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The Attack On The USS
Liberty - A Review

Terrell E. Arnold
Writing about controversial topics or events taxes the best of writers, and the facts of the Israeli air and naval attacks on the USS Liberty have challenged politicians, historians, scribes, the public, and the affected families for over four decades. As the truth emerges in this long overdue account, it becomes clear that James Scott was prepared to turn over any rock or even any dried cow paddy to find the answers to his questions. He did that, searching through hundreds of official documents, private papers, memoranda of conversation and published accounts, while conducting interviews with hundreds of sources, including surviving members of Liberty's crew.
The result fully justifies the effort of this determined journalist. He gives us the first really complete picture of what transpired and how the consequences were addressed.
There were two major challenges in researching this story. First was to determine exactly what happened to the USS Liberty that sunny eighth of June 1967 as it cruised, threatening no one, in the eastern Mediterranean. Why was it fired upon viciously by repeated flights of Israeli military aircraft? Why was a systematic effort then made by Israeli torpedo boats to sink the vessel and drown its crew? What Israeli purpose, if any, was served by that assault on a basically unarmed vessel in innocent passage through international waters? Scott establishes that no satisfactory answers exist for such questions.
Scott's second task was to understand the complex political and operational context in which the attack was then addressed by the interested parties. Who reacted to the events and how? What policies were made, unmade, applied or even disregarded in the process? What, indeed, were the final judgments about the unprovoked murder of 34 American seamen and virtual destruction of their ship?
Scott paints a credible as well as disturbing picture of that landscape. To get answers required a special conquest of the corridors and habits of American governance. In truth, the sheer complexity of those tasks would have caused most writers to drop the subject.
Fortunately for us and for history, Scott persisted. He starts with a story gleaned from his father, John Scott-the damage control officer of the Liberty on duty throughout the attack. Through interviews, letters, recollections of crew members, study of the ship's design and layout, James Scott then builds the first complete picture of what happened that day, virtually moment by moment throughout the tragedy. His detailed, careful and complete picture of systematic, vicious attacks over a period of more than an hour once and for all disposes of any claim that the attacks were an accident.
Scott then addresses the heavier topic of Washington and other US actions/reactions. Public efforts to get at the truth did not have much effect. Partly that was because few of the gory details reported to us by James Scott actually emerged in the stories of the time. One of those gory details was the fact that U.S. forces in the Mediterranean at the time were pulled back from flying to the rescue. U.S. diplomatic and intelligence reporting does not appear to have shed much light.
One of the central questions in the dialogues among senior officials, especially those in the White House, the State Department and the Pentagon, and key members of Congress was: Why did the attacks occur? By and large the weight of Washington opinion was that the attacks on the Liberty were deliberate, but there was no agreement on why they were conducted. Secretary of State Dean Rusk was convinced the attacks were deliberate, and he was furious. Since the Liberty was well marked, the flag was flying, the day was clear and sunny, and the attacks were repeated as well as vicious, there was no other plausible explanation. The question still stands today as to how at least four attack passes by Israeli aircraft and at least two attacks by Israeli torpedo boats could be an accident.
As Scott reports, facts of the case aside, the problem was how to deal with Israel. America's ally had just won a brief land war (rapidly named the Six Day War) against its Arab neighbors and had occupied the West Bank and East Jerusalem, both territories captured from Jordan. That outcome, as it were, laid much of the groundwork for today's struggle of the Palestinian people for return of their homeland.
The Israeli leadership claimed the attacks on the Liberty were accidental, and they stuck with that story, even though they provided little substance for it. They extended an official apology and agreed to work out a settlement with the families of dead and wounded. However, Israel refused to pay for the repairs of the Liberty, reconstruction of which had cost more than $7 million.
The process dragged on. By 1980, the Israeli bill had climbed by Congressional reckoning to more than $17 million. In December of 1980 the Israelis offered to settle for $6 million and the United States reluctantly accepted.
The political dynamics of relations with Israel in a US presidential election year ultimately prevailed, not the facts of the vicious attacks. That is where the matter stands. But thanks to James Scott's work, we finally have a complete account of those tragic events.
Scott ends his telling narrative with an ironic twist. On a trip to Israel in 2007 with his father, Scott arranged a call on one of the Israeli pilots who had flown in the attacks on the Liberty. By that pilot's request, Scott brought his father to meet him, the pilot apologized, and the two shook hands. In the end James Scott accurately and completely describes an enormous human tragedy that he closes on a very personal note.
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