faustian Bargains,” but there were perplexing issues that demanded further investigation. One was whose idea was this atrocity, this murder of innocents? Answering this we could penetrate motive : the why of the story. Why would Israel plan and execute so cruel and senseless an attack on their one ally (France had just broken with them)? What did Israel have to gain?
As one of my biographical subjects, the legendary detective story writer Dashiell Hammett, put it to a young fellow soldier stationed in Alaska where Hammett edited the base newspaper during World War II, anyone can reveal HOW something happened. Why don’t you try to find out why, Hammett asked? The chagrined soldier who was seeking his approval was Eliot Asinoff, who went on to write a book about the Chicago Black Sox scandal, called “Eight Men Out.”
Why, I asked myself, would Israel attack an unarmed surveillance ship with the obvious motive to sink the ship and drown everyone on it?
This is a question that has befuddled everyone who tackled this subject, even Jay Cristol, a Florida bankruptcy judge who wrote a book about Liberty from the Israeli point of view. Even Cristol is forced to ponder why Israel would so act against their own interests, even as, perplexed, he is forced to accept Israel’s claim that the whole thing was an “accident” and a “mistake” because they believed they were attacking an Egyptian horse carrier.
So I began the book that we are discussing today, “Blood In the Water.” Its subtitle, “How the United States and Israel conspired to ambush the USS Liberty,” reflects the thesis of the book. “Blood in the water” focuses on who was to blame, how the attack came to be, and, of course what Lyndon Johnson had to do with it. One of the books about the attack, by the way, was authored by the son of one of the surviving sailors, John Scott, who died recently; it leaves out Johnson’s role entirely. In 2014, James Scott would serve as the consultant for an al-Jazeera television documentary about the attack and it too leaves out Johnson’s devious, and cruel and well-documented role in these events. The major source for Johnson’s part is our own Commander Dave Lewis.
I had written investigative books about unresolved historical issues before. Before long, I had unearthed the telephone number of retired naval commander Dave Lewis, to whom my book is dedicated. Dave Lewis, who is known to many of you, is kind and soft-spoken man. He is a worldly man of consummate ethics; locating Dave Lewis may have been the luckiest day of my writing life.
Although it proved to be the most productive relationship I have ever had with a source, it wasn’t all that easy to set up an interview. Commander Lewis was not all that eager to set a time for us to meet. He lived very far away, he pointed out, in northern Vermont just five miles from the Canadian border. It would cost a great deal to travel to see him. Living three hours from the nearest airport, he noted, he was all but inaccessible. It was cold, it was snowy a good part of the year. Perhaps we should confine ourselves to telephone interviews, which he was willing to do.
I almost was persuaded. Then I pulled myself up short, maybe by instinct, maybe because I never like to leave a stone unturned. I knew better than to settle for the telephone. The most valuable interviews are done face to face, with a tape recorder running and the interviewer speaking as little as possible. So I found myself in the spring of 2014 at Manchester Airport waiting to be picked up for the three hour drive to Colebrook.
As soon as I arrived, we headed for the Masonic Lodge building. On the second floor of the Masonic Temple, in the dining room, a quiet harmonious place for taping, we began. There was no one else in the building that late afternoon. Dave had the combination to the doors because he was a Mason and a Past Master. He answered all my questions, and schooled me in cryptology, about which I knew nothing, and in the structures of the U.S. Navy about which I knew next to nothing.
We talked for days and when he complained that I had “interrogated” him I believed him. Four years later, after hundreds of emails and telephone conversations I believed that I had gotten the story. The joke was on me: two months ago, when it was too late for it to appear in my book, Dave confided that the men had a nickname for the perfidious ship’s captain, William McGonagle: Behind his back, the sailors called him “Magoo.” A person not to be taken seriously. Dave was right to hold this back. Had I known it, I would have used this telling tidbit which illuminates the character of the commander of Liberty who ultimately proved to be such a disappointment to his men.
Nearly all the books written about the attack on the USS Liberty focus on the attack itself: how on the sunny afternoon of June 8th, 1967, jet fighters suddenly appeared and bombarded the ship relentlessly, picking off every sailor visible on deck, firing rockets and machine guns. They aimed in particular for the antennae on deck, knocking out every one of them, save for one, a fact that alone reveals that the attack was premeditated. Since “Liberty” was an unarmed surveillance ship, there was no retaliatory fire. The attacking planes had been darkened over and carried no identification marks, a violation of international law.
The blood of dead and dying sailors soon washed the deck of the USS Liberty. People ran for cover. The attackers zeroed in on the stretcher bearers and those who rushed out on deck to tend to their wounded comrades. They also aimed at the fire fighters, who were attempting to put out the fires set by the napalm that the planes dumped on “Liberty.” There was only one doctor to tend to 300 men. The mess hall was turned into a makeshift hospital.
My book re-recreates the attack as well as the arrival of the torpedo boats and how Israel attempted to fulfill its goal of sinking Liberty by firing torpedoes, one of which penetrated the ship’s hull. Dave Lewis was injured by the torpedo which exploded ten feet from where he was standing.
I include these details and many more, but the story, I discovered, began much earlier. I wanted to find out how “Liberty” came to be placed in the East Mediterranean, 12 miles off the coast of Egypt, in the middle of the Six Days War, in harm’s way. There was no apparent purpose, no reason why surveillance was necessary, no intelligence to be sought. Whose idea was it to attack an unarmed American spy ship and what purpose led to the attempted sinking of a ship of cryptographers and young sailors – several of whom were only seventeen years old?
If a story is itching to be told, the researcher will enjoy breakthroughs, lucky breaks when information hitherto unavailable comes to light. Some breakthroughs come through studying documents, some through interviews. One important breakthrough for me came from the National Archives which contains a copy of the investigation into the attack by the fact-finding team assigned by the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Most government documents, especially pertaining to the USS Liberty, are heavily redacted. The important facts are not visible. But in this case, right on p. 6, I discovered who placed Liberty up there off the coast of Egypt. It turned out to be Cyrus Vance, Lyndon Johnson’s assistant secretary of defense, a figure with whom Johnson had been connected since the 1930s. I learned of Vance and Johnson’s intimate connection with him from the head of state department intelligence and research Thomas Lowe Hughes, whom I interviewed at his home in Chevy Chase, just outside Washington, D.C. A man in his nineties, Hughes was still incensed over the cover-up of what happened to the “USS Liberty.”
Vance at that moment was serving as a member of the 303 Committee, a group assigned to protect the President from responsibility for CIA’s clandestine actions, its purpose to give him plausible deniability. The report of the joint chiefs singles out Vance and only Vance (and the 303 Committee) for having assigned the ship to be posted in the eastern Mediterranean.
A person who was incensed by this assignment, and who bore NO responsibility for sending Liberty up there was the Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral David Lamar McDonald, who should have been in charge. Naval archives reveal Admiral McDonald’s indignation, and indeed bewilderment. Once having served as Commander of the Sixth Fleet, he was an upright, ethical figure, a decent man who was not in search of credit or attention for himself – he was above that – he had to be bypassed and kept in the dark for this operation to succeed. His comments on the falsified naval inquiry authored by Admiral McDonald’s long-time associate Admiral Isaac Kidd are available if you search for them. When Admiral McDonald gave a series of autobiographical interviews that were published by the Naval Institute Press, he did not refer once to the USS Liberty. He remained too upset to talk about it. He retired from the Navy shortly after the attack.
It was very difficult to get to the bottom of this story. In part, this was because everything was on a need to know basis. The truth was kept even from people involved in the attack. The sailors had to piece the truth together from fragments of information. The young doctor, Richard Kiepfer, who tended to all the wounded and dying, was admonished at the hearing presided over by Isaac Kidd not to take a certain line of reasoning. “The only help we had was from the Russians,” Dr. Kiepfer remarked, referring to a Soviet ship that stood watch over the night of June 8th, aware that Liberty, listing, at any moment might sink. “You will drop that line of reasoning doctor,” Dr. Keipfer was ordered.
The author William March once said, “There is always someone sitting under the oak tree.” The investigative author keeps that comment in mind when answers are not forthcoming. One obvious source of information is the US government itself, and the National Archives. I have been spoiled by the JFK Act which had been passed by Congress after so many people had written to their Congress people subsequent to the Kennedy Assassination and the Oliver Stone film “JFK”. Thousands of records from the FBI, CIA, ONI and other agencies were made available to historians and to the public. It was, ironically, Lyndon Johnson who had signed the Freedom of Information Act into law. (He regretted it almost immediately). Although the subject of the JFK Act was the Kennedy assassination, the government applied a very wide definition of what that constituted. An attack in 1967, four years after Kennedy’s death might call for the release of some Liberty documents as Kennedy-assassination related.
I had good luck with my previous book, “Faustian Bargains.” The investigative files of the FBI on my main character, Malcolm Wallace, were sent to me in unredacted form after I appealed when I received redacted documents. So, hopeful, for “Blood in the Water” I requested first the personnel files of John Hadden, who was a career CIA employee serving as Chief of Station in Tel Aviv at the time of the Six-Day War in 1967 and who would be a major character in my book. Based at the U.S. Embassy, John Hadden’s official role was as a “political secretary.”
You have to be quixotic to do this work: CIA almost never releases its personnel files. Still they might make a mistake. Not this time, however. CIA stonewalled. Fortunately Hadden’s son conducted a series of taped interviews with his father, which were published shortly after Hadden’s death.
I discovered that John Hadden was present at a meeting in Tel Aviv at the home of the director of the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence service, Meir Amit. At this meeting the idea of firing on a ship was first advanced. The other principal at that event was Meir Amit himself.
The other records that I requested were the minutes of the 303 Committee. Only a fragment of one set of minutes of the 303 Committee is available. Dated April 6, 1967, and residing at the LBJ Library in Austen, a branch of the National Archives, it refers to a submarine in UAR (United Arab Republic) waters and mentions “the toppling of Nasser” which reveals the motive for this joint U.S.-Israel operation. I knew from a researcher friend of mine where these records resided, and I knew that CIA had them.
At that meeting John Hadden tried to persuade Meir Amit to postpone the Six-Day War. The date my request was made to CIA was August 14, 2015, by my attorney, Daniel Alcorn, who specializes in FOIA cases. Citizens may request records directly but it is not advisable. In this case I again failed. After years of discussions with the CIA, during which they admitted that they did have 303 Committee minutes, they suddenly came to the conclusion that they had no records after all. The date of their final refusal was April 2018.
There was a particular cable I was hoping to find: it was sent by CIA to its Tel Aviv chief of station on Saturday, June 3, two days before hostilities of the Six-Day War were to begin. The cable ordered John Hadden to approach the Mossad and authorize the bombing of Cairo by the Israeli Defense Forces, a major fact in the story of the “USS Liberty” and largely unknown. An experienced CIA officer, John Hadden took one look at that telegram and dropped it into the shredder, which he called the “burn bag.” He did not follow instructions, which were to order Mossad, and Israel, to attack Cairo.
On Monday morning, Hadden received a frantic call from Richard Helms, the Director of Central Intelligence, who asked whether he had acted on the orders in that cable. Helms revealed that he himself only learned of the cable on Monday morning. Hadden said he knew nothing about it, saving Helms from being implicated in the events to follow.
In the matter of the attack on the USS Liberty, CIA did not function as a monolith. Helms later attacked the operation openly and publicly. He made it clear that he was against the US firing on its own sailors. So Hadden prevented the bombing of Cairo, although a reckless Sixth Fleet Admiral named William Inman Martin tried it again, and almost brought it off, a story I tell in “Blood in the Water.” On the matter of the attempted bombing of Cairo, I am grateful for an interview I did with a Liberty sailor named Moe Shafer to whom Admiral Martin confessed on board Admiral Martin’s flagship, the USS Little Rock, where a wounded Shafer and several shipmates had been brought because the hospital on the USS America was full.
I tried to appeal the denial of the Hadden personnel files on the grounds of EHU (“Enhanced Historical Understanding”) but government agencies have no incentive to help scholars, or citizens, to understand history. Ernie Gallo, the president of the Liberty Veterans’ Association, went to work for CIA after these events, and as a member of the agency requested their files on the USS Liberty. In the pile of documents they provided, CIA did not include a copy of that cable sent to John Hadden by Desmond Fitzgerald, a figure highly placed in the clandestine services.
Ernie did provide me with prints of photographs taken of Liberty – before and after the attack – through the periscope camera of a hovering submarine, and they appear in “Blood in the Water.” He had not made them public earlier, Ernie told me, because he didn’t want to get the CIA employee who provided them in trouble.
CIA communications with Israel were handled entirely by its counter intelligence component controlled by James Angleton, who occupied what was called the “Israel desk.” Among the Mossad leaders figuring in this story, in addition to Meir Amit, was Rafi Eitan, a close contact of Angleton’s, who is interviewed in the film “Dead in the Water”. Eitan helped with the transfer of nuclear materials from NUMEC, an outfit in Apollo, Pennsylvania. Eitan also led the team that captured Adolph Eichmann in Argentina and brought him to stand trial in Israel.
John Hadden , who made an effort to expose Israel’s duplicities as a nuclear power, travelled into the Negev to document whether Israel was manufacturing nuclear weapons at Dimona. Hadden was pursued by the Shin Bet, the Israeli equivalent of the FBI. It was President Kennedy who insisted that US inspectors look over the Dimona facility to see what was going on, whether Israel was manufacturing nuclear bombs which it was, despite denials. Israeli foreign minister Abba Eban later admitted to Israeli writers Yossi Melman and Dan Raviv that “false walls were erected, doorways and elevators were hidden and dummy installations were built to show to the visitors, who duly found no evidence of the weapons program.” After Lyndon Johnson became president, there were no further inspections.
So the story of the Liberty illuminates US – Israeli relations and explores the reason behind Israel’s ostensibly “accidental” (Israel’s term) attack on a surveillance ship. Kennedy differed from Angleton and Johnson in placing US interests rather than Israel’s interests at the center of U.S. Middle East policy. It was President Eisenhower who had informed JFK of Israel’s secret nuclear weapons program at Dimona. Sherman Kent, chairman of the Board of National Estimates, at CIA wrote a memo to the DCI (then John McCone) titled: “Consequences of Israeli Acquisition of Nuclear Capability,” and his conclusion was that an Israel bomb would cause “substantial damage” to the US position in the Arab world. In a 1978 interview with the BBC, John Hadden said that NUMEC had been an Israeli operation from the beginning, and said, “They are pretty good at removing things….” It was into this mess of political intrigue that Cyrus Vance and James Angleton sent the “USS Liberty.”
There were, I write in this book, “heroes in the seaweed,” a phrase in a song by Canadian folk singer Leonard Cohen called “Suzanne.” From my point of view all the sailors who were treated as scapegoats by their Commander in Chief were heroes. I thought these four words were so apt that I paid a lot of money to Sony music for the right to use them in my book. There were indeed “heroes in the seaweed.”
I tried to explore the unanswered questions in my book. More truths may be released to history. This past April CIA, having acknowledged that they had records of the 303 committee four years ago, suddenly declared that they had no files, and please do not write to them again. I continued to try to penetrate the lies and deceptions. I was interviewing people who took serving their country very seriously, and when I began to expose how Lyndon Johnson and Robert McNamara deliberately halted the rescue planes sent to assist the Liberty, when I uncovered how close we were to bombing Cairo, so that US diplomats in Cairo began to send US citizens in Cairo home, and even assigned the CIA chief of station the task of rounding up their automobiles, and shipping them back to the U.S., some were not willing to accept this fact. Even today, that we were about to bomb Cairo with nuclear enhanced weapons that had been stored on the “USS America” has not been accepted as part of history. I believe I have offered evidence for all my assertions. You will judge for yourselves. Thank you.